FOX Sports MLB Analyst
When Team USA takes the field this week, first for exhibition games against the Giants and Angels and then on Saturday for its World Baseball Classic opener against Great Britain, it will be with a roster significantly more qualified than it has had in more than a year. decade
In terms of last-season WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference, this American team is closer to its elite peers from the aughts era than to its minor rosters from 2017 and 2013. Of course, that may not matter. The 2017 team, 30% less valuable over the previous full season than the 2006 equivalent, remains the only team to have won the tournament. The stacked roster of the 2006 team failed to reach the semifinals.
But Team USA’s assembled talent certainly plays a role in the Americans’ status as the consensus No. 2 favorite, behind the Dominican Republic, to win this year’s WBC. Five 2023 All-Americans — Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, JT Realmuto, Mookie Betts and Mike Trout — posted seasons worth 6 WAR or more last season. The 2017 Americans had zero such players, though they benefited from the services of both Arenado and Goldschmidt.
These two, and many other 2023 Americans, enter this tournament after career years. It’s unclear how much that will mean. Remember, 2017 WBC MVP Marcus Stroman posted a mediocre 2016 season, with a 1.4 WAR, before breaking out into the spotlight the following spring. (Stroman, who pitched in the U.S. in 2017 and later recruited members to join the next team, will pitch in Puerto Rico this year to honor his mother, a Puerto Rican native.)
Overall, USA’s 2023 roster and its combined 99.5 2022 WAR sit in the middle of the top five teams in the country since the inaugural tournament. The 2006 team had a collective 113.2 WAR in 2005. The 2009 team had a collective 101.7 WAR in 2008. The 2013 team posted just 78.2 WAR in 2012 and the 2017 team had 79.4 WAR in 2016.
The additions of Betts and Trout bode well for the Americans’ chances of winning this year and their chances of growing in the World Baseball Classic. Stars Trea Turner, Kyle Tucker and Pete Alonso also help on both fronts. Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper also had designs on competing before injuries cut them short.
Americans are unlikely to have trouble scoring. From the starting nine, the attack is the strength. It is so strong, even, that some of this WAR will be wasted. Will Smith and Realmuto, perhaps the two best linebackers in the sport, will split the catching duties. At least two of the stature of Tim Anderson, an All-Star each of the last two seasons; Jeff McNeil, the reigning batting champion; and 2022 postseason star Kyle Schwarber should be relegated to the bench every night.
Ideally, the Americans would reallocate some of that excess talent back into their rotation. There are seven starting candidates: Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas, Lance Lynn, Brady Singer, Merrill Kelly, Kyle Freeland and Nick Martinez. All of them are competent; none of them inspires complete confidence. Singer, a 26-year-old Royals right-hander, had the best season of the bunch in 2022 in terms of bWAR, but had little track record until then. Mikolas was reliable if not spectacular, and is as good a bet as any American to start multiple games.
Due to tournament rules, dominant starters are significantly less important than in the MLB postseason. Starters cannot throw more than 65 pitches per first-round game. This number increases throughout the tournament, up to 95 for the semi-finals and finals.
Teams can use relievers more like they would in the playoffs. Pitchers may pitch on consecutive days; they only need one day off before they can pitch a third time. If their pitch count reaches 30, they are forced to take a day off. These limitations should allow American relievers to handle a large percentage of the innings. And the Americans’ top two relievers, Ryan Pressly and Devin Williams, could form the tournament’s top duo, with the likely exception of the dominant Diaz brothers, Edwin and Alexis, who will pitch for Puerto Rico.
Beyond Pressly and Williams, the American bullpen is full of relievers who found success a season ago. Jason Adam, a 31-year-old, had the third-best WHIP in the sport in 2022, at 0.76. Fellow veterans Brooks Raley and Adam Ottavino weren’t far behind at 0.97 each, and Daniel Bard also slipped under 1.00 while playing his home games at Coors Field. Other nations might have comparable weapon assortments, but the bullpen shouldn’t be the Americans’ downfall.
Twenty 2023 All-Americans were worth two or more WAR last season. Team USA hasn’t had more such players since the first WBC. This year’s roster is star-studded and deep. It should come as no surprise that this group outlasts its peers.
Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and LA Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Overcome a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter at @pedromoura.
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