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American stars anticipating Classic

American stars anticipating Classic

In the romantic's view, the cream of Major Leaguers would fight each other off for berths on Team USA and a role in helping avenge its performance in the inaugural 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Despite representing the country where the game is the national pastime, and despite playing with the home-country advantage, the U.S. couldn't survive Round 2 play and sent off with a 3-3 record -- essentially eighth in the global field of 16.

And there was a lingering sense that many around that team awoke too late to the realization of what a great time they were having, and what a worthy cause they were playing for.

As USA catcher Jason Varitek recalled, "We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and I think for our team, for the U.S., that's a great steppingstone for us to look at for the next one."

So, rally around this 2009 opportunity to get it right, in what remains the only global tournament to feature the world's prime baseball talent.

But it's a pragmatist's world. Some of the burning patriotic passion gets doused by practical issues. You can't simply mesh last summer's American and National League All-Star teams and go play the world. You have to make choices.

That said, Bob Watson, the general manager for USA Baseball, could have a less complicated time assembling a representative team to go after the crown worn by Japan since its victory three years ago.

He might run into less cynicism from teams' front offices, some of which were reluctant to provide players. And he will definitely come across more enthusiasm from the players already touched by the experience. Members of Team USA '06 would overwhelmingly welcome another shot.

Officially, no roster spots have been filled, though several players have made their desires known. Of 17 players on the 30-man USA roster asked by MLB.com, all but two would love to do it again.

Outfielder Randy Winn may have best put it into words ... by not being able to find the right words.

"You get this weird flutter that you don't get from playing in the big leagues every day. It's a true honor," said the Giants outfielder, who appeared in four games and batted .273 in 2006.

The only polled incumbent to flatly decline a repeat was Dan Wheeler, the Tampa Bay reliever, and even he qualified the rejection: "It's a great experience and I'd recommend it for anyone. But I came back to [Houston's] camp and only had [pitched] three innings. I want to be ready for the season."

First baseman Mark Teixeira also leaned toward not returning. Yet, even though he suffered through a hitless Classic in 15 at-bats, Teixeira added, "I really enjoyed the experience. Playing for your country is amazing."

Possible 2009 Team USA Roster
One possible projection of Team USA's 2009 roster, based on players survey, positional breakdown and certain variables, primarily MLB teams' attitude toward participation by specific players.
Position
Name
P
Joey Devine
P
J.J. Putz
P
Brian Fuentes*
P
Bobby Jenks
P
Mike Gonzalez
P
Brad Lidge*
P
Cliff Lee
P
Joe Nathan*
P
Jake Peavy*
P
Scot Shields*
P
Huston Street*
P
Roy Oswalt
P
Mike Mussina
P
Joe Saunders
C
Joe Mauer
C
A.J. Pierzynski
C
Jason Varitek*
IF
Derek Jeter*
IF
Chipper Jones*
IF
Ryan Howard
IF
Alex Rodriguez*
IF
Ryan Zimmerman
IF
Chase Utley*
IF
Michael Young*
OF
B.J. Upton
OF
Curtis Granderson
OF
Raul Ibanez
OF
Matt Holliday*
OF
Vernon Wells*
OF
Ryan Braun
* Participated in 2006 Classic

Teixeira is one of the offseason's premium free agents, and his participation could of course be subject to his new team's whims. The same goes for others who expressed a desire to return to Team USA and are either free agents (Brian Fuentes, Varitek) or on the trading block (Jake Peavy, Matt Holliday).

Such uncertainty is more than offset by the dozens of big leaguers avid to personally experience something they could enjoy only vicariously in 2006.

They include those who have broken into prominence since, such as ...

• Joba Chamberlain, who remembers wearing "U-S-A across my chest in the [2007] Futures Game and that was unbelievable," and reaffirms that "you always want the opportunity to represent your country."

• Curtis Granderson, who would be thrilled for "my first time ever getting a chance to represent the U.S."

• Evan Longoria ("If I got picked, I'd play"); Ian Kinsler ("I would love to go. I want to represent my country in the WBC"); and Joey Devine ("I can't imagine anyone passing up an opportunity to play for your country").

Or, the already established who missed out in 2006 for one reason or another, such as ...

• CC Sabathia, a high-profile free agent who also would have to heed his new club's wishes but who nonetheless said, "[The Classic] is definitely something I want to do this time."

• J.J. Putz, who three years ago hadn't yet made his mark as a closer but was already a dependable reliever, would "love to play in it, without a doubt. I heard it was an unbelievable experience and to wear USA on my shirt would be a thrill."

• Carl Crawford ("I'd love to play in that"); Joe Mauer ("It's pretty neat to be picked for something like that"); and Scott Kazmir ("I'd like to see USA do better this time around").

It is quite foolhardy to try predicting the USA's eventual 30-man roster -- the team doesn't yet even have a manager, an announcement expected at next month's Winter Meetings -- but there are some general conclusions to be drawn from the 2006 disappointment.

For instance, expect a considerable turnover, and stronger emphasis, on the pitching staff. Three members of the 14-man staff in 2006 have effectively retired (Roger Clemens, Al Leiter and Todd Jones). And Japan demonstrated that pitching is the key component in the early-year event; its staff had an ERA of 2.49, and the Japanese team did not allow more than four runs in any game until its 10-6 victory over Cuba in the championship game.

Because of timing and rules, which limit the innings load anyway, the prevalence of relievers -- 10 on the 2006 staff -- will continue. Some of the new arms figure to include Bobby Jenks, Mike Gonzalez, Devine and Putz -- but not Chamberlain. The Yankees, very protective of their pitchers in 2006, aren't likely to relent, especially for someone who already has had injury issues.

The infield could return intact, with a possible change to Ryan Howard at first base. But there figures to be wholesale changes behind the plate -- Varitek was backed up by Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider, both now role players -- and in the outfield.

Ken Griffey Jr., whose career now is at a crossroads, paced the '06 team with one of his more fabulous last hurrahs: Junior led with a .524 average (11-for-21), adding three homers and 10 RBIs. Vernon Wells and Winn split duty in center, but other outfielders included Johnny Damon, slowed by injuries, and Jeff Francoeur, returned to the Minors for part of last season.

The odd part of Team USA 2006's inability to advance beyond Round 2 play was that many of its players probably didn't even fully grasp why that was the case. After all, USA finished that round in a three-way tie (with Japan and Mexico) behind South Korea.

The answer was one of those hazy tiebreakers, which came down to Team USA allowing as many runs in round play as had Japan, but in one fewer inning.

Margins in international play often are that thin. But the format change for 2009, away from the inaugural tournament's round-robin style, will level the playing field.

The first two rounds next time will be double-elimination, meaning the first two teams with two losses in each pool are out and the two others move on. In both rounds, the final game will pit teams vying for a pool championship and seeding for the subsequent round.

The winners of each Round 2 pool will play the opposite pool's runners-up in two single-elimination semifinal games. Then, in a climax unchanged from 2006, the semifinal winners will meet in one final for all the bragging rights.

Team USA will begin play in the WBC's Pool C, with a draw comparable to its opening slot in 2006. Canada again is in USA's pool, while challenger Mexico and challenged South Africa have been replaced by Venezuela and Italy, respectively.

Pool C play will begin on March 5 in Toronto's Rogers Centre.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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