SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Since the inception of the World Baseball Classic in 2006, Team USA has taken its share of criticism for a lack of star power. Whether for contractual reasons, health issues or otherwise, many of the country’s star players have declined invitations to the event.
This year is no different, but Team USA manager Joe Torre made it clear Monday that he’s not concerned about such criticisms or any others. His sole focus in building Team USA’s roster: Winning.
“The marketing people may not agree with the way we’ve gone about it,” Torre said before Team USA’s first formal workout in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Obviously the more names of star players, the more appealing and attractive they seem to think it would be, but I’m more concerned about winning than having people’s expectations be high because there are a lot of great names on (the roster).”
Torre didn’t attempt to assemble an all-star team by collecting the best major league players at every position, but rather built a roster full of versatility. He cited examples like Willie Bloomquist of the Diamondbacks and Ben Zobrist of the Rays as examples — not stars, but role players capable of filling in almost anywhere on the diamond.
Even so, the roster is not devoid of superstars, with players like 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun and 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey wearing Team USA uniforms.
Torre’s method is not lost on his players, especially those with previous WBC experience. The roster is essentially built with one elite level player at each of the eight every-day positions, backed up by versatile players with the ability to do the little things that can be the difference between winning and losing.
“This is different than the team that I was on in 2006,” first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “We basically took the top two players at each position in the United States and threw them on the same team (in 2006). So you didn’t have utility players, you didn’t have pinch-hitters, you didn’t have guys that were used to taking maybe three or four days off.”
Added Braun: “I think you need role players. You look at regular teams throughout the course of the season, those role players are instrumental in teams finding a way to win games. It’s certainly important to have versatility.”
The expectation by the projected starters is once they’re in a tournament game, they’re in for nine innings. That’s a bit of a change from previous WBCs, when playing time was divvied up more like an all-star game.
The WBC is not an all-star game, and from the sound of things, Torre is not treating it that way.
He is not concerned with getting each player a certain amount of playing time. This is not about players’ feelings; it’s about winning.
The players who assembled at Salt River Fields on Monday expressed that sentiment in unified fashion. Their primary purpose is not to help establish the legitimacy of the WBC or help grow the game of baseball globally.
“Our goal is to win this thing,” Braun said. “We didn’t come in to compete, we didn’t come in to help grow the brand of baseball. We’re in the tournament to win it. That’s my goal, that’s everybody’s goal, and certainly that’s our expectation as we enter the tournament.”
Said reliever Craig Kimbrel: “We’re all here to win it, and we’ve all gotten ourselves to the point where we can go out there like it’s Game 7 of the World Series. We’re not here to show up and just play and say we played for Team USA. We’re here to say we played for Team USA and we won.”
That said, some players seem to have a slightly different take on the tournament than their manager. Teixeira on Monday called the WBC “an exhibition, but an exhibition we want to win.” He was obviously not speaking for the entire roster, but his sentiment spoke to a common criticism of Team USA over the last two WBCs.
The perception has become that U.S. players don’t make the WBC a priority in the way other nations — like two-time champion Japan — do. Critics point to Team USA’s second-round loss in 2006 and semifinals loss in 2009.
Teixeira seemed to backtrack on his “exhibition” remark moments later, suggesting if players weren’t here to win, they would have just stayed with their club and kept preparing for the season as usual.
“I don’t know anyone that showed up here and wanted a vacation,” Teixeira said. “We came here to win. We’re actually going to play more here than we would back at our camps. It’s more work.”
That sounds more in line with Torre’s mentality that “when you wear ‘USA’ across your chest, that takes baseball to another level.” The trick will be getting that attitude to sink in completely with a group of players who have only a couple of days to become a team.
“I think we’re all excited to be here, rather than just looking at it as an all-star tournament just going through the motions,” outfielder Adam Jones said. “We could be the first USA team to win it, and all 28 guys are motivated to sacrifice and do everything they need to do to win.
“We’re a band of brothers for the next couple weeks in this tournament, and I think we’re all personally motivated to bring home a gold medal.”