There's no place to go but up for USA Baseball when it comes to the Olympics.
The last time around, Team USA was stunned by Mexico in the Americas Olympic Qualifier and had to watch Olympic baseball in Athens from home on television. Now, with the 2005 CONCEBE Olympic Regional Qualifying Tournament in Phoenix set to begin Nov. 15, USA Baseball has assembled a roster chock full of young talent to make sure the country advances to the Americas Olympic Qualifier in Havana, Cuba (August 2006) and eventually onto Beijing, China in 2008.
"By all means, I'm excited about this group of guys," said Bob Watson, the general manager of USA Baseball. "These guys want to play. It's a tough time of year for them at the end of a long year. So many players are tired. But these guys said they want to play, they want to get us back to where belong."
The 24-man roster, announced Thursday, is made up of professional non-25-man roster players of the 30 Major League Baseball organizations. Six players have previous experience with USA Baseball: 2003 Pan Am silver medalist Jered Weaver ('03 National); Lastings Milledge ('05 World Cup, '02 Junior, '01 Youth), Billy Butler ('03 Junior Pan Am, '02 Youth,); Jarrod Saltalamacchia ('02 Junior, '01 Youth); Matt Smith ('99 National), and Brian LaHair ('05 World Cup).
Six others will bring the experience of 2005 Major League service time with them into international competition: pitcher Jonah Bayliss (Royals), infielder Brendan Harris (Nationals), catcher Jeff Mathis (Angels), pitcher Clint Nageotte (Mariners), infielder Ryan Shealy (Rockies) and outfielder Shane Victorino (Phillies). Twenty of the 24 players are currently on Arizona Fall League rosters.
In addition to the United States, Canada, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama will compete in the five-day qualifying tournament. Games will be played each day from Nov. 15-19, with three games taking place simultaneously starting at 3:05 p.m. ET at three different Cactus League ballparks: Maryvale Ballpark, Mesa's HoHoKam Park, and Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The top four finishers advance to the Americas Olympic Qualifier in Havana. Team USA opens up on Nov. 15 in Maryvale against Guatemala. The entire schedule is as follows:
||Phoenix Municipal Stadium
"This is the first step in a two-step process," Watson said. "If we finish (in the top four) in this competition, we go on to Cuba. If we finish first or second there, then it's on to Beijing. And that's where we want to be."
Just who is on this USA Baseball roster? Let's take a closer look at the 24 men who hope to send the United States to Cuba in 2006.
Weaver has the most recent USA Baseball experience on the staff, pitching for the team that won silver at the 2003 Pan Am Games. The Angels' 2004 first-rounder went 4-1 with a 0.38 ERA, allowing just 21 hits in 48 innings pitched for a .135 batting average against in that tournament. He went 7-4 with a 3.91 ERA at two levels in his pro debut this summer.
Other starting options include Nageotte, Bill Murphy, Chris Lambert, Nick Ungs and Steven White, all of whom are in Arizona competing in the Fall League. They're joined by relievers Stephen Andrade, Jonah Bayliss, Dave Haehnel, Jim Miller, Brian Sanches and Matt Smith.
"It's a tremendous honor to be asked to compete in this," said Miller, a 2004 draftee of the Colorado Rockies just finishing his first full season. "I'm sure it's something a lot of people would like to do.
"It makes me feel that all the hard work I've put in over the years is starting to pay off. I'm not just doing it for myself. All this work I've done I'm able to cash in slowly, but surely."
"The competition I've played against the Fall League, it's been the toughest I've faced," Miller continued. "If you make a mistake to these hitters, they'll mnake you pay for it. I'd venture to say this is going to be a very good roster."
USA Baseball has tabbed two of the best catching prospects in baseball to handle those chores in this tournament. Mathis rebounded from a subpar 2004, hitting .276 with 21 homers and 73 RBIs, and is just about ready to take over catching duties for the Angels. Saltalamacchia was one of the top prospects in the Carolina League in 2005, hitting .314 with 19 homers and 81 RBIs. He's followed that up by hitting .322 in the AFL as of Thursday.
The infield is short on international experience, with only LaHair representing the United States in the most recent World Cup in the Netherlands. But it's not short on talent. Brendan Harris and Howie Kendrick are No. 2 and 3 respectively on the AFL batting leaders list. Harris can play a number of infield positions and was hitting .397 this fall.
"I'm really looking forward to it," the Nationals prospect said. "I've always watched from afar. It's something I've always wanted to do. I'm excited to put on the USA jersey."
Kendrick hit .367 during the season across two levels and continued to do so this fall with a .388 AFL mark.
"It's a great opportunity to play for my country," Kendrick said. "I figure if we have people out dying for it, I can certainly play baseball for it.
"It's just a great honor. Hopefully we can click together and get it done. I think with the team they put together, there shouldn't be any reason we won't qualify this time around."
Both infielders know it's been a long season, particularly with the additional six weeks they've been playing in Arizona. But they'll manage to find enough reserve energy to play for their country.
"I'm tired now," Harris said. "But it's just an extra five games. It shouldn't be a problem getting up for those. I can rest after that, so I should be ready."
Joining LaHair (.310, 22 HR, 113 RBIs in 2005), Kendrick and Harris in the infield are 2005 Minor League (and AFL) home run leader Brandon Wood, Rockies first baseman Ryan Shealy (.328 AVG, .994 OPS in Triple-A) and the Cards' Travis Hanson (20 HR, 97 RBIs in Double-A)
Where to start with this outstanding group? Not only do the outfielders have unreal ability, there are some true USA Baseball veterans on the roster.
Brad Snyder is new to USA Baseball, but he's coming off a year in which he hit 22 homers and drove in 82 runs before going to the AFL and hitting .342. Victorino is a newcomer as well, but got some big league time in with the Phillies after hitting .310 with 18 homers and 17 steals in Triple-A.
This will be Butler's third time representing the United States, the previous two times at the Junior and Youth levels. He hit .340 with a 1.015 OPS at two levels. Just 19, he's more than held his own in the Fall League as well.
Then there's Milledge. The Mets prospect will be representing the United States for the fourth time, and the second time this year. Just 20, he's not one for sage advice, but did pass this along to his teammates who'll be experience international competition for the first time.
"It's still baseball. We still have to play and produce," said Milledge, who hit .318 at two levels this year and has fared well in the AFL. "The only thing different is the guys have another name on their shirt and are representing their country.
"And every game's important. We have to come out with a no-lose attitude and that we're going to beat everybody."