Projecting Team USA's roster for 2021 Classic

February 5th, 2018

This is a significant week in the sports world -- for a few reasons.
On Sunday, 's Eagles upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
On Friday, the 2018 Olympic Winter Games officially open in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
And Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the roster unveiling for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
My fanaticism for the last of those events is well-known, but there's also little question the 2017 Classic solidified the tournament's place on the global (and national) sports calendar. Team USA's triumph over Team Puerto Rico in the gold medal game drew an American television audience of 3.1 million viewers, a record for any Classic game. Over the entire tournament, U.S. television viewership increased 32 percent from the '13 edition.
Based on those numbers, more of you care about this column than would have been the case four years ago. To be honest, I've waited all offseason for the ideal time to ask this question:
Who will play for Team USA at the next Classic in 2021?
Before I reveal the names, a couple qualifiers: I'm following the same 28-player limit established for the 2017 tournament. For each player, I've included their age as of March 1, 2021, the approximate start date of Team USA's training camp for the '21 Classic.
The idea isn't to choose the best 28-man roster for a hypothetical tournament next month, but rather three years from now. So there's projection involved and an overall bias toward today's emerging stars.
Careful readers will notice that the names of Trout, and don't appear below. Indubitably, they will be worthy of consideration for Team USA three years from now. Trout will be 29. Harper will be 28. Kershaw will be 32.
All three declined opportunities to play for the U.S. in both 2013 and '17, so Team USA officials probably should not count on them to decide differently if approached again. Angels fans may not want to hear this, but Trout may be adjusting to a new team (his hometown Phillies, perhaps?) in the spring of 2021, following the expiration of his current contract.
So without further delay, here's the first draft of the next Team USA:
Starting pitchers (five)
, RHP, 29
, RHP, 30
, RHP, 27
Danny Duffy, LHP, 32
, RHP, 27
In 2017, Stroman delivered a stirring counterargument to the narrative surrounding the injury risk of pitching in the Classic: He won the clincher against Puerto Rico, earned tournament MVP honors and then became one of only 15 pitchers to throw 200 or more innings in the Majors last season.
It's wise for the Americans to have a southpaw starter for the inevitable encounter with the lefty-laden Canadian lineup. Duffy already has made clear he wants to return in 2021, although he could be pushed by fellow left-handers Robbie Ray, , and Alex Wood.

Cole, Fulmer and Nola will be in their prime years by 2021, as will and Mike Clevinger.
Relief pitchers (nine)
, RHP, 29
Brad Hand, LHP, 30
, RHP, 28
, RHP, 30
, LHP, 26
, RHP, 29
, RHP, 29
, RHP, 24
Hunter Greene, RHP, 21
When compared to past downfalls in the Classic, a reliable bullpen was perhaps the greatest difference-maker for Team USA in 2017. Relievers also are the hardest players to project three years in advance, but the Americans should have plenty of options given the abundance of power arms in the game today.
The inclusion of Kopech and Greene is perhaps wishful thinking on my part, but I love the idea of showcasing elite young arms during the Classic, even if it's in a limited role. (Similarly, current prospects Forrest Whitley of the Astros and of the Rays should be candidates for 2021 roster spots.)
Catchers (three)
, 31
, 30
J.T. Realmuto, 29
will be 33 during the next Classic, so perhaps a younger catcher will be ready for the starting role on Team USA. Realmuto is the most obvious candidate; he was second only to Posey in Wins Above Replacement among American-born catchers last year, according to FanGraphs.

Realmuto has the added attribute of being a backup option at first base, where he started eight games for the Marlins in 2017. Barnes brings rare positional flexibility, too, as an occasional starter at second base. Mike Zunino is another option for the American roster, but he may choose to represent Italy. (Zunino's mother, Paola, caught for the Italian national softball team.)
Infielders (six)
, 3B, 29
, 1B, 25
Bo Bichette, utility, 22
, SS/3B, 26
, SS, 26
, 2B/SS, 27
By his own admission, Arenado pressed during the 2017 Classic in his first postseason-type experience as a Major Leaguer. He should return three years from now as a veteran leader. Bregman, a World Series hero for the Astros, is another likely returnee due to his extensive international experience and defensive versatility.

Turner's ability to excel at multiple spots on the diamond makes him a natural fit for Team USA, and it won't be a surprise if the Royals' Whit Merrifield also plays his way into consideration as a super-utility man. Bichette, a top Blue Jays prospect, draws some comparisons to Bregman for his bat-to-ball skills and swagger; Bichette, a Florida native, likely will be permitted to switch national federations after representing Brazil during a 2016 World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament.
Outfielders (five)
, LF, 26
, RF/CF, 28
, OF/DH, 28
, CF/RF, 31
, OF/DH, 31
Even without Trout and Harper, this is a stacked outfield.
, a standout on the 2017 Classic team, is another candidate to return. Yelich, Benintendi, Betts and Springer are above-average defenders at multiple outfield positions, which would give Team USA's manager the luxury of rotating Judge and Stanton between the corner spots and designated hitter.

Speaking of which, who might the manager be? After last year's gold medal game, a contented Jim Leyland said, "There is a good chance this is the last time I'll ever wear a uniform. ... That's enough. Let somebody else do it."
Leyland is likely to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the time the 2021 Classic begins. Unless he reconsiders, Team USA could choose among the prominent managers who lost jobs after last season -- Dusty Baker, John Farrell or Joe Girardi -- if they're not leading Major League teams by then.
A lot can happen in three years. But with the talent in place -- and advancing through the Minors -- the 2021 version of Team USA can challenge the '17 edition for a distinction it earned last March: the greatest American baseball roster ever assembled.