Star-studded Team USA embraces high expectations at Classic

March 8th, 2023

PHOENIX -- There were significant first-day-of-school vibes at the Papago Sports Complex on Tuesday afternoon as Team USA gathered for its first workout ahead of the 2023 World Baseball Classic.

The day began with a meeting led by manager Mark DeRosa, then was replete with introductions, drills and a buzz around the facility that the players with “USA” stitched across their chest were ready for the challenge -- and expectations -- that await them when they open Pool C play Saturday (9 p.m. ET, FOX) against Great Britain at Chase Field.

“It’s just pretty awesome and humbling and just such an honor to be wearing this jersey, to be representing my country, my family, to be in front of those guys,” DeRosa said.

The Americans enter the 2023 edition of the World Baseball Classic as the reigning champions, having claimed the tournament crown in 2017. After three straight editions of playing .500 ball from 2006-13, everything clicked en route to the crown six years ago.

And this time around, the roster is jarring in terms of its star power.

Mike Trout. Mookie Betts. Nolan Arenado. Paul Goldschmidt.

The Team USA starting nine -- no matter how you shake it up -- reads like an All-Star Game lineup. In fact, the position players alone boast 45 All-Star Game appearances and five league MVPs combined.

“When you look at this lineup on paper -- and you can put whoever you want in there -- I don’t know how you get through it,” DeRosa said.

That considerable level of talent will leave not only opposing teams nervous, but even the club’s own skipper as well. 
“I can only compare getting up in front of them to my wedding day,” DeRosa said, laughing, when discussing Tuesday’s team meeting. “Definitely nervy, I’m not going to sugarcoat it.”

Despite the veritable who’s who, many prognosticators have pegged Japan or the Dominican Republic as the prohibitive favorites to walk out as champions. DeRosa made it clear that his team knew the fervor around other clubs and that they were prepared for the rigors of potentially playing seven games in 11 days.

“I think we stack up pretty good,” Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins said. “I think the lineup and the roster kind of speaks for itself. When we get out there, we’re going to have the mentality to knock some heads loose.”

Bobby Witt Jr. is no stranger to playing for his country, having starred on the USA Baseball circuit as an amateur. In 2018, he slashed an eye-popping .576/.615/1.121 with 19 hits and 18 RBIs in nine games en route to helping the USA claim a gold medal at the COPABE U-18 Pan-American Championships.

The Royals shortstop is just 22 years old, yet he’s still the most recent member of the roster to wear “USA” across his chest. (Arenado and Goldschmidt were both on the 2017 Team USA roster.) Less than four years removed from being the second overall selection in the 2019 Draft, Witt now shares a locker room on the game’s largest international stage with the game’s elite.

“The first three guys when I walked in: Mookie, Goldschmidt, Trout,” Witt said. “You’re like, ‘Well, here we go.’ It’s pretty cool to be around these guys and talk to them. ... I’m really anxious to get going.”

The recruiting trail that led to the building of the Team USA roster branched out in numerous directions: there was Trout, DeRosa, Team USA general manager Tony Reagins, among others. But with the tournament’s brevity, and many players likening it to a sprint, the margin for error is thin.

“Even though we are super, super talented -- we got some of the best names here -- we still got to go play,” Betts said. “And we understand that.”

Group play will feature four games in five days in Phoenix, with the remainder of potential contests happening in Miami. While players have had to adjust from their usual spring routines, the opportunity to claim supremacy on a global stage amid a historic collection of talent has lured many away from the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues.

“There’s not one guy in here that we had to beg or we had to guarantee certain things to get them in the room -- they are all about winning,” DeRosa said. “They are all about representing their country.”

For all of the extensive baseball sagacity in the clubhouse, the sagest wisdom might have come from the youngest voice in the room: Witt.

“Trust in your abilities, go out there and play for what’s on your chest and each other,” he said. “Come together as a team and go out and try to ball out.”