When USA Baseball named its roster for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Pete Alonso’s professional résumé included 30 games with the Class A Short Season Brooklyn Cyclones. Cody Bellinger was a couple months away from his Dodgers debut. Aaron Judge’s Major League career consisted of 27 games and a .179 batting average.
One year from now, all three could be part of the best baseball team in the U.S. -- and perhaps the world.
With this week’s announcement that the 2021 Classic will increase to 20 teams, the 16 returning nations are already identifying roster candidates to track during the upcoming season.
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USA Baseball’s most immediate objective is qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, with a March qualifying tournament in Arizona their next chance to do so. But the Classic calendar must be on their minds, too. If U.S. baseball officials maintain the same (successful) schedule from the 2016-17 cycle, they would name their WBC manager by April, with the playing roster announced in early February.
• World Baseball Classic FAQ: Qualifier brackets
Here’s one projection of the Americans who will be chosen to defend the title earned at Dodger Stadium three years ago. (National teams were limited to 28 players in the ’17 Classic, and we will operate under that guideline here until further notice.)
J.T. Realmuto, Phillies
Yasmani Grandal, White Sox
Will Smith, Dodgers
Realmuto is the best all-around catcher in baseball, and it’s difficult to imagine the former high school quarterback from Midwest City, Okla., not making the cut for Team USA. The switch-hitting Grandal, who became a U.S. citizen after immigrating from Cuba at age 10, is an ideal complement to Realmuto and can play first base if needed. Smith has appeared in only 54 Major League games, but he showed poise on the big stage in Los Angeles and played second and third base in the Minors. Mitch Garver (Minnesota), Tyler Flowers (Atlanta) and Tom Murphy (Seattle) merit consideration, as well.
Pete Alonso, Mets
Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Alex Bregman, Astros
DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
Trea Turner, Nationals
The best debate is at third base, where Anthony Rendon, Matt Chapman, Kris Bryant and Josh Donaldson all have legitimate claims. Arenado, though, is a top-five player in the sport who helped the Americans win gold in 2017. Bregman, another returnee, is motivated to show he can start at shortstop for the national team. Turner’s athleticism -- and ability to play center field if needed -- makes him a great fit.
The Classic has often been a platform for star turns by multi-position players who won’t strike out too often. Sounds like LeMahieu to me. Alonso and Bellinger belong on the team as two of the game’s brightest young stars, possibly alternating between first base and designated hitter. Josh Bell could be another first base option if he continues his ascent.
Aaron Judge, Yankees
Jeff McNeil, Mets
Whit Merrifield, Royals
Mike Trout, Angels
Christian Yelich, Brewers
Where’s Mookie Betts? Where’s George Springer? Where’s Bryce Harper?
Here’s the reasoning: Betts and Springer are poised to sign massive contracts with new teams during the 2020-21 offseason. In order to adjust to their surroundings, there is a real possibility that both will decline invitations to the Classic.
Neither Trout nor Harper played in the ’13 or ’17 Classic. With long-term contracts in place for both, perhaps ‘21 is the time. Trout is the best player in the world, and his claim to a roster spot is unquestioned (if he wants one). Harper is a different case.
Yelich helped the U.S. win gold in ‘17 and has outperformed Harper since; he deserves a starting spot in the outfield, barring a significant drop in performance this year. So the big decision -- Judge vs. Harper -- could be determined by robust debate during the upcoming season.
Judge, with the better offensive numbers over the past three seasons, is the choice for now. Of course, if Harper wins a Most Valuable Player Award in 2020 and Judge does not, it’s easy to imagine Team USA selecting the superstar who wore red, white and blue for seven seasons in the nation’s capital.
McNeil and Merrifield are ideal candidates because of their versatility, particularly Merrifield’s ability to steal bases and play center field. If the U.S. wants a pure center fielder for the bench, Harrison Bader is one name to watch.
Starting pitchers (5)
Gerrit Cole, Yankees
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Marcus Stroman, Mets
Justin Verlander, Astros
Not a bad rotation, huh?
World Baseball Classic devotees realize that starting pitchers with heavy postseason workloads rarely embrace the quick turnaround to prepare for meaningful baseball in the first half of March. And that’s fine, because Team USA’s list of possibilities is deeper than ever.
Consider, for example, a separate group of five that would be as dominant as the one mentioned above: Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty, Charlie Morton and Max Scherzer. Or perhaps Patrick Corbin will be selected to bring a little left/right balance to the group ... not that a manager would worry about a rotation of this caliber being “too right-handed.”
Stroman, the 2017 Classic MVP, proved three years ago that he understands how to prepare himself physically to record big outs under pressure in March. His commitment to the national team was admirable, and he elevated the profile of USA Baseball through his talent and style. He deserves a return invitation, even though his pending free agency could be a complication.
Verlander has yet to pitch in the Classic and may choose to do so this time, since he’s achieved virtually everything else in his career. The same is true for Scherzer, who was scheduled to pitch for Team USA in '17 but pulled out of the tournament because of an injured ring finger on his throwing hand.
Relief pitchers (9)
Nick Anderson, Rays
Josh Hader, Brewers
Brad Hand, Indians
Will Harris, Nationals
Ian Kennedy, Royals
Michael Lorenzen, Reds
Taylor Rogers, Twins
Will Smith, Braves
Kirby Yates, Padres
When the roster is announced, surely the most passionate debate will focus elsewhere. But with its pitch limits, the World Baseball Classic often becomes a tournament of bullpens.
Even with a nine-member bullpen, it’s impossible to make room for every deserving reliever. We’ve selected four left-handers (Hader, Hand, Rogers and Smith), along with a right-hander (Harris) known for his success against lefties.
Yates is the strongest candidate to be named closer. Kennedy has experience as a closer -- and was a starter, in fact, for most of his career. Anderson was viewed as perhaps baseball’s top strikeout artist by the end of last year. And Reds right-hander Michael Lorenzen is the ideal 28th man -- especially if Team USA would like to have another outfielder on the roster.
Ken Giles, Ty Buttrey, Emilio Pagan, John Gant, and Chris Martin are among the right-handers we should follow closely this season. White Sox left-hander Aaron Bummer still doesn’t have the name recognition he deserves and could pitch his way onto Team USA with a big 2020 season.
Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network.