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The United States might have built the best lineup in baseball history

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The World Baseball Classic roster features a gobsmacking collection of talent. And it still might not be enough.

World Baseball Classic - Pool F - Game 6 - United States v Dominican Republic Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

First, some housekeeping.

As a baseball writer, it’s exceptionally strange to write about a team that has a location, but no nickname. After two paragraphs of “Boston, Boston, Boston,” I’d snap and write Red Sox all over my walls, like Jack Torrance at the Overlook. Yet that’s what we have with the United States and the other teams in the World Baseball Classic. It’s United States here, United States there, Puerto Rico here, Venezuela. They all need nicknames.

Anyway, so I’m here to talk about the Screamin’ Eagles and the team they’ve assembled. Just eyeballing it, more than a few major league teams have a better starting rotation than the United States is using in the World Baseball Classic, and that’s even if you give it credit for Chris Archer, who isn’t with the team anymore.

A rotation of Archer/Danny Duffy/Tanner Roark/Drew Smyly/Marcus Stroman is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also possible to build a slightly more impressive rotation of American pitchers without leaving the AL East.

There isn’t another major league team that has a better lineup and defense than the U.S. in the WBC, and I’m not sure if there ever has been.

If this seems like an obvious point to you — “This team filled with All-Stars is sure better than the typical team” — my apologies. It took a few games for me to realize just how incredible the entire roster is, both defensively and offensively. Even by the standards of a superteam, even compared to the stacked WBC rosters of 2009 and 2013, this is one of the best two-way lineups you’ll ever watch. I’ll start my case with a single bullet point:

  • It’s possible to build a U.S. lineup in the 2017 WBC that has a Gold Glove winner at eight positions and Giancarlo Stanton at DH.

It’s a helluva bullet point. It’s a little disingenuous, as Andrew McCutchen is one of those players, and his defense isn’t what it used to be. But even if you’re not overly impressed with a McCutchen-Jones-Yelich outfield, the infield is clearly first tier.

Nolan Arenado is one of the finest defensive third basemen we’ve ever seen, Brandon Crawford is a marvel, Ian Kinsler is building a sneaky Hall of Fame chance with the help of his glove, and Paul Goldschmidt won two deserved Gold Gloves.

* Just ignore for the moment that Eric Hosmer is generally starting over Goldschmidt for some reason, which ruins several of my theses.

Allow me to move the goalposts for a moment. The 1934 American League All-Stars had eight Hall of Famers in their lineup, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The No. 7 and No. 8 hitters in the 1985 AL All-Star lineup were Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk, and they also would have had eight Hall of Famers if the voters weren’t so dense when it came to Lou Whitaker. So while this potential lineup is tremendous, it’s a little much to say it’s the best lineup ever assembled.

No, it’s the best lineup that will play in front of fans who really, really care. Who play with teammates who are thinking about the game instead of the flight home, who travel with said teammates, looking at scouting reports before the game. If it seems like a technicality, maybe it is. But even if the All-Star Game used to mean a lot more to the players decades ago, there’s no denying that there’s a difference between playing for the pride of a league and playing for the pride of a country.

If you want a quick snapshot of how balanced this lineup is, take a look at what it had in 2016 as well as the ZiPS projections for 2017:

United States 2017 WBC lineup

Player 2016 WAR (Baseball-Reference) 2017 ZiPS WAR projection PA projection
Player 2016 WAR (Baseball-Reference) 2017 ZiPS WAR projection PA projection
Jonathan Lucroy 3.8 3.2 510
Buster Posey 4.7 4.3 512
Paul Goldschmidt 4.8 4.2 630
Eric Hosmer 1 1 648
Ian Kinsler 6.1 3.3 631
Daniel Murphy 4.6 2.5 586
Brandon Crawford 4.5 3.5 575
Josh Harrison 1.8 1.7 517
Nolan Arenado 6.5 4.7 646
Alex Bregman 1.8 3.1 557
Adam Jones 1.1 2.1 635
Andrew McCutchen -0.7 4 641
Giancarlo Stanton 2.5 3.2 484
Christian Yelich 5.3 3.1 638

This is one of the best lineups in a game that people care about since the Big Red Machine, but that undersells it. It’s not just that the U.S. can put out a ridiculous lineup, 1 through 9. It’s that the players who are sitting are also among the best in baseball.

Take those ZiPS projections, for example. They’re a little conservative because they have to be. The first projection system to spit consistent eight-win projections out for dozens of players will be a bad projection system. So ZiPS looks at last year’s performance and tempers expectations just a bit because that’s what it does.

At the same time, when I’m looking at a tandem of Arenado and Alex Bregman, I’m not feeling silly for expecting five or six or seven wins above replacement over a full season. Because even if Arenado is slumping or hurt, he has an all-world talent behind him. That goes for catcher, first base, second base, the fourth outfielder, everyone. This isn’t just a lineup built for winning individual games; it’s a roster that would be absolutely perfect for bludgeoning other teams in a 162-game season.

Now we get to the twist ending, the big reveal: It doesn’t have to mean a damned thing. This still doesn’t have to be the first U.S. team to win the WBC, and it’s far more likely it’ll win one out of its next two games than it is to win two out of its next two games.

We know there isn’t a guarantee of success because the Dominican Republic’s lineup might be even better:

Dominican Republic 2017 WBC lineup

Player 2016 WAR (Baseball-Reference) 2017 ZiPS WAR projection
Player 2016 WAR (Baseball-Reference) 2017 ZiPS WAR projection
Welington Castillo 2.4 1.3
Alberto Rosario -0.2 0
Carlos Santana 3 2.5
Robinson Cano 7.3 3.6
Jean Segura 5.7 2.2
Jonathan Villar 3.9 2.1
Manny Machado 6.7 5.6
Jose Reyes 0.4 0.8
Jose Bautista 1 2.7
Nelson Cruz 4.7 2.9
Starling Marte 4.9 3.5
Gregory Polanco 1.6 2

I’ll still take the U.S., but I’m not going to argue too strenuously against a team that can march out a Machado-Cano-Cruz-Bautista middle of the order. And it still wasn’t enough to win every single baseball game it played because, well, that’s not how baseball works.

So keep this all in mind before Tuesday night’s U.S.-Japan game. It’s a two-parter:

  1. This is one of the best teams we’ll ever see
  2. That guarantees the U.S. nothing because baseball is fickle, and Japan also happens to have an excellent team

If the Screamin’ Facebook Raptors happen to lose in the semifinals or finals, you’ll read a lot about how they need to finally build that super-roster we’ve been craving for years. Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw would be a decent start, for one. But that undersells the actual roster by a bunch. This is already a superteam, and it’s been a privilege to watch it, even if it might step in a pile of baseball before it’s all over.