Australia a worthy competitor in Classic
2004 Olympic silver medal winners ready to shock the world
By Ira Liebman / Special to MLB.com
Speaking of hits, the hitting may be the Aussies' strong point, with three players who have Major League experience in their lineup, and six players in all with big league experience. This team is comprised of Australian players who currently play baseball, either in their native land, the Minors -- from Rookie ball to Triple-A -- and the Majors.
Australian baseball first put itself on the global map with players in the '90s, pioneers who made significant contributions in the Majors, like pitcher Grahame Lloyd and catcher Dave Nilsson. After winning the 1999 Intercontinental Cup, Team Australia gave Cuba a run in the 2004 Summer Olympics, ultimately coming away with the silver medal.
This time around, Australia's offense begins with the speedy leadoff man Trent Oeltjen, who spent the past two seasons at Triple-A and has 147 career professional stolen bases.
The "H & H Boys", Justin Huber and Brad Harman, will provide the "Thunder from Down Under". Huber, who will be the cleanup hitter Team Australia, has spent time with both the Royals and Padres over the past four seasons. He began the first four years of his Minor League career as an All-Star catcher and has made the transition over the past four years as a first baseman and outfielder. He's belted 110 career home runs in the Minors.
Harman will be protection in the lineup behind Huber. After making his first stop at Double-A last year and hitting 17 home runs and 56 RBIs for Reading, he skipped over Triple-A entirely, spending some time with the World Series champion Phillies.
Chris Snelling in the three-hole for Australia. If it were not for injuries, Snelling might already be a star in the Majors. In a decade in the Minors, he has a career .305 average with 47 homeruns and 331 RBIs. He is a great contact hitter and has never struck out more than 63 times in a season. Over the past four seasons, Snelling has spent time with Seattle, Oakland and Philadelphia, not bad for a guy who has had 13 surgeries and 12 stints on the disabled list.
Andrew Graham, one of the catchers on the club, will help round out the bottom of the order. Graham a 19th-round pick of the Tigers in the 200 First-Year Player Draft, missed the 2008 season due to injury after spending time at Triple-A for Toledo in 2007.
Luke Hughes who will be near the top of the lineup, has also spent some time at Triple-A, finishing the season with Rochester (Twins) last year. After making the team as only a utilityman in 2007 he worked his way up and attended his second straight Eastern League All-Star game for Double-A New Britain in 2008, bringing home All-Star MVP honors.
Another good contact man is Michael Collins, who has struck out just 312 times in 555 career professional games. He has spent the past two seasons with Double-A Arkansas (Angels), and will be valuable off the bench. This team also contains five other players who have had at least A-ball experience.
The Team Australia pitching staff features three Major Leaguers. Damian Moss signed as a non-drafted free agent with Atlanta in 1993 and had a big year for the Braves in 2002, going 12-6 with a 3.42 ERA under Bobby Cox's tutelage. In 2003, he split time with the between the Giants and Orioles. Much has played on every level, from Rookie ball to the Majors, and has even played independent baseball with the Long Island Ducks and with Macon in the Atlantic and Arizona-Mexico Leagues.
Travis Blackley, another starter for Team Australia, spent time with Seattle in 2004 and the Giants in 2007. He has a career Minor League record of 60-49 with a 3.92 ERA. In 2003, Blackley went 17-3 with a 2.63 ERA and was named the Texas League Pitcher of the Year, helping Double-A San Antonio, then a Mariners affiliate, to the Texas League title. The 17 victories were the most in the Texas League since Jeff Reardon won 17 for the Kingsport Mets in 1978. Injuries have slowed him down his career, and he missed the entire 2005 season with two tears in his labrum.
Tristan Crawford and hot prospect David Welch will round out the starting rotation. Crawford, who also played for Team Australia in the inaugural Classic, is literally a world baseball player. He was born in Alaska, lived in Seattle as well as San Diego when he was very young, and moved to Australia when he was seven.
Welch, after going 18-14 in his first three pro seasons, had a breakout year for Double-A Huntsville (Brewers) in the Southern League last season, going 11-4 with a 3.90 ERA. He is a great all-around athlete who also contributed eight hits and eight RBIs at the plate.
The final big leaguer on this staff is Aussies setup man Rich Thompson of the Angels. Thompson spent part of each of the past two seasons with the big club and posted a 23-22 mark in the Minors, with 39 saves and a 3.90 ERA.
Another key contributor on the mound will be Craig Anderson, who posted double digits in wins during four of the past five seasons, including 13 victories in the Pacific Coast League for Triple-A Tacoma (Mariners) in 2003. With a decade of Minor League experience -- half of it at the Triple-A level -- Anderson has a career record of 87-61 with a 3.89 ERA to go along with a near 3:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and will be a valuable asset to this team.
The success of Australia's players -- 26 in all have gone to the big leagues -- is no fluke. Baseball was derived from the sport of cricket, of which Australia is one of the world's powerhouse countries.
With special advisors like Chili Davis and Rod Carew, who often visit the baseball academy where a lot Australia's top players were developed, as well as current Classic coaches Lloyd and Pat Kelly, there is no telling how far this team with so much pride can go.
Manager Jon Deeble, who guided the Australians to a Silver Medal in the 2004 Olympics, said "If we can keep this team together, I think you'll see some exciting things."
Ira Liebman is the media liaison officer for Team Australia. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.