Constructing the Unbeatable Team, Volume 2

In the summer of 2008, my younger brother killed three hours on a bus in Latvia when a friend of his posed to him what I consider to be one of the best sports-related conversation starters I’ve ever heard. Let’s say that you’re tasked with winning every single one of the next 10 World Series–what 25-man roster do you construct to achieve this goal? For years, I wrestled with this question, jotting down potential rosters on bits of scrap paper in class, or on the backs of church bulletins. I’ve been at it so long that my first draft included Chase Utley and Brandon Webb.

Last offseason, I was so bored that I took on this challenge seriously, spending eight hours and more than 5,000 words explaining what 25 players (and seven coaches) I would choose to win the next 10 World Series if my life depended on it. While that team of (at the time) 22 MLB players, two minor leaguers and a NPB player still looks pretty good, the question is worth asking again, 15 months later, particularly because until we start getting meaningful games in, there’s not a ton of interesting things happening in pro baseball.

Here are the rules:

  • Your team can be made up of any 25 people on the planet, playing in MLB, the minors, Japan, college, or whatever. If you think you can teach Claude Giroux to throw an effective splitter, or Kevin Durant to play a good defensive center field, you could take them too.
  • Money is no object. Let’s assume all of these players are free agents and affordable.
  • Injuries and aging are a factor, so if you take Stephen Strasburg and he blows out his elbow, you can’t pick up Jarrod Parker from the free agent list. Originally, the rule was that a player couldn’t be replaced at all, but for the purposes of this argument, if you lose a guy to aging or a long-term injury, you can replace him with a below-replacement-level player. Think Michael Martinez for position players, or Miguel Batista for pitchers.
  • No trades.
  • If you lose, you die.

As a note, I referenced the following repeatedly throughout my research:

If you want more information about any of those players, chances are I got mine from one of those sources. So if my life depended on it, here is the army of mighty men I’d choose for everlasting baseball glory.

Catcher: Buster Posey, San Fracisco Giants (2011: Posey)

A tough decision, but a sound one, I believe. Posey, yes, is coming off a catastrophic knee injury, which makes him a risk. If you’re building a team around a catcher, and can’t replace him if something bad happens to him, perhaps it would be better to pick someone who hasn’t had to have his knee rebuilt. But if you’re worrying about the extreme long term, maybe your catcher doesn’t start 140 games a year behind the plate, particularly if you have a good backup. For a position where solid offense is such a rarity, a guy who can get on base at .350 or better and nail down the running game as Posey can is too good to pass up. What’s more, any catcher is risky–even a relatively young player, such as Carlos Santana, will be 35 by the 2021 World Series. Posey seems like as sure a thing as anyone.

First Base: Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals (2011: Albert Pujols)

The Angels just bet $240 million that Pujols will be an all-star until 2021, but after a down year (which, for Pujols, means he was only a top-10 player, rather than either the best or second-best hitter in the game), it might be time to switch things up. Hosmer, by the 2021 World Series, will be 32 years old, or the same age Pujols and Ryan Howard are now, so while he’ll be declining some by then, Hosmer should still be close to peak production. The No. 3 overall pick in 2008, Hosmer has been a .300/.400/.500 hitter throughout the minors, with some decent athleticism (11 steals in 3/4 of a season last year) to go with a steadily-improving bat. In 563 plate appearances as a rookie, Hosmer posted an OPS+ of 118, not awesome for a first baseman, but impressive for a 21-year-old rookie at any position. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him as the seventh-best long-term prospect under 25 in December, and the top first baseman. If he’s good enough for Law, he’s good enough for me.

Second Base: Dustin Ackley, Seattle Mariners (2011: Robinson Cano)

The cupboard is pretty bare at second base this generation, as you can see here. This might come as a surprise, considering that we’re watching the best second baseman since Biggio was in his prime in Philadelphia, and the Red Sox and Yankees, which get all the out-of-town press, are pretty set. But those guys, even Cano and Pedroia, are starting to get older, and much as I’d like to count on Dustin Pedroia to be a 5-win player at age 37, I can’t. Ackley made this team last year as the utility player, and his ability to play first base and outfield if necessary should come in handy. There’s a lot to like about Ackley, but Cano and Pedroia being too old and the likes of Danny Espinosa and Neil Walker not really profiling to be reliable All-Star-level performers makes this an easy choice. Though the temptation to watch Jose Altuve waddle around the infield for 10 years is not inconsequential.

Shortstop: Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers (2011: Hanley Ramirez)

Three full seasons as a starter, a consistent 30-steal guy, and one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, and he’ll be 33 (the same age Jimmy Rollins is now) by the 2021 World Series. Andrus will probably never hit for any power, but with that defense and a .340 career OBP, shortstop is one position where we can afford to skimp on offense. After all, the Rangers made it to the World Series twice with Andrus and a supporting cast nowhere near as good as this one. Of course, in four years or so, odds are Andrus won’t be the best shortstop on the Rangers, but Jurickson Profar isn’t close enough to the majors to hide him (or Rays prospect Hak-Ju Lee) on this roster until he reaches maturity. No matter how cool his name is. One note: If you think Troy Tulowitzki is going to be able to play shortstop at age 37, go ahead and pick him. But if A-Rod and Ripken had to move to third base, he probably will too.

Third Base: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays (2011: Longoria)

Big right-handed power bat with patience, and one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. Longoria was a six-win player last year despite battling injuries all season, and at 26, stands to continue to produce far into the future. Whether that production continues to the year 2021 is uncertain, but the certainty of Longoria’s production allows us to pick a younger, more untested backup.

Left Field: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins (2011: Mike Stanton)

There may be no better power hitter in the game. Keith Law named him the No. 5 minor league prospect in 2010 (Baseball America was somewhat more bullish, and put him at No. 3), and the No. 3 major leaguer under 25 this season. This is all about the power. Stanton, whatever he wants to call himself, hit 34 home runs last year in 601 plate appearances, and 22 home runs in 396 plate appearances the season before that. If you don’t know how good he is already, you will soon. And he’s only 22.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates (2011: McCutchen)

Possibly the most underrated player in the game today. Odds are, McCutchen, 25, will hand this spot over at some point during the 10-year run, but if there’s a player with fewer holes in his game today, I’d like to see him. McCutchen had a little bit of a down year last year in terms of batting average, but his OBP and slugging percentage stayed about the same. Having McCutchen in center is a huge luxury. He can run and play defense, but increasingly, center field is turning into a position for players (Ben Revere, Cameron Maybin, Peter Bourjos) who can do only that. McCutchen is also an above-average hitter.

Right Field: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks (2011: Jason Heyward)

Leaving Heyward off this list was the toughest cut. But Upton, Law’s top player under 25, is already a perennial 30-homer, 20-steal guy   who has the potential to .300/.400/.500 his way to superstardom, if he isn’t there already. Heyward probably has a higher ceiling, which is why leaving him off the team is so agonizing. Well, that and I keep looking at this list and talking myself into Heyward being a Hall of Fame lock. Heyward still hasn’t shaken the shoulder issues that turned his 2011 into something that resembled, from a narrative perspective, Cole Hamels‘ 2009. Only with more sweet tea and oppressive heat. But while Heyward’s been playing lawn darts in Atlanta, Upton is already an MVP candidate (and incidentally, the first person younger than me to play in the major leagues), and if you put a gun to my head, I’d probably pick him.

Backup Catcher: Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds (2011: Carlos Santana)

I picked Mesoraco to win NL Rookie of the Year, and he wins out here in a squeaker over Washington’s Wilson Ramos. Mesoraco (who, at 23, is scarcely younger than Posey) broke into the majors briefly at the end of 2012, and with Santana and Brian McCann getting older, Mesoraco is a ready backup with the potential to spell Posey for long stretches if necessary. FanGraphs’ Marc Hulet described him as having “a well-rounded game which includes solid throwing and excellent leadership” with the potential to hit for power as well. Thought about Toronto’s Travis d’Arnaud here, but thinking about him makes me sad that he used to be a Phillie, so I’d rather not. But d’Arnaud would certainly be a solid alternative to Mesoraco or Ramos.

Reserve Outfielder: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2011: Trout)

He’s a freak. He’s the fastest kid alive.

Also, he’s one of the top two or three prospects in the game, a 20-year-old who is already a solid defensive center fielder, a phenomenal baserunner, and a big-time hitter at every level of the minors. He was a risk last year as a 19-year-old AA player, but after his cup of coffee last season, Trout looks like a lock to break camp with the Angels this season. He went third last season in the FanGraphs franchise player draft and 12th in the ESPN franchise player draft. Eventually, the idea is that Trout takes over the center field spot from McCutchen, but until then, he’s valuable as a pinch runner and defensive replacement, even if he never hits a lick. Which he almost certainly will.

Reserve Outfielder/Catcher: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals (2011: Jay Bruce)

Nats manager Davey Johnson says Harper could step into a major league corner outfield role straight out of spring training. He’s been in a battle with Trout for the consensus No. 1 prospect spot for two years now, and I’m sure you know all about him by now. Seriously, who was the last baseball prospect to get this much hype–A-Rod? Griffey? Jackie Robinson? So I guess I’ll overcome my personal feelings and take him over Jaff Decker and Jackie Bradley Jr.

Now about that catcher thing. Harper was a catcher in college, where he won the Golden Spikes Award, but has not played an inning behind the plate as a pro, and likely never will. If I’m managing Harper, however, and I can’t make any roster moves for the next decade, I’d be inclined to have him continue to work out, at least part-time, as a catcher. I think Joe Mauer‘s recent injury history and massive contract will scare teams off from putting big guys with big bats (such as Harper) behind the plate for their entire careers. HOWEVER, that means Harper, Mauer, Jesus Montero, Victor Martinez, Boston’s Ryan Lavarnway, and Minnesota’s Ryan Doumit (in short, guys who can hit but might leave something to be desired defensively) have to move to first base or a corner outfield position, where their bats are less valuable. Certainly I’m not suggesting that it would be wise to risk losing Harper to a Mauer-type injury by keeping him behind the plate full-time, but with a little work, he could be a viable option in an emergency (10 games a year, at most). Because one foul tip to Posey or Mesoraco could have a profound negative effect on this team, it can’t hurt to have another option.

Backup Corner Infielder: Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays (2011: Ryan Zimmerman)

As a 21-year-old rookie, both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference rated Lawrie as close to a three-win player in less than 200 plate appearances. If he continues to post an OPS in excess of .950 with speed and decent defense at third, Evan Longoria may never see the field. Even if that’s not the case, he’s still a freak athlete who can help out at second, third, and in the outfield.

Backup Middle Infielder: Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs (2011: Castro)

The good news: he’s on that list of young rookies with high OBPs that’s got Jason Heyward and a bunch of Hall-of-Famers on it. He’s the youngest National League hits leader ever. At age 21, he posted a .307/.341/.432 at a premium position, even if he isn’t the best defensive shortstop ever. He could make a nice offense/defense partnership with Andrus at the position.

The bad news, of course, is that he is alleged to have sexually assaulted a Chicago woman this offseason. Castro maintains his innocence, and since he’s in Cubs camp and hasn’t been charged with anything yet, for the sake of argument let’s assume he is innocent. If not, maybe Lee or Profar gets the call a year early. But for Castro’s part, he’s as good a hitter as you’ll find as an under-25 middle infielder right now.

Utility: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies (2011: Dustin Ackley)

We probably, just to be safe, need another backup infielder. Thought about taking this guy, but he’s probably not major-league ready. The problem, as I’ve said, is that the cupboard is almost completely bare when it comes to young, major-league-ready middle infielders. There’s Ackley, Castro, Andrus, Danny Espinosa…and that’s about it.

I mistakenly characterized the crop of good, major-league-ready young middle infielders as completely bare. That’s not the case. But the second base and shortstop prospects this time around are either 1) Not close to major-league ready 2) too old to be truly reliable as prospects 3) quite possibly no good to begin with. Billy Hamilton, the Reds shortstop prospect, not the 19th-century Phillies Hall of Fame outfielder, is in the first category. He’s not even close to being a can’t-miss prospect. Marc Hulet expresses concern that Hamilton strikes out too much, will probably never hit for power, and might not have the arm to stick at shortstop, and while Keith Law is more bullish on Hamilton as a hitter, he too doubts Hamilton will stick at short.

But with Ackley, Andrus, Castro, and Lawrie ahead of him, Hamilton can hide, Michael Martinez-style, playing in….yeah, you know what? Screw that. I can’t talk myself into Hamilton being major-league ready anytime soon. I’ll take Danny Espinosa. At least we know he can play both second and short and hit for a little bit of power. He doesn’t hit for a high average, but he walks some, got hit by 19 pitches last year, and has some pop…No, you know what? Screw that too. I don’t know if Tulo is even going to be ambulatory in 2021, but he can hit like a first baseman, and, unlike catcher and corner outfield, there aren’t a lot of great middle infield prospects.

Starting Pitcher: Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers (2011: Darvish)

I’ve always been immensely high on Darvish. Like most Japanese pitchers, he has great breaking stuff and tons of experience. Unlike most Japanese pitchers, he’s bigger, stronger, unafraid to throw inside, and has a plus fastball. Will he be worth Texas’ nine-figure outlay for him? Probably, though I can’t make any promises. At any rate, I feel as good about Darvish as any of his American or Caribbean contemporaries.

Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers (2011: Tim Lincecum)

Due respect to Cole Hamels, David Price, Cliff Lee, Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, and the rest of The Sunshine Band, this is the best left-handed pitcher in the game today. Kershaw goes four pitches deep, all of which were rated above average by FanGraphs last year, when he won the Cy Young. He’s got a mid-90s fastball, a killer slider, and a low-70s curveball that I rate as one of the prettiest pitches of this or any generation. Kershaw’s always struck out more than a batter an inning, but as he’s matured (from his half-season as a 20-year-old in 2008 until this, his age-24 season), he’s walked progressively fewer and fewer batters. He was about a 7-win pitcher last season, and it’s probably fair to expect him to stay at that level for, I don’t know…another decade or so?

Starting Pitcher: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners (2011: Hernandez)

Another Cy Young winner. Entering his age-26 season, he, like Kershaw, has a Cy Young under his belt. There could be some worry about how his arm holds up, considering how many innings he’s thrown, but he’s a big guy who gets lots of ground balls, and in the hands of a manager who won’t let him throw 117 pitches in a game where he’s given up six runs in 6 1/3 innings, there’s a decent chance he holds up long-term. Apart from that, quality isn’t an issue.

Starting Pitcher: Matt Moore, Tampa Bay Rays (2011: Josh Johnson)

Moore is 22, and the prohibitive favorite for AL Rookie of the Year. Ben Duronio of RotoGraphs predicts Moore will have a better season than fellow Rays lefty David Price. Keith Law makes Moore his No. 3 prospect, behind only Trout and Harper. Baseball America puts Moore below Harper and above Trout. The Rays have already signed him to a long-term extension that runs through 2019, including team option years. They seem confident he can be an ace-level pitcher for the next decade. And so am I.

Starting Pitcher: Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals (2011: David Price)

Top-10 for both Keith Law and Baseball America last year, Miller will be 21 until October, which gives him time to mature into a top-notch starter should one of his colleagues falter or succumb to age. Miller can touch the upper-90s, with a solid curve and changeup. He’s expected to start the year in the minors and work up to the major leagues by the end of the season. All of a sudden, a top-3 of Adam Wainwright, Miller, and Jaime Garcia sounds kind of scary for the Cardinals in about two years. Starting him in the majors might not be ideal, as both Law and Hulet alluded to command issues, but if he lands there now, he can adapt.

Starting Pitcher: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals (2011: Cole Hamels)

Arm issues and all, Strasburg was one of only five pitchers (along with Kershaw, Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay) who went in FanGraphs’ Franchise Player Draft. Remember, since we’re overloading on starting pitchers and assuming some of them will become relievers, the minimum acceptable outcome for Strasburg is that he becomes a mediocre middle reliever. The potential reward–that he becomes one of the most dominant power pitchers in the game–is too good to pass up.

You may have noticed that this team carries more than five starting pitchers. This isn’t because I’d plan on using a six-or-seven-man rotation, but because it’s easier to turn a starting pitcher into a reliever than vice-versa. Even Mariano Rivera didn’t cut the mustard as a starter. Even granted the inherent issues with trying to keep one or more of Strasburg or Miller, or whoever, stretched out, loading up on starters gives the hypothetical manager an option in case of injury or ineffectiveness, as well as the potential for a multi-inning reliever, in the vein of David Price in the 2008 playoffs.

Starting Pitcher: Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants (2011: Bumgarner)

Bumgarner is a 22-year-old lefty with playoff experience, coming off a 5.5 fWAR season (Baseball Reference was less enthused, giving him only 2.8 WAR), with four pitches to throw at batters and top-notch control (a K/BB ratio north of 4:1 in 2011, finishing sixth in the NL in that category, behind two Cy Young Award winners, a guy who pitches for the Phillies, and two guys who had done both). He’s got kind of a low arm slot, and gets his share of ground balls, but that means righties have an OPS roughly 100 points higher against him than do lefties for his career, which wouldn’t be so bad if most of the league weren’t right-handed. But then again, Bumgarner’s total career OPS against is only .693, so he can deal with it.

Starting Pitcher: Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates (2011: Drew Storen, RP)

Yes, a guy who’s never pitched a professional regular-season inning. Cole was the first pick in the 2011 draft, is 21 years old, and can touch triple digits if he wants to. He’s Law’s No. 10 prospect, Baseball America’s No. 12 overall prospect, and Hulet’s No. 1 prospect in the Pirates organization, dislodging 2010 No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon from that spot. Taillon could have made this spot, as could Danny Hultzen, who went one pick after Cole in this past year’s draft.

One aside about Hultzen: the most exciting baseball game I’ve ever seen was this one, a four-and-a-half hour, 13-inning emotional ducking stool between eventual national champion South Carolina and Hultzen’s Virginia. Hultzen, stricken with the flu, could only go three innings, but faced 10 batters, struck out eight, and allowed only one hit, while Gamecock ace Michael Roth, who holds the second-lowest ERA of any pitcher in College World Series history, went seven innings. Eventually Carolina closer Matt Price worked out of bases-loaded jams in the top of the 10th, 12th, and 13th innings without allowing a run, and the Gamecocks went on to win the game and the series. Anyway, Hultzen, drafted by the Mariners, is viewed as  a very low-risk, low-ceiling prospect, where most experts would be shocked if he becomes anything more or less than a mid-rotation starter. While that kind of sure thing is attractive for a 22-year-old, Cole has a much higher potential.

Cole has constantly been compared to his college teammate Trevor Bauer (who, like Hultzen, was the starting pitcher against South Carolina in an extra-inning walkoff loss that knocked his team out of the College World Series). Bauer is considered to be more major-league ready than Cole, but an unusually high-volume workout regimen and a strange, almost Lincecumian delivery mean that he’s got durability issues, which this team needs from an unproven starter like it needs a punch in the face. Cole, if nothing else, throws really hard, and, even if he falls apart, and has a good slider and changeup. Like Strasburg, if nothing else, he can be a valuable bullpen piece.

Left-Handed Reliever: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (2011: Sale)

If I thought Jonny Venters‘ arm could survive the abuse it took last season, he’d be here. Ditto if I thought Antonio Bastardo was going to live up to the first five months of last season again every year for the next 10. But Sale, in addition to being four years younger than Venters and Tony No-Dad, ain’t bad either. He’s struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings in both of his major league seasons, and works of a mid-90s fastball to a devastating slider, as did the young Brad Lidge. He’s not perfect, but he’ll do.

Right-handed Reliever: Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers (2011: Neftali Feliz)

He was a catcher four years ago. In 2011, at 23, he struck out 16.1 men per 9 innings.

Relief Ace: Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (2011: Daniel Bard)

Leave the Game 162 nonsense out. Kimbrel was the best reliever in the game last year, and was well worth his Rookie of the Year award. Between Kimbrel and Jansen, this team has two right-handed relievers who strike out more than 40 percent of the batters they face. Let’s put that in perspective: last year, Justin Verlander struck out 33 percent of the batters he retired. In fact, this team may not need any late-game defensive replacements. With Sale, Kimbrel, and Jansen, fielders might not be necessary at all.

Manager: Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay Rays (2011: Maddon)

The best manager in the game. He’s a great man-manager, a builder of chemistry and leader of men, great with the media, funny enough to take the pressure off his players, and, most importantly, unafraid to take risks and try something different. I had a bit in last year’s piece about how good head coaches and managers are either smart or charismatic, and great head coaches and managers are both. Maddon is both.

Pitching Coach: Don Cooper, Chicago White Sox (2011: Mike Maddux)

Ah, and you thought that with the retirement of Dave Duncan and his magic sinker-teaching wand that turns mediocre starters into grounder-producing All-Stars, there wasn’t some mystical pitch-teaching warlock who can salvage the unsalvageable with a single pitch. Well, there is. Cooper, quietly, has turned around the careers of John Danks, Edwin Jackson, Gavin Floyd, and others with his cutter. Having that in your back pocket could come in hand if Strasburg needs to be turned into a junkballer somewhere down the line.

Bench Coach: Manny Acta, Cleveland Indians (2011: Acta)

Like Maddon, unafraid to take chances or go against conventional wisdom, well-liked by his players, and allergic to the sacrifice bunt.

Hitting Coach: Morgan Ensberg, unattached (2011: Rudy Jaramillo)

I don’t care, as long as it’s someone who will encourage his players to take walks. Ensberg isn’t even coaching, but he seems like a fun dude. Shows you how seriously I take that position. Besides, with Acta and Maddon, the position players are now dealing with three famously nice guys. This will become important when you see who’s coaching third base.

Bullpen Coach: Mick Billmeyer, Philadelphia Phillies (2011: Dave Duncan)

Because he’s good with a pair of binoculars, and I needed to make this post Phillies-related somehow.

Third-base Coach: Ozzie Guillen, Florida Marlins (2011: Tom Foley)

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair.

First-base Coach: Davey Lopes, Los Angeles Dodgers (2011: Lopes)

Baserunning. He turned Rollins, Utley, Victorino, and Werth into one of the most effective basestealing foursomes in history. This team has a lot of untamed speed in McCutchen, Andrus, Lawrie, Trout, and even Harper and Hosmer to a degree. Give them to Davey, and let’s see what happens.

In sum, here’s last year’s team:

Name Position Name Position
Buster Posey C/1B Carlos Santana C
Albert Pujols 1B/OF Robinson Cano 2B
Hanley Ramirez SS Evan Longoria 3B
Dustin Ackley 1B/2B/CF Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Starlin Castro 2B/SS Mike Stanton LF/RF
Andrew McCutchen CF Jason Heyward RF
Jay Bruce OF Mike Trout OF
Yu Darvish RHP Felix Hernandez RHP
Tim Lincecum RHP David Price LHP
Madison Bumgarner LHP Josh Johnson RHP
Cole Hamels LHP Drew Storen RHP
Chris Sale LHP Neftali Feliz RHP
Daniel Bard RHP
Manager Coaching Staff
Joe Maddon Manny Acta Mike Maddux Dave Duncan
Davey Lopes Tom Foley Rudy Jaramillo

And here’s this year’s team. New additions are in italics.

Name Position Name Position
Buster Posey C/1B Devin Mesoraco C
Eric Hosmer 1B Dustin Ackley 2B/1B/OF
Elvis Andrus SS Evan Longoria 3B
Troy Tulowitzki SS Brett Lawrie 3B/2B
Starlin Castro 2B/SS Giancarlo Stanton LF/RF
Andrew McCutchen CF Justin Upton RF
Bryce Harper OF/C Mike Trout OF
Yu Darvish RHP Felix Hernandez RHP
Shelby Miller RHP Clayton Kershaw LHP
Madison Bumgarner LHP Stephen Strasburg RHP
Matt Moore LHP Gerrit Cole RHP
Chris Sale LHP Kenley Jansen RHP
Craig Kimbrel RHP
Manager Coaching Staff
Joe Maddon Manny Acta Don Cooper Mick Billmeyer
Davey Lopes Ozzie Guillen Morgan Ensberg


On Actually Getting Excited for Pitchers and Catchers

Winter is always tough for me. I feed on sports discourse the way a tree feeds on sunlight–I need lots of it, all the time, or else I shrivel up and die. This might why I have the ESPN app on my phone sending me score updates for 17 teams across five sports, plus a racing driver. During baseball season, the Phillies (and, in passing, the South Carolina Gamecocks) are enough to keep me going because baseball is the sport I know and care most about. I certainly give the Stanley Cup playoffs their due attention, and if  there’s an Olympics or a World Cup to fill the dull hours, so much the better. Once the World Series is over, there’s Hot Stove discussion, plus the best part of college football season and the part of the Premiership season before Arsenal drops out of the title race, to keep the sports juices going.

But after the New Year, things get grim. Particularly in a year when the soccer team you follow is suffering its worst season in more than a decade, and the mention of the club’s best player and the historic season he’s having elicits not joy but soul-crushing depression at the knowledge that he’ll leave for Manchester City or Barcelona in the summer. Just like all the best Arsenal players do. Sure, the Sixers are on a nice run, and I love hockey, but without baseball, it’s not enough. This is the time of year where I try to psych myself into caring about the effect of the near-ubiquitous duckbill nose in the coming Formula 1 season. Early February is a rough time for me.

Which brings me to my point: all winter long, people I follow on Twitter (mostly women, for whatever reason, though that might just be a product of who I follow and is not meant to convey any sort of commentary on gender politics in modern sports fanhood) have been counting down to the start of spring training. “93 days until pitchers and catchers!” they said, back when that distance was so great as to be depressing. Now we’re within two weeks of that blessed day: “pitchers and catchers.” And I cannot bring myself to get excited about it. At all.

It seems like we fetishize training camp in baseball more than in other sports. I love soccer and hockey, but I have no idea when Arsenal starts their summer workout regimen, or even when they start playing exhibition games. The same for the Flyers–I went to a preseason game this past fall, but I have no memory of what month that game took place, even though Tom Sestito’s brutal, if massively illegal, hit on Ranger center Andre “Bel Biv” Deveaux was one of the highlights of my sporting 2011. No sport except for football, which magnifies and fetishizes everything, places such stock in its preseason. I think the name “pitchers and catchers” is part of the problem. It sounds cool and somehow in-the-know to say “pitchers and catchers,” I think, so we do it.

There’s also something to spring training marking the beginning of, you know, spring. Baseball is, perhaps more tied to the seasons than any other popular American game. Football has been played professionally in the United States in spring, summer, and fall. Basketball, a largely indoor undertaking, is almost devoid of seasonal or meteorological context, and ice hockey, for all the nostalgia about skating on frozen lakes with your buddies, in 2004 crowned its champion in June, in Florida, and holds its world championships in the summer. As for soccer, most of the world’s leagues play roughly a basketball schedule, August to May, while in the United States, Russia, and Scandinavia, the game runs through the summer.

So much for seasonal context.

But in baseball, weather and history dictate that we have “spring training,” the “boys of summer,” and the “fall classic.” The start of baseball, more than the equinox or warm weather, marks the start of spring, a sentiment captured by the poet Donald Hall. It’s beautiful stuff, and I appreciate that. I get that the trip down to Clearwater makes a nice spring vacation, and an opportunity to see the stars in a closer and more relaxed environment than you might find during a regular season game. At least I’d hope so, because if it weren’t a great baseball trip there’d be no rational reason to get that close to Tampa. I just don’t get the hysteria over practice. Not a game. Practice.

“Pitchers and catchers” makes for a nice temporal landmark, but from a baseball perspective, doesn’t mean anything. The entire team doesn’t even work out together for a full week after pitchers and catchers report, and doesn’t play an exhibition game until a week after that. Everyone’s been counting down to wind sprints, long toss, and weightlifting. They’ve been doing this all winter, folks. The only difference is that they’ll have called each other before coming to work and decided to all dress alike. Even if they wanted to play a game, they’d be seven guys short.

Then spring training games start, and after a couple days of watching Matt Rizzotti mash meaningless taters, we start to get down to business. Then we get to see who might be on form for the coming season, who’s developed a new pitch or altered his swing, and which unknown is set to make the leap and contribute in a big way. To say nothing of the return of Jim Thome and the first look at Jonathan Papelbon. That time, around the second week of March, is when I start getting excited about baseball–when something worth talking about happens.

Of course, if you do get all worked up for pitchers and catchers, more power to you. I certainly don’t think getting excited for preseason workouts is stupid or anything, and I’ll certainly be paying attention when it happens. It’s just hard to work up the enthusiasm, even for a deranged sports addict like me.


Wilson Valdez was, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light.”

I’ve written before at Phillies Nation about the complex and emotional relationship I’ve enjoyed with another Phillies shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, and in a way, my Phillies fandom regarding Exxon, as I’ve come to call him, has been even more emotional and and complex. I’d like to talk to you briefly, now that Exxon is no longer with us, about that relationship, and about the tenure of one of the more intriguingly polarizing athletes to come through Philadelphia in recent years.

I was in the stands for the home opener in 2010, when Jimmy Rollins unexpectedly injured himself on the dugout steps before the game. He was replaced in that game by Juan Castro, but the Phillies needed a new utility infielder if Castro was to take over full-time for Rollins at shortstop. On April 14, 2010, the Phillies called up Wilson Valdez from AAA Lehigh Valley. Now, when this happened, I had never heard of Valdez before. I texted a couple friends to tell them the news, and made the first of what must have been dozens of Exxon Valdez oil spill puns (“I hear he’s a slick fielder”) and thought that Valdez would, like thousands of other career minor leaguers, be up for a couple weeks while J-Roll got better.

But he didn’t. He stuck. And over the course of the summer of 2010, I came to hate Wilson Valdez in a way I’d never anticipated. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t very good at baseball–after all, he was, like all pro ballplayers, the best player he was capable of becoming–it was the way, for some reason, fans took to him. People started voicing the opinion that Valdez was a preferable alternative to Jimmy Rollins going forward, that as a rookie he had more to offer than Rollins. Never mind that Valdez was actually six months older than Rollins and, at 32, hadn’t been anything resembling a prospect in nearly a decade. Hearing about how “clutch” he was, for the double he hit in the 11th inning to put the Phillies ahead against the Giants on April 28. For the single he hit to put the Phillies ahead against the Diamondbacks on July 29. They raved about his throwing arm (which we’ll get to later), and called him a great defensive player, even though no one had gathered any significant data on his range or ability to convert chances once he got to them. Soon enough, in my mind at least, Wilson Valdez was the poster child for confirmation bias and the shortsightedness of a fan base too stubborn or lazy (or whatever) to realize that Exxon not only had an OBP well below .300, but was grounding into double plays at a historic rate.

I called him Exxon not out of the same sense of fun, glee, and adoration with which I call Roy Halladay “Doc” or Antonio Bastardo “Tony No-Dad,” but with malice in my heart and the glint of hatred in my eye. I dreaded his trips to the plate. I once went to a bar and wound up screaming a string of obscenities and statistics at a friend of a friend who suggested that he’d rather have Exxon at the plate with the game on the line than Jayson Werth, who was at that time in the midst of both the best season of his career and a bizarre and fluky slump with runners in scoring position. Then there was that nonsense about Wilson Valdez being the team’s MVP. Give me a break. All the while I tried to keep calm and spread the gospel: Wilson Valdez Isn’t As Good As You Think He Is, culminating in this post, on Sept. 29, in which I wrote the following:

“And how about this–he’s come to the plate with a runner on first and less than two out only 82 times this season. In those plate appearances, he has 20 GIDP, and only 18 hits. I’ll repeat that for the cheap seats: with a runner on first and less than 2 outs, Wilson Valdez is more likely to ground into a double play than he is to get a hit. “Dreadful” hardly does that statistic justice.”

Complex and emotional indeed. The comments for that post, unfortunately, were deleted when Phillies Nation underwent its site redesign last year, but there were more than 100 of them before the furor died down. To Exxon’s credit, he came to the plate once more that season with the opportunity to ground into a double play, and he got a hit.

After 2010, however, order was restored. Jimmy Rollins was healthy and reasonably productive, and Wilson Valdez was returned to a role more suited to player of his talents: utility infielder. Of course, Chase Utley missed the first eight weeks of the season or so, but there was always a sense that he’d come back soon enough, and if he didn’t, the Phillies would be screwed no matter who replaced him.

Two days after Utley returned, on May 25, 2011, the complexity of my relationship with Exxon grew tremendously.

By this point, Wilson Valdez had gone from unknown quantity, to minor nuisance, to my personal Moby Dick, then back to nuisance and minor curiosity as his role with the team was reduced. I still feared the medium-speed ground ball to second that seemed to come every time he came up with a man on, but after a while, with Utley on the mend, Exxon was set to return to obscurity. Or so it seemed.

Paul Boye and I went to the 19-inning game together, and, well, in short, it was the best experience I’ve ever had at a live sporting event. That was, of course, due in large part to seeing an infielder pitch–and more than that, the infielder upon which I’d heaped so much attention and anger. I remember sitting in the stands, jumping up and down, clapping, screaming, and chittering like a schoolgirl at the sight of the man whose mere existence sent me into a homicidal rage. I had turned the corner. I had caught Valdez Fever.

After that night, after those of us who stayed up until 1 a.m. to watch the game had seen a below-average utility infielder retire not only the National League’s hottest hitter but the National League’s reigning MVP, shaking off Sardinha and recording 380-foot outs. It was remarkable theater, and one of the highlights of a season that would ultimately end in disappointment.

I loved Wilson Valdez.

It seems silly to speak of legacy for a player who played a marginal role for a little under two seasons, and wasn’t much more than passable in that marginal role, but for some reason Valdez took on a larger-than-life quality. It still baffles me why. He’s not the first light-hitting backup shortstop to get a key hit or two, or the first one to have a weird goatee. Maybe he was lovable for the same reason Bill James said Pedro Martinez was great–a multitude of small advantages that compound each other. I really couldn’t tell you. I never could stand him as a player.

But the fact of the matter is that we can’t judge Exxon as a player alone. It’s almost as if we have Wilson Valdez, Infielder, who’s a replacement-level player, but then we have Wilson Valdez, Literary Hero, who’s capable of bringing joy to the masses through legendary feats of sporting averageness.

In the end, I’m amazed that Ruben Amaro was able to ship off a 33-year-old utilityman who can’t really hit to a club on the verge of contention for a 26-year-old lefty who looks like he could be worth a damn. In July 2010, I would have open-mouth kissed anyone who told me that the Phillies would one day trade Exxon for someone like Jeremy Horst. This trade is an excellent baseball move. But seeing Wilson Valdez sent packing, now that I’ve embraced the joy and absurdity that comes with watching him play, fills me with sadness. I’m not even sure I’ll miss him because I’ll miss hating him. I think I may have genuinely caught some of that Exxon fever, and now that he’s gone, I’m not sure watching the Phillies will ever be the same.