The Bus to Galviston

First, the news came out (and was investigated thoroughly by our blogging overlord here) that Chase Utley, the best Phillies position player since Mike Schmidt and, for the last half of the 2000s, the best position player on Earth not named Albert Pujols or Joe Mauer, would not be ready for Opening Day.

For some reason, I wasn’t particularly disturbed by the news and couldn’t figure out why. After all, if the Phillies are the Death Star, Chase Utley is the main reactor that powers the station, and his rapidly degenerating lower body joints are the thermal exhaust port, a direct hit on which could start a chain reaction and destroy the station. I think John Lannan is Luke Skywalker in this metaphor, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but we can iron out the particulars later.

Particularly for a team that’s going to be without its biggest power threat (Ryan Howard) for a significant part of the season, the loss of Utley could be catastrophic. The Phillies don’t stand to score a ton of runs anyway, and replacing Utley with either Freddy Galvis, Ty Wigginton, or Michael Martinez won’t do much to help that. Dave Cameron, Grand Duke of FanGraphs, was characteristically honest on the issue. And while I appreciate Cameron’s candor, saying “the Phillies are considering using a guy who posted a .315 OBP in Triple-A last year as their 2B?” doesn’t exactly generate a warm, fizzy feeling in my bowels.

Then, this afternoon, the news came out that Michael Martinez, last year’s Rule 5 project and one of the major fallback options at second base, would miss several weeks with a broken toe. This didn’t bother me either, though for more readily explainable reasons. I’m reminded of the classic and moving scene in Broadcast News, where Albert Brooks’ Aaron delivers the memorable line: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.”

Well, Michael Martinez, while being a very nice guy, is a dreadful major league infielder. Martinez, for his entire major league career, has a .198/.258/.282 slash line in 234 plate appearances. He hasn’t played enough at any position to generate meaningful defensive statistics, but it’s not like the Phillies brass is out there telling everyone he’s the second coming of Bill Mazeroski. And on the basepaths, Martinez is 82-for-124 in career stolen base attempts in the minors, a 66 percent success rate, which is low enough to actually hurt the team. If it’s possible for a major leaguer to possess none of the traditional five tools, Michael Martinez is that man. But anyone who’s reading this watched enough Phillies games last season to know that anyway.

Which leaves Ty Wigginton, who is a second baseman by the same logic that if you leave a fish in a birdcage overnight once a week, it will turn into a cockatoo. Plus, odds are he’ll be busy minding first base in Howard’s absence.

Which leaves Freddy Galvis. Cameron’s snarky comment aside, I’m actually rather excited about Galvis. I’ll concede the eminent possibility that Galvis could grade out offensively somewhere between Wilson Valdez (we’ll get back to him later) and a four-foot-high pile of potatoes. People with a career .613 minor league OPS generally don’t get to the majors and start raking. But by all accounts, Galvis is a fantastic defensive shortstop, a quality that should be even more evident at second base. Even assuming that any OPS mark above .600 would be a victory for Galvis, he’s still the second base option I’d have over any other, not only because of his defense, but because he’s a 22-year-old unknown. Rather than reaching for an off-the-shelf utilityman (Wigginton) or a career minor leaguer (Martinez or Valdez), the Phillies are plugging a hole with a young, homegrown player, and giving him a chance to impress. With Howard, Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, and even Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all approaching their athletic dotage, it’s a habit I’d like the Phillies’ brass to get into. And at the risk of tempting fate, there’s no way Galvis can be worse than Martinez over the course of a full season. All told, I’m pretty pumped about Galvis, enough to gas up a bandwagon in his honor. So you’re on notice, Phillies fans–Freddy Galvis is officially in his indie phase, so hop on the train before it fills up.

But back to the original point. Why isn’t Utley’s injury causing mass panic? After all, Bill’s been going on about how Utley is the most important player in baseball for weeks now. I think Eric Karabell of ESPN’s Baseball Today hit it on the head in yesterday’s Baseball Today (the March 19 episode, for those of you who want to give it a listen). To paraphrase, Karabell pointed out that the Phillies won 102 games last year, despite Utley only posting 454 plate appearances, and when he did play, he was hardly the .300/.390/.520 player he was during his Joe Morgan phase from 2005 to 2010. For most Phillies fans nowadays, the expectation for Utley is probably a little better than 103 games played and a .259/.344/.425 triple slash line he posted last year, but it can’t really be more than that. Karabell went on to say that even a Polanco/Rollins/Galvis/Wigginton infield isn’t that scary a prospect, because the Phillies have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. Add in Vance Worley (even if he regresses some, as I expect him to) and Joe Blanton, and I struggle to imagine a pitching staff in the majors pitching more and better innings this coming season. And those five starters will hand off to a bullpen that includes Antonio Bastardo and Jonathan Papelbon.

In short, scoring runs will not be easy for the Phillies this season, and the more at-bats Galvis and Wigginton have to take over from Utley and Howard, the more true that will become. But unlike the Phillies teams from four or five years ago, a few runs will do in most cases. If Halladay or Hamels goes down, or Worley turns into Tyler Green 2.0, then it’s collar-tugging time. But for now, remember: the Phillies were going to win 90+ games without scoring many runs even if Utley played 150 games. And while it’s fun to spend the spring bigging up the Marlins, Nationals, and Braves, all of those teams have weaknesses too. The Phillies are still the odds-on favorite to win the NL East, and unless they lose a top pitcher, that’s probably still the case. So sit back and enjoy the Galvis.

But I still haven’t answered the truly salient question, the “should have kept” question. With the attrition rate for Phillies second basemen sitting somewhere around the attrition rate for ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli, isn’t this the perfect time to second-guess the trade that sent fan favorite Wilson Valdez to Cincinnati? Exxon, the man who gamely stood his post in relief of an injured Utley for two years? Wouldn’t we be better off with the 2010 team MVP at the keystone, rather than some unproven rookie?

Absolutely not. Let’s not say things we can’t take back.

An Emotional Diatribe Against the Designated Hitter in the National League

I sort of knew it was coming. The increase in number of interleague games after the Astros move to the American League next year all but assured it. It’s at times like this when I’m reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous utterance, during his legendary debates with Stephen A. Douglas during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

I have a very good friend who believes strongly in the ethic of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, and that the true sovereignty of government rests with the municipalities and the states. I’ve long derided his view as outdated and naive, and when he pressed me for a reason why, intrinsically, his 18th-Century states’ rights ethic was inferior to the centralized and (ultimately, but coincidentally) communitarian politics I favor, I was only able to offer the following: “Because you lost the war.”

Friends, I come to you today in a moment of great historical import, because, if Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci is to be believed, baseball has reached its “house divided” moment: the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and soon. And in the face of overwhelming evidence not only of its inevitability but of its potential benefit to the game, I find myself clinging to an antiquated and childish ideal, having lost the war.

Conservatism, Change as Progress, and Replacing Your Dead Cat

“Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.” 

–Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790

Using the word “prejudice” the way Burke does, to mean “tradition” or “established practice,” we confront another change in the way we conceive of baseball. Up to a point, we can think of change as progress. Integrating the game, for instance, flies in the face of prejudice in both the common and Burkean conception of the word, and yet it was undoubtedly the single most positive step taken in the history of the sport. Similar positive judgments can be made about the internationalization of the sport, the statistical revolution, the democratization of baseball writing through the internet, medical and physical fitness advancements, expansion to new markets, the evolution over time of stadium design, and countless other innovations that have changed the game of baseball from the child’s game it was 200 years ago to the intellectually stimulating, all-engrossing, multi-billion-dollar enterprise it is today.

But even granting that change is usually synonymous with progress, can we say that change is always or even (to avoid creating a straw man) almost always beneficial? Does new almost always equal better? I would say no, at least, not often enough to accept any change as an improvement over the status quo without questioning it.

The designated hitter has been an important factor in increasing offense over the past few decades. Considering the offensive advantages it grants the American League compared to its rival, it is possible (though having no empirical evidence to support this theory, I’m inclined to say it’s unlikely) that the designated hitter is responsible in part for the dominance of the American League over the National League in interleague play. So are these the embittered ramblings of a fan of the National League’s best team, upset that an imbalance in the rules has prevented his team from getting the respect it deserves? Hardly.

What bothers me about the designated hitter is that it was a gimmick. The DH was instituted for the first time in MLB in 1973, as a gimmick. It was a response, by the American League, to ramp up offense in what was, at the time, the weaker league. Remember, this was around the time that the Oakland A’s were subjecting the world to Herb Washington, to say nothing of uniforms and facial hair that made Carnival look like a production of The Crucible. This was the age of Disco Demolition Night, and artificial turf, innovations that seem as antiquated to us now as Saturday Night Fever and Logan’s Run.

What sets the designated hitter apart? It’s a gimmick, as Verducci notes, that’s become tradition. There are practically no players who remember life before the DH. As the DH enters its 40th season, there are precious few writers, coaches, and managers who remember what life was like before baseball existed, to paraphrase Lincoln, half DH and half free. The designated hitter, a clumsy solution to a phantom problem, has become the subject of Burkean prejudice, as not only the American League but almost literally every inferior league in North America, from high school to the organized minors, adopted the rule as gospel.

Baseball changed fundamentally, with surprisingly little thought given to more than a century of established practice, in response to a set of circumstances brought about through its own propensity to overreact. After the offensive explosion of 1961, highlighted by Roger Maris’ 61 home run season, baseball expanded the strike zone, and thanks to a bumper crop of star pitchers, the next 10 years became the Dark Ages for scoring runs. We all know the stats: Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA, Don Drysdale’s 58 2/3 inning scoreless streak, Denny McLain’s 31 wins, and Carl Yastrzemski winning the batting title with a .301 average, all in 1968. Even if you accept that higher-scoring baseball is better baseball (which I don’t), or even more entertaining baseball (which I also don’t), the prudent thing to do would have been to return the strike zone to its previous state and police the height of the pitchers’ mound, which, to their credit, MLB did, starting in 1969.

I’m a cat owner. I love my cat, even if she doesn’t love me back, but such is life. If, God forbid, something were to happen to her, I’d be very upset. I’d probably be sad for quite some time, but I’d try to adjust. If, after a sufficient mourning period, I still felt lonely or lost without a cat, I’d get another. Now imagine that, upon the improvement of my mood, I decided that more pets would make me feel even better.

And imagine that I went out and bought a Neapolitan Mastiff.

I’ve never owned a dog. Now, I can believe that, over time, I might grow to love a 150-pound slobber machine. Maybe give him an ironic name, like “Tinkerbell,” and enjoy his jowly company. But I’m not sure my life would be better off. I do know that, over time, I’d forget what life was like when it was just me and a cat that ignored me.

The designated hitter is Tinkerbell, the Neapolitan Mastiff who eats four cubic feet of Kibbles ‘n Bits each week, thinks he owns the couch, and likes to sit on your head when you sleep. The designated hitter is a gimmick designed to fix a problem that 1) was caused by an overreaction by organized baseball in the first place and 2) probably would have cycled itself out over time. The only difference is, it’s been around long enough for us to learn to love it.

Debunking the Strategy Argument

“It’s the American League! They have the DH! How hard can it be?”

Little Big League, 1994

Verducci, like me, doesn’t like the DH. But I don’t think I’d go as far as he does when he says: “There is no question that the style of NL baseball is more interesting and nuanced than AL baseball. Yes, it’s a better game, the way chess is a better game than checkers.” In the end, baseball with the DH isn’t all that different from baseball without the DH. It’s not like the American League is playing with a square ball or anything. In fact, in 2011, the AL posted a collective OPS only 20 points higher than the NL.

So failing the complete dissolution of pitching and defense in the American League, how does strategy differ? Well, there’s almost no double switch with the designated hitter, which eliminates a fun, if sometimes chaotic, arrow from the quiver of the manager when it’s late and close. With that said, I’m not sure that I could live with myself if I were the kind of person who wanted to reverse 40 years of baseball evolution to increase the number of double-switches. Eliminating the need to pinch hit in late innings makes it easier for an AL manager to manage his bench. And perhaps one might alter one’s strategy during a rally knowing that the pitcher’s spot is coming up. But you also eliminate a big ol’ mess of sacrifice bunts with the DH, the positive effects of which can hardly be overstated. The sacrifice bunt is to baseball as hitting your point guard’s toe with a ball-peen hammer is to basketball.

Objectively, and taking the DH as a thing that is, and not as a band-aid that overstayed its welcome, I think the strategy argument is the strongest argument in favor of scrubbing the DH. With that said, it’s not that strong an argument. We still see strategic decisions in the American League, and given the propensity of field managers to meddle until they can meddle no more, more managing doesn’t necessarily mean better managing.

Ultimately, I’d compare National League baseball to Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, and American League baseball to Philip Kaufman’s excellent 1983 film adaptation. In the book, you get more detail, more nuance, but sometimes it drags. You lose some of that detail in the film, but no so much that you miss it a ton, though sometimes having a story visualized for you takes the fun out of it. And let’s say that eliminating the sacrifice bunt is like the movie adding one of the greatest soundtracks in film history (and yes, I know Bill Conti ripped off Holst).

That’s quite enough of that. Moving on.

Why the DH is Good

“I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter.”

–Crash Davis, Bull Durham, 1988 

The most common argument against the designated hitter (apart from the cranky old man argument I’ve been making: I just don’t like it and I want things to stay the way they are) is that not requiring pitchers to hit somehow diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. This is total nonsense. Not requiring pitchers to hit diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers just as much as not requiring infielders to pitch diminishes their wholeness as ballplayers. On Monday’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, NPR’s Mike Pesca argued that pitchers are like placekickers in football: specialists whose skills in one area excuse them from being required to participate in other aspects of the game. All this makes perfect sense. I certainly don’t want to watch Matt Prater try to play boundary corner for the Broncos.

Others trumpet the DH as an injury prevention method for pitchers. After A.J. Burnett broke his face while trying to bunt last week, and after Chien-Ming Wang suffered a career-altering foot injury while running the bases in 2008, advocates for universal adoption of the designated hitter came out in droves, saying that for the sake of player safety, we should take pitchers off the basepaths and out of the batter’s box forever. I’m not sympathetic to this line of reasoning at all. Baseball is intrinsically dangerous. Batting is dangerous, even for experts. Ask Tony Conigliaro, or David Wright, or even Chase Utley. Baserunning is dangerous. Just ask Justin Morneau.

Moreover, pitching is dangerous. In addition to the innumerable soft tissue injuries to arms, shoulders, backs, and every other muscle, ligament, and tendon that goes into the incredibly violent motion of throwing an overhand pitch, there’s the danger of the line drive back through the box. Such an incident ended Dizzy Dean’s career. A Roberto Clemente line drive broke Bob Gibson’s leg in 1967. In 1998, a Sandy Alomar line drive nailed Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in the nose. In 2000, Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie, in one of the most graphic baseball injuries of all time, was defenseless when Ryan Thompson lined a ball back through the box, leaving him sitting on the mound with multiple facial fractures and bleeding that looked less the product of a baseball play than a scene from Hobo with a Shotgun. Then there’s the 2005 line drive that caromed off of Matt Clement‘s head and nearly into the seats by the left field foul line.

The point is, I have a hard time believing that implementing the designated hitter in the National League is really about player safety first and foremost. Preventing injuries to guys like Wang or Burnett by adopting the DH is no more of a solution than putting a screen in front of the mound to prevent injuries to guys like Mussina or Florie. From a player safety argument, it’s just not worth the hassle to prevent a major injury once every three years. There are dozens of innovations, from mandating the Great Gazoo-style batting helmet to padding all outfield walls to biometric analysis of pitcher mechanics that will make the game safer without significantly impacting the way the game is played.

The real argument, which I heard for the first time from ESPN’s Keith Law on the Baseball Today podcast last year, is that it’s just no fun to watch pitchers bat. To combine his argument with Pesca’s, would you find an NFL game more exciting if placekickers had to play offense or defense? Why not restrict the competition to those who specialize in a certain field, be it hitting, pitching, or punting?

I’m probably in the minority here, but I actually do find it fun to watch pitchers bat. And for the record, I think it would be very interesting to see how NFL strategy changed if placekickers were required to play on offense or defense. I imagine a generation of soccer players becoming combination placekickers/slot receivers. But that’s not the point.

While I concede the point that watching someone come up to the plate almost guaranteed to make an out can be disappointing sometimes (or when you’re watching Michael Martinez, all the time) I can’t follow that logic all the way to being convinced that universal adoption of the designated hitter is a good thing. Again, I’m something of a traditionalist on such issues, so your mileage may vary.

Caveats aside, the fish-out-of-water element actually appeals to me a great deal. It’s the same reason that seeing Wilson Valdez pitch in person last year was the greatest live fan experience of my life. When a pitcher hits a home run, or even reaches base, the rarity of the even makes the payoff all the greater when it happens. When a pitcher, particularly a good one, happens to be anything other than a catastrophic incompetent at the plate, every plate appearance is cause for excitement and anticipation. The Phillies, in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, happen to have two such players. What Phillies fan doesn’t remember Joe Blanton‘s home run in the 2008 World Series with fondness? Letting the pitcher bat adds an element of chaos to a game that can, from time to time, be a little too orderly.

Why Good Baseball is Bad Baseball

“[B]aseball is supposed to be played by young guys who can run, rather than old fat guys who can hit home runs.”

–Bill James, The New Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001

We all know the stereotypical Moneyball player by now: a guy who gets on base, and ideally can hit for power, batting average be damned. All things being equal, it’s better to have the .250/.400/.500 guy than the .300/.340/.430 guy. This is not, of course, the be-all and end-all of sabermetrics, because, like all baseball analysts, stats guys would rather have the guy who does everything well, including speed and batting average. The Phillies, who won a World Series in large part because of the contributions of Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell, two men whose mobility is measured on a geological scale, know this well.

Burrell and Howard are two men who played the field because they had to. Given the opportunity to remove one or both of their gloves from the field, it’s likely that the Phillies would have done so (I’m ignoring Chris Coste and Greg Dobbs DHing during the 2008 World Series). One of the most attractive aspects of expanding the DH to both leagues, from a player union perspective, is that it extends the careers of, as James put it, “old fat guys who hit home runs.” That’s 15 more full-time jobs for the likes of Jason Giambi and Jim Thome, both relegated to spot duty and pinch-hitting on National League teams. And with big power numbers and big RBI totals come big money.

From a team’s perspective, Verducci mentions in his article, it takes some of the risk out of giving long-term, big-money deals to guys who either have only patience and power as virtues (Prince Fielder) or guys who will have only patience and power as virtues (Albert Pujols). If you can provide nothing but walks and home runs, and you don’t have to play the field, you can still be quite valuable, provided you produce lots of walks and home runs, as I’m sure Fielder will, well into his lunar phase.

If you’re manning a DH spot with someone who walks and hits home runs, and you’re judicious about your basestealing as a team, that’s smart. And while the DH makes it easier for fan favorites like Manny Ramirez and Thome to stick around, which is nice, allowing such players to extend their careers is the most underrated negative impact of the designated hitter.

Saying this borders on sabermetric apostasy, but from a spectator’s perspective, walks and home runs are spectacularly overrated. I’d much rather see close plays on the bases, singles, doubles, triples, stolen bases, spectacular defensive plays, all the things that slap-and-run speed merchants can do but full-time DH types can’t. I like a tape measure blast as much as the next guy, and the ability to turn a game on its ear on a single pitch with a three-run bomb is…well…titillating.

But what’s the cost? Last season, Jim Thome came to the plate 324 times. He produced no triples and no stolen base attempts, and he hit 15 home runs, drew 46 walks, and struck out 92 times. That’s 324 times to the plate, and 153 of those (47.2 percent of his plate appearances) resulted in one of the three true outcomes. The defense might as well go pee and get some popcorn when Thome comes up. Put another way: it takes at least 10 men on the field at one time to play baseball, more if you’ve got baserunners. But in nearly half of Thome’s plate appearances, at least 70 percent of the men on the field were doing bugger-all. That’s an unacceptable amount of inactivity, even for baseball.

Consider Thome’s Twins teammate Ben Revere. Revere came to the plate 481 times in 2011, and posted an OPS more than 200 points lower than Thome’s, though as a center fielder, Revere was worth about the same as Thome above replacement, at least on a per-plate-appearance basis. Revere was hit by two pitches, drew 26 walks, struck out 41 times and did not hit a home run. By contrast, he hit five triples and attempted to steal 43 times. The defense was inactive when Revere batted only 14.3 percent of the time. When Revere hits, everyone plays. When Thome hits, everyone watches.

Considering Revere’s defensive ability, I’d rather watch him play than Thome, regardless of how much Jim Thome makes me wish I had a genial Uncle Gus who took me trap shooting on weekends and made his own hot sauce for fun. For my money, the most exciting (and only truly electrifying) baseball player of the past 20 years has been Ichiro, a guy who never walked, but was tons of fun to watch on defense and slapped and ran his way to a Hall of Fame career. Not only are strikeouts boring and fascist, but so are walks and, to a lesser extent, home runs. Baseball is at its most fun (if not at its optimal strategy) when stolen bases are attempted often and with reckless abandon, when fly balls and line drives are dived for, and when the extra base is taken. With every team that adopts the DH, another lead-footed retread takes a job away from a potentially exciting (and usually new and young) player.

Divided We Fall

Forgive me for being reactionary, traditionalist, and anti-intellectual, but if baseball is once again to be united under a common flag, it should be a flag under which pitchers bat. The DH represents everything that’s wrong with baseball: the sedentary, the path-dependent, the risk-averse.

I accept that the designated hitter is coming to the National League, and I’m resigned to that, because, considering how old the Phillies are getting, it might benefit them. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. The designated hitter is, and always will be, a gimmick solution that no one had the presence of mind to reject as short-sighted and ham-fisted. And it’s the only form of baseball our children and grandchildren will ever know.

I don’t expect anyone to be persuaded by this little outburst, and I don’t really care. I just really hate the designated hitter, and everything it represents. And I thought y’all might like to know.

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

 

Blog Battle with Ian Riccaboni of Phillies Nation

Continuing Wilson Valdez Week here at Crashburn Alley, I took a minute to have it out with Ian Riccaboni of Phillies Nation about the legacy of Wilson Valdez and how the Phillies should address their middle infield situation in his absence, even though one of the potential replacements we discussed, Ryan Theriot, is now off the market.  Here’s the link, so check it out, and I promise this will be the last time I write about Exxon for a while.

Blog Battle: Wilson Valdez Trade [Phillies Nation]

You can follow Ian on Twitter at @ianriccaboni.

Exxon

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.

 

The Video Game Phillies

I’m a little bit of a sports video game loser, not because I’m bad at them (I’m not) or because spending as much time as I do playing NHL or FIFA makes you a loser (it does), but because when I buy a new video game, the first thing I do is take my favorite team and rebuild it in such a manner as befits my own beliefs and biases. So, for instance, taking Arsenal in FIFA 12 and getting rid of Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, and Nicklas Bendtner to finance, in part, the acquisition of a running buddy for Robin van Persie (Fernando Llorente) and a box-to-box midfield destroyer to fill the near-decade-long gaping void left by Patrick Vieira (Yann M’Vila). Or taking over the Flyers and trading away the albatross contracts of Bryzgalov, Pronger, and Hartnell to make room for Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, and Luke Schenn. But no one cares about your video game stories, so I’ll stop.

It’s always been fun to live in this world of fantasy because things always seem to work out in video games, but playing out the thought exercise hasn’t been as fun with the Phillies of late because, well, over the past five seasons they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball. They’ve had the best record in MLB two years running, and they’ve won five division titles on the trot. Only one other team (the Yankees) even has an active streak of three straight playoff appearances. So going in and blowing up a team that’s won 292 games since 2009 seems a little greedy. Y’all know all of this already, but it’s nice to spell it all out like that while we still can.

Nevertheless, like most fans, I’ve lusted for players on other teams as a matter of habit, and to that effect I wrote several hundred words on my irrational but all-consuming man-love for then-Royals pitcher Jeff Francis last winter. This winter, because pro baseball doesn’t start for three months and because, as a Virginia Tech fan by birth and South Carolina fan by education, my college football season ended last night and college basketball ranks somewhere below cricket on my sporting radar, I’m so bored that I’m willing to try the thought experiment out with the Phillies. What follows is a list of players that, if I lived in a fantasy world where I ran the Phillies, I’d try to acquire if they could be had and the price was right, for no reason other than I love them.

Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Boston Red Sox

I have never wanted a sports transaction as much as I wanted the Phillies to draft Bradley this past year. Let’s put this in perspective. I can tell you where I was, what chair I was sitting in, and which way my phone was oriented, and the person I was composing a tweet to when the Phillies took Larry Greene with the 39th overall pick in June, then watched the Red Sox scoop up Bradley with the next pick. Jackie Bradley was the MVP of the 2010 College World Series, a five-tool outfielder who would (at the time) have fit in between very nicely between Dom Brown and Jonathan Singleton in the Phillies’ outfield around 2013 or so. Bradley was widely regarded as a top-15 pick before a wrist injury cost him most of his junior year, and while he struggled to stay on the field his last year at college, he posted a .368/.473/.587 slash line in 67 games as a sophomore for the  national champions, and as a freshman he put up a .349/.431/.537 in 63 games.

Though he’s only 5-11 and 180 pounds, Bradley makes the most of his physical attributes with a sharp lefty swing, good speed, and outstanding baseball intelligence. This interview with David Laurila of FanGraphs, published in November, made me want to put my head through the wall: a guy with tools and an almost academically thoughtful approach to hitting? Of course the Phillies passed on him.

Bradley is regarded as a good baserunner and a center fielder who not only possesses the speed and arm to make plays, but the ability to read balls off the bat. And, by all accounts, he’s a great guy whose public reputation and Twitter profile persuade me to put him just below Hunter Pence, but in the neighborhood of Cliff Lee on the List of Guys Who Are Easy to Root For.

While Bradley doesn’t really have a single elite tool, and might not have more than doubles power at the major league level, his on-base ability, speed, and personality, combined with my massive Gamecock homerism, makes Bradley the No. 1 trade priority for my hypothetical video game Phillies.

Jaff Decker, OF San Diego Padres

Decker, like Bradley, is a left-handed outfielder born in 1990 who puts up insane on-base numbers (16.5% walk rate in AA last year) and has a little bit of speed. This might not surprise people in Bradley’s case, because he’s built like a basestealer. Decker, however, looks like Vance Worley ate Joe Blanton. Despite this, he’s stolen 40 bases in four minor-league seasons, and while the Padres have seen short, fat guys put up seasons with a .400 OBP and 20 stolen bases before, Decker’s true potential is probably somewhere more in the neighborhood of Nick Swisher than Tony Gwynn. Still, his plate discipline numbers conjure up images of Bobby Abreu and his name conjures up images of a bounty hunter from Star Wars. I want Decker in my hypothetical future outfield as well.

Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers

I’ve tried to avoid established major league stars so far, because it doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity to go on the internet and say that if you were running the Phillies in a video game, you’d trade for Clayton Kershaw and Evan Longoria. But Beltre is different, perhaps the only active player whose Hall of Fame case is better than Chase Utley‘s but will wind up, when all is said and done, with fewer advocates for his enshrinement. Beltre, in 2004, posted one of the best seasons ever for a third baseman, then went off to sign a five-year deal with the Mariners, where he was widely regarded as a disappointment. Of course, what mainstream writers chalked up to  some sort of moral failing on Beltre’s part was more likely a product of 1) it being really hard to put up good power numbers as a righty in Safeco, particularly when your team sucks and 2) the understandable dropoff from 2004 to 2005, considering that Beltre’s 2004 was one of the five best seasons ever for a third baseman.

After an outstanding 2010 with Boston and a very good 2011 with Texas, Beltre stands with more career bWAR than two of the nine current Hall of Fame third basemen, and going into his age-33 season, coming off the second-and third-best seasons of his career, Beltre is in a position to make a run at Scott Rolen for the title of best third baseman of this generation. Of course, everyone knows about Beltre’s hitting–he has a reputation as an impatient hitter with power, whose career .329 OBP and nine 20-home run seasons speak to that fact, but Beltre is quietly one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, a notch below Rolen in his prime or Evan Longoria now, but still worth between one and two wins for his glove alone. Not knowing what to expect from Placido Polanco going forward, and with no young third baseman on the horizon, video game me would make a move for Beltre.

Ben Zobrist, UTIL, Tampa Bay Rays

If Beltre is underrated, I’m not sure what to call Zobrist. In 2009, FanGraphs rated Zobrist as the most valuable position player in the Ameircan League, which was probably a fluke of the ratings system. However, he can play almost literally every position on the diamond, hit anywhere in the lineup, and he posted a 131 wRC+ last year. I’d foresee using Zobrist, a switch hitter who, like Shane Victorino, hits lefties better than righties, at first base instead of Ryan Howard against left-handed starting pitchers a couple times a week, then to spell Chase Utley at second once a week to keep his rapidly deteriorating body in better shape, then in left field, third or shortstop as necessary–essentially, exactly the same way Joe Maddon used him in 2009 and 2010, giving him six starts a week at four different defensive positions. Zobrist’s bat and glove are valuable enough on their own, but that value is compounded by the fact that those assets can be used anywhere on the diamond.

Brandon League, RHP, Seattle Mariners

I know, I know, never ever spend money on relief pitchers, and with Papelbon and Tony No-Dad already in the fold, it’s not like the Phillies, or even a hypothetical Phillies team, is in a position where they need to break that rule. However, League has a killer splitter (my favorite pitch in the game) and a blistering fastball, which make him not only a rather effective relief pitcher but an entertaining one as well. Plus he wears glasses and is all tatted up, so imagine a combination of Ryan Madson, Vance Worley, and Dennis Rodman and you’re beginning to get the picture.

I know that none of these trades will happen anytime soon, though every day that passes without Jackie Bradley, Jr. getting traded to the Phillies is a day that makes me want to curl up in bed and weep the embittered tears of a sorority girl who just found out her boyfriend got that fat slut from Chi O pregnant, while drinking wine coolers and watching A Walk to Remember. On her birthday. The night before a final that she (wipes tears from her cheeks) needs to get a good grade on to pass this class or else my parents aren’t going to let me study abroad in Barcelona next year.

But I’ve come to terms with all that.

The point is that if I were dictator of the world, these five guys would be Phillies. Given the weather and lack of otherwise compelling sports to watch and talk about, sometimes it’s healthy to indulge in such fantasies as these. Feel free to leave your additions in the comments.