Another Game Without Any Rules

There may not be a more universally liked player in MLB than Andrew McCutchen. (via Ian D’Andrea)

Let’s play a game.

Each year, I shell out for the MLB.TV package, mainly because it lets me watch every Cubs game. It’s been decades since I lived in Chicago and could get local telecasts, and years since the WGN superstation broadcast Cubs games across the country.

I’m hopelessly tethered to my Wrigley Field team, but I’m a baseball fan in general, and my investment – less per day than a pack of the Wrigley’s gum I don’t chew – lets me look in on all the other clubs from time to time.

During last month’s playoffs, one writer called the Astros’ Jose Altuve his (or it may have been her) favorite player who didn’t play for his/her favorite team. He’s mine, too, which got me doodling on the other side of a stray printout, making a list of players I like on all the other teams.

The list is thoroughly subjective. All sorts of people can massage WAR or ERA- or wOBA or whatever stats they like to proclaim the best player on each team. But only I (or you, if you want to play the same game of baseball player solitaire) can create a unique list of…just because.

Here goes:

Angels: Shohei Ohtani. I love the idea of a two-way player. I can’t wait until he gets a whole season of hitting and pitching and makes me and the Angels look smart.

Astros: Altuve. He hits, he fields, he exudes energy. He’s a former American League MVP. He’s a six-tool player, if you include charisma. And he’s listed at 5-foot-6. Hah! Adam Schiff could dunk on him. A special treat is to watch him bat when 6-foot-7 umpire Jordan Baker is behind the plate.

Athletics: Stephen Piscotty. I’m a sucker for a Hallmark story. Piscotty’s mother was diagnosed with ALS – “Lou Gehrig’s disease” – in May of 2017. He played baseball in St. Louis. She lived in California, near Oakland. When the season was over, the Cardinals and the A’s agreed to a trade that would send Piscotty to Oakland. He was with his mother when she died in May of 2018.

Blue Jays: Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Nothing against my dad, a lovely man, but I sometimes daydream about having been born to a father with major league genes. I’m fascinated by the phenomenon. Gus Bell begat Buddy Bell who begat David Bell and Mike Bell. I don’t know if those last two have kids who are prospects, but I’ll bet someone’s going to tell me.

Braves: Ronald Acuna Jr. Ooh, this kid is good. He was rookie of the year in 2018, better in 2019. Baseball Reference’s similarity scores compare him, at age 21, with Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and former Braves Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews – except better. In fact, they have him the equal of Juan Soto, whom we’ll meet again below.

Brewers: Josh Hader. If he isn’t one of a kind…well, he is. Closer, set-up guy, high-leverage guy. He looks scary when I see him on the mound – and I’m hundreds of miles away in front of the TV, not 20 yards from a hard object coming at me at a weird angle at 95 mph. He’d be something to watch even if he got a haircut.

Cardinals: Yadier Molina. Grudging respect here from a Cubs fan. He’s a pro’s pro in every aspect of the game, and he’s been doing it for 16 years and counting. He’ll go to the Hall of Fame mainly for his defense and his arm – you just don’t run on him – but he’s not someone opponents want to see at the plate when it counts. He’s a lifetime .282 hitter. If he could ran faster than frozen water, he’d be a rare .300-threat catcher.

Cubs: Conflict of interest here. Like parents asked to name their favorite child, I can’t do it when it comes to the Cubs. The ultimate professional, Anthony Rizzo, who played in this season’s crucial late-season games with a sprained ankle? Javy Baez, the most exciting player on the field whether he’s hitting, on the bases, or playing shortstop? The unflappable Kyle Hendricks, never considered an ace but somehow the rotation’s ERA leader every year? Yu Darvish, who got really good in the second half? I love Yuuuu.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Diamondbacks: Merrill Kelly. It’s not unusual for a fringe major leaguer to go to Asia in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the career he’s been dreaming on his whole life. Few make a successful return to the top level of American baseball. Eric Thames of the Brewers was one. Kelly did it this past season after three years in Korea. He had just moderate success, but, by gum, he’s a full-fledged big league starting pitcher in the city where he went to college.

Dodgers: Justin Turner. I won’t embarrass the author by naming him, but here’s how Turner’s FanGraphs profile began at the start of the 2013 season: “Turner, 28, is a low-power, low-OBP, okay-batting-average utility infielder…” At an advanced baseball age, he reinvented himself, a to-be-admired accomplishment in today’s world. As his red beard grew, so did his hitting results. Both are first-rate.

Giants: Jeff Samardzija. I like a guy who’s smart enough to quit football, even as an All-America at Notre Dame, and take up the better (and safer) sport of baseball. I rooted for him as he worked his way out of the minors and the Cubs bullpen to become a pretty good starting pitcher who was unafraid to speak his mind. Two teams later, he’s a literal Giant, unhappy to be losing Bruce Bochy as manager: “(A)fter this, you’re going to have 30 puppets out there.”

Cleveland: Carlos Carrasco. He was diagnosed with cancer last spring. And he was lucky: His chronic myeloid leukemia is now treatable with a newly available drug. The side effects apparently are relatively minimal, but chemo is chemo. Take it from one who knows; it is unbelievable he was pitching again in the major leagues in September.

Marlins: Caleb Smith. I saw the second game of the 2018 season at Marlins Park in Miami. The Cubs, mostly intact since their 2016 World Series win, had drubbed the Quad-A Marlins the previous day and now had to deal only with an obscure rookie left-hander. Smith pitched into the sixth inning, giving up just one run and striking out eight. After the 12th inning, my companions outvoted me, and we left. I learned back at the hotel that the Cubs had lost in 17. Marlins = Caleb Smith.

Mariners: Daniel Vogelbach. Cubs angle again; I‘ll get off this, I promise. They drafted him as a power hitter and, indeed, he was one through six seasons in the minors. Then, someone in the front office realized the National League doesn’t do designated hitter, and Vogey, at six feet and an eighth of a ton, doesn’t present himself as a fielder. He just finished his best major league season, playing in the field (at first base) more times than he had in the rest of his big league seasons combined.

Mets: Jacob deGrom. Win one Cy Young Award, and it can be said you had a very good year. Win two, and it can be said your name is Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax…others of that caliber. deGrom has by far the best ERA in the majors over these past two years, and by far the lowest home rate rate, all at a time balls are flying over the fence in shocking numbers. Oh, and he got those two Cys while winning just 21 games – over two seasons. Good for the voters in discerning what counts.

Nationals: Juan Soto. Did you watch the playoffs? I did, too.

Orioles: Asher Wojciechowski. Years ago, when I walked in the door to begin a new job in Detroit, among the first people to greet me were editorial aides named Marcinkoski, Cybulski, and Czarniecki. Detroit, and my birthplace Chicago, once held claim to the largest Polish-American populations in the country. Times have changed, suburbs have grown, but it might still be true of their metropolitan areas. Anyway, I became fond of pierogi and of learning to spell Polish names. Come to find out, Wojo grew up in South Carolina, just down the road from where I live now.

Rangers: Jeff Mathis. They don’t talk much anymore about “the Mendoza Line,” named rather cruelly after a light-hitting infielder, Mario Mendoza, who had a hard time keeping his average above .200 – “the Line” – during a nine-year career in the 1970s and ‘80s. Mathis’ lifetime average is 20 points lower than Mendoza’s – and Mathis has been a major leaguer for 15 years and compiled twice as many career at-bats as Mendoza. It’s either because he has lots of blackmail material on his managers or, more likely, because he is a very good catcher.

Rays: The whole anonymous roster. How the heck do they win 96 regular-season games – three more than the World Series-champion Nationals – with that no-name bunch? I’m sure Ji-Man Choi’s family knows who he is, but few baseball fans do. Do you pronounce the name Lowe as LAU or LOW? Trick question: They’re two different guys. Somehow, the team with the lowest payroll and the second-worst attendance in the majors keeps surprising people – certainly me.

Red Sox: Mookie Betts. For one thing, he’s good, the best all-around player on a team full of them. For another, he bucks the all-or-nothing trend of today’s hitters: This past season, he struck out only four more times than he walked. That pickiness still let him swing hard enough to total 74 extra-base hits – and score more runs than anyone else in baseball. See: It can work.

Reds: Trevor Bauer. I haven’t heard his new radio show on satellite radio, but I’ll bet there’s no dead air. The man isn’t shy about telling people what he thinks, starting with the pitching coaches early on who thought they knew more about his mechanics than he did. His quote from a Sports Illustrated profile sums him up: “I’m good at two things in this world: throwing baseballs and pissing people off.”

Rockies: Charlie Blackmon. He looks like a pirate. Why isn’t he a Pirate?

Royals: Adalberto Mondesi. Bring back the stolen base! Yeah, I know what the number-crunchers have learned about the general inefficiency of the tactic. But stolen bases and stolen base attempts and balls thrown into the outfield on stolen base attempts are exciting. They’re action in a game that keeps losing movement in the field.

Padres: Manny Machado. I am no fan of Aguilar-kicking, Johnny Hustle-scorning Machado. I take some satisfaction in noting that in the first year of a 10-year, $300-million super-duper star contract, he compiled the 81st-highest OPS in major league baseball (Kevin Newman’s was higher), the 61st-highest fWAR (Austin Meadows’ was better) and the 35th-highest FanGraphs total defense (trailing, among 34 others, Willy Adames). Newman, Meadows and Adames, combined, earned $1.67 million last season. So: No fan, but when the Padres play, my eyes are on Machado as exhibit No. 1 of baseball’s out-of-kilter compensation system.

Phillies: Andrew McCutchen. Now he’s in the bouncing-around stage of his career, but he was the best player on the Pirates for years, when he hit for average, hit for power, stole bases and played a decent center field. Beyond that, he always impressed me as a solid person, confirmed the year he won the Roberto Clemente Award for his work with sick, homeless and at-risk kids. (I like character guys. Checking, I realize I’ve named three other Clemente winners: Molina, Rizzo and Carrasco.)

Pirates: Chris Archer. No matter how he pitches, my image of him will be as the gabby unofficial spokesman for the players at the Rays’ exhibition game in Cuba in 2016. He took the occasion to chide the Obamas for not responding to his tweeted invitations to share some “Cubano cuisine” while they were all there.

Tigers: Can I say Sparky Anderson? Alan Trammell? Al Kaline? No? Okay, Miguel Cabrera. He has a contract that will pay him $30 million-plus a year for seemingly forever. One hopes he considers that sinecure adequate recompense for the indignity of a once-great player hitting the occasional single for the worst team in baseball.

Twins: Nelson Cruz. Unlike Miggy (who’s three years younger!), Cruz keeps getting better with age. At 39, after 15 seasons with five teams, he just had his best offensive year.

White Sox: Rick Renteria. In the winter of 2014-15, the Cubs rudely dumped him out of their manager’s chair to make room for Joe Maddon. Who would have guessed then that Renteria would be the last of the two running a team in Chicago?

Yankees: Aaron Judge. Geez, he’s big and scary-looking at the plate. I don’t turn away from the TV when he’s up; I’m surprised when he doesn’t hit a homer. I’m no longer surprised this two-legged giraffe is also good in the outfield.

Play on!

Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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4 years ago

Judge may be a big guy but he’s a hell of a fielder

Jimmie Foxxalorian
4 years ago

Fernando Tatis, Jr. !!! In the brief time that he played in 2019, one of the few players external of my ballclub for whom I’d drop everything at a given moment to watch him hit or field, when visually available with my color television set’s rabbit ears were pointed firmly toward San Diego.

Alex Gaffney
4 years ago

How on earth did you pick Machado over Tatis? I guess you really wanted to poke fun at him and the MLB pay scale?

4 years ago

Another vote for Yadier. I mean I hate him, but man do I wish he were on my team (for the past 16 years).