Way back in 2004—THT’s inaugural year—I wrote a pair of articles in which I put everybody in the major leagues back on the team that originally signed them. In other words, Clemens and Bagwell were back in Boston, Piazza and Pedro in Los Angeles. Randy Johnson was an Expo again, Barry Bonds a Pirate—you get the idea. If I did this every year, it’d get a little redundant, but it’s been four years, and four years in baseball time is an eternity, so I figure we’re due for an update.
Once we put everyone back on their original teams, only 17 franchises—10 from the American League and seven from the National—have sufficient players to make a legitimate lineup and five-man rotation. Today we’ll look at the AL teams, and next time we’ll finish up with the NL.
Oh, one other thing—the last time I did an article like this, I made several mistakes and omissions. (For instance, I originally said that Jeromy Burnitz started with the Brewers, and a reader pointed out that he began as a Met.) I probably did the same thing here. If you notice any egregious errors, I apologize in advance.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox have produced only two regular major league outfielders, so Youkilis, who has 18 career outfield appearances, will have to play there. The Sox lose some big bats—David Ortiz, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew—but they do get back Hanley Ramirez (sent to Florida in the Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell deal). This Red Sox team probably wouldn’t win 95 games, but they’d still make the postseason.
Duchscherer was originally drafted by the Red Sox in 1996, and in 2001 he was traded to Texas for Doug Mirabelli. Mirabelli was a backup catcher if ever there was one, and he had started the ’01 season 5-for-49. Duchscherer, meanwhile, was 23 years old and was pitching great at Double-A.
Thome hasn’t been a regular first baseman for several years now. Alternatively, you could DH Thome and put Sean Casey at first and Manny in left. Regardless, that’s a pretty potent lineup, with no real weak spots. Combined with a solid pitching staff, this team would definitely contend.
Manny, Thome and Giles are leftovers from the great Indians teams of the late ‘90s. Giles never did get a full shot with Cleveland, and after the 1998 season, he was traded to Pittsburgh for Ricardo Rincon. Pardon my digression, but…OK, it’s March 1997, and you’re running the Indians. With Albert Belle having left as a free agent, your outfield projects to be Giles, Manny, and Kenny Lofton, with Richie Sexson showing some promise in the minors. You’re a little thin at DH at the moment, but Thome isn’t exactly a Gold Glove first baseman, and conveniently, you’ve got 21-year-old Sean Casey coming off a .331 season in the minors. Give it a year or two, and he’ll be ready to take over at first. In other words, this is a perfect time to sit back and let your system produce.
But that’s not what John Hart did. He traded his star center fielder (Lofton) to the Braves for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. Grissom tanked, and Justice ate up a lot of Giles’ at-bats. After the season, Hart re-signed Lofton (and also traded Sean Casey for Dave Burba). The 1998 outfield-DH rotation looked to be Giles, Lofton, Manny and Justice, with Richie Sexson demanding attention as well. We can live with that… Except John Hart went out and signed a past-his-prime Mark Whiten, further cutting into Giles’ playing time. After the season, he traded Giles to the Pirates. Finally given a real chance, Giles immediately emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball.
The Indians would win a lot of games in the years immediately following, and Ricardo Rincon worked out as well as they could have expected. But they could have just not made the Justice-Lofton deal and had Brian Giles for his peak seasons. It just seems like a sad waste of resources.
Kansas City Royals
Bench: Bench? The bench players are starting.
Okay, so the Royals could scrape together a team. Barely. The outfield is pretty good; in fact, you’ve got three generations of Royals center fielders out there, Damon-Beltran-DeJesus. The infield more properly belongs at Triple-A, and Sweeney at DH is a roll of the dice. But that’s a full lineup, which is more than some teams can say.
Durbin is a reliever now, but last year he made 19 starts, and on this team, he’ll have to go back into the rotation. In fact, he might be the second-best starter on the staff. That’s a decent bullpen, though. This team would be better than the real-life Royals, but I still don’t see them making it over .500.
Los Angeles Angels
What amazes me is that those top four starters are the real-life Angels’ actual top four starters. And other than Jenks, all the relievers are current Angels, too. I guess that helps explain the 100 wins. The offense, on the other hand—you basically have the current Angels, but without their three best hitters (Guerrero, Teixeira, and Hunter). I can’t see this group scoring enough runs to win more than about 85 games.
New York Yankees
Would these Yankees even be a .500 team? Jeter, Cano, Lowell, Cabrera, Matsui—they’ve all disappointed this year, and Juan Rivera and Marcus Thames aren’t real major league regulars. And that pitching staff—what a mess. This whole team is sadly reminiscent of the early ‘90s Yankees.
About Dioner Navarro—he hit .321 as a 19-year-old in 2003, including .341 in over 200 at-bats at Double-A. I was working for Bill James at the time, and after the season we did several studies on minor leaguers for the Red Sox. Dioner Navarro came up as the best prospect in the high minors, based solely on performance. A 19-year-old, .341-hitting Double-A catcher was about as great a prospect as you could get. Navarro struggled to establish himself over the next several years, bouncing from the Yankees to the D-Backs to the Dodgers to the Rays, but he’s still only 24, and he seems to have figured it out, hitting .295 for a first-place team.
Tejada’s out of position at third, but I imagine he can handle it. They’ve got some bats—Giambi, Ethier, Ludwick—but there are way too many gaping holes. On the pitching side, in addition to Hudson, Jeremy Bonderman is also injured. All in all, this is a pretty lousy team.
Ryan Ludwick was Oakland’s second-round draft pick in 1999, out of UNLV. At age 21, he hit .264 with 29 homers at High-A, and followed that up with a .264, 26-homer season in the higher minors. Before the 2002 season, he was sent to Texas in a deal that sent Carlos Pena to the A’s. As for Ethier, he was traded to the Dodgers for Milton Bradley in 2005. Ludwick, Pena, Ethier and Bradley all had great seasons this year, but none of them did it for the Oakland A’s.
Yes, I know Ortiz can’t play first base, but who else do they have? Jose Lopez has played there a bit, so I guess he could slide over and Cabrera could play second. Defensive issues aside, though, this team would score some runs, and the pitching is pretty solid.
And yes, David Ortiz was originally a Mariner, signed as a 16-year-old way back in 1992. He was traded to Minnesota for the immortal Dave Hollins in 1996. Hollins appeared in 28 games for Seattle. This is a standard theme for the late-‘90s Mariners: develop great young players, trade them away to fill frivolous, short-term needs and then watch them emerge as superstars. Same story with Lowe and Varitek, among so many others.
Tampa Bay Rays
Gonzalez has only played three games at shortstop in the major leagues, but he’s the best option available. These Rays are OK, but not as strong as the real-life team.
Kinsler’s on the DL, actually, so we’d have to do some shuffling. Can Encarnacion play second? I realize that Rich Aurilia is a stretch these days at short, but there’s nobody else. And the outfield—they’ve got 1B/3B/DH guys in spades, but this team is starved for outfielders who can hit.
In 2001, the Rangers had three outstanding first base prospects. Pena (age 23) was coming off a .288/.399/.550 season at Triple-A; the year before that, he hit .299/.411/.533 at Double-A. Hafner (age 24) had put up OPS figures of .924, 1.013, and .938 in his previous three minor league seasons. And just to make sure they were really covered at first base, they took Teixeira (age 21) as the fifth overall pick in the June draft.
Now, if the rationale was to let those three duke it out at 1B/DH, then fine. But in January 2002, the Rangers traded Pena to Oakland in a deal that brought them Ryan Ludwick, Jason Hart, Gerald Laird, and Mario Ramos. Hart was coming off an extremely disappointing year at Triple-A, Laird had yet to prove he could hit minor league pitching, and Ludwick was a low-average slugging corner outfielder (i.e., a stereotypical “Quadruple-A” player). The only really good-looking prospect the Rangers got was Ramos, a 23-year-old lefty with a career minor league record (at the time) of 30-9. Ramos looked like the real deal, too, with three-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratios and solid ERAs. But Carlos Pena was one of the best hitting prospects in the game, and to trade him for an unproven pitcher and three questionable prospects was not exactly a good gamble. Needless to say, none of the guys Texas got worked out for them.
Flash forward to the end of 2002. Hafner had continued to rake, with a .342/.450/.559 line at Triple-A before a late-season call-up to the big club, and Teixeira had fulfilled all expectations, going .318/.403/.592 in 86 games of High-A and Double-A ball. The Rangers’ DH spot was wide open, and incumbent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro had just a year left on his contract. The course of action was obvious: put Hafner at DH, wait a year, and then give Teixeira the first base job. Except… no. The Rangers didn’t do that. They traded Hafner (and Aaron Myette) to Cleveland for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese. Diaz had just put up one of the worst lines in baseball, hitting .206 with no power or walks. Drese was his pitching counterpart, with a 6.55 ERA in 137 innings. Oh, and Diaz had signed a multi-year deal with the Indians a couple years earlier, so he was overpaid to boot. And for this, the Rangers traded one of the best hitters in the minor leagues, their obvious DH of the future. Inexcusable.
It’s not just that the Rangers traded Pena and Hafner; it’s that they traded them for so little. None of the players they got in return looked remotely as promising as Pena or Hafner, and in the case of Diaz and Drese, they didn’t look promising at all.
Incidentally, who was the general manager behind this massive squandering of young hitting talent? None other than John Hart, the same guy who ran the Indians when they mishandled and then traded Brian Giles.
Oh, Dempster. I should say something about Dempster. Until I started working on this article, I didn’t realize that Dempster began his career in the Rangers system. He was their third-round draft pick in 1995, and midway through the 1996 season, he was sent to Florida in exchange for John Burkett. (Rick Helling also went to the Marlins in that deal, and a year later, the Rangers made a trade to get Helling back.) At the time of the deal, Dempster was in A-ball, striking out a batter an inning and putting up a 3.31 ERA. The man he was traded for, Burkett, was a 31-year-old league-average starter. This wasn’t quite Scott Kazmir-for-Victor Zambrano, but it’s of the same ilk. Burkett did pitch pretty well down the stretch, and the Rangers did win the division, but there’s this problem: Rick Helling also pitched well down the stretch (albeit in half the starts). And the Rangers finished 4.5 games ahead of the second place Mariners; no way John Burkett is worth four and a half wins. My guess is that Texas would have won the division with or without Burkett. And without him, they still would have had Ryan Dempster.
Toronto Blue Jays
Casey Blake was the Blue Jays’ seventh-round pick in 1996, out of Wichita State. I grew up watching the Shockers, and Blake was one of my favorite players. He struggled early in the minors, but broke through with a monster season in 1998, at age 24 (.357/.417/.574). He regressed significantly in 1999, and while he was still a productive hitter, he was also 25 years old. The Jays put him on waivers and he was picked up by Minnesota. In the Twins system, Blake hit over .300 with solid power and decent plate discipline every year, but he didn’t get much of a chance in the majors, and by then he was in his late twenties. He became a minor league free agent; Bill James recommended him to the Red Sox as insurance at third base, and I believe the Red Sox offered him a minor league deal, but Blake understandably wanted to sign with a team that would give him a clear shot at a big league job. He signed with Cleveland; the manager, Eric Wedge, was another Wichita State guy. Needless to say, Blake worked out quite well. And for every Casey Blake, there are probably a dozen other “career minor leaguers” who are just as good, but don’t get the opportunity.
That’s it for the American League. Next time, we’ll do the National and try to figure out how these teams rank.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com, of course.
The title, “Put That Thing Back Where It Came From, Or So Help Me!” is taken, of course, from the all-time great movie Monsters, Inc.