Earlier, we looked at what the American League would look like if everybody in the majors returned to the team that originally signed them. Only 10 AL clubs were able to field complete teams. Today, we’ll look at the National League, where just seven franchises can put together legitimate teams.
That’s a pretty solid team, with nobody who stands out as a really bad player. Dan Uggla was an 11th-round pick by the D-Backs in 2001, and after some early struggles, he broke through with a .290/.347/.504 line in 2003. After a nice start at High-A in 2004, he was promoted to Double-A El Paso, where he just fell apart, hitting .258 with terrible peripherals. He did better in his second run through the Texas League the next year, batting .297/.378/.502, but at this point he was 25. Still, he should have been in line for a major league job, or at least a chance. But the D-Backs left him unprotected, and on December 8, 2005, the Marlins took Uggla in the Rule V draft. A few weeks later, Arizona acquired Orlando Hudson to play second base. The Marlins made Uggla their starting second baseman, and he was an immediate All-Star.
It’s easy to forget that Jermaine Dye was originally a Brave; he was their 17th-round draft pick in 1993. He hit a home run in his second postseason game in 1996, and just before the ’97 season, he was traded to Kansas City (with Jamie Walker) for Keith Lockhart and Michael Tucker, thereby proving that the Royals are indeed capable of winning a trade.
That starting rotation is a little weak on big-name pitchers, but actually, all of those guys were at least league-average this year. Wainwright, the ace of the bunch, was the centerpiece of the 2003 deal that sent J.D. Drew to Atlanta. If ever a trade worked out in every respect, that one did: Wainwright is an emerging ace. Jason Marquis, another player sent to St. Louis in the deal, gave them two good seasons in his three years there. And the third guy, Ray King, had a pair of fine seasons as a lefty specialist for the Cardinals. As for the Braves’ take, well, they knew Drew was only going to give them one year, but it was far and away the best year of his career. And what’s more, throw-in Eli Marrero hit .320 in 250 at-bats in his lone season as a Brave, and the club won yet another division title.
After Cook and Jimenez, the rotation gets pretty dicey. Wright hasn’t even made a start this year, having just converted to relief (with poor results).
I didn’t realize Jody Gerut was originally a Rockie. He was their second-round pick in 1998, but he missed the entire 2001 season with knee problems. During the season, while he was still on the DL, the Rockies traded him to Cleveland. He ended up having two knee surgeries that year, but he bounced back in 2002 and made the majors in 2003, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting. His career has been one knee surgery after another, and he missed all of 2006 and 2007, but he had a nice comeback this season with the Padres.
Abreu and Santana have similar stories. Both were originally signed by the Astros. Both showed promise as minor leaguers, but both were left unprotected—Abreu in the 1997 expansion draft and Santana in the ’99 Rule V draft. Abreu was selected by the Devil Rays and Santana by the Marlins, but as soon as they were drafted, both were immediately traded. When I say “immediately,” I mean it—Abreu was drafted on November 18 and traded to Philadelphia for Kevin Stocker that very day, and Santana was taken on December 13 and sent to Minnesota for somebody named Jared Camp moments later. To add insult to injury in Santana’s case, not only did the Marlins trade Johan Santana, but they included cash to sweeten the deal for Minnesota. Which makes me wonder who the heck Jared Camp was. The story, from Aaron Gleeman way back in 2005:
The Twins held the first pick in the 1999 Rule 5 draft and the Marlins picked second. Florida wanted a pitcher named Jared Camp, and because they were scared the Twins would snatch him up, they agreed to draft whoever Minnesota wanted with the second pick and then trade them that player and $50,000 for Camp. So the Twins drafted Camp, told the Marlins to draft a certain Venezuelan lefty, and the trade was made. Camp never threw a single pitch in the majors.
I don’t understand why the Marlins wanted Camp. In 1999, at 24, he had been converted to the bullpen with moderate success, though he walked way too many batters to be considered a serious prospect.
Anyway, the really ridiculous thing is that the Astros got nothing whatsoever in return for Abreu and Santana. They didn’t even consider them worth protecting.
Los Angeles Dodgers
And of course, Pedro Martinez is back. Better late than never, I guess. And Pedro isn’t the only example of the Dodgers making a bad trade with Montreal. At the trade deadline in 1998, they sent Ted Lilly to the Expos in a package that brought them Mark Grudzielanek, Carlos Perez, and Hiram Bocachica. Only Grudzielanek really worked out, and even he was only good for one year. But that’s a great deal compared to the way they lost Joakim Soria: they released him. Soria missed 2003 with Tommy John surgery, came back to make four appearances in the Dominican Summer League, and was then released. He went on to pitch in the Mexican League and then in the Padres system, from which the Royals took him in the Rule V draft.
Ziegler was the Phillies’ 20th-round pick in 2003. As Joe Posnanski put it, “As a rule, college seniors drafted in the 20th round have roughly the same opportunity to make the big leagues as college seniors who don’t play baseball.” Ziegler made a grand total of three appearances at Low-A before earning his release from the Phillies. The funny thing is, he actually did just fine at Low-A: six innings, one run, six strikeouts.
Conveniently, simple alphabetization allows us to save the best for last. That’s an all-time great outfield. It’s so good that Jason Bay is the team’s fourth outfielder. The infield is okay, the pitching staff very solid. One hundred wins would be a good target for this bunch.
The recent departures:
• July 31, 2001: Milton Bradley traded to the Indians for Zach Day.
• March 24, 2002: Jason Bay (with Jimmy Serrano) traded to the Mets for Lou Collier. (That’s right: Jason Bay wasn’t enough to get Lou Collier; they had to throw in another player. This, after Bay had hit .315 as a 22-year-old prospect and Collier had put up a career-high 88 OPS+ in 127 at-bats at the age of 27.)
• January 14, 2004: Vladimir Guerrero signed by the Angels as a free agent.
You know, money is an excuse for the losses of Vazquez, Guerrero and Cabrera but the rest of these deals weren’t so understandable. Okay, Milton Bradley had behavioral issues. But Jason Bay for Lou Collier? That’s one of the worst little-known trades in baseball history. Sizemore+Phillips+Lee was a hefty price to pay for half a season of Bartolo Colon, playoff run or no. And why give up three players for one year of Alfonso Soriano on a mediocre team?
In the end, the mismanagement of the Expos/Nats is less about the plight of the small-market club and more about plain foolishness.
The reconstituted Nationals would be the best team in baseball, led by Cliff Lee, the outfield quartet, and a solid supporting cast. Here’s my best guess at how these 17 teams would rank:
2 LA Angels
12 LA Dodgers
13 Tampa Bay
14 Kansas City
17 NY Yankees
A lot of those teams are very close. The Angels and the Red Sox, for instance; they’re really about dead-even. I leaned heavily on Win Shares Above Average to rank these teams, and to my surprise, the strongest lineup of the bunch was Atlanta’s, followed by Boston, Washington, Tampa Bay and Kansas City. The Royals are a real surprise, considering their weak infield, but they’ve got a great outfield (Damon-Beltran-DeJesus) and a pretty good year from shortstop Mike Aviles.
On the other hand, the Royals’ starting pitching was the worst in the study, with Zack Greinke and pretty much nothing else. Washington’s pitching was the best, followed by the Angels, Rangers, Red Sox, and Astros.
The Yankees’ struggles are really apparent. They’re dead last in pitching, and their lineup ranks 14th of 17. Yes, a lot of players had off years, but guys like Jeter, Hideki Matsui, and Mike Lowell are at the age when most players decline. And the best players for Oakland – Ryan Ludwick, Andre Ethier, Rich Harden—are all wearing other uniforms in real life. The vaunted A’s cupboard has been rather bare lately.
Of course, 13 major league clubs didn’t have the right combination of returning regulars to make a full team. The Cubs would get back a pair of old pitchers, Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer, plus some people you don’t think of as Cubs (Jon Garland, Kyle Lohse). The crosstown White Sox would boast an impressive – if aging – outfield of Carlos Lee, Mike Cameron, and Magglio Ordonez. The Mets would make up for the loss of Johan Santana with the returns of Scott Kazmir and A.J. Burnett. B.J. Ryan and Trevor Hoffman would both rejoin the Reds, who, despite originally signing both pitchers, got a grand total of one combined appearance out of them. Some other players whose original teams are easy to forget: Derrek Lee (Padres), Tim Wakefield (Pirates), Joe Nathan (Giants), Dan Haren (Cardinals), and Adrian Gonzalez (Marlins).
I went into this assuming that free agency was a major factor in the departures of good players. If we still had the reserve clause (so I thought), the Nats and the Mariners would be playoff teams. But only a handful of the good returning players actually left because of free agency. More often, teams are guilty of either blindness (Houston with Abreu and Santana) or short-sightedness (Montreal/Washington). The moral of the story, I guess, is this: If you have a young player—particularly a hitter—tearing it up in the minors, do not trade him unless you absolutely have no choice.
References & Resources
Here’s the Aaron Gleeman quotation about Johan Santana.
The Joe Posnanski quotation about Brad Ziegler is from a Kansas City Star article.