What If...?

Since everybody is technically still in the race for the post-season, it's a great time of year to play the old, "what if...?" game.

The start of Spring Training, aka, "pitchers and catchers report," is a great time for "what ifs." What if Jeff Francoeur ever learns to stop swinging at everything near the plate? What if the Giants can only score some runs? What if the Athletics can only score some runs? What if the Mets stop signing every warm, or nearly warm, body with a pulse and actually concentrate on finding outfielders who can play baseball on the major league level? What if baseball actually institutes a salary cap to keep the Mets (and the Yankees, of course) from signing every warm, or nearly warm, body with a pulse? What if major league baseball returns to Pittsburgh , Kansas City, Baltimore , Seattle and Washington ? What if David Price suddenly realizes he has less than 20 innings in the major leagues, and pitches like it? What if the Cubs extend their streak to 101 years? What if Curt Schilling decides he wants to make a comeback at mid-year? What if Miguel Tejada ends up in the slammer? What if someone else discovers the Fountain of Youth, ala Jamie Moyer?

One of the best "what if" exercises involves looking at rosters, and projecting, "what if (fill in the blank) has a big year?" Many of the above questions deal with such scenarios on an individual basis. However, you can really have some fun after the fact if you look at team rosters and posit, "what if" these guys all had good years? For instance, if you were to look at the Phillies' 2008 Spring Training roster, and ask the "what if" question, you might well decide that they would have a good chance of repeating as National League East champs, but that a World Series title was unlikely, mainly due to just not enough men on base and not enough pitching. Surprise! Not only are the Phillies indeed the 2008 World Series Champions (and how I love writing that), but they didn't even have a lot of players having career years. In fact, out of their major contributors on the year, only Jayson Werth, pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, long relief man Chad Durbin and maybe, maybe, Brad Lidge and Shane Victorino had career years. The Big Three, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, have all had better years. Their ace, Cole Hamels, wasn't really any better in 2008 than he was in 2007. Number two starter Brett Myers got sent to the minors, for goodness sakes. So did Adam Eaton (never to return.) Carlos Ruiz and Pedro Feliz had off-years, as did Geoff Jenkins, Chris Coste and Tom Gordon (before he hurt his elbow). Pat Burrell was just average. Still…

A more interesting exercise in "what if" involves the 1970 Phillies Spring Training roster. I just happen to have a copy of a preseason baseball book from 1970. Taking just players listed on the Phillies roster for that Spring Training, you can put together a very decent team. A much team better than the actual 1970 team that went 73-88, maybe even a better team than the 1964 Phillies, some of whom were still around in 1970. The trick, of course, is getting all these guys at the right age and time in their careers, and getting them to play near their peak. Here's the theoretical 1970 Phillies lineup, with their single season highs in OPS+ and ERA+.

C -- Tim McCarver (136)

1B – Deron Johnson (135)

2B – Tony Taylor (125)

SS – Larry Bowa (95)

3B – Don Money (125)

LF – Greg Luzinski (156)

CF – Curt Flood (128)

RF – Larry Hisle (153)

SP – Jim Bunning (149)

SP – Chris Short (157)

SP – Rick Wise (123)

SP – Woody Fryman (116)

SP – Grant Jackson (107)

RP – Joe Hoerner (234)

RP – Dick Selma (146)

That team, if not too young (Luzinski, for instance, he was 19 in 1970) and not too old (Bunning), may not have won the NL East that year, but they would have given the Pirates (this is back when Pittsburgh did field a major league team) a run for their money. Now, if you give them all of their best years, then they do win the division. OK, so Curt Flood never even wore a Phillies uniform, choosing to run off to Denmark and fight the reserve clause instead. So you can substitute Oscar Gamble for him. Gamble, a 20-year old rookie in 1970, had a 162 year for the White Sox in 1977.

With either Flood or Gamble this is a theoretical team with super defense (except for Luzinski), three top starters, an excellent righty/closer combination, and power in Johnson, Money, Luzinski and Hisle. And, two of them, Taylor and Selma , actually did have their career years in 1970. It should also be noted that the above five starting pitchers actually were the Phillies' rotation in 1970, and none of them had an ERA+ above 98. Bunning, the second most dominant righthander in the NL in the mid-60s, was too old. Short, although he threw a shutout on Opening Day at Connie Mack Stadium, had a bad back, and Wise, who was good enough to win in the majors when he was 18 years old, had an off year. Although Fryman and Jackson would go on to fine careers as relievers, they would have made good four and five starters off their best years in the rotation. Timing is everything.

And that was the case with another 1970 team, the Astros. Here's the theoretical "what if" team they could have put on the field, given their Spring Training roster…

C – Bob Watson (he started out as a catcher)

1B – John Mayberry or Joe Pepitone

2B – Joe Morgan

SS – Denis Menke

3B – Doug Rader

OF – Cesar Cedeno

OF – Jim Wynn

OF – Tommy Davis

SP – Larry Dierker

SP – Don Wilson

SP – Jim Bouton

SP – Ken Forsch

SP – Jack Billingham

RP – Fred Gladding

RP – Mike Marshall

You run that team out there in their best years, and you'll do a lot better than the actual 1970 Astros, who went 79-83. Professional hitters like Davis and Watson. A million walks from Morgan and Wynn. Power all over the place. To say nothing of possibly the greatest second baseman of all time. Plus two 20-game winners, a guy who threw two no-hitters and a relief pitcher who won the Cy Young.

Another intriguing team to play "what if" with, as Frank Coyne has so astutely noted (astute bunch, those Coynes), is the 1959 Go-Go White Sox. Although long considered one of the weakest pennant winners in American League history (maybe only better than the 1944 Browns and 1945 Tigers), the Sox could have put a tremendous theoretical team on the field to aid future Hall of Famers Early Wynn, Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. Here's the best 1959 White Sox team…

C- Earl Battey or Sherm Lollar or John Romano

1B – Ted Kluszewski or Norm Cash or Earl Torgeson

2B – Fox

SS – Aparicio

3B -- Ray Boone or Billy Goodman

OF – Del Ennis

OF – Johnny Callison or Al Smith

OF – Larry Doby

SP - Wynn

SP -- Billy Pierce

SP - Gary Peters

SP – Bob Shaw

SP – Dick Donovan

RP – Turk Lown

RP – Jerry Staley

Although known as a running team, any bunch that could run Kluszewski, Ennis, Callison and Doby out there in their primes wouldn't have to manufacture runs.

As hard as it may be believe, you can even do this with the worst team to set foot on a baseball diamond in the 20th Century – that's right, even the 1962 Mets would have at least played .500 ball, particularly if all of their ancient talent were young again…

C - Chris Cannizzaro (104)

1B - Gil Hodges (143)

2B - Charlie Neal (106)

SS - Felix Mantilla (144)

3B - Frank Thomas (127)

LF - Gus Bell (125)

CF - Richie Ashburn (142)

RF - Gene Woodling (153)

SP - Al Jackson (143)

SP - Vinegar Bend Mizell (121)

SP - Roger Craig (117)

SP - Bob L. Miller (104)

SP - Galen Cisco (98)

RP - Clem Labine (154)

RP - Dave Hillman (150)

To recap… Ashburn was a Hall of Famer, Hodges could be some day, and Thomas and Bell both had some excellent power seasons. Woodling, though platooned most of his career, was a fine hitter. It's a little harder to make much of a case for the pitching staff, but Labine was very good for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Craig and Mizell both had pretty good careers.

What if... try it for some of the current teams in Spring Training 2009, it's a lot of fun (unless you're a Pirates fan.)

In case you're wondering "what if" I ever get around to writing anything else… upcoming in "19 to 21" are no less than three book reviews. One on a history of the Chicago American Giants, one long-delayed review of Rob Neyer's latest, his big book of baseball legends, and a really fun book on the Philadelphia Athletics by Ted Taylor. Did you know that five players nicknamed "Skeeter" played in the major leagues, and three of them wore #2 for the Athletics?

Also, coming soon, the first chapter of "The Mount Rushmores of Baseball," covering the years prior to 1840. Ever try writing baseball history for a period when there was no baseball?

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