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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #11: The Drake LaRoche Saga Tears the White Sox Apart

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

I’ve been writing about baseball for a living for over seven years and I was doing it as a side hustle for nearly three years before that. In that decade I have written well over 25,000 individual blog posts. That’s not an exaggeration. I actually went back and counted. Obviously there are a ton of ballwriters who have done this way longer than me, but given the sheer volume of writing I do and given the fact that I tend to focus on the weird and offbeat stuff more than most do, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve seen just about everything modern baseball has to offer.

A story broke last spring, however, that had no precedent. And which no one would’ve made up if you gave them 10,000 monkeys at 10,000 typewriters and a million years to come up with it. It was The Drake LaRoche Saga. And calling it anything less than a “saga” is to do it an injustice.

The saga began with the unexpected retirement of White Sox first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche. LaRoche had come off of a poor 2015 season, but he was still under contract for $13 million in 2016 and still seemed to be in the White Sox’ plans. There was no apparent reason for him quitting, but other players have retired with money left on their deals in the past so it was, as baseball players like to say, what it was.

Except it wasn’t:

That 14-year-old son was Drake LaRoche. Unlike most kids who hang around their dad’s clubhouse, Drake was not an occasional visitor. He was a constant presence, referred to as “The 26th Man” in the White Sox clubhouse the year before. Drake had been just as constant a presence with his father when he played for the Nationals. Drake dressed with the team, had his own locker, stretched and worked out with the team as well. It was an extraordinary situation, really, and in light of how extraordinary it was, it does not seem unreasonable that the White Sox asked LaRoche to rein it in a bit.

The White Sox clubhouse, however, freaked the hell out.

Following LaRoche’s retirement announcement, Kenny Williams and manager Robin Ventura met with the White Sox to explain the situation. It didn’t go well. Players attacked Williams, accusing him of telling bald-faced lies about how the Drake LaRoche edict came down and threatened to boycott a spring training game. Chris Sale hung up a Drake LaRoche jersey in an empty locker with an inspirational message written on it. Which is the treatment active players who are, like, killed in car crashes and stuff get, suggesting that perhaps Sale thought Drake had been executed by Kenny Williams rather than merely banished. The apex of ridiculousness came when Adam Eaton claimed, presumably with a straight face, that the White Sox “lost a leader in Drake.” Remember: 14-year-old boy we’re talking about here. Not the Dalai Lama.

As this was going on, it was repeatedly reported that the White Sox were unified in their sorrow over Drake’s banishing. That didn’t pass the smell test, however. There was no reason why Kenny Williams would care so much about a kid being in the clubhouse in which he himself doesn’t have to work that he’d risk losing the team over it. The smart money was that a lot of White Sox players were complaining about it behind LaRoche’s back and that Williams agreed to be the bad cop so as to prevent a clubhouse rift. Eventually, that was the story that came out. At some point, someone needs to give Williams some serious kudos for taking all the heat he did. And some heat to the press for thinking that Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were the most reliable narrators when it came to the White Sox clubhouse, but we’ll leave that go for now.

Somehow the White Sox carried on without Adam and Drake LaRoche. Heck, they won two more games in 2016 without them than they did with them the year before. Chicago nonetheless embarked on a rebuild this winter, with Sale and Eaton being the first two players traded away. They’re in a better place now. No word if anyone hung up their jerseys in empty lockers in memoriam.

Drake and Adam LaRoche, meanwhile, walked off into the sunset together. They’re off having father-son adventures, no doubt, with Adam going to southeast Asia to break up sex-slavery rings, stopping to reunite with Drake to throw out first pitches at playoff games and stuff. Who knows where they’ll find themselves next.

Did I mention that this was the weirdest story I have ever written about?

World Series Preview: Marquee starting pitching matchups lead the way

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The Astros were the best team in baseball in 2019, winning 107 games, so everyone expected them to be here. As you’ve heard a thousand times by now the Nationals started out poorly in 2019, standing at 19-31 in late May. After that, however, they went on a 74-38 tear in 112 games. A tear which, if extrapolated to 162 games is a . . . 107-win pace.

Which is to say that, despite whatever the oddsmakers are telling you, this is not quite the mismatch some may want to make it out to be. The Astros are a great team, no question, but the Nationals as they stand right now are a strong match for them. If you doubt it, go ask the Dodgers and Cardinals about whether Washington played like a 93-win Wild Card team when they met in the earlier rounds.

No matter how you think the teams matchup overall, however, you can’t help but love the matchups between the clubs’ starting pitchers.

The Astros feature the top two Cy Young candidates in the American league in Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander and feature a third starter, Zack Greinke, who would be most teams’ ace. The Nationals, meanwhile, counter with Max Scherzer, who won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, finished in second place last year and, before for an injury this season, was a strong contender to take home the hardware again. After him comes Stephen Strasburg, also a 2019 Cy Young candidate, and Patrick Corbin, who was last offseason’s big pickup and who won 14 games and posted an ERA+ of 141 this season. It may be the Era of Bullpenning and all of that, but this Fall Classic looks to be a throwback to a time when — gasp! — starting pitchers mattered.

Here’s how it all breaks down:

THE ROTATIONS

We just listed the big names. The exact order in which they appear is not yet officially known but you’ll color me shocked if Game 1 isn’t Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole, Game 2 isn’t Stephen Strasburg vs. Justin Verlander, and Game 3 isn’t Zack Greinke vs. Patrick Corbin. In Game 4 the Nats will likely go with the hot Aníbal Sánchez who, if he stays on his game like he has been of late, gives them depth the Astros can’t quite match. Brad Peacock or “Bullpen” could get the ball for A.J. Hinch in Game 4, depending on the circumstances of the series at that point.

As for Game 1, Scherzer is coming off two strong postseason outings, allowing one run on five hits with 18 strikeouts in 14 innings in those starts. Cole was somewhat human in his last start, walking five guys. But, um, yeah, he still tossed seven shutout innings. It seems like all he has done since before Memorial day is toss seven or eight shutout innings or something close to it.

We simply couldn’t ask for a better head-to-head matchup to start this bad boy. There isn’t a hitter on either of these teams happy about who they’ll have to face in this series.

THE LINEUPS

Saturday night’s José Altuve walkoff blast notwithstanding, the Astros’ mighty offense has been somewhat less mighty over the past couple of weeks, averaging just 3.7 runs per game and posting a .645 team OPS. A lot of that was due to the scads of fresh and strong bullpen arms the Rays and Yankees trotted out, but it’s not like things will get easier, at least against Washington’s starting pitching. The Astros had timely hitting — and some big home runs — as they made their way to the World Series, but they’ll definitely need to rattle the ball off the walls and get on base at a higher clip like they did in the regular season if they want to win this thing. To do so, I don’t suspect A.J. Hinch will do much shuffling or fiddling with his lineup — his dudes are his dudes — he’ll just have to hope that they snap out of their relative funk and remind everyone that, when everyone is healthy on this club, there is no better offense in baseball.

Washington’s lineup was nowhere near as fearsome during the regular season but it was the second-best unit in the National League, so they’re no slouches. Like the Astros, they have not exactly set the world ablaze offensively in the playoffs, posting a team OPS about a hundred points lower than their regular season mark. Also, like the Astros, they’ve had some huge hits at great times, as do all teams that get this far. Luck and good timing matter a whole heck of a lot in October.

Editor’s note: Need World Series tickets? Click here to see the Nats try to stop the Astros

A bit of a wild card here: the de-juiced ball everyone is talking about. While the Nats, like everyone else, hit a lot more homers in 2019, they were somewhat less reliant on homers than a lot of other winning teams, finishing only sixth in that category in the NL. The Astros were third in the AL and might’ve come close to matching New York and Minnesota’s totals if they didn’t have so many injuries to key offensive performers in the first half. Which is to say that the dead ball’s taking away of a few feet of flight from equally-struck balls probably hurts the Astros a bit more than the Nats, even if the Astros hitters are better on average.

One can overstate all that, of course. At the end of the day both of these teams have MVP-candidates — Alex Bregman for Houston, Anthony Rendon for Washington — and a good supporting cast of thumpers like Juan Soto, José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez and hot-in-October Howie Kendrick, who will likely see DH action in the games in Houston. Ultimately it will come down, as always, to who is hotter over the next 4-7 games.

THE BULLPENS

The bullpen was the Nationals’ biggest weakness all season long. In the NLDS against the Dodgers Dave Martinez masked the problem by creatively deploying starting pitchers in relief, praying a bit, and watching it work. in the NLCS they so thoroughly steamrolled the Cardinals that it didn’t truly matter, though they did get some good innings from guys not named Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson. Meaning that, heck, you may even see Fernando Rodney and Tanner Rainey in games that aren’t blowouts. Either way, the week off the Nationals have been given by wrapping up the NLCS so quickly means that every arm is fresh, with extra rest even, so the team’s biggest weakness is about as contained at the outset as it can be. As suggested above, the deeper Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez can go, the better.

Houston’s bullpen has allowed 16 earned runs in 35.1 innings this postseason (4.08 ERA). This after having the third-best bullpen ERA in all of baseball during the regular season (3.75). Sample sizes are obviously an issue here. As is the class of competition. They were more than capable of getting the job done during the ALDS and their failures — like Roberto Osuna‘s blown save in Game 6 — were either contained by the work of others or led to less-than-fatal wounds. They simply have better arms that Washington does down there even if, as is the case with the Nats, they’ll hope to need them as little as possible.

THE MANAGERS

A.J. Hinch has hoisted a trophy before and rarely harms his team. Dave Martinez learned over the course of the season that the less he does the better. Without putting too fine a point on it, if it comes down to a chess match, it’s advantage: Astros. At this point Martinez simply needs to let his horses run and muster enough will to pull them out of the race if they’re tired. That’s easier said than done when it’s, say, Max Scherzer. His arm could be hanging by frayed tendons and he’d still probably glare at Martinez if he walked out to pull him.

THE HISTORY

There is virtually none. These teams share a spring training complex but they have not faced each other in interleague play since 2017. A host of players on each squad has never faced the pitchers on the other. In addition to starting pitchers being so critical here, add “NL vs. AL, in a matchup of unknowns” to the list of things that make this Fall Classic a throwback to olden days.

If we did the usual “Advantage: [TEAM]” for every one of those categories, I feel like we’d probably end up with the Astros coming out on top in each of them. The closest is probably the rotation, with the top-end talent of Cole, Verlander and Greinke outweighing the four-deep depth the Nats have at the moment. But as the earlier rounds showed, it’s not as much of an advantage as you might think and being able to run four starters out there whom you trust matters a lot.

Which is to say that, yeah, I think the Astros are the better team. They’re better in record, better on paper and should be favored. But I don’t think they’re overwhelming favorites. And I don’t think it could or should be considered a massive upset if this better-than-most-people think Nats team comes out on top. I feel like this will be a very, very even and competitive series, in fact.