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Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 22: Astros switch leagues

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 22 — The Astros switch leagues 

From their advent as the Colt .45s in 1962 through the 2012 season, the Houston Astros played in the National League. First they were in the unitary National League then, with the start of divisional play in 1969, they joined the NL West. Finally, realignment came in 1994, putting them in the NL Central.

At first that realignment featured some sanity: five teams in each league’s East and Central and four teams in each team’s West. Leagues had to be even, of course, because interleague play had not yet begun.

Then, in 1998, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks began play. That required some shifting to keep from having an odd number of teams in each league. The Tigers left the AL East so the Rays could join that division, moving to the AL Central. In order to keep an even number of teams in each league, the Brewers — owned by Commissioner Bud Selig’s family, and thus amenable to the league’s wishes — moved to the NL Central. With that, and the Dbacks in the NL West, the National League had 16 teams and the American League stayed with 14.

This created a new problem: a National League Central division with six teams and an American League West with only four teams. Issues of unfairness emerged and, after several years during which fans became used to interleague play, which began in 1997, Major League Baseball thought it best that they move to two 15-team leagues, requiring someone to leave the NL and join the AL.

The Astros were chosen for a couple of reasons. One reason was that, if they were to join the AL West, a natural rivalry would be created with their fellow Texas team, the Rangers. Another reason was practical: the Astros were up for sale and, since (a) Major League Baseball needed an owner to agree to move his team; and (b) any prospective new owner basically had to bend over backwards to please Major League Baseball in order to be allowed into the club, the conditions were ripe for a deal. Bud Selig asked prospective Astros owner Jim Crane to move his team to the AL West.

Crane wasn’t enamored with the idea at first, in large part because moving to the West meant more team travel than the Astros would’ve had if they had remained in the NL Central. There was also a suggestion that the team’s TV money might suffer due to playing AL teams which the Houston TV market was not used to watching or was not interested in watching. Crane also, correctly, realized that Major League Baseball might pay him for his trouble if he held out some. A report in late 2011 had him asking for a $50 million discount on his purchase price of the Astros but, in the end the New York Times reported, he got $70 million. That’ll pay for some jet fuel.

The Astros first season in the American League came in 2013. It was their worst season in franchise history — they lost 111 games — but that had less to do with realignment than it did with the fact that the team was in the midst of one of the all-time tank jobs/rebuilding efforts in the game’s history. Indeed, they had lost over 100 games in their final two years in the National League as well. After one more year of losing, the Astros made the playoffs in 2015. Two years later they’d win the World Series. You basically know their story by now. It’s all worked out for them pretty dang well, all things considered.

It’s also quite possible that one day the Astros’ move to the American League will seem quaint as far as realignment goes.

Every couple of years someone floats a plan for radical realignment. The elimination of the leagues, which now exist mostly in name only, is occasionally brought up. Radical realignment plans which more closely align teams by geography get tossed around from time to time and often feel like trial balloons sent up by the league. Certainly if we see another round of expansion one day — or if either of baseball’s two stadium-challenged clubs, the Rays or A’s, move cities — a lot of shuffling will have to occur.

At present, however, the Astros move is the most recent data point in realignment. And one that still seems significant. At least to old timers like me who still sometimes have to remind themselves of the league in which they play.

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Washington Nationals roster and schedule for 2020

Nationals roster and schedule
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The 2020 season is now a 60-game dash, starting on July 23 and ending, hopefully, with a full-size postseason in October. Between now and the start of the season, we’ll be giving quick capsule previews of each team, reminding you of where things stood back in Spring Training and where they stand now as we embark on what is sure to be the strangest season in baseball history. First up: The Washington Nationals roster and schedule:

NATIONALS ROSTER (projected)

When the season opens on July 23-24, teams can sport rosters of up to 30 players, with a minimum of 25. Two weeks later, rosters must be reduced to 28 and then, two weeks after that, they must be reduced to 26. Teams will be permitted to add a 27th player for doubleheaders.

In light of that, there is a great degree of latitude for which specific players will break summer camp. For now, though, here are who we expect to be on the Nationals roster to begin the season:

Catchers:

Yan Gomes
Kurt Suzuki

Infielders:

Eric Thames
Starlin Castro
Carter Kieboom
Trea Turner
Howie Kendrick
Asdrúbal Cabrera

Outfielders:

Juan Soto
Victor Robles
Adam Eaton
Michael Taylor
Andrew Stevenson

Starters:

Max Scherzer
Steven Strasburg
Patrick Corbin
Aníbal Sánchez
Austin Voth
Erick Fedde

Relievers:

Sean Doolittle
Daniel Hudson
Will Harris
Tanner Rainey
Wander Suero
Hunter Strickland
Roenis Elías


BREAKDOWN:

The Nationals shocked the world last year, recovering from an abysmal start to the season to win an NL Wild Card before cutting through the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Astros to win the first championship in franchise history. While the roster is largely unchanged, there is one gaping void: the loss of third baseman Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Angels. Rendon, a perennial MVP candidate, led the majors with 126 doubles and the NL with 44 doubles while smacking 34 homers with a 1.010 OPS last season. He’ll be replaced by the young Carter Kieboom and the veteran Kendrick and Cabrera. Those are some large shoes to fill.

With Rendon out of the picture, Juan Soto becomes the crux of the Nationals’ offense. Last year, he tied Rendon with 34 homers while knocking in 110 runs. He also, impressively, drew 108 walks, by far the highest on the team. The Nationals will likely have to utilize their speed even more. Last year, Soto stole 12 bases while Adam Eaton swiped 15, Victor Robles 28, and Trea Turner 35.

As was the case in 2019, the pitching will be how the Nationals punch their ticket to the postseason. Max Scherzer finished third in Cy Young balloting, his seventh consecutive top-five finish. The club retained Stephen Strasburg and brings back Patrick Corbin as well. There really isn’t a better 1-2-3 in the game. The rotation will be rounded out by Aníbal Sánchez and one of Austin Voth or Erick Fedde, though both are likely to see starts during the season.

The back of the bullpen is led by closer Sean Doolittle, who posted an uncharacteristically high — for him — 4.05 ERA last year. He still saved 29 games and averaged better than a strikeout per inning, so they’re in good hands. Daniel Hudson and Will Harris will work the seventh and eighth innings leading up to Doolittle.

As mentioned in the Braves preview, it’s tough to make any definitive statements about a 60-game season. Variance is going to have much more of an effect than it would in a 162-game season. Additionally, the NL East is highly competitive. It would be wrong to say with any degree of confidence that the Nationals will win the NL East. For example, the updated PECOTA standings from Baseball Prospectus only project a five-game difference between first and last place in the NL East. What we can say is that the Nationals will give everyone a run for their money in 2020.

NATIONALS SCHEDULE:

Every team will play 60 games. Teams will be playing 40 games against their own division rivals and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographic division from the other league. Six of the 20 interleague games will be “rivalry” games.

  • July 23, 25-26: vs. Yankees
  • July 27-28: vs. Blue Jays
  • July 29-30: @ Blue Jays
  • July 31-August 2: @ Marlins
  • August 4-5: vs. Mets
  • August 7-9: vs. Orioles
  • August 10-13: @ Mets
  • August 14-16: @ Orioles
  • August 17-19: @ Braves
  • August 21-24: vs. Marlins
  • August 25-27: vs. Phillies
  • August 28-30: @ Red Sox
  • August 31-September 3: @ Phillies
  • September 4-6: @ Braves
  • September 7-8: vs. Rays
  • September 10-13: vs. Braves
  • September 15-16: @ Rays
  • September 18-20: @ Marlins
  • September 21-23: vs. Phillies
  • September 24-27: vs. Mets

The entire Nationals schedule can be seen here.