Getty Images

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

3 Comments

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

If 2020 season is cancelled, which players would be hurt the most?

Miguel Cabrera
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
1 Comment

Last week, I went over a few teams that stood to be hurt most if there were to be no 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Today, we will look at some players who may be adversely effected by a lost year.

Milestones

Players chasing milestones, especially those towards the end of their careers, would be stymied by a lost season. Tigers DH and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is the first one that comes to mind. He is 23 home runs short of joining the 500 home run club. Though he hasn’t hit more than 16 in a year since 2016, he would likely have at least hit a few this year and would have had an easier time getting there in 2021. He turns 37 years old in 10 days. Cabrera may be under contract through 2023, but it is not clear that his age and his health would allow him to play regularly such that he would be able to reach 500 home runs if the 2020 season were to be cancelled. (Cabrera is also 185 hits shy of 3,000 for his career.)

Mike Trout has 285 home runs for his career. It’s almost a given that he would get to 300 and beyond in 2020. He is currently one of only 13 players with at least 250 home runs through his age-27 season. The only players with more: Álex Rodríguez (345), Jimmie Foxx (302), Eddie Mathews (299), and Ken Griffey Jr. (294). Trout likely would have also reached 1,000 runs for his career, as he is currently at 903. Losing a full season could really make a difference where he winds up on the all-time leaderboards at the end of his career.

Veteran catcher Yadier Molina will be a free agent at season’s end, though he and the Cardinals have expressed interest in a contract extension. He turns 38 this summer and is 37 hits shy of 2,000 for his career. Even if this season never happens, Molina will likely join the 2,000 hit club in 2021 whether or not he signs a multi-year extension. Molina is also 84 RBI shy of 1,000 and 21 doubles shy of 400.

Free Agents

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto headline the free agent class heading into the 2021 season. Even if there eventually is a 2020 season, or something resembling it, teams are losing money across the board and that will result in stinginess in the free agent market. Make no mistake, Betts and Realmuto, as well as Trevor Bauer, Marcus Semien, and Marcus Stroman will still get paid handsomely, but they likely won’t get as much as they would following a typical year. The players that really stand to get hurt are the mid-tier free agents, whose cost won’t match their relative upside — players like James McCann, Howie Kendrick, Yuli Gurriel, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Turner, Michael Grantley, Marcell Ozuna, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jay Bruce, and Josh Reddick.

2020-21 Draftees and International Free Agents

At the end of March, MLB and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement on a deal covering issues including service time, pay during the pandemic, and the amateur draft. In exchange for players on active rosters getting credit for a full year of service time whether or not there is a 2020 season, the league got the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds. The league also gained the right to delay the start of the 2020 and 2021-22 international signing periods.

The MLBPA effectively sold out what will be their future union members. A shortened draft this year and/or next year would mean that players who would otherwise have been drafted this year will go undrafted and thus will either become unsigned free agents or return to the draft next year as part of a crowded pool of players. Likewise, pushing back the international signing period will add more players to the market at the same time. This, obviously, benefits ownership as a surplus of labor diminishes those laborers’ leverage.

Bounce-back Candidates

Players coming off of injuries or otherwise down years in 2019 were hoping to use 2020 to bounce back, reestablishing themselves in the league. Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t pitch at all last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery and was hopeful to rejoin the starting rotation at some point in the first half of a normal 2020 season. We learned yesterday that Ohtani is expected to throw off a mound “soon.” If a 2020 season does happen, it likely wouldn’t begin for another couple of months at minimum, which should afford him enough time to get into pitching shape.

Ohtani’s teammate and perennial Gold Glove Award candidate Andrelton Simmons played in only 103 games last season due to an ankle injury. He mustered a meager .673 OPS as well, compiling just 1.9 WAR, his lowest total in any season since debuting in 2012. In 2017, he peaked at 7.8 WAR and put up 6.3 the following season. Simmons will become a free agent after the 2020 season, so he most certainly needed a healthy and productive 2020 to maximize his leverage on the market.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto, now 36 years old, is coming off of the worst offensive season of his career. He hit .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI in 608 plate appearances, continuing a downward trend. He registered a 167 adjusted OPS as recently as 2017, but that declined to 126 in ’18 and 98 last year. The Reds, back to being competitive, were definitely banking on a bounce-back year from Votto. (Votto, by the way, is also 56 RBI short of the 1,000 milestone for his career.)