By Mick Doherty
Baseball fans of a certain age - let's just say if you remember Joe Torre playing for the Mets before he turned into a genius across the Apple - will recall the nascent days of free agency in the mid-1970's. The ridiculous "free agent drafts" where teams basically announced who they felt like negotiating with. The shock, nay, dismay, at the idea of paying a pitcher two million dollars - spread over ten years, true, but two million dollars! (Cleveland fans will recall with shock, nay, dismay, that the pitcher in question was one Wayne Garland.)
And every single sportswriter with a bylined column devoted several column inches of newsprint (that's sort of like saying "posted several screens worth of text," except in ancient pre-Internet language) to showing off just how awesome a "Free Agent All-Star Team" some enterprising young general manager could assemble given enough cash and resources. (Sort of like the Yankees these days, only all of the players were American.)
Why, you could sign Reggie Jackson and Bobby Grich and Doug DeCinces Ö wait, the Angels - that's the California Angels, pre-Rally-Monkey - did sign all those guys. But I digress. It was fun, as a young fan, to imagine this "All-Star Team" coming together. Just put a team in some ludicrous new baseball outpost - say, Miami or Denver or even, hah!, Phoenix - and stockpile the team with a surefire World Series winner.
Of course, it never happened. But look around the marketplace these days, and you have to wonder Ö could the idea of assembling an all-free-agent team, and one that might actually be affordable in the new baseball economy, be the basis of a pennant winner?
Let's try the following exercise: Who's Your Bud's Baseball-R-Us Boys grant a new franchise, out of the blue, to a market that's craving a winning baseball experience - let's say the unlikely little burgh of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With a sensible General Manager like Doug Melvin running the show, what kind of competitive-in-2003 team could we brew up? (Say, that's it - we'll call this mythical team of free agents the "Brewers"!)
First, we want one marquee player to focus our marketing efforts. We basically have two choices - 40-year-old starting pitcher Roger Clemens and injury-prone catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Clemens won't come to Milwaukee and isn't a good risk anyway; nobody else seems to want a future Hall of Fame backstop, so we grab Pudge, maybe even for a "bargain" price.
We've noted that our superstar is injury-prone, so let's quickly bite on a quality backup; our choices seem to be Tom Lampkin, Mike DiFelice and John Flaherty. Of the three, Flaherty is the most proven, and he's someone who can step into a starting role if necessary. He's in.
Having committed big budget dollars to half the battery, we're looking for quality arms - after all, pitching wins championships. Clemens is off the radar, and we can't afford eight starting pitchers like the Yankees, but there are plenty of intriguing names out there.
Surely we can get one-year "show me" contracts signed with veteran lefty Kenny Rogers and bulldog righty Rick Helling; lest anyone think we're trying to rebuild the Texas Rangers legendary "rotation" of the late 1990's, we'll jump on two more solid righties like Brian Moehler and Ismael Valdes, along with lefty Omar Daal. The allure of signing a 200-game winner like Chuck Finley isn't strong enough to break the bank, and one-season wonder Robert Person can look for work elsewhere. Jeff Suppan and Paul Wilson - um, thanks for stopping by. Intriguing Jamie Moyer-like John Halama might find a spot in the bullpen.
Itís a nice rotation, but features a lot of six-inning guys, so a strong bullpen will be key. We don't want any part of get-the-manager-a-Tums "closers" like Roberto Hernandez or Juan Acevado; let's stock up on quality arms from both sides and take our changes in the ninth inning with whoever matches up best.
We might just play the game the Yankees sprung on Mike Stanton and Chris Hammond - first six guys to take incentive-laden contracts get to come play with us. From a field that includes righties Ramiro Mendoza, Terry Mulholland, Dave Veres, Tom Gordon, Mike Fetters, Mike Jackson, Bob Wells, Ricky Bottalico, Dustin Hermanson and Steve Reed along with southpaws Halama, Mike Venafro, Ron Villone, Mark Guthrie, Graeme Lloyd and Kent Mercker, we should be able to piece something together. We'll hook up with four righties and two lefties to fill the various roles.
We've still got to fill out our entire lineup - other than catcher - not to mention the bench. We'll focus first on veterans, some just looking to hang on for another year or so, and kick around an all-Bay-Area-exes outfield of Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton and Rickey Henderson. But Sanders is another of those injury-prone guys who will get stupid money in the current marketplace, and doesn't have the upside of Robert Fick and loses his spot to the volatile ex-Tiger. And Kenny Lofton hasn't been Kenny Lofton since about 1996, and is nowhere near the CF that Jose Cruz, Jr. is - even if Jose Sr.'s son never did become the uber-star everyone expected.
With Rickey now nearing Strom Thurmond territory in the age category and Fick no threat to win a bronze, much less gold glove, we'll need to lock up a younger guy who can play all three OF positions to back them up - say, Todd Hollandsworth. Tom Goodwin is probably upset he didn't get included in the Bay Area invitation, but frankly we thought harder about Tsuyoshi Shinjo, and he never had a chance. We love Shane Spencer's grittiness, but there's no room for him on this roster.
First base was a weak position in free agency this year - Andres Galarraga is hardly the answer - until Travis Lee, Brian Daubach, David Ortiz and Brad Fullmer were all non-tendered. Lee has been a bust and Ortiz and Fullmer are more first basemen by default who should never do anything but DH, so we'll settle on Daubach. If Anaheim and San Francisco can make it to the Series with Scott Spiezio and J.T. Snow at first base, respectively, we're not going to worry too much about finding the next Hee Seop Choi.
Around the rest of the infield, we swallow hard and tell Frank Catalanotto that defense at 2B isn't really our main concern - but that seems a good risk when the alternative is asking Marlon Anderson, Luis Alicea or Desi Relaford to come play second for us. To complete the plus-offensive, defense-optional middle infield, we'll go with strikeout-prone Jose Hernandez at short. Bill Mueller is an underrated and underpriced asset at the hot corner.
With so many veterans in the lineup - not to mention Pudge needing some days off - we probably don't need a full-time designated hitter, but Fullmer is a nice bat to have on hand and just trumps Ruben Sierra for the semi-regular DH role. Hollandsworth and Flaherty already fill two of our six bench spots, so we're looking for versatility and pinch-hitting experience as we round out the subs.
Ron Gant is out of the question, while Alex Ochoa, Orlando Palmeiro and John VanderWal are too one-dimensional. We like Tyler Houston, who can catch and play both corners, along with John Mabry and Dave Martinez, who will both see plenty of time spelling Justice and the various outfielders, while Mabry can join Houston in backing up Mueller. That leaves Ron Coomer and Olmedo Saenz out in the cold, and the last bench spot comes down to Keith Lockhart and Terry Shumpert - and Shumpert is the game's best pinch-hitter and can even play short in an emergency if Hernandez needs a break.
So how does our 2003 All-Free-Agent All-Star Team shape up?
LHP Kenny Rogers
RHP Ismael Valdes
LHP Omar Daal
RHP Brian Moehler
RHP Rick Helling
RHP Ramiro Mendoza
RHP Terry Mulholland
RHP Dave Veres
RHP Steve Reed
LHP John Halama
LHP Graeme Lloyd
Rickey Henderson, LF
Frank Catalanotto, 2B
Ivan Rodriguez, C
Brad Fullmer, DH
Brian Daubach, 1B
Robert Fick, RF
Jose Cruz, Jr., CF
Jose Hernandez, SS
Bill Mueller, 3B
C John Flaherty
OF Todd Hollandsworth
IF Terry Shumpert
1B/3B/OF John Mabry
1B/OF Dave Martinez
UTIL Tyler Houston
Itís not the Yankees - but it's hardly the Devil Rays, either. How would this team stack up in 2003? Your comments are welcome.