Putting Together a Reality Team
Fantasy baseball has been a popular pastime for 30 years. Unfortunately, there tends to be too much "fantasy" and not enough dealing with the nitty-gritty reality of what it takes to fill a well-rounded roster at the major league level. Depending on how drafts are arranged (such as just 12 or 14 owners picking from both leagues), the fantasy baseball process can lend itself to assembling a collection of higher-level players rather than a 25-man roster of diverse talents and skill levels, and defense is seldom (if ever) factored into the equation.
Baseball addicts have it much easier between seasons in the 21st century than what our fathers and grandfathers endured. ESPN, MLB.com, MILB.com, SI.com and team web sites provide almost limitless information as compared to the agate type in the transactions section of the daily newspaper and the weekly hot stove league fix from The Sporting News that provided meager winter rations of baseball information for nearly a century.
Need something to do besides staring at a computer screen until spring training begins? Here's a way to recognize your favorite players of all time and put together a roster that is much closer to the big league norm than a typical fantasy league squad.
The rules are simple. One Hall of Famer (already inducted or a future sure thing such as Greg Maddux) is allowed per team. You can't have five aces in the starting rotation, an outfield of Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams or perennial All-Stars at every infield position. Back of the rotation starters, middle relievers, utility players and extra outfielders in real life will assume those roles on every team. You may choose anyone who appeared in a major league game from the 1800s to the present. A few extra reserves can be added to the list as a AAA roster of sorts, but going beyond 25 players isn't required.
It's going to be natural to try and put together the best possible team, but that isn't the main point of the reality baseball game. This is a pleasant mental exercise and a way to remember favorite players - especially those who aren't big names.
The pitching staff is by far the most flexible part of the process. Go with as few as nine arms if you like complete games and dead-ball era workhorses, or do your best Tony LaRussa impersonation and have a 13-man staff complete with two LOOGYs. Since I'm in favor of complete games and four-man rotations, my ace is one of the most durable starters of the live ball era.
Mickey Lolich may have looked out of shape and often joked about his hefty build, but few pitchers exhibited the endurance the Tigers left-hander displayed. Number 29 had four consecutive seasons with at least 308 innings pitched from 1971 to 1974 along with 96 complete games in that span. Lolich's 376 IP in 1971 is the highest total in the majors since 1917 by a conventional (knuckleballer Wilbur Wood soft-tossed 376.2 innings in 1972) pitcher.
Cut 376 innings in half (188), and you have a typical season for many 21st century starters. Lolich's other 1971 numbers - 45 starts, 29 complete games, 8.36 innings per start and a 25-14 record - look downright freakish by current standards. Best known for his three complete game victories against the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, the self-described "fat man's hero" also performed well in his only other postseason experience.
Lolich started a pair of games in the 1972 American League Championship Series against the A's. Despite giving up just three earned runs in 19 IP (1.42 ERA), his record was 0-1. Lolich finished with a 217-191 career record and 3.44 ERA. His 2679 strikeouts in the American League are the most by an AL lefty.
Brief stints with the Mets and Padres bumped the career strikeouts to 2832, a number that was in the all-time top 10 when Lolich retired in 1978. Combine the Ks with just 2.7 walks per 9 innings, exceptional stamina and an impressive track record in the clutch, and I'm more than happy to pick Lolich as my workhorse and ace.
Rick Reuschel is another innings eater with a large frame, but don't let his physique fool you. "Big Daddy" was an agile, sure-handed fielder who won Gold Gloves in 1985 and 1987, and the sinkerball had enough foot speed and baserunning instincts to have been used as a pinch-runner on several occasions.
Like Mariano Rivera, Reuschel was the rare hurler who could successfully throw one pitch in many different ways. When his sinker was on, the infielders had plenty of action gobbling up grounders. A quiet man not given to lengthy interviews, Reuschel described his idea of a perfect game as "27 pitches, 27 grounders."
Career totals of 214-191 and a 3.37 ERA are virtually identical to Lolich, but Reuschel's ERA+ of 114 tops Lolich's 104. A stingy 935 walks in 3548.1 IP works out to less than 2.4 per 9 innings. The right-hander is remembered for his 17-8. 2.94 ERA performance at age 40 for the pennant-winning 1989 Giants, but he had two other seasons that were even better.
A 20-10, 2.79 ERA (158 + ERA) effort with the Cubs in 1977 along with a 14-8 2.27 (4th in the NL) in 1985 with the Pirates are the high points on Reuschel's resume. The 1985 campaign was especially noteworthy, as Reuschel was coming back from arm injuries at age 36, and he did an exceptional job for a wretched (57-104) Pittsburgh squad. Even with those numbers, the sinker specialist didn't receive so much as a third-place vote in that year's Cy Young Award balloting.
My list of favorites always includes Scott McGregor, and he's a solid choice as a third starter. The Orioles lefty finished with a career record of 138-108 (.561). Seasons of 20-8 in 1980 and 18-7 in 1983 were made possible by one of the game's most deceptive change-ups. George Brett's high school teammate combined an 85 MPH fastball with a low 70s change thrown from an across the body motion and pinpoint control (just 518 walks in 2140.1 IP) to become a popular player in Baltimore.
Although he is never mentioned among the better postseason pitchers, McGregor deserves to be on that list. Ignore the 3-3 record and focus on the 1.63 ERA in 49.2 IP with just eight walks during the 1979 and 1983 ALCS and World Series to get an idea how tough McGregor could be in the clutch. He averaged 8.28 innings per postseason start. After losing 2-1 in Game 1 of the 1983 World Series, McGregor came back with a 5-0 complete game shutout to clinch a world championship for the Orioles.
Fourth starters aren't going to be big names by definition, but reliability is a must. Conrado "Connie" Marrero was a competent performer, and his biography is one of the more unusual stories in baseball history.
Like many Cubans, Marrero played for the Washington Senators. Listed at 5'5" to 5'7" by various sources, the righty made his big league debut at age 38 in 1950 and stuck with the Nats until turning 43 in 1954. During that time, Marrero completed 51 of 94 starts and went 39-40 with a 3.67 ERA (108+ ERA) for a team that was buried in the second division.
An All-Star in 1951, Marrero's best season came in 1952 when he went 11-8 with a 2.88 ERA (ninth in the AL) in 184.1 innings pitched. His 124 ERA+ was good for eighth in the league. Marrero pitched in AAA with the Havana Sugar Kings until shortly after his 46th birthday in 1957. Not only did Marrero defy the odds against longevity as a pitcher, but he is doing the same in daily life. The oldest surviving major leaguer will turn 101 on April 25. What kind of career numbers could Marrero have posted if he had gotten the call to the majors before reaching middle age?
If trade rumors are floating around the clubhouse, don't be surprised if Mike Morgan begins packing his bags. That's because the right-hander played for a dozen teams in a career than spanned from 1977 to 2002, and he fills the old-school role of spot starting, long relief and taking an extended stretch in the rotation when injuries occur.
"Mo Man" began his big league career right out of high school in 1977. Bringing the 18-year old straight to the Oakland A's was Charlie Finley's idea, and it's obvious that Morgan would have been better off developing in the minors. A big league mark of 9-27 from 1977 to 1983 is a significant factor in Morgan's 141-186 (.431) lifetime record.
Those who insist that won-loss records are a poor indicator of a pitcher's performance can point to Morgan as Exhibit A. He went 8-11 with a 2.53 ERA (136 ERA+) for the Dodgers in 1989. Add 9.2 innings to his 152.1 IP, and Morgan would have the fourth lowest ERA in the National League. The breaks evened out in 1999 when Morgan went 13-10 with a bloated 6.24 ERA (82 ERA+) for the Rangers.
Baseball biases will show themselves when a person fills out a 25-man roster, and one of my eccentricities is obvious in the bullpen. Submariner and control artist Dan Quisenberry is the closer, and "Quiz" will be expected to go more than an inning per appearance when needed. Fellow underhanders Chad Bradford and Steve Reed fill set-up roles.
Few pitchers have been more miserly with walks than Quisenberrry, who could go a month between free passes. He gave up just 12 walks in 136.2 innings pitched 1982 and followed that with 11 bases on balls in 139 IP in 1983. Still locked into the strike zone, "Quiz" surrendered just 12 walks in 129 IP in 1984 to complete a three-year run of giving up well under a walk per nine innings. To be precise, his BB/9 IP in those years was a mind-boggling 0.79, 0.71 and 0.84. Opposing hitters had no choice but to come up swinging.
As a perennial fan of the underdog, I have to pick 5'6" Danny Ray Herrera as one of my lefty relievers. The other spot goes to Joe Ostrowski, who had the good fortune to be traded from the lowly St. Louis Browns to the Yankees on June 15, 1950. He can do everything from face a lone lefty hitter to tossing six or more innings when needed. Ostrowski was known for control, as he gave up just 98 walks in 455.2 career innings pitched.
Just how different were the economics of baseball in the 1950s as compared to today? Not counting World Series shares, Ostrowski never earned more than $8500 a season, which meant he taught high school when he returned home to rural Pennsylvania after the season. Thanks to baseball artist and historian Ronnie Joyner for educating me about Ostrowski.
My Hall of Famer - Tony Gwynn - starts in right field. He may not have been a slugger, but who's complaining about having a lifetime .338 hitter, eight-time batting champion, five-time Gold Glover and one of baseball's most likable guys on the team? How much do I want Gwynn on the roster? He beat out Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, Maddux and Honus Wagner as my Cooperstown representative.
Ever see a raw rookie for the first time and say "That guy is a special player"? Ellis Burks instantly impressed me as a young Red Sox centerfielder, and he had a long and successful career despite multiple knee injuries.
Career totals of 2107 hits, 402 doubles, 352 HR, 1206 RBI and a .291 average aren't shabby, but it's easy to imagine Burks boosting those numbers without the nagging physical problems he endured. Burks had eight seasons with 20 or more HR and six seasons with 80 or more RBI. The thin, high altitude air of Colorado undoubtedly helped during a career year of 40 HR, 128 RBI, 211 hits and 45 doubles with the Rockies in 1996. There's another statistic from 1996 that showed what Burks could do when healthy, as he swiped a career-high 32 bases in 38 attempts (.842).
This lineup needs an imposing presence, and Frank Howard surely meets that requirement. The 6'7" "Capital Punisher" had an incredible four-year power surge for the Washington Senators during a pitching-dominated era.
Big Frank smacked 172 HR with 432 RBI (average seasons of 43 HR and 108 RBI) from 1967 to 1970. He led the American League with 44 bombs in 1968 and 1970. Howard's career best of 48 HR in 1969 fell one short of Harmon Killebrew's league-leading total. The right-handed slugger thrived under Ted Williams and became a much more patient hitter when #9 managed the Senators. Howard walked 60 and 54 times in 1967 and 1968 before doubling his bases on balls to 102 and a league-leading 132 in 1969 and 1970.
Career totals of 382 homers, 1774 hits and a .273 average accumulated mostly in poor hitter's parks qualifies Howard for the cleanup spot in the lineup. Mainly a left fielder, "Hondo" also appeared in 334 games at first base.
The fourth and fifth outfielders are a balanced pair, as Jim Dwyer hits from the left side, while Walt "No Neck" Williams is a right-handed swinger. A major leaguer from 1973 to 1990, Dwyer was a valuable role player for the Orioles from 1981 to 1988, and he homered against the Phillies in the 1983 World Series. Dwyer can play all three outfield positions as well as first base, has decent power and draws walks.
Many of us who saw the stocky (5'6", 190 pounds) Williams with the White Sox from 1967 to 1972 liked him instantly, as the energetic fireplug played with exuberance and honest hustle. Williams was no slouch at the plate, as his .270 career average was high for the era. A career best .304 in 1969 was good for sixth place in the American League. Dependable line-drive machine Manny Mota (.305 lifetime, 150 pinch hits, 1149 for 3779 career) is my pinch-hitter, and he'll get an occasional start in the outfield.
Since first basemen tend to be sluggers, it would be easy to put a power bat in this slot, but honesty compels me to go with a slap-hitting personal favorite. Mike Squires slammed just six career home runs in 1580 at-bats with the White Sox from 1975 to 1985, a most unusual record for a place in the lineup where the long ball is all but mandatory.
At 5'11", "Spanky" was also small for a first baseman, but he ranks among the finest fielders at the position. The .260 career hitter won the AL Gold Glove in 1981, and he often was used as a late-inning defensive replacement.
How good was Squires on defense? He flawlessly handled a dozen chances in 14 appearances and 38 innings at third base and had a pair of one-inning stints behind the plate.
You say it's no big deal for a player to move around the diamond? Squires was a left-handed thrower, so it speaks volumes about his skill with the glove when Tony LaRussa decided to use the Michigan native as an occasional defensive replacement at 3B in 1983 and 1984. Since there are three other position players on the roster who have extensive experience at first base, it's likely that Squires would have a platoon role if this team were a reality - and I'll take him even with the lack of home run power.
He never made an All-Star roster, but Marty Barrett is more than adequate at second base. As one the toughest strikeouts in the majors during his career, Barrett often batted second behind Wade Boggs for the Red Sox during his years (1982 to 1990) in Boston. Barrett's exceptional performance in the 1986 World Series against the Mets was all but wasted due to the lack of run production behind him. Imagine hitting 13 for 30 with five walks (.433 BA, .514 OBP) and scoring once in seven games.
There's always room for a superutility player on my roster, and Mark Loretta is one of the best of this valuable and versatile breed. The sure-handed infielder could start at short or second and do a fine job at either position, but he also saw a fair amount of action at the corners.
Loretta played 829 games at 2B, 405 games at SS, made 234 appearances at 3B and played 214 games at 1B. The right-handed swinger slashed line drives to the tune of 1713 career hits and a .295 lifetime average. Loretta followed up a .314 (ninth in the NL) season for the Padres in 2003 with a career year in 2004.
In addition to a .335 average (third best in the NL), Loretta posted additional career highs in hits (208, second best in the league), HR (16) and RBI (76). Calling Loretta a super sub understates his value. He's good for 400 to 500 at-bats - maybe more - over the course of a season on this team.
It was always a pleasure to watch Don Kessinger play shortstop for the Cubs during my grade school and teenage years. The six-time All-Star earned a pair of Gold Gloves with his hands, range and arm as he regularly stole hits from opposing batters. Kessinger usually led off for the Cubs. With just 14 HR in 7651 career at-bats (1931 hits, .252) and a .312 slugging percentage, the switch-hitter was the epitome of an old-school middle infielder.
Jeff Cirillo could never be accused of being a slacker. The formers Brewers, Rockies and Mariners third baseman played with intensity despite being stuck on losing teams throughout his lengthy (1994-2007) big league career.
At his best, Cirillo was a high-average doubles hitting machine with better than normal defensive skills. He came through with 46 two-baggers (good for fifth and second place in the American League) in 1996 and 1997 for Milwaukee, and Cirillo's 53 doubles for Colorado in 2000 was second best in the National League.
Seasons of 194, 198 and 195 hits from 1998 to 2000 along with batting averages of .325 in 1996 and .321, .326 and .326 from 1998 to 2000 showed how Cirillo could perform consistently at a high level. What could derail such a successful career?
A toe tap that Cirillo inadvertently picked up while in his stance threw the delicate balance of his swing off, and his numbers plummeted. The right-handed swinger crashed to .249 with just 6 HR and 54 RBI for the Mariners in 2002. Efforts to ditch the toe tap proved unsuccessful, and Cirillo struggled to stay in baseball. A revamped swing allowed Cirillo to make a comeback as a platoon player for the Brewers, Twins and Diamondbacks. He finished with 1598 career hits and a .296 average.
The team's defensive replacement negates Loretta's skill with the stick. Ray Oyler has the worst batting average (.175, 221 for 1266) of any player with a minimum of 1000 ABs in the live ball era. The former Tigers and Seattle Pilots shortstop drew praise for his dependable glovework, but seasons such as a miserable .135 (29 for 215) for the world champion 1968 Tigers doomed Oyler to second-string status.
As a former catcher, I appreciate solid defense and pitch-calling skills behind the plate. Jim Hegan never finished above .249 in a full season, but the lifetime .228 hitter was one of the key players on the Indians pennant winners of 1948 and 1954. When great defensive catchers are mentioned, Hegan's name is always part of the conversation.
It would make sense to pick a lefty-hitting catcher to back up the right-handed swinging Hegan, but I'm partial to a modern-day defensive whiz who bats from the right side. If Henry Blanco is good enough to be chosen by Maddux as his personal catcher despite being an inconsistent hitter, he can play for my team when Hegan needs a day off. The Venezuelan-born Blanco can be Marrero's receiver, as they'll welcome the opportunity to communicate in Spanish.
That's 24 players, so who gets the final spot on the roster? All of the following journeymen are likely get some time in the majors over the course of a season as players move up and down from AAA.
Can a second-stringer increase attendance? One-armed Pete Gray appeared in 77 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and hit .218 with just 11 strikeouts in 234 ABs, and fans eagerly bought tickets for the opportunity to see this unique athlete. If nothing else, Gray can be on the active roster in September as well as a midseason call-up when needed.
Reserves who can competently play all three outfield positions give a manager some flexibility, and Tito Landrum fills that role. Landrum played for the Cardinals, Orioles and Dodgers from 1980 to 1988, and the right-handed swinger did a fair amount of damage against lefty pitchers. Few journeymen who never wore Yankee pinstripes can say they played for three pennant winners, but Landrum can make that claim.
Kevin Hickey went from playing slow-pitch 16-inch softball on the south side of Chicago to the White Sox clubhouse at old Comiskey Park. It was Hickey's arm that propelled him from tavern league softball to the majors. I'm sure my reality-based team could use another lefty reliever as pitchers go down over the course of 162 games.
Steve Fireovid spent more than a decade in AAA, but the right-hander's major league career was limited to 71.2 IP over six brief call-ups with the Padres, Phillies, White Sox, Mariners and Rangers from 1981 to 1992. A control pitcher, Fireovid is also the author of The 26th Man, a compelling account of life as a AAA lifer.
There are better places for a young player to develop than snowy Wisconsin, and Vinny Rottino overcame that obstacle to make it to the majors. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Division III Wisconsin-LaCrosse by the Brewers in 2003, Rottino has accumulated 36 at-bats in four sips of big league coffee with Milwaukee and the former Florida Marlins.
Rottino catches and plays first and third base along with the corner outfield positions. It would seem that some team could use such a versatile guy off the bench, but Rottino has nothing more to show than brief September call-ups for his efforts.
The right-handed hitter is a study in perseverance, as Rottino went back down to AA at ages 29 and 30 to stay in baseball. That determination was rewarded with a late season call-up by the Marlins in 2011. Vinny has a non-roster shot with the Mets this season, and it would be great to see him have to pay the inflated price of a New York apartment for at least a few months this year.
Tommy Watkins spent a decade as an infielder in the Twins minor league system before getting his first and only opportunity in the Show. A 38th round pick in 1998, the 5'7" Watkins didn't make it to AAA until mid-2006. The call-up to Minnesota in August 2007 was a great human interest story, as Watkins was the classic organization man and loyal minor league solider.
The rookie didn't embarrass himself, as Watkins hit .357 (10 for 28, all singles) before going down with an injury after nine games. That marked the end of the Cinderella story, as Watkins spent two more seasons at Rochester before becoming a coach in the Twins minor league system. Currently assigned to the Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League (Class A), the well-liked Watkins should have a long career in the game at some level.
How about an up and coming young player who could fit nicely on the roster? Diamondbacks right-hander Josh Collmenter relies on control (just 28 walks in 154.1 IP during his 2011 rookie season) and deception rather than heat to get batters out, and he'll enjoy picking the brains of Reuschel, McGregor and Quiz.
Who gets to run the team? As a stickler for fundamentally sound baseball, I want someone who insists on playing smart and has a track record for squeezing the most out of the talent at hand. Looks like a job for Tom Kelly or Joe Maddon. Either manager would be an excellent option.
There is only one choice for my team's announcer, as I'll gladly pay Vin Scully whatever he wants to be on the air. Living in the Midwest means I don't hear Scully nearly as much as I'd like, but no one has ever made baseball sound so sweet as the voice of the Dodgers.
Control pitchers and line-drive hitters dominate this roster. Take away Howard and Burks, and the leading power hitter couldn't be counted on for more than 15 homers. That's no surprise, as I've always leaned towards grinders and smart contact hitters. There are also a lot of genuinely nice guys (Howard, McGregor, Bradford, Gwynn, Squires, Williams, Barrett, Mota, Watkins and others), low-maintenance solid citizens (Reuschel, Hegan, Cirillo, Loretta, Fireovid, etc.) and people with a sense of humor (Lolich, Quisenberry, Reed) here to maintain harmony in the clubhouse.
So who are some of the players on your reality roster? They can come from a single team or cover the major league spectrum. Go ahead and make your list.