Mailing List

Sign up for email updates from Hot Corner Harbor any time there's a new post!

    Friday, February 9, 2024

    Backyard Baseball 2024: Revisiting the Idea of a Revival

    I’ve had a fairly busy month for writing. There was of course all of my Hall of Fame coverage; that always keeps me pretty packed.* I also just published a very large playlist covering the music I listened to over the last few months of 2023 over at Out of Left Field; as a reminder, if you want to see my non-baseball writing, I have a separate mailing list for that! I’ve even started prepping for the 2024 installments of my Future Hall of Fame series, so expect that in the next few weeks.

    *I also had another Hall of Fame article that I put a lot of effort into, but I ultimately had to scrap because I couldn’t get it to where I wanted it before the results came in. However, I may try to rework it into something new once the Future Hall updates are done, so maybe keep an eye out for that. Plus, I have a few other music and video game pieces in the works.

    But I can’t resist taking a break for a fun idea. So when I learned that Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce is a fan of the Backyard Sports series and has actually looked into buying the rights to revive it, it was too good to pass up. And it makes sense; for people of a certain age, those games were incredibly influential, and for pretty good reason! I wish him luck in his quest to bring them back!

    My angle on this is pretty obvious: What would a Backyard Baseball roster look like going into the 2024 season? I’ve actually looked into the idea twice before, back in 2017 and then again during the delay of the 2020 season, so it’s been a little while. Back at their peak, Humongous Entertainment’s individual sports series were releasing new games every year or two, so four years should give us a decent amount of turnover.

    As a quick refresher, I’m using the rules of Backyard Baseball 2001 and 2003, where the developers would include 31 real pro players (one from each team, with one team getting two, which I’ll get into more later). Later games would stray from both rules somewhat,* but this gives us a little more structure. Plus, I think it’s more fun this way, sort of like getting to pick the face of a franchise at a given time.

    *Also, those later games just generally weren’t very good anyway, although that’s less of a deciding factor.

    While there weren’t hard-and-fast rules beyond those, there were a few other you could see trends. You’d generally want mid-career stars, although older stars at the end of their careers could be added if they were big enough names, like Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn (sometimes, though, neither were available). Players were strong favorites to return if they were still on the same team, although not guaranteed (about 14 out of 18 eligible players from 2001 were back in 2003), and some big enough names came back even after changing teams (i.e. Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi). Positionally, there wasn’t a huge attempt to balance things, so it’s not a huge issue if we’re not even ourselves. However, one thing to note is that pitchers did feel like a bit of an afterthought (2001 included just 2, 2003 had 3), so it’s probably fine if we focus on position players first and foremost.

    Let’s begin with the spots that give us an easy starting point: only thirteen players that I picked for the 2020 roster were even still with the same teams in 2023. However, three of those thirteen are already guaranteed to be elsewhere for 2024 (the retired Miguel Cabrera, the released Madison Bumgarner, and the traded Chris Sale), and another, Joey Votto, is still a free agent (and one who seems likely to sign elsewhere).

    How are the other nine looking?

    Astros, Angels, Yankees: Only ten teams repeated their representatives between my 2017 and 2020 editions, and barring Votto resigning, these are the only ones that could go for a three-peat. Andreally, I don’t see any reason for any of them to change; Jose Altuve, Mike Trout, and Aaron Judge all remain some of the biggest stars of the game, and they all seem incredibly fun to translate into the game’s playful aesthetic (I imagine the size contrast between Altuve and Judge especially would be fun for animators to caricature).

    There are enticing alternatives on Houston and New York, between players like Justin Verlander, Yordan Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, and Juan Soto, but the one-player-per-team rule is a harsh mistress. The Angels probably would have taken the second spot last year, but now there’s really no one to challenge Trout’s spot.

    Padres, Philies: Manny Machado and Bryce Harper had just finished their first seasons in their new homes last time, and four years later, they remain the go-to picks for their teams. Future Hall of Famers who are still stars, and who should stick town around for the foreseeable future. Maybe they’ll get worse and someone will rise to claim their spot in the future (although as mentioned, the original Backyard Baseball wasn’t averse to using past-their-prime stars with name brand recognition), but that’s not at all where we are in 2024.

    Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a bit of a reach pick in 2020, but an understandable one; the 2020 Jays were only just about to escape the lull of their post-Jose Bautista era, and it wasn’t clear who would be the biggest star. I went with Vlad Jr., partly because Vladimir Guerrero Sr. was in the original Backyard Baseball, but that gamble turned out pretty darn well! I’m sympathetic to the idea that Bo Bichette is the better player here, as Vlad hasn’t really lived up to his 2021 MVP-runner-up season in the years since, so maybe he could be swapped in. But Guerrero is still doing flashy stuff like winning Home Run Derbies, making video game covers, and winning historic arbitration amounts, so I think he holds on here too.

    Brewers: I thought about using one of our limited pitching spots on Corbin Burnes in my first draft of this piece; however, his recent trade to Baltimore puts the kibosh on that idea. So we might as well go back to Christian Yelich, who’s under contract for longer than impending free agent Willy Adames and has more of a track record than William Contreras.

    I couldn’t pick Andrew McCutchen to rep the Pirates back in 2020 as he was out touring the league, but back in 2017 I wrote that he “feels like the type of player who was born to be in a game like Backyard Baseball. He plays the game with such an infectious joy, it’s hard to picture anyone else from this team here.” We’re going to take advantage of his return to Pittsburgh and reappoint their beloved star, even if his best days are behind him.

    Dodgers: This one is actually somewhat complicated. So, back on the 2020 list, I actually included two Dodgers: Cody Bellinger (the then-reigning NL MVP) and Mookie Betts (who was traded there from Boston just before the article ran). There’s actually a bit of a history of one team getting two slots in Backyard Baseball: in the first edition with pros, original Mariners choice Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to Cincinnati during the game’s development, and they just left in original Reds choice Barry Larkin while adding Alex Rodriguez to cover Seattle. Something similar actually happened with the next version as well, this time with Jason Giambi going from Oakland to New York as a free agent, giving the Yankees two players (Derek Jeter being the original choice; Tim Hudson would be Oakland’s replacement player).

    You probably see where I’m going with this; I don’t see any way a baseball game in 2024, even one with a limited roster, doesn’t include Shohei Ohtani.* He’s clearly the game’s biggest star at the moment. And given that he was a known free agent, it would even have been easy for hypothetical developers to just set aside the “second player slot” for him, regardless of where he went… which of course wound up being the Dodgers. Betts can also come back as the “original” Dodger pick (although if you want another option, L.A. also has Freddie Freeman, who was my Braves pick last time).

    *I was kind of shocked that I didn’t include him last time, but heading into the 2020 season, Ohtani had only played two MLB seasons, and his biggest achievement had been winning the 2018 Rookie of the Year. He still only had about 50 innings pitched at that point! His ascension to this point has been mostly just the last three years, and that’s kind of a good reminder of how quickly things can change.

    Braves: Speaking of Freeman, we’ll need to replace him with another Atlanta Brave. I can’t imagine there would be many objections to Ronald Acuña Jr., coming off his historic MVP season. Austin Riley and Matt Olson would be easy picks on another team, but not here.

    Mariners: Actually, let’s knock out a few other easy picks. Julio Rodriguez feels like the obvious face of the Mariners.

    Orioles: You could maybe make the case for Gunnar Henderson, but I think Adley Rutschman holds the slight edge at the moment.

    Mets: Francisco Lindor was the Guardians’ pick last time, as a young up-the-middle star, and he’s still the centerpiece of his new team. Maybe you could argue for Pete Alonso for his showy Home Run Derby performances, but I think Lindor still has the edge.

    Guardians: Of course, with Lindor out of the picture in Cleveland, his former partner on the left side of the infield seems like the obvious replacement. You maybe could have gone either way back in 2020, but since then, Jose Ramirez has added four more top-ten MVP finishes and an extension through 2028.

    Rays: The Rays don’t have a ton of big name stars, but Randy Arozarena has definitely captured national attention with his flashy play and penchant for big moments. Maybe his ceiling hasn’t been as high as the last few choices, but he’s still a star in his prime, and there isn’t much competition on the rest of the roster thanks to the Rays’ wheeling-and-dealing ways.

    With that pick, we’re halfway through building the roster! However, we’re going to have some bigger challenges in the back half…

    Giants: I know I said that we’d try and focus on taking hitters over pitchers, but I think Logan Webb is just too easy a choice to deny. He’s consistent enough that choosing him doesn’t feel like a stretch, his runner-up finish in Cy Young voting last year feels like proof people are starting to see him as one of the best pitchers in the league, and he’s even a local Northern California product. It also helps that the Giants are a little thinner on position players; maybe you gamble on new South Korean star Jung Hoo Lee? But that feels unnecessary.

    Texas: This one is kind of a “wealth of options” case, where none of them have the edge that makes them feel like a no-doubter. I could see either Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom as pitching options, although both feel like weird choices specifically as Rangers. I think Adolis Garcia or Marcus Semien would both be strong options. But I ultimately think this goes to Corey Seager; his 2023 was just too strong, especially with the World Series MVP, he’s the team’s shortstop, his early track record is Hall-worth so far, and he’s the one signed with the team longest.

    Tigers: They haven’t had a winning season in seven years and counting, and their iconic future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera just retired. You could maybe gamble on a young, home-grown up-and-comer like Riley Greene or Spencer Torkelson establishing themselves… but you could also go with the free agent star who has name recognition but has lost a step. Yeah, Javier Báez isn’t the former All-Star and MLB: The Show cover athlete that he used to be, but he also doesn’t feel too far afield from picks like Mo Vaughn (Angels) or Jose Canseco (Rays) in Backyard Baseball 2001. Shoot, even the original Tigers pick from that game was Juan Gonzalez!

    Cubs: This case seems like the mirror universe version of the Tigers. Dansby Swanson’s seven-year mega-deal is off to a much better start, and he definitely has more awards and notoriety than homegrown alternative Nico Hoerner. He even got an All-Star pick in his first season in Chicago! Maybe someone from the farm will rise to take his spot next time, but Swanson’s a solid choice until someone else forces our hand.

    Twins: Another twist on the set-up of the last few teams: do you still go with the big-name free agent shortstop Carlos Correa, even coming off a down season? You have other options, but they all have question marks. Homegrown Byron Buxton has been good when healthy , but that’s been rare. Royce Lewis has potential as a former #1 pick, but still only has 58 games under his belt. Pablo Lopez has been solid, but I don’t think he’s a top-tier star right now (not to mention that most of our roster will be hitters anyway). I think I’m going with Correa still for now, but a 2023 as good as his 2022 (not to mention less free agency drama) probably would have made this feel like a much easier pick.

    Cardinals: I stuck with Yadier Molina as their pick back in 2020 over their then-recent star acquisition Paul Goldschmidt (who was my pick for the Diamondbacks back in 2017), but now is probably his time. You could also argue for Nolan Arenado (my Rockies pick in both 2017 and 2020), as both of them still feel like big stars, but I think Goldschmidt’s slightly longer St. Louis tenure and 2022 MVP win (just above Arenado, at that) are the edge.

    Diamondbacks: I really feel like this should be Corbin Carroll; he just strikes me as a natural fit for this game, even before getting into his astounding debut season or the way he seems poised to be a major force in the league over the next few seasons. Maybe it’s just the way the Diamondbacks have already locked him in to be the face of the franchise with his big extension (through 2031), or the way he kept popping up in big moments last year (like the All-Star Game or World Series). But this also feels kind of dismissive of Zac Gallen or Ketel Marte, neither of whom would be bad choices (there are definitely teams here where I’d take either of them without a second thought!). I think I’m sticking with my gut here, but I’m open to counter-arguments if anyone has them.

    Red Sox: I think we’re going with Rafael Devers now, especially with his big contract extension. I wouldn’t blame people who considering Triston Casas after his exciting rookie year, but this feels to me like a case where we take the more established star and see if the young player can catch up to him down the road.

    Royals: This one is a little weird. You could argue for Bobby Witt Jr., who just signed a big extension following his breakout 2023. There’s also Salvador Perez, who’s lost a step since his prime but is still making All Star teams, and remains the final piece from the Royals’ 2014-15 Golden Age. I didn’t pick Perez back in 2020; I was a little worried about him missing all of 2019, but in retrospect, that concern feels silly.* If this was an entry in a real series, I imagine those concerns would have been overruled, and Perez would also be coming off two straight picks, making him a little harder to dislodge now. It also helps that this series is looking a little lighter on catchers, another point in Perez’s favor. I’d probably go with Perez this time to be safe (even if he is in the decline side, “declining face of the franchise” is a well-established Backyard Sports role), and give Witt the first crack at the 2027 version of this roster (or whenever I decide to tackle it again)

    *It also doesn’t help that I really fumbled the make-up pick, going with Adalberto Mondesi on the hopes he would continue to improve and the sentimentality of making him and his dad Raul Mondesi (the Blue Jay’s pick back in 2001) another set of father-son picks.

    White Sox: Speaking of “I don’t know what I was thinking back in 2020”, I dropped my 2017 ChiSox pick Jose Abreu and tried to buy early on the new, exciting youngster Yoan Moncada, who had just had a breakout 2019 and inked a big extension. Abreu of course won the 2020 MVP Award, while Moncada has been pretty middling. Again, hopefully a real series would have an editor to talk me out of that choice back then. Obviously, we can’t use Abreu this time, so this is mostly to say that I’m not giving Moncada any incumbent advantage, like I have for other 2020 picks.

    This is going to be another rough roster to work with. You likely either go with Luis Robert Jr. or Dylan Cease. Robert’s difficulties in staying healthy for a full season can be frustrating, but I think you take that over the guy who’s been on the trading block for nearly a full year and risk seeing him moved right before the release date.

    Marlins: I think that if you wanted to put Luis Arraez on the roster, this would be the year to do it. Sandy Alcantara will miss the entire 2024 season following a 2023 that didn’t live up to his dominant 2022, and Arraez is building off two strong seasons in a row. That being said… Alcantara’s track record is more than just 2022. Even his “disappointing” 2023 wasn’t actually bad, just not as good. Plus, I feel like we need more pitchers than just Ohtani and Webb, and Alcantara has certainly been one of the better choices from the last three years… Maybe if Corbin Burnes could still be our Brewers pick, or if we felt okay going with Cease regardless of whether he’d be traded, I’d be willing to pick Arraez instead. I’m going with Robert/Alcantara, but if you wanted to swap it for Cease/Arraez, I’d certainly understand you. Or maybe you could go with Arraez/Gallen if you were less sold on Corbin Carroll than I am.

    Rockies: I feel like this has to be either Ryan McMahon or Nolan Jones, and Backyard Baseball has typically gone with power-hitting outfielders over slick-fielding third basemen, so Jones it is. Maybe you could make a dark horse argument for Charlie Blackmon on nostalgia grounds (although having to make a child version of a player whose most defining feature is an unruly beard seems very funny).

    Reds: There are a plethora of young Reds to choose from, and none of them has quite asserted themselves as the obvious favorite for this spot. I would honestly probably punt on making this pick and just default to Joey Votto if he was returning, but that seems unlikely right now, so we’re going to just pick one and hope it pans out. Elly de la Cruz maybe didn’t have the best 2023 season out of all of our options here, but he is the youngest of our options, and his toolsy play and high potential attracted a lot of attention. He’d give Corbin Carroll and Pete Wheeler competition at the top of the speed rankings. Plus, I think an artist could have fun translating him into a tall and gawky neighborhood kid.

    Nationals: And now, we get to “the tough choices, but in the frustrating sense”. If you ever wondered why guys like Marty Cordova or Alex Gonzalez made the roster of Backyard Baseball 2001… well, go back and compare those 1999-2000 Twins and Marlins teams to the Nationals and Athletics now. 2003 also had its fair share of forgettable picks, but they seemed to go in a different direction; guys like Greg Vaughn (Rays), Jeff Conine (Orioles), Phil Nevin (Padres) and Bobby Higginson (Tigers) were all in their 30s when they were picked, sometimes several years in, and they were often hired guns, as compared to the in-house developments of Cordova and Gonzalez.

    Or maybe I’m reading too much into it; after all, there were old hired guns in the earlier game, too (Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Mo Vaughn), and some of the under-30 reach picks in 2003 went on to have solid-enough careers that they at least don’t look out of place. Either way, though, that’s essentially the dichotomy facing us here: do you want to gamble on a younger star who might develop to very good or even great heights (say, Carlos Beltran or Jimmy Rollins) but also might just not develop into even a minor star (Cordova, Alex Gonzalez)? Or do you pick the more established smaller star just passing through, but who at least won’t completely bust?

    For Washington, I imagine the two ends of that question are probably CJ Abrams and Joey Gallo. Shortstop Abrams, just 23, has been a solid player in his first 200 games since arriving in the Juan Soto trade. Gallo, meanwhile, was my pick for the Rangers back in 2020 (beating out Corey Kluber, which would have been a really funny pick), coming off his first All-Star selection. He definitely wouldn’t be in the Backyard tier of “future Hall of Famer”, but I think he’s at least worked his way above the bottom tier and up to “respectable”, maybe somewhere in line with Richie Sexson or Cliff Floyd or Raul Mondesi. I really don’t think there’s a “right” choice here, it just comes down to personal choice.

    I think I’d go with CJ Abrams? I suppose largely for the reason I went with Gallo for the Rangers back in 2020; you might as well bet on the younger player. Would my 2020 roster have been better if I used that spot on someone like Elvis Andrus or Lance Lynn? I guess, but not that much more. Meanwhile, I’m definitely going to associate Gallo with that era of Rangers teams more than either of those two, so it feels a little more representative.

    Athletics: For as limited as the selections feel for the 2024 Nationals, I don’t really know that I’d put the A’s on even their level. Their closest choices for the “established veteran” role are probably… Alex Wood? Ross Stripling? We’re leaning away from pitchers, so maybe Aledmys Diaz? I can’t see taking any of them. So that leaves “young stars”... I guess we’ll take Zack Gelof, who had a hot start after his mid-July promotion, over Ryan Noda or 2023 All-Star Brent Rooker. If you want to take either of them instead though, go ahead; I suppose we are a little light on first basemen compared to the old Backyard Baseball rosters (although maybe that’s a good thing; the 2003 roster had something like 8 first baseman, while the the series didn’t pick a single second baseman until Alfonso Soriano in Backyard Baseball 2005).

    In the past editions, I’ve included a secret 32nd slot for the players from the original games who were still in the league, but that’s really not an option anymore; none of the players from 2001 through 2005 are still in the league, and the later games in the series were so bad that it can be difficult to figure out who was even on the roster (even places like the Backyard Sports Wiki don't seem to have bothered to document them?).

    If you really wanted to, maybe you could use that 32nd spot here, whether on another player who was very recently moved (Juan Soto, Corbin Burnes, Blake Snell whenever he signs somewhere), shoring up underrepresented positions (Cal Raleigh, Matt Olson, Zack Wheeler…) or just picking a second star stuck behind a bigger name (Nolan Arenado, Yordan Alvarez, Marcus Semien…). I’m sure everyone has their own preferences for how that goes, but I’ll stick to just the 31 players I listed. That means our final set (separated by division to make it easier to browse) is:

    AL West: Jose Altuve, Zack Gelof, Julio Rodriguez, Corey Seager, Mike Trout
    NL West: Mookie Betts, Corbin Carroll, Nolan Jones, Manny Machado, Shohei Ohtani, Logan Webb
    AL Central: Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Salvador Perez, Jose Ramirez, Luis Robert Jr.
    NL Central: Elly De La Cruz, Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, Dansby Swanson, Christian Yelich
    AL East: Randy Arozarena, Rafael Devers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Aaron Judge, Adley Rutschman
    NL East: CJ Abrams, Ronald Acuña Jr., Sandy Alcantara, Bryce Harper, Francisco Lindor

    New Email List, since Blogger broke the last one!

    The old subscription service doesn't seem to be working anymore, so if you'd like to receive emails when a new Hot Corner Harbor post goes up, sign up here!

      We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.

      No comments:

      Post a Comment