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    Friday, March 20, 2020

    Building a Backyard Baseball 2020 Roster

    I wanted to do something more lighthearted to help cheer up what would have been the last week before Opening Day before everything went into quarantine. And one of the most lighthearted topics I could think of was to revisit one of the earliest things from my baseball fandom, Backyard Baseball.

    For those of you who didn’t have a chance to play the series growing up, Backyard Baseball was a series of video games by Humongous Entertainment that debuted in 1997. The premise was simple: it was a basic, arcade-style baseball game where all the players are kids and all the parks are just places they might play around their neighborhood. In that sense, it’s kind of like a video game equivalent of The Sandlot or The Bad News Bears. The series was aimed at kids, but the underlying game was actually very solid, and had a unique aesthetic sense that helped engrain it in the mind of young sports fans, making it a cult classic that has endured the years.

    After the success of the first game, the team expanded into other sports, where they hit upon another big idea: adding a handful of pro players (as cartoon kid versions of themselves, naturally) to the list of selectable options. When they circled back around to a sequel for Baseball, Backyard Baseball 2001 (so named for its release year: 2000), they upped their ambitions to that point and added one MLB player to represent each team, more than doubling the original thirty-person roster (one team go two representatives, but we’ll come back to that).

    (note: since this tweet, four more of these players have been inducted into Cooperstown, as has 2003 addition Jim Thome ; more are still likely to join them)

    So there’s the pitch: if we were making a modern reboot of the original, who would make our roster? This actually isn’t the first time I’ve written about this topic, but a lot has shifted in the nearly three years since I wrote that piece. In fact, it’s a larger gap than it took for Humongous to release their follow up, Backyard Baseball 2003 (released in 2002), and that already saw a lot of shift in its rosters.

    But what did I learn last time was the series tended to go with more recognizable and experienced stars. Also, there was little attention paid for balance (just under half of the picks from 2001 were outfielders, and just under a quarter were shortstops), especially when it came to picking position players versus pitchers (both 2001 and 2003 only had two pitchers among their MLB reps). Being fun to caricature also doesn’t hurt.

    So with all of that in mind, if we were picking one player per team, who would be the most likely pick?

    Astros-Last time I did this, I went with Jose Altuve as the Astros' rep, and it's hard to see that changing. George Springer, Alex Bregman, and a whole host of other players have their arguments, but Altuve has such a high profile (as an MVP and six-time All-Star), and is so recognizable that it would be easy to translate him to the game.

    Angels-Like with the Astros, the Angels have a lot of high-profile stars, but it's hard to see anyone other than Mike Trout representing them in game. But as some additional trivia, last time around, I gave Carlos Beltran an honorary "grandfathered-in" slot as well for being the last remaining player from 2001. This time around, Albert Pujols would be that pick, as with the retirement of Beltran and Ichiro Suzuki, Pujols is the final remaining active player from the 2003 edition.

    Athletics-I don't think you could go wrong with Matt Chapman or Marcus Semien. Chapman has the stronger track record, but given the original series went much heavier on shortstops than third basemen, I'd go with Semien taking this slot.

    Mariners-Given the number of rebuilding teams, there are a lot of rosters where there just aren’t any great options right now, with the Mariners the first ones we’re looking at. It’s not like this wasn’t a problem in the original game, either, with picks like Marty Cordova, Jeromy Burnitz, and Alex Gonzalez on the behalf of weak Twins, Brewers, and Marlins teams. I guess we’ll go with longtime Mariner Kyle Seager, who has still been a decent player even if he isn’t as great as some of our other choices.

    Rangers-Corey Kluber probably has highest profile, but Joey Gallo's breakout 2019 and homegrown status, combined with the series' tendency to favor hitters over pitchers, makes him the favorite on this roster.

    Diamondbacks-Here will be our first brush against that “two pitcher” rule. Guys like Ketel Marte or Starling Marte might be the best position players on the D-backs right now, but they’re hardly household names. This is a scenario where it might be worth it to go with someone like Robbie Ray or Madison Bumgarner. I’d lean to the latter, even if he’s been worse lately, because he’s probably more widely known (thanks to his playoff success), has a distinctive look that would make for a fun cartoon, and his hitting ability would play well in a game that doesn’t use the DH. We’ll probably only be able to add one or maybe two more pitchers, maximum, but given Arizona’s current roster set-up, this seems like one of the better uses for our limited pitcher spots.

    Dodgers-Last time around, I went with Clayton Kershaw, and I could still see him as an option here. But given that he's lost a step the last few years, and that Backyard Baseball tended to go with position players, reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger is probably the favorite nowadays. Also, if you read that Ringer profile I linked to earlier, you'll know that the Reds got two representatives in 2001 because the developers' original pick for the Mariners, Ken Griffey Jr., was traded to Cincinnati and they decided to just leave him in while picking a replacement Mariner (this would apparently repeat in 2003 when original A's choice Jason Giambi signed with the Yankees). The obvious analog here would be Mookie Betts, who was the prohibitive favorite on the Red Sox until his trade to the Dodgers late in the offseason, so that.

    Giants-Buster Posey has lost a step from his peak, but the Giants' roster isn't good enough that there's an obvious replacement, so he's still probably the most famous player on the team. Hunter Pence gets bonus points for being easy to caricature, and Evan Longoria was my pick for the Rays last time, but Posey is just too much of a face for this team.

    Padres-Fernando Tatis Jr. wouldn't be a bad pick, but Manny Machado has been around longer and is more recognizable to the general public right now, which means this spot is probably his until Tatis can muster up a few All Star selections.

    Rockies-Since they didn't manage to trade him this winter, Nolan Arenado still seems like the obvious choice here.

    Indians-Once again, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez would both be stellar picks, but given Lindor's longer track record and shortstop position, he's the favorite.

    Royals-There are a lot of options here. Jorge Soler or Whit Merrifield would be okay. Nothing stellar, but you have to work with what you have. Alex Gordon might work as a legacy pick, even though he's nearing his end. Salvador Perez might have locked this down had he been healthy. But I think I'm going to go with Adalberto Mondesi, for three main reasons: he's a shortstop, he's young enough that he still has potential (much like Royals’ rep Beltran in 2001), and he's the son of Backyard Baseball 2001 alum Raul Mondesi.

    Tigers-It feels weird to go with Miguel Cabrera given how rough his last few years have been, but given the original version had guys like Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn (both past their prime by 2000), it's not like there isn't precedent. Besides, it's easier to see kids getting excited to play as Cabrera than guys like Niko Goodrum or C.J. Cron, even if he has lost a step or two.

    Twins-There are a lot of good players on the Twins right now, but Nelson Cruz or new arrival Josh Donaldson probably have the highest national profiles on the roster right now. My gut instinct says to go with Donaldson.

    White Sox-Lucas Giolito or Dallas Keuchel wouldn’t be bad picks, but given our limited pitching spots, they probably aren’t the first options. Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, or Yasmani Grandal would probably all be fine picks; I personally lean towards Moncada, given his potential to be the young breakout star for this game.

    Brewers-Christian Yelich is clearly the star on this team, and given that he's now signed for the next decade, I don't see any arguments to not use him as the face of the team.

    Cardinals-Paul Goldschmidt would be a good choice (I had him as the Diamondback's representative back in 2017), but I feel like it's a tough question of whether he would unseat Yadier Molina. Molina has basically been the face of the team since Pujols left nearly a decade ago. I think you could make good arguments for Goldschmidt depending on a variety of things, like age or roster balance, but Yadier is probably the Cardinals' rep until he retires.

    Cubs-You could probably go with either Kris Bryant or Javier Baez at this point. I think Bryant still has the higher national profile, between his MVP award and presence in marketing for the game, so I'm still leaning in his direction, but I wouldn't be shocked if Baez had caught up to him these past few years.

    Pirates-Josh Bell is probably the most recognizable Pirate at this point, between his appearances in the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby last year. Plus, he has a pretty distinctive look that would probably be fun to make a cartoon version of.

    Reds-Joey Votto isn't what he was in his prime, and unlike some other teams, there are some good players to choose from as alternates. But I think Votto has become synonymous with his franchise the way guys like Yadier Molina or Buster Posey or Miguel Cabrera have, so it this is his slot until someone takes it from him.

    Blue Jays-Hyun-Jin Ryu is probably the most established star here, but again, our pitcher slots are limited, and there are some other good options in Toronto. Bo Bichette or Cavan Biggio would both be fun picks, given that it would give them bragging rights over their dads (Jeff Bagwell and Larry Walker represented the Astros and Rockies in 2001), but for that reason, I’m going to go with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., giving us our second pair of father-son representatives after the Mondesis.

    Orioles-John Means had a good rookie season, but given our limited slots for pitchers, let's go with Trey Mancini. He's had some decent years, and he deserves some good news after his rough past month.

    Rays-There are a lot of good pitchers here, including former Cy Young Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, but their roster isn't as dire as some others, so we'll save those two or three pitching slots and go with Austin Meadows.

    Red Sox-This is a rough one, since the obvious choice of Mookie Betts no longer applies. Xander Bogaerts or J.D. Martinez could work, or we could use one of our pitcher slots on Chris Sale. I think I’m leaning towards the latter option, but maybe it’s just news of his Tommy John making me sentimental, since it’ll be a while before we see him again.

    Yankees-You could probably argue for Giancarlo Stanton, but this is most likely Aaron Judge's spot unless he turns it down or something.

    Braves-Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. would both be fine choices, but since Freddie Freeman is still good as well, and Backyard Baseball had a tendency to pick more established stars, we’ll go with him here.

    Marlins-We're going to have to take our final "Oof" slot and go with someone like Jonathan Villar or Corey Dickerson. There just aren't any great options here.

    Mets-Jacob deGrom feels like the right choice to me, especially given his two back-to-back Cy Young Awards. If we only get so many pitcher slots, that seems like the type of track record we’d take a pitcher over somebody else for. But if we’re still a little tight, you could also go with Pete Alonso.

    Nationals-Max Scherzer (or maybe Stephen Strasburg) would be solid options here. But again, we only have so many pitcher slots to work with; I’m leaning towards three (Bumgarner-Sale-deGrom), and even that might be pushing it. But Juan Soto wouldn’t be a bad fallback option. Bumgarner is the one that I’m most inclined to drop, but his likely replacement (Ketel Marte) is probably also the one I’m least excited about, so it’s a tough call either way. Maybe if Marte has another season like his 2019, it’ll make me more okay with swapping him in.

    Phillies-He’s still playing well, and still one of the most recognizable players in the league even if he’s changed teams, so I’m going with Bryce Harper here.

    So, there you have it: our 31-player (with a secret, legacy 32nd player) roster for a hypothetical Backyard Baseball 2021. We’re a little lighter on shortstops and outfielders, and a lot heavier on third basemen, than the original game, but that’s probably more of a function of the league right now. Overall, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, but it also makes me kind of sad that this series has been ignored for so long. Hopefully that changes sometime in the future, but if not, at least this trip down memory lane got my mind off of quarantine for a few hours.

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