Every NL team’s biggest ‘what if’ of the 21st century: Steve Bartman, A-Rod as a Met and more


… Brandon Webb stayed healthy? For a six-year stretch from 2003-08, Webb was as good as any pitcher in the game. He averaged 219 1/3 innings and 5.5 WAR those six years, and pitched to a 3.24 ERA with outstanding strikeout and ground ball rates. Webb was worth 33.2 WAR from ages 24-29. That’s on par with Chris Sale (33.8 WAR), better than Justin Verlander (32.6 WAR) and Felix Hernandez (32.0 WAR), and 13th best among all pitchers for that age range since baseball first expanded in 1961. He was a certifiable beast.

Webb started his fourth straight Opening Day in 2009 and got hit hard, allowing six runs in four innings against the Rockies. He was placed on the disabled list the next day and that was it. Webb never pitched in the big leagues again. A series of shoulder injuries that required multiple surgeries derailed his career. A comeback attempt with the Rangers in 2011 lasted 12 minor-league innings before he needed another surgery. Webb won the Cy Young in 2006, was the runner-up in 2007 and 2008, then his career ended on Opening Day 2009. This game can be cruel.

… Fredi Gonzalez used Craig Kimbrel? The Braves, down 2-1 in the 2013 NLDS to the Dodgers, took a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning of Game 4. Kimbrel, then at the height of his powers, would later say he was ready for the two-inning save. Instead, Gonzalez brought in setup man David Carpenter, who surrendered a leadoff double to Yasiel Puig and what proved to be the NLDS winning two-run home run to Juan Uribe. A screen grab is worth a thousand words:

craig-kimbrel-20131.jpg

Craig Kimbrel did not throw a single pitch in Game 4 of the 2013 NLDS.
MLB.com screen grab

“I think six outs isn’t something we were even talking about in the dugout,” Gonzalez said following the game. Had Kimbrel been brought in for the two-inning save, there’s no guarantee he nails it down, and even then the win only would’ve forced a decisive Game 5. With your season on the line and the game’s best reliever in the bullpen, not using him with an eighth inning lead feels egregious, and who knows what would’ve happened in Game 5? The Braves have not won a postseason round since 2001 and a chance at Game 5 was there for the taking.

… Steve Bartman got out of the way? I hate it. I really do, because Bartman has been unfairly vilified for doing something every single one of us would’ve done in that situation, but the incident is the obvious call here. With the Cubs up 3-0 in Game 6 and 3-2 in the 2003 NLCS, Mark Prior pitched to Luis Castillo with Juan Pierre on second base and one out in the eighth inning. Castillo lifted a pop-up to the left field line and Bartman, along with several others, reached for the ball, potentially interfering with Moises Alou. Alou did not help matters with his angry reaction.

Castillo’s ball fell foul, extending the at-bat. He later drew a walk and the inning got away from Prior and the Cubs. The Marlins put eight runs on the board after Bartman possibly (but not definitively) prevented Alou from catching the pop-up for the second out of the inning. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez booting a potential inning-ending 6-4-3 double play ball a few batters later seems to have been lost to history. For his safety, Bartman had to be escorted away from his seat by security.

“I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play,” Bartman said in a statement after the game. In the 2011 film Catching Hell, Alou said, “I’m convinced 100 percent that I had that ball in my glove.” The ball dropped in, the Marlins won the game, then they went on to win Game 7 as well (the Cubs blew an early 5-3 lead in that game). 

Even if Alou catches the ball, Prior was running on fumes at that point, and the next four Marlins to bat reached base. And of course Chicago had an opportunity to win Game 7 as well. A pennant and a World Series title was hardly assured, though the out would’ve tipped the scales a bit. Bartman stayed out of the public eye and was blamed for extending the Curse of the Billy Goat up until the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. The team gave him a personalized 2016 World Series ring, which was a nice gesture.  

… Ken Griffey Jr. stayed healthy? His desire to play close to home, not to mention his impending free agency, led to the Mariners trading Griffey to the Reds prior to the 2000 season. Griffey was the game’s biggest star and it was a true blockbuster. He held up his end of the bargain in Year 1 too. Griffey hit .271/.387/.556 with 40 home runs in 2000, though the Reds went 85-77 and finished nine games out of a postseason berth.

The rest of Griffey’s tenure with Cincinnati was marred by injuries, including knee and hamstring problems. He played in only 554 of 972 possible games from 2001-06, though he was very good overall when healthy (.272/.353/.523 with 123 homers). The Reds had the eighth-worst record in baseball from 2001-06 and never finished higher than third in the NL Central, so it’s entirely possible healthy Griffey would’ve made no difference. Then again, if he had stayed healthy, we might’ve watched him chase the all-time home run record a few years ago. It’s too bad injuries set in. Griffey was an all-time great and an awful lot of fun.

Troy Tulowitzki stayed healthy? Only five shortstops in history have had at least four 6-WAR seasons through their age-26 season: Alex Rodriguez, Arky Vaughan, Nomar Garciaparra, Joe Cronin, and Tulowitzki. Two Hall of Famers, a player who would sail into the Hall of Fame if not for performance-enhancing drugs, and two others who dominated the sport before being derailed by injuries.

Tulowitzki was historically great early in his career, amassing 27.0 WAR in his first five full MLB seasons. He was a two-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glover, and a two-time top five finisher in the MVP voting by age 26. 2007-09 was the best three-year stretch in Rockies history and Tulowitzki was the center of it all. Alas, injuries limited him to 264 of 486 possible games from 2012-14, and his days as an above-average everyday player came to an end in 2012. Had he stayed healthy, we’d be talking about Tulowitzki as the greatest Rockie in history, and as a potential Hall of Famer.

Kenley Jansen replaced Joe Kelly? It’s tempting to go with “what if the Astros didn’t cheat in 2017 and the Red Sox didn’t cheat in 2018?” here, but I’m sticking to things each team can control, and there’s not much the Dodgers could’ve done to stop the other team from stealing signs illegally those years.

Instead, we’ll go with the decision to use Kelly for a second inning in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS. Kelly had a dominant 1-2-3 ninth inning, but the 10th inning was a mess, culminating in Howie Kendrick’s series-winning grand slam.

“You’re looking at obviously a tie ball game, and Kelly goes in there, throws 10 pitches, and he’s throwing the baseball really well. I liked Joe right there in that spot. I really did,” manager David Roberts said after the game. Kelly was dominant in the ninth, no doubt, but he’s also very unpredictable. He did not retire any of the four batters he faced in Game 3 and his regular season had a few too many meltdowns.

Roberts had two options against the middle of the Nationals‘ lineup in the tenth: Kelly in his second inning of work or a rested Kenley Jansen. Jansen had the worst season of his career in 2019, but he was still really good, and he was a fresh arm against the other team’s best hitters. Maybe Jansen would’ve blown it and we’d all be asking why Kelly didn’t throw a second inning, but losing a close game like that without your ace closer making an appearance is made for “what if” baseball.

… they signed Albert Pujols? When the Angels signed Pujols during the 2011-12 offseason, their biggest competition was not the Cardinals or some other big-market team. It was the Marlins. Miami offered Pujols a 10-year contract worth somewhere between $200 million and $275 million, depending whom you ask, and it didn’t hurt that Florida has no state income tax. It was a competitive offer before then-owner Jeffrey Loria took it off the table.

The Marlins opened their new ballpark in 2012 — their first home game that year was against the Cardinals, which would’ve been fun had they signed Pujols — and Loria spent money in effort to attract fans. They signed Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell, and Jose Reyes that offseason. Pujols would’ve been the centerpiece of the winter and the team going forward. Those players (and others) were eventually traded away in cost-cutting moves, of course, but unloading a declining Pujols with that contract would not have been easy. Miami has not been to the postseason since 2003 and I’m not sure Pujols gets him there at any point.

… the Carlos Gomez trade didn’t fall apart? In July 2015, the Brewers and Mets agreed to a three-player trade that would’ve sent Gomez to New York for Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler. The Brewers were rebuilding and looking to add young talent. The Mets were in the postseason race and needed another bat, and they were willing to sell low on Wheeler, who was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, to get it. The deal was agreed to and Flores shed tears on the field.

The trade was never completed. Mets doctors wouldn’t sign off on Gomez’s medicals — a hip issue scared them, reportedly — and the trade was called off. That led to the Mets trading for Yoenis Cespedes, which worked out very well for them, and the Brewers sending Gomez to the Astros. Josh Hader came back in that trade. So did Adrian Houser and two others (Brett Phillips and Domingo Santana). Oh, and Mike Fiers went to the Astros in that trade. I guess you can blame the Mets and Gomez’s medicals for Houston’s sign-stealing scheme being made public.

Hader has been excellent with the Brewers, so things worked out in the end. Wheeler was pretty great the last two years though (3.65 ERA in 377 2/3 innings). Does the 2018 NLCS or the 2019 Wild Card Game play out different with Wheeler in Milwaukee’s rotation rather than Hader in their bullpen? We’ll never know, and it’s hard to complain about a series of moves that led to Hader and three other big leaguers, but it’s a fun thought exercise.

… they signed Alex Rodriguez? A-Rod grew up a Mets fan and he’s on the record saying he wishes he would have signed with the Mets in 2001 rather than the Rangers. Here’s what he said during an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcast two years ago:

“Growing up in Miami, I was a huge Mets fan. Keith Hernandez was my favorite player. And I thought I would make great concessions to go play for the Mets. And I thought it was just a great story for baseball, it would’ve been a great story for me to play for the team I grew up watching. And I thought Mets-Yankees would have been a great story.”

The Mets only halfheartedly pursued Rodriguez during the 2000-2001 offseason — then-GM Steve Phillips famously said he didn’t want Rodriguez because he didn’t want a “24-plus-one-man roster” — despite winning the National League pennant the previous season. Phillips instead bolstered his rotation with Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel that offseason. The Mets went 82-20 in 2001 and finished no higher than fourth place each year from 2002-04.

New York’s incumbent shortstop, Rey Ordonez, was a great defender who couldn’t hit. A-Rod himself was a very good defender back then, and he was one of the game’s top hitters. Had the Mets signed A-Rod, they may have traded shortstop prospect Jose Reyes for help elsewhere on the roster. Or maybe they keep Reyes and never sign Kaz Matsui. Do they sign Carlos Beltran a few years later or avoid another big contract? Given how crummy the Mets were from 2001-04, it’s entirely possible A-Rod’s time there would’ve played out like his time in Texas. Great player on a bad team who eventually forced his way out.

(Special “what if” shoutout goes to manager Terry Collins not removing Matt Harvey after eight innings in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series. That’s a fun “what if” too, though signing A-Rod and the many ramifications is a far more fascinating scenario, especially since the Mets still would’ve been down 3-2 in the series and going back to Kansas City had they won Game 5.)

… they’d kept Cliff Lee? It was a stunning sequence. The Phillies swung a blockbuster trade to acquire Roy Halladay in December 2009 and later that same day — the very same day! — they shipped Lee to the Mariners to replenish the farm system and get payroll in order. Halladay was brilliant in 2010, winning his second Cy Young, and the Phillies were very good. They won 97 games and the NL East handily, but were eliminated by the Giants in the NLCS. The circle was complete when Philadelphia signed Lee as a free agent the next year.

What if the Phillies had simply kept Lee in 2010, however? They would’ve paired Lee with Halladay and Cole Hamels, and not had to trade three players, including J.A. Happ and Jonathan Villar, to the Astros for Roy Oswalt at midseason. Having Lee in the NLCS could’ve changed the way that series played out, though, to be fair, Oswalt was very good that series (three runs in 14 2/3 innings), and the Phillies had Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt in 2011, and didn’t get out of the NLDS. Still, I can’t help but wonder how things would’ve played out with Halladay and Lee in the same rotation at their peak in 2010.

… they didn’t draft Bryan Bullington? General rule of thumb: it’s not a good thing when the general manager says he envisions the player he just selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft becoming a No. 3 starter. That’s what Pirates then-GM Dave Littlefield said after the team made Bullington, a right-hander out of Ball State, the No. 1 pick in 2002. “We still look at him as a couple of years away,” Littlefield added.

To be fair, the 2002 draft was considered weak at the time, and Bullington was a legitimate first-round talent. He wasn’t the consensus No. 1 talent in the draft class though. Not even close. That was either Virginia high schooler B.J. Upton or Florida high schooler Zack Greinke. Upton went No. 2 overall to the (Devil) Rays and Greinke went No. 6 to the Royals. The Brewers grabbed a slugging Florida high school first baseman named Prince Fielder with the No. 7 pick.

Bullington reached the big leagues briefly in 2005, though his career largely stalled out when he reached Double-A in 2004. He went up and down a few times, got hurt, was lost on waivers, and spent five years in Japan before calling it career. Bullington retired with a 5.62 ERA in 81 2/3 career big-league innings. There have been 53 No. 1 picks in draft history and only 12 have a lower career WAR than Bullington. Three of those 12 were selected in 2017, 2018, and 2019 are still in the minors. The Pirates totally whiffed on the No. 1 pick in 2002 and set a rebuilding franchise back even further.

… they’d hired Terry Francona? The Cardinals sent Tony La Russa out with a World Series championship in 2011. There were two primary candidates to replace him: Francona and Mike Matheny. Francona was the known quantity, a championship-caliber manager who’d helped the Red Sox break the curse. He was also coming off the team’s humiliating collapse late in 2011. Matheny was viewed as the next great manager at the time.

St. Louis chose Matheny and he spent parts of seven seasons with the team, winning three NL Central titles and one NL pennant. There were questionable strategic decisions abound in the postseason though, and the Cardinals stalled out following their 100-win season and NLDS loss in 2015. Things in clubhouse went bad too. Matheny more or less sanctioned bullying, and seeing how he was billed as a great leader, that was a bad look. The Cardinals fired Matheny in July 2018 and things turned around almost immediately under Mike Shildt.

Francona, meanwhile, spent 2012 as a television analyst before catching on with the Indians in 2013. The team has thrived despite small payrolls under his watch. Cleveland has 638 wins since 2013, the most in the American League and the second most in baseball behind the Dodgers. The Cardinals fielded several powerhouse rosters from 2013-15. Do one (or more?) of those teams win a title with Francona calling the shots and running the clubhouse rather than Matheny? 

Matt Holliday was called out? This “what if” scenario may not exist in the instant replay era. The call would’ve been challenged. The Padres and Rockies finished with identical 89-73 records after 162 games in 2007, forcing a Game 163 tiebreaker to decide the NL wild card spot. The game itself was a classic Coors Field barn burner. San Diego put five runs on the board in the third and Colorado scored in the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth innings.

Scott Hairston broke the 6-6 tie with a two-run home run against Jorge Julio in the 13th inning. Padres manager Bud Black held closer Trevor Hoffman back for the save situation, but the bottom of the 13th unraveled quickly. The first three hitters Hoffman faced went double, double, triple to tie the game. With Holliday representing the winning run at third with no outs, Jamey Carroll lifted a fly ball to right, and Holliday beat the throw home. Replays show his hand may have never actually touched the plate.

“To this day, I don’t think he touched (home plate),” Black said in 2016. The replays make it appear that Padres catcher Michael Barrett blocked the plate with his foot. He didn’t catch the throw cleanly either, but he picked it up and tagged Holliday before Holliday went back to touch the plate. In the year 2020, the Padres challenge the play. It might’ve been one of those “there’s no conclusive evidence he didn’t touch the plate” situations, but we’ll never know.

San Diego lost the game and the club’s quest for a third straight postseason appearance came to an end. The Padres haven’t been to the postseason since. Carroll’s sacrifice fly was only the first out of the inning, so even if Holliday were called out, the inning would’ve continued with a runner at first base and two outs. It’s entirely possible the Padres would’ve lost anyway given how shaky Hoffman was that night. Or, Holliday could’ve been called out, San Diego could’ve won the game, and the 2007 postseason could’ve played out very differently.

… Robb Nen hadn’t been overworked? At his peak, Nen was as nasty as any closer in baseball. He was the backbone of the Giants bullpen from 1998-2002, and during the team’s run to Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, manager Dusty Baker used Nen a lot. Ten times in 17 games he pitched that October, including seven times in an 11-day span at one point. Nen did all that despite pitching through shoulder trouble since midseason.

By Game 6 of the World Series it was clear Nen was running on fumes. San Francisco held a 3-2 lead in the series and a 5-3 lead in Game 6 going into the eighth inning. Setup man Tim Worrell allowed a leadoff homer to Darin Erstad and back-to-back singles to Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson, putting the tying run at third and the go-ahead run at first with no outs. Baker summoned Nen for the six-out save. His fourth pitch was a hanger that Troy Glaus put in the gap, giving the Angels the lead.

Nen was never one to make excuses — “It didn’t matter what he was feeling. He took the ball. He was a warrior,” Giants bullpen coach Mark Gardner would later tell ESPN — but he was clearly diminished in the World Series. His velocity was down and his command was basically nonexistent. Nen was succeeding with guts and guile up until that mistake pitch to Glaus. The Angels took the lead, won Game 6, then won Game 7 as well.

Nen got three outs following the Glaus double and never pitched in the big leagues again. Arm trouble, including multiple shoulder surgeries, sidelined him until he officially announced his retirement in 2005. Had he been healthier in 2002, or simply used a little less often down the stretch, the eighth inning of Game 6 couldn’t played out differently. It was a dire situation — again, the tying run was at third with no outs — but perhaps Baker skips Worrell and goes straight to a more rested Nen for a six-out save and that dire situation never happens. 

Stephen Strasburg hadn’t been shut down? Few prospects came with as much hype as Strasburg. He was a monster at San Diego State, a ready-made MLB ace, and he immediately lived up to the hype. Strasburg had a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts as a rookie in 2010. He blew out his elbow that September though, and had Tommy John surgery.

The Nationals eased Strasburg back into action in 2011 and controversially shut him down in September 2012 to control his workload. Strasburg was an All-Star with a 3.16 ERA in 159 1/3 innings that year, and the Nationals won 98 games and the NL East. A division winner shutting down their ace before the postseason? Unheard of. GM Mike Rizzo did himself no favors by declaring, “We’ll be back and doing this a couple more times,” implying they’d be back in the postseason the next year.

Washington got Pete Kozma‘d in Game 5 of the NLDS that year and they missed the postseason in 2013, making Rizzo’s words look silly. The Nationals also lost in the NLDS in 2014, 2016, and 2017. It wasn’t until 2019 that Washington got over the hump and advanced beyond the NLDS. The shutdown was ultimately validated when Strasburg was healthy and strong enough to win World Series MVP last year. Who knows though, maybe the club missed out on a title by shutting him down in 2012.





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