What If: All The High Schoolers Signed?

Things look a lot different in this Major League Baseball.

With two men on and none out in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Los Angeles Dodgers had a chance to take the lead from their AL East opponent. The Globe Life Field’s floodlights filled the neutral site for game six of the 2020 World Series as tensions grew. Dave Roberts’ team had a chance to move just outs away from back-to-back World Series titles.

Dodger legend Paul Goldschmidt stepped into the batter’s box as Toronto Blue Jays starter Aaron Nola looked in for the sign. The Los Angeles first baseman stood tall, with a bat draped over his shoulder as Nola stepped into a four-seamer intended for the inside half of the plate. Goldschmidt was early on it, but pulled it into play and passed a diving Kris Bryant.

Third basemen Gavin Lux dashed home to tie the game and Cody Bellinger scored shortly after to give LA the lead (Yankee Justin Turner watched from his couch). Nola’s day was done, and Toronto manager John Gibbons stepped out from the dugout to signal for a lefty to try to save their season — James Paxton.

To the untrained eye, this is Major League Baseball. But it is only an echo of the baseball we know today — a bizarro world where a collective bargaining disaster put Scott Boras out of work and led to every high schooler signing with the team that drafted them. Mike Trout is still an Angel and Jacob deGrom a Met, but in this world, Aaron Judge is an Athletic and Trea Turner a Pirate (at least until they traded him before his arbitration price got too high).

The NL West looks eerily familiar. The Dodgers core of Bellinger, Goldschmidt, Clayton Kershaw, and Corey Seager has dominated in recent years. After considering trading for star outfielder Mookie Betts in the 2020 offseason, Dodger GM Andrew Friedman instead decided to bolster the rotation, flipping Alex Verdugo and prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates for a right-hander they coveted for some time — Walker Buehler.

The Colorado Rockies gave LA a run in 2020, with top second base prospect Dansby Swanson joining an infield of Trevor Story and Ryan McMahon. Colorado had a three-game lead heading into September, but their pitching couldn’t hold up as home run issues that plagued Rockies ace Chris Sale his entire career reared once again.

Top pitching prospect Kumar Rocker was called up to bolster the Rockies rotation when Ross Stripling’s season ended with an injury, but he was out-dueled by LA’s Kevin Gausman in Game 163 to seal the division for the Dodgers.

Los Angeles’s 2020 World Series opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays, has been tormenting the AL East for years. Starring the Nola brothers — Austin and Aaron — a rotation headed by Paxton, Luke Weaver, and Brady Singer, and a lineup anchored by third basemen Bryant, Toronto’s competition window was wide open. General manager Alex Anthopoulos made an aggressive move at the deadline, acquiring DJ LeMahieu and young reliever Patrick Mahomes from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for ascending shortstop Bo Bichette.

Toronto had made the World Series two years prior but was swept by one of the best Pittsburgh Pirates teams in recent memory. With young aces Walker Buehler and Mark Appel, speedy second basemen Trea Turner, and slugging catcher Paul DeJong all pre-arbitration, the Pirates won 98 games with a $67 million payroll.

Year WS Winner Runner Up World Series MVP
2020 Los Angeles Dodgers Toronto Blue Jays Paul Goldschmidt
2019 Los Angeles Dodgers Oakland Athletics Stephen Piscotty
2018 Pittsburgh Pirates Toronto Blue Jays Trea Turner
2017 New York Mets Cleveland Indians Mitch Haniger
2016 Miami Marlins Minnesota Twins Charlie Blackmon
2015 Los Angeles Angels Atlanta Braves Matt Harvey

For the last half-decade, the AL Central has been a battle between Cleveland and the Minnesota Twins. The Twins have dominated with one of the best outfields in baseball, featuring 2017 MVP George Springer and perineal All-Star JD Martinez. Alongside Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, the Indians roll out super-utility star Max Muncy and 2019 Rookie of the Year and batting title champ Nick Madrigal.

What has differentiated the Central teams in recent years is the Twins super-bullpen that features late-game monsters Kyle Barraclough and Nick Burdi. Burdi debuted in October 2013, just two years out of High School, touching 99 with his fastball and solidifying Minnesota’s bullpen for the next decade.

The Yankees have made splashes in recent offseasons, signing Anthony Rendon away from the Braves and Sonny Gray from the Cubs, but their player development has held them out of the playoffs for five straight years. New York thought they had something special in home-grown righty Gerrit Cole, but aside from a fourth-place finish in 2015 Cy Young voting, injuries and inconsistency led to a trade. The Tampa Bay Rays acquired Cole for two-way player Michael Lorenzen, and when he got to Tampa, Cole’s spin-rates immediately skyrocketed and ERA halved, becoming one of the best pitchers in the game.

In an effort to finally return to the postseason, the Yankees traded for Nationals ace and long-time Yankee fan Marcus Stroman at the 2019 deadline. Stroman dominated in pinstripes, letting up only three homers during the second half (two to Boston’s Mike Yastrzemski), so New York inked him to a nine-year contract extension worth $324 million — the largest deal for a pitcher in MLB history.

Between Toronto’s World Series appearances in 2018 and 2020, the AL representative was decided in an all-AL West ALCS. In game seven of the 2019 Championship Series, the Seattle Mariners were two outs away from reaching their first World Series in franchise history. Standing between them and a franchise-altering win was the best offense (and defense) in baseball with Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and the man at the plate: Aaron Judge.

With Mike Zunino at second, Chapman on first, and down one run, Judge had a chance to walk off the game and series for Oakland. The towering Athletic had been second in the AL in doubles in 2019, behind only Kansas City’s Luke Voit, but everyone knew he had 50-homer potential in a more friendly park.

Young Mariner catcher Adley Rutchsman tossed down a lone finger, calling for closer Keone Kela’s fastball. Kela and Edwin Diaz had been jockeying for ninth-inning duties all season, but Seattle turned to Kela to get the biggest outs in franchise history.

His first pitch was painted high and inside for strike one. But the second, aimed for the same spot, drifted over the heart of the plate. Judge turned on it, setting the ball on track for the bullpens in T-Mobile’s left field. Instinctively, the glove of the lone Mariner reliever still getting loose, Diaz, shot up to catch the ball. As Judge was swarmed at home plate, the Mariners fans slouched and made for the exits.

Even in a ‘What If’ world, some things never change.

 

Graphics by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter)

Mitch Bannon

Mitch is a sports writer from Toronto who has covered college and professional football, basketball, hockey, and baseball. He is a defender of the oxford comma and card-carrying member of the J.A. Happ fan club.

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