Backyard Baseball is one of those games that if you played it as a kid you're going to have great memories of it, whereas if you never played then I genuinely feel bad for you. Without question the best game of the series is the 2001 version, which was the first to feature pro players as kids and had Cal Ripken Jr. on the cover. The 2003 game (Mike Piazza cover) used the same formula just with updated MLB players. It was a great sequel but for some reason just not the same as '01. After that they started making the games for other systems besides PC and it only got worse. From 2001 to 2010 Pablo Sanchez went from this:
Gross. Anyway I've always wondered what players would represent teams for a hypothetical present day installment of the franchise. There are two rules, though. First is you need a couple of pitchers (Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2001, but somehow Frank Thomas had 10/10 pitching and I'm Still confused as to why). There also has to be one team that has two representatives. Why this is the case I have no idea but 2001 featured both Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey from the Reds while 2003 featured both Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi from the Yankees. So keep those things in mind as we break it down team by team:
Baltimore Orioles: Baltimore is one of the teams with a clear choice. Manny Machado is a top six or seven young player in all of baseball and is coming off a career year. He has always been known for his defense but in 2016 he hit for career highs in home runs, batting average, slugging, and OPS. This led to his second straight top five finish in the AL MVP voting. Incredibly Machado would be even more valuable had he stayed at shortstop, which teams will factor in as they prepare for his 2018 free agency.
Boston Red Sox: You could go a lot of different ways with Boston. Xander Bogaerts was hitting .350 in mid season last year. Dustin Pedroia is the face of the franchise and would make for a great backyard character. They have two aces. But this has to go to the runner up in the AL MVP voting, Markus Lynn Betts. He had an incredible season, hitting .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers and 26 stolen bases en route to leading the Sox to baseball's number one offense and the division title. His combination of power, speed, and fielding would make him one of the best players in the game.
Chicago White Sox: Three months ago this spot would've belonged to Chris Sale. However, the White Sox seem to borrowing a play from their crosstown rival's playbook and are hitting the full reset button. This winter they have also traded Adam Eaton while Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, and Jose Abreu remain on the trade block. Abreu hasn't had that one monster season we seemingly predict every year, but he has been an absolute bargain since signing a six year, $68 million deal out of Cuba in 2014. He has a chance to become one of the best Cuban hitters we've ever seen.
Cleveland Indians: There's so many different directions to go here. Francisco Lindor is one of baseball's brightest young stars. Corey Kluber cemented himself as one of the games elite starting pitchers with a dominant postseason. Yet I thought this would be a good chance to highlight one of the games biggest changes from this past year and go with Andrew Miller. The 2001 and 2003 games never had a reliever but Terry Francona's usage of Miller in 2016 might be the start of a new era for relief pitchers. This past offseason saw the highest contract for a reliever get surpassed three different times. That tells you all you need to know about the state of relievers in today's game.
Detroit Tigers: While Miguel Cabrera isn't the same hitter he was during his 2012-13 apex (that included the first triple crown in 45 years), he is still one of the best hitters in baseball and the clear representative from Detroit. Miggy is one of five active players who should be considered future hall of famers. From 2005 to 2016 Cabrera hit at least .313 in every season but one, a streak that included four batting titles along the way.
Houston Astros: Jose Altuve is the perfect player to picture as a backyard character thanks to his height. It's easy to forget now but entering September of 2016 he was the AL MVP favorite thanks to an absolutely monsterous year that saw him hit 24 homers with 30 stolen bases. Over the past three seasons he has led the league in batting average twice, stolen bases twice, and hits three times. He has become the best second baseman in baseball and at 26 years old is only getting better.
Kansas City Royals: Eric Hosmer has to be considered one of the most underrated players in baseball right now. He doesn't have major power for a first baseman but does literally everything else you would want from a cornerstone franchise player. He posted career highs in home runs (25) and RBI (104) this past season. Hosmer has also won Gold Gloves in three of the past four years.
Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout. Enough said.
Minnesota Twins: It's almost sad to have to pick Joe Mauer as their representative. That 2009 AL MVP season feels like forever ago. That season Mauer hit 28 homers, which is more than he has hit in the last three seasons combined. He has since transitioned full time to first base while eating the majority of Minnesota's player budget thanks to an eight year, $184 million deal he signed back in 2010. That being said the Twins have a couple potential stars in Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, but Mauer is still their most recognizable player and deserving of being Minnesota's representative.
New York Yankees: All I have to say for the Yankees is thank goodness for Gary Sanchez because before him they didn't have a young, recognizable star. Sanchez is a lock to come back down to earth after hitting 20 homers in just 53 games as a rookie, but his season was so good that even if he plays at 75% of his 2016 production he will be one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. He is going to be an integral part of the next great Yankees team.
Oakland Athletics: Some of these teams just don't have a good option. This must be how Marty Fucking Cordova ended up in the 2001 game. Sonny Gray is Oakland's best player but he's not a top pitcher in the league. Khris Davis quietly hit 42 homers in 2016 and is their most deserving position player. A year from now I will probably question myself for not choosing Gray but it's not like Oakland left us with any great option.
Seattle Mariners: Its tough to ignore King Felix but we are only choosing a few pitchers and realistically it looks like his best days are behind him. In 2016 he posted his highest ERA since 2007. For two straight year he has seen his walk rates rise and strikeout rates fall. That leaves the spot for Robinson Cano, owner of one of the prettiest swings the sport has to offer. In 2016 Cano hit a career high 39 homers.
Tampa Bay Rays: This is another easy one. I actually have no idea who we would select from Tampa if not for Evan Longoria. Chris Archer? He's good but we are only choosing a couple pitchers and he isn't even a top ten guy. While Longoria isn't the same player he was five years ago he is still an above average third baseman and the face of the Rays. Unfortunately for him he will probably go down as someone who was too loyal to the team that drafted him.
Texas Rangers: Its time Adrian Beltre receives some love. In 2017 he is going to become just the 31st player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits. He also has a shot at 500 homers before his career ends. Add in the superb defense and 90.2 career WAR (higher than Chipper Jones, Ken Griffey Jr., and Jeff Bagwell) and we are talking about a hall of fame player. He's been underrated for too long to ignore.
Toronto Blue Jays: Toronto has had a couple of rough offseasons the past two winters by losing David Price and Edwin Encarnacion to free agency. However, their window to win isn't totally shut. They retained Jose Bautista, have an underrated pitching staff, and still have the 2015 AL MVP under contract for two more years. Donaldson followed up his MVP season with a just as impressive 2016. He is one of the league's premier player right now and square in his prime.
National League selections coming next week.