I have loved baseball for a long time. When I was a young kid though, I was a somewhat fair weather fan. My favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, had a good run in the early 90s, but otherwise I tended to favor football and basketball over baseball. That changed dramatically in December of 1998, when the Pirates signed Ed Sprague to play third base.
Sprague had long been my favorite player, having spent most of his career at that point with my second favorite team – the Toronto Blue Jays. Sprague had a great season for the Pirates, earning a place on the National League All-Star team, and hitting .267/.352/.465 with 22 home runs. His OPS of .817 was the second highest of his career (for seasons in which he played full-time). While Sprague was with the Pirates, I couldn’t miss a game. I even had a chance to see him hit a home run in person. The Pirates had a fairly decent team in 1999 (finishing 78-83) and, if not for injuries, may have broken up that streak of consecutive losing seasons from 1993 to 2012. I had equally enjoyed the Pirates’ 2003 team.
Sprague signing with the Pirates had demonstrated to me that free agency could help a team (whereas in the early 90s the Pirates had been hurt frequently by free agency). Each season after Sprague’s tenure with the Buccos, I started closely watching the Pirates’ moves in free agency. Of course, as with many other fans, as a teenager I began to wonder how I might perform as a general manager – especially during free agency.
That curiosity started a tradition of mine. Each season, I tried to find a list of the players unsigned to a Major League Baseball team on opening day and construct a team from those players. My goal was to make the team as competitive as possible and use players with some MLB experience (with a few exceptions, as the KBO is going to lend me a hand this time). I also got into the habit of imagining this team as an expansion team without the benefit of an expansion draft. Obviously, there is a need to suspend reality to make this work and to just enjoy the entertainment value of imaging how this team would look. Before I go on, let me say Mark McGwire hates this idea.
Several years ago, I would post the rosters I created onto Facebook. I eventually got out of the habit of posting my “free agent team” online. However, yesterday I had nothing better to think about while landscaping for most of the day. I sat down last evening and starting doing some research. After a few hours, I pieced together a roster along with some statistical projections. I have always enjoyed the numbers associated with baseball. I decided that this blog would work well enough as an outlet for the finished product.
I’m calling the team the Alaska Railroaders. The team would play in Anchorage, which has a long railroading history. I am fully aware that Anchorage, with a metropolitan area of less than 500,000 people, could not support a MLB team. However, when I was a kid I was obsessed with Alaska, so that part of this entire scenario was nonnegotiable. The Railroaders would play at the fictional ConocoPhillips Field, which would be built in Bootleggers Cove. Visible through an opening in the grandstand behind center field would be the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and downtown. A locomotive’s whistle would announce the hitting of a home run by the Railroaders. I imagine the team playing in the National League West division (for the purposes of constructing a roster, I am electing to have the team placed in the NL) and wearing white and gold uniforms with blue and black trim. This would allow the team to generally share the livery of the Alaska Railroad. I also assembled my roster as if the team would start play with the current 2016 season. Before I go on, I should share that I have three short stories involving baseball: The Shepherds and Game 7, Any Pitch is its Hit, and Devil on the Diamond. Each of these stories intertwine baseball and the supernatural. I have also used the “Alaska Railroaders” as a fictional independent league team in a few of my works.
Three subsequent posts will break the Alaska Railroaders’ roster into pieces: infielders, outfielders, and pitchers. I’m not claiming this team would win the pennant. That said, I would hope to field a team that could best the 2003 Detroit Tigers in a series.
I will share the Alaska Railroaders first signing in this post, as he is a player that will see time in the infield and outfield. The Railroaders’ first official player would be Garrett Jones. Jones was most recently with the New York Yankees in 2015, but is probably best remembered for his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates from 2009 to 2013.
Jones is not technically a free agent, as he signed a contract with the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball in December of 2015. However, for the sake of constructing this roster, we will deem Jones available since he would have most likely preferred to sign with a Major League Baseball club. Jones would serve as the Railroaders’ primary first baseman, although he would likely sit occasionally against left-handed pitching. Against right-handed pitching, Jones has a career slash of .265/.330/.473. Although Jones struggled in 2015 while seeing limited at bats with the New York Yankees, the 34-year-old (at the start of the season) could easily see over 600 plate appearances with the larger role of a first base platoon and the occasional start in right field. Jones also brings some home run power to the roster. He averaged over 19 home runs per season between 2009 and 2014. As far as a projection is concerned, I see Jones embracing this opportunity to the tune of .256/.324/.442 with 22 home runs and an OPS of .766 in 543 at bats. For the record, Jones is presently hitting .247/.331/.463 with 13 home runs across 231 at bats in Japan (as of July 21).
Up next: the other infielders.