We spend too much time evaluating players and teams for quality and not enough time assessing them for entertainment value. That may seem like an odd thing to say on the eve of the postseason, but remember that MLB determines its champion with a short, chaotic tournament, which is the kind of thing that you do when you care more about keeping viewers happy than crowning the best team.
So, in the spirit of entertaining, let’s revisit an exercise I’ve undergone the past three spring trainings to build the most entertaining team by picking the most captivating players from the postseason field.
Catcher: Russell Martin, Toronto Blue Jays
Martin has played 10 MLB seasons for four different teams and has now made the postseason eight times. Twice in the past three years he’s joined a team and immediately helped it break a playoff drought of 20 years or longer. He’s a magical winning pixie.
There’s also nothing not to like about his game. He hits and defends well, and he’s one of the few big leaguers who can appeal to both the Bat Flip Vine crowd and the Grit and Veteran Leadership crowd. Martin is greater than the forces that divide us.
Second Team: Travis d’Arnaud, New York Mets. This is my second choice because I don’t really consider Kyle Schwarber, who’s made all of 15 starts behind the dish this year, a real catcher for the purposes of this list. It’s taken d’Arnaud forever, it seems, to turn into a first-division starter, but that’s what he is when he’s healthy. And with Buster Posey at home and Salvador Perez ground into dust from overuse, d’Arnaud is probably the best offensive catcher you’ll see this postseason. There’s not a huge difference, in terms of fun, between d’Arnaud and Brian McCann, Yasmani Grandal, or Francisco Cervelli, but d’Arnaud has been overshadowed on a Mets team that will be quite well-represented on this list, and I figured I’d throw him a bone.
First Base: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
For a big guy, Rizzo is an outstanding contact hitter and a very good athlete, to say nothing of having a fascinating penchant for being hit by pitched baseballs. He’s like the halfway point between Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto.
And if you don’t like Rizzo, you have to explain it to this adorable predatory animal.
Second Team: Mitch Moreland, Texas Rangers. Most of the fun first base/DH types are DHing, so among the remaining first basemen, it’s worth singling out Moreland for overcoming five years of replacement-level production to actually hit pretty well this year. If the Rangers go back to the World Series, they won’t be hitting their first baseman eighth this time around.
Second Base: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
I love fast guys who make a lot of contact. For this reason, Altuve would be one of my favorite second basemen to watch even if he weren’t nearly a foot shorter than his double-play partner, and even if he didn’t run like a Peanuts character. Altuve’s been my preseason first-team All-MLB.TV second baseman for two years running now, and he’s done nothing this season to give up that spot.
Second Team: Rougned Odor, Texas Rangers. If you don’t follow prospects all that closely, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging a player’s potential by his major league service time and not factoring in his age. Unfortunately, this does players like Odor a disservice, because a 20-year-old rookie isn’t the same as a 25-year-old rookie in terms of maturity and development. Odor became a big league regular as a 20-year-old, at which age Brian Dozier (not to pick on Dozier, because I think he’s great) still had two years of college left. And at 21, Odor is now an above-average hitter at an up-the-middle position.
Odor’s also got a well-earned reputation as what hockey folks would call a pest, which makes him even more compelling, if not entirely for morally virtuous reasons. There was Saturday’s red-card-worthy slide on the Angels’ Johnny Giavotella, and a string of incidents dating back to this full-on fight on the bases in A-ball:
Anyway, since I’m not the one who stands to get his nose (or leg) broken, I find that players like this make for exciting baseball, particularly in a high-pressure postseason environment.
Shortstop: Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
I spent several hundred words on Correa last week, so I’ll just point you over there and add that most of the good things about him also apply to the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, if he’s the oversize 21-year-old rookie you prefer.
Second Team: Troy Tulowitzki, Toronto Blue Jays. Tulowitzki’s got the best throwing arm of any shortstop in baseball, as well as the ability to hit any pitch anywhere he wants anytime he wants to hit it. The only reason he’s not on the first team is that it’s unclear whether his injured shoulder will allow him to be Ultimate Tulo this postseason.
Third Base: Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
Second Team: Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays. Third base is stacked. So stacked that Kris Bryant isn’t one of the two most exciting third basemen among the 10 starters on playoff teams. If he’s healthy enough to play, Juan Uribe would merit consideration for his off-the-field antics alone, while someone like Matt Carpenter would at least make the second team at seven of the other positions on the field, even if players who don’t wear batting gloves give me the creeps.
But Donaldson is the obvious answer here. For starters, he’s got a pretty good shot at becoming the first player to beat out Mike Trout for AL MVP and actually deserve it. Beyond that, he flings himself around the diamond like a basketball player who figures that if he dives for every loose ball, people will forget that he’s slow and can’t shoot.
Left Field: Ben Revere, Toronto Blue Jays
Revere fascinates me more than any other player in baseball because his tools lie at the extremes: He’s an elite runner and contact hitter, but perhaps no position player in baseball has a worse throwing arm or less power. On top of being a fascinating player, Revere radiates so much positive energy that it makes me wonder if he’s part children’s cartoon character. A couple of years ago — and this is absolutely true — I followed him on Twitter, then unfollowed him because he was so completely, relentlessly happy and optimistic all the time. By comparison, my life is nothing but sadness and fear — and so is yours.
Second Team: Michael Conforto, New York Mets. First of all, Conforto went through the Mets’ division title celebration with a camera on his head, which resulted in a pretty cool video.
[mlbvideo id=”509719883″ width=”530″ height=”297″ /]
But beyond that, I’ve liked Conforto even going back to his days at Oregon State. Conforto’s not a particularly conspicuous physical presence, and while he’s got more than enough power to profile in an outfield corner, he’s not Joey Gallo or Bryant. But in college, guys who have a clue at the plate and even “enough” power are terrifying, and by his junior year, Conforto looked like someone who’d gotten used to playing a video game on Hard and bumped it back down to Medium, just for fun. I love it when those guys make good in the pros, and quickly.
I wouldn’t argue with Brett Gardner or Alex Gordon here, but the novelty factor makes Conforto a little more interesting to me.
Center Field: Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals
Center field is loaded. I could go 15- to 20-deep on players I find interesting in these playoffs if you limited me to center field and third base.
But I have to make a choice, and great defense is more fun in baseball than great offense. There’s not that much leeway in how guys swing the bat and run the bases, but there’s room for tremendous creativity in how they catch the ball. Cain is one of the game’s elite defensive center fielders, and two years ago he hit like someone who was in the game for his glove. Then he turned into an average-to-above-average hitter last year at age 28, and took another step forward this year to become a legitimate top-five center fielder. No offense to Jacoby Ellsbury, Joc Pederson, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gomez, or Kevin Pillar, but Cain is on another level for me.
Second Team: Yoenis Cespedes, New York Mets. I mean, this was pretty much the best-case scenario for a trade deadline rental, right? Two months of a 157 OPS+ en route to a decisive turnaround and the team’s first division title in a decade seems pretty good. I was surprised to see the Mets put Cespedes in center, but he’s been fine there, while continuing to show elite raw power and bat-flip ability. Cespedes was no stranger to this list as a left fielder, but his newfound godlike status in New York has elevated his entertainment value even more.
Right Field: Jason Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals
All things considered, Heyward is probably my favorite player right now, in large part because nobody’s game resembles his body less. Heyward, at 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, has been comprehensively disappointing as a hitter, if only because he came into the majors with Bryce Harper–level expectations. But it’s not like Heyward’s been bad: Apart from an injury-plagued sophomore season, he’s never posted a wRC+ lower than 110. It’s just that he’s gotten to a consistent six-win level in an unusual way.
Heyward is probably the best defensive corner outfielder in the game, is a very good on-base guy, and is 43-for-50 in stolen base attempts in the past two years. If you shrunk him by five inches and 60 pounds, shedding the elite power expectations but changing nothing else about his game, Heyward would be one of the game’s most beloved players.
Second Team: Shin-Soo Choo, Texas Rangers. One year after looking like he’d been crushed by the pressure of a $130 million contract, Choo, after a now-famous conversation with his wife, loosened up and regained his old form after the All-Star break. The Rangers are where they are in large part because Choo OPS’d better than 1.000 in the second half.
I love that story because Choo is playing like a man who decided actively to reject his own mortality, and it shows.
Designated Hitter: Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
Never mind that the A-Rod of 2015 no longer acts like the creepy villain most people see him as. To be completely honest, he’s now one of the most dadlike players in the game.
But imagine, a month from now, a champagne-soaked A-Rod, in his first season back following a year-long suspension, bringing a World Series title to a team that moved heaven and earth to try to get rid of him. I’m picturing a crunching, sucking sound as thousands of hot take artists across the nation involuntarily swallow their own faces. And it’s glorious.
Second Team: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays. Dinger parrot.
Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Despite the confines of this list, there are nine starters in the Mets-Dodgers series alone who make for appointment viewing.
But after Kershaw became the first pitcher since 2002 to strike out 300 batters in a season, and did so in such a variety of ways, he deserves the top spot.
Second Team: Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates. Cole’s here for two reasons: First, the Pirates are the only team I hadn’t gotten to on this list yet, and after near misses from Cervelli, Pedro Alvarez, and all three outfielders, I couldn’t overlook Cole as well. Second, I love big guys who throw hard, and Cole is like a yeti with a four-pitch mix. Apologies to the other Cole (Hamels), Jake Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel, David Price, Marcus Stroman, and several others.
Relief Pitcher: Andrew Miller, New York Yankees
I find it hilarious that the Yankees used one closer for almost 20 years and have gone through two in the two years since his retirement without any noticeable drop-off in quality. Miller’s already had several memorable run-ins with the heart of Toronto’s order this season, and has more than held his own.
Plus, watching him pitch is like watching someone try to kill pigeons with a tower crane.
Second Team: Dellin Betances, New York Yankees. Let’s double up on Yankees. Now seems like a good time to give a tip of the cap to every right-handed hitter who stood his ground against Betances instead of running back to the locker room like a normal person would have.
Betances was so effective in so many innings that he led all Yankees pitchers in WAR, and if Miller is laudable for being very large, being very good, and throwing very hard, it stands to reason that we ought to pick up Betances and get the whole set.