We can argue whether the Rays are the best team in baseball until their young starters and bullpen endure the summer American League East heat, but think about this -- what would they be if Joe Mauer were their catcher?
Think about the history of baseball in Los Angeles since Mike Scioscia parted ways with the Dodgers organization in 1999. Just as we will forever wonder what would have been if Aaron Boone hadn't blown out his knee playing basketball. Or how the Yankees and Red Sox would be relative to one another had Red Sox ownership allowed general manager Theo Epstein to sign Mark Teixeira.
What Ifs are fun, in hindsight.
For instance, what if they really had contracted the Expos and Twins between the 2001 and '02 seasons?
First and foremost, Jim Pohlad, Terry Ryan, Bill Smith, Ron Gardenhire and everyone in the Minnesota organization would have been robbed of first-place finishes, Mauer, their glorious new ballpark and the building of what now is one of the 10 top-revenue franchises in the sport. One looks at what has happened in Minneapolis -- and, yes, the economic demographics are advantageous -- and wonders what could happen in Miami without rain delays or that archaic stadium and St. Petersburg, if they could ever move to where the people of Orlando, Ocala and Yeehaw Junction could drive.
Obviously, there wouldn't be a team in Washington, D.C., which in time is going to be a boom franchise, no matter how much was given to Peter Angelos. With a really nice stadium and the promise of having Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg and perhaps Bryce Harper in Nationals uniforms in 2012, that can be a good team, and quickly. On the other hand, if Washington had been a viable destination without the move of the Expos, it might have been open to Oakland, Tampa Bay, Florida or any of the franchises that have and will continue to face economic and competitive problems.
Return to the winter of 2001-02. Let's say they could have pulled off a dispersal Draft. Based on a Draft order from the 2001 standings, here are my first 10 picks:
1. Tampa Bay: Mauer. Of course, six years later, we'd have wondered whether the Rays could have signed him.
2. Pittsburgh: Justin Morneau, ibid.
3. Baltimore: Vladimir Guerrero
4. Kansas City: Grady Sizemore
5. Detroit: Javier Vazquez
6. Cincinnati: Torii Hunter
7. Colorado: Cliff Lee
8. Texas: Brad Radke
9. Arizona: Michael Cuddyer
10. Florida: Brandon Phillips
Hey, it's fun to think about.
What if the Red Sox had gotten Alex Rodriguez in the winter of 2003-04?
The deals were made. The Red Sox agreed to send Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester to the Rangers for Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and Brandon McCarthy. The Major League Baseball Players Association forced Epstein and A-Rod to renegotiate the slugger's contract rather than allow Rodriguez to depreciate it just to get out of town, but as they whittled down the difference, the Red Sox issued a bombastic statement that in the eyes of Rodriguez and the union separated him from the other members of the union and blew up the whole thing.
Boone then blew out his knee, and the Yankees jumped in.
Now, it's hard to know if life would have been easier for Rodriguez playing shortstop in Boston. Certainly, the Rangers would have benefited from Lester, and Ramirez might have been more comfortable in Texas. Ordonez probably would have left for free agency in time, depending on his health and comfort level in Boston; my guess is that he would have loved Boston, and vice versa.
After those trades fell through, the Red Sox went on to win two World Series championships, but while Lester was a major part of the 2007 title, one wonders how A-Rod, David Ortiz and Ordonez would have done hitting 3-4-5. Rodriguez would not have staged a sitdown strike, like Ramirez.
What if Kevin Malone had made Mike Scioscia the Dodgers' manager in 2000, instead of leading him out of the organization at the end of the 1999 season?
Malone and his farm director, Rick "Ha Ha Hollywood" Sofield clashed with Scioscia, Mickey Hatcher and others. Hatcher recalls Sofield questioning the way Scioscia worked with Triple-A catchers. Well, in 2000, Bill Stoneman brought Scioscia to Anaheim, where the Angels had been 89 games under .500 in the 1990s.
Within two years, the Angels were World Series champions. Scioscia is the first manager to get to the playoffs six times in his first 10 years, and Artie Moreno was so blown away that he bought the team and has brought it to unprecedented attendance and revenues, helping the Angels become serious rivals with the Dodgers, in whose shadow they'd lived for more than 40 years. The Dodgers have prevailed in the National League Division Series the past two years -- the only postseason series they've won since the Reagan Administration -- but one cannot help but wonder if their long-term stability would have been different with 10 years of Scioscia.
No manager has more authority over personnel and development, and no manager has had more impact on his franchise.
What if Red Sox ownership had allowed Epstein to close out the Teixeira deal in November 2008?
Epstein and manager Terry Francona visited the Teixeira family, and to hear Tex and agent Scott Boras tell it, the deal could have been done the next day for $180 million. Oh, there was posturing for ways to make it a 10-year contract, but that could have been worked around. Then something happened when principal owner John Henry and CEO Larry Lucchino went to visit Teixeira, and the player had soured on the Red Sox.
The future directions of both teams were altered. Teixeira is now a major franchise piece of the defending World Series champions. Instead of having Teixeira at first base and Kevin Youkilis at third for years, Boston now is trying to deal with an aging process that is uncomfortable. At the end of this season, the Red Sox will have to look at another uber-contract, perhaps for either Carl Crawford (if he isn't already on the Cross-Bronx Expressway) or Jayson Werth, or empty the farm system for Adrian Gonzalez, whom the Padres don't have to trade.
What if franchise sales were actually open to bidding -- not the whims of the power inner sanctum -- and Mark Cuban had swept in and bought the Dodgers?
Sure, Cuban would have driven Commissioner Bud Selig nuts, but a Cuban-Moreno turf war, with Cuban's advanced media genius and passion, would have been tremendous in a world of East Coast bias. Ramon Troncoso, George Sherrill, Jeff Weaver and Ramon Ortiz might not be leading the pitching staff in appearances, and the Dodgers' real payroll wouldn't be less than that of the Rockies. Thank goodness Joe Torre has never managed better.
What if the Pirates had taken B.J. Upton instead of Bryan Bullington in 2002, Aaron Hill instead of Paul Malholm in 2003, Tim Lincecum instead of Brad Lincoln in 2006 and Matt Wieters instead of Daniel Moskos in 2007?
The entire reconstruction of the franchise wouldn't be greeted with a daily epidemic of cynicism.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.