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The MLB genie — One wish for fans of all 30 teams … with a catch

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After much thought, the Giants fan finally asked the all-powerful baseball genie for his wish: That Tim Lincecum could still, in the year 2019, throw 97 mph for 200 innings a season, like Max Scherzer does.

“OK,” the genie said. “What’ll you give me for it?”

The fan was confused. The genie explained that some genies like to come up with clever ways to unexpectedly curse any fulfilled wish, but this genie felt all that was unnecessarily cruel. This genie stated the stakes right up front: Any wish could be granted, but it would require the sacrifice of something of roughly equal emotional or tangible value. The more that is asked for, the greater the cost.

The genie said, “So, would you trade the 2014 World Series — the team’s third in five years, an overflow of confetti that one might argue had proved little the first two titles hadn’t already — for Tim Lincecum being able to throw 97 mph for 200 innings five years later?”

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The Angels fan’s dilemma: A better Brandon Wood but a not-quite-as-good Mike Trout

After much thought, the Angels fan asked for her wish: That the Angels won the 2019 World Series. The genie sighed, and explained that there are two wishes impossible to fulfill. One is winning a World Series. Simply too big to be granted.

So the Angels fan asked for her other wish: that Brandon Wood had a long and productive career. Wood, perhaps the failed prospect of this century — ranked as high as third on Baseball America’s prospect list, after a high-A season in which he hit 43 homers and 51 doubles in just 130 games as a shortstop — finished his career with minus-3.8 WAR, five seasons with the Angels and every one of them below replacement level. His journey took him to four more organizations, and to independent ball, until as a 29-year-old he hit .098/.156/.159 for the Sugar Land Skeeters and finally quit. The Angels fan had watched Wood work harder than anybody, to show up amid all the failure and just keep trying until he wasn’t allowed to try anymore, at which point his promising career had become the scary story player development directors tell their coaches around the campfire. The fan wishes Wood could have had a better career. Not a Hall of Fame one or anything, but a good one: 30 more WAR than he actually had. Todd Frazier‘s career, basically.

The genie agreed, if the fan would give up just 20 of Mike Trout’s career WAR. The Angels still gain wins, in the trade. They don’t miss any playoff appearances, since they’ve made only one with Trout (and by plenty, that year). And Trout would still be the best player in baseball! He just wouldn’t be all that historic. Instead of being the greatest player ever through age 27, by WAR, he’d be 14th — just behind Albert Pujols and Eddie Mathews, just ahead of Willie Mays (but without the military service). Instead of having passed a couple dozen iconic Hall of Famers’ career WARs this year, he would be just now passing those on Cooperstown’s lowest rungs. Instead of three MVP awards and an unprecedented run of top-five finishes, he’d probably have just the one win and a bunch of top-15 finishes. We’d all follow him. He just wouldn’t be the most celebrated baseball player of the generation. How we all treat Mookie Betts: That’s how we’d treat Mike Trout.

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The A’s fan’s dilemma: A Moneyball World Series but a 13-year playoff drought

After much thought, the A’s fan asked for his wish: That the A’s drafted Mike Trout, not Grant Green, in 2009.

The genie sighed, and explained that there are two wishes impossible to fulfill. One is drafting Mike Trout, because that wish had already been fulfilled for a different wisher. (You didn’t really think Mike Trout slipped to the 25th pick without some supernatural influence, did you?)

So the A’s fan asked for his other wish: That the Moneyball A’s of 2002 had made it to the World Series. The genie can’t promise a World Series victory, but can get the team to the World Series, can make sure the A’s actually win a couple of playoff series. And in doing so, can completely reshape Billy Beane’s legacy, not as a visionary whose creations kept failing under stress — 10 postseason losses in 11 postseason rounds — but instead as the star of a movie that has 20 more minutes of footage and, perhaps, an actual happy ending. For the next decade, A’s fans wouldn’t have had to hear about how they needed to bunt more.

All the genie asked for is undoing five playoff appearances: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2019. It seems like a lot. But none of those teams actually went anywhere in the playoffs. All were one-round-and-out, including three losses in wild-card games. Yes, this would mean the A’s would now be in a 13-year playoff drought. But the genie isn’t saying the A’s would have to be bad in those years. They could get eliminated on the last weekend of the season, after summers full of excitement and relevance! Is that really that much worse than losing in the wild-card game, and would it not all be worth it to have taken peak Barry Zito, peak Mark Mulder and peak Tim Hudson into a Bay Bridge Series against the Giants? Would a long playoff drought be less painful than a much longer World Series drought?

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The Astros fan’s dilemma: Keeping J.D. Martinez but drafting Brady Aiken

After much thought, the Astros fan asked for her wish: That J.D. Martinez was never released.

Houston let him go in spring training 2014 — when Martinez was 26 years old and crowded out of an outfield that included L.J. Hoes and Robbie Grossman — just before he turned into a superstar, with the second-highest OPS in baseball over the six years since. There’s reason to believe that breakout could have happened in Houston as it did in Detroit: He had already, in the previous winter, made the radical swing changes that remade him, and he had just hit .312/.387/.570 in winter ball. Martinez might have given the Astros another All-Star power hitter during their World Series years — at their worst positions, DH and left field. He wouldn’t be remembered as the one egregiously bad player assessment the Astros made in their smarter-than-y’all years.

The genie said: OK. But now the Astros will have signed Brady Aiken in the 2014 draft.

Aiken, the first overall pick, didn’t sign after the Astros got spooked by his medical records. Maybe under the Astros’ care he wouldn’t have suffered the injuries that have slowed him since. Maybe he’d be thriving now. But OK, probably not. More important, anyway, is this: If the Astros had signed Aiken, they wouldn’t have gotten the second overall pick in 2015, which was their replacement pick for not signing Aiken. That pick yielded Alex Bregman. What looked like a terrible and controversial mistake in 2014 led to them getting their best player.

This isn’t as simple as “Martinez or Bregman.” The Astros also had the No. 5 pick in that 2015 draft — it would have been the No. 4 pick had they signed Aiken in 2014 — and for all we know Bregman might still have fallen to them. And anyway, Bregman wasn’t that crucial to the Astros’ 2017 World Series — he became a star the next year, in 2018 — and the Astros might well have won the title with Martinez instead, and for all we know they might have won it all in 2015 with Martinez (they lost in a close division series) and they might have made the playoffs in 2016 with Martinez. And they might still have ended up with Bregman anyway (but not Kyle Tucker, their No. 5 pick in the Bregman draft).

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The Blue Jays fan’s dilemma: The 2015 World Series but no Vlad Jr.

The Blue Jays fan said he wants to go back to 2015 and get the Blue Jays to the World Series. The Jays were coming off a 21-year playoff drought, but in 2015 they were probably the best team in baseball, with the best run differential in the majors and the best run differential in franchise history. At the deadline they traded for David Price and, to play left field, Ben Revere, but it ultimately wasn’t enough: Toronto lost in the American League Championship Series to the Royals, who then went on to crush a relatively weak NL pennant winner, the Mets. (Revere hit .208/.296/.250 in the LCS.)

The genie said that’s easy: The wish will simply add Yoenis Cespedes to the roster, instead of Revere. Cespedes hit .287/.337/.604 after the trade deadline, with 17 homers in 57 games. The fan asked about the butterfly effect, but the genie assured him it is not a factor in these wishes, only the wish will change and everything else will stay the same. The Blue Jays will beat the Royals and go to the World Series.

But to get Cespedes and get to the World Series requires a trade, and the genie said those 2015 Blue Jays will get Cespedes by trading away their top prospect, Dalton Pompey — a bust anyway, it turned out — and a lively 16-year-old whom the Jays had just signed: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

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The Braves fan’s dilemma: A scoreless first inning but no Acuna extension

The Braves fan said, just give me a scoreless first inning in Game 5 of this year’s National League Division Series. The genie said, I am a genie, capable of changing the outcome of an entire game. But the fan, wary of owing the genie too much, said just the first inning — the worst half-inning in postseason history — will do. Undo the deflation of the first five runs. Undo the humiliation of the final five runs. The fan just wants the Braves to have a chance, to be in a position to pull off a win and advance. Yes, maybe Jack Flaherty would shut down Atlanta anyway, maybe Mike Foltynewicz would get hit hard in the second inning, but the fan says she took the day off work and bought snacks for that game. There was no time to eat the snacks before the whole thing tasted sickening.

The genie said, yes, but in exchange the extension the Braves gave Ronald Acuna Jr. would never have happened. The young Atlanta star would still be a young Atlanta star, but instead of committing to the organization through 2026 — plus two club options — Acuna would be able to hit free agency after the 2024 season. He might re-sign with the Braves, to be sure. But he might not!

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The Brewers fan’s dilemma: An untarnished Ryan Braun but no historic stretch for CC Sabathia

The Brewers fan said he wishes Ryan Braun had never been caught using performance-enhancing drugs. Does the wish imply Braun never did performance-enhancing drugs? The wisher leaves that up to the genie, and begs only to live in ignorance. Regardless, after the wish nobody will ever suspect Braun (either way), there will be no half-season suspension, there will perhaps be no abrupt career turnaround from perennial MVP candidate to old guy with thumb problems. The Hall of Fame-worthy first half of his career will never tarnish, and instead he is recognized unambivalently as the third-greatest Brewer in franchise history. In this scenario we talk about his Cooperstown case a lot, actually. The wisher is a Nietzschean.

The trade-off is that, in 2008, when the Brewers traded for CC Sabathia, the ace starter would have been … bad. Instead of going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in one of the great post-trade performances ever, instead of finishing sixth in NL MVP voting, instead of starting on three days’ rest down the stretch and even hitting well as a Brewer, he would have been a big letdown. The Brewers would miss the playoffs that year. Michael Brantley, one of the young players they traded away, would still go on to star in Cleveland.

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The Cardinals fan’s dilemma: An all-time great manager but being stuck with Albert Pujols

After considerable review of the past 20 years, the Cardinals fan said, “You know, actually, I think I’m good with it all.”

But the genie persisted, and rather than hurt the genie’s feelings the Cardinals fan allowed that she wishes, back in 2012, when the Cardinals were interviewing Terry Francona and Mike Matheny for the open managing job, they had just picked Francona. Matheny’s seven-year run wasn’t disastrous, but by Cardinals standards it wasn’t successful — no titles, concluding with the Cards missing three consecutive postseasons for the only time this century — and the whole time his managing felt heavy, inert.

The genie said fine, but in exchange Albert Pujols would accept the Cardinals’ contract offer back in the winter of 2011. This seems like way too much for a simple managerial shift — Pujols’ eight years as an Angel have been below average, and costly in multiple ways, and in Cardinals-land his departure has always seemed like a huge bullet dodged. But (A) the deal would have been for less than the Angels are paying him, (B) Pujols might have aged a little better with continuity, (C) Cardinals fans would have felt none of the bad feelings they felt toward a franchise icon that year and in the years to come, and (D) Pujols would retire a Cardinal, a truly historic franchise icon nearly on a level with Stan Musial, with the whole body of his work doing most of the legacy-lifting. Old Al Pujols would still be hanging around the Cardinals, today and for two more years, but maybe that’d be OK, right?

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The Cubs fan’s dilemma: A healthy Mark Prior but never hiring Joe Maddon

The Cubs fan said, hooboy, this would be a different story if I’d found you four years ago. But so much of what was regrettable about Cubs fandom had been put through a new filter, and the Cubs fan almost looked fondly upon it all. But there was one thing, and so his wish was that Mark Prior never got hurt.

It’s not that Prior would never get old, never get worse, never sign elsewhere, never return as a Cardinal to beat the Cubs in a 2-1 game in the middle of a pennant race. Instead of spending the second half of his 20s rehabbing from surgeries without ever appearing in a game (at any level), and instead of spending his early 30s trying to fight back into the sport as a reliever, playing independent ball and A ball and Triple-A ball eight healthy innings at a time — instead of that, he would get the normal career he’d signed up for. Maybe a Hall of Famer, maybe a Cy Young, maybe just an All-Star, maybe even a goat, but his career would be remembered for his presence instead of his absence.

The genie agreed that this was a good ask, but a big one, requiring a sizable curse to go with it. What about, OK, Theo Epstein never joins the Cu–

The fan cut him off and said, get real, be realistic. That’s obviously not comparable.

OK, OK, the genie conceded. So here’s the deal instead: Joe Maddon never joined the Cubs. Never found out his contract in Tampa Bay had a clause that let him opt out and go wherever he wanted that offseason. Somebody else manages the Cubs from 2015 on. Somebody who didn’t get fired after the 2019 season, but who we also can’t say, with 100% certainty, would have managed the Cubs to a World Series title in 2016. Maybe would have in 2015. Maybe would have in 2017. Maybe would have in 2019. But we can’t say.

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The Diamondbacks fan’s dilemma: A healthy Brandon Webb but no Big Unit in Game 7

The Diamondbacks fan did not think for long. He just wanted Brandon Webb to have stayed healthy.

Webb is a different story than Prior. While Prior haunted the game for nearly a decade as he tried to come back, Webb was practically done overnight: He started Opening Day for the Diamondbacks in 2009, and the rest of his career comprised only four more starts, all in Double-A, a couple of years later. And while Prior was hurt young, arguably before a hypothetical peak, Webb was hurt at 30, in the middle of it, immediately following three consecutive top-two Cy Young finishes. In the first six years of his career, he was second in the majors in WAR. Only eight pitchers in the live ball era produced more WAR in their first six years. He was essentially already pitching as a Hall of Famer — he just needed the longevity to cinch it. Then, overnight, shoulder injuries. Imagine Jacob deGrom starting Opening Day in 2020 and never pitching again. That’s basically what happened with Webb.

Genie said yes, a healthy Webb, sure, but for this: On Nov. 4, 2001, when Randy Johnson goes out to the bullpen and starts warming up to close out Game 7 of the World Series, he’s going to have a dead arm. He’s going to throw 12 warm-up pitches on the bullpen mound, then look to bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock. He’s going to shake his head and say, sadly, “No shot, Sherlock.” Not after 104 pitches the night before. Arm is just too tired.

And so, for the final four outs before Luis Gonzalez is in position to win it, the Diamondbacks will have to rely on their well-rested bullpen: Greg Swindell, Mike Morgan and Byung-Hyun Kim, as well as No. 3 starter Miguel Batista. Only four outs!

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The Dodgers fan’s dilemma: Yordan Alvarez never traded but Kershaw’s best October moments erased

After much consideration, the Dodgers fan said he didn’t think the Dodgers should have traded Yordan Alvarez. And it’s true: They shouldn’t have. Instead of trading him six weeks after they signed him — for Josh Fields, a 30-year-old reliever with a 4.53 career ERA — they should have taught him how to become the greatest rookie baseball hitter since Shoeless Joe Jackson, which is what the Astros smartly did. (Fields, to be fair, was good as a Dodger.)

The genie said this is going to hurt: The genie wants to take back Clayton Kershaw‘s great relief appearance in the 2016 NLDS. Kershaw would still come into the game in relief, with two outs to go to lock up the NLDS, but instead of getting those two outs he would allow a home run to Daniel Murphy. In real life that relief outing temporarily halted the “Kershaw bad in October” narrative, and Kershaw’s best postseason start, three days later against the Cubs, seemed to bury it. But in this scenario, that relief outing would reinforce it. And that start against the Cubs would never happen. This wouldn’t cost the Dodgers a World Series title or anything, and the “Kershaw in October” narrative came back with a vengeance anyway, so this maybe would be no real damage done. But the Dodgers fan nodded, knowing that it would indeed hurt to lose the memory of Kershaw getting Murphy to pop out.

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The Indians fan’s dilemma: A healthy Grady Sizemore but a 2019 meltdown

The Cleveland fan just wanted Grady Sizemore — the Tim Lincecum of hitters — to have been able to do the hitting equivalent of throwing 97 mph for 200 innings until his body was more naturally unable to do it, rather than because all of his body parts went on strike when he was 26.

The genie tried to find a World Series title to take away in exchange, but Cleveland has none, at least in the past seven decades. The trade-off, instead, is that Cleveland misses the postseason in 2019 not with 93 wins but with 73 wins.

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The Mariners fan’s dilemma: A single wild-card berth but a stuck roof

The Mariners fan pondered and, afraid of going too far, asked for a single wild-card berth in 2014. She doesn’t even care if they win that wild-card game, though of course it would be nice. She just doesn’t want to be the fan of the team with the longest postseason drought. She just wants to be able to pity Padres fans without that acidic burn of “but do I have it any better?” in her throat.

The genie said fine, but Felix Hernandez will never be born. The Mariners fan said that’s not fair, that the genie is picking on her just because she’s a Mariners fan. The genie acceded. The modified trade-off is the T-Mobile Park roof gets stuck on “open,” and 10 to 15 games a year get rained out and replayed as doubleheaders, some of which also get rained out.

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The Marlins fan’s dilemma: A real franchise but no 1997 title

The Marlins fan thought long and hard and finally said, I wish the Marlins were a real franchise. With real owners who actually like baseball. With franchise continuity, so that fans felt enough investment to go to games. With normal budgets and normal competitive windows and normal home run sculptures.

The genie agreed, but said the cost — this one isn’t even up to the genie, the genie says, these are just the facts — the cost is the 1997 World Series title. The genie argued that the Marlins had a chance to be a normal franchise: Their attendance in their early years wasn’t incredible or anything, but they were in the middle of the NL for their first few years and, when they had a competitive team in 1997, they had the fifth-highest attendance in the league. It was only after the craven fire sale that immediately followed that 1997 title that things got ugly: 13th out of 16 teams the next year, and then 15th or lower (there are now only 15 teams in the NL) all but two of the next 21 seasons. The original sin was winning the World Series and immediately burning it down. Even if the Marlins would have cut payroll dramatically after the 1997 season anyway, the genie argues that with no World Series there’s no original sin.

The Marlins fan said, I don’t know if I buy that. The genie shrugged.

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The Mets fan’s dilemma: No Bernie Madoff but no Noah Syndergaard

The Mets fan pondered so long that the genie had to ask, are you still thinking? The Mets fan was trying to figure out a wish that could incorporate so many things — Matt Harvey staying healthy and Lucas Duda making a good throw home and David Wright aging gracefully and Carlos Beltran swinging and Nolan Ryan never being traded, but none of the parts fit together, so he finally just said: No Bernie Madoff. While every other team in baseball was owned by somebody (or somebodies) very rich, the Mets spent much of the past decade owned by somebodies trying to get out of debt. They Marlins’d themselves.

The genie said that, in exchange, R.A. Dickey and the Mets would agree to the two-year extension they were discussing after his Cy Young 2012 season. They were only $6 million apart, but couldn’t close the gap, and Dickey ended up being traded for … Noah Syndergaard. You’ll get your rich Mets, the genie said, but your rich Mets don’t get Syndergaard — unless they traded for him at the 2019 trade deadline, like they did with his one-time Blue Jays teammate Marcus Stroman.

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The Nationals fan’s dilemma: An October shutout but no 19-year-old Soto

After considerable thought, the Nationals fan made her wish: That, in Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Jordan Zimmermann one out from completing a 1-0 shutout, his manager Matt Williams had left him in. Instead, of course, Williams brought in his closer, Drew Storen, who walked a batter and then allowed a double that tied the score, and Zimmermann was a footnote in an 18-inning game the Nationals lost. And a series they eventually lost.

After less thought, the genie said, OK, but the Nationals left Juan Soto in the minors all season in 2018 to game his service time. He debuted in 2019 and was awesome, finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, and was a key part of the Nationals’ World Series victory. But the greatest offensive season ever by a 19-year-old never happened. He was in Double-A instead. The one truly great thing of the Nationals’ disappointing 2018 season never happened.

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The Orioles fan’s dilemma: Epic 2019 turnaround but no Adley Rutschman

The Orioles fan pondered and then smiled and made her wish: She wanted the Orioles to win the second AL wild-card berth in 2019, somehow. She said, I’m a simple fan, and all I want is to just once see my favorite team go from losing 115 games in a season to making the playoffs the next. It’d be the least likely pennant race story in baseball history.

The genie said OK, but the trade-off would be: The Orioles would decide, in the 2019 draft, to save money by not drafting Adley Rutschman with the first overall pick. Baltimore would still get a fantastic prospect — either Bobby Witt or Andrew Vaughn, the next two players chosen — but the whole baseball world would gasp at a team passing up the clear top talent in the draft.

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The Padres fan’s dilemma: Kluber but no Tatis

The Padres fan answered in a blink: She wishes the Padres had never traded Corey Kluber, and especially for she-can’t-even-remember-what in return.

The genie said fine, but also the Padres will never have traded for Fernando Tatis Jr. Seems like a lot to give up, but Kluber has won two Cy Youngs in Cleveland and finished third twice more. The expectations for Tatis are nearly boundless, but they’re probably still lower than that.

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The Phillies fan’s dilemma: A better old Ryan Howard but a worse young Ryan Howard

The Phillies fan had his wish: He wished that, during the five-year extension that came to bog down Ryan Howard’s legacy, Howard had hit 50 more home runs, spread out evenly, 10 more per year. Instead of being a sad reminder of fired general manager Ruben Amaro, and one of the league’s worst cleanup hitters, and a catalyst for the Phillies’ teardown, and a Phillies icon whose presence made everybody sad, Howard would age as a still-dangerous slugger, passing 400 home runs and maybe making a couple more All-Star teams and definitely being better than replacement level. He would still be seen by much of the baseball world as “overrated,” but that was always part of his charm. At the end of the contract, the conversation would be about how to replace him, not about finally being rid of him. He wouldn’t suffer from the emotional cruelty of the sport’s compensation system.

The genie said the cost is 35 home runs, taken away unevenly, from Howard’s seven good years. The fan can choose which seasons the homers come from, but it won’t be easy: Take any away from his rookie season and he might not win Rookie of the Year, from his sophomore season and he maybe wouldn’t be MVP. Take them from any of the years from 2007 to 2011 — the Phillies’ only five playoff seasons over the past 25 years — and maybe the club would miss the postseason.

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The Pirates fan’s dilemma: No Chris Archer trade but no wild-card win

After much thought, the Pirates fan asked for her first wish: That the trade talks between the Pirates and the Rays in July 2018 had just quietly broken down over some small detail, and despite everybody trying their darned best the Pirates didn’t land Chris Archer after all. Guess everybody in Pittsburgh would just have to be happy with Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows in 2019.

The Pirates fan knew that Glasnow and Meadows might both have failed to develop in Pittsburgh. Each top prospect had seemingly hit a developmental wall in the Pirates organization. Glasnow had been moved to the big league bullpen and was still way too wild, and Meadows’ lack of plate discipline got him sent back to Triple-A, where he wasn’t thriving. Almost immediately upon reaching Tampa Bay, each was back on track, and in 2019 each became a star. But the crucial variable might have been the Pirates. The Pirates organization might have simply broken down by that point, been incapable of bringing out either player’s talent. But the Pirates fan still wishes. At the very least, each would still be in the organization, and poor Chris Archer wouldn’t be.

The genie would take away the Pirates’ 2013 wild-card win in exchange. The Pirates would still make the playoffs that year — ending the postseason drought — and in the next two, but they would never get to play in an actual playoff series, and in Allegheny County fans would debate whether making the wild-card game (three times) really counts as making the playoffs.

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The Rangers fan’s dilemma: Adrian Beltre hasn’t retired but Gallo completely whiffs in Home Run Derby

The Rangers fan said he just wants Adrian Beltre to have not retired quite yet. He was still pretty good in 2018. And baseball without him was so boring.

The genie said the cost for that would be minimal: Joey Gallo would do the Home Run Derby after all, but would hit zero home runs. His post-All-Star break slump — he hit .118/.189/.324 in real life, before wrist surgery ended his season — would be blamed on his participation in the exhibition event, and you’d have to hear about it all summer. He’d vow never to do the Derby again, giving Rangers fans one thing they can’t look forward to in 2020.

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The Rays fan’s dilemma: $50 million per year but no Delmon Young trade tree

The Rays fan wished ownership would spend an extra $50 million per year, every year since they bought the club and every year going forward. The Rays would still have one of the smallest payrolls in the game — 22nd out of 30 teams in 2019, 20th in 2018, even with the extra $50 million per — but at least their spending would be credible. Last year’s Rays, for instance, could have actually signed Josh Donaldson, a sort of pie-in-the-sky idea some people had for them. They could have actually done that, instead of carrying the lowest payroll in the league during a competitive season.

Fine, fine, the genie said, as the genie always says, but: No Delmon Young trade tree. The Rays’ front office gets to spend an extra $750 million or so over the span of 15 seasons, but they don’t get the most fruitful trade tree in modern history — the one that led, through various stages, to Glasnow and Meadows. Instead they would just stick with Delmon Young for six seasons.

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The Red Sox fan’s dilemma: 2019 AL East title but no Mookie Betts

After much thought, the Red Sox fan asked for her wish: That the Red Sox had won the division in 2019. The transition from 108 wins to missing the playoffs, from winning the World Series to talking about slashing payroll, was just too abrupt. Gave her the bends. The Red Sox fan didn’t need 108 wins, but a solid 94 to confirm that, yes, the players on the team really were great, not some fluke.

The genie said, yup, but in exchange, the Red Sox would have to trade Mookie Betts last winter. Imagine! Winning the World Series and immediately trading your best player, your most smiley player, a player under contract for two more years and an MVP co-favorite for both of them — but, really, is it that much weirder than imagining trading him just one year later, this winter, as we’re all doing? Maybe the Red Sox approached Betts after the World Series parade to talk extension, Betts made it clear what he was looking for was not something Boston would offer, and the Red Sox made the decision right then that his trade value would never be higher. Maybe they got a massive return for him. Maybe that, in a roundabout way, is how they were able to make the playoffs in 2019. Would you want that, the genie asked the Red Sox fan? To make the playoffs, but to not have Mookie Betts on the team when he could have been on the team?

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The Reds fan’s dilemma: A better Billy Hamilton but six straight last-place finishes

The Reds fan wished Billy Hamilton had been stronger. Hamilton was the most exciting prospect in ages — not exactly the best prospect, but the most exciting one, a clickbait prospect who seemed poised to break the game. When Hamilton hit .311 in the minors, he stole 155 bases in a season. But he turned out to be so slight, with such an unrefined offensive game, that major league pitching rolled him, and he couldn’t even manage a .300 OBP in the big leagues. The wish is vague: an extra five homers per year? An extra 5 mph of exit velocity? To hit like Jose Reyes? Whatever it took for Billy Hamilton to get on base 100 extra times a year, and be a starter in the majors for an extra 10 years.

Yes, fine, the genie agreed that would be very fun. The trade-off: The Reds win four fewer games in 2014, and seven fewer games in 2019. It doesn’t change much — hardly anything, really — but instead of finishing fourth those years, the Reds finish last, and instead of being one of the least successful teams in baseball since 2014 the Reds are undeniably the worst: six consecutive last-place finishes.

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The Rockies fan’s dilemma: A true slugger but a decadelong playoff drought

After much thought, the Rockies fan asked for her wish: That the Rockies could have somehow acquired a young Giancarlo Stanton. Or a young Aaron Judge, or a young Pete Alonso: Somebody who can hit 50-plus homers in a regular ballpark. Just to see what would happen if they were in Coors, to put the full power of altitude behind a truly elite slugger and smash some records. Stanton, in his career, has slugged .714 at Coors Field, with 10 homers in 23 games — a 70-homer pace over a full season, and that’s on the road. Imagine what he’d do in 81 games there as a home hitter. According to Baseball-Reference’s little park-adjuster tool, he might have hit 69 there in 2017. (The park-adjuster thing says 66 for Alonso this year, if on the Rockies. He slugged 1.182 with two homers in three games in Coors this year, haha.) The addition of this player won’t make the Rockies better, just more record-breaking. It is truly unforgivable that baseball still hasn’t given Colorado fans one of these guys yet.

The genie said sure, in exchange for both of the Rockies’ two recent postseason appearances. Both wild cards, and with a combined one postseason victory between them, but now the Rockies will be in a decadelong playoff drought.

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The Royals fan’s dilemma: Getting to see Gordon run home but no Jorge Soler

The Royals fan wished to go back to the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2014 World Series, when Alex Gordon had just hit a two-out single that went straight past Giants center fielder Gregor Blanco and all the way to the wall, and Gordon was running from second to third with the Royals trailing by one run, and the ball was finally coming in toward the infield, and third-base coach Mike Jirschele was holding up a stop sign. The Royals fan figures that, had Jirschele sent Gordon, Gordon prooooobably would have been thrown out at home to end the World Series. But the Royals lost anyway — betting on somebody to get a hit off Madison Bumgarner at that point was also a long shot, and the next hitter did not get that hit — and, by not sending Gordon, Jirschele deprived us of one of the five most exciting plays of our lifetime. The Royals fan always longed to see that play go all the way through to the end. Always wondered what if.

And so the genie will give the fan that, but in exchange the Royals will never trade for Jorge Soler, this year’s AL home run champion on this year’s otherwise unwatchable 103-loss Royals.

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The Tigers fan’s dilemma: Miggy still good but no 2012 Triple Crown

After much thought, the Tigers fan asked the genie for his wish: That Miguel Cabrera was still a very good hitter, somebody with the combination of technique, historical significance and quality results that would make him worth watching on a team that is otherwise not. Give him the line he put up in 38 games in 2018 — .299/.395/.448 — but in full-time play over each of the past three years. He’d have passed 3,000 hits by now if he still hit like that and stayed healthy. Probably 500 homers, too. Instead of stalling right on the threshold of Hall of Fame certainty — just shy of 70 WAR — he’d be approaching 80, passing Jim Thome and Jeff Bagwell and making his case for inner-circle status. He’d be fitter, happier, more productive, and the final four seasons on his Tigers contract would be loaded up with milestone opportunities. Every so often a team would even call the Tigers about a trade, and the Tigers would brush them off, figuring the still-dangerous Cabrera could guide the club through the disaster years.

In exchange, the genie said Cabrera wouldn’t be allowed to win the 2012 Triple Crown. He’d still have the exact same numbers that year, but in this scenario Mike Trout’s batting average would be 5 points higher, and Trout would win the batting title (and the MVP award). Cabrera wouldn’t get any worse at all. It’d just be Trout.

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The Twins fan’s dilemma: Beating the Yankees but no Target Field



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25 years ago, Mariano Rivera made the one great start — yes, start — of his Hall of Fame career

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Even great athletes will tell you about a day when their career almost didn’t happen: a time early when they considered quitting their sport, an injury that was almost more serious, an opportunity that nearly didn’t open up, a calamitous failure that might have spiraled. Great careers are fragile. We nearly miss them entirely.

But the closest we came to missing out on Mariano Rivera’s Hall of Fame career might have been the day he had the best outing of his life. It was 25 years ago today, when he was 25 years old. It came out of nowhere and it didn’t. It hinted at Rivera’s Hall of Fame future and it didn’t. It changed Rivera’s career and it didn’t.

Rivera took the mound in Chicago as a starter against the White Sox on July 4, 1995, called up to replace one of the New York Yankees‘ many injured starters. He had a 10.20 ERA in four career starts in the majors, all earlier in that 1995 season. He had struck out just nine batters in those four starts, walked eight and allowed four homers. But against a strong lineup on Independence Day, he threw eight shutout innings, striking out 11 batters and allowing only two hits. It was arguably the best start by any Yankees starter that year. By Bill James’ game score, it was the 37th-best start in the majors. In its twisted way, it put the rest of Rivera’s future — as a closer, as a Yankee — in jeopardy.

What happened that day? A highlight clip of 11 third strikes shows Rivera throwing easy gas past White Sox batters, especially up in the zone. Every strikeout came on a fastball, nine of them swinging.

But that’s just a quick glimpse at Rivera’s 129-pitch outing. The full story recorded from that game seems to be describing multiple, contradictory pitchers at the same time.

His changeup, for example. The Hartford Courant said Rivera threw “a superb changeup” against the White Sox. The New York Times said he threw “an effective changeup” against the White Sox. The Times of Northwest Indiana said he threw his changeup only “sparingly” against the White Sox. Robin Ventura, Chicago’s cleanup hitter that day, said Rivera “never showed [the changeup] that day.”

Pull out a little bit: A scout who had been at his previous start — a five-inning no-hitter in Triple-A one week earlier — said Rivera didn’t throw a single changeup, and “needs one.” A scout who was at the start he made 10 days after July 4 — an effective outing against the Twins — said Rivera “couldn’t throw anything but a fastball for a strike”; and the New York Daily News said after that start that “he has yet to show he can count on a changeup.”

Pull out further still: The Yankees’ general manager at the time, Gene Michael, would say years later that the young Rivera “had a hell of a changeup.” The Yankees’ manager at the time, Buck Showalter, would say years later that “everybody who had him, from rookie ball to Triple-A, had tried to work with his changeup.” The implication being that it needed a lot of work.

The same disputes arise over his slider. One explanation offered for that dominant July 4 outing was that, in the month since his previous, disastrous major league starts, he had added a slider with good depth, what The New York Times called “an improved slider.” The New York Daily News said he threw a “consistent slider,” and his catcher, Mike Stanley, said he had a slider “with depth and movement” that he was newly able to throw for strikes. The Hartford Courant said he threw only “an occasional” slider. Rivera, remembering that start later: “My breaking ball? It wasn’t good at all.”

Indeed, Rivera told The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler this spring, he “threw a slider early in his career, but mostly abandoned it. Rivera’s not even sure he’d identify anything he threw at that time as a breaking ball, so to speak.”

He definitely had a great fastball that day, no denying it. The clips of White Sox batters whiffing on it — or taking it for strike three — look a lot like clips of hitters in later years whiffing or freezing on his famous cutter. Technically, Rivera wouldn’t develop his cutter for two more years, but the fastball clearly shares some DNA with that pitch: late movement, some hop and easy velocity between 91 and 94 mph.

But the White Sox took to blaming their struggles that day not on a dominant fastball but on a faulty scouting report. At least four Chicago hitters, then and later, have said they were given a scouting report of a pitcher who threw “85 or 86” mph, rarely came inside and had a good changeup.

In fairness, a month earlier that might have been true. Rivera was throwing in the high 80s during his first stint in the majors. He was also, apparently, hiding a muscle pull in his shoulder. When he got back to Triple-A, he admitted to the pain and went on the injured list. While he was sitting out, the Tigers and Yankees discussed a possible trade involving Rivera. Then he returned to the mound for a minor league start and, according to the legend, shocked everybody with his velocity — a velocity jump he later explained as a miracle. Yankees scouts had him at 95 to 96 mph in that minor league start. From “Chumps to Champs” by Bill Pennington:

Rivera had never consistently thrown that hard in any start. Michael doubted that Rivera had ever been clocked at more than 91 miles an hour. He called Columbus to verify that the report wasn’t a mistake and was assured that everyone in Columbus was as flabbergasted as Michael by Rivera’s newfound velocity.

So when he got called up for the July 4 start, he was a brand-new pitcher, the product of a miracle — according to the Yankees’ radar guns. The Orioles had a scout at the “miracle” game. He filed his report. In his report, Rivera was throwing “88-91.”

Taken together, the portrait we get is completely contradictory. Or else it’s an honest sketch of a pitcher who was in remarkable flux, of a pitcher who was still hard to figure out. On and around July 4, 1995, Mariano Rivera was apparently capable of throwing a great pitch, but not obviously capable of doing it twice in a row. It was easy for observers to look at him, his strengths and his flaws, and see almost anything. This might be because he was a unicorn, or it might just be because he was a young pitcher, still finding his way.


The reason it matters is that this was the moment Rivera’s career path was being decided for him.

Remember, the Yankees had been in touch with the Tigers about a trade — Rivera for David Wells — the previous month. They were desperate for starting pitching. Rivera was the emergency patch, and as soon as he made that start a big conversation began about how he might be the answer: He could be the starter they needed, or he could be packaged in a trade to get the starter they needed. More likely, it seemed, the latter.

The Yankees “will not surrender any of their top four prospects ([Derek] Jeter, Ruben Rivera, Andy Pettitte or Sterling Hitchcock) but probably could land [David] Cone for two lesser prospects,” Jon Heyman wrote at the time. “The Blue Jays like Mariano Rivera, though there are concerns about his shoulder.” A day later, a Blue Jays source denied a rumor that Toronto might trade Cone for Rivera and Gerald Williams — but only because the Blue Jays weren’t interested in Williams.

“In the span of two weeks, Mariano Rivera has become a wanted man,” the Daily News’ John Harper wrote:

Yesterday the Blue Jays and Expos had scouts at the Stadium to study Rivera in person, and what they saw was enough to put David Cone or Jeff Fassero in pinstripes. “He’s an interesting kid,” one of the scouts said afterward, and the way he said it was perhaps more revealing than anything. It was as if he didn’t want to say too much, in case others hadn’t noticed. But you didn’t need a radar gun on this day to be impressed by Rivera’s fastball. He registered 92-93 consistently, but more telling was the way the Twins were chasing fastballs up around their shoulders all afternoon. As Kirby Puckett said, “the kid’s got a great arm, man. That fastball’s got real good movement. He threw a couple right by me today.” In short, the Yankees can look at it as a stroke of good fortune that Rivera has raised his game just before the trading deadline, or they can draw the conclusion that this is the start of a big-time career. On such decisions are the careers of baseball executives made or broken.

In all, Rivera seems to have been at risk of being traded at least four times during a nine-month time period:

  • For David Wells, before the Yankees backed out when Rivera added velocity. (The Yankees ended up getting Wells later.)

  • For Cone, before the Yankees got Cone for a different package.

  • For Chuck Knoblauch the next offseason. (The Twins rejected it.)

  • For Mariners shortstop Felix Fermin the next spring. (Yankees execs reportedly had to talk owner George Steinbrenner out of it.)

Meanwhile, he was also in danger of simply staying in the rotation. That 11-K shutout against the White Sox made that the default assumption:

“I think he’ll start Sunday,” Buck Showalter said of Rivera, with a sly smile. And, one gathers, he’ll start quite often after that, which is just fine with Rivera, who leaves no doubt he believes he’s a major league pitcher. “I know I can pitch here. No doubt,” he said.

He did start four more times. The next two starts were pretty good. The two after that were pretty bad, and just in time: The Yankees’ other starters got healthy. With September call-ups, Rivera stayed in the majors as a reliever, instead of going back to the Columbus rotation. He pitched out of the bullpen six times following his final start, and he wasn’t all that good, striking out only one batter while allowing three runs in six innings. His dominant relief career didn’t really begin until that year’s American League Division Series, when, by fluke and circumstance, he was called upon in the 12th inning of Game 2. He threw 3⅓ scoreless innings, struck out five, and was almost immediately recast as the Yankees’ future closer.

The next spring, he was in competition to make the rotation, but the Yankees’ signings of Kenny Rogers and Dwight Gooden crowded him out. When the starters struggled early in the year, the club fended off howls to put Rivera back in the rotation. Nobody could have imagined, under any circumstances, Rivera becoming the greatest reliever in history, twice as good in the regular season as any other reliever, twice as valuable in the postseason as any other player. If the Yankees had believed Rivera could become, say, a 15-WAR starter in his career — on the level of J.A. Happ or Jeremy Guthrie — it would have probably made sense to them to keep him in the rotation. Given his minor league record, that run of starts he had made in July, and that July 4 outing in particular, it was … it was right on the fence.

But Rivera was “laboring with back spasms.” Because of that, and because the Yankees needed good relievers, too, manager Joe Torre said he wasn’t considering moving Rivera back to the rotation.

The stakes of that game against the White Sox on July 4 turned out to be high. The Yankees won the AL wild card by a single game, which means Rivera’s eight shutout innings pitched the Yankees into the postseason — where he had his first starring moment out of the bullpen.

With hindsight, we see a pitcher nobody could really figure out pitching for a team whose needs were changing constantly. Rivera could have become almost anything, and almost anything could have happened to him.

For Rivera to have the particular career he did, he needed to be (a) a Yankee, in the postseason every year and (b) a closer, where his genius was revealed. That June 1995 velocity bump kept him on that path, by saving him from a trade to the Tigers, but it also nearly knocked him off the path, by inserting him into trade talks with the Blue Jays. That July 4 start nearly knocked him off, by establishing his bona fides as a rotation candidate, but it also kept him on, by putting him on the Yankees’ postseason roster, where his bullpen career really took off.

The path that took Rivera from fringe prospect to the first player ever inducted unanimously into the Hall of Fame was almost impossibly narrow. Rivera didn’t even realize at the time that he was walking on it.

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Mike Trout has his doubts about the 2020 MLB season. He isn’t alone

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It was Wednesday afternoon and a veteran relief pitcher was in his car, driving to his team’s home city with the intention of playing baseball in the midst of a pandemic. He spent the prior days in a remote location wondering whether he should drive north to his house or head west for his job. He chose the latter, despite clear hesitation, because he figured it was worth it to at least give this all a chance. As he drove, a central question beckoned, one that lingered across the sport when teams officially restarted their workouts a couple of days later.

“Why are we doing this?”

Mike Trout lent his voice and his stature to that sentiment on Friday morning, while expressing unmistakable concern over the possibility of testing positive for the coronavirus and spreading it to his pregnant wife, who’s only a month away from delivering the couple’s first child. Such trepidation from the undoubted face of baseball sent shockwaves through the industry, but Trout was far from alone.

Managers all over the sport, scrambling for the proper balance of reassurance and understanding, have spent the better part of this week hearing similar concerns from their players as camps start up again. Ian Desmond, Mike Leake, Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross have already decided to opt out and others might follow. But many others will trudge along in spite of their apprehension, playing grudgingly because they either need the money or can’t stomach the loss of service time or feel the pressure — external or otherwise — to suck it up and play.

There are young players on split contracts who were given most of their 2020 compensation in advance, as part of the March agreement, and will now play for relative pennies. There are veterans on minor league deals who would collect more from unemployment than they would by earning Triple-A salaries on a prorated basis if they don’t graduate to active rosters.

One of those players, a longtime infielder, lamented how the quick ramp-up to what MLB is calling “Summer Camp” might prevent teams from having the logistics in place to ensure proper social distancing at their respective facilities. He also expressed doubt that all those people making up Tiers 1 and 2 — up to 125 per team, consisting of players, coaches, trainers, front-office executives, public-relations employees and clubhouse personnel, among others — will care enough to consistently adhere to all the health-and-safety protocols. Asked why he’s going through with it, the player said: “Because if I don’t, I might as well retire.”

Trout, owner of a $426.5 million contract that extends through the 2030 season, isn’t burdened by those concerns. Instead, he’s worried about passing COVID-19 to his wife, Jessica, and how that might affect her delivery process. Others are concerned for their own safety, or that of a loved one or an older coach, or of the public at large, given what it might mean for hundreds of players to navigate through a season outside of a bubble environment while hospitals brace for an overflow of patients.

“It’s a tough situation for everybody,” Trout said. “I talked to a lot of guys across the league and they’re texting me a lot. I’m not gonna name any names, but they’re all thinking the same thing: ‘Is this gonna work?'”

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Jeff Passan says Mike Trout is not alone, many others do not feel comfortable returning to baseball yet.

More than 55,000 new coronavirus infections were reported across the U.S. on Thursday, setting a single-day global record. The death toll has exceeded 130,000 in this country; initial hopes that the virus would slow down amid the summer heat have vanished. Thirty-eight states are currently experiencing an increase in cases, most notably Florida, Arizona, California and Texas, which house a combined 10 MLB teams.

Through that prism will be varying degrees of risk tolerance among players. Hours after Trout touched on the importance of doing “what’s right for my family,” two of the most accomplished members of the Los Angeles Dodgers sat in conference rooms 30 miles away and spoke with greater optimism. Clayton Kershaw, who has three kids, expressed his trust in the league and the players’ union to do what’s right. Justin Turner, who doesn’t have children, said playing “has probably been one of the easier decisions.”

Moments later, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced that 38 of the first 3,185 people who went through the intake screening process tested positive for the coronavirus, 31 of whom were players. The rate of positive tests, 1.2%, was 7.5 times lower than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed as the country’s overall rate on Friday. But not all the results had come in yet, and others who tested positive before reporting — such as Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, at least 12 members of the Philadelphia Phillies and several others — were not included.

The real test begins now, when the demands of a season — a season that includes frequent travel — begin to present themselves. MLB did an admirable job putting together a 100-plus-page operations manual that is exceedingly thorough with regard to how testing will be conducted and how social distancing will be implemented. But even that document, many will admit, is evolving. And nowhere in it does it outline punishments for those who don’t adhere to the health-and-safety protocols.

It will come down to discipline, accountability and self-policing. Positive cases are inevitable; the hope is to avoid the type of outbreaks that might postpone or even cancel the season. If one person wavers, the entire system might collapse. And even if players adhere to monklike sensibilities over the next three to four months, the realities of a pandemic that forges on might render their efforts meaningless. It’s why so many players are hesitant.

It’s why Trout lent his voice to the concern.

“It takes one guy to bring that in this clubhouse,” he said. “And given how contagious this virus is, it’s going to be hard to contain.”

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San Diego Padres OF Tommy Pham tests positive for coronavirus

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San Diego Padres outfielder Tommy Pham has tested positive for the coronavirus, general manager A.J. Preller announced Friday.

Pham is asymptomatic and self-isolating, Preller said, adding that he has been in contact with Pham every day.

Preller said the team is following contact tracing protocols and testing protocols. Pham will need to test negative twice in a 24-hour period before returning to the field amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“When Tom clears all the boxes, we’ll talk about him returning to play,” Preller said.

Teams may release the names of players who test positive only when the player gives his authorization.

“I think what we’re going to learn is this is going to be a very fluid process,” Preller said at Petco Park, where the team was working out with a full squad for the first time in the summer training camp. “You might have a full camp one day and not the next, because there is so much testing going on. … It is literally going to be like every day.”

Pham, 32, joined the Padres in the offseason, coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays in a December trade that also netted the Padres prospect Jake Cronenworth in exchange for outfielder Hunter Renfroe. Pham hit .273 with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs for the Rays last season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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