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January 15, 2014

The Lineup Card

Twelve Non-MLB Athletes We'd Like to See Playing Baseball

by Baseball Prospectus


1. LeBron James
"King James," as donned on the back of his nickname jersey, is the ruler of the NBA. He is the best basketball player in the world, and has been in every year since the 2008-09 season by win shares (NBA's version of WAR). At just 29 years old, LeBron James has accomplished just about everything he possibly could want in the league he owns. With the Miami Heat, James has won back-to-back championships and the player—I mean, team—is currently favored to make it a three-peat. He's won multiple Most Valuable Player awards, and is on his way to yet another in a season in which NBA pundits and writers are questioning James' effort on the floor. Yes, the guy that is making nearly 60 percent of his attempts shots from the floor is so bored of the competition it has driven him to the point where he is coasting, yet putting up numbers we have never seen before as detailed in this ESPN Insider piece. Asked why his blocked shots are down, James was frank, stating "Guys aren't challenging me as much. I mean, I've had a couple guys turn around and actually dribble the ball out."

Perhaps it's time for King James to take on a new challenge, one that he could not receive from his current profession, by bringing his talents to the baseball world. It would be fitting for me to see James "take a break" from the league he conquered after winning a ring for the third consecutive season, just like the NBA immortal he's so often—and only—compared to in Michael Jordan, who retired from the NBA for a year to give a baseball chance immediately after winning his third consecutive championship. I wonder if James would be more successful than Jordan at baseball in due time, given his once-in-a-generation type athleticism. —Ronit Shah

2. The Cast of WWE
The team captain could be former (and sadly, deceased) minor leaguer Randy Paffo, known better to the world as Macho Man Randy Savage. Batters could make a big deal out of walking up to the plate while their "entrance music" played way too loud over the stadium speakers. Teams could start feuding with each other, leading to someone hitting someone else with a pitch. Then, they could all run out into the middle of the ring (erm, field) and pretend to wrestle one another. Fans and media alike, rather than focusing on what it takes to win an actual baseball game, could instead become obsessed with melodramatic subplots that have absolutely nothing to do with the actual game. One player might even demonstrate that he is clearly the best player in the league, only to have his rightful MVP... erm, championship belt stolen on multiple occasions from him because some other player more closely matched some heroic (or anti-heroic) archetype. #ZigglersBetter

There'd be a downside to it, though. There would probably be allegations of steroids being thrown about, completely without regard to whether or not they were true. Now that I think about it, I don't think I'd want any of these things to happen to baseball. Besides, Don Zimmer would start showing up to work in just a Speedo.

You can't un-think that. Maybe it's best to just move along. —Russell A. Carleton

3. Zdeno Chara
The hardest shooter in the NHL five All-Star weekends running with a record 108.8 mph last time out, Chara could be something of a left-handed-hitting Gary Sheffield. But the more physical comps would come first for the tallest player in NHL history. At 6-foot-9 and a listed 255 pounds, he’s a Richie Sexson on skates, a Nate Freiman with more poundage and more ability to frighten anyone sitting in the first 10 rows of foul territory. And speaking of comps, the best news is that he’d never be subject to a ridiculous Masahiro Tanaka-Yu Darvish type of comp. There hasn’t been a big leaguer from Slovakia in eight decades. —Zachary Levine

4. Manute Bol
When I heard the topic (“non-baseball playing athletes you'd like to see playing baseball”), my first question was which star from the realm of pro sports would make the best baseball player? He’d need a combination of sheer athleticism and demonstrated hand-eye coordination. Maybe a hockey player would be the best choice, or possibly a football linebacker could do it. Then I thought, no, maybe a really good tennis player. Oh! I know, any Olympic athlete! A great swimmer, or a weight lifter! Or a... actually, I have no idea. There are too many options, and truthfully none of us really knows how the skills of any Olympic swimmer translate to baseball, or how a pro running back’s strength and decisiveness would help on a diamond.

So, let’s take a different tact. Let’s take the topic literally. Which non-baseball playing athlete would I like to see try to play baseball? The easy joke is Jeff Francoeur, but let’s move beyond easy jokes to slightly less easy jokes. How about a sumo wrestler? Any of these guys would do. The sight of a mostly naked fat man is always amusing, and if you put a bat in his hand, so much the funnier. Or, how about a pole vaulter? He or she could use their pole instead of a bat. That would be funny because it wouldn’t work.

But I didn’t settle on any of those. I went further. I went to the top. In 1951, Eddie Gaedel batted for the St. Louis Browns. He was 3-foot-7 and quite fittingly walked on four consecutive pitches. There may have been some reticence to go all out against Gaedel, but a guy that tall is also going to have an amazingly small strike zone. Why do I bring this up? Because my choice would be the opposite of Gaedel: Manute Bol. Boll was 7-foot-7, or more than two Eddie Gaedels tall. It was said he could dunk a basketball without jumping. He once blocked 48 shots in one game. (I’m assuming, I didn’t look it up.) Also, he is dead. That’s problematic, but since this wasn’t going to happen anyway, I don’t see it as an impediment.

The sight of a 7-foot-7 man attempting to do pretty much anything on a baseball diamond would be amusing. How easily could Bol rob a hitter of a home run? Pretty easily if he could make it back to the wall in time. How about robbing a hitter of a line-drive single over the head of an infielder? No such thing if that infielder is Bol. In contrast though, simple grounders to Bol might be challenging. How about hitting? Just about any pitch thrown over the plate and above his knees would be a strike. Though that might not matter considering he never played baseball before; he’d probably swing and miss at everything anyway. Could he pitch? Ha ha, no, of course not! But it would be fun to see him try.

So which non-baseball playing athlete do I want to see attempt baseball? I’ll take the seven-plus-foot-tall dead guy, please, and now I win this topic. —Matthew Kory

5. AB de Villiers
For those of you who don’t know, AB de Villiers is a cricket player. Actually, I know nothing about cricket. To get this name, I searched “Best Cricket Players," and this name came up. Wikipedia tells me that AB de Villiers holds “the record for most Test innings without registering a duck” at 78, which sounds fantastic. He also has “accumulated many runs in Tests including 16 centuries and 32 fifties," which is nothing if not exponentially impressive on a base-2 scale.

Cricket is an interesting sport because although it seems to share many superficial similarities with baseball, such as hitting a ball thrown by a player into a field of other players who attempt to catch the ball, the language of achievement is so different as to render it more impregnable than a recently imagined dinner date. Is it good that, after “the third test, after centuries from Ashwell Prince and Jacques Kallis, de Villiers became the third centurion of the innings with a score of 163 off 196 balls with 12 fours and 7 sixes?” It certainly sounds good. Is it important for predicting his skill at baseball that “he became the first wicketkeeper to score a century and claim 10 dismissals in a Test?”

Anyway, look, try to understand the greatness we are dealing with here. According to Wikipedia, in 2008, “De Villiers scored an obdurate 174 that helped set up a 10-wicket win for South Africa in the second Test against England at Headingley Carnegie in Leeds in July 2008. This was followed by a 97 at The Oval before he came down the wicket trying to smash Panesar for a boundary and was clean bowled.” How can you not be impressed by that?

I’m impressed. Let’s give him a bat and a glove and see what he can do playing short, supposing he can figure out where to stand. —Dan Brooks

6. Ray Allen
Allen is an unconventional pick, in that he's not freakish in stature or measurables, yet his body control, intelligence, and commitment to excellence make him an intriguing choice to pitch—even without knowing his arm's looseness or strength. Once considered the worst shooter on his junior-high team, Allen transformed himself into arguably the best marksman in NBA history. Shooting and pitching aren't similar acts in the broad sense, but both require spastic repetition. Likewise, picking pitches requires discipline and understanding limitations, much like choosing shots. Factor in Allen's other qualitative aspects—an eagerness to improve and willingness to forget—and he has many traits that teams want in their pitchers. Given his age, Allen feature a limited ceiling; still, he would be fun to watch for an inning or two on a back field. —R.J. Anderson

7. Martin Brodeur
The greatest defensive catcher in the history of baseball retired after 23 seasons behind the dish. Brodeur's record for most seasons without a passed ball (17) will never be broken. And two generations of knuckleballers owe their careers to the Montreal native. —Harry Pavlidis

8. Viv Richards
A powerful and intimidating batsman as well as a superb fielder and spin bowler, Viv Richards could do it all on the cricket pitch. The son of a fast bowler who also played for the national team, Viv along with his two brothers continued the family affair and did so with swag and flair, with an homage to the old school. Even though the zenith of his career came at a time when fast bowling was the norm, King Viv refused to wear any protection—no helmet, gloves, padding of any sort—but defiantly hammered balls and in doing so garnering the name "Master Blaster." Unafraid to mix it up with a little trash talk during and between overs —"sledging" in cricket vernacular—Richards was equal parts Bryce Harper and Yasiel Puig: full of bravado, but also full of talent to back it all up. —Stuart Wallace

9. Jameis Winston
I’m cheating a bit here, as we will actually see Winston on a baseball field this spring. Despite a historic collegiate debut on the gridiron, the Florida State phenom has continually expressed his desire to proceed as a two-sport athlete at the professional level.

He’s already said that he wants to “be better than Bo Jackson” and Rangers officials (Texas drafted Winston in the 15th round of the 2012 draft) have continued to rave about Winston and his chances of making it as a dual-sport athlete.

MLB.com’s Jim Callis claims that if Winston had been willing to sign out of high school, he would have gone in the first two rounds of the draft. He had mixed results during his freshman season, as he hit just .235 with little power in 146 plate appearances as a switch-hitting outfielder (he did manage a .377 OBP thanks to a 15.1 percent walk rate). He faired better out of the bullpen, as he managed a 3.00 ERA and limited batters to a .176 batting average in 27 innings of work.

Raw may be the best way to describe Winston’s current makeup, but he’s certainly exciting to watch. His freshman year highlight video includes a handful of potential mistakes on the basepaths alleviated by his natural speed. The animation he displayed during pep talks in the football locker room was also present in the dugout. And then there’s this:

And this:

On the mound, he’s currently projected to start the season as the Seminoles closer and with his low-to-mid-90s fastball and mid-80s slider, he would likely have a faster track to the majors as a pitcher (Callis also points out that losing at-bats by not playing during the summer and fall hinders his development as a hitter compared to other college players).

However, I can’t imagine that any NFL team investing a top pick on Winston to be their franchise quarterback would be too thrilled to have him to risk a potential shoulder or elbow injury by pitching in the minors (his reliance on the slider doesn’t help). Given the relentless demands of being an NFL quarterback, it just seems unlikely that Winston will be able to follow in the footsteps of either Jackson or Deion Sanders.

Given the disparity in guaranteed money that Winston would receive at the top of the NFL draft compared to an MLB signing bonus and the fact that he’s simply better at football, there seems to be little chance that Winston would choose baseball over football. Any slim possibility of him taking such a route would probably be predicated on the matter of long-term health. If there were ever a time for an athlete to ditch pads and a helmet in favor of a bat and glove (and a significantly lower chance of having memory lapses before receiving AARP benefits) it would be now.

In all likelihood, we’ll only see Winston suiting up on Sundays after his days at Florida State are over. It’s a shame, because Winston’s athleticism and aggressiveness on the baseball field would fit perfectly with the new-school breed of players that have pervaded the game in recent seasons. —Chris Mosch

10. John Wall
Regarded as the fastest player in basketball, Wall’s pure speed is an obvious base-running asset. He played shortstop in high school, but I’d convert him to the outfield, because a “Wall to the Wall” riff is basically what I’m going for here. As a premier passer and shooter I’m sure he has the arm strength for the outfield, and only time, practice, and eternal patience will help improve his throwing accuracy to the plate. —Matt Sussman

11. Cristiano Ronaldo
I’m a sucker for athleticism and the oft derided term “The Good Body." Sure, there’s some perverse sense of joy to be had when someone like Prince Fielder accomplishes athletic feats thought impossible considering his girth but child please, give me the Bo Jackson body types all day.

Aesthetics are at the heart of this exercise, and for me Cristiano Ronaldo’s chiseled man physique is the perfect embodiment of athletic aesthetics. Google is loaded with shirtless Ronaldo photographs as the Portuguese footballer isn’t shy about showing off a hard body that screams athlete.

Baseball could use the injection of aesthetic and athleticism Ronaldo would provide. Can he hit a baseball? Almost certainly not, but it’d be fun to watch him try. —Mauricio Rubio

12. Randy Moss
I don’t know how well Randy Gene Moss could hit a curveball, but I know who the best center fielder in the world would have been if that’s the position he’d played instead of wide receiver. His skill set would have made him an unstoppable force defensively.

In the Madden '06 CD-ROM that I still have for some reason, Moss rates as a 99 in speed, 99 in acceleration, 97 in agility, 97 in catching, and 99 in jumping. So you think Mike Trout is great at robbing home runs? Moss has plenty of experience snatching balls out of thin air while on the move. (Check this highlight for evidence.) An elite deep ball receiver, you could expect him to take precise routes to the ball with his sure footwork and excellent depth perception.

Like I said, Moss might be limited to a late-inning defensive replacement. Still, look at the outfield range on a team like the 2013 Mariners (-70 DRS in the outfield alone) and tell me it doesn’t beg for considering extreme measures. —Dan Rozenson

43 comments have been left for this article.

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