Friday, August 31, 2018

Magic The Gathering Tokens - Soldiers

Rounding out the "big three" of Magic tokens, so to speak, is a key component of the evocatively-named "white weenie" strategy: the 1/1 White Soldier. Dating back to the Alliances expansion from 1996 (the same set that saw the debut of Zombie tokens, which was two years after the first Goblin token from Fallen Empires), this token has appeared in 29 different sets throughout Magic's history, with 12 different unique art printings. These little guys have represented members of the Kjeldoran army, the Mercadian security force, gladiators in the Otarian fighting pits, allies of angels in the fight for justice, Auriok nomads on the plane of Mirrodin, and Benalish standing troops, among others. And that's all before set-specific soldier tokens were included as promotional material in booster packs.

If you've been following along, you'll notice that the first four printed soldier tokens follow the same pattern as Zombies and Goblins: first in Unglued (a spiky boy illustrated by Daren Bader, top left), next as part of the Magic Player Rewards program (this one from 2002), then included in Tenth Edition boosters, and finally corresponding to specific cards in the Shards of Alara set. Interestingly enough, the middle two of these tokens both go with the card Mobilization, which originally showed up in Onslaught - the expansion symbol that shows up on the Ron Spencer Player Rewards token (top middle) - and then was reprinted in Tenth Edition - you can clearly see the artistic similarities between the figures in Carl Critchlow's card art and those in Paolo Parente's token (top right).

The first two tokens on the bottom line of the image have the distinction of both being created by an Elspeth planeswalker - Elspeth, Knight Errant and Elspeth Tirel, respectively - however, they both have different visual styles. While Alan Pollack's token from Shards of Alara has gear that clearly identifies him with the army of Bant (the Green/White/Blue faction on the plane of Alara), the Scars of Mirrodin token, illustrated by Goran Josic, is equipped like a classic medieval crusader, except with a sword that is reminiscent of Elspeth's spear. The triumphantly bloody token from Magic 2013, with art by Greg Staples (bottom right), has been reprinted the most times of any soldier in Magic's history, appearing in six sets altogether.

The soldier that goes with Precinct Captain in the Return to Ravnica expansion (top left) is the best example of diversity - in terms of both gender and ethnicity - that we've seen in these tokens so far. In a clever bit of synergy, you can see the character from the token in the art of the card that creates it (and vice versa), which are both illustrated by artist Steve Prescott. The next two soldier tokens on the list are both from the Theros expansion, making it the first set to feature multiple printings of the same type of token since zombies in Innistrad. (NOTE: I was actually incorrect when I said the Innistrad zombies were the first tokens to get the multiple printing treatment; that honor actually goes to the 0/1 colorless Eldrazi Spawn tokens from Rise of the Eldrazi.) The Greek mythology-themed set has just three cards that create soldier tokens, but it's pretty obvious that Seb McKinnon's token (top middle) goes with the Trojan Horse-inspired Akroan Horse, as you can clearly see an army of soldiers descending from a wooden structure under the cover of night. Svetlin Velinov's soldier token, on the other hand (top right), is the third such token to be paired with an Elspeth planeswalker, this one of the Sun's Champion variety.

While the bottom left token on the above image also bears the Theros expansion symbol, like the M13 Goblin before it, the magnificently bearded Zoltan Boros-illustrated token was a prize for finishing in the top 10 of the corresponding Magic League. The token in the bottom middle was printed for the Modern Masters 2017 expansion, even though such compilation sets include only reprints. In this case, Magali Villeneuve's art featuring an epic female soldier standing alone in front of a burning sky doesn't quite fit the theme of the mild-mannered squire in the art for Attended Knight (originally from M13), but this token was also reprinted in the latest core set. Sticking with the female soldier theme, the bottom right token, illustrated by Jakub Kasper, corresponds to two Benalia-themed cards in the Dominaria expansion (as well as featuring as a character in my latest Magic fan fiction).

While soldiers are a supported "tribe" in Magic, one thing that is never explicitly stated in the type line of these generic 1/1 white soldier tokens is their race. Judging by their art and some contextual clues on the cards that create them, all but one are clearly human - the only one leaving any room for ambiguity is Goran Josic's helmeted soldier from Scars of Mirrodin. However, the only soldier token that explicitly states that fact is from Shadows over Innistrad (bottom right), which has a "humans matter" subtheme. In chronological order, the other races to receive soldier tokens are Kithkin, which are basically Magic's version of Halflings, or Hobbits. The two unique art versions represent the day-night aspects of the dual plane Lorwyn-Shadowmoor. Soldiers of the birdlike Aven race fight alongside the human soldiers of Bant in Alara Reborn. The humanoid-but-not-quite-human Kor appear on at least two planes in the multiverse, but they didn't get their own token until Zendikar. The first two tokens on the bottom line of the image (one from Born of the Gods, the other given away as a Magic League prize) might look human, but given that they're also Enchantments, you can't put them in the same category. The second set in the Theros block also introduced the tokens of the Cat Soldier type, known locally as Leonin.

There are a handful of other soldiers that appear to be human, but that have some subtle differences from the generic 1/1 white version. Worldwake, the second set in the original Zendikar block, features a Soldier that is also an Ally, a creature type unique to the adventuring party-themed plane. Two cards with the Boros watermark from Gatecrash, the second set in the dual-colored guilds-themed Return to Ravnica block, create soldier tokens that are both red and white. (There was actually a second RW Soldier token printed for Magic League, but I left it out of the above image since Scryfall doesn't let you arrange cards in groups larger than four.) In addition to the two white soldier tokens from Theros, there is a red version created by Akroan Crusader. And finally, the Conspiracy Hold the Perimeter (which we've seen before) creates not only a unique Soldier token (1/2 with defender), but a unique Goblin as well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Magic the Gathering Tokens - Goblins

If you're familiar with any games or stories set in the high fantasy genre, you've likely come across your fair share of goblins. These low level threats are a staple of the D&D Monster Manual, they exist in both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter (although with vastly different physical and mental characteristics), and there's a video game series half named after them. The goblins of Magic: The Gathering delight in foolish antics as much as they do in causing violence, and they always travel in large numbers. Of the 43 total cards that make tokens of the goblin creature type, all but 10 of them create the standard 1/1 Red Goblin that we know and loathe.

Goblin tokens of the above-pictured type were printed in 29 different sets with 14 unique-art printings - both second only to Zombies - and the early history of both types of tokens mirrors each other exactly. The first one appeared as part of Magic's first parody set, there was one with the old-school card frame given out as a Magic Player Reward, and then the first expansion set to feature tokens that correspond to specific cards in that set also featured a goblin. But before going into gameplay specifics, I'd like to mention the discrepancy between these creatures' color identity and their color palette. While the leering Pete Venters goblin from Unglued is wearing a red tunic, the Darrell Riche token (which goes with Warbreak Trumpeter from Legions) is climbing up a red mountain, and there's a red haze of battle surrounding Dave Kendall's hapless-looking grunt from Tenth Edition (corresponding to a reprint of Siege-Gang Commander from Scourge), the goblins themselves all have distinctly green skin. I guess this goes to show that the Magic color wheel goes deeper than just physical properties.

Speaking of the goblin token from Tenth Edition, it features the most-reprinted art of any goblin token, appearing in eight different sets. And speaking of the one goblin-creating card from Tenth Edition, Siege-Gang Commander is one of the most powerful goblin cards ever printed, as evidenced by its headliner status in Magic's first ever Duel Decks product: Elves vs. Goblins. S-GC also highlights a classic feature of goblins in Magic: the ability to sacrifice them for value, in this case, to deal direct damage. This mechanic calls back to the very first card to ever produce goblin tokens: Goblin Warrens from way back in Fallen Empires, which allowed you to create three goblin tokens... in return for sacrificing two goblins (of any kind, not just tokens). It's fairly high starting price, but if you get the engine going, the reward could be INFINITE GOBLINS!

Moving to the bottom of the image, we see another parallel between zombies and goblins, both of which were represented in Shards of Alara, although technically the creatures created by Goblin Assault have haste, which is not printed on the tokens. The visual style is interesting to note as well, with the goblins shifting to furry rat-like creatures. Goblins and zombies also coexist in the Scars of Mirrodin block, with tokens for the former showing up in the first and third sets, and the latter only in the second. I didn't mention the Alaran/Mirran undead in my last post because there were just simply too many zombies to go over each one individually.

Based on the expansion symbols, it might seem like there were two separate goblin tokens released with the Magic 2013 core set (to go with the legendary Krenko, Mob Boss and his command), but if you look closely at the bottom of Jim Nelson's token (second from top left), you'll see that that more generic one was actually given out to the top 10 finishers in that year's Magic League. Like the character Krenko, who is from the city-plane of Ravnica, the only two cards from the Return to Ravnica block that create goblin tokens (illustrated by Christopher Moeller, second from top right) don't appear to be affiliated with any of the ten two-color guilds. We'll see if that changes at all in the upcoming Guilds of Ravnica expansion.

Dave Allsop's silver-bordered goblin token for the joke set Unstable actually should go after the next two, chronologically speaking. However, I went out of order so as not to separate the two goblin tokens from the Tarkir block, one from each of Khans (Kev Walker, bottom left) and Dragons (Mike Bierek, second from bottom left), in what is yet another parallel to zombie tokens. These two return to the Alara-style red and furry body type, although these goblins look more like monkeys than rats. With the return to Magic's "home plane" of Dominaria (which includes the third unique art printing of Siege-Gang Commander), we also return to the more traditional green-hued skin, in a different piece of art by Kev Walker (second from bottom right). In the last callback to zombie tokens, the most recent core set also gets a brand new goblin token, this alley-dweller courtesy of Filip Burburan.

OK, there's just one more comparison I'm going to draw between goblins and zombies. While one specific type of token makes up the vast majority of each (1/1 Red for the former, 2/2 Black for the latter), there are several other variations of different colors and types. The first of these is a multicolored goblin with a class level: namely a red and white soldier first created by the card Goblin Trenches from Apocalypse (top left). This card was later reprinted with new art, and a corresponding new token, for the Eternal Masters compilation set (top right). The top middle RW goblin soldier does not come from a reprint, but rather goes with the card Rise of the Hobgoblins from Eventide, in the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block, which is also responsible for the Black goblin rogue (and its Modern Masters reprint version) and the Red/Green goblin warrior in the middle row.

On the bottom left is our first example of a legendary token - well, technically second overall, but it's the first that was included in a specific set's booster packs. This one is equal parts goblin and golem, as it's the resurrected artifact version of the equally legendary Tuktuk the Explorer from Rise of the Eldrazi. The last two goblin tokens on this list each have a combat-related line of rules text, making them the only non-vanilla goblin tokens in the game. These come from Hold the Perimeter, a card of the Conspiracy type from the second Conspiracy expansion, and Goblin Spymaster from Commander 2016, respectively.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Magic The Gathering Tokens - Zombies

In my last post, I outlined my newfound obsession with the tokens of Magic: The Gathering, and teased a database I put together that tracks all the printed tokens throughout Magic's history. The first and most obvious conclusion I drew from this exercise was to figure out that the most numerous token in Magic's history is that staple of both horror movies and graveyard-themed decks alike, the 2/2 Black Zombie token (hereafter referred to as "zombie token"). This nearly ubiquitous token appears in a whopping 42 different sets (including reprints, a baker's dozen more than the next-most common types), with 19 unique art printings. Below are some screenshots of the these printings, courtesy of the now-defunct

The first zombie token on this list actually doesn't correspond to a specific card that creates zombie tokens. Instead, Christopher Rush's cartoony art in the oval-shaped frame in the top left is one of six promotional tokens from the silver-bordered parody set Unglued, released in 1998. This was more than two years after the release of the first card to create a zombie token: Feast or Famine, a "choose one" spell, whose token-creating half is the significantly less powerful mode of the two. For reference, the other five tokens in that Unglued group are the extremely common Red Goblin (29 sets, 14 unique art printings) and White Soldier (29 and 12), and the significantly less so Green Squirrel (4 and 4), White Pegasus (2 and 2), and Green Sheep (printed only the one time). Keep in mind, these numbers that I've been citing only refer to sets that include printed tokens as part of their promo materials, so they don't paint the full picture of how many Magic cards create these tokens. To paint said picture as far as zombie tokens are concerned: a whopping 69 unique cards generate them, which is actually just second-most in Magic's history, behind the 73 cards that produce 1/1 Green Saprolings.

The next wave of printed tokens weren't included in a particular Magic set, but were given out as part of the Magic Player Rewards program from 2001 through 2004. Despite this fact, these tokens - the only ones printed with the classic card frame, and the only ones with flavor text - did have expansion symbols in the "type" line. Dana Knutson's zombie token (top middle) features Odyssey expansion symbol, indicating that this particularly smelly token corresponds to the card Zombie Infestation, an enchantment that lets you convert spare cards in your hand into zombie tokens on the battlefield. Tenth Edition was the first set to include tokens in booster packs, which means that the token with Carl Critchlow's Viking-inspired illustration (top right) goes with the card Midnight Ritual, a reprint from Mercadian Masques. Magic 2010 was the first core set to feature new cards, including the combination lord and token-generator Cemetery Reaper, which got its own corresponding emaciated-looking token illustrated by Bud Cook (bottom middle).

Zombies are so integral to both the strategy and the aesthetic of the gothic horror-themed set Innistrad that three distinct zombie tokens were included in its booster packs, the first ever token type to receive multiple unique art printings in the same set. This makes sense, given that Innistrad earneda new record with five cards that make zombie tokens - plus three more in Dark Ascension and one more in Avacyn Restored, back when the three-sets-to-a-block paradigm was in effect. In fact, the art on the first of these tokens - the stringy-haired knock-kneed shrieker emerging from a bog (top left) - has the distinction of being not just the most-reprinted zombie, but the most-reprinted token in Magic's history. Lucas Graciano's iconic illustration has been printed in 14 different sets, including compilation sets (such as Modern Masters series) and re-releases (such as the Commander Anthology). The only other zombie arts to be printed more than twice overall are the above mentioned M10 Bud Cook token and Craig J Spearing's zombie from the second block to take place in Innistrad (more on that one later).

The chained-up bald dude on the Khans of Tarkir token (bottom left) was the first new art zombie to be printed on the updated card frame. However, since this new visual style was adopted for the Magic 2015 core set, the first ever zombie token to reflect this change had art by, you guessed it, Lucas Graciano. From top to bottom, some of the notable changes are: the bar with the name of the token extends across the entire width of the card, the art window is no longer rounded at the bottom, the designation "Token" has been added in front of "Creature" on the type line, and the collector's number, copyright information, and artist's name (in this case, Wayne Reynolds) are printed on a solid black background. Moving to the end of the above image, the floating hedrons in Kev Walker's art for the Oath of the Gatewatch zombie token (bottom right) distinctly set it in the plane of Zendikar.

The top half of this new image contains all the zombie tokens from Magic's second trip to Innistrad, the two-set block Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon. Although SOI actually had more zombie-creating cards than EMN (by a slim 7-to-6 margin), the second set in the block was the second such set to receive three distinct zombie tokens. This could be because the storyline of Eldritch Moon flips the usual script regarding zombies: instead of being depicted as a mindless horde seeking to devour as many brains as possible, they are allies of humanity, serving as tools for the necromantic planeswalker Liliana Vess to battle an otherworldly threat to the entire plane. It's nice to see the undead playing the part of protagonist, a tradition continued in the soon-to-be-console-bound Divinity: Original Sin II.

If you look closely at the bottom left of the picture, you'll see a fourth token with the Eldritch Moon expansion symbol. That's because I mistakenly included Daarken's token with variable power and toughness created by the artifact Soul Separator. I would go back and change it, but as I mentioned, that was a screenshot made using the website, which has been taken over by, which is superior in most ways, except I haven't figured out how to print proxies with quite as much versatility. If anybody can teach me the finer points of manipulating image_uris properties, please let me know in the comments. Finishing things off, Core Set 2019 is the third core set to boast a new art zombie token (bottom right), this one illustrated by Scott Canavan.

While the 2/2 Black Zombie token is by far the most numerous, it is not the only type of zombie token in Magic's history. Starting from the top left, there's a multicolored zombie, the blue and black zombie wizard created by Lich Lord of Unx from the Alara Reborn expansion. There's a giant zombie, created by Quest for the Gravelord from Zendikar (but reprinted twice after that). There's a zombie that's also an enchantment, courtesy of Forlorn Pseudamma from Born of the Gods. The first variable power/toughness zombie, made by Ritual of the Return from Journey into Nyx, showcases the Greek mythology-themed Theros block's take on the undead needing to forge golden masks if they wish to return to the world of the living.

The only blue zombie token also has variable power and toughness, this one created by Stitcher Geralf, one of the most popular characters on Innistrad - the plane, not the set, as this version of the character only appears in Commander 2014. As if zombies weren't scary enough on their own, there's a zombie that's also a horror, made by the evocatively-named Corpseweft from Dragons of Tarkir. It turns out Liliana is not the only member of the Vess family adept at making zombies, as her undead brother Josu creates zombie knights with menace (which are functionally equivalent to the pirates from Ixalan). And then there are the series of white-aligned zombie tokens from Amonkhet, the Egyptian mythology-themed set, whose Embalm mechanic reminds us that mummies are really just a cultural subset of zombies (except of course for the Unhinged joke card Working Stiff).

Wow, that certainly was a lot to say about zombies! And I didn't even get into George A. Romero, or debating fast vs. slow! Next time, we'll delve more into some high fantasy fare!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Magic the Gathering Tokens - A Brief History

A couple of months ago, I was asked to teach a group of kids how to play Magic: The Gathering. While many of them were slightly younger than the ideal age to be introduced to Magic, they all seemed to have a fun time, and they hopefully left the session with a greater understanding and appreciation of some concepts of the game. Since the 30-card mono-colored intro-style decks that I built for the occasion were made entirely from the just-released Dominaria expansion, some of these concepts were perhaps too advanced for the situation, such as +1/+1 counters and token creation. But the latter of these was a surprisingly big hit with the group, with many players paying as much attention to the tokens I brought as to the actual cards in their decks.

This makes sense when you consider that to these kids, Magic cards are first and foremost pretty pieces of cardboard and only secondarily components to a strategy tabletop game. And the full-frame artistic renditions on the tokens can be more compelling to look at, as they lack distractions such as rules text and converted mana cost. The only concern stemmed from the availability of these tokens, as I was asked multiple times what to do if you didn't have a copy of the particular token created by a card in your deck. When I explained that you could just as easily use a piece of paper or a spare six-sided die to represent the creature in question, I was met with a quizzical look and the question, "So you can't play Magic unless you carry a bunch of dice with you?" My response was something along the lines of, "Maybe not, but since you can't play Magic unless you have at least 60 very specific pieces of cardboard, what's adding a bag of dice to the mix?"

Snappy retorts aside, the affinity for tokens showed by these new Magic players got me thinking about the history of tokens in the game of Magic. It turns out that tokens have been a part of Magic since the beginning, with exactly one token-making card appearing in the very first Magic set: an artifact called The Hive. Here's the somewhat convoluted rules text that appears on the 1993 Limited Edition printing of the card:

5: Creates one Giant Wasp, a 1/1 flying creature. Represent Wasps with tokens, making sure to indicate when each Wasp is tapped. Wasps can't attack during the turn created. Treat Wasps like artifact creatures in every way, except that they are removed from the game entirely if they ever leave play. If the Hive is destroyed, the Wasps must still be killed individually.

Given that this card was the first to create tokens, it makes sense that it would include a lengthy explanation of what tokens are and how they interact with the rest of the cards in play. In today's game, many of these explicitly stated rules governing tokens are assumed, which is clear when you compare the above paragraph with the errata'd line from the card's entry in the official Gatherer database: "5, [T]: Create a 1/1 colorless Insect artifact creature token with flying named Wasp." Ironically, while they both share the use of the verb "create," Magic's rulemakers actually took quite a roundabout path to get back to the original wording.

For example, on the next two cards that make tokens - Rukh Egg and Bottle of Suleiman, both from the Arabian Nights expansion - the text says that "a [creature] comes into play on your side... Use a counter to represent [creature]." Obviously "counters" and "tokens" became very different things, although that wording does harken back to how I suggested using dice as tokens in my above-mentioned teachings session. Those two concepts get slightly muddled in the Antiquities card Tetravus, which "gets three +1/+1 counters when cast. During your upkeep, you may move each of these counters on or off Tetravus. Counters moved off of Tetravus become independent 1/1 flying artifact creatures. If such a creature dies, the counter is removed from play." This mechanic would later become a two-part process of first removing counters and then creating tokens, but I think it's more evocative to imagine these counters "animating" into creatures of their own.

The language for token creation got a little more streamlined in the 1994 Legends expansion, which has five such cards. As an example, let's take the legendary Boris Devilboon, whose rules text reads: "2BR[T]: Put a minor demon token into play. Treat this token as a 1/1 red and black creature." Notable changes from previous token makers include the shift from passive (where a creature "comes into play") to active (prompting the player to "put" a creature into play), and also the two-sentence format, where the first refers to making the token, and the second describes the token in question. The "treat this token as" format would persist for nearly five years, finally getting an update with the massive Sixth Edition rules change in 1999. And what better card to use as an example than our old friend The Hive, which now reads: "5, [T]: Put a 1/1 Wasp artifact creature token into play. That creature has flying."

With this phrasing, Magic had basically found its rhythm when it came to cards that make tokens. There were a couple of minor changes, such as eliminating the second sentence and moving the special properties of the token between "token" and "into play," which happened in the very next expansion (Urza's Destiny). And then, more than a decade later, there was the more overarching change from "into play" to "onto the battlefield," which went into effect for the Magic 2010 expansion. But it wasn't until the artifact-themed set Kaladesh in 2016 where the shorthand "create" was officially substituted for "put ... onto the battlefield." It's fitting that a set based heavily on Thopters - 1/1 flying artifact creatures that are functionally identical to the Wasps created by The Hive - should be the one to bring token making full circle.

Over the years, tokens became more than just a strategy within the game, evolving into a collectible accessory accompanying certain products. To bring this topic full circle, the first expansion set to feature dedicated tokens that correspond to cards in that set was Tenth Edition in 2007. One of the six tokens released with that set was a 1/1 Wasp artifact creature created by, what else, The Hive. In order to more fully explore this aspect of tokens, I put together a database of all of Magic's printed tokens, what set they belong to, and the the artists responsible for each one. I'll explore some of the findings from this database in future posts, such as which tokens appear in the most sets, which tokens are created by the most cards, and of course the different unique art printings of each. Until then, I hope you have a slightly greater sense of appreciation the next time you open a random token in a Magic booster pack.

Monday, August 6, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 Runners Up

When I started the 2018 version of "If the Season Ended Today," it was understood that "Today" would refer to "the All-Star Break." However, the momentum has shifted in a couple of key playoff races between then and now, and I thought it would only be proper to highlight that here in an additional post. Entering play today (the REAL today, Monday, August 6), the Diamondbacks are tied with the Dodgers for the NL West lead, and the Athletics have overtaken the Mariners for the AL's second Wild Card spot. Since division titles are more highly prized in today's system (even though, if the season actually ended today, the co-leaders would be subject to another one-game playoff, although this one would be called "Game 163" rather than a Wild Card Game), let's start with the D-Backs.

Sticking with the All-Star theme, even though it's been nearly three weeks since the All-Star Game, Arizona sent three representatives to Washington for this year's festivities. Slugging Virgo first baseman Paul Goldschmidt was selected to the roster by MLB, and ended up batting cleanup as the DH - right in front of fellow slugging Virgo first baseman Freddie Freeman... who was himself subbed out later in the game for yet a THIRD slugging Virgo first baseman Joey Votto. Nobody said fantasy astrology baseball was fair. The other two ARI All-Stars were pitchers: Patrick Corbin was another MLB selection, while Zack Greinke was picked as a replacement for Jon Lester, although neither actually made it into the game.

In terms of injuries, they're responsible for Jake Lamb's depressed point total - he missed time earlier in the year and recently went back on the disabled list. But one player's crisis is another's opportunity, as utility infielder Daniel Descalso had a chance to shine while filling in for him. A couple of outfielders acquired in the offseason were also hit by the injury bug: Jarrod Dyson (495 points as of the break, 7.4 points per game) is still on the DL as of this writing, while Steven Souza Jr. (112 / 4.9) is active, but the amount of time he missed so far has all but made him a non-factor; plus it opened the door for the trade for Jon Jay. The rotation was bolstered by another oft-injured midseason acquisition - this one by way of a minor league deal - in Clay Buchholz, who has rediscovered some of his old form with 423 points and 60.4 PPG. He was activated a week after the ASG, in a transaction that saw Matt Koch return to the minors.

Moving on to trades made after the All-Star Break, the Diamondbacks made plenty of them, and by plenty, I mean four. The only post-break offensive upgrade sought by GM Mike Hazen was to pick up slugging Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar (1,100 / 12.2) basically as a way to answer Jake Lamb's struggles. The other three swaps were made with an eye toward improving the Snakes' bullpen: a week before the deadline saw them snag long relief specialist / spot starter Matt Andriese (382 / 14.7) from the Rays, then deadline day saw Arizona land a pair of setup arms in their own former closer Brad Ziegler (512 / 10.9) from the Marlins, and colon-less lefty Jake Diekman (348 / 8.5) from the Rangers. However, the most significant bullpen addition might have been when T.J. McFarland (598 / 17.6) was activated from his own DL stint, the day before Buchholz made it back to the active roster. We'll see if this group can hold off the Dodgers and the Rockies for division lead, as all three teams currently trail the two NL Wild Card contenders.

When I wrote about the Phillies in my 30 Teams in 30 Days feature earlier this year, I talked about how teams are often most exciting to watch at the time when they're set to emerge from a period of rebuilding. While that's usually true, another, perhaps even more exciting time to be a fan of a particular team is when, like the 2018 A's, they were not at all expected to contend, and yet something just clicks. All-Stars Jed Lowrie and Blake Treinen lead a very impressive offense and an unexpectedly lights-out bullpen, respectively, but Oakland has had worse injury luck in their rotation than basically any team except their cross-state rival Angels: no fewer than four projected starters have undergone the dreaded Tommy John surgery this year (Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Gossett, and prospect A.J. Puk), and that doesn't include currently DL'd starters Paul Blackburn and Andrew Triggs. But the current group of spare parts, including a combination of former A's can't-miss prospects (Cahill and Anderson) and journeyman reclamation projects (Edwin Jackson) have held their own just fine.

The rotation had been so effective that Oakland's front office braintrust of GM David Forst and President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane decided not to add any starters at the deadline. In fact, the only addition the team made before July 31st was former Mets closer Jeurys Familia (with a very strong total of 929 points at the break, at a rate of 23.2 points per game), who presents a bit of a moral quandary for an A's fan to root for, given that he does have a domestic violence suspension on his resume. Speaking of embattled relievers (although not on nearly the same scale), just yesterday the Athletics picked up Shawn Kelley (345 / 11.1) after he was designated for assignment by the Nationals due to attitude problems - specifically "act(ing) like a baby" in a recent appearance. But these cases pale in comparison to the most controversial bullpen trade at the deadline. UPDATE: Just moments ago, the news broke that Forst & Co. claimed on waivers, and then swung a trade with the Tigers for, starting pitcher Mike Fiers (818 / 45.4), a deal that had erroneously been reported to have happened at the deadline. But now back to what I was talking about before.

I did a lot of reading on the subject of Jeurys Familia when he was acquired by the A's. On Halloween night 2016, Familia was arrested on a domestic violence charge, after his wife called the police claiming that he was "drunk" and "going crazy." In the ensuing month and a half, his wife dropped the charges and the case was dismissed. I am aware that there can be mitigating, sometimes sinister, circumstances that can lead to a victim close to their abuser choosing not to pursue such a case further, but it nevertheless sheds some light on the circumstances. Despite the case's resolution, the Commissioner's Office suspended Familia for the first 15 games of the next season, and that was the end of the story. I'm ashamed to say that I had actually forgotten about this whole saga until Familia's name surfaced in trade rumors this year.

The case of former Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna has played out significantly differently this year. While details of his case have not been made public, at the time of his acquisition by the Astros, Osuna was still in the midst of a 75-game suspension, the second-longest such suspension issued for domestic assault. (The longest, an 82-game ban, was served by Hector Olivera, who hasn't returned to affiliated ball since.) It's important to note that these types of suspensions are at the discretion of the Commissioner, and thus have no legal basis, and tend to be quite reactionary in nature. But it's just as important to note that the assault charges against Osuna have decidedly NOT been dropped and the case against him is still ongoing - his attorneys represented him at a hearing on August 1, two days after the trade went down, and he's scheduled to be in court again September 5, right in the middle of the stretch run.

It's almost surreal to be talking about baseball playoff implications within the framework of domestic violence, but that remains a grim reality, given that a player suspended in this manner is still eligible to compete in the MLB postseason. This is not the case for players suspended for use of performance enhancing drugs, which to me seems like a glaring moral lapse on the part of MLB. It's basically an admission that the organization does not care one bit about a player's character, so long as their actions didn't directly affect their play on the field. But beyond that, it's perhaps an even more glaring lapse on the part of Houston's front office to willingly acquire such a player and put him in the national spotlight of a playoff race. Before the trade, Osuna would have languished on Toronto's restricted list, safely out of contention for the rest of the year, but now the defending World Series champions have abandoned any semblance of pretending to foster a positive clubhouse environment, and laid bare their cold, calculating, win-at-all-costs mentality... which, in fairness, is likely shared by all major sports teams, and all big businesses in general. But that doesn't mean that it's not going to impact the fans (or, in fact, the players) in a negative way.

Roberto Osuna was reinstated from his suspension yesterday, but didn't appear for Houston in their 3-2 loss to the Dodgers. Honestly, the best case scenario for the Astros might be that he pitches poorly for the next month and is subsequently shipped off to Canadian prison in September, effectively removing a potential postseason PR disaster from the table. But part of me wonders if the damage hasn't already been done.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

If the Season Ended Today 2018 Top Seeds

Well, the trade deadline has come and gone, and perhaps predictably so, the two top seeded teams in each league came out of the flurry of moves leading up to 7/31 looking very different than when they went in. But since this feature is stuck at the All-Star Break, we're statistically frozen at 7/16. In this final installment, check out how the Red Sox and Cubs would have lined up If the Season Ended Today (asterisk). First, we'll see how the first MLB team to 70 wins aims to fend off its competitors.

Boston had five All-Stars in the 2018 festivities, second-most of any team. These included two fan elected starters (Libra arbitration hearing winner Mookie Betts in the outfield and  Leo offseason acquisition J.D. Martinez at DH), and one manager-elected starter (the pitcher Aries ace Chris Sale, whose recent trip to the DL is going to hurt his cosmic team's chances heading into the stretch run). First baseman Mitch Moreland (who is SO far down the Virgo depth chart at 1B, behind such notable names as Goldschmidt, Freeman, Votto, even Desmond, nevertheless) got two hits in this game coming in as a player ballot substitution. However Gemini star closer Craig Kimbrel didn't enter the game in relief.

It's not evident looking at their win-loss record, but injuries have beset this team's roster in every category. The starting rotation would look much more complete with breakout lefty Eduardo Rodriguez (1,145 / 60.3) instead of rookie spot-starter type Hector Velazquez, even if he is having a fine first full MLB season since making the jump from the Mexican League. Third base is currently occupied by another Eduardo, Nunez, while super utility player Brock Holt is at the keystone, but the upside of young Rafael Devers (940 / 10.6) and the track record of veteran Dustin Pedroia (5 / 1.7, but remember I said TRACK RECORD) would definitely be preferable in the playoffs. And even the bullpen saw a potentially promising weapon go down in Carson Smith (124 / 6.9), whose catastrophic circumstances literally add insult to injury. And that's not even mentioning defensive standout catcher Christian Vazquez (Leon has superior offensive numbers on the year), or starters Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright (they've played so little this year between them to make a dent statistically).

But luckily Red Sox Prez of Baseball Ops David Dombrowski was active in finding solutions for some of these problems, at least in 2/3 of the areas mentioned above. First was to beef up their bench from the right side with Blue Jays technically-utility player Steve Pearce (447 / 12.4) who was actually the top first base (mostly) eligible player to change teams at the deadline this year. Second and actually foremost was resurgent starter Nathan Eovaldi (420 (blaze it) / 46.7) who is just now returning from multiple Tommy John surgeries. He's one of the reasons why Angels and A's fans should have some hope: true, more pitchers are succumbing to elbow ligament surgery, but more pitchers are also coming back from it... just ask Jonny Venters, another recent trade target. And last but not least, they acquired a ready-made hedge in case homegrown star Pedroia can't take the field at the keystone, Ian Kinsler (755 / 9.2) from the Angels. The number three second baseman on the Cancer Decapods fantasy astrology depth chart - behind injured DJ LeMahieu (922 / 13.0) and multi-position threat Yangervis Solarte (980 / 10.7) - was only the third-highest scoring second baseman moved at the deadline - behind Brian Dozier (1,116 / 12.0), the newest Dodger and Asdrubal Cabrera (1,094 / 11.9) who came to the Phillies several days ago.

While Chicago's NL team has the best record in the senior circuit, they however don't have the most wins: the Brewers have two more, but also two more losses. They also only had three 2018 All-Stars to Boston's (and Milwaukee's) five. Both leadoff hitter / pride of Sagittarius Javier Baez and new Taurus starting catcher Willson Contreras were voted in by the fans, while former Red Sox / current Capricorn starting pitcher Jon Lester was unavailable to pitch. Their lineup was also miraculously devoid of injury at the break - the only unavailable regular Albert Almora Jr. (799 / 9.3) was on family leave. (Of course Kris Bryant has since fallen to the DL thanks to shoulder troubles.) On the pitching side, the loss of Yu Darvish (227 / 28.4) is certainly hurting them, but his ineffectiveness was just as bad before the injury troubles started. Plus Mike Montgomery has settled in as a better option even than another offseason acquisition Tyler Chatwood (288 / 16.9) who it turns out still walks tons of batters, even outside the rarefied air of Coors Field. (And it's important to note that since the break, dependable closer Brandon Morrow has also been placed on the shelf with a biceps issue.)

Bryant's injury did not seem to bother Cubs PBO Theo Epstein too much, but the pitching injuries did, prompting him and his Jed Hoyer-led front office to acquire three pitchers in the deadline season. Two of these pitchers came from the same team (the Rangers), but they have very different roles and very different career paths. Alternating spot starter and long relief specialist Jesse Chavez (530 / 17.7) can add quality length to any bullpen. Former lefty ace Cole Hamels (737 / 38.8) is still being paid like a current ace, despite the decline in raw skills and results. However, he's strictly better than ineffectively wild Chatwood and adds comes with a good postseason resumé to boot. The most recent acquisition, from deadline day itself, was to pick up former Twins closer Brandon Kinzler (306 / 7.7) from the Nationals, where his depressed fantasy point total shows that he had been relegated to middle relief duty in Washington.

So that's it for all the teams that would have been playoff-bound If the Season Ended Today (astersisk). If the season ended TODAY today (i.e. the day after the Trade Deadline), the AL playoff picture would be the same, but in the NL the Diamondbacks would have the edge over the Dodgers and Rockies for the NL West lead. Maybe I can afford to post about one more lineup...