In an alternate Nationals universe…


The year is 2020. A worldwide pandemic halted the sports world, but after four months, some have slowly crept back. The Nationals opened the 2020 MLB season and their title defense against the New York Yankees on July 23. The Capitals and Wizards started their respective playoff pushes this week. The threat of another shutdown continues to linger, and the plug could be pulled on any of these sports at any time.

As society tries to re-enter normalcy, constant changes and restrictions remind us just how far from normalcy we are. We have gone one-third of a year under these conditions and there’s no clear end in sight. In a perfect world, this would all be behind us.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. So many things have gone wrong this year, it’s hard not to think “what if,” about a lot of things. All that fixation on the hypothetical led me to think about even crazier “what if” scenarios. And thus the most recent series for The Wildcard was born.

“In an alternate universe…” will take a look at a world in which each Washington team got a major player they missed out on. We’re starting with the most recent (and most realistic) scenario with the Wizards, then continued with the Washington Football Team and the Capitals, and will move back in time (and even further out of the realm of possibility) to the Nationals as we look into how a single player would alter life as we know it.

Tom Brady becomes an Expos/Nationals legend

Original Photo Credit: Pinterest; Jersey swap by Joe Pohoryles

Unlike the previous three scenarios, this one seems so far outside the realm of possibility that it doesn’t seem worth placing here. At least the other three athletes — Zion Williamson, Peyton Manning and Sidney Crosby — played the same sport as the respective team they were assigned to. Picking a football star for the Nationals though? That seems ridiculous

The more fitting player may be Mark Teixeira, the All-Star first baseman whom the Nats briefly pursued in 2008. They offered the Maryland native somewhere between $160-184 million in hopes of bringing a hometown star to the new team in Washington. Teixeira spurned the lowly Nats in favor of the New York Yankees and the $180 million they threw his way. Teixeira allegedly wanted to contend and would have chosen the Bronx Bombers regardless. He won the World Series with New York that season.

It’s a worthy “what if,” but it seems pretty cut-and-dry: A young Ryan Zimmerman and prime Teixeira in the same infield would have been something to behold, but without much help around them, it would have taken years for that team to really go anywhere. The far more intriguing and far less likely scenario in which Tom Brady played for the Nationals will be explored today instead.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback also played baseball in high school as a left-handed batting catcher. He attracted MLB scouts and was eventually drafted in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft to the Montreal Expos, the same team that would become the Washington Nationals 10 years later.

Brady, however, much preferred football to baseball, so he played football at Michigan and would go on to win six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before moving on to Tampa Bay, still productive at age 43. But what if Brady opted to go the baseball route instead? After all, the Expos supposedly offered Brady the amount of money typically offered to a second- or third-round pick.

Players picked as late as Brady are far from locks to reach the Major Leagues, but with all teams knowing he was probably leaning towards football, none would waste their early round picks on him, so let’s assume the Expos’ scouts are right and Brady is worthy of a second/third-round grade. What would his career be like, and would he even stay with the franchise long enough to see their move to Washington?

Player profile

Expos general manager Kevin Malone (before he started working at Dunder-Mifflin in Scranton, PA) said, “I think [Brady] could have been one of the greatest catchers ever.” Certainly high praise for the kid from California who batted .311 and hit eight home runs across two varsity seasons.

Still, with a great arm and incredible power with his bat, playing baseball at the Major League level was certainly in the cards for Brady. In fact, a great model for how Brady’s baseball career could have gone is looking at Minnesota Twins’ great Joe Mauer.

Mauer became the only player ever named National High School Player of the Year in two sports by USA TODAY, earning the award as a quarterback in 2000 and as a catcher in 2001. Mauer was selected first overall by his hometown Twins in 2001, where he remained for all 15 Major League seasons. He made six All-Star Games and won three Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers to go with one MVP award.

Brady was not even as high-profile of a quarterback as Mauer was in high school, much less as a baseball player, so while it may be stretch to say Brady would win MVP, is it possible he could have made a few All-Star teams? Catchers with big bats tend to do well in fan voting, and while Brady didn’t mash too many dingers in high school, his power is listed as a major strength in all scouting reports that I’ve seen.

Defensively, his arm strength and accuracy would have made him great at picking off runners, but it appears he lost his touch over the years in the accuracy department. Given his strengths and the potential many scouts saw in him, let’s say Brady reaches the majors in about four or five years and has All-Star potential.

Fit in Montreal

Since he was drafted in 1995, he likely would not become an everyday player with the Expos until 1999 or 2000. Maybe he makes his debut in 1999, but doesn’t lock down a full-time role until 2000.

Led by Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Vidro, the 2000 Expos finished fourth in the NL East with a 67-95 record. Chris Widger got the most time at catcher, playing 86 games with 312 plate appearances. The 29-year-old hit 12 home runs and 34 RBI while slashing .238/.311/.441. Not exactly eye-popping numbers.

Michael Barrett became the primary catcher for the next two seasons before Brian Schneider took over until 2007. Both were fine offensively, but not great, so there would definitely be room for Brady to prove himself and earn the most playing time.

If he did rise to an All-Star level player within his first few years, he would be the clear starter at catcher without any real debate. As a projection, let’s say Brady hits around 15-20 home runs a year while batting somewhere in the .270-.300 range at his peak. The best catchers tend to stick around with the same franchise (see: Mauer, Buster Posey and Yadier Molina as three recent examples), so would Brady still be in Montreal by the time the Expos move to Washington?

Move to Washington

Chances are that if Brady were playing at an All-Star level, he would still be on the team by the time it moved to Washington. By 2005, Brady would be 27 (turning 28 in the middle of the season) and in the prime of his career. He would likely be one of the Nationals’ first-ever headlining players.

That would be if he was an All-Star, but what if he matched Malone’s assessment and was on track to being the greatest catcher of all time? Forget being a headliner, would Brady be the first player to enter Cooperstown with a Curly ‘W’ on his cap? How bizarre would that be?

But sticking to the “simply an All-Star” projection, Brady’s play alone wouldn’t be enough to overcome the team’s consistent finish at the bottom of the division, so would the ultra-competitive Brady opt to leave the team whenever he reached free agency? If he exceeds rookie limits in 2000, then that means he’d reach free agency after the Nats’ inaugural season. How ironic would it be if he signed with the Red Sox for 2006 and beyond, helped them win the World Series in 2007 and 2013 and still retires a Boston sports legend?

But maybe the Nats offer him a contract he can’t refuse, and he signs to stay with the team for the what turns out to be the remainder of his career. By the 2012 postseason, the first time the Nats made the playoffs, Brady would be a 35-year-old catcher. He may still be slinging touchdowns at 43, but 35 for a catcher is getting up there. Would he still be the starter?

Kurt Suzuki, 35 in 2019, and Yan Gomes, 32, platooned at catcher last season, so it’s reasonable to believe Brady, if indeed a former All-Star at that point, would at least be playing part-time. So playing an impactful role in 2012 is still on the table, but 2014, 2016 and 2017 appear to be less likely possibilities. If he cares for his body the same way he does in the real universe, maybe he could play into his 40s, but it still seems that he would mostly miss out on the Nats’ success.

Legacy

Can you imagine Brady retiring without any rings? That would likely be the case if he played baseball and stuck with the Expos/Nationals franchise for his entire career, but if he really did become the greatest catcher in history, it would not halt him from reaching the Hall of Fame.

He likely would have thrown out the first pitch at one of the 2019 World Series home games, or at least been on the receiving end, unless he somehow remained on the World Series roster as a 42-year-old catcher, meaning he would finally win a championship in his last go-around.

Championship or not, he would not be nearly as high-profile of an athlete that he is today. There wouldn’t be the TB12 clothing, lifestyle or cookbook (at least it wouldn’t sell as well) and he wouldn’t be synonymous with Boston sports — unless he were to eventually play for the Red Sox, and even then he wouldn’t be as large a figure. Nothing will top a six-time champion quarterback.

The scenario of Brady playing baseball is the least predictable of the four parts of this series. He may have been an All-Star catcher, but he also could have never reached the majors and none of us would know who he is today. The bottom line is that Brady certainly made the right choice by playing football, but seeing him in a Nationals jersey is one bizarre sight that maybe could have been a reality.

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