What Could Have Been: Tom Brady, MLB Star

The connections between MLB and the NFL seem few and far between in recent years. The biggest re-occurrence of course, is the perpetual debate about whether football has really replaced baseball as “America’s National Pastime”. While that debate is one best saved for another day, there was an interesting story written last Friday by Jeff Bradley at NJ.com that not only ties MLB and the NFL together, but could have potentially had an impact on the Washington Nationals themselves depending on how things worked out.

Image courtesy: nj.com; Junipero Serra High School

According to Bradley, it would seem that there was once an impressive catching prospect growing up in the San Mateo, California area. He stood 6’4” and batted from the left side of the plate. Most importantly perhaps, he showed an ability to lead the game and a toughness that wasn’t seen all that often. The only problem, however, was that this same catcher was committed to attending the University of Michigan the next fall. It would seem that nothing would keep him from that commitment.

We know that player today as Tom Brady. Yes, that same Tom Brady that most Baltimore Ravens fans dislike (though at least seem to respect). The same Tom Brady that will play in yet another Super Bowl this coming Sunday. The same Tom Brady who once was almost a member of the Montreal Expos.

Bradley spoke with a number of people in writing his piece, one of which includes Brady’s old high school baseball coach, Pete Jensen. Jensen’s been a coach at Juniper Serra High School for a number of years and has seen a few quality players pass under his watch.

There was an infielder named Gregg Jefferies who ended up being drafted in the 1st Round in 1985 by the New York Mets. Over the next 14 seasons he’d bat .289/.344/.421 with 126 HR and 663 RBI in over 6,000 plate appearances.

There was also a left-handed pitcher named Dan Serafini, a 1992 1st Round pick of the Minnesota Twins. He’d appear in 104 games over parts of seven seasons, pitching to a 15-16 record and 6.04 ERA.

Jensen even had the privilege of coaching a young left fielder with some very impressive talents. He’d end up being drafted ahead of Jefferies in 1985 and went on to hit .298/.444/.607 in over 12,000 plate appearances over a 22 year career. He finished that career with seven MVP Awards and an MLB record 763 home runs. Pat yourself on the back if you recognize that we’re talking about none other than Barry Bonds.

According to Jensen, Brady was possibly the most talented of the group – a rather bold statement. There was at least something about him that stood out from the rest. Something that caused Jensen to question whether Brady was making the right choice by putting football first.

I thought Tommy was a sure thing as a baseball player. Even more a sure thing than Gregg or Barry, believe it or not. As good a football player as he was, I thought he was a better baseball player in high school.

Now, most are familiar with Brady’s story since. He arrived at Michigan at the bottom of the team’s depth charts. He worked hard and grew as a quarterback, eventually earning a share of the starts during his time as a Wolverine*. While he was never able to do enough to win the starting job outright, Brady showed enough promise leading up to the NFL Draft in 2000 that he was selected late in the 6th Round by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. He’s since won three Super Bowls and established himself as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL.

* Ironically Brady split his playing time most with Drew Henson, another former MLB (with the Yankees and later the Reds) and NFL (with the Cowboys, after a failed baseball career) prospect.

While Brady’s NFL career has been impressive to date – and being a fan it’s been a pleasure to watch first hand, week in and week out – it’s interesting to wonder just what could have been had he chosen to play baseball instead. It is believed that Brady actually hoped to play both football and baseball upon arriving in Ann Arbor. However, at the time new football coach Lloyd Carr stated that he would not permit any players from missing Spring Practices. Brady, determined to make it as a quarterback, gave up baseball to focus his efforts on football.

Little known to most, Brady was drafted after his senior year of high school. He was taken in the 18th Round of the 1995 Draft, by the Montreal Expos. Scouts liked his athleticism, his arm behind the plate, and his projectability. John Hughes, the former scout who’s recommendation led to his drafting and currently a scout for the Marlins, says he spent most of that summer with Brady and his family. He tried to persuade Brady to sign with the Expos and even took him to meet a few of the team’s players when the Expos were in San Francisco. Ultimately it was to no avail. Brady always intended on going to Michigan. There was no dissuading that decision.

But, what if Brady had signed with the Expos way back in 1995? What if he ultimately developed into the sure fire Hall of Famer that he’s largely viewed as being today?

The Expos finished out the 1990s using the likes of Darrin Fletcher, Lenny Webster, and Chris Widger behind the plate. Things likely wouldn’t have been much different if the Expos had Brady working his way through the minors during that time, but by 2001 the position had been turned over to Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider, who both had also been drafted in 1995.

Barrett spent the next six seasons in Montreal, batting .253/.310/.388 with 38 HR and 193 RBI in just under 2,000 plate appearances. The organization ultimately would let him leave via free agency after the 2003 season. He’d turn in three sold seasons as a member of the Chicago Cubs before spending parts of two seasons with the Padres and Blue Jays. He hasn’t appeared in an MLB game since 2009.

Schneider stuck around long enough to see the Expos move to Washington and wound up the starting catcher for the first three seasons of the Nationals’ existence. Over 8 seasons he made just over 2,600 plate appearances, batting .252/.323/.377 with 47 HR and 294 RBI. He’d continue his career with two seasons with the Mets and two more with the Phillies. He’ll once again be a Phillie in 2012.

Had Brady signed with the Expos in 1995 it is reasonable to believe that he would have also been in the mix to get playing time while Barrett and Schneider were behind the plate. Yet, there’s no way for us to know with any degree of certainty what level of production he might have been able to provide – even if he had been able to develop and grow into the catcher that his coach and scouts thought he might be.

If we were to try and determine who the best catcher was in the National League from 2000 through 2011 we’d likely see a number of names come up in conversation. Mike Lieberthal averaged a .283/.349/.442 line with 14 HR and 60 RBI from 2002-2005, but that was largely the tail end of his career for the Phillies. Ivan Rodriguez batted .297/.369/.474 with 16 HR and 85 for the Marlins in 2003 but that was his only season in the NL before joining the Nationals for 2010-2011. Yadier Molina has hit .274/.331/.377 with an average of 9 HR and 67 RBI over nine seasons with the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Russell Martin averaged a .272/.365/.396 line with 11 HR and 60 RBI over five seasons with the Dodgers.

Ultimately, however, after much debate the best catcher in the NL over that period of time would have likely been named Atlanta’s Brian McCann. Since reaching the Majors in 2005 he’s hit .286/.358/.486 for the Braves, averaging 25 HR and 99 RBI per season. He’s won five Silver Slugger Awards and has been named to six consecutive All Star games. In terms of bWAR, he’s averaged roughly 3 wins per season. He’s the backbone of the Braves offense at this point, considering the age of Chipper Jones and the relative inexperience of Jason Heyward.

So let’s assume for a moment that if Tom Brady had developed into a great MLB catcher that he would have been roughly at the same level McCann has played at for the past seven seasons. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it gives us something to work with.

The end result? Having a catcher of that caliber would have made little difference to an Expos team that sat at or near the bottom of the National League East for much of the early 2000s. The team just simply didn’t have a strong enough roster that the addition of one more player would have changed their ultimate fate each season. Even with Brady behind the plate with McCann-like numbers, there just simply wasn’t enough help around him.

The 2002 season was Montreal’s best during that stretch. They finished in second place. Yet, even with an additional 3 wins that season they still would have been miles behind the eventual NL East Champion Braves. Atlanta was just too good that season. Having Brady on the Expos just wouldn’t have been enough.

It’s always fun to speculate and wonder on what could have been. Had Brady chosen to pursue a baseball career instead of football there’s no telling how far his dedication and superior work ethic may have carried him. He might have been a complete bust, never reaching the Major Leagues. Or, he might be entrenched as the best catcher in baseball. He could have been traded or left via free agency by now, or any number of other possibilities. But, in the end, he’s arguably one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and on the verge of winning yet another Super Bowl. Brady might have had a great career had he chosen baseball. All things considered, you can’t really fault him for the choices he’s made.

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