While the promise of spring theoretically touches all 30 MLB franchises, most front offices and fanbases, when appraising their team’s chances realistically, don’t expect a World Series title, let alone a playoff berth.
Still, a team must get local fans excited about the product on the field so that they can walk through the turnstiles at the ballpark and leave, having consumed many a nine-dollar beer, with some memorabilia.
If the team isn’t good enough to build a marketing campaign around winning, then perhaps an exhilarating player or an up-and-coming star can raise interest. Meanwhile, contending teams understandably focus their promotion on the stars most responsible for the success.
In short, each club, through various forms of advertising, creates a “face of the franchise,” a marketable person in the organization who embodies the spirit or direction of the franchise.
Of course, advertising campaigns don’t always work, especially when there is a poor relationship between the fans and ownership. In these cases, the face of the franchise in the eyes of the fans is different than the one advertised by the club.
In this two-part slideshow series, I will do my best to identify the face of each franchise and explain my reasoning.
My criteria will include on-field production, club tenure, salary, marketability and how well a player symbolizes the state of his organization in the eyes of the fans, among other things. The criteria may be weighted differently each time, and it goes without saying that my choices are colored by my biases and subjective perceptions.
I think this exercise, however trivial it may seem, has value in that it can shed some light on broader issues, particularly race relations in American (and Canadian!) society.
So if (when) you disagree with me, please let me know in the comments, and maybe our friendly Internet debate will lead to a real friendship or, in other words, years of alcohol-fueled debates in person.
This week, I tackle the 16 teams in the National League.
Face of the franchise: RF Justin Upton
Mentionables: 1B Paul Goldschmidt, GM Kevin Towers
Upton is a rising superstar, the best kind of superstar for an organization to build both a team and a marketing campaign around. His personality only increases his marketability—he has never run afoul of the law, he comes from a baseball family and he has handled astoundingly high expectations with aplomb ever since he came up at 19 years old.
Hitting for outrageous power always plays well with the fans and the media, as does having a cool name. Paul Goldschmidt is endowed with both, and he could become the face if Upton were to leave for some presently unfathomable reason.
Towers gets a mention because his restructuring of the bullpen was largely responsible for a last-to-first turnaround in 2011. Diamondback fans can rest easy as long as he is in charge of the roster.
Face of the franchise: SS Troy Tulowitzki
Mentionables: 1B Todd Helton
Tulo is the unquestioned face of the Rockies, having signed a monster extension that keeps him in Denver through 2020. A do-everything shortstop, Tulowitzki is poised to be one of the biggest stars in the league for the next decade. Look for Tulo to appear in Rockies commercials, like this one from 2008, for a long time.
Helton gets a shout-out for being the previous face of the franchise and still damn good at age 38.
Face of the franchise: Owner Frank McCourt/Magic Johnson
Mentionables: SP Clayton Kershaw, CF Matt Kemp
Once details of McCourt’s scandalous business practices broke to the public, he became the ugly face of the Dodgers despite the bright young ace Kershaw and stud center fielder Kemp.
The Guggenheim Partners brought Magic Johnson along specifically to provide an ultra-recognizable, beloved figure to erase McCourt from the fans’ collective memory. It will take some time for Dodger fans to get over the McCourt era.
But once that happens, look for Kershaw, possibly the best pitcher in the National League, to emerge as the face of the franchise over Kemp nationally—although in the massive and diverse greater Los Angeles area, there could be two, equally legitimate, faces locally.
Face of the franchise: No one?
Mentionables: CF Cameron Maybin, 1B Yonder Alonso
It seems like the Padres haven’t had a face since they traded Adrian Gonzalez, a local boy whose Mexican heritage played perfectly in San Diego. Anthony Rizzo, the highly touted first-base prospect the Padres received in return for Gonzalez, didn’t pan out and was traded to the Cubs for reliever Andrew Cashner.
Now Alonso, who arrived in the Mat Latos trade, has the opportunity to earn a role that is currently up in the air.
Maybin recently signed a five-year, $25 million extension, making him worthy of a mention and squarely in the competition with Alonso.
Face of the franchise: SP Tim Lincecum
Mentionables: C Buster Posey
Lincecum’s appearance and personality just ooze San Francisco.
On top of the historically great start to his career, San Franciscans love his shaggy hair and history with marijuana. “Let Tim Smoke” shirts, adorned with a pot leaf, aren’t sold in official Giants stores, but they are one of the most popular designs in the city nonetheless, worn by fans of the team and the drug alike.
His diminutive stature and laid-back persona allow the common man or woman to relate to him easily.
While Lincecum reminds people of themselves (only, you know, freakishly athletic), Posey is like the model child of television sitcoms. Skilled, baby-faced and earnest, Posey evokes nothing but good feelings and memories of the 2010 World Series, which was capped with him running joyfully into closer Brian Wilson’s arms.
Face of the franchise: President of baseball operations Theo Epstein
Mentionables: SS Starlin Castro, RP Kerry Wood
The Cubs have floundered ever since the 2003 NLCS, so they brought wunderkind Epstein to pilot the ship. With his championship pedigree and a history of breaking curses, Epstein becomes the person on whom Chicago fans pin their hopes.
The current on-field product is nothing to get too excited about. Castro is the second-best player on the team, but first-best player Matt Garza could get moved this season so Castro becomes the one player Cubs fans know is part of future plans.
Wood, his role diminished from ace starter to middle reliever, embodies the fall of the franchise since the promising years of the early 2000s.
Face of the franchise: 1B Joey Votto
With that massive ($225 million) contract, Votto simply must be the face of the franchise. When an organization invests that much in a player, they look to get returns not just on the field, but also in merchandise stores and media visibility.
Face of the franchise: 1B Carlos Lee
Mentionables: LF J.D. Martinez
The Astros were a mess last season, the only positive being that the commitment to rebuilding became total with the trade of Hunter Pence. A wave of prospects were called up to compete for starting positions, and of them outfielder Martinez is the most promising.
Still, he or any one of their young players will not be the face of the Astros until they earn it with their production.
“El Caballo” signed the offseason after Houston’s appearance in the 2005 World Series. Lee’s tenure has been marred by losing and backlash against a contract that’s even beefier ($100 million) than he is. In the eyes of fans, Lee might be the perfect symbol for the recent woes of the franchise.
Face of the franchise: LF Ryan Braun
Mentionables: RP John Axford
Braun is young, handsome, charismatic and a great hitter—there is nothing more the Brewers, or any team, could want in their franchise player.
Fans are divided over the recent drug-testing scandal, and I’m sure some Milwaukee fans feel betrayed. But as someone who lived through Barry Bonds’ tenure in San Francisco, I can vouch for the loyalty of a local fanbase toward a player whose reputation is sullied in the eyes of the rest of the nation. Besides, many fans have grown weary of PED scandals for their ubiquity.
Axford gets a mention for his mustache, which makes for a much more interesting face, physically, to slap on a billboard.
Face of the franchise: CF Andrew McCutchen
Mentionables: None (Futility?)
McCutchen gets the title easily for being the only great player on a bad team and his six-year, $51.5 million contract. The only Pirate he is in competition with is young Barry Bonds.
Face of the franchise: 3B David Freese
Mentionables: SP Chris Carpenter, LF Matt Holliday
When Albert Pujols signed with the Angels, he left a void at both first base and face base…I mean, the Cardinals needed to find a new face of the franchise.
Enter David Freese. Not only is he a local boy and a World Series hero, he has also yet to show what he can do over a full season. His future could be brighter than his past, always a good quality for a franchise face to have.
Carpenter is certainly a hero around St. Louis for his all-time great performance in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, but he might not have the requisite star power. Holliday has spent the last few years as Pujols’ sidekick. His age (32) and the fact that he has been traded twice suggest that he’s not franchise-face material.
Face of the franchise: 3B Chipper Jones
Mentionables: SP Tommy Hanson, C Brian McCann
I think “Chipper Jones” when I hear “Atlanta Braves” and vice versa. Of course, I might be part of a minority that lives in the past.
There is so much rising young talent on this team that it’s hard to choose between them. The careers of Hanson, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Beachy have been too short for any one of them to separate himself from the pack. Hanson has been around the longest and looks like he could be an ace, so he gets a mention here.
McCann is slightly older, elite at a premium position and has been a Brave his entire career. If this wasn’t Chipper’s final year, he probably would be considered the face of the Braves.
Face of the franchise: Manager Ozzie Guillen
Mentionables: RF Giancarlo Stanton, SS Jose Reyes
The 2012 season for the Marlins is one of reinvention. After years of cost-cutting, the organization spent big on a new stadium, three high-profile free agents and Guillen, banking on his leadership and ability to draw media attention.
He is there to lead this hastily cobbled-together group of players and distract the media with his antics, thereby easing the pressure on the team. His controversial remarks about Fidel Castro certainly did that, as few people are talking about Stanton’s lack of dingers so far (to be fair, Pujols’ power outage has also helped Stanton fly under the radar).
For these reasons, Guillen is the face of the Marlins this season. In the future, Stanton or Reyes (likely Stanton) will supersede him. The acquisitions of Reyes and Guillen, when considered in conjunction, can be viewed as an attempt for the franchise to connect with the large Latino population in the Miami area.
Face of the franchise: Owner Fred Wilpon
Mentionables: 3B David Wright, SP Johan Santana, Mascot Mr. Met
Ownership has both committed to Wright as a franchise player and demonstrated stunning incompetence. The on-field and off-field mess created by Wilpon overshadows any player’s individual accomplishments, or really any other story about the Mets. Besides, Wright’s career has taken a turn for the worse since Citi Field opened.
Santana might best embody what Mets fan hope for: a return to 2006 form after a few dark years
Face of the franchise: 2B Chase Utley
Mentionables: SP Roy Halladay, 1B Ryan Howard
Utley symbolizes the Phillies in a nutshell—old, creaky, formerly great, possibly still great. Furthermore, their postseason chances hinge on him successfully returning from injury.
I suppose optimists or people who like the Phillies more than I do would choose Halladay—still going strong despite the ravages of time. Still, Utley came up with the club, has been around longer and plays every day when healthy.
Howard has the light-tower power and national profile (thanks to Subway and Adidas commercials) of a franchise face.
The racial composition of Philadelphia is essentially binary, according to Wikipedia, with 41 percent of the 2010 population classified as white and 43.4 percent black. Obviously not everyone roots for players of their own race more than other players, but it is easier to identify with players who are similar to you.
In a sport with so few black players, let alone stars, and in a city with such a substantial black population, Howard has had the unique opportunity to attract more sports fans and young athletes to baseball.
I have seen as much living in suburban Philadelphia for two years. You don't have to take my word for it though. Zaki Edwards, in a post for the blog philliesnation.com, has also remarked on this trend, saying:
[The declining number of black players is] a phenomenon that has been talked about at length for the past few decades, but one that seems to be fading in the City of Brotherly Love as of late: The Phillies are employing more black players and the number of black Phillies fans seems to be on the rise.
Face of the franchise: SP Stephen Strasburg
Mentionables: 3B Ryan Zimmerman
Strasburg was dubbed the future upon being drafted and has lived up to the hype when healthy. Concerns over his elbow are well-founded but can’t and shouldn’t deter the Nationals from selling the young superstar and future ace as the face of the franchise.
If Strasburg’s wonky delivery is indeed his undoing, Washington has a hell of a Plan B in Zimmerman. The third basemen recently signed an extension that keeps him in town until 2019 and puts triple-digit millions in his pocket. He should compete with Pablo Sandoval for the title of best third baseman in the National League for at least the next few years.
Come back next week when I go through the faces of the American League! The excitement is contagious! I swear that's the only disease I can give you (through the web)!
To see the hilarious photo essay that inspired this post, go here. To read the rest of my blog, which has some good stuff for baseball (especially Giants) fans, go here. Don't follow me on Twitter because it confuses and scares me.