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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Best I've Ever Seen

Friday morning, I learned of the passing of the great Ron Santo. My grandfather, who saw more than his share of baseball from the 1930's through the 1980's (and beyond, on TV), always claimed that Ron Santo was the best third baseman he had ever seen in person. Now, my grandfather was a huge Cubs fan, but we're still comparing Santo to the likes of Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and many other legends. When bladder cancer took Santo's life, he stood out as the most egregious omission from the Hall of Fame. Fifteen times, the writers had failed to elect him. The Veterans' Committee passed on enshrining him four times over eight years. While I believe Santo will eventually be enshrined posthumously, the voters should be ashamed that their snubs have cost him the chance to stand on the stage, make his speech, and enjoy the sport's highest honor.

All of this made me think: if I ever have grandchildren, what will I tell them? Who are the greatest players I have ever seen on the diamond? Over the past thirty years, I have seen roughly ten or fifteen major league games per season in person, for a total in excess of 300 games. By virtue of growing up in Chicago, I have had access to players in both leagues since well before interleague play began. So, I decided to rank the top five players at each position, limiting myself to only players I have seen in person. I will name and write a bit about my #1 choice, then rank my #2 through #5. My standards are subjective. I have placed players at the position with which I associate them most. In the case of players proven or highly suspected of using PED's, I rank them on the basis of how good they were before/after/negating the extra power. I'll also have some one-player superlatives. Finally, I will list the top five players active during this era (1980-2010) whom I have somehow never seen play in person. I would love to hear your choices for the best you have seen, in the comments below!

CATCHER: Johnny Bench. While I saw Bench play near the end of his career (just before the Reds started playing him at 3B to squeeze a bit more out of him), he was still the greatest. His quickness was diminished, but he was still an excellent defensive catcher. His offensive skills were on par with the younger Pudge Fisk. Plus, and I may be a bit biased here, he was the host of one of the greatest TV shows ever, The Baseball Bunch.

2. Carlton Fisk, 3. Ivan Rodriguez, 4. Mike Piazza, 5. Gary Carter

FIRST BASE: Todd Helton. First base was a tough call for me, as it took a while for me to settle on Helton over Jeff Bagwell. I love Helton's sweet swing, and he was the best defensive first baseman of his generation. His power numbers are nothing special (not quite 350 HR in 14 seasons), but his line-drive and on-base capabilities are superb. His OPS of .979 trumps Bagwell by 30 points or so, and he has walked considerably more often than he has struck out in his career.

2. Jeff Bagwell, 3. Eddie Murray, 4. Andres Galarraga, 5. (tie) Mark Grace and Pete Rose

SECOND BASE: Roberto Alomar. This was actually a three-way race for me, with Robbie edging Sandberg and Biggio. Alomar was smooth. His fielding got the notoriety, and he doesn't have the reputation of the other two as a feared hitter. Even though he had less power than the others, he still managed to tally 210 HR over his career. His OPS was actually higher than either of the other two, he stole the most bases, and he won the most gold gloves (10 to Ryno's 9). I was tempted to knock Robbie down a bit for the bouncing around he did to drag a bit more out of his career, but my memories of seeing him are from his best years, especially in the early 90's, when he was a huge part of the Blue Jays' mini-dynasty.

2. Ryne Sandberg, 3. Craig Biggio, 4. Jeff Kent, 5. (tie) Brandon Phillips and Robinson Cano

THIRD BASE: Mike Schmidt. This was one of my easiest calls. Schmidt had it all. He hit almost 550 HR, he was one of the best defensive 3B of all time, and he even had a bit of speed (averaging more than 10 SB per season). He was one of my first favorite players, as my baseball memories really start with the Phillies' magical 1980 season, in which he won the MVP. I didn't see him in person until a few years after that, but he was still in his prime into the mid-1980's, winning his third and final MVP award in 1986. The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) rated him the 16th greatest player in the history of MLB, and he and Johnny Bench (#19) are the only two in the top 25 to have played into the 1980's. The call of Schmidt's 500th home run, by the great Harry Kalas, still gives me shivers. "Swing and a long drive, there it is, number 500! The career 500th home run for Michael Jack Schmidt!"

2. Chipper Jones, 3. George Brett, 4. Wade Boggs, 5. Evan Longoria

SHORTSTOP: Alex Rodriguez. If this were an award for role models, he wouldn't be allowed in the same area code as Ripken. Still, if you look at the player he was before the years in which he admitted to steroid use, I've never seen a shortstop with more all-around talent. A-Rod is the classic five-tool player. He finished second in the MVP voting as a 20-year-old and already had three consecutive years of 40+ HR and 110+ RBI by the age of 24. If his body holds up, he should finish as the all-time HR champion. His numbers will be tainted, but not nearly as much as those of the current record holder.

2. Cal Ripken Jr., 3. Robin Yount, 4. Ozzie Smith, 5. (tie) Barry Larkin and Derek Jeter

LEFT FIELD: Rickey Henderson. Aside from Bonds in his most juiced years, I have never seen a single player affect the opponents' game plans more than Rickey. He is, by far, the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. He could hit for power, owning the most leadoff home runs in MLB history and 297 total. He got on base, as he is second all -time in walks. Once he got on base, the fireworks began. He is the best base-stealer of all-time, holding both the single-season and career records. Rickey also has scored more runs than any player in history. Sure, he did hang on way past his prime to pad some stats, but the guy led the AL in stolen bases with 62, at the age of 39! He was, by most accounts, an egotistical jerk. Still, he had no equal from the #1 spot in the order.

2. Tim Raines, 3. Barry Bonds (pre-juice), 4. Bo Jackson, 5. Kirk Gibson

CENTER FIELD: Ken Griffey, Jr. "The Kid" was an absolute joy to watch. Hi sweet, fluid uppercut swing was a thing of beauty, an effortless and classic lefty power stroke. His glovework was amazing, and he often went above the wall to rob opponents of homers. He had some speed, a solid arm, and the personality to be a fan favorite. He won ten straight gold gloves and surpassed 40 home runs in six of seven consecutive seasons. He had one of the most outstanding (non-juiced) offensive seasons of my era. posting a .304 average, 56 HR, 125 runs, 147 RBI, and 15 SB on his way to the AL MVP award in 1997. Of course, this was all in the first half of his career, with Seattle. Once he turned 30 and joined the Reds, injuries began to wear away the man who was on pace to be the best baseball player of the past 50 years. He showed flashes of greatness over the next 7-8 years and eventually ended up with 630 HR. I saw more of him in the first half of his career, and I choose to remember the sustained excellence of his days in Seattle.

2. Kirby Puckett, 3. Torii Hunter, 4. Andy Van Slyke, 5. Jim Edmonds

RIGHT FIELD: Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro wins a close one over Larry Walker and Dave Winfield. Simply put, he does things no one else can do. His throws from right are legendary, and he covers an immense area of the outfield, both of which have contributed to him winning a Gold Glove each of his ten years in the majors. He has averaged over 220 hits per year, setting the major league record with 262 in 2004 and leading the league in seven of his ten seasons. Ichiro also contributes almost 40 SB per season and high single-digit homers, although those who have watched him over the years in batting practice claim that he could double or triple the longballs if he focused on his power stroke. His funky, run-to-first-as-you-swing approach makes it even more astonishing that he hits so consistently.

2. Larry Walker, 3. Dave Winfield, 4. Reggie Jackson, 5. Andre Dawson

DESIGNATED HITTER: Frank Thomas. Although Pujols may have something to say about it before his career is over, the Big Hurt stands as the overall best hitter I have ever seen. He has prodigious power, otherworldly plate discipline, and a knack for putting line drives all over the field. Thomas won back-to-back MVP awards in 1993-1994 and was robbed of another in 2000 by a juiced Jason Giambi in a close vote. He even finished 4th in the MVP voting at the age of 38, with Oakland in 2006. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign (113 games), he finished with a .353 average, 34 HR, 106 runs, 101 RBI. and a ridiculous 1.217 OPS. I was there for his second game in the majors, and I saw him play in person perhaps 90 or 100 times overall. I have not seen his equal.

2. Jim Thome, 3. Edgar Martinez, 4. Paul Molitor, 5. Greg Luzinski

LEFT-HANDED (STARTING) PITCHER: Steve Carlton. The man they called "Lefty" had been pitching in the majors for fifteen years and had won two Cy Young awards before I discovered him as part of the earlier-mentioned 1980 Phillies. He was dominant that season, winning his third Cy with a 24-9 record, 2.34 ERA, and league-leading 286 K's. I learned how to throw a slider by watching him on The Baseball Bunch, and followed his career closely, finally getting to see him pitch in person at Wrigley in 1983, the last of his truly outstanding years (at the age of 38). The wheels began to come off a couple years later, and he bounced around to many other teams. I was so excited when he had a brief stint with the White Sox in 1986, and even though his stuff was mostly gone, the excitement of seeing my all-time favorite pitcher take the mound for my favorite team was unreal. He was, until passed by Nolan Ryan, the all-time strikeout leader. He currently stands fourth on the all-time list.

2. Randy Johnson, 3. Tom Glavine, 4. Jim Abbott, 5. CC Sabathia

RIGHT-HANDED (STARTING) PITCHER: Greg Maddux. They didn't call him "The Professor" for nothing. He was simply a master of pitching. Maddux certainly didn't have the power arm of a Nolan Ryan, nor the amazing out pitch of a Steve Carlton. His weapons were precision location and his immense baseball acumen. Maddux won four consecutive NL Cy Young awards, and in the final two of them (1994 and 1995), he posted sub-1.70 ERA's. His 355 career wins stand as the 8th-best career total, and the most by any pitcher active after 1965. He has the best strikeout to walk ratio of any of the eleven pitchers with 3300 or more career K's. He won 18 Gold Glove awards, the most of any player in history. It was a privilege to see him pitch a handful of times at Wrigley, both for and against the Cubs.

2. Nolan Ryan, 3. Roger Clemens, 4. Ferguson Jenkins, 5. John Smoltz

RELIEF PITCHER: Mariano Rivera. He has one pitch. Hitters know it's coming. Yet, in his 14 years as a closer, no one has consistently solved him. At age 40, he is as good as, perhaps better than, he was at 29 or 30. Mo has 559 career saves, second all-time, and he should surpass Trevor Hoffman's 601 in either 2011 or 2012. He has been even more dominant in the postseason, posting an 8-1 record, 42 saves, a 0.71 ERA, and 109 K's to only 21 walks.

2. Rollie Fingers, 3. Lee Smith, 4. Bruce Sutter, 5. Goose Gossage

Best Athlete: Bo Jackson
Best Power: Jim Thome
Best Speed: Rickey Henderson
Best Infield Arm: Shawon Dunston
Best Outfield Arm: Ichiro Suzuki
Most Intimidating: Randy Johnson
Best Hitter: Frank Thomas
Best Pitcher: Greg Maddux

1. Albert Pujols
2. Pedro Martinez
3. Dale Murphy
4. Roy Halladay
5. Jim Rice