Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 20, 2001
BASEBALL: Crank's Top Twenty - 2001

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website

Iím starting what will hopefully be an annual feature here: my preseason ranking of the twenty best players to have in 2001. Iím not looking long-term; these are the guys to have on your team this year. Iím looking at the stats and past performance only for what they say about this sesasonís performance. And this isnít a rotisserie exercise, otherwise Mariano Rivera would be on the list. Here are the top twenty players that any major league GM should and would want:

Durability is a big part of what makes you the best in the business, so when you compare Pedro to the best ever in their primes, Lefty Grove or Walter Johnson might get the nod overall. But if I had to take one pitcher to win a single game for me -- out of anyone, ever -- Iíd take Pedro Martinez, right now, today. That has to be worth a lot. As I pointed out in my AL MVP column, Pedroís impact is far deeper than any everyday player, in the neighborhood of 40-50 runs a year compared to the next best AL starter (even if he only starts about 30 games). If you donít think Pedroís the best player in baseball, you must have a very dim view of the value of pitching.

He showed real improvement in plate discipline last season, although I think his capacity for improvement has probably peaked at age 25; not everyone keeps getting better in their late 20s, and plenty of great players had their best year by 25. His defense may be overextended trying to cover ground between rest-home candidates Randy Velarde and Ken Caminiti. His base-stealing days are probably behind him. A-Rod is a smart guy and well-liked by teammates in Seattle; if he wants to stay that way he should leave the whining to sportswriters and the Jeter-bashing to analysts.

Slugged .664 last season and cut his errors in half, and heís just 25 ... not the most patient hitter, but has time to grow in that department and does everything else well. Needs to learn that baseball has things called a ďpennant raceĒ and a ďpostseasonĒ before he gets too set in his ways ... the three most-similar players through age 24: Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron.

Jones took a big step up at the plate last season, although I think heís still a year away from detonating into an MVP year. But heís already just shy of the leagueís best hitters; if I were a pitcher, thereís no player in the NL Iíd rather have playing behind me than Andruw Jones.

Heady and steady, a similar hitter to Pete Rose or Paul Molitor. Thereís many different ways of describing and measuring how and why Jeterís a bad defensive shorstop, but make no mistake: heís one of the best in the business even with his glove. Jeter is well on his way to about 3600 career hits. On any other team, a guy like Jeter might look at the aging and decay around him and worry that a 10-year contract is going to take him through some hard times, but we all know that the Yankees will rebuild quickly once the current team finally unravels. That's just the way it is.

Heís not really a .350 hitter, but he is a legitimate threat for 50 homers, 100 walks and a .315 average. A guy you can bank on at this stage of his career.

A better hitter than Guerrero or Delgado (and way better than Jones), but all Manny offers is his bat. Plus there are some concerns about his hamstrings after last season. Guys with bad hamstrings tend to have chronic problems with them. Heíd be #5 if there was any way to be sure he was healthy.

Only the good die young. Bonds is the only real old guy among the everyday players on this list.

Jeff Kent was better last season and figures to be close this year, but Fonzie does nearly everything well, is 27 and showed last year that 1999 was no fluke. Shea Stadium murders his stats. Just for the record, he has an older brother named Edgar.

No knock on Nomar; I had him penciled in at #3 before he hurt the wrist. The injury makes him a less certain bet, although he did hit .372 with 51 doubles (but a career low in homers and diminished range afield) last year with a variant on the same injury.

(Hereís why Jimy Williams is under so much pressure this year: if you rank them as if they were healthy, Nomar and Manny give the Sox three of the top six players in the game. Itís hard for that not to lead to great expectations, particularly when you throw in Everett and Derek Lowe.)

Iíve never been a fan, but Rodriguez has drawn nearly even to Piazza with the bat while maintaining his rep as the best defensive backstop in the game. He, too, will have his hands full with that Rangers pitching staff. Heavy mileage on his wheels is the only real concern here.

Brown has shown fewer signs of wear and tear than any of the other top pitchers in the game, no doubt due in part to his late-bloomer status as a star hurler. Dodger Stadium makes his life easy, but thatís a good thing, since thereís less stress on his arm. And who knows, he might actually play out his contract.

Jones hasnít been the most reliable fielder lately, but he should be healthier this season. When I was writing my column about Eddie Mathews last month, I was surprised how well Chipper stood up against several of the all-time great third basemen.

Would rank higher Ė heís still the best hitter ever to play his position Ė but his throwing (which was never good) has deteriorated since arriving in New York, to the point where the risk of error is almost equal to the chance at catching a runner.

Glaus is a terrific glove man and a monster with the bat, plus heís still young (24). I may be overrating him just a bit for his track record Ė heíll probably be off a little from 2000 Ė but Glaus is the total package. Too bad the Angels will reek this season.

ďNo respect, I tell ya, I donít get no respect...Ē Itís hard for a star player with four World Series rings to be underrated, still less so when heís a Yankee. But many different factors have conspired against Bernie Williams, from his early struggles before turning the corner in his late-20's, to his weak World Series hitting, to his nagging injuries prior to 1999 to the fact that he does everything well but no one thing spectacularly so. Bernie has almost reached the age where big stars usually suffer their first off-year, but my gut tells me that will happen in 2002.

Showed his age and fatigue down the stretch, but 1040 strikeouts in three years isn't the sign of a guy about to collapse. Arizona should trade him and everyone else on their roster before they turn into the '89 Tigers. Johnson is 46-17 with a 2.38 ERA since escaping the Kingdome and the Mariners bullpen.

The first basemen/DH's start to bunch up at this point. Giambi was a monster last season, crushing 43 homers and finishing in the top 50 all time seasons in walks and on base percentage. Giambiís older than Helton and not as established at last seasonís level as Bagwell; on the other hand heís not as good as a healthy Mark McGwire, nor are about half the guys on this list. Jeff Kent also just misses the list; Giambi may have been a shade better last season and seems likely to decline less from the career years both players had last season (at 33, Kentís unlikely to sustain the 58-point jump in on base percentage from what was already a career high at age 31).

I probably didnít give Helton a fair shake in the MVP balloting last fall. Anyway, heís a tremendous hitter in his prime, Coors or no Coors, and heís durable and by all accounts a good guy to have around. Helton should be murderous for the next three years or so.

Sosa found the consistency that eluded him before 1998. Gee, Trot Nixon for Sammy doesnít sound so bad anymore, does it? Sammy makes this list over Gary Sheffield because of A) Sosaís incredible durability and B) Sheffieldís bad defense.

Jeff Kent, Mark McGwire, Jose Vidro, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Brian Giles, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey, Shawn Green, Jason Kendall, Bobby Abreu.

Hereís a brief selection of the guys Iím watching this season for big leaps forward and those that seem most likely to disappoint. Iíll probably tack on a few more over the next two weeks.

GROUP A: Ready to make the leap

Basically the same player as Trot Nixon, only two years younger and with more room to grow. The hype on Drew has calmed down, as Mark McGwire and Rick Ankiel suck all the media air out of St. Louis and give Drew some peace and quiet. I expect Drew to make a BIG splash this season.

Colon has reportedly bucked history by coming to camp (sort of) in shape. His stuff is devastating, and his strikeout rate jumped last season to about the level it was in the minors, where he was dominant. Colonís repertoire may be limited, but his velocity and sinking action could finally make him a monster if this is the year he stays healthy, gets the high strike and gets good bullpen support. Mini-Bart (aka Freddy Garcia) also seems like a good bet, but the Mariners may have trouble scoring runs with an offense that has only two above-average hitters -- three if Ichiro Suzuki hits above .320 -- especially when one of those hitters is 38 years old.

Iíve made the case for Rusch before. Donít say you werenít warned. The Royals already rue the day they traded him Ė heíd be the ace of their staff already Ė and the Mets will too if they trade him for Garret Anderson (!?!?!?!) as Peter Gammons recently rumored. I suspect Gammons heard that one from the Angelsí negotiators, not the Mets.

Grieve fits the textbook profile of a guy ready to bust out with a huge year: after a big rookie season, he went two years without progress, but at 25 heís young enough for that to mean a long learning curve rather than a stall. Think of Shawn Green and Johnny Damon as recent examples of guys with the same career path. Though he will no doubt pine for the pennant race, Grieve enters a great situation in Tampa Bay -- the fans there should regard him as found money.

Like Larry Walker, Cirillo faced great expectations going to Colorado as an established .300 hitter with a broad base of other skills. And like Walker, he was OK but failed to set the world on fire in his first season. My guess is that Cirillo will now take shelter in Todd Heltonís shadow and put up a humongous-looking year. Todd Walker is the same type of hitter, albeit a lesser one, and should be up to .330 or .340.

Richard is more a roto prospect than a real one, but his power surge late last season guaranteed him a long look by the Oís even before Al Belle went down for the count. At 26, Richard should stick in the lineup and hit about 25 homers.

OK, maybe Wilsonís strikeouts will swallow him up this year with the new strike zone, but Wilson submitted a real good first full season in 1999. Last year he was off a little across the board (percentage-wise; he played more so his numbers look bigger), but he did the most important thing for a guy who strikes out more than once a game, which is to say that once the league adjusted to him he didnít get eaten alive. Thatís more than you could say for Ron Gant, a similar player, in his second season. Wilsonís 26, and the list of most-similar players at the same age is impressive, even if itís all guys with more patience: the top 5 are Frank Thomas, Willie Stargell, Wally Post, Albert Belle and Tim Salmon.

GROUP B: Ready to disappoint

Beltre ended last season looking like a coming superstar, improving as the season went along in almost every aspect of his game despite a distracting controversy over his birthdate. By August or so, Beltre should resume that development. But botched appendix surgery in the offseason has left him thin, weak and probably not ready to start the season; the Dodgers now recognize that he may not be at full strength until mid-year at the earliest.

The Yankeesí answer to Jay Payton. Johnson, like Beltre, is a supremely talented young player Ė he draws comparisons to Bagwell Ė whose short-term prospects are clouded by injury. He missed last season with a hand injury, at an age where he really needed to move up to AAA. Johnson could be a great one but heís not a complete player yet Ė his power is more potential than reality Ė and I have to see him get through a season at his old level before Iím ready to buy back into the hype.

Bagwellís been like clockwork the last five years, and I still think heíll be among the best in the business, but heís 33 and due for an off year; nobody stays that consistent at this age.

I listed in an earlier column my candidates for the worst effects of the new strike zone.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:55 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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