This weblog is about baseball — a.k.a. the National Pastime, the Greatest Game, the Most Perfect Game, the Game of the Longest Season. Since most of you probably won’t bother to click on the ABOUT link, I’ll mention here that I’ve been a professional writer for twenty years and a baseball fan for life. I don’t have a favorite ballclub (on the ML level, anyway) and I am particularly interested in baseball history, so expect a lot of that here.
I’ll start the ball — or rather, the blog — rolling with my picks for best players (by position) of 2006. Call it the 2006 That’s Baseball Super Team. (I realize there might be some who will think of worse things to call it.) This is not a list of my favorite players, but rather the best single player at a given position — in my opinion. I’m not waiting until after the Fall Classic because not much stock is put in post-season performance; it’s the consistent superior performance through the day-to-day grind of the regular season that impresses me most. This seems like a good place to start the weblog, since it will give you a chance to judge whether I know anything at all about the National Pastime and, therefore, whether you should bother reading future posts.
CATCHER: Ivan Rodriguez (DET) or Joe Mauer (MIN)?
Mauer is the real deal. He hit .308/6/17 in 35 games and had a .991 fielding pct. in 32 games in his rookie year (2004). There was no sophomore slump for Mauer in ’05, which he finished .294/9/55 with a .993 fielding pct. (5 errors) in 116 games. This year he won the NL batting title with a .347 average, 13 homers and 84 ribbies, and a fielding pct. of .996 (4 errors) in 120 games. But has he been in Minnesota long enough to establish the kind of leadership quality that Ivan Rodriguez demonstrated in his 12 years with the Texas Rangers and the last three seasons with Detroit? Offensively, Pudge Rodriguez finished the regular season with marks of .300/13/69. His career BA is .304 with 277 home runs and 1119 RBI. There is no sign that he is slacking off the pace in this, his 16th, season. As backstop this season he committed just 2 errors in123 games for a .998 fielding pct. His career fielding pct. is .991. He is a 13-time All-Star (including this season), 11-time Gold Glove recipient, 7-time Silver Slugger. His passion for the game remains high, and the work he has done with Detroit’s very young and very talented pitching staff is exemplary. I expect Mauer to make this Super Team in the near future, but this year I have to go with IVAN RODRIGUEZ.
FIRST BASE: Ryan Howard (PHI), Albert Pujols (STL), Mark Texeira (TEX) or Justin Morneau (MIN)?
In just his third year in the majors Howard has shown that he is a force to be reckoned with, finishing the year with a .313 BA, 58 home runs and 149 RBI. He committed 14 errors in 1412 innings (159 games) for a .991 fielding pct. Last year he was named the NL’s Rookie of the Year and this season he made the All-Star team for the first time. It certainly won’t be the last. Pujols hit at a .331 clip in ’06, clubbing 49 homers and 137 RBI. He’d have added to those last two stats but for a long stint on the DL. He committed just six errors in 1244.1 innings for a .996 FP. Of course, Prince Albert was an All-Star this year, as he has been every year he’s been in the league save for 2002. Among other things, he was the NL-MVP in 2001, and the NL-MVP in 2005. No Gold Gloves yet, but the competition is stiff, and his prowess at the plate overshadows his excellent glovework. Morneau finished the season with .321/34/130 and his fielding percentage is .994, with just 8 miscues in 1346.1 innings. Texeira has the best FP of them all — .997 with only four errors in 1399 innings. He hit .282 with 33 homers and 110 ribbies. But the sheer power of Howard and Pujols overshadows the others. Like Joe Mauer, Howard waits in the wings, as this year’s Super Team first-sacker is ALBERT PUJOLS.
SECOND BASE: Robinson Cano (NYY), Placido Polanco (DET) or Orlando Hudson (ARI)?
Pujols would like to have his best friend, Placido Polanco, join him on the Super Team. Polanco hit .295/4/52 this year and has career marks (9 seasons) of .300/63/382. He seldom makes mistakes, with just six miscues in 943 innings (108 games) for a .989 FP, just a tad off his .991 career pct. at second. He plays shortstop and third base just about as well. Oddly, he’s never gotten the nod for a Gold Glove or an All-Star berth. Cano is the young phenom of that star-studded Yankee cast, hitting .342 this year with 15 roundtrippers and 78 RBI, making the All-Star roster in this, his second, season. He was charged with nine errors in 1009 innings for a .984 fielding percentage. Cano will be wearing the pinstripes long after Giambi and Matsuki and even Jeter are gone, or the entire Yankee front office belongs in a lunatic asylum. Orlando Hudson hit .287/15/67 in 579 ABs (157 games). He committed 13 errors in 1349 innings for a .984 FP. O’Dog won a Gold Glove last year (6 errors, 1067.2 innings, .991 FP). Polanco is a complete player, O-Dog is one of my favorites, but the Super Team second baseman has to be ROBINSON CANO.
THIRD BASE: Joe Crede (CHW), Ryan Zimmerman (WSN) or Freddy Sanchez (PIT)?
Scott Rolen and Chipper Jones are hitters to be feared but have too many miscues this year (15 in 1215.2 innings and 18 in 888.1 innings, respectively). The candidates for the hot corner are clearly a trio of young guns. Crede had his best year yet in the batter’s box, with marks of .283/30/94. He committed just 10 errors in 1260 innings (.978 FP). Zimmerman had a.287 BA with 20 homers and 110 RBI for the Nationals. (He hit six more doubles, one more triple and struck out 40 less times than teammate Alfonso Soriano.) He made 15 mistakes in 1368.1 innings for a .965 FP as the regular third baseman (for the first time in his career). Sanchez hit .344 with 6 homers and 85 RBI, winning the NL batting title and going to his first All-Star game. He played 99 games at third, committing six errors for a .981 FP in 821.2 innings. These ballplayers are noted for their amazing fielding exploits, and will set the standard at their position for years to come. But this year we have to give the Super Team third baseman slot to FREDDY SANCHEZ.
SHORTSTOP: Michael Young (TEX), Derek Jeter (NYY), Miguel Tejada (BAL)
Playing for the Rangers means Young tends to be overlooked, but he finished 2006 with a .314 BA, 14 home runs and 103 RBI. His fielding percentage of .981 was the result of 14 errors in 1356.1 innings. As in the previous two seasons, he was an All-Star in ’06. Tejada committed 19 errors in 1293.2 innings for a .972 FP, right in line with his .971 career mark. He batted .330 with 24 homers and 100 RBI, better than last season but still off what was probably his career year in ’04 — .311/34/150. Tejada was named an All-Star this year, the fourth time in his career. Jeter was charged with 15 miscues in 1292.1 innings for a .975 FP, hit .343/14/97, was named an All-Star for the eighth time in a 12-year career, will probably win his third consecutive Gold Glove, and may well be named AL-MVP. Then there are the intangibles; on a team of superstars Jeter shines the brightest. He is the captain, the leader. Young is very deserving, but the Super Team shortstop is DEREK JETER.
LEFT FIELD: Carl Crawford (TBD) or Eric Byrnes (ARI)?
Crawford was an All-Star in 2004. Why he wasn’t this year is a mystery. In ’06 he hit .305 with 18 homers and 77 RBI, his best season at the plate. He committed three errors in 1252.1 innings for a .990 FP. I guess you could call this is an off-year for Crawford defensively, since he had a .994 FP last year and a .996 FP in ’04 (in left field). Crawford brings an added dimension — he is one of the premier base stealers in the majors, leading the AL (for the third time in four seasons) with 58 this year. (He also leads the junior circuit in triples — 16 — for the third year in a row.) Eric Byrnes was charged with just one error in 1051 innings this year. He ought to be a frontrunner for the Gold Glove. At the plate he hit .267 with 26 homers and 79 RBI, and stole 25 bases to boot. It’s close, but the Super Team leftfielder is CARL CRAWFORD.
CENTER FIELD: Andruw Jones (ATL), Carlos Beltran (NYM), Grady Sizemore (CLE) or Torii Hunter (MIN)?
Perennial All-Star and Gold Glove recipient Andruw Jones made just two errors in 1317.1 innings this year, so expect to see him add another Gold Glove Award to his resume. He hit .262/41/129, which is consistent with his previous seasons in the batter’s box. Beltran, the 1999 Al_ROY, has been an All-Star for three consecutive years, hit .275/41/116 and committed two errors in 1184 innings in center field, his best year with the glove. You could have mistaken him for Andruw Jones. Sizemore was a first-time All-Star in this, his third, season. He was charged with three errors in 1379.1 innings. He batted .290, hitting 28 long balls and collecting 76 RBI. He also stole 22 bases — but struck out a ******** 153 times. Hunter has won Gold Gloves every year since 2001 and this year had four errors in 1232.1 innings for a .989 FP, right in line with his career numbers. He was .278/31/98 at the plate. Jones would probably have made the Super Team last year, Sizemore may well make it next year, and Hunter was great but not quite great enough, as this year the center fielder of choice is CARLOS BELTRAN.
RIGHT FIELD: Bobby Abreu (NYY), Brad Hawpe (COL) or Jermaine Dye (CHW)?
Abreu was an All-Star in ’04 and ’05 but didn’t make the squad this year. He hit just 15 homers (his fewest since 1997),with 107 RBI and a .297 BA. Defensively he was, as usual, nearly flawless, with three errors in 1293 innings and a .990 fielding percentage. He won the Gold Glove last year and probably will this year, too. Whatever they were doing with the humidor at Coors Field this year didn’t seem to faze Hawpe, who had a banner year at the plate — .293/22/84. He committed four errors in 1197.2 innings in right field for a .987 FP. Hawpe tends to be overlooked because of the club he’s with, but it will be hard to ignore him if he keeps this up in the years to come. Dye was an All-Star this year, the World Series MVP last year, and a Gold Glover in 2000 when he committed 7 errors for a .976 FP. This year he was charged with 6 miscues and ended up with a fielding pct. of .981, while hitting .315/44/120, better marks even than last year’s. Clearly, the best choice for the Super Team in right field is JERMAINE DYE.
STARTING PITCHER: Johan Santana (MIN), Justin Verlander (DET),Aaron Harang (CIN) or Francisco Liriano (MIN)?
Santana, who won the Cy Young Award in 2004, was an All-Star this year as well as last. He finished the season 19-6 with a 2.77 ERA. He led the AL in WHIP, strikeouts (245), wins, and a host of other categories. Rookie Verlander was 17-9 in the 2006 regular season and finished up with a 3.63 ERA. Harang (16-11, 3.76 ERA) led the NL in wins, strikeouts (216) and complete games (6). Liriano, a 2006 All-Star was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA but pitched just 121.0 innings. Who knows what might have been if he’d had a whole season on the mound. (He didn’t join the rotation until May 19 and missed a lot of time with arm ailments.) There’s not much to debate here — the best choice for the Super Team’s starter is southpaw JOHAN SANTANA.
RELIEF PITCHER: Trevor Hoffman (SDG), Francisco Rodriguez (LAA) or Jonathan Papelbon (BOS)?
Hoffman surpassed Lee Smith as the all-time leader in saves this season. He led the NL in saves (46) and was named to the All-Star squad for the fifth time in his 14-year career. He finished with a 2.14 ERA in 63 IP, which is impressive — until compared to Jonathan Papelbon’s 0.95 mark in 68.1 innings. In the process Papelbon collected 35 saves. Papelbon also made it to the All-Star Game. Rodriguez was an All-Star two years ago but was passed over this season, even though he led the AL with 47 saves. He finished with a 1.73 ERA in 73 IP. Papelbon served up 40 hits, seven earned runs, 13 walks and three dingers while fanning 75 (68.1 IP); Rodriguez allowed 52 hits, 14 ER, 28 walks and 6 homers while striking out 98 (73.0 IP). Hoffman gave up 48 hits, 15 ER, 13 walks and six homers, collecting 50 K (63.0 IP). It’s a tough call, but this year’s Super Team reliever is JONATHAN PAPELBON.
The players selected are awarded the right to say — in the distant future when they’re in the twilight of their careers and passing the time with other oldtimers swapping stories and bragging about the highlights of their time in the game — "Oh, yeah? Well, I was mentioned in the very first post at the That’s Baseball blog." It’s something no one will ever be able to take away from them.
Next up: Barry "Asterick" Bonds