No sport is more tied to its nostalgia than Major League Baseball. And in its latest push towards remaining instantly vintage, MLB is making an effort to bring each organization’s all-time greats into the present day. They are doing this via their its “Franchise Four” contest, which is quite the daunting task to undertake.
The contest is geared towards fan voting for four players from each organization to represent the team on its personal “Mount Rushmore”, which will be revealed later this season.
However, here at TSFJ, we conquered that beast last year between the efforts of myself, The Cheap Seat Fan, and historical baseball aficionado, Dillon Friday. Yet with this effort crowding the airwaves and website of every MLB broadcast this year, we decided to raise the gamut and tackle the history of the game yet again. As if the effort to name the best players for each franchise was not formidable enough, we have decided to pit them all against each other, throw out team format and essentially decide who belongs on the ultimate living MLB team.
This time, it is about paying homage to those that truly are the top living baseball players, at each position no less. It is never an easy proposition to take on, but we are the crazy type that like to sort these things out. And as will quickly be seen, there is very little that is agreeable ground here on how to reach these conclusions.
Friday — Johnny Bench: Strip away the “by position” part of this post, and you could make a case that Johnny Bench would still belong. He’s the best offensive catcher of all time and most likely the best defensive backstopper of his era. By his age 28 season, Bench won two MVPs, was named the Rookie of the Year, hit 40 home runs twice, and played in four World Series, winning two. He was the force that propelled the Big Red Machine. I want him behind the plate.
Whitener — Yogi Berra: Perhaps no player’s overall accomplishments as both an individual and team player have ever been more comprehensive – as well as overlooked —as his. He was a 13-time World Champion, 18-time All-Star and 3-time MVP. While his timeless sayings and bigger than life personality is what he is best remembered for, Yogi was also a force on the diamond. He topped 20 home runs in 10 straight years, while driving in 100 runs five times. Behind the plate, he cut down 49% of all potential base thieves against him in his career. Berra is the most decorated player in the history of the most prolific franchise in the game’s history, and a major part of why they reached the heights that they did.
Also Considered: Ivan Rodriguez, Yadier Molina
Friday — Albert Pujols: Even considering Matt’s homerism, this is an easy call. Pujols produced at a Ted Williams-esque level of consistency for his first decade in the bigs with his combination of power and average. That he did it in a strikeout/relief pitching era makes it all the more impressive. I’m not sure the home run Pujols hit off Brad Lidge has landed yet. When it does, maybe then we’ll have someone who can take over for him at first.
Whitener — Albert Pujols: While I rebuke being a homer, if I get the label due to association with a player of this caliber, I can live with it. Nobody ever had a better start to a career than Pujols did, and few will ever post the body of work he is on pace to pave. Albert is the only player to ever player to start his career by topping 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a .300 average for 10 straight seasons. And in the season his streak was interrupted? The Machine “only” managed a 37 home run, 99 RBI output. He is a three-time MVP, 2-time World Champion, has topped 500 home runs and is a virtual lock to reach 600, as well as 3,000 hits, 2,000 RBI and a host of other timeless marks. Simply put, he is one of the Top 10 hitters of all-time.
Also Considered: Miguel Cabrera, Eddie Murray, Jeff Bagwell, Willie McCovey
Friday — Joe Morgan: Morgan was a superb base-stealer (689 in a non-running era), terrific power hitter (268 home runs, four 20-home run seasons), and he reached base nearly 40 percent of his plate appearances. Throw in his penchant for coming up with big hits — four National League pennants with two teams — and he beats out a surprisingly stacked second base class.
Whitener — Roberto Alomar: The wizardry of Robby in the field was incomparable and he is not only the greatest living defender at the position, he is the greatest to ever man it. Alomar was the rare player whose defense at a premium position made every team he played for much, much better, instantly. His range was seemingly endless going in any direction and he had an arm that should have belonged to a third baseman. His ability to turn as the second leg of the double play showed why he was an unparalleled athlete, capable of tremendous feats of coordination. And on top of it all, he ran up over 2,700 hits, stole over 400 bases and carried a .300 career batting average as well, just to assure he wasn’t a one-trick pony.
Also Considered: Robinson Cano, Ryne Sandberg
Whitener — Mike Schmidt: To get the obvious out of the way, Michael Jack Schmidt is the greatest third baseman of all-time, as well as one of the most complete overall performers that ever played. He hit 548 home runs, more than any other full-time player at his position in history. Schmidt led the National League in home runs in eight different seasons, while taking home three MVPs, including back-to-back nods in 1980-81. In addition to his prodigious work at the plate, there are 10 Gold Gloves that adorn his trophy case as well.
Friday — Brooks Robinson: The trouble with compiling teams like this is we tend to drift towards offensive numbers first. So I’ll admit that Robinson is a bit of a contrarian pick. Then again, few would disagree with me. Robinson was the best defensive third baseman — and maybe best defensive fielder in any position — of all time. He was also capable with the bat. People remember the 1970 World Series for Robinson’s glove, but he hit .429 with two home runs as well.
Also Considered: George Brett, Adrian Beltre, Chipper Jones
Friday — Alex Rodriguez: In the words of Jason Clinkscales, #ARodforSS2015. Look, people praise Derek Jeter for his leadership and selflessness, and rightfully so, but we also must acknowledge that he forced the best shortstop in the game to move to third base even though it may have hurt the team. It certainly hurt A-Rod in the short term. I’m ignoring PED use because a) everyone was using in Rodriguez’s best years and, b) it’s easier. Here’s a fun activity: look at A-Rod’s first eight full seasons in the league (all at SS) and rank them. Where did you put his 40-40, 1998 campaign? I’ll wait while you decide.
Whitener — Derek Jeter: He’s the greatest intangibles player of all-time, who just happened to collect the sixth-most hits ever as well. Maybe the story of “The Captain” is the right place at the right time in regards to his alignment with baseball’s most recent dynastic run in New York. But make no mistakes about it, none of it happens without him being the glue at the core of the pinstripes core. Getting it done at the right time, at the highest level should matter, and Jeter being the owner of 10 postseason records — and five World Series rings as well — puts him over as the living standard bearer.
Also Considered: Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Cal Ripken
Friday — Barry Bonds: The all-time home run king and hardball pariah changed the way pitchers approached the game. Before Bonds, the objective was to get hitters out. With Barry, it became “don’t let him beat you. At any cost.” We’ll never fully appreciate Bonds’ run from 1999-2004. I know this: when he got his pitch, he didn’t miss. Easily the best player of his generation, it’s a shame so much of Bonds’ production has been cast in doubt. I still want his bat in the lineup, even if it’s the Pittsburgh version.
Whitener — Barry Bonds: If his Godfather (who is coming up next on this list) is not the greatest all-around player ever, it surely is Bonds. He is the all-time home run king, seven-time MVP and owner of one of the most undeniable impacts in every capacity the game has ever seen. There are the 73 homers in 2001, as well as the 40/40 season in ’96. There’s also the eight Gold Gloves and the fact he is the only player in the 500/500 club with more than 500 home runs and 500 stolen bases. Forget the fact there was nothing that he did not do well. There was nothing that he did not do nearly better than anybody else before him or since.
Slice it up how you will, discredit the end of his career as much as you may want. But young Barry did everything that Mike Trout, the consensus second coming of The Mick, does now — and did it better.
Also Considered: Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Manny Ramirez
Whitener — Willie Mays: Well, it’s easy to be the best living ballplayer at your spot when you are the best player ever at any position. He is the most naturally talented player of all-time, equally capable of mythic feats of power at the plate, speed on the bases and legendary range in the outfield. No one has been an All-Star more times than Mays, and rightfully so. He surpassed 30 home runs 11 times, drove in at least 100 runs in eight straight years and brought home 12 Gold Gloves as well. Willie was baseball perfection, and has been an enduring standard bearer for over 60 years.
Friday — Willie Mays: Every one cool with this? Okay.
Also Considered (Just for the sake of it): Ken Griffey, Jr.
Friday — Hank Aaron: Whether you play him in left, center, or right, Aaron is going to play. He’s remembered for the home runs, but Hammerin’ Hank came up with the Braves as a shortstop and actually won two batting titles in the 1950’s. Twice he collected more than 200 hits. Eight times he clobbered 40 or more home runs. The result is a stupefying career stat line of 755 homers, a .305 batting average, 3,771 hits, 2,297 RBI’s, and a .555 slugging percentage.
Whitener — Hank Aaron: Another easy one. By volume, no one has ever done more with a bat than Hammerin’ Hank did. And certainly no one endured more while conquering the significant mile markers he surpassed. He ran down Babe Ruth’s mystical home run record and finished remains as one of three players to ever hit 700 career home runs. He never hit 50 home runs, but only Ruth reached 40+ more often than him. However, nobody can claim more than his 2,297 RBI and only Pete Rose and Ty Cobb finished with more hits than him.
Also Considered: Frank Robinson (God, it is tough not to start him anywhere), Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro
Friday — Frank Thomas: The Big Hurt got somewhat lost in the shuffle between the 1994 strike and the height of the PED era. Thomas failed to match his contemporaries’ peak power numbers and yet we can marvel at his ability to stay effective late into his career. He won back-to-back MVP’s for the ChiSox in 1993 and 1994. He finished fourth in voting as a 38-year-old with Oakland in 2006. Thomas’s career slash line of .302/.419/.555 (batting average/OBP/slugging) is mightily impressive. Throw in 521 home runs and you have one of the best right-handed power hitters in history.
Whitener — Thomas: There was no more “pure” of a hitter than the Big Hurt in 1990’s. He was certainly the best hitter in the American League during the decade, hitting 300 of his 521 career homers during the decade, and carrying a .320 average during the time span. He drove in over 100 runs 11 times, while leading the AL in on-base + slugging in four different years as well. And while I still have an internal struggle about this being a position, over just a role, Hurt did it well enough that he justified its value.
Whitener — Greg Maddux: For me, this is not even a discussion. Mad Dog mystified and confounded batters with an unparalleled ability to locate pitches at will. If there is a such thing as “efficient dominance”, surely the fact that he is the only pitcher to win 300 games and strikeout 3,000 batters all while issuing less than 1,000 walks, proves this decisively. He won at least 15 games in 17 straight seasons and compiled four Cy Young trophies along the way.
Friday — Pedro Martinez: I’d like to go back in time and challenge Pedro to use only one pitch per start. For example, one night he might throw only four-seamers, the next game two-seamers. Which night would you want to face Martinez? Curveball night? Change-up night? He’d still win 20 games and strike out 300 hitters. His stretch of seasons from 1997-2003 will stand the test of time. Martinez pulled a Koufax during the greatest offensive era in modern baseball. There are millions of Pedro’s in this world. There is only one Pedro. You know?
Friday — Sandy Koufax: He pitched with a raised mound, an extended strike zone, in a pitcher’s park in the expansion era. I understand that. I also know he threw four no-hitters including a perfect game in four seasons. After Koufax struck out 15 Yankees in Game 1 of the 1963 World Series, Yogi Berra said “I can see how he won 25 games. What I don’t understand is how he lost five.” Or maybe you prefer the wisdom of Pops Stargell: “Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”
Whitener — Randy Johnson: He is without a doubt the most intimidating and overwhelming pitcher of all-time. His career saw him become one of the most prolific strikeout pitchers of all-time, which included two no-hitters (with one being a perfect game), saw him become a nine-time strikeout leader, record-holder for most strikeouts in a relief appearance ever (16), become one of the few pitchers to ever have 20 K’s in a single game, average more strikeouts per game than any pitcher ever (10.9) and to run up the second-highest strikeout total in history, as his career finished with 4,875.
Whitener — Mariano Rivera: No one else is even close. He has 50 more saves than anyone else in history, a total that rises up to 694 when the postseason is included as well. Mo was the poster boy for prolonged dominance, carrying a career ERA of 2.11 and producing 11 seasons of sub-2.00. It could be argued that he was the best playoff pitcher ever as well. In 96 postseason games, he allowed only 11 runs over 141 innings while converting 42 saves.
Friday — Mariano Rivera: See the Pedro challenge from above? Mo did that for his entire career with the divine cutter. I walked by Rivera once in New York City. It’s not the best thing that’s ever happened to me, but it’s pretty damn close.
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