Editor’s Note: NESN.com Red Sox reporter Tony Lee will examine one hot-button baseball topic each day in December. On Sunday, he discussed why the Red Sox have the makings of a dynasty.
Since the steroid craze has somewhat dissipated, with the exception of some 40-something former legends still battling things out in court, we can once again look at baseball without the guilt that shrouded our vision in the past decade.
While there may always be that question when a player has a breakout season, as was the case when Jose Bautista morphed into a masher in 2010, it has become easier to look at things with 20/20 vision now that testing policies are in place and the gaudy numbers of 10-12 years ago have gone down.
With that knowledge we ask, can any current players stake a claim as the best all-time at their position?
Perhaps the best way to go about such a crusade is position-by-position. Without further ado, here are the arguments at each spot on the field.
The leagues are loaded with young, dominant pitchers, several of whom came to the forefront in 2010, the year of the pitcher. If one of them (Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Clay Buchholz, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Francisco Liriano) is able to prolong his success for another 12 years or so, they might get into the discussion. However, this day and age, with pitch counts and big contracts which cause management to take it easy on guys, that?s hard to do. Roy Halladay, with a solid finishing run in Philadelphia, could get a few votes down the road, especially given his success in the A.L. East during the steroid era.
Goose Gossage and other old-timers who used to go two or sometimes three innings to get a save tend to look down on today?s one-inning (or less) closers. Still, the one guy considered by most to be the best ever at what he does is Mariano Rivera, whose 559 career saves are second only to Trevor Hoffman (another consideration) and whose 2.23 ERA is tops among active pitchers. He has posted an ERA below 2.00 in seven of the last eight years, so age has done nothing to him. Indeed, given his longevity and his dominance in the postseason, Rivera is the best closer we have ever seen.
This is such a fickle position, as one rough collision at home plate can cause enough of an injury to sidetrack a player. Also, some adjust to the wear and tear of the job better than others. If Joe Mauer can avoid any pitfalls we will one day be comparing his career to that of Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and others noted as the best at the position. Mauer has already established himself as one of the premier offensive backstops, winning three batting titles and an MVP before he turned 27.
Once Albert Pujols, who came up playing the outfield and third base, not only moved to first base but became a solid defender there, he established himself as one of the best the position has ever seen. This has been an offensive position over the years, so there are dozens of first basemen with astronomical numbers. Pujols? .331 average and 408 career homers should stack up with any of them before the age of 31.
This is the position du jour. The league is loaded with standout second baseman who have turned a position often inhabited by scrappy pluggers into one filled with gifted sluggers. Chase Utley and Robinson Cano may be the best of the bunch. Both have a long way to go before approaching Rogers Hornsby, Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan status.
This was the position du jour a decade ago, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada rose up around the same time, just as Cal Ripken Jr. walked into the sunset. Rodriguez obviously moved to third, Garciaparra drifted away from the position and struggled to remain healthy, and Tejada?s production fell off a few years ago. Jeter will make most Top 10 lists when the all-time shortstop argument breaks out, but unless he has three or four Jeter-like years in him he won?t be considered the best. If you are purely a fan of glove work when it comes to the position, perhaps you can make an argument for Omar Vizquel, still in the game at the age of 43, as the best of the bunch.
Rodriguez is largely eliminated based on his short time at the position, but he is part of a pretty impressive list. David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Adrian Beltre, Casey McGehee and Scott Rolen are among those that make the position a pretty good one right now. The one third baseman with a chance to work his way into discussions with Mike Schmidt and George Brett is Evan Longoria, who had 82 home runs, 302 RBIs, three All-Star appearances and two Gold Gloves in his first three years, all before he even reached the age of 25.
If he stays healthy and blossoms into something even more special while with the Red Sox, Carl Crawford could be in the discussion some day. He is an excellent defender, has an outside chance at 3,000 hits and could be among the all-time stolen base leaders when it?s all said and done. Carlos Gonzalez of Colorado and Josh Hamilton of Texas, if and when they cement themselves in this spot, could have some pretty nice resumes when it?s all over.
Torii Hunter is a nice player, but just an above-average guy at the plate. Hamilton is an electric talent but will wind up playing a corner outfield spot. The same goes for Gonzalez. Simply put, there is not that shoo-in center fielder right now that could one day be compared with Willie Mays or Joe Dimaggio.
Had he not played a handful of years in Japan, Ichiro Suzuki may already be the best right fielder in the game?s history in the eyes of some. He still may reach that status. Ichiro already has 10 Gold Gloves and could become the first to ever win 13, given how athletic and stable he is at the age of 37. To give you an idea of his competition in that category, only Mays and Roberto Clemente have won as many as 12. Ichiro is a .331 career hitter, owns the all-time hits record for a single season and is a 10-time All-Star in 10 major league seasons. Few will have the resume of Ichiro when he retires.
Rivera, Mauer, Longoria and Ichiro all have Hall of Fame pedigree and the numbers that can/will be put up against the best at their positions. Others have a chance to get into the mix. Hopefully, for the duration of their careers, there will be no off-field distractions which taint their careers, and the arguments.
Can any current players stake a claim as the best all-time at their position? Leave your comments below.
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