I spill a lot of virtual ink in this space talking about the best, most valuable, and/or greatest players in baseball. As we enter the dog days of the baseball blogging season, I thought I’d take a swing at a lighter side- my favorite players. I’ll assemble a team of my favorite baseball players, by position, and explain why they’re my favorites.
Since I root for the Red Sox, it would be easy for this list to include several Boston players. To keep this list from looking too New England-centric, I’ll make current Red Sox ineligible, except as honorable mentions.
Catcher: Kurt Suzuki, A’s
Catching is all about defense, and Suzuki is as thrilling defensively as anyone who regularly dons the tools of ignorance, whether he’s laying out for diving catches or picking off baserunners from his knees.
I’m a big fan of the more well-rounded Joe Mauer too, and of course, Jason Varitek will always get huge bonus points for this.
First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
It’s not like me to pick the best player and call him my favorite, but I’ve always found Pujols admirable, particularly for a superstar. Since so many athletes at Pujols’s level- Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James come to mind- are arrogant, uncomfortable with their level of fame, or just plain unlikeable, it’s truly refreshing to know Albert Pujols only as the greatest player of his generation, not as an international brand who happens to play baseball. Pujols is also (allegedly) almost precisely my age (he’s 37 days older), which makes his ascent to the top of the game all the more impressive as it corresponded with my slow crawl to the middle of the nonprofit accounting game.
Second Base: Orlando Cabrera, Giants
I’d prefer to think of Cabrera as a shortstop forever, but he’s primarily played second this year. Before he came to the Red Sox, I remember watching a slick-fielding young Expo and wondering why he didn’t win Gold Gloves every year. When the Sox traded for him in July 2004, he homered in his first game and I was in love. To me, he’ll always be the centerpiece of that World Series team, the guy who energized a clubhouse full of bigger stars than himself, inventing personalized handshakes with every teammate and trading hugs with Big Papi all the way to the championship. He’s been bad enough in subsequent years that I’m finally willing to accept Theo Epstein’s decision not to resign him in 2005, but I’ll never forget Orlando Cabrera in 2004.
Dustin Pedroia, of course, could contend for this spot, and if Pokey Reese were still active, I would have to move Cabrera or Reese to shortstop. I guess I have a soft spot for second basemen, because I like Brandon Phillips and Ben Zobrist too.
Third Base: David Wright, Mets
Wright came up in the spotlight, joining the Mets in 2004 amid great hype. New York’s other team was in need of a great player and a loveable personality to counter Derek Jeter, and Wright fit the bill instantly, batting over .300 with 25+ homers every year from 2005 to ’08. He led the Mets to the brink of the World Series in ’06 and challenged for MVP Awards in ’07 and ’08. Just when he seemed poised to steal Jeter’s crown, the Mets moved into a new stadium in 2008 and Wright couldn’t figure out how to get a ball out of it. He hit just ten home runs in 2009 and his defense took a big hit, all while the crosstown rivals won their first title in nine years. Now Wright is an injury-prone, poor fielding, average-hitting player on a middling team.
But he’s still not Derek Jeter, and that’s good enough for me.
Evan Longoria may have won this spot had I not just learned today that an “AK-47-type rifle” was stolen from his house. Adrian Beltre was also a contender.
Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt, Brewers
That’s right; I picked the best hitter in the game as my first baseman and the worst hitter as my shortstop. Betancourt is a sabermetrician’s nightmare, rarely taking a walk and playing putrid defense at the most important position on the field. It’s because he’s so bad, though, that he’s brought me so much entertainment, as baseball writers love to slam Yuni, and some are quite good at it. I have some admiration, too, for players able to escape Cuba to live a better life playing baseball in the States. And how many shortstops in big league history have had better names than Yuniesky Betancourt?
Left Field: Wily Mo Pena, Diamondbacks
Any fan of the Reds, Red Sox, Nationals, or Diamondbacks (or of the AAA affiliates of the Mets, Padres, or Mariners) who says he doesn’t love Wily Mo Pena has to be lying. At 29, I’m not sure if he’s figured out how to hit a curveball yet, or whether he’ll ever take another walk, but when Wily Mo gets a hold of a pitch, someone in the cheap seats is getting a souvenir.
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
I’ve only seen McCutchen play in three games, but it doesn’t even take that long to feel his electrifying presence. McCutchen can field, run, throw, hit for average, and hit for power. Best of all, he’s doing it in Pittsburgh, a city with a great ballpark and a great history; one that deserves its first superstar since their last one left for San Francisco in 1992 and took the Pirates’ postseason aspirations with him.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Nyjer Morgan are also among my favorites, but Red Sox are ineligible and my list has plenty of Brewers without Tony Plush.
Right Field: Kosuke Fukudome, Indians
I like Fukudome for the stoic look on his face at the plate, for his crisp swing, and for his willingness to take a walk. More than anything, though, I like his name. I started playing recreational softball in 2008, the year the Cubs imported Fukudome, and I named my first team Welcome to the Fukudome. We weren’t particularly good, but we had the best name in the league.
Fukudome was just traded to the Indians to fill in for another of my favorites, injured right fielder
and SABR darling Shin-soo Choo, who could easily have held this spot.
Designated Hitter: Vladimir Guerrero, Orioles
I’m not sure this team needs a DH, and no DH can compare to Big Papi in my esteem, but I’ll honor Guerrero for all the years he spent toiling in relative obscurity north of the border. In his six full seasons in Montreal, he was worth almost 35 marginal wins to the Expos, combining prodigious power with excellent on-base skills and a cannon for a right arm. It’s been sad to see Vlad limp around in Anaheim, Arlington, and Baltimore, sometimes flailing at pitches two feet outside of the zone just because he would have knocked them off the fence in his prime, but Guerrero is a Hall of Fame player and a Hall of Fame guy.
Right-Handed Pitcher: Zack Greinke, Brewers
I love that one of baseball’s greatest pitchers is also one of its greatest enigmas. Greinke suffers from a social anxiety disorder that was once so crippling that he contemplated retiring from baseball in his early twenties and playing professional golf. Despite his social issues, he’s married to a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. He throws a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, a devastating slider he throws in the upper 80s, and an eephus pitch he lobs occasionally at 50 mph.
Statistically, Greinke is just as enigmatic. In 2009, he led the AL in ERA at 2.16 and won the Cy Young Award. In 2010, his ERA was 4.17 and he lost more games than he won. In 2011, he was traded to the weaker league, but his ERA has gone up again, to 4.21. Behind that ERA, though, lies a performance closer to that of his Cy Young season than last year’s bust. Greinke has struck out a league-leading 11.27 hitters per nine innings and walked just 2.1, the second best figure of his career. Sounds like a lot of bad luck to me, but then, Greinke’s ten and four.
Left-Handed Pitcher: Cliff Lee, Phillies
No one has a cooler presence on the mound. No one is better on the big stage in October. And no one strikes fear in the Yankees (whose wooing he has spurned on more than one occasion) like the soft-spoken, soft-tossing Clifton Phifer Lee.
Relief Pitcher: Joakim Soria, Royals
From 2008 to 2010, Soria was more dominant even than the great Mariano, striking out ten batters per nine innings with an ERA under 2. The irony, of course, is that the Royals need a closer like Terry Francona needs a hairbrush. Rather than trying to make a starter out of Soria or trading him for useful prospects, the Royals have kept him in the bullpen, locking down the few leads he’s handed and assuring that the Royals keep winning 65 games a year, rather than 63.
Oddly, seven of my twelve picks have changed teams in the past year, two of them traded from the Royals for prospects. But the one guy who offers no real value to the Royals, while any contending team would love to have him, is stuck in Kansas city. That’s baseball.