[MLB] That Bootleg Guy

There’s only a month or so until pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Heading into this season, all eyes will be watching the power numbers to see if there’s any marked drop-off due to the more stringent steroid testing set to take place in 2005. Of course, this ignores the fact that essentially the same plan was in place last season and home runs actually increased from 2003. It’s really only the punishments (such as they are) that have changed.

There have been some ungodly numbers put up by active players and, a generation or two ago, these were numbers that might’ve stamped your ticket to Cooperstown with room to spare. Now, we’re forced to look at the likes of Todd Helton in a different light, with new criteria”¦

Now, the list continues with Part Four and we begin with “¦

Carlos Delgado

As of this writing, Delgado is currently the most talented unsigned free agent in the open market. He made his debut as a heavily heralded catching prospect, but in 12 seasons, he’s only played two games behind the plate.

Of course, it’s only a few inches from the catcher’s area to the batter’s box and that’s where Delgado has done the most damage. His career OBP of .392 and SLG of .556 both place in the top 20 among active players, while the latter percentage is top 30 all time. Even more impressive, his career OPS (on-base plus slugging) is .949, which ranks in the all time top 25. At the age of 32 and with 336 career home runs, it’s conceivable that 500+ can be reached, as well. He has easily been one of the most elite offensive first basemen in all of baseball, however the talent pool of that position is as deep as it’s ever been as Delgado has made just two All Star teams.

Depending on whom you ask, Delgado’s injury-plagued 2004 season was a fluke or the beginning of the end. He had a strong second half, though. With the right team, in the right park, he’ll likely need another half-dozen above average season to consider Cooperstown. Verdict: Out”¦for now, but keep an eye on him for the remainder of this decade.

Ken Griffey, Jr.

Once upon a time, Kid Griffey was the face of all that was right with our National Pastime. His larger-than-life personality was only matched by the magic he crafted on the diamond, year in and year out. And, then”¦in the blink of an eye”¦along came Cincinnati.

Fifteen years ago, everybody wanted a piece of Griffey. Maybe it was his 1989 Upper Deck rookie card. Perhaps, you wanted to see him cover centerfield live, for your own eyes. Of course, it could’ve just been an autograph, a smile, or a wave. Chances are, you would’ve gotten one. From 1989 (when he debuted at 19) through 1994, his numbers grew in both quantity and majesty.

By the time the strike hit in August of ’94, his line was like something you’d see in the Super Nintendo game that bore his name (.323 BA, 40 HR, .402 OBP, .674 SLG) His first-to-home game-winning run in the 1995 ALDS arguably saved baseball in Seattle and his subsequent seasons from 1996-99 saw him average over 50 HR a year.

Griffey, however, was reportedly disenchanted with the Mariners’ new home, Safeco Park and its more pitcher-friendly dimensions. He orchestrated a trade to his “hometown” Cincinnati Reds and hit 40 HR in 2000, before injuries essentially stole large parts of the last four seasons from him.

Junior will be 35 next season and it’s looking like his best (and healthiest) days are ancient history. Has he done enough to get into The Hall? 500 home runs and a stretch of superiority from 1990-2000 both at the plate and in the field says this one’s easier than you might think. Verdict: In

Vladimir Guerrero

The reigning American League MVP is also one of the most unorthodox players you’ll ever have the pleasure of watching. In nine seasons, and at just 28 years old, there’s no reason to think that Vlad won’t have another 10+ years to improve upon his already exceptional stats.

Guerrero’s “see ball, hit ball” approach might not win him many friends in this era of “patience and OBP”, but no one can argue with the results. The five-time All Star currently has the ninth highest slugging percentage in the history of the game. Save for an injury-marred 2003 campaign, he’s been remarkably durable, flexing his muscles for two 40+ HR seasons, to go with two 39 and one 38 HR campaign. Throw in three 200-hit seasons, already and you might not be surprised to know that his strongest offensive comp, at age 28, is a guy named Willie Mays.

If you’re on the East Coast, try to stay up late and catch a couple of his at-bats on those ESPN weeknight games. His move to the contending Angels afforded him an actual audience to watch his prime years and, with continued health, he’ll be making plans for upstate New York later this century. Verdict: Out, for now”¦but, he’ll be a lock by 2010

Tony Gwynn

At what point does “greatness” become hyperbole? The two schools of thought cross right here, as Gwynn might be the most overrated “great” player in the game’s recent history. Make no mistake”¦Gwynn was great, but not nearly as much as you’ve been led to believe.

Here is what made Gwynn a Hall of Famer: In 20 seasons, he won eight batting titles, while leading the league in hits seven separate times. He stood up strongly against his peers, with 15 All-Star games and seven top 10 finishes in the MVP balloting. Up until his early 30’s, he was also an accomplished defender (five Gold Gloves) and a terrific base stealer.

Of course, one thing we’re repeatedly told about Gwynn is that he was the best pure hitter “since Ted Williams”. Please. Check the power numbers and get back to me. Gwynn had terrific bat control, like Williams, but otherwise, there was no comparison. Gwynn, save for a season or two, was an overblown singles hitter. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Rod Carew and Zack Wheat used the same formula to reach the Hall.

Secondly, and more damning, was the complete neglect that Gwynn had for conditioning. As his weight ballooned, his non-hitting skills like speed and defense absolutely eroded. Soon, thereafter, the injuries began to hit. While he could still hit lasers all across the park, his final few years make you wonder how long he could’ve kept playing if he had Rickey Henderson’s fetish for fitness. Verdict: In

Todd Helton

If Helton had played his entire eight-year career in a major market like New York or Boston, he’d probably be one of the biggest stars in the game. Or, maybe not”¦since he’s worn a Colorado Rockies jersey since his debut in 1997.

It’s no secret that the thin air in Coors Field has turned even the most washed-up hitter into an All-Star. In Helton’s case, it’s the first instance of a genuinely talented player who came up through the Rockies system and gets the benefit of “Arena Baseball” results for 81 games a year. Among active players his career .339 BA, .432 OBP and .616 SLG rank first, second and first, respectively.

In fact, his lifetime slugging percentage is currently fourth highest in history. He’s also a five-time All Star with three Gold Gloves to his credit. There are two questions that need to be answered, though. One, will voters hold his decided home field advantage against him? Two, how much longer can Helton play at this level?

Well, in the last three years, Helton has hit 70 points higher and nearly twice as many home runs at home than on the road. Helton can’t fault where he plays, but his numbers wouldn’t be nearly as gaudy at sea level. Secondly, he’ll be 31 next year and hasn’t matched his peak seasons of 2000-01. He’ll likely enjoy several more big seasons, though, as he’s signed through 2011. Verdict: Out”¦and he’ll likely need to approach 600+ HRs or get out of Colorado to get serious consideration.

Derek Jeter

Jeter always seems to be doing something special in the nightly recap of highlights. But, really”¦just how special is he? Ask a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan and you’ll get two different answers. Ask a casual fan and a sabermatrician and, again, you’ll get two different answers.

In 10 seasons, Jeter has played in 110 postseason games, collecting 441 at-bats. A phenomenal accomplishment only slightly lessened by the recent expanded playoff approach. In the postseason, he’s hit .306-14-42 and is truly one of the better October performers in the game’s history. But, during the regular season, he’s probably not nearly as good as his outsized autumn reputation would have you believe.

Actually, that’s only partially true. Over his career, Jeter has hit .315 and averaged 18 HR’s per season. Numbers in line with his playoff résumé, but because he’s suffered virtually no drop-off in production once the leaves change colors, he’s been anointed as a “clutch” player. But, all things being equal, he’s not currently the best offensive shortstop in the game and his standing sinks a little further if A-Rod ever moves back to SS. And, that doesn’t even include his mediocre defense (over hyped and unnecessary “dives into the stands”, notwithstanding).

OK, OK”¦just had to get a little bit of truth out there for the most myopic of his supporters. Here’s some more truth”¦he’s going to get 3,000 hits, he’s going to get a few more rings and, in another 15 years or so, there’s somewhere else he’s going”¦ Verdict: In.

Chipper Jones

Much like the Atlanta Braves’ run of excellence over the past decade-plus is often taken for granted by their fans, the same can be said of many of the players who’ve made up their rosters. Jones has been quietly consistent and a helluva offensive weapon.

How consistent as he been? Well, he’s a five-time All Star, with five top ten finishes in the MVP race. His career OBP is .401, which is good enough for the top 15 amongst active players. He drove home 100 or more runs in eight straight seasons, before injuries cut into his playing time in 2004″¦and he still finished with 96. Jones has also stepped it up in the spotlight, hitting .294 with 12 HR in 88 postseason games.

But, look a little closer and you’ll see that his numbers have been steadily declining since a 2001 campaign that saw him hit .330, with an OBP and SLG of .427 and .605, respectively. He’s not likely to return to his peak years and, at the age of 33 his current career numbers (1,705 hits, 310 HR) will need more years of padding than Chipper likely has left. Verdict: Out

Barry Larkin

There were several shortstops who had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Ozzie Smith. But, none of them (at least in the National League) were greater than Larkin. And, it’s amazing to think how much better his numbers would be if he could’ve avoided the injury bug.

By the time the late ’80s rolled around, Smith was pretty much living on his reputation and not much more. Larkin had easily surpassed him offensively and, arguably, was already better with the glove. But, in a sign of things to come, Larkin injured himself at the 1989 All Star Game. He ended up hitting .342 that year, but few outside of Cincy noticed. In the years that would follow, Larkin would win a World Series ring, three Gold Gloves and one undeserved NL MVP award in 1995 (which should’ve gone to Mike Piazza). Still, Larkin could not seem to dodge the disabled list. In recent years, it’s only gotten worse, as he’s missed significant time in four of the last five seasons.

Larkin, by all accounts, is great teammate who probably deserved a better fate. He’s had a fine career and he’s something of an icon in Cincinnati”¦but, a few steps short of enshrinement. Verdict: Out

Kenny Lofton

Along with Albert Belle, he was the offensive face of those great Cleveland Indians teams of the 1990s. His career has taken some odd twists and turns, though, while his clubhouse reputation has continued to erode along with several aspects of his game.

Hard to believe the talent-starved Houston Astros once traded him for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair. Arguably, the best leadoff hitter since Rickey Henderson, Lofton sparked a resurgent Indians lineup with a handful of .400+ OBP seasons and a career average a few tics below .300. A six-time All Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, Lofton leads all active players with 545 career stolen bases”¦a number that’s even more impressive in this era of waiting around for the three-run homer. Still, he was traded to Atlanta in 1997, amid rumors of the dreaded “C” word and the Braves happily let him walk after that season, with more “cancer” whisperings following him back to Cleveland.

Since his final year in Cleveland in 2001, Lofton has been something of a baseball vagabond. He’s bounced around from team to team, always signing right before spring training, yet still putting up respectable, if not spectacular numbers. He’s 37 years old and, surprisingly, he doesn’t have all that impressive of a career line, for someone who looked like surefire HOFer 10 years ago. Verdict: Out

Javy Lopez

Before 2003, he was probably most known as the catcher that Greg Maddux would not throw to. Then, at the age of 32, he decided to go out and have a career year with the Braves”¦and cash in with the Orioles in the subsequent offseason.

One great year, however, won’t get you into Cooperstown”¦so how does the rest of Javy’s career stack up? Well, in 13 seasons, he’s averaged 29 home runs. However, that number is slightly inflated by a pair of seasons where he hit 34 (1998) and 43 (2003) HRs. Despite playing on some fine offensive teams in Atlanta, he’s only driven in 100 or more runs twice in his career. His defensive shortcomings were only slightly exaggerated by the situation with Maddux. And, most alarmingly, in 2004 he moved to ballpark (Camden Yards) that tends to favor right-handed hitters who can drive the ball”¦yet his slugging percentage dropped almost .200 points from the previous year.

591 runs scored”¦1,331 hits”¦780 RBI”¦in 13 seasons? Javy will always have that 2003 season to feed his children and their children with, but he’ll be lucky to finish out his contract, much less get a call from The Hall. Verdict: Out

Check back for Part Five of the Hall of Fame 100. We’ll look at Mattingly, Maris, McGwire and more! Get at me on AOL or Yahoo IM: ajcameron13

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