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Alex Rodriguez absence of six to nine weeks is certainly
doable for the Yankees, especially when the first three weeks will be swallowed
up the balance of spring training. With the kind of starting pitching and
improved defense the Yankees have assembled, they should be able to survive the
loss of Rodriguez for what will amount to about six weeks of regular season
So what now? Should the Yankees stand pat and just wait out
A-Rod’s triumphant return, or should they take a more aggressive approach and
try to shore up the infield, whether it be third base specifically or the
utilityman role? If Brian Cashman is to be believed, the Yankees will not be
“proactive” in searching for reinforcements. I hope that Cashman is either
kidding with this remark, or just posturing so as to discourage teams from
trying to extract a king’s ransom–pardon the unintended pun–for a mediocre
infielder. If Cashman’s is being sincere, then he’s awfully shortsighted. While
I’m fairly confident that Cody Ransom, with his power and athleticism, can do
an acceptable job at third base, I’m shuddering at the thought of Angel Berroa making
this team in any role. (I have clearly not joined the Angel Berroa Fan Club.) But
barring a trade, Berroa will almost certainly
make the Opening Day roster. With just one more ill-timed injury, the
Yankees could be looking at a nightmare scenario that features both Ransom and
Berroa as prominent members of the starting infield.
The Yankees would be well advised to shore up their infield
depth, which was already a concern with a healthy
A-Rod. There is no one in the system who is ready to help at either third,
second, or shortstop, leaving the trade market and free agency as the only
options. The key will be finding a player who can help in the short term, while
A-Rod is hurt, and contribute to the
team after the superstar’s return in mid-May.
The free agent market offers two possibilities. One name
that keeps popping up is Mark Grudzielanek, the former Royal who is 38 but not
yet ready to retire. Though primarily a second basemen, Grudzielanek has
experience at third base and can also play shortstop (his original position) on
an emergency basis. He has little speed or power, but did reach base 34 per
cent of the time in 2008 and would represent an upgrade over Berroa. One
potential drawback with Grudzielanek involves compensation. He’s a Type-B free
agent, requiring that the Yankees surrender a second-round draft choice.
Frankly, I think this is a non-issue. When you’ve invested as much money as the
Yankees have in this year’s team, you go all-out to win and don’t worry about
the possibility of a second-rounder making the major leagues four years from
The other free agent option is 37-year-old Ray Durham.
Unlike Grudzielanek, Durham
has no experience at third or shortstop, but he is the better player, more
adept at drawing walks and stealing bases. Durham could be used in a platoon with
Ransom, but that begs the more important question: does he have the arm strength
to make the throw from third base? To that question, I have no idea. Yankee
scouts will have to help out on this one.
So how about trade options? As is usually the case, better
players are available through trade, but they’ll cost something in terms of
prospects or established talent. Two teams, in particular, could be matches for
the Yankees because of their surplus of infielders. One is the Royals, who have
decided to move starting left fielder Mark Teahen into the role of
super-utilityman. The Royals insist that Teahen, 27, will be a backup
outfielder, third baseman, and second baseman (the position he’s learning this
spring), but I have a hard time believing that they will pay him over $5
million to serve as a utility player. That’s a costly proposition for a
non-contending team, but a workable proposition for the Yankees, who could use
Teahen as a backup this year and then move him into the starting outfield in
2010, by which time Johnny Damon, Xavier Nady, and Hideki Matsui could all be
gone as free agents. The Royals could use some of the excess relief pitching
the Yankees have to offer; a package involving Humberto Sanchez and Anthony
Claggett might be tempting to the Royals.
The Brewers, already linked to the Yankees in winter trade
talks, could be another source of infield help. The presence of veteran Mike
Lamb and two minor league prospects makes Bill Hall very available. The
29-year-old Hall, who has had two disappointing seasons in a row, will make
$6.8 million this year, too. How could Hall help the Yankees? Though he’ll
never duplicate his career year of 2006, he has plus-power, above-average
speed, and the versatility to play any of the infield positions, along with
center field. In terms of trade value, he’d likely carry a cheap price tag,
someone like Kei Igawa and a low level minor leaguer in return. And like
Teahen, Hall would remain valuable even after Rodriguez returns from hip
Clearly, Cashman has several options in trying to minimize
the damage caused by Rodriguez’ absence. We’ll soon find out if he explores one
of those options, or chooses to live up to his latest words.
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After further review, Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees adopted
a compromise solution that makes a whole lot more sense than their original
“wait-and-see approach.” By having A-Rod undergo an arthroscopic procedure to
repair the torn labrum in his hip, the timetable for recovery has been modified
to six to nine weeks. If that’s indeed accurate, the Yankees will have A-Rod
back in the lineup by May, a scenario that is much more workable than having
him struggle with hip pain through an entire season.
The Yankees can survive the loss of Rodriguez for what will
amount to about six weeks of regular season play. They would, however, be well
advised to shore up their depth on the infield, which was already a concern
with a healthy A-Rod. Cody Ransom
should be able to handle third base for a month and a half, but Angel Berroa is
simply inadequate as the primary utility infielder. I believe the Yankees will
end up doing one of two things: sign free agent infielder Mark Grudzielanek,
who could fill in at second and third, or make a trade for someone like the
Royals’ Mark Teahen or Atlanta’s
Martin Prado. If not, the Yankees are rolling the dice that nothing happens to
one of their other starting
infielders, a scenario that would prove nightmarish to Joe Girardi and Brian
Sometimes competition brings out the best in athletes.
Sometimes, as is the case with the current derby for the fifth starter’s role
with the Mets, it brings only results that make the coaches and the manager
cringe. Mets skipper Jerry Manuel cannot be happy with what he’s soon so far
this spring. Freddy Garcia looks like he might be done, simply unable to regain
the arm speed that he had before major surgery. Livan Hernandez has been
eminently mediocre or worse, which is no surprise to fans of the Nationals and
Twins. And ex-National Tim Redding
pitched terribly in his spring debut on Sunday, after having missed the early
portion of the Grapefruit League schedule with a surgically repaired toe.
Ideally, the Mets wanted one of these veteran right-handers to take hold of the
No. 5 spot so they could have kept young left-hander Jonathon Niese in Triple-A
to begin the season. That plan may have to change now. Given the presence of
the defending world champion Phillies in their division, the Mets cannot afford
to give away games in April while waiting for veteran starters to regain form.
If the early trends of spring do not change soon, the Mets will have no choice
but to call on Niese–or even consider the alternative of signing Pedro
Martinez. For those who missed it, Martinez hit
91 miles per hour in his first World Baseball Classic appearance for the Dominican Republic,
as he showed the kind of arm strength that was missing for most of 2008…
Former Yankee Tom Sturdivant died last week at the
age of 78. Though not a household name, Sturdivant made his mark in New York during the
1950s. He’s probably best remembered for throwing a devastating curveball,
which earned the right-hander the nickname “Snake,” reflecting the pitch’s
extreme and sudden movements. (Strangely, learning about Sturdivant’s nickname
made me think almost immediately of “Snake Pliskin,” the hero of Escape From New York.) At his peak,
Sturdivant emerged as an important part of Yankee pitching staffs that helped
the team win three straight pennants and one world championship from 1955 to
1957. In 1956, Sturdivant won Game Four of the World Series–the game that
everyone forgets because it directly preceded Don Larsen’s perfect game.
After a terrific two-and-a-half-year run, Sturdivant hurt
his arm in 1958, rendering him to mere journeyman status. Pitching mostly in
relief, he bounced around both leagues, making stops in Kansas
City, Boston, Washington,
and then a return engagement in New
York–this time with the expansion Mets. He called it
quits in 1964, ending a ten-year career with a won-loss record of 59-51 and a
respectable ERA of 3.74.
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I think the Yankees are being foolish in having Alex
Rodriguez, their most valuable and expensive player, gut out a season of
uncertainty with a faulty hip in need of surgical repair. Rather than face six
months of regular season doubt, the Yankees would be better off with A-Rod
undergoing surgery and being fully healthy for the second half of the season. If the surgery
timetable is correct, Rodriguez would miss four months, including March,
allowing him to return to action in early July. That would give the Yankees nearly
three months of a healthy A-Rod. Those three months would coincide with the
time when most pennant races are won and lost, in July, August, and September.
That kind of a plan would force the Yankees to hold the fort
until mid-season. I think that’s doable, but not with utilityman Cody Ransom
and a non-factor like Angel Berroa. The Yankees need to consider trade
possibilities, not necessarily for big ticket third basemen like Adrian Beltre
and Scott Rolen, but for smaller names who would cost less in potential trades.
Here are three suggestions:
*Martin Prado: He’d be my first choice for the Yankees. A
slick fielder who is also skilled at reaching base, Prado could fill a
potential gap at third base and then assume an important bench role if A-Rod
returns later. Prado, 25, can play both third and second. The Braves need
outfield and relief help, two areas of depth for the Yankees. How about Melky
Cabrera and Dave Robertson for Prado? The deal could also be expanded to include
someone like Xavier Nady from the Yankee side; the Braves still need outfield
help, even with the recent signing of Garret Anderson.
*Dallas McPherson: The
onetime top prospect for the Angels is currently buried behind Jorge Cantu on Florida’s depth chart.
McPherson, 29, has defensive limitations and will never be the player that the
Angels once forecast, but he has Death Valley
power and draws walks. A left-handed batter, he could platoon with Ransom
during an A-Rod absence. A Grade-C pitching prospect (someone like Triple-A
right-hander Steven Jackson) would likely be enough to entice the Marlins.
*Mark Teahen: The Royals are giving Teahen some time at
second base this spring after a stint in the outfield, but third base remains
his best position. He will never be a top-tier player like the Royals once
envisioned, but he would form a viable platoon with Ransom in the Bronx while also bringing versatility to the Yankee
bench. Teahen will cost more in a trade than either Prado or McPherson, perhaps
a package including some combination of young right-handers Ian Kennedy, Humberto
Sanchez, and Anthony Claggett.
The Hall of Fame usually avoids controversy like the Bubonic plague, but the ongoing steroids mess has prompted a formal response from the institution’s president. In an e-mail to the Chicago Tribune, Jeff Idelson announced that the Hall has no plans to change its election rules as a way of specifically addressing the issue of steroids. “Election rules are straightforward and include instructing voters to look beyond the statistics and examine a player’s character, integrity and sportsmanship … their overall contribution to the game. To what percentage each quality is weighed is up to each individual voter.” In other words, steroids count in this discussion, but it’s up to each individual writer to decide how much they count. From where I’m standing, especially given the Hall’s longstanding philosophy of including off-the-field behavior as part of its election criteria, that seems like a reasonable and rational approach.
I might, however, be tempted to take Idelson’s pronouncement and push it a step further. The Hall should make it clear to the voters that there must be some evidence of steroid use on the part of a candidate. For example, there needs to be a failed steroids test, formal charges brought against a player, a listing in the Mitchell Report, or some other clear-cut reason (like blatantly stonewalling Congress) for a candidate to be considered a user of performance enhancing drugs. I’m not talking about the level of evidence needed to convict in a court of law, but clearly, rumor and innuendo are not enough.
Some writers, like Joe Posnanski, have been clamoring for the Hall to drop the “character and integrity” clause, especially in response to the steroids issue. Posnanski’s suggestion is designed to clear a Hall of Fame path for people like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez, while reducing the repeated chatter and debate about steroids. Unfortunately, steroids create a complexity of issues that cannot be resolved with one fell swoop. More directly, Posnanski’s suggestion falls short on two counts. First, it’s likely that many of the writers, especially veteran scribes, would disregard the new edict and continue to consider off-the-field considerations like “character,” while continuing to exclude suspected steroid users like Mark McGwire. So at least in the short term, the effect of such a rules change would be nominal. Second, let’s consider a larger issue. Even if some of us do not consider steroid use a moral offense, what about more serious crimes, such as spousal abuse, physical assault, and even murder? To use an extreme example, do we really want someone like O.J. Simpson slithering around the Baseball Hall of Fame during Induction Weekend? I don’t. I want character to count for something.
To this argument, I know that some will counter by saying that the Hall already includes men of questionable “character,” like notorious racist Ty Cobb and confessed spitballer Gaylord Perry. My response? Well, perhaps the writers made a mistake by electing them to the Hall of Fame in the first place. Perhaps there should be a mechanism to remove them (though such a mechanism would be highly problematic and would create a public relations nightmare). But in the meantime, until someone comes up with a better idea than Posnanski’s suggestion, the Hall should continue to include a “character and integrity” clause, emphasizing to the writers that such qualities must be factors in considering a player’s worthiness of induction. They don’t have to be overriding factors, but they should be part of the equation. That seems reasonable to me because the Hall, after all, is about more than just numbers and statistics. Or at least it should be.
The revelation that Alex Rodriguez failed a steroids test in 2003 has created a story of blockbuster proportions. That should come as no surprise since A-Rod is one of the two greatest players in today’s game (along with Albert Pujols) and is almost certainly the most famous.
Yet, Rodriguez’ failed steroids test is not the biggest scandal that came out of the weekend report by Sports Illustrated–not by a long shot. As much as I frown upon steroid use by ballplayers, whether they by superstars or journeymen, the far bigger scandal involves the allegation that Players’ Association executive Gene Orza may have tipped a player (or players) about upcoming drug tests, which are supposed to be random and unannounced. If this allegation is true, if Orza really did this as a way to help a player avoid testing positive for steroids, Orza should be fired by the players union and never be allowed to hold a position connected to Major League Baseball again. If Orza really did this, I’d be tempted to suggest he should face criminal charges. I’m no lawyer–and I’m probably off base here–but I have to wonder if Orza’s supposed actions in undermining the drug agreement could be interpreted as some kind of obstruction of justice.
A-Rod was wrong to have used steroids in 2003, or for however long he did. But at least he did so prior to MLB adopting a punitive drug testing plan, and he can take some solace in knowing that dozens, if not hundreds, of other players have committed the same infraction. (Just over 100 players failed steroids tests in 2003. I wonder when we’ll hear the names of the other perpetrators.) But Orza’s alleged involvement here is far more egregious. As a trusted executive with the Players’ Association, he not only allegedly betrayed a sacred trust of his office, but also intentionally violated an agreement that his own employers had agreed to adopt in cooperation with the owners and Commissioner Bud Selig. That kind of activity is not only unethical; it is reprehensible and immoral.
Let’s hope the Players’ Association investigates this thoroughly. If Donald Fehr and company find out that the allegations are true, Orza has to go–no excuses and no questions asked.
Aurelio Rodriguez–Topps Company–1981 (No. 34)
Although his name can be found right below that of the already-legendary Alex Rodriguez in books like Total Baseball, he has been mostly forgotten since his playing days ended in 1983. That’s more than a bit sad, partly because the original “A-Rod” left such a distinct impression on me–first as an opposing player and then during a late-career turn with the Yankees.
Aurelio Rodriguez couldn’t hit like today’s more well-known “A-Rod,” but he was one of the most graceful defensive third basemen of the 1970s. Rodriguez had the range of a shortstop and the throwing arm of a right fielder; along with his smooth hands, those skills combined to form a delightful package at the hot corner. In fact, I’ve never seen an infielder with a stronger arm than Aurelio. (A list of such arms would have to include recent infielders like Shawon Dunston and Travis Fryman or current-day players like Rafael Furcal and Troy Tulowitzki. All terrific arms, but all a notch below that of Rodriguez. ) That cannon-like right arm, which Ernie Harwell often described as a “howitzer,” made him a treat to watch during his many stops with the White Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Padres, Tigers, Washington Senators, and Angels.
A product of Cananea, Mexico, Rodriguez struggled with English during his early major league career with the Angels. As Rodriguez once said without bitterness, he knew only three words of English during his first ten days with California. “Ham and eggs” became a frequent refrain, resulting in a less-than-balanced diet for the young Rodriguez.
Always a terrific defender at the hot corner, Rodriguez failed to develop offensively with the Angels–a problem that persisted throughout his career. He resisted repeated attempts by his managers and coaches to hit outside pitches toward the opposite field, stubbornly trying to pull the ball and hit home runs. Rodriguez was also the consummate free swinger, never one to take to pitches and work out walks. And I’ve heard at least one former front official with the Tigers describe Rodriguez as a player who simply didn’t work as hard as he should have.
Although Rodriguez never became the star that the Angels once predicted, he did enjoy a solid career, especially with the Tigers. With his rifle arm and silky soft hands, Rodriguez cemented the left side of the infield for the Tigers and would have won more than one Gold Glove if not for the presence of a fellow named Brooks Robinson. How good was Rodriguez in the field? Of all the third basemen I watched throughout the seventies, only two were better defenders: Brooksie and the Yankees’ own Graig Nettles. In a decade that overflowed with slick-and-smooth fielders like Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, Doug “The Rooster” Rader, and Mike Schmidt, that should be taken as lofty praise indeed.
Rodriguez won only one Gold Glove during his 17-year career, that coming in 1976, mostly because he had the misfortune of playing at the same time as the two acrobats named Robinson and Nettles. “Brooksie” and “Puff” became far more famous–primarily because they could hit and launch the ball with power–and were better defensively at third, but not by much. If Rodriguez had ever developed into more than a mediocre hitter with only occasional power, he might have collected a few more Gold Gloves during his dynamic years in Detroit.
In addition to the legacy he left behind for his fielding abilities, Rodriguez will also be remembered for his involvement in two intriguing episodes of baseball history–one rather trivial and the other a bit more consequential. In 1969, the Topps Company issued Rodriguez’ rookie card. Or so it seemed. The picture on the front of the card did not actually depict Rodriguez, but rather the Angels’ youthful batboy, a young man named Leonard Garcia, who happened to be wearing Aurelio’s uniform. I’ve heard two theories behind this incident, which left Rodriguez with perhaps the oddest rookie card in Topps history. According to one story, it was a simple mix-up, caused by the similarities in appearance between Garcia and Rodriguez and exacerbated by Rodriguez’ limited abilities with speaking English. The other theory is more interesting: Rodriguez intentionally substituted Garcia for the photograph session, as a way of playing a practical joke on the people from Topps.
In 1971, Rodriguez found himself in the spotlight again when the Senators included him in a monstrous trade package that they used to acquire 1968 Cy Young Award winner Denny McLain from the Tigers. Although McLain was the headliner in the deal, the Tigers would emerge as the clear winner of the trade. Rodriguez and slick-fielding shortstop Eddie Brinkman, two of the players acquired by Detroit, would form an impenetrable left side of the infield, helping the Tigers to the American League East title in 1972. He would also become popular with Detroit fans, in part because of a nice, easygoing personality. Rodriguez would remain in the Motor City for the rest of the decade, eventually overseeing the arrival of two promising fellow infielders, Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker.
Rodriguez would play nine seasons in Detroit before being sold to the Padres during the winter of 1979. In August of 1980, with the Yankees concerned about an aging Nettles become increasingly vulnerable to left-handed pitching, GM Gene Michael sent cash to the Padres for Rodriguez. He ended up doing nothing offensively for the Yankees down the stretch, batting a mere .220 with a slugging percentage of .323. With his career slope on a downhill path and now reduced to reserve status, Rodriguez returned to the Yankees in a limited role in 1981, the year of the Topps card shown above. Playing almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, Rodriguez made the most of his opportunities. Though he came to bat only 52 times, he batted .346 with a slugging percentage of an even .500. (I know about small sample sizes, but such numbers were simply unheard of for the offensively challenged Rodriguez.) He continued his monstrous hitting in the World Series, where he batted .417 against Dodger pitching, with five hits and a walk in 12 at-bats. His offensive performance would become obscured amidst the disappointment of four straight losses to Dodger Blue (and amidst the hubbub of George Steinbrenner’s alleged fight with two Dodger fans in an elevator), but Rodriguez couldn’t be blamed for the team’s shortfall. If only the Yankees had won the Series, then Aurelio might have been remembered as yet another October hero.
So how did the Yankees reward Rodriguez for his robust hitting in 1981? They traded him, of course, sending him to the Blue Jays for an obscure minor leaguer named Mike Lebo. And just that quickly, his days as a Yankee came to an end.
Most Yankee fans probably forgot about Rodriguez until picking up a newspaper in the fall of 2000. That’s when they would have seen the obituary. On a Saturday afternoon in September, the 52-year-old Rodriguez and a 35-year-old woman were walking on a Detroit sidewalk when the driver of a nearby car suffered a stroke, resulting in his vehicle jumping the curb and running into them. The bizarre accident killed Rodriguez, who was visiting Detroit because he was scheduled to appear at a card show the next day, along with another former Tiger and Yankee, Tom Brookens. At his funeral in Mexico a few days later, thousands of fans and friends attended the service of the likeable Rodriguez, including the Mexican president.
Sadly, Rodriguez never received a last chance to reminisce with those fans, or Tiger fans, many of whom enjoyed watching him play third base with such flair and finesse. Those fans, like this Yankee fan, would have let Aurelio know that he really was not forgotten after all.
As with any all-time all-star team, nominations and final selections will stir the pots of argument and debate. That’s a good thing, because it forces us to learn more about the players involved, while bringing to better light the accomplishments of those who have been overlooked for too long. And the passion in our voices reminds us of how important it is to pay homage to those who performed so well in past generations. In the case of Major League Baseball’s Latino Legends ballot, there is an added element that raises another question: how exactly do we define Latino? There is no definitive answer to this complex question–almost every scholar will propose a different formula–but for the purposes of this promotion, the following seems simple and reasonable. Let’s define Latino players as those who were either born in Latin American countries, or those who have Latino heritage on both their mothers’ and fathers’ sides of the family. By using that definition–and this is what Major League Baseball seems to have done with its ballot–we exclude Reggie Jackson (who was Latino only on his father’s side) and Ted Williams (whose mother was half-Mexican). Besides, Jackson and Williams have never really been referred to as “Latino” in previous baseball discussions, so it might make sense to maintain the status quo on that one.
Even without Jackson and Williams, there is no shortage of talent on an all-Latino team. Here is one writer’s opinion on who deserves to make the final cut–and who just missed:
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez: Rodriguez is showing signs of decline in Detroit this season, but that’s understandable for a player who’s been catching the bulk of his teams’ games since the middle of the 1991 season. After making his major league debut at the age of 19, the native of Puerto Rico quickly established himself as the best throwing catcher in either league, drawing comparisons to the defensive standards established by Johnny Bench. Quick and agile behind the plate, Rodriguez also became a force with the bat, setting an American League record for catchers by hitting 35 home runs in 1999. He also batted .332, giving him the best single-season average for an AL catcher since Bill Dickey in 1936. Such numbers earned Rodriguez a controversial selection as league MVP, as he surprisingly beat out Pedro Martinez. I-Rod didn’t deserve the MVP that year, but he certainly deserves the ranking as the greatest Latino catcher of all-time… There’s really no one who comes close to Rodriguez among Latino receivers; he’s a future Hall of Famer who ranks several notches ahead of 1970s standout Manny Sanguillen. The former Pirates’ catcher was overrated offensively–he never saw a pitch he didn’t like–but was an underrated defender, baserunner, and team leader… Jorge Posada could move past Sanguillen on the list, but he’ll have to reverse a downward trend that might put him in a part-time role by 2006.
Orlando Cepeda: An underrated defensive first baseman, Cepeda built most of his reputation as one of the game’s most feared sluggers of the 1960s. The Puerto Rican-born Cepeda nearly won a Triple Crown with the Giants in 1961–a year that saw him overshadowed by Roger Maris–but it was as a member of the Cardinals that Cepeda achieved the most glory. Filling the team’s need for a cleanup hitter, “Cha Cha” won the National League’s MVP Award in unanimous fashion in 1967, leading St. Louis to the World Championship. Cepeda later had success with Atlanta and Boston, helping the Braves to their first playoff berth and serving as the first DH in Red Sox franchise history… Based on pure hitting ability and defensive play, Cepeda rates one notch above Tony Perez, who fell short of the “Baby Bull” on both sides of the ball. One could also make an argument for Perez as a third baseman; he played five seasons there, though not particularly well, making him too much of a liability on an all-time team. And then there’s Rafael Palmeiro, who remains a kind of candidate-in-waiting until more is learned about the extent of his steroid use.
Roberto Alomar: The spitting incident and his listless tenure with the Mets will always taint Alomar’s record and will likely cost him some Hall of Fame votes, but they shouldn’t prevent acknowledgment of his five-tool greatness. A native of Puerto Rico, Alomar piled up ten Gold Gloves, the most by any second baseman, surpassing Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Ryne Sandberg. Alomar’s combination of soft hands, acrobatic range, and quick trigger on the double play, coupled with his ability to steal bases and hit for average and power, made the switch-hitter the preeminent second baseman of the 1990s and early 2000s… Among Latino second basemen, only Rod Carew was a better hitter than Alomar, but Carew’s lack of power and his defensive limitations in the middle infield–which forced a mid-career switch to first base–make Alomar the deserving choice.
Alex Rodriguez: This ranks as the weakest position historically for Latino players, motivating me to cheat (but just a little bit) and give the nod to Rodriguez based on a sampling of less than two seasons at the position. Assuming that he can stay healthy and put in at least three more productive seasons at the corner, I’ll go with A-Rod over the underrated but unspectacular Mike Lowell (born in Puerto Rico) and career journeymen like Edgardo Alfonso, Vinny Castilla, and the original A-Rod (Aurelio Rodriguez). In making a nearly seamless transition on the left side of the infield, Rodriguez has displayed the necessary quickness, smooth hands, and strong arm that the hot corner requires. And now that’s he more comfortable in his second season in the Bronx, he’s regained the ferocious hitting stroke that once appeared to be in decline, but now has him ranked among the top three players in the game… Castilla’s numbers will always be treated with some contempt because of Coors Field, but he does have longevity on his side, enough to place him at No. 2 on the third base depth chart. In his earlier years, Castilla was a fine third baseman, having made a successful conversion from shortstop. If not for mid-career back problems, Alfonso might have achieved a higher ranking than Castilla, but it doesn’t appear that Alfonso’s physical condition will allow him to hit .320 or reach 25 home runs ever again. As for Lowell, he could certainly move up on this list, but he’s only been a fulltime player since 2000 and will have to prove that his 2005 performance was just a momentary blip and not the start of a downward trend.
Luis Aparicio: With A-Rod tucked away at third base, Aparicio becomes the logical choice at shortstop. In the current-day era of massive shortstops who have builds like outfielders from the 1950s, the merits of Aparicio might not be fully appreciated. That’s unfortunate, given the Venezuelan’s prowess in the field–some historians believe only Ozzie Smith was better–his ability to spray singles to all fields, and his proficiency in stealing bases. Aparicio’s .313 on-base percentage won’t impress many, but his “small ball” approach at the plate and artful work at shortstop fit in well with pennant winners in Chicago and Baltimore… Like several current-day players on the ballot, Miguel Tejada will move up the charts as he builds up years on his major league resume. For now, the multi-tasking Tejada will have to settle for the honor of being the game’s best active shortstop–and one of the top five players in the game.
Manny Ramirez: His lapses in concentration in the outfield and on the basepaths can be maddening, but when it comes to action with a bat in his hand, no Latino has ever been better than Ramirez. Defying the stereotype that Latino players lack patience at the plate, Ramirez understands the parameters of the strike zone better than most, which explains his .411 career on-base percentage coming into the current season. With 423 home runs as of this writing, he could very well surpass both Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa as the Latin American home run king. Ramirez rarely swings at pitches that stray from the plate, uses both sides of the playing field, and absolutely murders two-strike breaking balls… Minnie Minoso’s career took a hit because of racism that delayed the start of his major league career–he didn’t debut as a rookie until the age of 28–but he was the kind of dynamic, enthusiastic player who used his blazing speed and daring baserunning style to pile up loads of triples and stolen bases. Minoso was also a patient hitter who compiled a lifetime .391 on-base percentage, and a rangy left fielder with enough athletic ability to play third base. In the minds of some, he’s a Hall of Fame talent.
Bernie Williams: If I had simply picked the three best outfielders regardless of position, the third choice would have been Vladimir Guerrero, but an all-time team should distinguish corner outfielders from center fielders. Though probably a hair short of the Hall of Fame, Williams accomplished what few athletes in New York City have been able to do: he remained an underrated star, despite playing for both a baseball dynasty and the most successful franchise in the sport’s history, all the while performing in the country’s largest media market. While watching Williams stumble and stagger in 2005, it’s easy to forget how great a player he was from the mid-1990s through the start of the new millennium. After emerging as the MVP of the American League Championship Series in 1996, he batted .328 with 21 home runs in 1997, and finally achieved some recognition for his standout defensive play, overcoming his below-average throwing arm and lack of natural instincts to garner his first Gold Glove Award. The following three seasons, Williams’ performance reached its peak. In 1998, he won the American League’s batting title with a .339 mark and captured his second straight Gold Glove. The following season, Williams put up some of the best offensive numbers of his career– including 202 hits and a personal best 116 runs. In 2000, Williams drove in a career-high 121 runs as the Yankees claimed their third consecutive set of World Series rings. Other than Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, no player meant more to that Yankee dynasty than Williams did… There haven’t been many great Latino center fielders in major league history, but a solid backup to Williams would be former National League standout Cesar Cedeno. As a young player with the Astros, he once stirred comparisons to Willie Mays, but a voluntary manslaughter conviction haunted Cedeno for years. The effects of the Astrodome didn’t help Cedeno either, compressing his 40-home run potential to the 25-and-under range. Still, Cedeno enjoyed a solid career, which he capped off with a spree of clutch hitting for the Cardinals during their pennant-winning season of 1985. Cedeno hit .434 in 28 late-season games, as the Cardinals sealed another National League East title… Carlos Beltran could easily surpass Cedeno in due time, but keep in mind he’s only 28 and struggling in his first season with the Mets. If the Beltran of the 2004 playoffs ever shows up, he could become the No. 1 Latino center fielder by the end of his career.
Roberto Clemente: Clemente will never gain total favor with the Sabermetric crowd because of his lack of patience at the plate, but he did most everything else at a superior level. Though not a pure power hitter by any means, the native of Puerto Rico hit 240 home runs (impressive given that he played all but two and a half seasons at cavernous Forbes Field), while compiling a .317 lifetime batting average, collecting four batting titles, and featuring unmatched baserunning skills. On the defensive side, “The Great One” remains the standard-bearer among right fielders, combining the best throwing arm of my lifetime with the quickness and agility usually seen in a shortstop (his original position as an amateur). And let’s not forget his postseason contributions, which were crucial to the Pirates’ ability to win two World Championships. In 14 World Series games, Clemente batted safely in each, delivered critical hits in two Game Seven situations, fielded his position flawlessly at all times, and made two of the most outlandish throws a major leaguer has ever made… In time, Vlad Guerrero may surpass Clemente as the greatest Latino right fielder in major league history. In addition to having far more power, the free-swinging Guerrero covers both sides of the plate better than his Latino predecessor. Whether Guerrero ultimately surpasses Clemente will depend on Vlad’s back and knees. If he can stay healthy and retain his peak for four or five more seasons, we might have to start calling Guerrero “The Greatest One.”
Edgar Martinez: Like right field, this selection requires little angst. The choice must be Martinez, a borderline Hall of Famer who won two batting titles and was probably the most disciplined Latino hitter of all-time. Born in New York but a descendent of Puerto Rican heritage, Martinez led the American League in on-base percentage three times, all the while spraying hits to every corner and gap in the outfield… If I’m going to pick players who actually DH’ed for much of their career, then my second choice will have to be a personal favorite, Rico Carty. From 1975 to 1979, Carty prospered as a DH with the Indians, Blue Jays, and A’s, despite having to endure some of the worst knees this side of Orlando Cepeda. A phenomenal two-strike hitter, Carty regularly walked more than he struck out, an unusual feat for a man with 200-home run power.
Juan Marichal: This is one all-time position that could change in the near future, especially if fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez continues to pitch at his 2005 level. But for now, we’ll go with the historical choice of Marichal, a mound magician who used an assortment of pitches to confound National League hitters throughout the 1960s. Though not overpowering in the classic sense, Marichal did accumulate six seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, all the while showing amazing durability (he led the NL in complete games and innings pitched two times apiece). With Gibson, Koufax, and Seaver as contemporaries, it doesn’t surprise me that Marichal never won a Cy Young Award; but it is amazing that Marichal earned only one Cy Young vote along the way… Martinez is the runner-up for now, but closing fast against Marichal, who had the benefit of pitching many of his prime seasons in a pitcher’s era. If Martinez can come close to matching Marichal’s 16-season longevity (which included a prime run of 11 years), then Pedro will take over the top spot.
Mariano Rivera: This might have been the easiest position to make a pick; no argument can be made for anyone but Mariano Rivera, who might be the game’s greatest reliever regardless of heritage. And yet it almost didn’t happen. If the Yankees had re-signed John Wetteland after the 1996 season, Rivera might have remained in a set-up role for two or three more seasons, thereby wasting some of the Panamanian’s prime years. Thankfully, the Yankees made the right decision, let Wetteland go to Texas, and watched Rivera become the class of closers from 1997 to the current day. Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman have been more dominant at various times, but neither has sustained Rivera’s year-to-year excellence nor come close to matching Mo’s sparkling October resume–now at 10 postseasons and counting… If I’m forced to pick a second reliever (and I guess I must), then I’ll take onetime MVP and Cy Young Award winner Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez. Though Hernandez didn’t enjoy long-term prosperity as a closer, he did have several successful years in a set-up role for the Cubs and Phillies before reaching his peak with the 1984 Tigers. Hernandez also pitched well in two World Series, holding opponents scoreless for the Phillies in the ’83 Classic and notching two saves for the Tigers in the ’84 Series.