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New York Yankees: The Greatest Players of the Greatest Team

Stephen SkinnerContributor IIFebruary 2, 2012

New York Yankees: The Greatest Players of the Greatest Team

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    In the 111-year history of the New York Yankees, no other team has won more World Championships (27 - an average of one every four to five years).  In fact, no other franchise in any sport has been as successful as the Bronx Bombers. 

    To achieve such success, an organization has to have a wealth of talent and a long line of great managers to properly use that talent. In this slide show, I will attempt to identify the very best of the best at each position for this proud franchise and it will become clear that over several eras, the Yankees have had the greatest pool of talent. 

    The standard that they have set at each position is so high that many of my choices excluded Hall of Fame inductees.  I realize that my selections can be debated as everyone has their own opinions but I've attempted to be as objective as is possible for any die hard Yankee fan.

New York Yankees Greatest Catcher

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    There is a great line of catchers in the New York Yankee history and selecting one as the greatest at the position was more than difficult.  If I was to follow my heart, my answer would be Thurman Munson - my favorite Yankee of all time - but, alas, I'd be doing a disservice to you, the reader.  Only one player can say they have TEN World Series rings.  That same player can say that on a team with stars like Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, he led the Yankees in RBIs for SEVEN consecutive seasons.  This player won the MVP award three times and was a fifteen time all-star.  With all due respect to Thurman Munson and Bill Dickey, there can only be one greatest catcher and his name is Yogi Berra.  

    There are currently thirteen catchers in baseball's Hall of Fame and none of the other twelve come close to the high level of success Yogi had in virtually every statistical category. 

    He was the the soul of the Yankees during their unequalled run in the 1950s and 60s hitting 358 HR and driving in 1430 runs over 18 seasons.

New York Yankees Greatest First Baseman

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    Again I find myself torn between following a hero I watched during my life - Don Mattingly - and one from an era long before my birth.  And again, it is undeniable, based on numbers alone, who should be called the greatest Yankee first baseman. Lou Gehrig.  

    "The Iron Horse" had three of the top six RBI seasons in the history of Major League Baseball.  He had a lifetime batting average of .340 and he held the record for most consecutive games played for 56 years until Cal Ripken broke it in 1995.  As if that wasn't enough, Lou Gehrig also holds the record for grand slams in a career with 23. 

    He remains one of the New York Yankees and Major League Baseball's most beloved figures.   At first base there can only be Lou Gehrig.

New York Yankees Greatest Second Baseman

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    I know this pick will generate some debate from the Bobby Richardson and Tony Lazzari camps but to me, there has never been a better New York Yankee second baseman than Robinson Cano.  

    He is still relatively young but, in the seven seasons that he has been "in the show" he has shown some remarkable talent that I have never witnessed in my 40-plus years of following the game.   Everything about his play looks effortless.   In the field, he can chase down a ground ball up the middle and, with what seems to be just a flick of his wrist, fire a bullet to the first baseman - beating the runner by at least two steps.   At the plate, his swing has the grace and beauty we all dreamed of having as kids.  Nothing about it seems unnatural and when contact is made, the ball jumps off the bat as if fired from a cannon. 

    The best part of Robinson Cano is that he always plays with a smile on his face.  He has the look of the Great Ones - that inner joy of playing the game that he loves at a level that not many can reach.  His numbers reflect it:  Seven seasons, .308 batting average, averaging 22 home runs and 96 RBI per year.   At the age of 29, he is just now reaching his pinnacle and I am excited to see what his future brings to the New York Yankees.

New York Yankees Greatest Third Baseman

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    My choice of Greg Nettles as the New York Yankee greatest third baseman isn't all about his offense.  He did possess great power that kept him at or near the heart of the order on the great Yankee team of the late 1970s - hitting 20 or more HR for seven consecutive seasons (leading the league with 32 in 1976).  However, it was Greg Nettles fielding at the "hot corner" that, in my mind, set him apart from the rest. 

    As long as I live, I will never forget his diving stops, time and again, in the 1978 World Series that seemed to sway the momentum.  His ability to rise to the occasion in the field is what convinced me to choose Greg Nettles as the greatest Yankees third baseman.

New York Yankees Greatest Shortstop

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    To me, there are two positions on this team of "Greatest Yankees" that are no-brainers.  Shortstop is the first of those two.  There is no debate here, no mulling in my head of arguments for or against.  Quite simply, Derek Jeter is the Greatest Yankee shortstop.  There isn't a close second.  

    The man known as "Mr. Intangible" or "Derek-f-ing-Jeter" to Red Sox fans far and wide has the most hits in franchise history and, leads the organization in stolen bases, games played and at-bats.  He has been a steady rock on the left side of the field since coming up for good in 1996. 

    The truly great ones raise the level of their play in the post-season and Derek is no exception.  With a  .351 post-season average and numerous post-season records, Derek has helped lead the Yankees to five World Championships during his career.  He is known as "Captain Clutch" and "Mr. November" to Yankee fans and he has provided countless spectacular ESPN moments throughout Yankee post-seasons since his call-up. 

    I cannot think of a smarter baseball player during my lifetime than Derek Jeter.  His ability to anticipate where the ball is going to go or, where a play may occur leaves me in awe.  When all is said and done, Derek will most certainly have his spot in baseball immortality at Cooperstown, N.Y.

New York Yankees Greatest Right Fielder

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    George Herman "Babe" Ruth is the face of the sport of baseball.  Until someone can claim they can hit over 700 home runs AND have an ERA of 2.28 over 8-plus seasons of pitching, he will remain the single greatest player to ever step onto the baseball diamond. 

    His career batting average was .342, hitting .326 in ten World Series.  In addition, while with Boston, he pitched 31 innings in two Fall Classics and posted an incredible 0.87 ERA only going to show what a complete player he truly was .  

    In spite of his girth, he stole 123 bases over his 22-year career and, he had a .968 fielding percentage. 

    The "Bambino" has no peers and quite possibly never will.

New York Yankees Greatest Center Fielder

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    The New York Yankees have been truly blessed with a long line of talent in center field.  From Earle Combs to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Bobby Murcer to Mickey Rivers to Bernie Williams to current center fielder Curtis Granderson, the Yankees most glamorous spot in the field has been filled with players looked up to by their peers.  Ultimately, my choice came down to two players - "Joe D." and "The Mick" - and, because in my mind, they were both so important to their eras, I went with my heart. 

    Mickey Mantle's charisma and talent won the hearts of an entire generation.  He was blessed with speed, power and tremendous fielding skills.  Had some breaks gone his way and, as he admitted later in life, had he taken better care of himself, I feel he could have gone down in history as only second to Ruth in baseball lore. As it is, he still came pretty close! 

    Mickey Mantle is one of only two Yankees (the other being Lou Gehrig) to win baseball's Triple Crown and he is widely recognized as the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history.  He holds several World Series records including: most HR, RBI, runs, walks, extra base hits and total bases.  Adding to his legend is the fact that he is the career leader in walk-off home runs.  To this day, people still hold "The Mick" in the highest of reverence.  In the choice for Greatest Yankee Center Fielder, he wins by a nose.

New York Yankees Greatest Left Fielder

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    Of all the positions I've looked at, this one was the most difficult.  Left field for the Yankees seems to be the spot that other outfielders switch to from other positions and it was difficult to even find one player who dedicated most of his time there.  Ultimately, my choice came down to two very worthy Yankees - Hideki Matsui and Dave Winfield.  

    What decided it for me was the fact that Matsui spent the majority of his time with the Yankees in left field whereas Dave Winfield only played there for three of his eight seasons as a Yankee. There was also one more underlying fact. 

    As I mentioned earlier, the truly great ones rise to the occasion in the post season. While Winfield ultimately did that, it was with the Blue Jays not the Yankees.  On the other hand, Hideki Matsui more than rose the level of play on baseball's biggest stage. 

    In particular, he put on one of the greatest World Series performances anyone has ever had in the clinching game of the Fall Classic in 2009. He single-handedly clinched the win for the Yankees by going 3-for-4 with a HR and six RBI.  As a Yankee, he was the consummate hitting professional and had a career batting average of .292.  In the post-season, his average of .315 included hitting .615 in the aforementioned World Series.

    His Yankee career was littered with performances such as that and forever endeared "Godzilla" to the Yankee faithful. 

New York Yankees Greatest Right-Handed Starting Pitcher

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    Red Ruffing is a Hall of Famer and played for the Yankees for fifteen seasons between 1930 and 1946 (he lost time due to WWII).  He won 20 games in four consecutive seasons from 1936 to 1939 and had an ERA of 3.47 with the Yankees. 

    As is the theme with other Yankee greats, in the post-season Ruffing's statistics were even better.  He appeared in seven World Series, going 7-2 with a 2.63 ERA leading the Yankees to six titles.  He was at the heart of a rotation on Yankee teams that often are forgotten in New York Yankee lore.

New York Yankees Greatest Left-Handed Starting Pitcher

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    There is a whole generation before mine that will shout at the top of their lungs that Whitey Ford was the greatest Yankee left-hander.  I followed Ron Guidry's entire career and to this day and I have yet to see anyone duplicate "Gator's" 1978 season. 

    That year, Guidry went 25-3 with a 1.74 era, 9 shutouts and 16 complete games.  But, one season does not solely define a great career.  Guidry went on to win 20 or more games two additional times and finished with a stellar 3.29 ERA over his 14 year career.  In the post-season, Guidry's ERA was 1.69 over four World Series games.  

    His career numbers are better than Ford's in: strikeout to walk ratio, strikeouts per 9 innings, walks per 9 innings and WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched).  In his era, no other pitcher equalled Guidry's catlike reflexes on the mound and he won five Gold Gloves for his efforts. 

    "Louisiana Lightning" will always be remembered for that 1978 season but his career was defined by so much more than that single year.

New York Yankees Greatest Reliever

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    It is only proper that I finish with Mariano Rivera.  I mentioned that there were two positions where "The Greatest" was a no-brainer and, "New York Yankees Greatest Reliever" is the second one.  

    Yes, Goose Gossage is in the Hall of Fame and rightfully so. I loved when the Yankees brought "Goose" in to finish off an opponent but as dominating as Gossage was in his era, he still can't hold a candle to Mo.  Rivera is as sure a thing as there is in life.  More than nine times out of ten, when he enters a game, it is over. 

    He has a career ERA of 2.21 and WHIP of 1.00 -- both the lowest in the live-ball era.  In the post-season, he is simply untouchable with an ERA of 0.70 and an unheard of WHIP of 0.759.   He is baseball's all-time saves leader in both the regular and post-season. 

    Not only is Mariano Rivera the greatest Yankee reliever, he is the greatest reliever in the history of baseball. 

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