I recently wrote an article titled "The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know". It's gotten great responses, and I had a great time writing it. So with spring training here, I decided to do a series of these about different aspects of the sport. enjoy
Any team in baseball that considers itself a title contender, needs a middle of the line that produces runs. While the third hitter in the line-up is usually the best pure hitter on the team, the fourth hitter, or "clean-up" hitter, is usually the scariest.
Their job is to drive in runs and provide protection in the line-up for the guy in the third slot. Hers is a ranking of each teams projected clean-up hitter.
30. Russell Branyan, Mariners, 1B (2008: .250, 12 HR, 20 RBI, .925 OPS)
Branyan will get to be an everyday player for the first time since, well, ever. He has never played more than 134 games in a season (2001), and hasn't even played in 100 games since 2002. Branyan has pop, hitting 12 homers in only 50 games last season.
Branyan has also struggled against lefties, and was 0-for-14 against them last season, something he'll need to improve upon if he wants to stay in the Mariner's lineup everyday.
29. Hank Blalock, Rangers, DH (2008: .287, 12 HR, 38 RBI, .846 OPS)
The Rangers have a very good lineup, so they can afford to give Blalock a chance to bounce back from two injury-plagued seasons. Blalock hasn't played more than 65 games since 2006, but the Rangers feel his move to DH this season will keep him healthier.
Blalock can hit, having three seasons of at least 25 home runs and 90 RBI from 2003-2005. The only real question is will he stay healthy. If he does, he moves up this list as a very solid clean-up hitter in a very good lineup.
28. Ryan Doumit, Pirates, C (2008: .318, 15 HR, 69 RBI, .858 OPS)
The sweet swinging, switch hitting catcher is one of the most underrated players in baseball and is only getting better, but on a good team he's much more of a No. 3 type hitter than a clean-up guy.
But Doumit plays for the Pirates, who, other than leadoff hitter Nate McLouth, don't have a line-up with much pop. Doumit hit only 15 home runs in 2008, but did hit 34 doubles, so his home run power could still be developing.
His 69 RBI in 118 games played last season should also see a bump now that he's batting fourth.
27. Vernon Wells, Blue Jays, OF (2008: .300, 20 HR, 78 RBI, .839 OPS)
Wells used to be a lock for 20-30 homers and 90-100 RBI per season, but has had a disappointing season followed by injury-plagued season the past two seasons. Wells hasn'r driven in 100 runs since 2006 and has only hit 36 home runs total the past two seasons.
The former all-star did show glimpses of his old form after returning from the DL last season, hitting 11 homers in his final 44 games. Wells did have a decent season in 2008, but he'll need to step it up and stay healthy if the Jays want to compete in the AL East.
26. Rick Ankiel, Cardinals, OF (2008: .264, 25 HR, 71 RBI, .843 OPS)
Ankiel got off to a fast start in his first full season as an outfielder for St. Louis, before injuries sidelined him. Prior to the all-star break, the former pitcher hit .270 with 20 home runs and 50 RBI.
After the break, however, Ankiel played just 36 games, batting .245 with only five home runs and 21 RBI.
Ankiel also struck out 100 times in 120 games, but batting between Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick won't hurt his development. The only real question for Ankiel is can he stay healthy?
25. Bengie Molina, Giants, C (2008: .292, 16 HR, 95 RBI, .767 OPS)
Molina had a career year in 2008, his first as an everyday clean-up hitter. He drove in a career high 95 RBI, most by any catcher in the league, for a team that struggled to score runs, and hit .316 with runners in scoring position.
His 16 home runs and .767 OPS were rather low totals for a clean-up hitter, even for a guy who plays in a pitchers park. Molina is also one of, if not the slowest guy in the league, so he is prone to hitting into double plays (23 in 2008).
Molina would not be the fourth hitter on even average offensive teams, he's a better fit as a player who can give quality at-bats and production from the bottom of the line-up.
24. Conor Jackson, D-Backs, 1B/OF (2008: .300, 12 HR, 75 RBI, .822 OPS)
After four seasons in the majors, Conor Jackson has established himself as a quality big league hitter. The one knock against Jackson, however, is his lack of power. More of a three type hitter than a clean-up guy, Jackson hit only 12 homers in 2008, but still drove in 75 runs.
He's more of a gap hitter, proven by his 31 double and 6 triples last season. One major plus for Jackson, especially in a line-up full of free swingers, is that he rarely strikes out. Jackson had only two more K's than walks last season (61 K's compared to 59 BB).
He was even better with runners in scoring position, drawing 25 free passes and striking out only 20 times, while batting .303. If this was a list of just the best pure hitters, then Jackson would be much higher, but his lack of power and run production put him towards the back of this list.
23. Jose Guillen, Royals, OF (2008: .264, 20 HR, 97 RBI, .738 OPS)
Guillen is a quality player who has hit 20 or more homers five times and driven in 90 or more RBI four times. Guillen is a player that a team knows what they're going to get, solid offensive production from a corner outfield spot.
However, Guillen's OPS was very, mostly due to his very low walk total (23 BB compared to 106 K's). Surprisingly, Guillen's 2008 totals were very similar to Bengie Molina's, which may be a reason why he's batted clean-up for the Nationals, Mariners and Royals the past three seasons, some of the worst teams in the sport.
22. Jorge Cantu, Marlins, 3B (2008: .277, 29 HR, 95 RBI, .808 OPS)
In 2005, Jorge Cantu mad a name for himself with a breakout season for Tampa Bay. That year, Cantu batted .286 with 40 doubles, 28 homer runs and 117 RBI. What followed his impressive first full seasons were two disappointing ones in which Cantu hit only 15 homer combined.
The Marlins signed him prior to 2008, with the hopes he would be the player he was with Tampa in 2005. They were right. Cantu had big shoes to fill after Miguel Cabrera was traded and he filled them well.
He hit 29 home runs and drove in 95 RBI, 64 of them came with runners in scoring position. Cantu was a big part of the Marlins surprise 2008.
21. Torii Hunter, Angels, OF (2008: .278, 21 HR, 78 RBI, .810 OPS)
Torii Hunter is a terrific all around player, but as a clean-up hitter he's average at best. Hunter has good but not outstanding power, hitting 30 homers once, but cracking 20 seven times. He drives in a decent amount of runs, but has only topped 100 twice and his 78 RBI in 2008 was his lowest output since 2005, when he played only 98 games.
Admittedly, there aren't as many RBI opportunities for Hunter as there is for many guy in the four hole because he bats behind Vlad Guerrero, but less than 80 RBI in 551 at-bats is solid, but it's not great.
20. Matt Kemp, Dodgers, OF (2008: .290, 18 HR, 76 RBI, .799 OPS)
Kemp could take the next step this season and become a very good number four hitter in the National League, but he's not there yet. Since debuting in 2006 at the age of 21, Kemp's numbers have steadily increase.
He went from seven home runs and 23 RBI in 2006, to 10 home runs and 42 RBI in 2007, to 18 homers and 76 RBI last season. he did strikeout a lot, 153 times in 155 games, a stat that looks worse when compared to hit very low walk total of 46.
Kemp also needs to hit righties better, batting 100 points lower against them then he did against southpaws (.260 vs. RHP, .369 vs. LHP).
A full year with Don Mattingly as his hitting coach could make the difference for Kemp.Throw in his 35 stolen bases, and Kemp not only has the chance to be a great clean-up hitter, but a 30/30 guy as well.
19. Victor Martinez, Indians, C/1B (2008: .278, 7 HR, 35 RBI, .702 OPS)
In the four seasons prior to 2008, Martinez was virtually a lock to hit .300 with 20-30 homers and 90-100 RBI, batting in the middle of a very good Cleveland lineup. All that changed for the switch hitting catcher last season, when injuries limited Martinez to just 266 at bats in 73 games.
Martinez's health is the only reason he's ranked this low. The Indians look to play Martinez much more at first base this season in an effort to keep him healthy.
If Martinez is healthy, and can come close to duplicating his career year in 2007 (.301, 25 HR, 114 RBI, .879 OPS), he easily moves into the top 10 four hitters in baseball.
18. Jermaine Dye, White Sox, OF (2008: .292, 34 HR, 96 RBI, .885 OPS)
Dye is one of the most consistent hitters in baseball. In his 13 years in the bigs, Dye has hit at least 20 home runs in a season nine times and driven in at least 80 runs eight times.
In 2008, Dye finished in the top 10 in home runs, slugging percentage, total bases and extra base hits. Dye is also clutch in the big spot, boosting a .385 average last season with a homer and 13 RBI with the bases loaded in 2008, and a .438 average and .688 slugging during the 2005 World Series.
Dye has had problems in the past with minor injuries, and he 154 games he played last season was his most since 2001. Dye also just turned 35, so he may be on the down side of his career, but until proven so, Dye is not the sexiest name, but he defines reliable.
17. Jason Giambi, A's, 1B/DH (2008: .247, 32 HR, 96 RBI, .875 OPS)
After seven up-and-down seasons with the Yankees, Giambi returns in 2009 to the place where he had his best years and won his only MVP award. Giambi's numbers aren't always pretty anymore; he hits for a low average and is a lock to strikeout 100 times, but all the guy does is drives in runs.
Last season, Giambi had almost as many RBI (96), as hits (113).
Don't let his low batting averages the past few years fool you either, his 2008 on base percentage was .373 was 126 points higher than his .247 batting average. The fact that he doesn't hit lefties as well as he used too (.231 in 2008) and that he's a defensive liability may limit his playing time.
Not to mention that he hasn't played a season completely healthy since 2003.
16. Joey Votto, Reds, 1B (2008: .297, 24 HR, 84 RBI, .874 OPS)
The runner-up in the NL rookie of the year voting last season, Votto had a very productive first full season with the Reds. He led all rookies last season in batting average, home runs, total bases and OPS.
Still only 25 years old, Votto is set to anchor the middle of the line-up as the Reds clean-up hitter. Votto is a professional hitter with power to all fields, and could end up as a consistent hitter.
The only thing keeping Votto out of the top 10, is longevity. There have been many rookies to have big years, then fall off dramatically their second season after pitchers figure them out.
15. Carlos Pena, Rays, 1B (2008: .247, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .871 OPS)
The Rays picked Carlos Pena from the scrap heap prior to the 2007 season. It turned out to be a great move, as Pena would hit 46 homers, drive in 121 runs and post an OPS of over 1.000.
Pena took a step back last season, getting off to a slow start and hitting only .190 against lefties, but picked up the pace in the second half and still finished with more than 30 dingers and 100 RBI.
As with most power hitters these days, Pena will strikeout a bunch (over 300 total the past two seasons), but he still gets on base. His on base percentage of .377 was 130 points higher than his batting average.
14. Aubrey Huff, Orioles, DH (2008: .304, 32 HR, 108 RBI, .912 OPS)
Aubrey Huff has been remarkably consistent in his career, despite playing on some of the worst teams the game has seen this decade. In nine seasons in the majors, Huff has hit 20 plus homers six times, driven in 90 or more runs four times, and hit .300 or better three times.
He was as clutch as any you can be on a last place team last season, batting .332 with 14 homers and 49 RBI after the all-star break, and batting .320 with seven home runs and 72 RBI with runners in scoring position.
The most impressive stat of Huff's, however, in this age of free swinging clean-up hitters, Huff has never struck out 100 time in his career.
13. Garrett Atkins, Rockies, 3B (2008: .286, 21 HR, 99 RBI, .780 OPS)
In his four full seasons int he bigs, Atkins had never driven in fewer than 89 runs, nearly topping 100 for the third consecutive season last year when he drove in 99. As durable as the come Atkins has averaged 157 games played per season in his career.
He did struggle in the second half last season, and hit over 100 points less on the road than at home (.357 at home compared to .233 on the road). Also, his walk total decreased while his strikeouts increased for the third consecutive season.
Still, when a guy hits .289 with 20 homers and leads his team in RBI with 99 and considers it a bad season, he's pretty good.
12. Brian McCann, Braves, C (2008: .301, 23 HR, 87 RBI, .896 OPS)
As a Mets fan who has watched McCann get big hit after big hit against my favorite team. McCann's RBI totals may not look as impressive as other clean-up hitters, but the fact that he's a catcher has limited the three time all-star to around 140 games per season.
In fact, since 2006, no catcher in baseball has hit more doubles (114), homers (65) and RBI (272). McCann also hit .287 with 5 home runs and 59 RBI with runners in scoring position, and batted .400 with the bases loaded in 2008. Still only 25, McCann has never struck out more than 74 times, and last season only had seven more K's than walks.
11. Adam Dunn, Nationals, OF (2008: .236, 40 HR, 100 RBI, .899 OPS)
Adam Dunn is an absolute power house. Despite splitting the 2008 season between the Reds and Diamondbacks, Dunn posted his fifth consecutive 40 homer, 90-plus RBI season. Sure Dunn hit only .236, but his league leading 122 walks helped him to an on base percentage of .386, good for ninth in the NL and 150 points better than his batting average.
He also is a strikeout machine, averaging 180 K's per season. That may also explain his fairly low RBI total for a guy who hits so many home runs (his career high is 106). Still when a clean-up hitter can almost guarantee a 40-homer, 100-RBI season every year, finding flaws in his game may be splitting hairs.
10. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs, 3B (2008: .289, 27 HR, 111 RBI, .898 OPS)
In 2008, Ramirez posted his sixth consecutive season of at least 25 home runs and 90 RBI, topping 30 and 100, three and four time respectively. It's amazing that he's only been an all-star twice, especially since he puts up similar numbers to David Wright every season.
He was one of the better hitters in the NL with runners in scoring position last season, batting .310 with 12 home runs,86 RBI and 24 walks compared to only 20 strikeouts. He was also a beast down the stretch for the division winning Cubs, batting .342 with 11 RBI in 20 games. He may be one of the most overlooked great players in the game.
9. Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox, 1B (2008: .312, 29 HR, 115 RBI, .959 OPS)
Kevin Youkilis is not your traditional clean-up hitter. He's not an overpowering slugger who puts fear in the hearts of pitchers. He's just an excellent hitter. He's the type of rare hitter that can bat anywhere in the lineup, and he has, from lead-off to fifth, and became the four hitter after Manny Ramirez was traded to LA.
Youk's number were very good, .312, 29 homers, 115 RBI, but as a clean-up hitter they were great. In only 48 games as a clean-up hitter, Youkilis drove in a Ramirez-like 45 runs, almost a run per game. Throw in his outstanding performance in the clutch, .380 average, eight homers, 78 RBI, and you have a great clean-up hitter, traditional or not.
8. Prince Fielder, Brewers, 1B (2008: .276, 34 HR, 102 RBI, .879 OPS)
After becoming the youngest player ever to hit 50 home runs and finishing third in the MVP voting in 2007, Fielder took a step back in 2008. He hit 16 fewer dingers and drove in 17 fewer RBI partly because he struggled against lefties, hitting only .239 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI (compared to .295, 24 HR, 67 RBI vs. righties).
Despite the lack of production against southpaws, Prince still finished eigth in the league with 34 home runs for the wild card winning Brewers. In fact, over the past two seasons, only A-Rod and Ryan Howard have hit more home runs.
Fielder will strikeout over 100 time a season, but in today's game when many sluggers are striking out close to 200 times a season, Prince's 134 doesn't look so bad. If Fielder can bounce back against lefties in 2009, he'll easily move into the top five.
7. Adrian Gonzalez, Padres, 1B (2008: .279, 36 HR, 119 RBI, .871 OPS)
After producing his second straight 30 homer, 100 run, 100 RBI season in 2008, Adrian Gonzalez solidified his place as a dominant clean-up hitter, even while playing 81 games per year in one of the toughest ballparks to hit in.
One of the few bright spots in a disappointing season for the Padres, Gonzalez's 36 home runs were good for seventh in th NL, and his 119 RBI were good for third, a number even more impressive since San Diego severely lacked offense last season.
A four hitter who has an aging Brian Giles hitting ahead of him, Jody Gerut as a leading off hitter, and Kevin Kouzmanoff (who hit .226 at home) protecting him in the order, and can still put up Gozo's numbers, must be an elite hitter.
6. Lance Berkman, Astros, 1B (2008: .312, 29 HR, 106 RBI, .987 OPS)
The switch-hitting Berkman is one of the best players in the game, and as consistent a clean-up hitter as any in baseball. Berkman has been in the league a decade now, and in those 10 years Berkman has posted nine straight seasons of 20 or more home runs, eight straight seasons of 90 or more walks, seven seasons of 90 or more runs scored, six seasons of 100 or more RBI and four seasons batting .300 or better. Berkman is also a five time all-star with five top 10 MVP finishes.
Berkman not only has the sixth highest OPS among active players, but at .973, the number is also good enough for 16th all time.
5. Carlos Beltran, Mets, OF (2008: .284, 27 HR, 112 RBI, .876 OPS)
Beltran is one of the most complete players in baseball, and he is just as good as a clean-up hitter. Beltran, a switch-hitting center fielder, was one of the few players who was clutch in 2008 for the Mets, especially down the stretch.
He hit .307 with 12 homers and 46 RBI in the second half, including a September that saw Beltran hit .344 with six home runs and 19 RBI in 25 games. As clutch as Beltran is, he also is just as consistent.
In 11 big league seasons, Beltran has eight seasons of 20 or more home runs and 100 plus RBI, seven seasons of 100 or more runs scored, seven seasons of at least 30 doubles and seven 20/20 seasons.
Carlos' postseason stats are also pretty astonishing, belting 11 homers, scoring 31 runs and driving in 19 in 22 post-season games played. Beltran is the heart of one of the best middle-of the-orders in baseball. To read more about Carlos Beltran, check out my article "Don't Hate the Playa: It's Time to Show Carlos Beltran Some Love".
4. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers, 1B (2008: .292, 37 HR, 127 RBI, .886 OPS)
Cabrera hits like the second coming of Manny Ramirez. No matter how he plays defensively, what's going on around him or how his team is doing, Cabrera is going to hit and drive in runs, period.
In his first season in the AL, Cabrera lead the league in homers with 37 and total bases with 331, and finished in the top 10 in OPS, slugging percentage, RBI and extra base hits. In only six big league seasons, Cabrera has hit at least .290 with 25 home runs and 100 RBI the last five seasons ( having averaged 118 per year during that span).
He's as professional a hitter as anybody in the game, and may be one of the few things the Tigers know is not a question mark.
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees, 3B (2008: .302, 35 HR, 103 RBI, .965 OPS)
One could go on about all the amazing numbers A-Rod has put up in his career, over 500 home runs, 1600 runs scored and 1600 RBI in his 15 big league career.
But when a guy can hit over .300, with 35 homers, over 100 RBI and an OPS of close to 1.000 and consider it on of his worst years, like A-Rod did last season, then the guy is a hitter for the ages.
So what puts A-Rod third on this list and not number one? It's his well documented struggles in the clutch. Rodriguez hit 58 points lower with runners in scoring position than with the bases empty last season (.329 w/ bases empty compared to .271 RISP), and 23 of his 35 homers were solo shots.
A-Ros has also struggled in the playoffs, hitting .279 with seven homer and 17 RBI in 39 postseason games.
Since joining the Yankees, A-Rod hasn't hit better that .267 in a playoff series since hitting .421 in the 2004 ALDS (including his playoff career worst average of.071 in the 2006 ALDS against the Tigers).
2. Justin Morneau, Twins, 1B (2008: .300, 23 HR, 129 RBI, .873 OPS)
The 2006 AL MVP, Morneau almost won his second award in 2008 when he finished second to the Red Sox Dustin Pedroia, after helping the Twins contend for a playoff spot even after they traded their ace Johan Santana to the Mets.
Despite tailing off a bit in the second half of last season, Morneau still had an outstanding year in the middle of the Twins' lineup.
He posted his third straight season driving in 100 or more runs, and his 129 RBI were good enough for second in the AL. But it's with runners in scoring position when Morneau really shines.
He hit .348 with eight homers and an outstanding 99 RBI with runners in scoring position. He was even better with the bases loaded, hitting .409 with two grand slams, an OPS of 1.203 and 27 RBI in 22 at-bats.
The ever plate disciplined Morneau is also one of the few sluggers today who has never struck out 100 times. He's a sweet swinging, RBI machine who hits even better in the clutch, everything a team want in a four hitter.
1. Ryan Howard, Phillies, 1B (2008: .251, 48 HR, 146 RBI, .882 OPS)
As a Mets fan, it pains me to admit it, but Ryan Howard is the best clean-up hitter in the game today. All this guy does is drive in runs and produce in big spots. In 2008, Howard got off to a slow start batting only .234, and still was amongst the league leaders with 84 RBI.
He would hit better in the second half, including a September for the ages. During the final month of the 2008 season, Howard hit .352, with 11 homers and 32 RBI in 25 games played, helping the Phillies pass the Mets and win the NL East for the second straight season.
While he would only hit .194 with the bases empty, Howard hit .320 with 12 home runs, an OPS of 1.028 and 90 RBI with runners in scoring position. I just five seasons in the bigs, Ryan Howard is already been NL rookie of the year (2006), NL MVP (2007, finished second in 2008), and a World Champion (2008).
No matter what type of season Howard is having, or what kind of slump he may be in, he always seems to come up big in big situations. He's hands down the best clean-op hitter in baseball.