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25 Best Small-Market Stars in MLB History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst INovember 24, 2010

25 Best Small-Market Stars in MLB History

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    Small-market stars are few and far between in today's modern MLB. Sure there are plenty of players who come up with the league's have-nots: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Milwaukee.

    But they don't seem to stay there for very long. Do we really expect Prince Fielder to stay in Milwaukee forever? Or Zack Grienke in Kansas City? We just saw Dan Uggla shipped to Atlanta for very little in return, partly because the Marlins didn't want to pay him a huge, long-term deal.

    It hasn't always been like that. Plenty of great, future Hall of Famers spent the bulk (if not all) of their careers with a team outside of the "big markets." And they make the top of this list.

    But first, a loose definition of "small market."

    Obviously, the big cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston don't count. St. Louis and San Francisco have to be on the list too.

    So do certain franchises, no matter how large or small, that broke the bank to win a championship. Oakland may be "small market," but when Charlie Finley was running the club in the early 1970s, they shouldn't be lumped in with today's Pittsburgh Pirates as "small market."

    The same goes for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks or 1997 Florida Marlins who were not shy about spending tens of millions of dollars to secure a pennant.

    And since there were only eight teams in each league before 1961, it's hard to say that any of those clubs were "small market", to be on this list, you have to have played the bulk of your career AFTER the majors started expanding and markets became more watered down.

    Let the debate begin...

No. 25: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

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    When talking about small market, you have to include someone from the Tampa Bay Rays. Even if their history is only just over a decade old.

    The past three seasons, the Rays have been able to out do the sports two largest markets, the Yankees and Red Sox, but now that several of their stars are up for free agency, we'll see start to see if they can be truly considered "small market."

    Even if he is a big fish in a little pond, Longoria would be a star on any team.

    He won Rookie of the Year, coincidently, the same season that the Rays made their playoff, ALCS, and World Series debut. And in that World Series, the rookie third baseman hit four home runs and drove in eight RBIs as the Rays upset the defending world champion Red Sox.

    Since then, all he's done is win two Gold Gloves, earn two more All Star spots, and become one of the best players in the American League.

No. 24: Barry Zito, Oakland Athletics

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    Zito may have left Oakland for the other side of the Bay in 2007, but before then he was part of the small market, Moneyball A's.

    Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, Mark Mulder and others could probably warrant a spot on this list, but Zito was the best of the bunch.

    In 2002, he the tall lefty went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and took home the Cy Young Award, two years after he was AL Rookie of the Year. In a five year stretch, from 2002-06, he won 78 games for Oakland, earned three All-Star selections and pitched three gems in the postseason.

No. 23: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

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    For a long time, the Minnesota Twins have been one of the founding fathers of the "Small Market Club."

    Less than a decade ago, the Twins were the number one team targeted by Bud Selig for the dreaded contraction.

    Despite their hot seat, the Twins have achieved more than any other small market franchise since the turn of the century, reaching the postseason six of the last nine years.

    And although they've shipped away one of their truly great players, Johan Santana, they made sure to lock up their poster boy and hometown hero, Joe Mauer.

    He may be only 27 years old, but he has "Hall of Famer" written all over him.

    Mauer already has three batting titles, an MVP, three consecutive Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances.

No. 22: Jim Thome, Cleveland Indians

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    Since he left the franchise he debuted with, Thome has bounced around with three larger sized markets, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

    But before 2003, Thome was a Cleveland Indian for more than a decade. They weren't quite the Rachel Phelps owned "Major League" (motion picture) version of the franchise, but they were still pint-sized compared to the Yankees and Red Sox.

    First as a shortstop, then a third baseman, and finally a first baseman, Thome hit 334 home runs and went to three All Star games. During his stay the Tribe reached the postseason six times and won two pennants.

    A native of Peoria, Illinois, Thome fit nicely into the Midwestern "small market" along Lake Erie. Not surprisingly, he also fit in nicely this season with the Minnesota Twins.

No. 21: Vladamir Guererro, Montreal Expos

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    It doesn't get more small market than the late 1990s, early 2000s Montreal Expos.

    Guererro was the star of those nearly contracted club. From 1998 to 2002, Guererro averaged 39 homers, better than 100 RBI, hit well above .300 all north of the border where few people took notice.

    He didn't stay "small market" forever, leaving via free agency for Southern California, where he immediately won the AL MVP in 2004.

    His career in the relative obscurity of Montreal was shorter than most of the entries on this list. But he carried the small market flag for more than half a decade.

No. 20: Larry Walker, Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies

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    The Canadian-born outfielder probably doesn't have enough on his career resume to reach Cooperstown. He only collected 373 home runs and 2,160 hits.

    Those are great number, but probably not Hall of Fame numbers, especially in his home run happy era.

    Still, Walker was an outstanding, COMPLETE player.

    He won seven physical-appearance-defying Gold Gloves, a home run title, three batting titles and twice was a  serious threat to be the first NL Triple Crown winner since 1930.

    And since he did that with Montreal and Colorado, he gets a spot on this list.

No. 19: Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Doc Halladay may be in "big market" Philadelphia now, and have been exception in just one season there, throwing a playoff no-hitter and cruising to a Cy Young Award in 2010.

    But he was with the small-market Blue Jays. Remember, he came up with the club the same year, 1999, they dealt their big time free agent acquisition, Roger Clemens, to the Yankees.

    He was somewhat a late bloomer, not becoming a full-time starter until age 25, his fifth season. But beginning in 2002, he became a force.

    A Cy Young in 2003, another runner-up five years later, and 130 wins during an eight-year stretch.

No. 18: Dave Winfield, San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins, Toronto Blue Jays

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    If you take away his somewhat ill-fated decision to sign with the New York Yankees in 1981, Winfield spent just about all of his career in a handful of small markets.

    As a member of the expansion Padres throughout the entire 1970s, Winfield was a four-time All Star and won a Gold Glove in right field.

    Skipping past those years in New York, Winfield was a key part of the Blue Jays world title in 1992, then returned home to Minnesota for two seasons with the Twins.

    And he finished up with another small market, the Cleveland Indians.

No. 17: Paul Molitor, Milwaukee Breweres, Tornoto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins

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    Molitor spent his entire career with small market clubs.

    And he was a star with each one.

    The righty was first and foremost a Brewer: he played 15 years in Milwaukee, collecting over 2,200 hits. 

    And with the Blue Jays, he was an essential part of their repeat World Championship, winning the World Series MVP.

    And like fellow Minnesotans, Dave Winfield and Joe Mauer, Molitor soon donned a Twins uniform. There, as a 40-year-old he led the AL in hits in 1996, eventually collecting his 3,000th.

No. 16: Brooks Robinson, Baltimore Orioles

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    One of the earliest Baltimore Orioles, Robinson joined a fairly inept franchise in 1955. The Orioles had just moved from St. Louis two years earlier.

    But after a decade of average play, the Orioles won their first World Series in 1966 and became a dynasty of the late 1960s, early 1970s. He was the MVP of the Orioles second World Series title in 1970. 

    Whether the club was in first or last place, Robinson was the league's best defensive infielder: he won 16 Gold Gloves, to go along with his 268 home runs and 1964 AL MVP.

    Declaring Robinson "the greatest third baseman of all time" is not easy, but he is certainly in the conversation.

    To do that in Baltimore in the 1960s makes him a small market legend.

No. 15: Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies

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    Lost in the eye-popping numbers posted by Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire (no comment), during the late 1990s, early 2000s was the greatness of Todd Helton.

    In addition to his three Gold Gloves, the Rockies first baseman came even closer to a National League Triple Crown than his teammate Larry Walker.

    In 2000, Helton led the NL in RBI, hit .372, and came up just eight homers shy of league leader Sammy Sosa.

    Injuries have slowed him down since 2005, but after 14 years in Colorado (a franchise that is only 18 years old) he is without a doubt the greatest Rockie in history.

No. 14: Rod Carew, Minnesota Twins

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    Like Kirby Puckett, Carew was only a "small market" star for 12 seasons. He left the Twins in 1979 and joined the California Angels.

    But during his dozen seasons in the Twin Cities, Carew was arguably the "Pete Rose of the American League."

    Carew could play any position in the infield, but was mostly a second baseman and first baseman. At either spot, he was a safe bet to collect 200 hits in a season.

    He also won seven AL batting crowns in a 10-year stretch with the Twins and hit .334 during his entire career with the club.

No. 13: Kirby Puckett, Minnesota Twins

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    The Twins may have claimed two World Series titles in a five-year stretch, but they were still small market. Especially back in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

    Puckett might not have the fabled number of 3,000 hits or a handful of batting titles. Nevertheless, he made the Hall of Fame despite his truncated, 12-year career.

    And his play in the 1991 postseason is legendary.

    There were "greater" players, but no small market team ever had a better icon to rally around than the stocky center fielder.

No. 12: Robin Yount, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Yount (and a few other entries on this list) move up a few places for spending their entire 20-plus-year career in the same uniform: that makes them "small market" deities.

    Yount won two MVPs in an eight year stretch (incredibly, one as a shortstop, one as a center fielder), led the Brewers to their only World Series ever.

    He collected 3,154 hits, 960 extra-base hits, and earned a Gold Glove at shortstop.

No. 11: Harmon Killebrew, Minnesota Twins

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    A quarter-century before Kirby Puckett became the centerpiece of Minnesota baseball, this Idaho native was the face of the Twins.

    He wasn't a complete player like contemporaries Willie Mays and Carl Yastrzemski: Killebrew was basically a home run hitter and not much else.

    But there wasn't a better right handed (only) power hitter in the American League: he won the league home run title six times in 11 years.

    Hitting 573 home runs, mostly during the 1960s, is an outstanding achievement.

    And, until Alex Rodriguez came along, only Babe Ruth hit more home runs in American League history.

No. 10: Cal Ripken, Baltimore Orioles (Tie)

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    2,632 consecutive games played. 3,184 hits.  431 home runs. Two MVPs, two Gold Gloves.

    Stats pretty much say enough about Cal Ripken. He spent his entire 21 seasons with the Orioles, in a time when the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, and other big clubs were spending massive amounts of money to acquire big time free agents.

No. 10: Tony Gwynn, San Diego Padres (Tie)

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    Like Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn spent every year from 1982 to 2001 in the same uniform.

    And in a way, he was just as consistent as "The Iron Man" Ripken.

    After his rookie season, Gwynn never hit less than .309 an  won an incredible eight batting titles in 14-year stretch.

    Even more incredible, he struck out 40 times a season just once in his career and he only whiffed 434 times in 9,288 atbats. By comparison, Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Reynolds struck out 434 times the past two seasons!

    Arguably the finest pure hitter since Ted Williams, Gwynn's career .338 average is the highest of anyone to play in the 21st century.

No. 9: Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Stargell spent 21 years in Pittsburgh, three seasons longer than Roberto Clemente did.

    He wasn't as great a player as Clemente. For the most part, he the same type of power-hitting only player as Harmon Killebrew: both are the leading home run hitters in franchise history, both won late-career MVPs on their way to a division title and both hit well below .300.

    But Stargell was the leader of the 1979 World Championship team, both on and off the field. And is the only man to win the League MVP, LCS MVP, and World Series MVP in the same season.

    And although he passed away in 2001, Stargell is still a part of every Pirates home game. His enormous in-his-stance statute stands out PNC Park, 100 yards from Clemente's.

No. 8: Trevor Hoffman, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time. But a good portion of that legacy is due to his postseason dominance.

    Trevor Hoffman didn't have the good fortune to play on a team that was in the playoffs every season.

    Still, if you look past Rivera, Hoffman was the probably the premier closer in history.

    His 601 saves are best of all time. Twice he was a Cy Young runner up; not even Rivera can say that.

    And nine times he saved 40 or more games.

    Fittingly, after his career in San Diego ended, he headed north to Milwaukee to continue on as a "small market" superstar.

No. 7: Jim Palmer, Baltimore Orioles

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    When free agency began in 1975, the Orioles became a clear cut "small market" team.

    They did weren't players in the open market like the Yankees, who signed Reggie Jackson away from the Orioles in 1976.

    Still, from start to finish of the 1970s, the league's best pitcher was without question Palmer.

    From 1970 to 1978, the righty won 20 games every year but 1974. He won three Cy Young awards in a four year stretch and during the decade won 186 games, all for the Orioles.

No. 6: George Brett, Kansas City Royals

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    Like Robin Yount, Brett leapfrogs a few other "greats" on this list because he played 21 seasons in the same small market. And considering how small market Kansas City has become in today's game, Brett's longevity and production in the same uniform is incredible.

    Brett was the face of the franchise as the Royals became a powerhouse in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

    He nearly hit .400 in 1980 and won the MVP and led the club to its first pennant that same season.

    The third baseman would finish with a Gold Glove, 1,119 extra base hits, and became the only man to win a batting title in three different decades.

No. 5: Frank Robinson, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians

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    Although it's hard to make the same case for the "Big Red Machine" (that's why Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan aren't on this list), the Reds of the 1950s were definitely small market.

    Especially compared to St. Louis, the Giants, the Mets and the Dodgers.

    Robinson spent a decade in Cincinnati, won a Rookie of the Year award in 1956, a NL MVP in 1961, and hit 324 home runs.

    He didn't slow down switching leagues either, after being traded to the Orioles, another small market team. Robinson won the MVP and Triple Crown in his first year, 1966, leading the club to its first World Series victory.

    The powerful right hander, who finished his career as the fourth leading home run hitter in history, spent six seasons in Baltimore. 

    Robinson closed out his career as the player manager of the Cleveland Indians: the quintessential small market franchise of the 1970s.

No. 4: Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

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    If Ichiro had only played his entire career in the Major Leagues, he would have been the greatest threat yet to Pete Rose's 4,256 career hit total.

    In ten seasons he's collected 2,244 hits, scored 1,086 runs, and earned an MVP and two batting titles. But it's the consistency that makes him a top 10 entry.

    Every season he's been in the majors, he's hit tallied more than 200 hits, won a Gold Glove and averaged .331.

    Although the Marines paid huge money to acquire him, Seattle is still one of the most obvious "small markets." To be arguably the best position player in the majors during the 2000s, in the steroid era, while the Yankees and Red Sox pay roll usually nears $200 million, makes him worth of the top five. 

No. 3: Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The greatest arm in history. 12 consecutive Gold Gloves. 3,000 hits. Four batting titles. The 1966 NL MVP.

    If that wasn't enough, consider what he did on baseball grandest stage. As a member of the Pirates, Clemente played in two World Sereis. Both went the full seven games.

    In each of those games, Clemente hit safely. And 11 years after winning his first title, Clemente carried the Pirates to victory in the 1971 World Series against the defending champion Orioles. 12 hits, two home runs, and .414 average earned him the series MVP.

    Clemente is as much of an icon and cherished figure in Pittsburgh as any athlete ever. If that doesn't signify a "small market star" nothing does.

No. 2: Ken Griffey Jr, Seattle Marines

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    Ichiro has been a great player for the Mariners. He's actually collected 401 more hits than Griffey Jr, and won just as many Gold Gloves.

    But in terms of STAR power, Griffey has no equal.

    Yes he won an MVP, hit 413 home runs, drove in 1,213 runs and won 10 Gold Gloves for the Mariners.

    But it was his smile, his love for the game, and his unbelievable over-the-wall catches that endeared him to millions of baseball fans, outside of the Pacific Northwest.

    Griffey moved on to the Reds and White Sox in the 21st century. But, from start to finish, for the entire decade of the 1990s, he was without question the American League's best player.

No. 1: Hank Aaron, Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Stats won't justify his spot on this list—you know about the home run and RBI—so words will have to do.

    If Milwaukee is a small market today, then half a century ago, it was certainly true. And he spent a dozen seasons with the Brewers, a market small enough that they had to move to Atlanta after just 14 years in Milwaukee.

    But even Atlanta, in the late 1960s, early 1970s could not be considered a "big market." Ted Turner didn't own that Braves team. Fittingly, he returned to north to Milwaukee to close out his career in 1974 and 1975.

    During the reign of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, Aaron was just as great as those big-city icons.

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