(This is Part 2 of the article: ARod or Griffey? Ruth or Gehrig? Each Franchise’s Greatest Players.)
Here are the rules I established for myself:
1. Only a player’s statistics and achievements while he wore that franchise’s uniform count.
2. The team’s success will be weighed with his overall statistics.
3. It is hard to gauge the overall worth of players from the Dead Ball era, but I will do my best.
4. Character counts and try not to let scandal play too large a role in deciding who makes the list
Without any further ado, here is the National League
Batter: Luis Gonzalez, 1999-2006
Gonzalez is the D-Backs franchise leader in just about every important category, and his 2001 season (.325-57-142) jumps off the page at you. Finally, the extraordinary circumstances of beating the best reliever ever in Game 7 of the World Series propels him.
Pitcher: Randy Johnson, 1999-2004, 2007-2008
Another no-brainer. Here are Johnson’s averages for the 4 Cy Young Award years (2001-2004): 20-7, 2.48, 354K. That might be the best four-year stretch for any pitcher in baseball history. Johnson is also the first player on this list to be on it for two different teams, a pretty impressive achievement.
Batter: Hank Aaron, 1954-1974
There have been several great hitters who have worn the Braves’ uniform over the years (Eddie Matthews, Chipper Jones, Dale Murphy) but Aaron is clearly the greatest. The numbers, the consistency, the production are unparalleled. He even has a career postseason batting average of .362. But this observation seals it. In his 21 years with the Braves, he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting 13 times, in the top five 7 times. And never won. I think that is Aaron’s legacy – under-appreciation.
Pitcher: Greg Maddux, 1993-2003
It’s hard to pick against Warren Spahn here, because he won 20 games 13 (!) times with the Braves, with 7 of those seasons occurring after he turned 35. So it must take one heck of a pitcher, a surefire hall-of famer to eclipse him. Maddux is the man. It is almost impossible to understand, even comprehend, how Maddux accomplished what he did given his physical talent. His is one of the great brains ever to play the game of baseball. Here are the accomplishments: 3 Cy Young Awards with the Braves, an 18-9 average record with an ERA of 2.63. All of this during one of the most outrageous offensive explosions in the history of baseball. His 1994 ERA of 1.56 was almost 3 full runs below the league average. Unbelievable.
*A special note for John Smoltz, who was intimidating and successful as a starter and a reliever almost at will. Many people find him to be more impressive than Maddux, and that is a good case. I prefer Maddux, though Smoltz deserves attention.
Batter: Ernie Banks, 1953-1971
For a team that doesn’t win anything, the Cubs have had some incredible players. Cap Anson’s achievements for the 19th century are among the greatest of that era. Hack Wilson’s short Cubs tenure was impressive. They have 2 players who have hit 500 home runs in a Cubs’ uniform! Banks is one of those, and his longevity, his power numbers as an infielder (he led the league in extra base hits four times), and his overall iconic status amongst Cubs fans gives him the nod over Sammy Sosa, though Sammy’s teams were more successful. The steroid cloud works against Sammy, too.
Pitcher: Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, 1904-1912, 1916
Brown is one of those near-mythical dead ball pitchers. He averaged 23 wins per year in his prime, with an ERA of 1.51, which means that he was unhittable even by those standards. His 26-6, 1.04 year in 1904 is one of those eye-opening years. And the Cubs went to 4 World Series (4!) and won 2 while he was their ace. With apologies to Ferguson Jenkins, Three-Finger is the one.
Batter: Johnny Bench, 1967-1983
Okay, I admit that I am stretching beyond my rules a little bit with Bench because I am taking his leadership and defensive ability into strong consideration. He is the Reds’ leader in home runs and RBI, and his power ability as a catcher overrides his poor batting average. In Bench’s defense, he did win 2 MVPS. He makes it over Frank Robinson on longevity, and over Pete Rose because much of Rose’s accolades rest on his extra-longevity, and Rose’s achievements just pale in comparison to Bench’s
Pitcher: Eppa Rixey, 1921-1933
Okay, the Reds, the oldest franchise in all of baseball, have ONE hall of fame pitcher. And it’s Rixey. Case closed.
Batter: Todd Helton, 1997-present
Though Helton has been saddled with injuries for the last four years, he is still Colorado’s franchise leader in most batting categories – and his .328 career average and 1.002 OPS are third amongst all active players. His 2000 season (.372-42-147, 1.162 OPS) is one of the greatest single seasons in the modern era. I hope that he is able to resolve his back issues and return to his rightful place among the games’ elite.
Pitcher: Jeff Francis, 2004-present
Colorado’s pitchers, in the franchise’s history, have struggled. Francis, too, is struggling this year, but the beginning of his Rockies’ career is enough to earn him this nod. His performance in the 2007 NL playoffs (He was 2-0 with a 2.13 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings) is the clincher.
Batter: Miguel Cabrera, 2003-2007
The young star of the Marlins’ 2003 World Championship team averaged .318-32-116 in his four years with the team. He also finished in the top-5 in MVP voting twice. He beats out Gary Sheffield on well-roundedness as a hitter (not as a fielder, because he is mediocre at best).
Pitcher: Dontrelle Willis, 2003-2007
There’s something bizarre about the Marlins trading their two best-ever players in the same trade, and getting better as a team. Maybe it’s evidence that baseball isn’t quite the individualized sport we make it out to be. Of all of the Marlins’ great young pitchers (Beckett, Penny, Burnett, Nenn), Willis is the one who was the strongest while a Marlin. His ROY campaign in 2003 helped propel the team to the World Series, and his 22 wins in 2005 season are the most by any pitcher in the last five seasons.
Batter: Jeff Bagwell, 1991-2005
Bagwell was a dangerous and smart power hitter who has slipped from the public consciousness a little bit. He never had the 3000 hit or 500 home run moment of some of his peers, but he was an equally outstanding player. He was a 40-30 guy twice, twice scored more than 140 runs and batted .368 with 39-116 in 1994, when he also won the MVP. Had that season continued, and had Bagwell played 160 games he was on pace for 56 HR and 167 RBI and we’d remember him as a likely hall-of-famer. He gets my vote.
Pitcher: Roy Oswalt, 2001-present
Again, the Traveling Player Syndrome hits Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens here. Clemens won a Cy Young Award in his one good season with the Astros; Ryan was a reliable number 2-3 starter for them in his late 30’s and early 40’s, but he never won more than 16 games. Oswalt, on the other hand, almost single-handedly pitched his team to the World Series in 2005, has won 20 games twice, finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting 5 times in his 7-year career, and would have been a shoo-in ROY in 2001 (14-3, 2.73 ERA) if it hadn’t been for Albert Pujols.
Los Angeles/Brooklyn Dodgers
Batter: Duke Snider, 1947-1962
It is tempting to select Jackie Robinson or Pee Wee Reese here, as a nod to history, and to rightfully recognize their roles as the leaders of the great Dodger teams of the 1950’s. But it is Snider who was the on-the-field star. He batted over .300 with 40+ home runs and 120 RBI, while leading the league each year in runs, from 1953-1955, and averaged 31-101 for his career. Snider also had 4 home runs in the 1952 and 1955 World Series. He was the best pure baseball player on a tremendous team.
Pitcher: Sandy Koufax, 1955-1966
I would start Koufax if I had to win one game for all of the marbles. Yes, he was a flash in the pan, but what a flash. Yes, I acknowledge that he pitched in a pitcher’s park in an era that was bad for offense, but he was still THAT good. Between 1963-1966 he won 3 Triple Crowns and Cy Young Awards, led the league in ERA each year, threw 4 no-hitters, including a perfect game, struck out 1228 batters (including a then-record 382 in 1962), won two World Series, surrendering 5 runs and striking out 54 in 48 IP. Case closed.
Milwaukee Brewers/Seattle Pilots
Batter: Robin Yount, 1974-1993
One of the most consistent and dangerous hitters of his era. He didn’t frighten in any one particular way, but hit for average, for line-drive power (he hit at least 10 triples 4 times), he scored runs and collected a ton of hits (3142). And he is one of the few HOF players to excel at shortstop, the toughest infield position, and centerfield, the toughest outfield position.
Pitcher: Teddy Higuera, 1985-1994
This was a really hard one. The Brewers haven’t had a lot of stud pitchers. If they play their dollars right, maybe this will be CC Sabathia in a couple of years. Jim Slaton and Mike Caldwell are the Brewers leaders in most pitching categories, and Ben Sheets has certainly been astounding at times when he was healthy. Dan Plesac had a great run as the Brewers’ closer. But Higuera gets the nod, because, honestly, he was the most consistently above-average of all Brewers pitchers.
New York Mets
Batter: Mike Piazza, 1998-2005
This is a tough pick, because Piazza essentially makes it because he has the best individual seasons in Mets’ history. There are a handful of great players who have worn the Mets’ uniform – Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, David Wright, Keith Hernandez, Carlos Delgado – but often at the end of their career. The same is true for Piazza, who left the Mets a shadow of his excellent self. However, the Mets did have him for three years of his prime, and those years get him on the list.
Pitcher: Tom Seaver, 1967-1977, 1983
This one is much easier. One of the best pitchers in NL history, Seaver won 3 Cy Young awards, was named Rookie of the Year, pitched in 2 World Series, and averaged 18 wins a year with the Mets.
Batter: Mike Schmidt, 1972-1989
On the short list of greatest third basemen of all time, Schmidt was voted Player of the Decade for the 1980’s by many publications. He had great power as a hitter (6 Silver Sluggers) and range as a fielder (10 Gold Gloves). Also a 3-time MVP, he’s the man.
Pitcher: Steve Carlton, 1972-1986
Carlton’s 1972 season has become the stuff of legend. His 27 wins were 46% of the teams’. His 1.97 ERA was a full run lower than any other player’s on the team, and was a run and a half below the team average. He accounted for a third of the entire team’s strikeouts. But Carlton was a stud his entire Phillies career. He won 20 games 5 times and won 4 Cy Young Awards; and he pitched very well in both Phillies’ WS appearances, including their lone 1980 victory.
Batter: Roberto Clemente, 1955-1972
Simply one of the best players of his era. Clemente hit for average, had gap-power (he was a doubles and triples machine), had great speed and instincts, and was one of the greatest fielders of all-time. More important, he was leader, and the first Latin American player to emerge as a superstar in baseball. His statistics and achievements are very similar to Honus Wagner’s, the other player that I strongly considered here. I chose Clemente over Wagner for two reasons: the difference in eras, especially the challenge of hitting modern pitchers, and his legacy as a hero. Having written that, Wagner is absolutely deserving and was one of the greatest players of the early days of baseball.
Pitcher: Babe Adams, 1909-1925
The Pirates are surprisingly thin at pitcher. Vic Willis is their lone Hall of Fame pitcher, but he only played 4 years in Pittsburgh. Bob Friend, Doug Drabek, Roy Face, and Sam Leever all had moments of glory. But I picked Babe Adams because he was the longest tenured quality pitcher that the team has had. And his 1909 World Series, where the Pirates defeated Ty Cobb and the Tigers was fantastic. He threw 3 complete game victories, surrendering just four runs. If you have someone better, I’d love to hear it.
St. Louis Cardinals
Batter: Stan Musial, 1941-1963
There is a statue of Stan the Man in front of the ballpark in St. Louis. Why? 3 WS titles, 3 MVP awards, 7 batting titles, 6 times leading the league in total bases, 7 times in OPS. Perhaps most important, it can be argued that no player in baseball history, not even Hank Aaron played at a higher level for a longer period of time than Musial. Now, with the Cardinals one of the finest, most successful franchises in history, extremely honorable mentions go to Rogers Hornsby, Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith, and Joe Medwick.
Pitcher: Bob Gibson, 1959-1975
A fearsome competitor, Gibson was also one of the smartest players ever to play baseball, and was the leader of the great Cardinals’ dynasty of the 1960’s. A 9-time all star, and 2 time MVP winner, his fans debate what was his greatest accomplishment: his 1968 season (22-9, 1.12!! ERA) (Go to baseball-reference.com or retrosheet.com and look at the linescores of Gibson’s games to figure out how he lost 9 games. It’s fascinating.) or his performance in the 1967 World Series (3-0 with all complete games wins and 10 strikeouts in the clincher at Fenway Park).
San Diego Padres
Batter: Tony Gwynn, 1982-2001
Gwynn’s career average of .338 is the highest of any player who’s played primarily in the last 50 years. He also won 8 batting titles, including 4 straight towards the end of his career in the late 1990’s. Gwynn has become a San Diego icon, as he went to college at San Diego St., and now coaches the Aztecs. There aren’t very many players who are more associated with a city than Tony Gwynn.
Pitcher: Trevor Hoffman, 1993-present
The all-time saves leader, Hoffman has certainly made life a little easier for the managers he has had over the last 15 years. In 1998, he finished 2nd in Cy Young voting, posting a 1.48 ERA, 53 saves (at the time the NL record), and helped lead the Padres to the World Series. He, too, has reached near-iconic status in San Diego.
San Francisco/New York Giants
Batter: Willie Mays, 1951-1972
Mays’ is officially The Greatest Living Ballplayer, elected by whomever picks that sort of thing. As a child, I was always amazed at the look that came into people of my father’s generation’s eyes when they spoke of him. Apparently, Mays was truly superhuman on the ballfield. From 1964-1975, he could be counted on to score and drive 100 runs, bat .300, hit 75 extra base hits, and catch everything hit to him.
*There is a big asterisk here, however, and that is Barry Bonds. If Bonds is cleared of steroid suspicion, he has to be the Giants’ representative, because he was so dominant and frightening as a batter, and his career numbers are so mind-boggling.
Pitcher: Christy Mathewson, 1900-1916
With apologies and respect to Carl Hubbell and Juan Marichal, Mathewson is the Giants’ greatest pitcher, and might be their finest ever player. (He was, reputedly, the anti-Barry Bonds.) He was a fantastic pitcher, for certain, winning 30 games in a season twice, posting 3 season ERAs under 1.50. But it is his World Series numbers that are so impressive. In 1905 he went 3-0, all complete game shutouts, as the Giants beat the A’s. He never won another title, losing in 1911, 1912, and 1913, but his career World Series ERA is 0.97 and he only put 86 men on base in 101.2 innings. He must have been really, really tough.
Washington Nationals/Montreal Expos
Batter: Vladimir Guerrero, 1996-2003
Andre Dawson was a dangerous power hitter, and Tim Raines was one of the most dangerous players on the basepaths in his time, but Guerrero is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of talent. He hits for average (tops all time for the Expos), power, and is flat-out torture on pitchers who try to get by on junk and location. His 162 game splits of .322-36-118 are impressive.
Pitchers: Dennis Martinez, 1986-1993
I know, I thought this was the wrong Martinez, too, but Dennis had the same ERA as Pedro and won nearly twice as many games for the Expos. He twice posted sub-2.50 ERA’s, and did have that perfect game.
*Pedro Martinez is one of the best pitchers not on this list, and that is because, in this free agency era, he pitched for several teams. In baseball, where history is so treasured, longevity is important.
That’s the list. I hope that you enjoy it. I find it interesting how clumped the historical talent is in the National League. And I look forward to writing this article again in 25 or 50 years when those expansion teams have generated some history.