Tuesday March 1st, 2005

Los Angeles closer Eric Gagne sprains a knee ligament in Dodgers' camp and the team holds its collective breath. Mr. Game Over, of course, gives Los Angeles that end-game feeling of invincibility that is irreplaceable. Gagne should turn out to be just fine and will be ready for Opening Day, so Los Angeles fans can resume normal breathing.

But is Gagne the most important player for the Dodgers? His injury scare made me think about what it means to be indispensable. I have a hard time bestowing such a lofty title on a guy who pitches only 82 1/3 innings, and when more than half of his hallowed save chances -- the two- and three-run varieties -- could be converted with minimal difference in success rate by a league-average pitcher. But that's more of an observation on the defined role of a closer than on Gagne, who has been terrific.

J.D. Drew is more likely to define the Dodgers' season than Gagne. He showed last season with Atlanta that when healthy he is an MVP candidate. But it is the only season in his career with such evidence.

Yes, I know Randy Johnson means so much to the Yankees, especially in October, and Curt Schilling is the cornerstone of the Red Sox and Albert Pujols is the rock of the Cardinals, but those teams have the resources and star power to survive without them. With that in mind, based on their relative importance to their team's chances of contending, I'll give you my list of the five most indispensable players in baseball:

1. Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants. The guy's production is off the charts. Put him on any team in baseball with the possible exceptions of Colorado, Kansas City and Tampa Bay and that team could contend for the wild card. Take him off the Giants and they are just another decent ballclub. With him, they are the favorites to win the NL West.

2. Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins. He means to the Twins what Pedro Martinez did to the Red Sox in his prime. On the days he pitches, the Twins are the best team in baseball. Santana boosts their confidence on the days before he pitches -- to know he is sitting there to stop a losing streak or extend a winning one -- and he gives manager Ron Gardenhire the comfort of knowing his bullpen will get a chance to rest every fifth day. If young sluggers Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer have breakout seasons, the Twins won't have to lean on Santana as much as they did through the second half of last season.

3. Jim Thome, Philadelphia Phillies. He's your prototypical middle-of-the-order hitter who can carry the team for stretches, and if you take him out of this lineup, it creates an enormous hole. Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu are not the kinds of players who need that kind of added responsibility. Like the Cardinals last year, the Phillies have more quantity than quality in their starting rotation, and they need Thome's presence and power to define the club.

4. Miguel Tejada, Baltimore Orioles. No, the Orioles are not going to win the World Series with or without Tejada. But he plays a premier position, shortstop, every inning of the season and does so with passion and energy that is contagious. Those 150 RBIs are nice, too.

5. Lance Berkman, Houston Astros. Berkman sneaks onto the list because of the departures of Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent from the fifth-highest scoring offense in the NL. Houston has done nothing (so far) to pick up the slack. Berkman tore up a knee over the winter and may miss at least the first month of the season. If it turns out to be much longer than that -- as you might expect given the setbacks Aaron Boone encountered last year from his knee injury -- Houston could have serious problems hanging with the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.