Tuesday April 5th, 2011

Some of the biggest names in baseball don't play these days. Barry Bonds is on trial, Roger Clemens is warming in the courtroom bullpen, Ken Griffey Jr. just spent his first Opening Day as a retired player and Stephen Strasburg is hurt. All of them were major drawing cards, which leaves us with . . . who?

Who are the most compelling players in 2011? To answer that question, ask yourself this one: What players have a big national profile and are remote-proof? (You're skimming channels and happen upon somebody who is batting or pitching and you immediately put down the remote.)

Hollywood might call it the "it" factor. There is something about the player that forces you to pay attention, whether it means watching televised games, buying a ticket even if he doesn't play for your favorite team or reading about him. Indeed, compel derives from the Latin for "to force."

You might be surprised (or worse, might not be) to find that baseball lacks many such outsized personalities as compared to recent history. Go back 10 years, when the Steroid Era helped bring about the greatest period of power hitting the game ever has seen. The game was loaded with massive sluggers but also strikeout pitchers and polarizing personalities.

To compare how drawing cards in the game have changed in the past decade, I compiled two lists: the Most Compelling Players of 2001 and 2011.

This is not just about the best players or the most exciting players, so you won't find Hanley Ramirez or Andrew McCutchen on this year's list. (Neither has enough of a national profile.) It's about the kind of player who drives TV ratings and magazine sales, so that means appealing to casual fans, not just those who appreciate finer baseball skills. It's about the good guys, bad guys or just plain off-center guys who have a combination of game and personality that compels the country to take notice.

Here's what the list would look like from 2001:

1. Barry Bonds, Giants

2. Sammy Sosa, Cubs

3. Randy Johnson, Diamondbacks

4. Pedro Martinez, Red Sox

5. Alex Rodriguez, Rangers

6. Roger Clemens, Yankees

7. Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks

8. Derek Jeter, Yankees

9. Kerry Wood, Cubs

10. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners

Honorable Mention: Roberto Alomar, Jason Giambi, Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Greg Maddux, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Mariano Rivera, Gary Sheffield, Frank Thomas.

Wow. That is some supreme star power -- with the added thump of half of the 10 most compelling players residing in New York, Chicago and Boston. The list is loaded with players both beloved and hated and players not afraid to speak up.

When you see Kerry Wood in the top 10 and Greg Maddux left out, you begin to understand the meaning of the list. Wood was 24 years old and striking out 11 batters per nine innings. Maddux was still terrific, but he was not a strikeout pitcher and was just past his prime. Griffey, McGwire and Thomas all were hurt, which keeps them out of the top 10, but they were still were Page 1 players.

In past years, players such as Mark Fidrych, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill Lee, Joe Charbonneau and Jose Canseco -- none of them are Hall of Famers -- would be on the Most Compelling Players list, just to give you a better idea of what's in play here.

What about now? The list this year can't compare to the 2001 list. It's more similar to the 2001 Honorable Mentions in terms of star power. Judge for yourself.

Here are the best attractions in baseball -- the Most Compelling Players of 2011:

1. Tim Lincecum, Giants. It's the undersized body, the whirling delivery, the hair, the strikeouts, The Freak nickname, the slacker youthfulness and now the World Series ring.

2. Josh Hamilton, Rangers. The backstory of fighting the demons of drug addiction is poignant, but Hamilton also is a 240-pound outfielder who scores from second base on infield grounders and hits 500-foot home runs. He has a lot of Mickey Mantle in him.

3. Brian Wilson, Giants. I have no idea how he is not lefthanded. Wilson is a brilliant self-promoter, friend of Charlie Sheen, national product endorser and sought-after talk show guest bedecked with signature facial hair - a ridiculously thick and dark hedgerow of a beard. He also has a violent delivery and an upper-90s fastball.

4. Aroldis Chapman, Reds. Nothing subtle here. Even the most casual fan understands the sheer entertainment value of throwing a baseball as hard as anybody who ever lived. Chapman makes pitch speeds look like cheesy FM radio stations. (You're listening to Power 105.1 FM!)

5. Roy Halladay, Phillies. The guy delivers big moments. In his first season with a contender, Halladay won 21 games, threw a perfect game and threw a postseason no-hitter. He also has a Nolan Ryan-like dignified presence, especially having overcome early career failures.

6. Jason Heyward, Braves. At 250 pounds, Heyward has a physically imposing presence, but also a magnetic smile, a knack for the dramatic (he and Kaz Matsui are the only players to homer on Opening Day in each of their first two seasons) and the appeal of being so youthful. Not 22 years old until August, Heyward is younger than Blake Griffin, Cam Newton and Christian Colon, the Royals' first-round pick, and fourth overall, in the last draft.

7. Felix Hernandez, Mariners. The list is starting to lose big-time star power, at least as far as appeal to casual fans. Hernandez is a brilliant pitcher who is fun to watch and turns only 25 years old this week. But he pitches for a bad team in the Northwest and never has pitched in a postseason game.

8. Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Perhaps we take for granted his consistency at an elite level. He has finished first or second in MVP voting seven times in his first 10 seasons. He's just not the drawing card his numbers would suggest. The intrigue about his contract, which expires after this season, does make him more compelling this year.

9. Derek Jeter, Yankees. There is no denying his star power. His replica jersey was the top seller of 2010, even in a down season when he hit .270. He might no longer be an impact player, but he has become newly fascinating now that the decline phase of his career has become such a closely watched story.

10. Bryce Harper, Nationals. Yes, a Class A player makes the list. If Hagerstown Suns games should be televised -- like some minor league starts of Strasburg last year -- I'm watching and you should, too. Harper is an 18-year-old kid with light-tower power who could be in the big leagues by the end of this season. A confident personality, and already an ambassador for the game, Harper is comfortable in the spotlight.

Strasburg, by the way, would have been number 1 or 2 on this list if he had not blown out his elbow last year. As one of the biggest drawing cards in baseball when healthy, he is sure to be high on the list whenever he makes it back from Tommy John surgery.

The top 10 is very different from what it was in 2001. None of the players are associated with controversy. None of them have hit 50 home runs. None of them have struck out 300 batters. None of them engender much dislike even among rival fans. Only Wilson might say something truly colorful. Only Jeter plays in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston.

The list is entirely subjective, so you might have others in your own Top 10. But I will give you two more levels of most compelling players -- honorable mention and, one more cut below, those who just missed the honorable mention -- to give you a sense of available star power. You will see that baseball has plenty of great players, but just not as many truly compelling players as a decade ago.

Honorable Mention: Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Cliff Lee, Evan Longoria, Ryan Howard, Joe Mauer, David Ortiz, Buster Posey, Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki.

Just Missed: Ryan Braun, Adam Dunn, Prince Fielder, Carlos Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki, Justin Upton, Joey Votto, Kevin Youkilis.

Steroids no doubt added to the "wow" factor of 2001. But what also is noticeable is the dearth of polarizing personalities, especially now that Milton Bradley and Manny Ramirez haven't been on the field enough in recent years to be relevant. Rodriguez comes the closest to a notorious profile. In 2001, Martinez, Clemens, Schilling, Bonds, Rodriguez, Sosa, Sheffield and others all provoked both loyalty and anger. Baseball has become a better game, a cleaner game and, judging by the nature of today's stars, a less controversial one.

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