So the way I tried to think of it was this: Imagine the season was starting again tomorrow and every player was thrown into an expansion draft. You are a general manager. Your owner asks you to give him your dream list, the 100 best players in the game, but the key is you have to win THIS YEAR or you will be fired, and then you will be tarred and feathered, and then you will be forced to spend 10 hours a day for two solid months listening to Steve Phillips tell you how to run a baseball team.
Point is, you better be right.
And, of course, "right" is a relative term, because putting together a list of the Top 100 baseball players is a bit like placing a "Wanted: Really angry e-mails!" ad on Craigslist.
A few other quick thoughts:
1. The list is based on everyone being healthy at the start. But I did try to take into consideration players who might not STAY healthy. In other words, Jose Reyes is healthy for the draft, but you still have to consider that he's coming off a hamstring injury and his speed is his greatest skill.
2. I also took into consideration a player's defensive position. There are a lot of good hitting first basemen, not so many good shortstops or catchers. Jason Bartlett being a good defensive shortstop puts him higher on the list than, say, Jason Bay, who is a corner outfielder.
3. This list is not finished. That's because this list could NEVER be finished. If you gave me this list right now, there is absolutely no doubt I would make 23 changes, slide players up and down, add a couple of players, take away a couple of players. And then if you gave me the list 10 minutes later, I would make 23 MORE changes. No, this list can never be finished. But, eventually, it has to be published.
I better send this in to my editor before I change it again. But I will say I do feel good about my first choice -- I didn't change that one through the entire process.
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1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals"Every hitter is human," says pitcher Zack Greinke (No. 4). "Except Pujols."
2. Joe Mauer, C, TwinsCould win his third batting title this year ... no other American League catcher in history has won even one.
3. Hanley Ramirez, SS, MarlinsAdvanced stats suggest he's better defensively than people think. Offensively, he leads the league in hitting and might have another 30-30 season.
4. Zack Greinke, SP, RoyalsThrows four plus pitches, all for strikes, leads the league with a 2.08 ERA, and has won 10 games for a team that has scored the fewest runs in the AL.
5. Chase Utley, 2B, PhilliesCrushes the ball, plays outstanding defense and, just as a fun side note, has led the league in hit-by-pitch three years running.
6. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, YankeesDisastrous first half splattered with injuries, rumors and a low batting average ... and the guy STILL has a 145 OPS+, good for seventh in the AL.
7. Tim Lincecum, SP, GiantsThe Freak is pitching even better this year (10-2, 2.27 ERA, league-leading 159 K's) than last year, when he won the Cy Young.
8. Dan Haren, SP, DiamondbacksLeague is hitting .187 against him and he has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 137-18. Baseball hasn't seen anything like that since the heyday of Pedro.
9. Johan Santana, SP, MetsHe was 2-4 with a 6.19 ERA in six June starts and people screamed that he was done. But Santana is a demon in the second half ... and sure enough he has not allowed a run in his last two starts.
10. Roy Halladay, SP, Blue JaysNot sure where he will be pitching ... but he will dominate. A handful of people in the world can throw 93-mph fastballs that sink. A handful of people can pitch with pinpoint control. One man can do both.
11. Prince Fielder, 1B, BrewersHome Run Derby champ was the youngest player to hit 50 homers in 2007, and he actually has a better on-base percentage than Joe Mauer this year.
12. Carlos Beltran, CF, MetsHampered by injuries, but he has been a durable player, and a healthy Beltran remains one of the most complete players in baseball.
13. Ryan Braun, LF, BrewersEveryone knows about his immense power, but improved plate discipline -- his .388 on-base percentage is more than 50 points higher than last year -- is taking him from star to superstar.
14. Justin Morneau, 1B, TwinsHe has already won an MVP, and he finished second last year. But he's having his best season right now -- he leads league in total bases and RBIs.
15. Evan Longoria, 3B, RaysGot off to a ridiculously good start, but has only been hitting around .200 the last six weeks or so. A nearly complete player at 23 -- one pitcher told me he's the hardest guy in the league to pitch to. Aside: He has never been caught stealing in the big leagues.
16. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red SoxA friend said, "He's having a down year." Right. His on-base percentage (.420) is second in the league, he's fourth in slugging and he's on pace for 32 homers, 112 runs, 106 RBIs.
17. Mark Teixeira, 1B, YankeesHad a very solid first half, but you kind of get the sense that by the end of the year he will have MVP numbers, and he's a terrific defensive first baseman.
18. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, TigersHas been remarkably consistent throughout his career ... he has an excellent shot at his sixth consecutive 100-RBI season, his fifth season with 33 or more home runs, his fourth season of hitting .320 or better.
19. Manny Ramirez, LF, DodgersYes, he's a pain in the neck. Yes, he had the drug suspension. Yes, he will wear on everybody sooner or later. But if you have to win this year -- he's one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
20. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, MarinersRevived at 35, he's leading the league with a .363 average and he's hitting with more power than at any point in his career. Has he already secured his place in the Hall of Fame?
21. Felix Hernandez, SP, MarinersHe's only 23, but people have been waiting for four years for him to become one of the most dominant pitchers in the game. It's happening now -- 10 wins, a 2.50 ERA and a 3.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
22. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, PadresSlumped badly going into the All-Star Game -- went 23 games without a homer. Still, he gets on base, hits with power, plays great defense ... San Diego isn't an easy place to play these days.
23. Derek Jeter, SS, YankeesOffensively he's having a vintage Jeter season -- .318 average, .395 on-base percentage, 17 stolen bases -- and, defensive stats (which have not been kind to him) show him playing short better than ever.
24. Josh Beckett, SP, Red SoxWhen he's on, he's as good as there is in baseball ... and he's been on a whole lot this year. He leads the American League with 11 victories.
25. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, GiantsKung Fu Panda plays some third, some catcher, some first, he's still only 22, he still swings at almost everything and he hits the ball HARD. One of the most fun young players in baseball today.
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26. Raul Ibanez, LF, PhilliesClass act plays the game the way you would want to teach your children to play it. At 37 he became the oldest first-time All-Star Game starter, and since coming back from injury he's been crushing the ball again.
27. Matt Cain, SP, GiantsDrysdale to Lincecum's Koufax, Cain is 11-2 with a 2.32 ERA and a league-leading three complete games.
28. Justin Verlander, SP, TigersAfter getting off track in 2008, he leads the league in K's and is back to the form that led Doug Mientkiewicz to say: "He was the second pick in the draft? Second? Who was first? And you better say Pujols."
29. Josh Johnson, SP, Marlins"Where does Florida find these guys?" asks Raul Ibanez (No. 26). A fourth-round pick, he's 6-foot-7, throws in the mid-90s and makes hitters miserable.
30. David Wright, 3B, MetsHis power has inexplicably disappeared, but he's hitting, running and playing defense as well as ever. If the power returns, he's a Top 10 player.
31. Josh Hamilton, CF, RangersFrustrating first half because of injuries and offensive struggles, but everybody's favorite baseball story appears to be healthy for the second half.
32. Ryan Howard, 1B, PhilliesHe's hitting with as much power as ever, but he gets on base quite a bit less than he did in his brilliant 2006 and '07 seasons. Heating up lately. He might strike out 200 times this year, but he's still one of the great power threats in the National League.
33. Justin Upton, RF, DiamondbacksHitting .292 this year with power, despite striking out more than once per game. Not many guys hit .300 while striking out that much. The last guy to do it? His brother, B.J., in 2007.
34. Torii Hunter, CF, AngelsOne of those solid players that teams love, and he was having the best season of his career at 33 -- power, speed, defense, you name it. He's currently out with a groin injury, though.
35. Carl Crawford, LF, RaysHitting .314, getting on base more than ever before (.374 OBP), has league-leading 46 stolen bases and plays left field like a center fielder. What's not to like?
36. Lance Berkman, 1B, AstrosGot off to a sluggish start, but he's been pounding the ball the last month or so (since June 7 he's hitting .312/.455/.619) and looks like the Berkman of old.
37. Matt Kemp, CF, DodgersComing into his own at 24, he's hitting .322 with some power (.499 slugging) and speed (20 stolen bases, 4 caught stealing). A breakout star.
38. Grady Sizemore, CF, IndiansHe had a miserable, injury-riddled first half -- it seems impossible to believe he's hitting .237 -- but I'd still take him high and take my chances. Power, speed, defense, the whole package.
39. Curtis Granderson, CF, TigersFor the last couple of years, a fun argument has been who is better -- Granderson or Sizemore. The argument is there again this year, but it's not as fun. Granderson is hitting just .254, though he does have 19 home runs and 16 steals.
40. Chris Carpenter, SP, CardinalsOnly question is health -- when he's healthy he's one of the five best pitchers in baseball. In 14 starts he's 8-3 with a 2.26 ERA and a 71-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
41. C.C. Sabathia, SP, YankeesSolid-enough first half (9-6, 3.66 ERA), but nobody was expecting solid from the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history. I suspect he'll regain his dominance.
42. Mariano Rivera, RP, YankeesThe Great Rivera has uncharacteristically given up five home runs already this year but his 44-4 strikeout-to-walk tells you that amazing cutter is still doing amazing things. Plus I'd need someone to close out the World Series.
43. Joe Nathan, RP, TwinsHis numbers since he was traded to Minnesota in 2004: 21-11, 1.77 ERA, 224 saves, 474 K's, 105 walks. He has allowed five runs all year.
44. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red SoxPower numbers are a bit down for 2008 MVP, but he again leads the league in doubles and he has been scorching hot the last month or so.
45. Ian Kinsler, 2B, RangersOvershadowed at Arizona State by Dustin Pedroia, now Kinsler makes a case as the better player. He has 22 homers, 19 stolen bases and 65 runs scored, and the numbers say he's playing excellent defense. His average is way down, though.
46. Jose Reyes, SS, MetsHard to know exactly where to put him because of his injury issues. When healthy he is, of course, one of the most exciting and unique players in the game. But how much will this injury affect his legs?
47. Brad Hawpe, RF, RockiesPeople tend to see Rocky Mountain numbers as a mirage ... but offense is actually somewhat down at Coors Field, and Hawpe is hitting .322/.399/.581.
48. Edwin Jackson, SP, TigersAlmost impossible to believe he's still only 25. Won 14 games in Tampa last year and finally seemed to be cashing in on his promise. He has come into his own in 2009 with a 2.52 ERA and the fewest hits per nine in the AL.
49. Mark Buehrle, SP, White SoxHe never changes. He has now won 10 or more games every year since 2001. Everybody knows what's coming, but it doesn't matter: With Jamie Moyer finally fading, Buehrle puts the craft in "crafty lefty."
50. Ben Zobrist, Util, RaysRemarkable first half -- .418 on-base percentage and leads the American League with a .597 slugging percentage. He played six defensive positions. Is it real? I think so. We'll see if he wears down in the second half.
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51. Victor Martinez, C/1B, IndiansHe's a great hitting catcher, but only a good-hitting first baseman -- so the Indians don't seem entirely sure what do do with him. He was hitting .400 as of May 21, but is hitting .182 since.
52. Jason Bartlett, SS, RaysWas named Tampa Bay's MVP last year even though he didn't offer much with the bat -- the Rays just love his defense and steadiness. This year, in addition to all that, he's hitting .344 with some power and has stolen 19 bases in 20 attempts.
53. Jason Bay, LF, Red SoxAveraged 29 homers and 95 RBIs the previous five seasons, but no one noticed. Now he's in Boston, on pace to hit 36 homers and drive in 128 runs, and everyone knows him.
54. John Lackey, SP, AngelsJered Weaver has been better this year -- Lackey has been hurt -- but since 2005 Lackey is 63-34 with a 3.51 ERA, and I think he's the guy in that Angels rotation.
55. Javier Vazquez, SP, BravesThe magic of Atlanta. Vazquez actually has a .500 record this year, but has a 2.86 ERA, 141 strikeouts, only 24 walks and has been about as unhittable as anyone.
56. Jon Lester, SP, Red SoxOnly guy whose record (8-7) doesn't impress much, but that's the problem of looking at wins and losses. He's striking out about 10 per nine innings and has been dominant lately (5-2, 1.75 ERA last nine starts).
57. Bobby Abreu, OF, AngelsI have long called him the most boring great player in baseball history, and with his power numbers dwindling it has never been more true. But he still works pitchers to death (.399 OBP) and steals bases (19 in 23 attempts).
58. Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue JaysHe's playing his usual brilliant defense at second base, only this year he has hit what is already a career-high 20 home runs.
59. Jermaine Dye, RF, White SoxAnother of baseball's class acts, he looked to be through at age 30. He's had a marvelous second act -- since coming to Chicago in 2004, he has averaged 34 homers a season, and he's on that pace again.
60. Jonathan Broxton, RP, DodgersHas a nagging toe issue, and he will walk too many on occasion. But he's almost unhittable (league's hitting .146) and he's 6-0 with 23 saves.
61. Cliff Lee, SP, IndiansCy Young winner in 2008 is having a seemingly nightmarish season -- 6-9 record, leads league in hits allowed -- but he deserves better. He has 17 quality starts in 21 appearances.
62. Chone Figgins, 3B, AngelsWhen Figgins is getting on base like he is this year (.395 on-base percentage) he makes for a scary offensive player. He leads the league in runs scored and triples.
63. Adam Wainwright, SP, CardinalsNot many good examples of pitchers who started as a hard-throwing short relievers and developed into dominant starters. The Yankees are trying to do it with Joba, but it's already happening with Wainwright -- 10 wins, 3.01 ERA.
64. Scott Rolen, 3B, Blue JaysInjuries are always a concern. He had a relatively healthy first half, and he hit .318. Power numbers are a bit down, but he has posted a 121 OPS+ and his third base defense is still spectacular.
65. Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Red SoxHe hasn't had quite the laser-like control he did last year -- he already has a career-high 18 walks -- and he is a touch more home-run prone. But he's still one of the surest things in the game.
66. Joakim Soria, RP, RoyalsAn injury knocked him out for a while, and he doesn't get many save chances in Kansas City. But since June 18 he's 1-0 with seven saves, a 1.59 ERA, a 16-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and zero home runs allowed.
67. Jayson Werth, RF, PhilliesCame into his own in Philadelphia. Since signing with the Phillies in 2007 he has a .375 on-base percentage and he has hit 52 homers and stolen 39 bases.
68. Shin Soo-Choo, OF, IndiansHits with power (13 homers). Is a perfect 13-for-13 in steals. Gets on base (.393 OBP). Has a bazooka for an arm. And his name, Choo, is perfect for shouting at the ballpark.
69. Michael Young, 3B, RangersHe didn't want to move to third base, but he did move and now he's having his best offensive season since leading the league in hitting in 2005. Solid guy.
70. Adam Dunn, OF, NationalsHe walks and he hits home runs, just like always. Has an excellent shot of hitting exactly 40 home runs for the fifth consecutive season. Only Frank Thomas and Vinny Castilla have even done it two years in a row.
71. Clayton Kershaw, SP, DodgersIt's risky to put all your hopes on a 21-year-old pitcher -- especially one dealing with control problems. But he has been SO hyped and SO good -- 5-0 with an .063 ERA in his last seven starts -- that you just have to believe.
72. Mark Reynolds, 3B, DiamondbacksOne of my favorite players. He's on pace to smash his own record of 204 strikeouts in a season. He's also on pace to hit 44 home runs and steal 28 bases.
73. Ryan Franklin, RP, CardinalsNot entirely sure what Dave Duncan does to pitchers in St. Louis (hypnosis?), but Franklin, a mediocre starter in Seattle, is 2-0 with an 0.76 ERA and 22 saves. He has given up two home runs and three total runs all season.
74. Heath Bell, RP, PadresOne thing they know how to do in San Diego is develop closers. Bell is 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA and he leads the league in saves.
75. Rafael Soriano, RP, BravesHe has long been one of the most unhittable relievers around, but this year the league is hitting .150 against him with one homer all season.
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76. Todd Helton, 1B, RockiesAfter a down year in 2008, Helton is back to being Helton -- .324 average, .521 slugging percentage. His career numbers are awesome (.328 average, just as a starting point), but he might need two or three more solid years to confirm his Hall of Fame reservation.
77. Brandon Inge, 3B, TigersHe didn't manage even one homer in the Derby, and many think his first half (21 homers, 51 runs, 58 RBIs) was a fluke. Maybe. But he plays good defense at third and has always been an overachieving type.
78. Kevin Millwood, SP, RangersThree dreadful starts to end the first half marred what had been a terrific start for Millwood. He's a key for the Rangers' championship chase in the second half.
79. Joey Votto, 1B, RedsIt has been a rough time for Votto, who has dealt with anxiety and depression, but when he's playing, he's an amazing hitter: .347/.433/.584 so far this year.
80. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, CubsInjuries have slowed him down -- and as a guy in his 12th season you might expect that -- but when healthy, he's good for 25-35 homers, 100-plus RBIs and all-around solid play. His return figures to spark the Cubs.
81. Brian McCann, C, BravesMade the All-Star team for the fourth straight year, and he's an excellent offensive catcher. His defense, though, has sparked mixed reviews.
82. Shane Victorino, CF, PhilliesEveryone's favorite hustler, he's getting on base and scoring runs, though the numbers show his defense to be down from a year ago when he won the Gold Glove.
83. Jimmy Rollins, SS, PhilliesI kept going back and forth between Rollins and the ultra-solid Marco Scutaro. Rollins has had a rough year, but he's still a good defensive shortstop, and while he likely will never be the offensive threat he was in his MVP year, I think he'll bounce back.
84. Johnny Damon, LF, YankeesIt never fails to amaze me how many hits Damon has -- he's now up to 2,360, and when this year ends he will likely only be three or four full seasons away from 3,000. Damon has 16 homers this year, and he has not been caught in eight steal attempts.
85. Francisco Rodriguez, RP, MetsThis may seem hard to believe, but K-Rod's numbers are better across the board than they were last year -- better ERA (1.81), way fewer hits per inning pitched (5.6), better WHIP. But no one seems to notice because his save total -- 23 -- is a long way from his record of 62 of last season.
86. Carlos Lee, LF, AstrosHe's an odd talent -- a power hitter who almost never strikes out. He has hit 28 homers and has driven in 99 runs for six straight years. It might be seven after this season.
87. Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves"Why isn't Chipper Jones here?" Zack Greinke (No. 4) asked at the All-Star Game. "He should ALWAYS be here." The power numbers are a bit down for the 37-year-old Chipper, but the future Hall of Famer remains one of the tougher outs in the game.
88. Wandy Rodriguez, SP, AstrosHe has only now cracked the .500 mark for his career record at 46-45, but he has emerged this year (8-6 with a 2.81 ERA). He's also on pace to throw 200 innings for the first time.
89. James Shields, SP, RaysBig Game James is only 6-6 -- and the Rays are 9-10 in his starts -- but he has 12 quality starts and and should be a big factor in the second half.
90. Yunel Escobar, SS, BravesThere are issues with him, sure. But last I checked, brilliant defensive shortstops who hit .307 with some power are not all that easy to find.
91. A.J. Burnett, SP, YankeesHe's 8-4, but when you watch him pitch you wonder how anyone ever gets a hit off him. Well, few do, but he leads the league in walks and wild pitches, which might explain his only so-so 3.81 ERA.
92. Carlos Zambrano, SP, CubsHas been overpowering since the beginning of June. The Cubs are going to have to decide if his occasional pitching brilliance is worth the price of his occasional blowups. They have time to find out -- he's signed through 2012 with a vesting option for 2013.
93. Robinson Cano, 2B, YankeesHe had a nightmarish 2008, but has rebounded in '09. Hitting .305 with 13 homers and 62 runs scored. Numbers suggest his defense is back around average after a terrible defensive season last year.
94. Franklin Gutierrez, CF, MarinersOne of the best defensive players in baseball, he's hitting better than expected this year (.295, 10 homers). That Seattle trio of Gutierrez, Ichiro and Endy Chavez is one of the best defensive outfields in memory.
95. Brandon Phillips, 2B, RedsHe seems to have made a conscious decision to cut down his swing -- his strikeouts are down and his walks are up. He's still hitting with some power, and he's still playing good defense.
96. Jorge Posada, C, YankeesAnother good offensive year going for Posada, who's now 37 but looked older last year. He's hitting .282 and slugging .505. As usual, there are not many good offensive catchers in the game.
97. Yovani Gallardo, SP, BrewersHad to overcome a torn ACL -- a running back's injury, not a starting pitcher's -- but he's come back stronger than ever. At 23 he has some of the best stuff in baseball.
98. Chad Billingsley, SP, DodgersHe keeps cruising along, solid as they come -- 9-5, 3.76 ERA, first All-Star appearance -- but at 24 you expect any time now for him to jump forward and become a Cy Young candidate.
99. Jarrod Washburn, SP, MarinersHe's 34 now and is pitching very well in Seattle after a really rough 2008. A lefty finding his groove in Seattle late in his pitching life? Jamie Moyer II?
100. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, NationalsHow can you not feel bad for Zimmerman, who continues to get better as a hitter and continues to play terrific third base for a dying Nationals team?
REACT: Give us your thoughts on the list