In 2008, five Major League Baseball players stood out from all the rest and were the best in baseball.
While it’s risky business at best to claim to know what anybody, much less professional athletes, do in private, the optimist in me likes to think that someday 2008 will be looked at as the first year in the rest of baseball’s life after putting the steroid era behind it.
I’ve written before that baseball has its problems. The World Series, in particular, was a resounding dud in 2008, when it should have been anything but given a great story in the Tampa Bay Rays and a storied (if less than successful) franchise from a big market and a good baseball town in Philadelphia.
But the new breed of top baseball stars are nowhere near as tainted as past years when it comes to performance enhancing substances and generate enthusiasm for their ability, approach to the game and perception, at least, that what we are seeing is what we are getting.
Here, from number five down to number one, are one fan’s pick for the best baseball players in 2008
Ryan Howard, first baseman, Philadelphia Phillies
Let’s see here. A mediocre (at best) defensive first baseman who is a liability on the base paths, with 199 strikeouts and a .251 batting average is one of the top five best baseball players in 2008?
Well, yes, though I will admit this was an extremely difficult choice for me. I personally always favor the versatile and multi dimensional players who play good defense and contribute the intangibles (as you’ll see later on in this list). But I had to do it.
Despite all of the negatives about Ryan Howard’s game, he also led the league 48 home runs and with 146 rbi’s. Ryan Howard’s job is to hit for power and drive in runs, and nobody in the National League did either one of those better.
Oh, and by the way? The Phillies won the World Series. Voters for the Most Valuable Player award (for which Howard came in second), do not factor in postseason performance as the voting itself takes place prior to the postseason. I have the luxury of doing so however and since I do not subscribe to the theory that the postseason shouldn’t be weighted and heavily when considering players’ performance in terms of individual recognition or ultimately the Hall of Fame (no, I’m not suggesting that Ryan Howard is on the fast track to the Hall of Fame), I choose to weigh the fact that Howard’s team is now World Champions heavily. In the World Series, Howard batted a very solid .285 with three home runs. That he was clearly the best player on the World Championship team, combined with the facts from above, left me no choice but to put him as the fifth best baseball player in 2008.
Albert Pujols, first baseman, St. Louis Cardinals
Albert Pujols rightly won the National League MVP by a fairly comfortable margin. He simply was the best all around hitter and run producer in the National League in 2008, all while being an above average defensive first baseman. He is, simply, what Phillies fans wish Ryan Howard was and is a better all around player than Howard. There simply are no weaknesses in Pujols’ game. The only ‘knock’ that one could come up with is that he wasn’t able to lead the Cardinals to baseball’s 2008 postseason. But, while I have said that excelling in the postseason should count for something, it’s not fair to punish too severely those that couldn’t have done anymore than they did but were on a team not capable of getting there.
Pujols led the National League in OPS, runs created, total bases and slugging percentage, was second in batting average, walks and extra base hits, and third in the league in hits.
Some might argue that he belongs higher on the list, and perhaps so, but given his status as a first baseman on an also-ran team, I argue that there are a few ahead of him as the best baseball players in 2008, but only a few.
Kevin Youkilis, first and third baseman, Boston Red Sox
Kevin Youkilis was in many ways the heart and soul of the 2008 Red Sox. “Youk” as Red Sox fans refer to him, is the anti-Manny. He’s about hustle, desire, work, and ‘grinding’ it. While he didn’t win a Gold Glove, he easily could have. It is increasingly rare in Major League Baseball in 2008 that a player can be a major offensive force AND be a Gold Glove caliber player at not one, but two positions, based on the team’s need.
One argument against naming Youkilis as a top five Major League Baseball player in 2008 would be that he wasn’t even the most valuable on his own team (see Dustin Pedroia below). True enough, but it’s not fair, in my opinion, to hold it against a superlative player that another player on his team is slightly more valuable.
The other argument is that actually Youkilis’ numbers in 2008 were slightly better than Alex Rodriguez’s and yet A-Rod is nowhere near this conversation as one of the best five baseball players in 2008.
Consider A-Rod’s production of .302 35 103, versus Youkilis’ numbers of .312 29 115. While Youkilis’ statistics were slightly better, they are pretty comparable.
And yet, anybody watching, playing in or managing the games that both of these guys were in would much rather face A-Rod in any big time situation than Youkilis. At least in 2008.
The bottom line was that Youkilis had the Red Sox’ back all year long. He was there as Manny pouted, as Ortiz declined and as Lowell got hurt. He was there to play whatever position, make any Jeter-like play and ‘Cowboy Up’, years after the earlier vintage of Red Sox players yelled the phrase.
Youkilis was easily on the top five list of players that any manager or GM would take this year. Case closed.
Joe Mauer, catcher, Minnesota Twins
I never really understand why catchers are simultaneously not expected to produce at the plate, but ignored when they do. If Joe Mauer caught in New York, they’d name a deli sandwich after him. If he caught in Boston, they’d take the Red Auerbach statue down in Faneuil Hall and put one up of Morneau.
If a Gold Glove winning centerfielder hit .328 with 9 home runs and 85 rbi, he’d be considered an All Star.
But for some reason, when a catcher wins the Gold Glove (as Mauer did in 2008), hits .328 and knocks in 85 runs, he’s a distant fourth in the MVP voting. Now, in fairness, finishing fourth for the MVP is hardly an insult. But Mauer seems to be ignored for some reason as the guy that you might just pick number one to start a team tomorrow.
Dustin Pedroia, second baseman, Boston Red Sox
“Sparkplug” has historically been a description assigned to a good player that wasn’t necessarily a great one. While a sparkplug in every sense of the word, Dustin Pedroia looks positioned to be as great a player as Derek Jeter. Note I said “looks positioned”. He is the ultimate gamer, a Gold Glove second baseman and has long since graduated past the point of being described a ‘pesky hitter’. Yes, he had Youkilis with him, and yes he was able to fly under the radar for much of the season, but the guy can play. .326, 17 and 83, largely out of the two hole, along with 20 stolen bases and an unbelievable stretch drive make Pedroia the best player in baseball in 2008.
The great thing about baseball is that next year is never that far away. Any one of these five guys are ‘cornerstone’ type players that any Major League Baseball team would build their roster around.