Yesterday, in his new digs over at SB Nation, Rob Neyer pointed back to his 1999-2000 predictions for who would be the best players in baseball from 2000-2009. As Rob himself points out, he went oh-for-10.
“Overall, though, I did a thoroughly lousy job.So where did Rob go wrong? And, at the time, what, if anything, did he miss?
Is there a lesson here? Well, it's really hard to know who's going to get hurt, and nearly as hard to know who's going to get fat. I think I've also got a general tendency to overrate young players. I still don't understand what happened to Ben Grieve, but at the time he was 23 and hadn't yet enjoyed a big season in the majors. Fernando Tatis was 25, and had just one great season on his ledger.
The real lesson, though, is that this stuff is hard. If it was easy, there wouldn't be so many lousy long-term contracts out there.”
Rob’s Catcher: Jason Kendall
The Right Catcher: Jorge Posada
At the end of 1999, Jason Kendall was a 26 year old catcher with a .399 career OBP and a 120 OPS+ in four seasons behind the dish. He had also stolen 71 bases in 87 attempts. And his 1998 and 1999 seasons were brilliant. Jorge Posada, meanwhile, had just finished his second season with more than 400 plate appearances, and had just posted an OPS+ of 91. There were also defensive concerns about Posada, such that he might eventually have to move to 1B or DH. Oh, and Posada was two years older. Kendall had the track record and time on his side, and may have continued to be a devastating player into his 30s. Nobody could have predicted that Posada would outperform Kendall that offseason. And nobody could have foreseen that a young Joe Mauer would blow both of them away on a WAR/season basis starting in 2004.
Rob’s 1B: Nick Johnson
The Right 1B: Albert Pujols
Going into 2000, Nick Johnson was the #5 rated prospect in baseball, and was with a team that valued his patience. He had just hit .345/.525/.548 at AA Norwich as a 20 year old. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a prospect. But in Spring Training in 2000, Johnson came up with a “sprained wrist” in a game, and was said to be day-to-day. They never really figured out what was wrong with the wrist, and Johnson spent all of 2010 on the 60-day DL. It was a sign of things to come, as Johnson bounced in and out of the lineup for the next ten years, missing all of 2007 as well, and only getting more than 400 PAs five times. He put up monster years in both 2005 and 2006, but after a horrible 2010, looks like he may be done.
Meanwhile, Albert Pujols hadn’t even played an inning of minor league ball yet in 1999, and would debut as a 3B. Then he’d spend two years as a LF. Then he settled at 1B and still outproduced the rest of the 1B in baseball for the decade. Maybe Rob should have gone with Todd Helton, who had just finished a nice season in Colorado. But Helton didn’t make his big offensive leap until 2000, when he hit .372 with 59 doubles and 147 RBI. The only other two options that would have made sense at the time were Jason Giambi (who, as it turned out, would not have been a bad choice), Jim Thome (who was turned into a fulltime DH by 2006), or Sean Casey (who peaked in 1999 at just 24 years old). Again, it’s hard to fault Rob.
Rob’s 2B: Edgardo Alfonzo
The Right 2B: Jeff Kent or Chase Utley
Alfonzo was only 25 in 1999, and had had two big seasons in his last three campaigns. There also didn’t seem to be a lot of competition at the time. Robbie Alomar and Jeff Kent were already 31. Jay Bell and Craig Biggio were both 33. Younger players like Pokey Reese and Homer Bush (both 26) were nowhere near Alfonzo’s class. Meanwhile, Chase Utley was not even drafted until the summer of 2000. Kent was a realistic choice at the time, maybe, but who could have really guessed that he’d be a productive 2B until he was 40 when only three other 2B in baseball history (Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, and Nap Lajoie) have had a WAR above 7.0 after turning 37.
Rob’s 3B: Fernando Tatis
The Right 3B: Scott Rolen
Rob really jumped the gun on Fernando Tatis, given his monster 1999. The Common Man remembers reading that and being surprised, but he went with it because he thought Rob was onto something. What we didn’t really understand then was the importance of defense. Tatis was absolutely brutal with the glove, and was not really in shape either. There was no way he could stay on third when he was giving back two wins a year in the field alone. We also didn’t really understand the concept of luck yet, and would have looked past his elevated BABIP. Meanwhile, Scott Rolen was killing it in Philadelphia on both sides of the ball and was only 24. He was showing signs of the back problems that would continue to plague him, but he played enough to average 128 games per season through 2009 and was an absolute horse for the Phils and Cardinals before bouncing back last year with the Reds. Chipper Jones also should have been on the list, but Bobby Cox apparently really needed to get Vinny Castilla into the lineup, and shifted Chipper to LF for two seasons.
Rob’s SS: Nomar Garciaparra
The Right SS: Derek Jeter
We’ve covered this before, notably in this podcast, but Nomar Garciaparra was amazing through 2000. Nobody else had his line-drive power. Alex Rodriguez may have been the better overall players, and Jeter may have had the staying power, but Nomar was lightning in a bottle. He could have been Joe DiMaggio, but at shortstop. Up until 2000, Nomar was better than Jeter in every season except 1999. And then his wrist injury in 2001 changed everything. He was still a good hitter, especially at short, but he was nowhere near as amazing as the player he was from 1997-2000. Just enough of the bat speed was gone that he was suddenly a terrific player instead of a transcendent one. Then more injuries eroded his skills further, and by 2007 he was a shadow of his former self. A-Rod, meanwhile, moved to 3B to accommodate Jeter, who just kept up putting up one strong season after another. Jeter would have beena good choice in the winter of 1999-2000, but Nomar was better.
Rob’s LF: Ben Grieve
The Right LF: Barry Bonds
Rob’s CF: Andruw Jones
The Right CF: Carlos Beltran
You cannot argue with Rob’s logic here. Jones was coming off a year in which, at just 22 years old, Jones was probably the second best player in the National League (behind Jeff Bagwell, though they both lost the MVP to Chipper Jones, who was very close to Andruw in value). And Andruw didn’t disappoint. From 2000-2006 he was clearly the best CF in the game. But then he put on weight, some of which was muscle, and lost almost all of his effectiveness. At 30, he was essentially done as a regular player. Carlos Beltran had just won the AL Rookie of the Year, but was far less valuable than Jones and was the same age. Through 2006, Jones was a much better player. But Beltran kept hitting into his 30s, and averaged 152 games per year from 2001-2008. But back then, there was no way you could justify taking Beltran over Jones. No way at all.
The Right RF: Ichiro
Vlad was 24 in 1999 and was a revelation for the Montreal Expos, posting his second straight incredible season (.316/.378/.600, 42 homers, 131 RBI). Somehow, he got even better in 2000. But then Ichiro came over from Japan in 2001, which Rob couldn’t have guessed, and became a whirlwind of amazingness in Seattle. Rob made a good pick in 2000, but the new guy spoiled it.
Rob’s SP: Pedro Martinez
The Right SP: Roy Halladay
When Rob wrote this, Pedro was only 27, and was more amazing than you could possibly understand if you missed watching him pitch. His only real competition, Randy Johnson, was eight years older. But, of course, pitchers get hurt. And Pedro did, ruining his shoulder in 2005. Johnson, meanwhile, had two more good years after that. Halladay didn’t come into his own until 2002, and even then had some injury troubles that threatened to derail him after that. Johan Santana was a Rule 5 pick that offseason, and had a 6.49 ERA in 2000. Roy Oswalt didn’t debut until 2001, what was never quite in the class of the pitchers above. Same with Mark Buehrle, who debuted in 2000. The trouble, it would seem, is that pitchers get hurt. A lot.
Rob’s Closer: Billy Wagner
The Right Closer: Mariano Rivera
Wagner was very good. And so was Joe Nathan, for that matter (though missing on Nathan isn’t Rob’s fault, as The Executioner only became a closer in 2004). But Rivera pitched more than 100 more innings than those two (actually, Rivera has the second most relief innings from 2000-2009, behind only David Weathers). And his 215 ERA+ through that stretch is just oo dominant. Nobody could touch that. But relievers are tough to gauge. Mo was actually probably the fifth best reliever in baseball in 1999. And all the guys ahead of him (Keith Foulke, Wagner, Jeff Zimmerman, and Armando Benitez) were younger than he was. Rivera has outlasted all of them because he’s a marvel.
Rob missed that one. But likely because we’ve never really seen a pitcher like Rivera before. And we may not again.
So while Rob went oh-for-10, it's hard to say he made poor choices. Definitely at 3B, and probably also in LF. Maybe at closer. Given the variables involved in making predictions 10 years out, that's not bad.
So what can we learn from this exercise? For one thing, as Rob points out, "it's really hard to know who's going to get hurt, and nearly as hard to know who's going to get fat." Perhaps more importantly, it's impossible to forecast who will rise from the amateur ranks in the next 10 years, let alone the next 5, to supplant the players that seem the safest bets today. Indeed, The Common Man would bet that at least four of the players who will be considered the best of this current decade aren't even playing in the Big Leagues yet. So maybe it's the exercise itself that is flawed.
Rob's promising to do another list later this week to look at 2010-2019, and chances are that it won't look any better than this one. Because no matter how smart you are, it's impossible to predict what's going to happen in this league 10 years out.