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Rating Mauer's power and more

June 10, 2007|The Sporting News

Around this time every year, the Sporting News turns to the real experts -- paid talent evaluators -- to assist us in compiling our Hot List of baseball's best players. This year, we consulted a dozen experts -- four general managers, an assistant general manager, six big league scouts and, for a twist, a Hall of Fame writer. The group featured a couple of old-school types and a couple of guys who are more interested in statistics. As always, some of the results were revealing.

These evaluators, for example, consider Johan Santana the game's best pitcher, Vladimir Guerrero the best right fielder, Alex Rodriguez the top third baseman and David Ortiz the No. 1 designated hitter.

Even the sap buried in last place in your fantasy league could have told us that, right? OK, maybe so. But let's see if any of this analysis passed on by the evaluators enlightens you: Did you know the best catcher may be too tall for the position? That the best shortstop in New York also is the best shortstop in baseball and his name is not Derek Jeter? That the way to build a team is up the middle? That some guy nicknamed Pronk is pushing Ortiz for No. 1 DH honors?

Still not impressed? You know Joe Mauer, Jose Reyes and even Travis Hafner without even peeking at your Baseball Register. All right, then. You must be ready for some real insight. And here it is. The focus is on Mauer, Santana (and his challengers) and Reyes, with additional inside information on Ichiro Suzuki's free-agent appeal as a center fielder, the changing of the guard among closers, the American League's edge over the National and the emphasis on offense in today's game:

The Twins' Mauer is not only the game's best catcher but the guy most of our evaluators -- six of the 12 -- would choose as the player to build a franchise around. Three reasons besides the fact that he's only 24:

1. Offense. Whether you prefer average or on-base percentage, Mauer is your man. Last year, he became the first catcher to win an American League batting championship, hitting .347, and his career OBP is .403. The best news: The evaluators believe he'll be good for 30 home runs a year in another season or two. "When a young left-handed hitter can hit to the gap in left-center like Mauer, the thinking is he'll learn to pull the ball, and when he does, his power numbers will go up," one evaluator says.

2. Defense. He's athletic, has a strong arm and calls a good game. His only weakness is his height because, at 6 feet 5, he can make calling low strikes difficult for the umpire trying to see over him.

3. No other catcher is in his class. Sorry, Pudge Rodriguez fans. Pudge didn't get a mention as a top-two catcher from our consultants.

Among the game's standout pitchers, right-handers Josh Beckett and Roy Halladay received high marks. Beckett's start (8-0, 2.65 ERA) is not a real surprise. In his second season with the Red Sox, he has adjusted to the American League as many evaluators said he would. "He has a chance to throw a no-hitter every time out," one general manager says. "I really think this is the year he comes into his own," another says. One statistic that sums up Beckett '06 versus '07: After serving up 36 home runs last season, he has given up only two in his first nine starts.

The Blue Jays' Halladay is revered by evaluators and by opponents. "I haven't seen Halladay pitch that much, but whenever I talk to players about him, they say he is the man," one general manager says. Halladay has that bulldog quality scouts love to see in an ace. "His stuff is nasty, but what separates him for me is the way he always wants the ball," an evaluator says.

As highly regarded as Beckett and Halladay are, our guys agreed that the gap between Santana and No. 2 is as large as the difference between the Red Sox and Royals. "The complete package," says a major league scout of the Minnesota left-hander. "Changes speeds well, locates, nasty stuff and he knows how to pitch. Every time he steps out there, he thinks he's going to win."

Talentwise, the Mets' Reyes, who will turn 24 on Monday, rates a clear edge over the Yankees' Jeter, who soon will be 33. Our evaluators prefer Reyes' speed, range, arm and power. Two made him the guy they would want if they were starting a franchise. Another, however, cautioned, "He's had, what, one monster year? Let's see him do it for a while."

One American League general manager still takes Jeter. "He plays to win better than anyone," he says.

Seattle's Suzuki will command more as a free agent playing center field than right because teams like to reserve the corner spots for power hitters. Though Suzuki "takes some funny routes on the ball" at times, according to one evaluator, he remains a Gold Glove favorite anywhere in the outfield. Two of our evaluators rated him behind only Guerrero among right fielders. "As long as he can lead off and put that speed to work, where he plays doesn't matter to me," one general manager says.

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