Let The Debate Begin

Prompted by a few questions on the subject, I decided to do my own version of the AL East player debates. Solely focusing on the three best teams—record-wise at the midway point—in the American League East, here are my picks for the top players at each position among the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays.

This offseason, Eric SanInosencio had an excellent series, "The Great Debates" running over at Rays Anatomy (currently called Outs Per Swing). SanInosencio, now a podcaster and writer at Baseball Digest Daily, made his case for several up-and-coming Tampa Bay Rays' stars, comparing players such as Matt Garza and B.J. Upton to other top young players from the American League East.

Prompted by a few questions on the subject, I decided to do my own version of the debates. Solely focusing on the three best teams—record-wise at the midway point—in the American League East, here are my picks for the top players at each position among the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Rays. While the Baltimore Orioles are exceeding expectations and the Toronto Blue Jays have an excellent starting rotation, I decided to leave out the teams for this meaningless exercise.

My selections are based mostly off of this season's performance, albeit over a small sample size. More than that, though, these are the players who I would choose solely for the rest of 2008. There are obviously a ton of factors—salary, age, durability, roster needs, years under team control—that would realistically factor into these decisions if an actual general manager were making the picks. While keeping in mind contracts to an extent—and not based solely off track record—here are my picks, though it is late, and this was harder than I thought it would be.

C: Jorge Posada, New York Yankees: While he has spent a large chunk of the first half on the disabled list, Posada has still managed to post an OPS of .826 in 122 at-bats. Plus, he has been one of the premier offensive players at a defense-first position for a long time, and finished last season with a ridiculous .969 OPS, 20 homers and 90 RBIs. I said I would not go on track record, but here I have done it already, on the first pick. When he is healthy, though, Posada is productive. Period. He is making $13,100,000 this season, however, and Dioner Navarro--who has been one of the top three offensive catchers (currently batting .317/.368/.444) this season, is younger and is improving defensively--is making $412,500. Clearly, from a pure value standpoint, Navarro has to be the guy here.

Purely baseball-wise, Posada is the guy, though he is aging and will hurt the Yankees and will not be able to remain at the position during the back-end years of the deal that he signed this offseason.

1B: Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox: This is a tough one here. Was Carlos Pena's season in 2007 a fluke, or are his struggles this season based off of too small a sample size to read too much into it? Pena had the finest season of any first baseman last year, when he set the Tampa Bay single-season record with 46 homers and finished second in the AL in OPS. The '07 version of Pena was one of the most prolific hitters in baseball, at a discounted price. He is also an underrated with the glove as well.

However, while Pena is healthy again and should rebound to hit for more power in the second half, there are better options here. Jason Giambi and Youkilis, each a legitimate All-Star candidate at the position, are having great seasons while the left-handed Tampa Bay slugger has struggled at times. From a value standpoint, it is hard not to go with Youk, who is only making $3-million this year and always seems to find a way to get on base. He is batting .313/.382/.544 this year with 50 RBIs. While Giambi, who currently ranks fifth in the AL with 17 homers and a .939 OPS, hits for more power, he is making a ridiculous amount of money and it would be unwise for the Yankees to pick up his option for 2009.

2B: Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox: Before the season started, I would have to go with Cano, who many think will win a batting title one day. Well, it will certainly not happen in 2008, as he has a line of .244/.282/.361. Quite frankly, he swings at everything and needs to improve his approach at the plate.

Pedroia is a solid defender, though he is having a down offensive season as well, despite his recent power surge. Iwamura has made a flawless transition to second base, but is not getting on base as frequently as he did last season. He is batting .276/.346/.376, for a .721 OPS, second behind Pedroia among the group. Over the long term, however, it would be hard to with someone other than Cano, who has the most talent and highest upside. Still, he really does need to become more selective.

For the rest of the season, I would pick Pedroia, the AL Rookie of the Year and a World Series hero in 2007. His recent performance—.556/.571/.815 over the past seven games—at the end of June has pushed his batting average back up to .304, and he is among leaders at his position with eight home runs. Plus, the Arizona State product is making under half-a-million dollars, plays steady defense and posted the highest first-half OPS of the trio.

SS: Undecided: This is really a toss-up here. Barlett has been a huge upgrade defensively at shortstop for the Rays, but has the lowest OPS among regular players in the majors. Offensively, he has been arguably the worst hitter in all of baseball throughout the first half. Really, he has been a guaranteed out at the plate, as he is batting a weak .252 (he has only seven extra-base hits) with a sub-.300 on-base percentage.

Jeter is one of the worst—if not the worst—defensive shortstops in baseball, and it is shocking how much he hurts the Yankees with his inability to get to balls to his left or right. In fact, some sabermetricians refer to him as "Past-A-Diving" Jeter, not Derek, because the Yankees announcers are always forced to use that phrase due to his poor range. Plus, he is struggling at the plate as well. He is batting an un-Jeter like .284/.344/.393; that slugging percentage is among the worst for a period of 81 games in his entire career. For $21,600,000 the Yankee captain has not been earning his paycheck with his play on the field. He has been so important to the Yankees for so long, but his days as a productive shortstop—at least fielding-wise—are over.

Then there is Lugo , whose .274/.364/.343 line in the first half has New Englanders begging for the promotion of infield prospect Jed Lowrie.

I must say, wow, this is a tough call. It comes down to Bartlett, the cheapest and best defender of group, or Jeter, the most famous—and overrated, the players got it right in the recent Sports Illustrated poll conducted in spring training—of the trio. Really, it depends on my team's needs. If I have a strong lineup and a pitching staff that induces a lot of ground balls, Bartlett is my guy. But Jeter is a born winner, a future Hall of Famer. If this were a multiple choice test, I would circle in "not enough information."

3B: Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: Longoria is my mid-season pick for the Rookie of the Year in the American League, but A-Rod is the best hitter on the planet. Period. Although he missed some time with an injury, the New York slugger is batting .322/.404/.591 with 15 home runs—tied with Longoria and Adrian Beltre for third baseman in the AL—and 43 RBIs in only 230 at-bats. Longoria is cheaper, younger and better defensively, but Rodriguez is the superior hitter, by a long ways. If payroll is not an issue, he is the player who I would pick to build my team around. Plus, he essentially pays for himself anyway, with the amount of money he brings in to the Yankees.

Oh, and for those who feel that A-Rod chokes in the playoffs, I have two words for you: sample size.

LF: Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox: Carl Crawford has had a disappointing season, as his .321 on-base percentage is terrible for a number two hitter. He is an exciting player to watch, and—by far—the best defender at the position of the trio, if not in the majors, but is really kind of an overrated offensive player. He is a great fantasy player, with all of the steals, but he is not selective enough at the plate, and needs to walk more (21 walks in '08). He is an excellent left fielder, still, but Manny is the only choice here. Again, payroll is a factor as Crawford is making one-fourth of Ramirez's $20-million for 2008, but Ramirez is one of the most prolific hitters in the game and is having another great season. He is batting .289/.378/.519 with 16 homers and 52 RBIs, for an OPS of .897. J.D. Drew has been more valuable to Boston in the first half, but Ramirez is a deserving candidate to start in the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium. Johnny Damon? No thanks, I will pass.

I do not know if Manny gets docked or gains points for this.

CF: B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays: Jacoby Ellsbury is fast, a tremendous stolen base threat and Longoria's biggest competition for the AL Rookie of the Year.

But Upton is the no-brain selection here. While he has not hit for as much power yet this season, he has been the Rays' most valuable offensive player, batting .286/.399/.415. The former number two overall pick truly has a great approach up there at the plate. There has been some recent talk about the D'Backs considering sending his younger brother, Justin, down to the minors because of his poor showing in June. Thus, perhaps Justin would be wise to attempt to emulate his older brother's patient approach at the plate. B.J., leading Tampa Bay with 57 bases on balls, has one of the highest on-base percentages in the majors. While he has only five homers, the power should come in the second half. I project he will end up with a line of .290/.395/.440 and around 15 homers. Melky Cabrera is not in the same class of an Ellsbury or an Upton, but all three players are young and cheap at this point.

RF: J.D. Drew, Boston Red Sox: Drew is having a monster season. Although he is an expensive option, he had an excellent first half, batting .304/.417/.570, for a higher OPS (.986) than any Boston player. Drew ranks second in the AL in on-base percentage, runs scored (57, the correlation is no coincidence, folks), third in OPS and slugging percentage and eighth in home runs (15) and walks(57). Apologies to Eric Hinske, who is leading the Rays in OPS, but it is not even close. Bobby Abreu, who will make about one-third of the Rays' payroll for 2008, is on the decline.

Rotation: Tampa Bay Rays: I am going with the Rays' rotation, which is the biggest reason for the club's first-half success. Matt Garza looked like a future ace this week down in Miami, Scott Kazmir is the best lefty in baseball and James Shields is up-and-coming legitmate number two starter. Andy Sonnanstine does not deserve to be 9-3, but he keeps the Rays in games (though he has had a lot of run support). And While Edwin Jackson is consistently inconsistent and struggles with his command at times, he is a tremendous talent. Not to mention, the organization is stacked with a plethora of promising young arms down on the farm they can call up at any time—perhaps even former number one pick David Price, now in Double-A, or Jeff Niemann.

Runner-up here is Boston, with a rotation consisting of Dice-K, the talented Justin Masterson, Clay Buchholz (now in the minors) and, of course, ace Josh Beckett. The Yankees put a lot of eggs in the Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy basket, and the pair combined has won fewer games than Niemann in 2008.

Mike Mussina, a legitimate All-Star candidate, continues to get hitters out, relying more on control and smarts. How long will it last, though? At Hank Steinbrenner's request, he has turned into the right-handed version of Jamie Moyer. Still, with his lacking stuff, he has little room for error. If his command is ever off, he will struggle to make it through the third inning. Ace Chien-Ming Wang, the majors' winningest pitcher over the past two seasons, is out until September. So, assuming New York does not acquire a proven starter (but whom, C.C. Sabathia?) at the trade deadline, there is no telling if the Yankees' past luck of turning guys like Latrell—I mean, Shawn—Chacon into effective one-year pitchers will last. The club will score a lot of runs, but they will give up a lot of runs in the second half as well—though they should remain in the AL East/Wild Card race throughout the summer. Joba Chamberlain is certainly a nice addition, and will help in the second half.

The Yankees compiled a first-half starters' ERA of 4.50, and the 11 pitchers the team has used to start have combined to post an opponents' line of .277/.335/.412. Considering that the Moose has been their stopper, it is actually not all that bad.

The Rays, on the other hand, have only used seven starters—Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Jackson, Sonnanstine, Jason Hammel and Niemann—and the group has posted a 3.99 ERA, combining to limit hitters to a line of .255/.314/.403, for an opponents' OPS of .717.

Setup Man: Dan Wheeler, Tampa Bay Rays: Before Joba joined the Yankees' starting rotation, he was easily the premier setup man in the AL East. Currently, though, the best option to pitch the eighth inning here is Wheeler, who has 18 holds while posting a 1.93 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 37.1 innings pitched.

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon, Boston Red Sox: New York pitcher Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time, and has 22 saves in as many chances. He is making $15-million this season, however, and is 38 years old. He could break down in the second half. Papelbon, making under $1-million, has been equally effective, going a 24-for-28 in save opportunities in the first half while posting a 2.00 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. He is the youngest of the group as well, obviously. Troy Percival has been invaluable to the Rays--for his pitching and positive influence in the clubhouse. But, judging by his four-walk performance down in Miami last week, he is still a huge question mark for Tampa Bay headed into the season's next 81 games.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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