Larry Stone: Picking baseball's stars of the decade
In many ways, 2000-09 was the PED Decade. But there were still performances, and players, and teams, to celebrate.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
In many ways, the first decade of the 21st century has been one of shame and turmoil for baseball.
The steroids scandal exploded out of control in these years, bringing down so many icons of the sport in the process.
Only a few more games and one more postseason remain in The Naughty Aughts, which provided some historic offensive performances that are destined to forever be viewed with skepticism.
(I know there's a fierce argument about whether the new decade begins on Jan. 1, 2010, or Jan. 1, 2011. It's all a bit too esoteric for me, but when I think of the '90s, in baseball terms, I think of the seasons 1990-99; so I'm going to consider this decade to be 2000-2009. So there.)
The season home-run record fell in 2001, the career mark in 2007, both set by Barry Bonds. He had four of the most astounding seasons in baseball history from 2001 to 2004 — superior, statistically, to any four-year run by Babe Ruth — yet instead of being celebrated, Bonds has become The Name That Must Not Be Spoken in baseball circles.
Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz — all were titans of the 2000s, and all have been sullied by their association with performance-enhancing drugs. In many ways, this was the PED Decade.
But there were still performances, and players, and teams, to celebrate. And fans have hardly been deterred by the intermittent scandals — attendance, and revenue, have skyrocketed this decade (until hitting a recession-related bump in 2009).
The Mariners won more games than any team in history in 2001, but it was the Diamondbacks, in one of the wildest World Series finishes ever, that dethroned the three-time champion Yankees.
The Red Sox, in 2004, won their first World Series since 1918, ending the 86-year "Curse of the Bambino."
That happened after the Red Sox became the first team in baseball history to win a postseason series after being down three games to zero — and the fact it was the Yankees they vanquished made it so much sweeter for them. Particularly after Yankee Aaron Boone's walkoff homer off Boston's Tim Wakefield the year before in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.
In 2005, the Chicago White Sox broke an even longer drought — 88 years — though without quite as much pathos attached.
The whole Ichiro phenomenon happened in this decade, and the force known as Albert Pujols was unleashed. By happy coincidence, the two made their major-league debut on the same day — April 2, 2001.
Pedro Martinez turned in one of the greatest pitching seasons in history in 2000, right in the heart of the wild offensive explosion at the turn of the decade. For him to put up a 1.74 earned-run average — while allowing 128 hits in 217 innings, and striking out 284 with just 32 walks — is an underappreciated feat.
Sabermetrics became mainstream in the Aughts, exemplified by Boston's hiring of Bill James as an adviser in 2002. Billy Beane's "Moneyball" philosophies changed the way teams evaluate talent, ushering in the age of "market inefficiencies."
Power surged, and then waned, miraculously coinciding with the advent of drug-testing penalties in 2004. Commissioner Bud Selig hoped to cleanse the game of its steroids odor with release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007. But so far the allegations have kept flying, with 104 or so names from the supposedly anonymous tests of 2003 still out there to be leaked.
The Sporting News was the first to check in this week with its all-decade team, and many are sure to follow. Here is mine (made without regard to steroids allegations; you can keep Rodriguez off your all-decade team, but it's not an accurate reflection of the era):
Manager: Terry Francona, Red Sox. He was the only one to win two World Series, but it's hard to argue with Joe Torre (three World Series appearances, one title and division titles every single season for the Yankees and Dodgers); Tony La Russa (two World Series appearances, one title and five, soon to be six, division titles); and Bobby Cox (six of his 14 consecutive division titles). They can be Francona's bench coaches.
Starting rotation: Pedro Martinez (yeah, he faded, but that .691 win percentage — 112-50 — is still mighty sweet); Randy Johnson (three Cy Youngs, 2000-02), Johan Santana (two Cy Youngs, should have been three, and a .670 win percentage); Roger Clemens (hate to stir up controversy, but he did win two Cy Youngs and helped pitch his teams into four World Series); Curt Schilling (he was instrumental in two World Series championships).
Closer: Mariano Rivera (with apologies to Trevor Hoffman, who else?).
First base: Albert Pujols (Todd Helton was phenomenal, as were Lance Berkman and Carlos Delgado, but this was Albert's decade).
Second base: Jeff Kent. Chase Utley is superb, but he had just five seasons as a starter. Kent hit .300 in the decade with 216 homers. No other second baseman can compare.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter. I actually had Miguel Tejada in my first draft of this column, but upon further review I have to acknowledge that Jeter, despite his defensive deficiencies, has been the dominant shortstop of the era. But Tejada is closer than you might think. He hit over .300 five times in the decade, had more than 100 runs batted in six times, plus one with 98 (peaking with 150 RBI in 2004), more than 30 homers four times, and more than 40 doubles four times.
Third base: Alex Rodriguez. He didn't technically become a third baseman until 2004, but you have to find a place for his spectacular offensive numbers this decade. No one hit more than his 432 homers.
Designated hitter: David Ortiz. You can make a pretty good case for Jim Thome, but he was predominantly a first baseman until 2006. Ortiz has hit 305 homers, and that's with only 48 from 2000 to 2002 with Minnesota.
Catcher: (tie) Joe Mauer/Ivan Rodriguez. I vacillated between Mauer's burst of brilliance, including a likely third batting title in 2009, and Pudge's sustained excellence, plus his role in two World Series teams. Then I wimped out and took both. Maybe I should have made it a three-way tie and added Jorge Posada.
Outfield: Ichiro, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds. (I tried to find a way to include Vladimir Guerrero, but he's a distinct fourth to Ichiro and his nine 200-hit seasons, Ramirez and his 1.020 OPS, and Bonds and his 221 OPS-plus.)
Let's all meet back here in September 2019, and we'll do it again.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.