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Thursday, March 27
 
As expected, no one more valuable than Bonds

By Gary Huckabay
Special to ESPN.com

As the 2003 regular season draws closer, let's take a look at the 10 top properties in baseball:

Big $, big expectations
• Stark: Thome's new world
• Klapisch: Year of the Dollar
• Prospectus: Top 10 properties
• Poll: Who earns their money?

1. Barry Bonds
Yes, the price tag's steep, but there's no denying the value. Bonds, at the advanced baseball age of 38, is the greatest offensive force in the history of baseball. He led MLB in on-base percentage plus slugging percentage (OPS) by 260 points over the No. 2 guy, Jim Thome. To put that in perspective, that's about the same gap found between Nomar Garciaparra and Rey Ordonez.

One reason his numbers weren't even more ostentatious is the cavernous nature of Pac Bell Park, which is filled to the brim on a regular basis largely because of Bonds. Over the next few years, Barry's going to keep the rafters full as fans come out to watch him chase down Willie Mays (47 away), Babe Ruth (101 away), and Hank Aaron (142 away) on the all-time home run list. For $75 million between now and the end of the 2006 season, that's a heck of a bargain, unless you're an opposing pitcher.

2. Alex Rodriguez
Hurt feelings and disbelief are still resonating through the northwest, and even today, stories about Rodriguez often include the now-famous number of $252 million, but Rodriguez's contributions are as enormous as his contract.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod hit 109 home runs over the last two seasons with Texas.
The idea of a trinity of shortstops in the American League is now passť, not just because Miguel Tejada has muscled Derek Jeter to the edge of that platform, but because realistically, there's really only one dominant shortstop, and he plays in Texas. A-Rod has hit .300 or better in six of his seven full seasons. Over that span, he's hit 293 home runs, drawn 463 walks, played good defense, and been an exemplary citizen on and off the field. He's also only 27 years old.

Yes, Rangers owner Tom Hicks paid a lot for his services, but he bought the cornerstone of what will likely be the best infield in baseball soon enough, and an increase in the success of the Rangers means an increase in the value of Hicks' real estate holdings around The Ballpark. Hicks is no fool, and this is a great signing of one of the best players in history.

3. Dr. James Andrews
Approximately 100 times a year at his facility in Birmingham, Ala., Dr. Andrews performs a procedure called a medial collateral ligament transplant, more commonly known as Tommy John surgery. When Dr. Frank Jobe first performed the procedure on Tommy John nearly 30 years ago, he categorized John's chances of pitching again at about one percent.

Today, when pitchers blow out an elbow and undergo the procedure, teams, fans, and players expect them back out on the field within a year to 18 months, usually as good as new.

Elbow injuries would have ended the careers of pitchers like Matt Morris, Kerry Wood, Mariano Rivera, Kris Benson, Billy Koch, and hundreds of others had they occurred before 1974. Tommy John surgery has now become sort of an everyday miracle, and Andrews is the recognized master of the procedure.

If the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are playing meaningful games in September, Andrews will deserve as much credit as anyone.

Ichiro Suzuki
Right fielder
Seattle Mariners
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM R RBI SB OBP AVG
157 111 51 31 .388 .321

4. Ichiro Suzuki
Seattle paid $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave just for the rights to negotiate with Ichiro before the 2001 season. To acquire his services for three years, the Mariners signed Suzuki to a three-year deal worth $14 million. Since that time, Ichiro's won an MVP award, filled enough highlight reels to stock ESPN Classic for the entire 2014 sweeps period, and injected the Mariners into the Japanese marketplace, making Mariners caps, shirts, and broadcasts nearly as common as $700 hotel rooms and disconcerting animation.

The Mariners couldn't have made a much better investment, and Suzuki's signing and subsequent impact on MLB may turn out to be one of the most important and significant events in the history of baseball.

5. Albert Pujols
OK, so there's some doubt that he's actually 23 years old. He may end up a mediocre defender in left field rather than a Gold Glover at third base. What's not to completely love? Pujols has two full seasons under his belt, has missed a grand total of six games in two years, and has been pounding the ball as well as anyone not named Bonds from the very moment he broke into the league.

He can nominally play three positions, slaughters left-handed and right-handed pitching, and will cost the Cardinals $900,000 this season. Put another way, that's about 13 percent of the cost of Damion Easley's 2003 season. That's not just value -- that's a ranch home in Palo Alto for $55,000.

6. Leo Mazzone
Mazzone recently signed a new deal with the Atlanta Braves for somewhere over $200,000 annually. The Texas Rangers' bullpen for 2003 will contain Jay Powell for $3 million, Todd Van Poppel for $2.5 million, and Jeff Zimmerman for $3.2 million.

Mazzone's consistently been able to pull a rabbit out of his hat when it comes to getting surprisingly great work out of pitchers. It's not a short list of guys who seemingly come out of nowhere and have a great run under Mazzone's tutelage. John Burkett, Darren Holmes, Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Jose Cabrera, Rudy Seanez, Mike Cather ... the list goes on.

Often, the pitchers move on to new teams and larger paychecks, only to struggle under a new system and coach. Mazzone may not be responsible for all of the bright flashes that have taken place in Atlanta, but considering his track record, and a salary that'll be somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-4 percent of Denny Neagle's this season, he's a tremendously valuable commodity.

Mark Prior
Pitchers today do not put up the numbers they did in the past.

7. Mark Prior
Six feet, five inches tall. Confident. Poised. "Best college pitcher in history." Tremendous stuff. Imposing. Ninety-eight hits, 38 walks, and 147 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings. Five years until free agency. Prior is the definition of a franchise cornerstone.

No. 1 starters who are 22 years old are extremely rare, and their value to a franchise can be truly monumental, especially when they're signed through 2006 for only $10.5 million total, and they don't have a history of arm trouble. If the Cubs are smart enough not to start a history of arm trouble for Prior, he could be the best starter in a rotation filled with talented starters. How valuable is that?

8. Billy Beane
Sure, he's 41 years old. Yes, his career line to date is .219/.246/.296 -- not really what you're looking for from an outfielder, no matter how slick the glove. But there's certainly no more valuable property in baseball. Oakland's GM is the heart and soul of a very successful Athletics organization. Beane and his crew manage to comb every corner of the baseball world to keep the A's stocked with championship-caliber talent on an extremely tight budget. While his competitors sign mediocre players for eight figures, Beane finds, develops, or signs a great one for six figures, often while picking the pockets of GMs who spend more on five players than he can spend on an entire 25-man roster.

No one's better at the job of GM, including the tasks of building a cohesive organization, and acquiring and developing front-office talent as well as on-field talent. This guy could even salvage the Devil Rays, and he performs all these services for a minute fraction of his value to the organization.

9. Austin Kearns
What do teams look for in offensive players? They look for performance. Can he hit for average? How about power? Can he play defense? Good foot speed? Work ethic? Plate discipline? Can he throw? Oh, it'd be nice if we could have the guy at a low cost, too. Austin Kearns may be the perfect real-world ballplayer. He's got a broad skill set that's already been displayed in the majors and minors. He's 22 years old, and still years away from either arbitration or free agency. Unlike a lot of young hitters, he's effective against both lefties and righties. There's no limit to Kearns' ceiling, and the Reds' ability to develop young players like him will be a key factor in their ability to compete over the long haul. Kearns, Adam Dunn, and the Great American Ballpark are a great foundation on which to build long term success.

10. Wrigley Field
Every adult, from time to time, dreams of escaping from accountability. It'd be nice, just for a short time, to find a place where if you made a mistake, there were few if any consequences. For the better part of a century, Wrigley Field has created that place for Cub ownership. Wrigley's an international attraction and community treasure, where bleacher bums come out and spend money on tickets, beer, hot dogs, beer, cotton candy, and beer, with little regard for the actual performance of the team on the field. Somewhere along the line, the beauty of the ballpark and the experience of getting mildly sunburned while grinning at the ivy became far more important than the actual quality of the game being played (or often perpetrated) on the field. Over the last 20 years, here's the attendance for the Cubs during those occasional seasons when they've been under .500, courtesy of the very cool baseball-reference.com:

Year    Record  Attendance Rank (NL)   
1983    71-91   7th/12 
1985    77-84   5th/12 
1986    70-90   5th/12 
1987    76-85   6th/12 
1988    77-85   5th/12 
1990    77-85   5th/12 
1991    77-83   4th/12 
1992    78-84   5th/12 
1994    49-64   8th/14 
1996    76-86   5th/14 
1997    68-94   6th/14 
1999    67-95   6th/16 
2000    65-97   9th/16 
2002    67-95   7th/16

That's a nice cushion to have. In 14 of the last 20 seasons, the Cubs have been a mediocre or bad team. But during only three of those seasons have they found themselves in the bottom half of the league in attendance. Thank you, Wrigley.

You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.





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