|Thursday, July 10
Thomas, Avery among expected best of the '90s
By Rob Neyer
Hindsight's 20/20, but foresight is something much less clear. With that in mind, let's get in the Way-Back Machine and travel all the way to the All-Star break in 1993, with a mind toward picking the best players of the 1990s, with roughly seven years left in the decade ...
Designated hitter: Frank Thomas
Now: Aside from an injury-related hiccup, Thomas has been almost exactly the player that we expected he'd be. His career numbers -- including 396 home runs, a .431 on-base percentage, and a .568 slugging percentage -- are Hall of Fame-worthy. And this season, at 35, he's still pounding the ball impressively.
Catcher: Mike Piazza
Now: Like most great catchers, Piazza's tenure as a superstar apparently isn't going to survive his middle 30s, and one might argue that his limitations behind the plate made him the No. 2 catcher of the 1990s, behind Ivan Rodriguez.
First base: John Olerud
Now: Olerud tailed off in the second half of '93, but still finished with a .363 average and finished third in the American League MVP balloting. Olerud would never play quite that well again, but of course he's been an excellent player since, and after leaving Toronto has enjoyed big seasons with both the Mets and the Mariners.
Second base: Roberto Alomar
Now: Like many second basemen, Alomar hasn't aged particularly well, but his decline didn't really begin until the 21st century: specifically, 2002, when he joined the New York Mets. Alomar was the second baseman of the 1990s, and he doesn't have much competition.
Shortstop: Barry Larkin
Now: In retrospect, Larkin was pretty obviously the best shortstop in the 1990s, a shade better than Cal Ripken. It's now been a few years since Larkin ranked among the game's top players, but he did enough in the '90s to merit election to the Hall of Fame.
Third base: Gary Sheffield
In 1991, though, Sheffield suffered through a horrible season. He spent most of the season on the disabled list, and when he could play -- 50 games -- he batted .194. He had also displayed, over the years, a remarkable lack of maturity, and after the season the Brewers traded Sheffield to the Padres.
Sheffield became a star in San Diego, batting .330 (tops in the National League) with 33 home runs and 100 RBI. At the tender age of 24, he was named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year, and there was no telling what he'd do next.
Now: He's not a third baseman any more -- Sheffield became an outfielder in 1994, and hasn't played a single game at third base since -- but he can still hit. Since his breakout season with the Padres in 1992, Sheffield has posted big numbers for the Marlins, Dodgers, and now Braves, and he's still going strong.
Left field: Barry Bonds
Now: Bonds wound up winning his third MVP Award in 1993. And you know the rest of the story.
Center field: Ken Griffey, Jr.
Now: Griffey remained a superstar for the remainder of the 1990s, so he's obviously the choice here, whether from the perspective of 1993 or from the lofty viewpoint of 2003. But the rash of injuries he's suffered since joining the Reds in 2001 has certainly compromised his place in history.
Right field: Albert Belle
Now: Well, it's pretty safe to say that Belle won't have to worry about which cap to wear on his Hall of Fame plaque. But he was, for all of the 1990s, one of the most feared hitters in the American League.
Pitcher: Steve Avery
Now: As it turned out, Avery's amazing left arm wasn't able to withstand the rigors of life in the major leagues. After years of arm woes, Avery is back in the major leagues with the Tigers. But the kid who was supposed to win 300 games is now 33 years old, and still a few wins short of 100.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signing in Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.