Let's start here: If I did this list again tomorrow, I'd likely change my mind. The easy thing to do would be to just go to the Baseball-Reference all-time WAR leaderboard, plug in the top 10 names and call it a day.
The problem with doing that is we get this: 1914, 1890, 1907, 1986, 1951, 1905, 1954, 1984, 1907, 1897. (And if we extended the list to the top 15, we'd get 1915, 1907 and 1911.)
Those are the dates each of the players began their major league careers, meaning nine of the top 15 players started before the United States even joined World War I -- more than 100 years ago. Yes, I have a problem with that. Does it make sense that the majority of the elite players in the game's long history didn't play against black players, wore baggy wool uniforms and used gloves that look like something you use to take a turkey out of the oven with?
Of course not. So my top 10 list includes players from all across the baseball timeline.
10. Mike Schmidt
He hit just .267 in his career? As Bill James once said, if he'd hit for a higher average, he'd be the greatest player to play the game. Schmidt led the National League eight times in home runs and was first or second nine times in WAR among NL position players. He drew walks, won nine Gold Gloves and played on a lot of good teams. And, yes, this could have been Honus Wagner or Stan Musial or Lou Gehrig or Rickey Henderson or Mantle or Roger Hornsby. This wasn't easy! But none of them had the best cry ever.
9. Greg Maddux
This spot was between Walter Johnson and Maddux (although I was tempted to put Pedro Martinez here because of his unbelievable peak level of performance, the greatest attained by a pitcher), but I went with the recent guy. For his career, Johnson averaged 6.4 WAR per 250 innings; Maddux averaged 5.2. But if you remove Maddux's terrible rookie season and the final two seasons when he was sort of just hanging on, he averaged 5.8 per 250 innings. That's pretty close, and adjusting for the more difficult era Maddux pitched in, I'm taking him over the guy who pitched 100 years ago and basically used one pitch for much of his career.
8. Ty Cobb
Yes, he's an old-timer -- but one whose game would have translated to all eras. He won 12 batting titles in the dead ball era and is one of the greatest base stealers to play the game. Cobb was also a big enough guy -- 6-foot-1 -- that I believe that if he'd come up in modern baseball, he'd have added power to his game. So you have a center fielder who would hit for average, power and steal 50 bases a year. I'd take Mickey Mantle and maybe even Ken Griffey Jr. at their peaks over Cobb, but Cobb had the longevity those two lacked.
Am I comfortable with him in my top 10? No. But this isn't a list of the most beloved player, and the man does have 695 home runs, more than 2,000 RBIs and 2,000 runs, more than 300 stolen bases and 3 MVP Awards -- and Juan Gonzalez stole the award from him in 1996, when A-Rod hit .358 with 36 home runs as a 20-year-old and we all dreamed of what his future would be like.
He won his first Cy Young Award at 23 and his seventh one at 41. And, no, he wasn't the only old pitcher to be great in his 40s -- see Warren Spahn and Nolan Ryan, for example. He led his league seven times in ERA and a bunch of times in a bunch of other things. If there's a knock against him -- well, other than his Vitamin B-12 shots -- it's that he isn't the first pitcher you'd choose for a big game. His postseason record wasn't as terrible as many have suggested -- 12-8, 3.75 ERA in 34 starts -- but he also wasn't exactly Curt Schilling or John Smoltz.
5. Ted Williams
He's 14th on the all-time WAR list even though he missed nearly five full seasons while serving in World War II and then Korea. He was great enough to hit .388/.526/.731 at age 38. He was also indifferent in the field and on the basepaths and, like Bonds, a general pain in the butt. He also benefited from Fenway -- he hit .361 there, .328 on the road, although with more home runs on the road -- but you can argue that he, and not Babe Ruth, was the game's greatest hitter.
4. Babe Ruth
Blasphemy? Perhaps. No doubt, based strictly on value compared to peers, Ruth is easily No. 1 (plus he pitched!). Here's my issue: How would Ruth's game translate to modern baseball? For example, in 1920 he hit .376/.532/.847 with 54 home runs while striking out 80 times. That's not a lot of strikeouts by today's standards, but in 1920 the AL averaged just 3.0 K's per nine innings. In 2016, that's up to 7.9 K's per nine, an increase of more than 250 percent. If Ruth struck out at the same rate compared to his peers in 2016 as he did in 1920, we'd be looking at 200 strikeouts. He's not hitting .376 striking out 200 times a season. Maybe he'd still be Babe Ruth, but maybe he'd be Adam Dunn.
3. Barry Bonds
People forget that he was on track to become a top-10 all-time player before his alleged performance-enhancing drug use began sometime after the 1998 season. From 1989 to 1998, he averaged 8.4 WAR per season (which included two strike-shortened seasons). He was the best position player in the NL seven times -- through 1998. Then, from 2001 to 2004, he exploded off the charts, putting up numbers we'd never seen before. Considering Bonds' defensive value and speed, however, I can't rate Williams (at No. 5) ahead of him.
2. Hank Aaron
His career numbers at the plate are nearly identical to Willie Mays -- .941 OPS for Mays, .928 for Aaron -- and, like Mays, he was amazingly durable and consistent, aging well into his late 30s. Aaron was a very good right fielder (and certainly would have been a capable center fielder), but Mays was a great center fielder, so ...
1. Willie Mays
... Willie is the easy choice to rank ahead of Aaron. Mays hit for power, average, was maybe the best defensive center fielder in MLB history and one of the game's best baserunners: In 1971, at age 40, he led the National League in baserunning runs added. He was durable, playing 150-plus games for 13 consecutive seasons. So he won just two MVP Awards? Well, he probably should have won eight or nine, as he led the NL in WAR nine times.