Not so long ago, Minnesota Twins backstop Joe Mauer was the consensus pick as baseball's best catcher. But the 2009 American League MVP, four-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove winner and .323 career hitter had another injury-plagued season in 2011 (missing significant time for "leg weakness" of all things) and in 82 games managed just a .287 batting average, three home runs and 30 runs batted in. The eight-year, $184 million contract extension he signed in March 2010 is already looking like an albatross for the seven years remaining on the deal.
Six-time All-Star Brian McCann and three-time Gold Glove winner Yadier Molina come to mind quickly as the best in the game, and youngsters Carlos Santana, Alex Avila, Miguel Montero and Matt Wieters had breakout seasons. But, right now, Mike Napoli's the clear choice.
Nappy led all MLB catchers this year in BA (.320), HR (30), pitches per plate appearance (4.37), on-base percentage (.414), slugging percentage (.631) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.046). That OPS, incidentally, was second to AL MVP-candidate Jose Bautista and ahead of some guy named Miguel Cabrera among all players. And only Bautista bested Napoli's 12.3 at-bats per home run ratio.
He's also among the top defenders at the position, with a fielding percentage this season (.996) comparable to McCann, Avila and Wieters (.995 each). Among players with at least 50 games behind the dish this year, Napoli was first in range factor (8.11), third in catcher's earned run average (3.18) and seventh in percentage of base runners thrown out (36.4).
In short, he's everything you want a catcher to be: a productive middle-of-the-order hitter and defensive whiz.[jump]
And, not too long ago, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was considered the best at his position as well. But age (36), declining production and, like Mauer, an injury-plagued 2011 (.276 BA, 16 HR and 62 RBI in 99 games) remove him from the discussion. Also, like Mauer, A-Rod's contract looks like it's gonna get painful really soon (if it hasn't already), as he has a whopping six more years and $180 million (plus the potential to earn another $30 million more in milestone payments) left on his deal.
Veterans Kevin Youkilis, David Wright and Pablo Sandoval, along with up-and-comers David Freese and Ryan Zimmerman are on the fringes of the discussion, but it's really a debate among Evan Longoria, Aramis Ramirez and Adrian Beltre.
Beltre (.276 BA, 310 HR, 1,113 RBI) and Ramirez (.284 BA, 315 HR, 1,122 RBI) have posted nearly identical offensive numbers throughout their respective 14-year careers, and both had strong 2011 campaigns, but the edge goes to Beltre because of his defensive prowess.
Longoria, who just turned 26, comes the closest to beating Beltre. Both are among the game's best defenders, combining to win the last four AL Gold Gloves at third (Beltre in '07 and '08, and Longoria in '09 and '10), but Beltre gets the nod for his better numbers with the stick.
Beltre out-performed Longoria (who's no offensive slouch) in nearly every category this season, even though he played in nine fewer games, finishing first in RBI (105), first in SLG (.561), second in HR (32), second in hits (144), tied for second in doubles (33), third in runs scored (82) and fourth in BA (.296) among all third baseman.
If there's an Achilles for Beltre, it's his inability to draw walks, as he had just 25 free passes this year. However, he doesn't strike out much (53 times) and ranked second only to Sandoval in OPS among third baseman.
Just like Napoli, he's pretty much everything you want a third baseman to be: a dangerous hitter and defensive master.
Good thing that whole Cliff Lee signing didn't work out.
After the club's ownership situation finally cleared up and the team made it to the World Series, the Rangers had dough to spend -- roughly $23 million a year -- which is what they offered Lee to stay in Arlington.
When Lee rebuffed their proposal and instead returned to Philadelphia, Texas turned its attention to improving the team in spite of his departure. It was time for Plan B.
Plan B included making additions to an already potent lineup and improving defensively. Signing Beltre and acquiring Napoli in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays actually saved the Rangers a little dough, as the two earned $21.8 million combined this year. (Texas also handed out $3 million to Brandon Webb, but let's forget about that.)
Now Texas has arguably the best two all-around players at catcher and third as key components to team on the verge of another World Series appearance, while Lee (five runs, 12 hits and two walks allowed in six innings in a Game 2 NLDS loss to St. Louis) and the rest of the Phillies aces couldn't get past the first round.
Thus far, Nelson Cruz has almost single-handedly carried the offensive load in the ALCS, blasting all five of the team's home runs and driving in 11 of their 24 runs. The rest of the lineup is hitting just .248 with a pathetic .335 SLG.
That has to change, doesn't it? And what better time than in a potential series-clinching Game 6. And who better to step up than Beltre and Napoli?
It's not like either player has been silent in the series, especially Napoli, who drove in Game 4's winning run. But Nappy doesn't have an extra-base hit yet. And Beltre, who appears to be 100 percent healthy, is hitting just .190 in the ALCS after three homers in the ALDS against the Rays.
It sure feels like one or both are ready to go bonkers, which could lead to early runs on the board for Texas. And I fully expect Jim Leyland to (finally) adjust to Cruz by making sure he sees mostly off-speed pitches, as Nellie's been crushing fastballs, especially inside ones. So, while Cruz has been incredible, I doubt he'll be tonight's hero. (Although I'd be happy to be wrong.)
A few runs early and a strong five innings from starter Derek Holland should be enough to advance Texas to its second World Series. After Holland, I expect we'll see a mix of Scott Feldman, Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz to keep the Tigers' offense at bay. Maybe even Matt Harrison will see some action (Ron Washington said he'll be available).
One more win. Just one more win.
-- I'm feeling really good about originally picking Texas to win in six games.
-- Mitch Moreland is back on the bench tonight, with Young at first, Endy Chavez in left and David Murphy at DH.
-- Leyland said Justin Verlander won't make another appearance in this series, and Rick Porcello is available tonight out of the bullpen.
-- There has been lots of discussion about CC Sabathia's likely decision to opt out of the remaining four years and $92 million with the Yanks. A "baseball source" told ESPN New York that the Rangers have plans to "throw a boatload of money at him," even though the same source expects Sabathia to stay put.
I expect the Rangers to make a serious offer, but I don't see the Yankees letting him slip away with their need to add pitching, not subtract their ace.
-- Of the 22 teams with home-field advantage in a best-of-seven series and a 3-1 series lead to lose Game 5, just six of them failed to win one of the final two games.
See y'all in the comments!