Hard choices about living players

Inspired by Stan Musial's 90th, Derrick Goold sets out to make a list of the 10 greatest living players ...

    Start with the sainted trinity of Musial, Mays and Aaron and then . . . where? Longevity like Nolan Ryan's has to be considered, but so too should brief brilliant bursts of excellence like Sandy Koufax's. Postseason performance, pennants and the glittering rings of championships should be a factor, but why penalize some of the game's best individuals who toiled on teams not good enough for October? Steroids stain the best pitcher and best hitter of the past 20 years, just as a lifetime ban for gambling keeps Pete Rose out of Cooperstown. Does that discolor their numbers, undermine their careers, diminish their greatness?To help celebrate Stan Musial's 90th birthday, the Post-Dispatch considered all of the above and more in order to sort through all of the game's retired players and select baseball's 10 greatest living players ...

In alphabetical order (which is how they're listed by Goold), here are the Talented 10: Henry Aaron, Yogi Berra, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt.

That's a pretty solid list, but I have to quibble with two of them. As much as I love Yogi, I've consistently wound up ranking Johnny Bench as the best catcher in major league history, and I don't aim to change that opinion now. Bench played in a better league -- maybe the only league more talented than the National League in the 1970s was the National League in the 1960s -- and Bench was asked to contribute more to his team, defensively. It's close. But if you're going to have a catcher, I think it should be Bench.

And I'm not sure you should have a catcher. Given their relatively limited playing time, I'm just not quite convinced that any catcher deserves to make this list ahead of Joe Morgan or Alex Rodriguez.

The other issue I've got is (of course) with Koufax making the list. Here's Goold's rationale:

    At age 30, when some pitchers are soaring through their peak, Koufax had the best year of his career and then — poof! — abruptly retired. The sum of Koufax's career doesn't measure well against the 300-win brutes or 3,000-strikeout sharpshooters, but no other pitcher dominated the game like Koufax did with a 129-47 record from 1961 to '66. Koufax led the NL in ERA in his final five seasons, three times at 1.88 or less. The "Left Hand of God," bedeviling hitters with an artist's palate of pitches, threw no-hitters in four successive seasons, including a perfect game in 1965. He had a 0.95 ERA in eight World Series games. When he retired, after winning more than 25 games for the third time in four years, Koufax had more strikeouts (2,396) than innings (2,234 1/3). Other legends may have won more, may have pitched longer, but because his brilliance was distilled into a handful of summers, it's impossible to say anyone ever pitched better.

First, I'm not sure it's impossible. Not when you consider the advantage Koufax gained from pitching half his games at Dodger Stadium. In a pitcher's era. Which isn't to diminish his talents. I would just set the durability bar a little higher. Since, you know, we're talking about one of the two greatest living pitchers.

I don't have a problem with Seaver being one of them, because he threw an immense number of innings. Roughly twice as many as Koufax.

But as well as Koufax pitched, the innings he threw before 1961 should count, too. His career ERA+ is 131, which ranks ninth among all pitchers with at least 2,000 innings since 1950.

Greg Maddux's ERA+ is 132, and he pitched more than 5,000 innings.

Roger Clemens' is 143, and he pitched nearly 5,000 innings.

Randy Johnson's is 136, and he pitched more than 4,000 innings.

Pedro Martinez's is 154, and he pitched 500 more innings than Koufax.

I'm not sure Seaver belongs on the list. But if you believe it was harder to thrive in the 1970s than in the 2000s, you can make a case for him. I just don't see one for Koufax. Not in the face of this competition.

C: Johnny Bench

1B: Albert Pujols

2B: Joe Morgan

SS: Cal Ripken

3B: Mike Schmidt

LF: Barry Bonds

CF: Willie Mays

RF: Hank Aaron

SP: Tom Seaver

RP: Mariano Rivera

Yes, Albert Pujols is already our Greatest Living First Baseman. Somewhat mind-blowing, huh? And he's got a fantastic chance of catching Lou Gehrig for the title of Greatest First Baseman, Period.

Trust me: Losing Musial hurts me more than it hurts you. But considering quality of competition, there's just no way to push Musial past Aaron (let alone Mays). The only way you can get Musial into our All-Living outfield is by levying a massive penalty against Bonds for the drugs. More massive than I can justify.

I go back and forth with Seaver and Clemens. They pitched around the same number of innings. Clemens has a big edge in ERA+ -- 143 to 128 -- but the ERAs were higher during Clemens' era, which left more room to be better than the league ERA. Leaving aside the supposed morality of the thing, would Seaver have lasted longer and pitched better if he'd used the drugs that Clemens used?

I don't know. I'll never know. But Clemens has been gone for only a few years. For now, I'll take the conservative approach and stick with Seaver. And I claim the right to change my mind, even while Seaver's still walking among us.