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Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Updated: April 30, 4:51 PM ET
The game's best leading men

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Kenny Lofton, a guy who's churned out base hits more readily than pithy quotes through the years, once summoned the perfect analogy to describe a good leadoff man.

The attributes required include speed and baserunning acumen, patience and a discerning eye, some pop, a swagger, the dexterity to lay down a bunt and the tenacity to keep diving back into the first-base bag to beat those always annoying pickoff throws.

"You can't put your shoes on without your socks," Lofton said in an interview in 1996. "Everything works together -- shoes, socks, pants and shirts. If one is missing, you're in trouble."

While Rickey Henderson stands atop Mr. Blackwell's best dressed list for eternity, it's hard to find guys who have the entire wardrobe covered. Maybe that's why batting leadoff is like working for the government: If you're reasonably proficient, you have a job for life.

Lofton is plugging away for his 11th major league team, the Texas Rangers, at age 39, and Craig Biggio is closing in on 3,000 hits with Houston. Meanwhile, several talented young players (Rocco Baldelli, Curtis Granderson, Rickie Weeks et al) are trying to embrace the nuances of the role even though they're better suited to hit elsewhere in the order.

Who are the elite leadoff men in Major League Baseball today? We run them down in this week's installment of " The Starting 9."

Jose Reyes, Mets

1
Jose Reyes
"He's the best player in baseball," a National League front-office man said of Reyes. "Every tool is [rated] plus, and he can change a game in so many ways."

Based on his performance in 2006, quick start in April and the people hitting around him, a healthy Reyes appears to be a lock for 20 homers, 15 triples, 120 runs, 80 RBIs and 60 stolen bases. His on-base percentage, which spiked from .300 to .354 last season, continues to trend upward as his discipline and pitch recognition also improve.

Remember when people mocked Reyes for his lack of patience? In 2005, Reyes struck out 18 times and failed to draw a walk in the entire month of April. So far this season, he has 13 walks and nine whiffs.

Reyes will still chase a two-strike pitch outside the zone, but he hardly ever swings at the first pitch unless it's a strike. A little maturity and some guidance from teammates Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado and Jose Valentin have turned him into a man with a plan.

Even when Reyes gets a tad reckless on the bases, he has the speed to outrun his mistakes. He's been successful on 81 percent of his career stolen base attempts, and he's off to a 12-for-14 start in 2007.

Grady Sizemore, Indians

2
Grady Sizemore
If Sizemore is behind Reyes, it's not by much. One executive, citing Sizemore's speed, on-base ability, impressive power and prudent judgment on the bases, called him "the closest there is to the total package right now." Since Sizemore is 24 years old, a wonderful athlete and driven player, he's only going to improve.

There are only two areas in which Sizemore is lacking: 1) He's a career .223 hitter against lefties; and 2) he strikes out a ton. The Indians also worked with him extensively on bunting in spring training, but he's yet to incorporate that weapon into his game.

Johnny Damon, Yankees

3 Damon is starting to show some wear and tear after playing a minimum of 145 games a year in center field for 11 straight seasons. He's fighting a bad back and sore hamstring, and nagging injuries will continue to be a concern now that he's 33.

But we're still talking about the pro's pro -- a guy who'll foul off good pitches, take his walks and consistently set the tone for an offense. And if you judge a man by the company he keeps, Damon is going to have an awfully strong Hall of Fame case by the time he's finished. In 2006 he joined Lou Gehrig and Stan Musial as the only players to surpass 30 doubles and 100 runs scored in nine consecutive seasons.

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners

4
Ichiro Suzuki
Sure, you'd like to see him walk more. But when a guy amasses 200 or more hits for six consecutive seasons and his on-base percentage averages out to .376, he's not spending a whole lot of time in the dugout.

Ichiro also wins points for knowing what to do upon arrival. He's a smart, attentive (not to mention extremely fast) baserunner, and he'll turn those singles into doubles in a hurry. Last season he stole 45 bases in 47 attempts, for a success rate of 95.7 percent. According to Baseball Prospectus, that's the all-time high for a player with 40 steal attempts.

Rafael Furcal, Dodgers

5 Furcal has been in a funk since returning from a sprained ankle April 13. Not to worry: He started slowly last year before putting up monster numbers (a .339 average and a .963 combined on-base/slugging percentage) after the All-Star break for the NL wild card Dodgers.

Furcal has plenty of sock for a little guy, and the speed and aggressiveness to consistently put pressure on the opposition once he reaches base. Like Ichiro, Furcal is fast and alert enough to advance on balls in the dirt, go from first to third on a single or score from first on anything in the gap.

"He's probably the best baserunner I've ever seen," said Milwaukee manager Ned Yost, who was third-base coach in Atlanta when Furcal played for the Braves. "Not only is he quick, but he has the best instincts I've ever seen."

Jimmy Rollins, Phillies

6
Jimmy Rollins
Someone forgot to tell Rollins that 5-foot-8-inch middle infielders are supposed to be spray hitters. Last season he hit 25 homers and amassed 79 extra-base hits -- more than Miguel Cabrera, Vernon Wells and teammate Chase Utley.

He's also a very efficient base stealer, as evidenced by 36-for-40 performance a year ago. "He's turning into a great offensive catalyst," said a National League talent evaluator.

So why isn't Rollins higher on the list? Try that .330 career on-base percentage, for starters. Rollins' aggressive mind-set serves him well when he's in a groove, but it can be a liability when his swing gets big and he's in such a blissful state letting it rip that he's immune to the concept of patience.

Here's Rollins in a nutshell: He walked eight times in the Phillies' first seven games this season, and didn't draw another walk in the next 12 games. Maybe he's just bored taking those four pitches outside the zone and jogging down to first.

Alfonso Soriano, Cubs

7 Soriano is less a leadoff hitter than a freakishly talented power-speed hybrid who happens to feel most comfortable batting leadoff. He upgraded his plate discipline last season on the way to hitting 46 homers, stealing 41 bases and securing a $136 million contract with Chicago. But that .325 career OBP is nothing special.

Soriano's penchant for swinging away makes him particularly effective leading off an inning, when pitchers are inclined to dispense with caution and attack the strike zone. He's a career .303 hitter with a .912 OPS leading off an inning.

Hanley Ramirez, Marlins

8
Hanley Ramirez
With another year similar to his rookie season in Florida, Ramirez might leapfrog about four people on this list.

Ramirez put up monster numbers as a rookie (119 runs, 51 steals, 74 extra-base hits) for a middle-of-the-road offensive club in a tough park for hitters. And he appears to be taking a more disciplined approach this season in an effort to reduce those 128 strikeouts.

"He should develop some more power, which would make him a viable option further down in the order, but he's fine where he is right now," write the analysts at Baseball Prospectus.

Ryan Freel, Reds

9 Yeah, Freel is scrappy, perpetually filthy and a guy who once shaved his head -- eyebrows and all -- when a minor league teammate offered to buy him a $2,000 laptop computer.

But Freel is more than just an overachiever and a stitch in your side. His stolen base totals the past three years: 37, 36 and 37. His on-base percentages: .375, .371 and .363. Consistency is no problem; his biggest issues are durability and the risk of injury.

"You're always worried he's going to break something running into a wall," said a scout. "But he wouldn't be the same player if you took away that whole Energizer Bunny thing."

Honorable mentions

Reed Johnson, Toronto: He led all major league leadoff men with a .390 on-base percentage last year, while incurring lots of welts in the process. Johnson has been hit by a pitch 71 times since 2003, the second highest total in the majors in that time span to Oakland's Jason Kendall. He's currently on the disabled list with a back injury and isn't expected back until July.

David Eckstein, Cardinals: The quintessential pest. He fouls off balls by the carload, and he ranks fourth among active players on the toughest-to-fan list behind Juan Pierre, Placido Polanco and Paul Lo Duca. Eckstein is not a great on-base guy, however, and he went 18-for-32 in steal attempts in 2005-2006.

Luis Castillo, Twins: Precious little pop, but he's a .368 career OBP man who's still good for 20 steals a season. Those leg injuries are starting to take a toll.

Dave Roberts, Giants: Fresh off a 49-steal, .360 OBP season in San Diego, Roberts is off to a rough start in San Francisco.

Brian Roberts, Orioles: The O's are waiting for Roberts to regain the form he showed in 2005, when he hit 18 homers and made the All-Star team before suffering a serious elbow injury.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.