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Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Updated: May 15, 10:12 AM ET
Edmonds ranks as one of baseball's best center fielders

By David Schoenfield
Page 2

It can happen in a hurry.

Growing up in Seattle, one of few stars I watched on the Mariners during the 1980s (when the team had a losing record every season) was a first baseman named Alvin Davis, the American League's rookie of the year in 1984. In 1989, Davis was second in the AL in OPS. He fell off some in 1990 and by 1991 he hit .221. In two seasons, he had gone from one of the best hitters in baseball to a guy who couldn't get around on a big league fastball. After a cameo with the Angels in 1992, he was finished, done at age 31.

Jim Edmonds
Edmonds struggled to make contact in his 26 games with San Diego.

Jim Edmonds' fall was more traditional and predictable. He'll turn 38 years old in June. He's battled nagging injuries throughout his career. He's been in slow decline since his monster 2004 season, when he hit .301 with 42 home runs and helped the Cardinals reach the World Series. Last season, he was a below-average hitter for the first time since his rookie season (other than an injury-plagued 1999). The Padres gambled that he had something left in the tank, acquiring the four-time All-Star for a minor leaguer, but after hitting .178 with 24 strikeouts and only three extra-base hits in 90 at-bats, they decided Edmonds had met Father Time and released him over the weekend.

The Cubs are reportedly interested in signing Edmonds, to see if he has a last gasp remaining. I hope he does; the Cubs could use some punch in center field with Felix Pie disappointing and I've always enjoyed watching Edmonds, even if his trademark diving catches in center field did often appear a bit, umm, overdramatic.

Edmonds has been one of the most underrated players of his generation. While known for his eight Gold Gloves he was also a terrific hitter, reaching a .385 or better on-base percentage six straight seasons with St. Louis and hitting 30 or more homers five times (twice hitting 42).

Edmonds had been a very good player for the Angels from 1995 through 1998, hitting at least .290 with 25 home runs each season. But shoulder problems limited him to 55 games and a .250 average in 1999 and with Edmonds facing free agency after the 2000 season, the Cardinals acquired him in spring training for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy.

The Cardinals knew they were acquiring a talented player, albeit one whose effort had been questioned at times by teammates. "He can definitely play the game when he wants to," Angels pitcher Chuck Finley once said. "Jimmy's biggest problem is Jimmy." The Cardinals definitely didn't expect that Edmonds would begin one of the great stretches of play by any center fielder in major league history.

Check out this list of five-year peaks for some Hall of Fame center fielders, plus a few others. RC is runs created over that five-year span and RCAP is runs created above position (compared to an average center fielder for that time period, taken from Lee Sinins' baseball-encyclopedia.com).
                              HR    RBI  RUNS   AVG   OBP   SLG    RC   RCAP
Mickey Mantle, 1954-1958      192   522   630  .325  .451  .618   777   453
Ty Cobb, 1910-1914             29   425   511  .397  .462  .567   716   353
Joe DiMaggio, 1937-1941       169   691   603  .350  .420  .638   759   351
Hack Wilson, 1926-1930        177   708   586  .331  .419  .612   712   295
Willie Mays, 1961-1965        226   690   613  .308  .387  .606   682   287
JIM EDMONDS, 2000-2004        181   501   511  .298  .410  .593   614   279
Tris Speaker, 1912-1916        19   399   541  .359  .443  .504   665   276
Ken Griffey Jr., 1996-2000    249   685   593  .290  .382  .604   686   253
Duke Snider, 1953-1957        207   585   581  .311  .407  .618   693   245
Bernie Williams, 1996-2000    131   535   540  .324  .410  .551   604   235
Larry Doby, 1950-1954         138   503   484  .286  .399  .513   560   213
Dale Murphy, 1982-1986        174   524   545  .288  .376  .522   598   176
Earl Averill, 1930-1934       125   591   569  .320  .395  .546   668   163
Kirby Puckett, 1986-1990       77   481   481  .331  .370  .507   561   146
Cesar Cedeno, 1972-1976       104   400   466  .298  .365  .485   499   146
Andre Dawson, 1979-1983       121   439   468  .296  .341  .507   491   131
Richie Ashburn, 1951-55        11   245   497  .321  .407  .403   534   100
Andruw Jones, 2002-2006       192   558   479  .266  .352  .524   523    96
Gold Gloves aren't listed, but Edmonds was voted one all five seasons. The Cardinals made the playoffs four of those five seasons. With Edmonds' combo of power, batting average, on-base ability and defense, I'm comfortable saying it was one of the 10 best five-year stretches any center fielder has put together.

Now, I am not suggesting lining up Edmonds against the likes of Mays, Griffey and Snider makes him a Hall of Famer. He got a late start to his career -- his first full season didn't come until he was 25 -- and his last good season came at 35, so his career totals will likely fall short of Cooperstown status.

But it was a heck of a run. In fact, the attitude toward Edmonds eventually shifted from the criticism he received earlier in his career to the image of a gamer who often played hurt. After he made a spectacular catch against the Mets in the 2006 National League Championship Series, crashing into the wall to haul down a long drive from Jose Reyes, Ian O'Connor wrote in USA Today how Edmonds was the last player left in the clubhouse after the game, "alone with his battered body, surrounded by vacant stalls and the ghostly images of Cardinals jerseys suspended in air. Everything must've hurt. His head. His wrist. His foot. His feelings."

Edmonds told O'Connor that "I've heard a lot of sarcastic comments about me diving too much. I've just had a lot of negativity in my career, and I really don't give a damn. As long as the guys on my team appreciate what I do, that's all that matters to me."

Edmonds was underappreciated, maybe not by Cardinals fans, but certainly by many others. For one thing, he was a clutch postseason performer (.277 BAA/.365 OBP/.523 SLG in 61 playoff games).

But he'll mostly be remembered for one of the great catches in baseball history.

Here's hoping he has a few more good ones left in him.