Thomas, Avery among expected best of the '90s
Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. ... and Steve Avery. A look back at the anticipated best players of the '90s.
Hindsight's 20/20, but foresight is something much less clear. With that in mind, let's get in the Way-Back Machine and travel all the way to the All-Star break in 1993, with a mind toward picking the best players of the 1990s, with roughly seven years left in the decade ...
Designated hitter: Frank Thomas
Then: Thomas reached the major leagues in the summer of 1990, and immediately set up proving that he might well become the right-handed version of Ted Williams. Through the All-Star break in 1993, Thomas boasted an amazing .440 on-base percentage, along with a mighty impressive .545 slugging percentage.
Now: Aside from an injury-related hiccup, Thomas has been almost exactly the player that we expected he'd be. His career numbers -- including 396 home runs, a .431 on-base percentage, and a .568 slugging percentage -- are Hall of Fame-worthy. And this season, at 35, he's still pounding the ball impressively.
Catcher: Mike Piazza
Then: Piazza was just a rookie in 1993, but even after just half a season there was good reason to think the Dodgers catcher would become a big star. First, there was his minor-league performance: in 1991, Piazza hit 29 home runs in 117 games in the Class A California League; in 1992, Piazza totaled 23 homers and batted .350 in 125 games at the Double- and Triple-A levels. And then in 1993, Piazza batted .317 with 18 homers and 58 RBI ... before the All-Star Game.
Now: Like most great catchers, Piazza's tenure as a superstar apparently isn't going to survive his middle 30s, and one might argue that his limitations behind the plate made him the No. 2 catcher of the 1990s, behind Ivan Rodriguez.
First base: John Olerud
Then: The expectations were high, considering Olerud didn't spend even a day in the minor leagues after the Blue Jays drafted him in 1989. But while Olerud's first three full seasons were good, they didn't make anybody forget Willie Upshaw ... until the first half of 1993, that is, when Olerud batted .395 through the All-Star break.
Now: Olerud tailed off in the second half of '93, but still finished with a .363 average and finished third in the American League MVP balloting. Olerud would never play quite that well again, but of course he's been an excellent player since, and after leaving Toronto has enjoyed big seasons with both the Mets and the Mariners.
Second base: Roberto Alomar
Then: Still only 25 in 1993, Alomar already had two Gold Gloves to his credit, and his offensive skills included an exciting blend of batting average, patience, and speed.
Now: Like many second basemen, Alomar hasn't aged particularly well, but his decline didn't really begin until the 21st century: specifically, 2002, when he joined the New York Mets. Alomar was the second baseman of the 1990s, and he doesn't have much competition.
Shortstop: Barry Larkin
Then: Larkin was 29 in 1993, making him a bit old for this list. But among the hot young shortstops at the time, not one of them was really a decent bet for stardom. People talked about Mark Lewis, Royce Clayton, Andujar Cedeno, and especially Jose Offerman in those terms, but all of them suffered at the hands of rational analysis, leaving only Larkin and Cal Ripken (who was even older) as obvious standouts in the decade.
Now: In retrospect, Larkin was pretty obviously the best shortstop in the 1990s, a shade better than Cal Ripken. It's now been a few years since Larkin ranked among the game's top players, but he did enough in the '90s to merit election to the Hall of Fame.
Third base: Gary Sheffield
Then: Sheffield didn't have the greatest reputation as a person, but as a player he obviously had a world of talent. Milwaukee's first-round draft pick in 1986, Sheffield terrorized pitchers at every minor-league stop before reaching the majors in 1988, a few months before his 20th birthday. Sheffield struggled some as a rookie in 1989, but after switching from shortstop to third base in 1990, bounced back with a solid campaign that included a .294 batting average and 25 steals.
In 1991, though, Sheffield suffered through a horrible season. He spent most of the season on the disabled list, and when he could play -- 50 games -- he batted .194. He had also displayed, over the years, a remarkable lack of maturity, and after the season the Brewers traded Sheffield to the Padres.
Sheffield became a star in San Diego, batting .330 (tops in the National League) with 33 home runs and 100 RBI. At the tender age of 24, he was named the National League's Comeback Player of the Year, and there was no telling what he'd do next.
Now: He's not a third baseman any more -- Sheffield became an outfielder in 1994, and hasn't played a single game at third base since -- but he can still hit. Since his breakout season with the Padres in 1992, Sheffield has posted big numbers for the Marlins, Dodgers, and now Braves, and he's still going strong.
Left field: Barry Bonds
Then: Bonds is a little old for this team -- he was 27 in 1993 -- but there's just no way to justify choosing anybody else. By the time the 1993 All-Star Game arrived, Bonds had already won three Gold Gloves and two MVP Awards.
Now: Bonds wound up winning his third MVP Award in 1993. And you know the rest of the story.
Center field: Ken Griffey, Jr.
Then: At 19, Griffey was starting in center field for the Seattle Mariners. At 20, he won his first Gold Glove, and batted .300 with 22 home runs. At 21 and 22 (in 1991 and '92), he totaled 49 home runs and 203 RBI. And then in the first half of 1993, Griffey really got good, with 22 home runs before the All-Star break. At that point, many observers already considered Griffey the best player in the game.
Now: Griffey remained a superstar for the remainder of the 1990s, so he's obviously the choice here, whether from the perspective of 1993 or from the lofty viewpoint of 2003. But the rash of injuries he's suffered since joining the Reds in 2001 has certainly compromised his place in history.
Right field: Albert Belle
Then: Belle shot through the Indians' minor-league system and won a regular job in the majors in just his third professional season (1989), when he was 22. Then came a tough 1990 season, which included stints in the minor leagues and a long stretch on the disabled list. But in 1991, Belle returned to the majors and batted .282 with 28 homers and 95 RBI. He hit similarly in 1992, then exploded in the first half of 1993, with 23 homers and 72 RBI.
Now: Well, it's pretty safe to say that Belle won't have to worry about which cap to wear on his Hall of Fame plaque. But he was, for all of the 1990s, one of the most feared hitters in the American League.
Pitcher: Steve Avery
Then: He was the Man with the Golden Arm. Only 23 in 1993, Avery already had piled up 41 career victories by the All-Star break, and there was little doubt that he would be the pitcher of the 1990s, just as Tom Seaver had been the pitcher of the 1970s and Roger Clemens had been the pitcher of the 1980s.
Now: As it turned out, Avery's amazing left arm wasn't able to withstand the rigors of life in the major leagues. After years of arm woes, Avery is back in the major leagues with the Tigers. But the kid who was supposed to win 300 games is now 33 years old, and still a few wins short of 100.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book and Rob's upcoming book signing in Denver (July 9), visit Rob's Web site.
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