Guerrero in a class by himself

When it comes to this winter's free-agent class, there's Vladimir Guerrero and then there's everyone else.

Originally Published: September 4, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Attention, shoppers. Your question of the day is this:

We're sending you down to this winter's free-agent supermarket. We'll pretend, for now, that money is no object. We're giving you a shopping cart big enough for one player and one player only. Which one do you sign?

Hmmm. Lots of choices.

You want starting pitching, you've got Kevin Millwood, Greg Maddux, Bartolo Colon and Sidney Ponson sitting there on the shelves.

Vladimir Guerrero
Vladimir Guerrero may be pursued by both New York teams.

You want a closer, you've got Keith Foulke, Armando Benitez, Eddie Guardado and Ugueth Urbina.

You want a top-of-the-lineup bat, you've got Luis Castillo and Shannon Stewart.

You want a marquee shortstop, you can contemplate Miguel Tejada or the dazzling Japanese free agent, Kazuo Matsui.

But this is full-service shopping at its finest. So you've got catchers (Javy Lopez and Pudge Rodriguez). And mashers (Gary Sheffield). And Gold Gloves (Mike Cameron and Robbie Alomar). Even a 500-homer man (Rafael Palmeiro).

But if you could have only one? There's no doubt, friends, whose picture ought to be on every billboard at this free-agent supermarket:

Vladimir Guerrero.

Case closed.

Scratch all the pitchers, says one AL front-office man: "Too unpredictable."

Think about Sheffield for a minute. Maybe even 15 minutes. But then remember he'll be 35 next Opening Day. Which makes it "more probable than not," says one agent, "that Sheffield has crossed over to the downside of his career."

Think extra hard about Tejada. Because he's only 27. Because he's now heading for his fourth straight 30-homer season. Because he has won. And, most of all, in the words of one AL club official, because he's "a young, very good player with great enthusiasm, who plays a premium position."

But once you've finished all that window-shopping, how can you not point your shopping cart right at Guerrero?

Heck, how many players in the whole sport, free agent or not, would you rather have than him? Barry Bonds? A-Rod? Albert Pujols? Todd Helton? You'd be hard-pressed to make a case for anybody else. We dare you.

Guerrero, after all, "is one of the five best players in this game," says the same agent (who does not represent him), "and has the potential to be one of the five best players in the history of the game."

OK, anybody want to debate this further?

This man is 27 years old. He'll turn 28 next February. He already has cranked out five seasons of 30 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored, a .300-plus batting average and an on-base percentage of at least .370.

Top of the class
Below is a list of our writers' top 10 free agents for this offseason:

Jayson Stark
1. Vladimir Guerrero
2. Gary Sheffield
3. Kevin Millwood
4. Miguel Tejada
5. Bartolo Colon
6. Sidney Ponson
7. Kelvim Escobar
8. Andy Pettitte
9. Luis Castillo
10. Tom Gordon

Rob Neyer
1. Guerrero
2. Sheffield
3. Tejada
4. Colon
5. Millwood
6. Ivan Rodriguez
7. Mike Cameron
8. Pettitte
9. Shannon Stewart
10. Keith Foulke

Phil Rogers
1. Tejada
2. Guerrero
3. Sheffield
4. Colon
5. Millwood
6. Rodriguez
7. Rich Aurilia
8. Pettitte
9. Javy Lopez
10. Cameron

Alan Schwarz
1. Guerrero
2. Sheffield
3. Tejada
4. Colon
5. Millwood
6. Rodriguez
7. Escobar
8. Lopez
9. Castillo
10. Pettitte

How many other players in the history of this sport have had five seasons like that by this age? How about two -- Jimmie Foxx (who had six) and Mel Ott (five). It's three if you count Alex Rodriguez, who turned 28 in late July (making him about six months older than Guerrero) but should reach those plateaus for the fifth time this year, while playing more than half of this season at age 27.

Only four other players have even had four seasons at those levels. Three are Hall of Famers. You might have heard of them: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Chuck Klein. The fourth is a guy who very well could end up in the Hall -- Frank Thomas.

And we won't even get into the fact that, had it not been for the back trouble that kept Guerrero out of 39 games in June and July, he would be heading right back to all of those numbers for the sixth time year, too. So we won't need any symposiums to make 30 teams in baseball understand we're dealing with a truly special player.

We surveyed a bunch of baseball men on this subject to make sure we weren't missing something. The numbers blow them away, too.

"Guerrero has never hit below .300 in a full season," says one AL executive. "And three out of the last four years, he's posted an on-base-percentage above .400. Furthermore, for a guy who gained a reputation as a wild swinger, it's remarkable that in both 2002 and 2003, Guerrero has more walks than strikeouts."

But here, that executive says, is the topper:

"His career averages (.389 on-base percentage, .589 slugging percentage) are much higher than any year Tejada has ever had."

True. Tejada's on-base percentage has passed .350 once -- last year (.354). Tejada's slugging percentage also has touched .500 only once -- last year (.508). In the worst year of Guerrero's career -- in his call-up season of 1997 -- he had a .350 on-base percentage and was three doubles away from a .500 slugging percentage.

But the scary part is: How do we know if we've even seen the best of him yet?

Guerrero, as the same agent points out, has never played for a true powerhouse, or in a deep lineup that complemented him with even one other middle-of-the-order thumper. (How many other Expos have had a 30-homer season since he arrived? That would be exactly zero.)

So "on the right club and in the right lineup," the agent says, "it would not surprise anyone for Vlad to raise his yearly productivity to spectacular levels -- 40-plus homers, 120-plus RBI, .310-.320 average."

Only five players have had more than one season at all those levels since 2000 -- Bonds, A-Rod, Helton, Jason Giambi and Sammy Sosa. That's Superstars Inc. right there. And every one of those men will average $15 million-plus over the life of their contracts.

Obviously, Guerrero's asking price is going to fall somewhere in that range. And it's hard to imagine he won't get it. Nevertheless, there are still three negatives that could hold the dollars closer to Helton's AAV ($15.7 million) than to A-Rod's ($25.2 million).

One is defense. Guerrero's 86 errors since 1997 are 35 more than the next-closest outfielder (Sosa's 51). True, Guerrero has an arm as supersonic as any outfielder alive. The question is whether he enjoys showing it off just a little too much.

"All his errors are out of aggression," says Todd Zeile, who is now playing with Guerrero after years of playing against him. "He comes up firing out there, trying to get somebody, and the ball hits the runner and goes into the dugout, and that's a Vlad error. ... But I know he's a threat out there, because guys have to think about him when they think about whether to go first to third or second to home. So as much as people have gotten on him at times for his defense, from what I've seen, his defense is very good."

(Vladimir Guerrero) is one of the five best players in this game, and has the potential to be one of the five best players in the history of the game.
An agent

A more pressing item of concern, though, is Guerrero's back. The good news is: He's been better than ever since coming off the disabled list (.363, 15 HR, 36 RBI in only 146 AB, through Tuesday). The bad news is: Any back problems, for a guy with a swing as ferocious as Guerrero's, raise many a red flag.

"The back is an issue," says one GM. "If you are asking who is the most attractive player on the market, it is Vlad, no doubt. But under the conditions it may take to sign him (i.e., a long-term deal), there may be a better (i.e., safer) bet."

There's a third factor here, however, that may have the biggest impact of all. This is not Jason Giambi we're talking about. This is not a guy who loves the bright lights, or is even capable of feeding off them.

This is about as quiet, reserved, almost reclusive a star player as we can remember in any major sport in our lifetime. Everyone who knows him, without exception, says he would have zero interest in playing in New York, or any major high-pressure media center. So without the Yankees out there to drive the price, virtually no free agent -- even this one -- gets market-breaking dollars.

"My sole concern," says the same agent, "would be the place that he chooses to play. The best type of team for him, in my considered opinion, would be in a midsized market with a strong fan base, and with a club that recognizes that Vlad needs to be embraced and made comfortable."

From all accounts, if it were just up to Guerrero, that team would continue to be the Expos. But it's impossible to envision MLB authorizing any $100-million contracts, for Guerrero or anybody else.

So what towns does that leave? Baltimore? St. Louis? Houston? We keep hearing this will be a choice that won't be dictated just by money. So who knows?

But one GM is skeptical of all that talk.

"I have been through these free-agent pursuits enough," he says, "to know that the agent will protect (his player's) image and even build a false one. The agent will look for one thing -- bottom dollar. ... So in the end, (Guerrero) will only make the right decision for his personality if he is strong enough to realize his innate nature" -- and then makes his own decision, to find the place, not the dollar signs, that fit that nature.

It is going to be a fascinating negotiation, all right. There won't be many clubs out there with humongous bucks to throw around. But if that isn't supposed to matter in this guy's case, you never know which teams might kick his tires.

Dollars and destinations, though, are issues we can all worry about in November. For now, that's all academic, and it's your shopping cart, to fill however you want. But we know how we'd fill our cart. If you can find a better way to fill it than a 27-year-old 30-homer, 100-RBI machine, we've got something to argue about down at the old saloon all winter long.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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