- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Before we ask you today's blazing question, we'd better update you on a few things.
Carlos Delgado swims with the Marlins. Moises Alou plays for his father in San Francisco. And the list of other mashers who can no longer be found where you saw them last includes Steve Finley (Angels), Troy Glaus (Diamondbacks), Jeff Kent (Dodgers), J.D. Drew (Dodgers) and Edgar Renteria (Red Sox).
So now that this little game of Musical Bats is over, it's time to pull up your bar stool and debate a question that's way more fun than debating whether Jose Canseco can pass his pay-per-view lie-detector test. Here goes:
Which team has the best lineup in baseball?
Not the best defense. Not the best depth. Not the best cleanup man. Which team has the best collection of thumpers, top to bottom?
We'll give you a second to order another beverage and think about it.
Is it the Red Sox, the first team in half a century to lead its league in runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging in back-to-back seasons?
Is it the Yankees, a team that could easily get eight 20-homer regulars out of its modest little $200 million ball club?
Is it the Orioles, a team that (surprise, surprise) led the major leagues in hits last year -- and has added Sammy Sosa?
Is it the Marlins, a club that signed Carlos Delgado and will have a 23-homer-hitting shortstop (Alex Gonzalez) hitting eighth?
Or is it someone else -- the Angels, Rangers, Indians, Phillies or maybe a team that just missed leading the league in on-base percentage last year, the San Bonds-isco Giants?
Hmmm. Not that easy, is it? In fact, it's not even a one-beverage kind of question. So in order to help you out, the next time you find yourself down at the old corner saloon with time to burn and nothing but hoops blowouts on the big screens, we asked four pitchers, three scouts and nine GMs or assistants the same question this week.
And just so we can get two debates out of this for the price of one, we're also dividing our discussion into two parts -- one for each league. After all, we have to make this a little more fair for the lineups that have to send sweet-swinging hurlers like Mark (2-for-75 lifetime) Redman to the plate. OK, ready for action? Here goes:
NO. 1 -- RED SOX
Stunningly, they had a lot easier time beating the Yankees in this poll than they did in the ALCS. Of the 14 men who voted on the AL lineups, 13 picked the Red Sox as the best of the best. Hey, why not? They're already the fifth team in history to score at least 949 runs two years in a row. So just ahead are the 1930-31-32 Yankees and 1936-37-38-39 Yankees -- the only teams to do that at least three seasons in a row. And these Red Sox actually ought to be better offensively. They've added Edgar Renteria, who has averaged 40 doubles, 24 steals and 85 RBI a year over the last three seasons. So now every regular in this lineup has had at least a .370 on-base percentage in one, or both, of the last two seasons. Which is downright ridiculous.
THE REVIEWS: "The best, hands-down. They can all crush you, one through nine." ... "Their nine-hole hitter (Mark Bellhorn) had 57 extra-base hits." ... "They have such a relentless offense, it takes real mental toughness to get them out. It isn't the most talented [pitchers] who stop them. It's the toughest."
PITCHER'S REVIEW: "They're so tough at home. All their left-handed hitters have power the other way, so they can take you over the wall or off the wall. And they're all clutch guys -- every one of them."
NO. 2 -- YANKEES
Most of our panelists picked George's Bombers second to Boston, but not everyone is sold -- since they were also chosen as low as fifth. On one hand, seven of the nine regulars hit between 21 and 36 homers last year -- and an eighth (some guy named Giambi) used to hit 40 a year before You Know What. On the other hand, there are lots of age and health concerns -- especially at the bottom of the order. So about all that's safe to project from this group is that they'll make a ton of home-run trots. They've made at least 230 of them two seasons in a row -- and only the 2001-02-03 Rangers and 1996-97-98-99 Mariners have done that three straight years or more.
THE REVIEWS: "Still good. Just getting older and not likely to close the gap." ... "The big difference between this team and the Red Sox is the number of breathers in the lineup. The Yankees are easier to pitch to." ... "When Jeter, A-Rod, Sheffield and Matsui lock in, they can really grind at-bats and score runs in a hurry." ... "Needless to say, Mr. Giambi is the X-factor." ... "I don't like this group that much at all. I'm not sold on [Tony] Womack. Giambi, who knows? Bernie [Williams], the sun's setting. And Tino, I don't know what he's got left."
PITCHER'S REVIEW: "A lot like the Red Sox, with maybe a little more power."
NO. 3 -- ANGELS
They had exactly the same team batting average (.282) and on-base percentage (.341) last year as that Angels team that won the World Series in 2002 -- and hit more homers. So this lineup continues to be a handful. Only now the Angels have slightly retooled. They've subtracted Jose Guillen, David Eckstein and Troy Glaus -- but added Steve Finley, Orlando Cabrera and a rookie third baseman (Dallas McPherson) whose 43 homers and 186 minor-league strikeouts last year suggest he could evolve into anyone from Adam Dunn to Russell Branyan. One thing about this offense: It hasn't read "Moneyball." No team in the big leagues struck out less last year than the Angels -- but these guys also walked 200 fewer times than the Yankees or Red Sox.
THE REVIEWS: "More question marks than the Red Sox or Yankees, but you could make a case they could be better in the end, because of the gas in the middle of their lineup." ... "A little similar to Florida. They've got a lot of different types of guns to beat you -- speed, power and pretty good depth to the lineup if McPherson comes through."
PITCHER'S REVIEW: "Vladimir Guerrero is probably the best hitter I've ever seen in my life."
NO. 4 -- RANGERS
Only the Red Sox bashed more extra-base hits last year than this team. Only the Yankees and White Sox hit more homers. Only the Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox scored more runs. Now factor in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the non-Coors Field portion of the continent, and it's clear that scoring runs will not be the Rangers' problem. And just for the record, this is not a recording. The only thing that makes this lineup tough to evaluate is trying to figure how much the ballpark inflates their numbers. If you're wondering, the answer last year was 30 points in batting average, 80 points in slugging percentage and a 35-percent assist in their home run rate. Most significant new face this year: Richard Hidalgo, who considers himself a clear winner in the contract-drive lottery.
THE REVIEWS: "A young lineup that should continue to improve, [but the] 7-9 holes aren't as strong as [Boston or New York]." ... "Superior collection of young hitters." ... "The guy at first base [Mark Teixera] is a monster. He should be a 40 home run guy for a lot of years. And look around: The second baseman [Alfonso Soriano], the shortstop [Michael Young], the third baseman [Hank Blalock], the left fielder [Kevin Mench], the right fielder [Hidalgo] and even the catcher [Rod Barajas] hit a lot of balls in the seats." ... "They need [Laynce] Nix to take the same step forward that Teixeira, Young and Mench have taken."
PITCHER'S REVIEW: "A lot of aggressive hitters who can hurt you. Probably the most aggressive team in the American League."
NO. 5 -- INDIANS
Talk about your deep lineups. This team had seven hitters with 70-plus RBI, eight with 70-plus runs scored and five with 50-plus extra-base hits. So no wonder they rocketed from 25th in baseball in runs to fifth. And that was with the youngest team in the league. If Jody Gerut makes it back from knee surgery and they succeed in reincarnating Juan Gonzalez and Aaron Boone, this No. 5 ranking might seem low by autumn.
THE REVIEWS: "Dark-horse offensive force, but the uncertainty of the right fielder [Gonzalez] can either drag it down or [surprise!] support it until Gerut returns." . . . "They just keep coming at you." ... "People don't talk about them, because they have so many young guys mixed in. But they've got a lot of bats in that lineup." ... "Deep and well-balanced. Should be able to use their bench to get favorable matchups."
PITCHER'S REVIEW: "Nobody gives them any respect, but very scrappy."
NOT ENOUGH VOTES TO MAKE THE LIST: Orioles, Tigers, Athletics, Mariners.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
17hInterview by Buster Olney
9hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com