I just finished Bill Simmons' basketball epic which closed with a chapter called, "The Wine Cellar Team" where he attempted to build the best "team" ever. The difference between this concept and most is that here you do not simply pick the best player at each position. Instead, you try and pick pieces that fit together perfectly.
While this concept is more difficult in basketball because it is based less on individual matchups than baseball, I still think it is an interesting exercise to see what happens when you try and build the best team rather than a collection of the best players. So, basically if you had a seven game series that you absolutely had to win, what would your 25 man roster look like?
Some rules first. You are picking a player from one individual season. Meaning that picking Alex Rodriguez is not an option, but picking 2007 Alex Rodriguez is an option. Also, I am not going to pick anyone before 1948. The reason is because the concept of this game is that it would be played today, with modern rules and guidelines; essentially that you would take a player from his time period, in a time machine, and put him on the field today and I simply do not trust any players from that era to be effective in a modern game. They played in a different era with different rules and against weaker competition (a delicate way of saying that black ball players were not allowed in the league.)
So without further ado, here is my "Wine Cellar Team."
Starting at catcher, 2009 Joe Mauer. Back up: 1972 Johnny Bench
Joe Mauer's 2009 season looks like the best season ever by a catcher to me. He hit for average and power while showing great patience. He is great defensively and his teammates love him, what more could you ask for. Bench is the obvious choice for a backup, being right-handed is an advantage and few can match Bench's defensive ability. 1953 Roy Campanella just missed the cut, and so did Mike Piazza (who was not good enough defensively) and Ivan Rodriguez (who was not good enough offensively).
Starting at first base, 2009 Albert Pujols.
Probably the most loaded position, Pujols appears the choice to me just ahead of 1994 Jeff Bagwell. There is nothing Pujols cannot do and 2009 was his best all-around season, but really you could pick any of them and not go wrong. Lots of Frank Thomas seasons were considered, as were Mark McGwire's, but Pujols is just more of a total package.
Starting at second base, 1949 Jackie Robinson. Back up: 2007 Chase Utley
I'm actually amazed that neither Joe Morgan nor Craig Biggio made this team, but have you ever looked at Jackie's 1949 season closely? He was the best base runner that year and the best defender at second and was one of the top three hitters. Utley is a very similar player, fantastic all-around at the plate, in the field and on the bases. He is also left-handed giving us a better option off the bench.
Starting at third base, 2007 Alex Rodriguez
The best season by one of the games greatest players ever. He was a dominant force offensively and was solid in the field as well and even dangerous on the bases. Depending on the other players on this team, I could have easily taken 1980 George Brett or Mike Schmidt. Even Chipper Jones' MVP season was in the running. However, I had several good table setters already, eliminating Brett and A-Rod's year is just a bit more impressive than anything Schmidt or Jones did in my eyes.
Starting at shortstop, 1987 Ozzie Smith. Back up: 1999 Derek Jeter
Smith was probably the most valuable defensive player in the history of the game. His range was unbelievable and considering all the offense this team has I was willing to sacrifice some for Ozzie's glove. However, Ozzie did have a .392 OBP this year and was 43/52 as a base-stealer, not bad for the #9 batter. 1999 was Jeter's best season and I feel like he has more value in the club house and off the bench than Alex Rodriguez would. For a series of this magnitude I want Jeter's steadying influence, particularly when he is not likely to get a ton of at-bats.
Starting at left field, 1993 Barry Bonds. Back up: 1948 Stan Musial
I know what you are thinking... 1993? Yes. Bonds was by far the best hitter in baseball at the time, a great base-runner and probably the best defensive LF ever. Also we are playing this game with modern rules and he might not pass the drug test if I use 2001... Musial, in my opinion, is the most underrated player in baseball history. The guy simply did everything spectacularly and 1948 was his best year. I had to have him on this team in some capacity.
Starting at center field, 1956 Mickey Mantle. Back up: 1955 Willie Mays
This was one of the hardest decisions for me. With apologies to Griffey and several other outstanding players, I knew that these two had to be on the team but picking who to start and which years to use was a challenge. While I think Mays had the better career, he never had a season that topped Mickey's 1956 effort when he lapped the field offensively and was pretty good in the field as well. I chose 1955 for Mays because I wanted him at his absolute peak of athleticism. 1955 Mays is probably the best defensive CF ever and he also hit 51 home runs, I like it!
Starting at right field, 1987 Tony Gwynn
Stop scratching your heads already. I know this one is a shocker but go with me for a minute. I wanted a speedy/defensive type in this spot who could be a table-setter and Gwynn is the best choice. Remember Ichiro in 2004 when he set the record for most hits in a season? That was Gwynn in 1987 except Gwynn was better. Although Gwynn had only 218 hits, he had 39 more walks, stole 20 more bases while only getting caught one more time and out slugged Ichiro .511 to .469. Gwynn also won a GG that year (which really does not mean much, but in this case it was deserved) so Ichiro is not really beating him on defense either. Also, can you really find a better all around season for a right-fielder than this? Larry Walker had a monster season in 1997 but most of that was Coors Field. Sammy Sosa had some big years but never matched Gwynn's OBP, was poor in the OF and then of course there is the risk of a failed drug test again... Clemente and Kaline had some big years but none that actually seem better than Gwynn's. Frank Robinson had some big years but was not an elite defender and a bit of a pain to deal with. Gwynn has taken a lot of heat from the sabermetric community, and maybe Raines had a better career, but I'll take 1987 Gwynn as my right-fielder any day.
Starting at DH: 1957 Ted Williams
Originally I wanted to squeeze Edgar Martinez into this slot but it would be impossible to leave out Williams. An indifferent fielder this is the perfect way to maximize his hitting ability and keep him happy. Unfortunately we can't use his 1941 year because of the rules, but since he is playing DH I have no problem carrying the 38-year-old version of Williams.
One other note about the backups before I move on to pitchers. I think that all of them would be willing to accept their roles as backup players and that is extremely important here. I do not want a player on my bench who is pouting about not starting and will not be in the right state of mind when he is called upon. I trust all of these guys to do that based on what I know about them. The only concern might be the hyper-competitive Johnny Bench, but I think because it would be in the best interest of the team he would be willing to accept that role.
Starting Rotation: 1999 Pedro Martinez, 1994 Greg Maddux, 1995 Randy Johnson, 1968 Bob Gibson, 1965 Sandy Koufax
Pedro Martinez during his dominant stretch from 1997-2003 was simply the greatest pitcher ever. No one has ever matched that peak, in fact, no one is particularly close. 2000 was his best year of the bunch (even though he had a lower ERA in 2000) and is full of video game numbers, the most impressive of which is a 1.31 FIP.
Greg Maddux pitched 202 innings in 1994 during one of the highest scoring years in history. He posted a 1.56 ERA and allowed FOUR home runs all season and issued only 28 unintentional walks. I actually still remember Maddux at his peak, he was a surgeon who toyed with hitters. His best trick was starting the ball right in the hitter's favorite spot but by the time the pitch got to the plate it was somewhere entirely different and unhittable.
I needed two left-handed pitchers my rotation and Johnson obviously deserved one of those spots. I think 1995 was his best season, just barely edging out some of the years he spent with Arizona. 1995 Johnson was still sitting in the upper 90s with a slider that was harder than most fastballs. He was facing stiffer competition in those years than when he was with Arizona and still struck out over 12 batters per nine innings.
1968 was dominating by pitching in general like no other, but even in context, Gibson's season is ridiculous. His ERA+ was 258 and his WHIP was a microscopic 0.853. Gibson also pitched three complete games in the world series that year, I'd say it was a pretty special season.
I'm taking 1965 Sandy Koufax over the other iterations for one main reason: the fairly insane strikeout totals and durability. I've often called Koufax overrated, and I stand by that, but I need a lefty with lights out stuff and he fits the bill better than anyone else (including 1972 Steve Carlton).
Bullpen: 2005 Mariano Rivera, 2003 Eric Gagne, 1999 Billy Wagner, 1990 Dennis Eckersley, 1967 Hoyt Wilhelm, 1983 Jesse Orosco
I will not go into too much detail about these players because their reasons for selection should be fairly obvious. The first four are, in my opinion, four of the most dominant relief seasons ever. The last two were chosen for their unique abilities. I think having Wilhelm's knuckleball might be an asset just because it is so different from anything else any of these guys are throwing up there. I also think in an ideal world, each team would have two left-handed pitchers. Because of this Orosco gets the last spot in the pen, but probably will never be used as long as Billy Wagner is around.
1. Jackie Robinson
2. Tony Gwynn
3. Albert Pujols
4. Ted Williams
5. Mickey Mantle
6. Barry Bonds
7. Alex Rodriguez
8. Joe Mauer
9. Ozzie Smith
Wow. Maybe some of my questionable choices make sense now though. Doesn't that just fall into place so perfectly? I have high OBP fast guys at the top, boppers in the middle and a poor mans leadoff hitter batting 9th. It alternates between handedness. All of them other than Williams can run, and frankly I'm willing to accept that to get his bat in the lineup. So that is it, my wine cellar team. Think you can put together a roster that can beat it?