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How do you determine MLB's Best?
How do you figure out which of the world's foremost players are the elite among the elite? And how do you really break it down to the individual talents that make up a successful Major League Baseball player?
You ask the best evaluators of talent, of course. You ask Major League scouts, the experts among experts at knowing who's really tops in each detail of the game.
So MLB.com's reporters sought out Major League scouts in their organizations to break it all down -- by baseball tools, and by position. For the first installment of MLB's Best, it's about the tools.
And it's clear that Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki has a toolbox like none other in the game.
The proverbial five tools for position players -- hitting for average, hitting for power, defense, arm and speed -- are covered throughout the survey, in one way or another.
Only one player really scored high in all of the above: Ichiro.
The panel of scouts rated him tops in all of MLB in the categories of Best Hitter, Best Bat Control, Best Outfielder, Best Arm and Best Baserunner. He also rated second in the categories of Best Bunter, Fastest Runner and Best Basestealer. (CLICK HERE FOR FULL RESULTS >>
Talk about elite among the elite.
"You could put Ichiro down for almost everything -- best arm, best outfielder (when he wants to be), best basestealer, best hitter, and he could hit 50 home runs if he wanted to, but he'd rather get his 220 hits and bat .330," said one scout.
Said another: "Magician with the bat -- hand-eye coordination off the charts."
Sure, Ichiro might be hitless for the spring heading into Thursday's games, but any scout will tell you that doesn't mean a thing. The tools of this Japanese wonder will prevail, like they have in each of his seven seasons in the Majors -- all with at least 200 hits and 100 runs, all with Gold Glove Awards attached.
While Ichiro dominated the landscape of hitting and fielding, there's one aspect of the game in which he couldn't draw a single vote: pitching.
The mound game is not ignored in the survey. After all, the art of pitching is as respected by scouts -- and everyone else in the game -- as the road to winning baseball games.
But that part of the survey showed much more of a disparity of thought, which makes sense since pitchers have different strengths and each of the best ones can exploit his strength through the course of a game -- or a season for that matter. Whether it's with a fastball (the Tigers' Justin Verlander, followed by the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain), a curve (Boston's Josh Beckett, followed by several others) or a changeup (the Mets' Johan Santana, followed by the Padres' Trevor Hoffman), the best pitchers know how to use their best tools.
But the one category that puts it all together is Best Competitor. For that one, the Padres' Jake Peavy, the 2007 National League Cy Young Award winner, took the most votes. Beckett and the Astros' Roy Oswalt were tied for second, and the scouts' comments gave a glimpse as to why these three stand out.
Peavy: "Intensity unmatched on the mound."
Beckett: "[An] intimidating force."
Oswalt: "He's completely fearless. It's fun to watch, even when he's pitching against your team. He just never gives in."
Meanwhile, when it comes to command, the old guard checks in: the Padres' Greg Maddux, followed by his old Braves rotation mate now back in an Atlanta uniform, Tom Glavine.
"There's a reason he keeps winning, and it's not his 84-mph fastball," one scout said of Maddux.
"It has to be Maddux because he's still gets outs with that slop," said another, no doubt as a compliment.
Pitching gets its due, but with those five tools and all the other various ways of breaking down performance, the position players have more for scouts to admire, at least in terms of quantity.
Remember, in any one trip out of the dugout, a player could show bat control, bunt or hit for power. Then he could run around the bases in seconds, take them one at a time or perhaps change the game by breaking up a double play. And when he's done, he's charged with running down fly balls in the gap or scooping up grounders off the infield.
Some of the more nuanced categories show that you'd want D-backs second baseman Orlando Hudson turning a double play, and you'd want the Tigers' Gary Sheffield or the Rays' Carl Crawford breaking it up. You'd want the Dodgers' Juan Pierre laying down a bunt for you, and you'd want the Mariners' Adrian Beltre or the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman at third base to pick it up. You'd want Crawford or Ichiro running the bases, say first to third, and if it wasn't Ichiro you'd want the Braves' Jeff Francouer ready to gun him down with a laser throw.
It's a star-studded list of top talents, but it's missing perhaps the game's biggest star, at least at the top of any list. According to our panel of scouts, baseball's highest paid player is not highest ranked at anything, although the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez ranks second to Ichiro as the best hitter and second to the Phillies' Ryan Howard ("He's so prolific it's frightening," one scout said) as the best power hitter. But it's Boston's David Ortiz they'd want to see hitting in the clutch, followed by the Cardinals' Albert Pujols.
Ortiz "locks in late, makes pitch-by-pitch adjustments." As for Pujols, "Unless it is a one-run game, I'd even consider walking him with the bases loaded. He's that scary."
But here's what one scout said about A-Rod: "Baseball IQ separates him from the other talented players in this game."
As the saying goes, maybe that's why he gets the big bucks.
As that comment suggests, some of what scouts view can't really be seen with the naked eye. They're called intangibles. And one player who stands out there, as a game-changer, is the Mets' Jose Reyes -- judged by the panel as the Best Infielder and the Best Basestealer.
"Baseball's most exciting player," one scout said. "He puts a ton of pressure on the opposition."
Said another: "He's as disruptive as they get. He steals bases. He turns singles into doubles. He turns doubles into triples. He scores from first on a double. He drives the opposition nuts."
Still, there's only one player in baseball who drives scouts nuts more than any other, and that's Ichiro.
Nobody stands out like Seattle's center fielder from Japan.
"[Ichiro] changes the outcome of a game on offense and defense," one scout said.
Yeah, sure. But can he pitch?
Friday: MLB's Best, By Position