We’ve made it to the final part of our series on the top single-team players of the past 25 years. Part 4 included two of the best hitters in recent baseball memory. George Brett took a memorable run at .400 in 1980 and helped the Royals win their only World Series in franchise history. Tony Gwynn was accelerating in the heat of August and came even closer than Brett, peaking at .394 when baseball came to a grinding halt in 1994 in a season of “what if’s,” and while the Padres never hoisted the World Series trophy, Gwynn played deep into October twice and earned the nickname “Mr. Padre” for his legacy and his loyalty to the Padres and the city of San Diego.
In the final part of this series, we’ll be examining the top two single-team players of the past twenty-five years. Both players have championship resumes, record-breaking accomplishments, and were respected not only within their own franchises and cities, but throughout Major League Baseball. Without further delay, here are our top two.
2. Derek Jeter, New York Yankees, 1995-2014
“The Captain” did it his way, and that meant 20 seasons anchoring the shortstop position for the New York Yankees. Given the results, it’s hard to argue with Jeter being given the Captain title. 5 World Championships. The infamous “Mr. November” home run. Year-in and year-out, sustainable offensive production and Gold Glove-caliber defense. And while many players have faltered under the glaring lights of New York City and baseball’s most storied franchise, Jeter’s cool, calm and collected persona made him a media darling and, to many people, the unofficial face of Major League Baseball.
Derek Jeter seemed destined to be a star in New York from the moment he took over as the everyday starting shortstop in 1996. After showing some promise playing 14 games as a call-up in 1995, Jeter burst on the scene in his first full season, hitting .314 with 10 homers and 78 RBIs. The Yankees ended a World Series drought dating back to 1978 with Jeter showing veteran poise. He hit .412 in the ALDS, .417 in the ALCS, and while his average dropped to .250 in the World Series against the Braves, he managed to draw four walks to compile a .400 on-base percentage and scored five runs for the Yankees. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year award and at age 22, had quickly become a fan favorite in the Bronx.
1997 was a strong sophomore effort for Jeter, and then 1998 started a string of excellence. The young shortstop found himself living life as a perennial All-Star, his batting average frequently over .300 (Jeter would accomplish this 12 times in his career.) Jeter made his first All-Star team in 1998, while hitting .324 and leading the Yankees to another World Series championship, the first of three consecutive titles the Yankees would win. 1999 saw Jeter set career highs in all three major offensive categories. During that season, Jeter hit .349 with 24 homers and 102 RBIs. It would be the only time during his career that Jeter drove in over 100 runs. Jeter hit .353 in helping the Yankees win the World Series. The following year Jeter hit .339 during the regular season and won the 2000 World Series MVP when he hit .409 with 2 homers, 2 RBIs and 6 runs scored.
Jeter’s most definitive post-season moments came in 2001. After the September 11th attacks, the Yankees overcame a tough series against the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS and held off the 116-win Seattle Mariners in the ALCS to draw a match-up with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Along the way, Jeter saved the Yankees from losing a lead and possibly their first round series to the Athletics with one of the great plays in Major League Baseball history. With the Yankees down 2 games-to-none, and clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Terrance Long hit a double into the right field corner off Mike Mussina. Jeremy Giambi rounded the bases and attempted to come home. Yankees’ right fielder Shane Spencer got the ball and made a throw toward the plate to try to get Giambi, but it was off-line. Instinctively, Jeter ran toward where the ball was going, picked it out of the air, then flipped to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged Giambi on his ankle right before he could put his foot down on home plate, avoiding the run and giving the Yankees life as they stormed back to win three straight games and eliminate the Athletics.
Not to be outdone, Jeter starred in the 2001 World Series. Though Jeter had one of his worst World Series’ of his career, hitting only .148, he came up against Byun-Yung Kim with the bases empty in extra innings of a tied Game 4. With the clock striking midnight just moments before, and the World Series entering the month of November for the first time ever due to the suspension of several days of games due to the September 11th attacks, Jeter hit a dramatic walk-off home run to tie the Series at 2 games apiece and be forever known as “Mr. November.”
Jeter continued to put up tremendous numbers in both the regular season and the post-season throughout the 2000’s, but the Yankees would struggle to return to the World Series between 2001 and 2009, going only in 2003 where they fell to the Florida Marlins. Prior to that 2003 season, Jeter was named Captain of the Yankees, a title he held until he retired.The Yankees acquired Alex Rodriguez prior to the 2004 season, setting off a debate about whether Rodriguez or Jeter would make a move to third base. Jeter remained at short, but the A-Rod and Jeter pairing spent several years falling short of the Yankee fan base’s championship expectations. Jeter hit .343 with 23 homers and finished second in the American League Most Valuable Player Award vote in 2006, the closest he came to winning an MVP award. 2009, however, would serve to relieve the World Series drought.
During that 2009 season, Jeter hit .334 with 18 homers and 66 RBIs. After 9 years, Jeter finally claimed his fifth career world championship and helped the Yankees’ cause by hitting .407 during the World Series.
After 2009 there was frequently talk about when Jeter would retire. There was also discussion of whether or not the Yankees would retain him as their starting shortstop or whether Jeter would finish his career elsewhere. Finally, Jeter came to terms with the Yankees on a 3-year, $51 million deal with a player option for a fourth year at $8 million prior to the 2010 season. Though Jeter’s average fell to .270 that season, he played well enough to win a Gold Glove at shortstop at age 36. Jeter would rebound slightly in 2011, hitting .297, then had an exceptional year in 2012, hitting .316 and hitting 15 homers while continuing to anchor the shortstop position. Injuries limited Jeter to 17 games in 2013, but Jeter and the Yankees came to terms on a contract for the 2014 season. During that season, Jeter appeared in 146 games as a shortstop and occasional designated hitter. Although his batting average declined to .256, Jeter showed he still had a flair for the dramatic: in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat, Jeter hit a walk-off single against the Baltimore Orioles.
For his career, Jeter hit .310 with 3,465 hits, 260 homers and 1,311 RBIs. Jeter’s post-season line was similarly impressive, holding the Major League record of 158 playoff games played in, a .309 average, a record 200 hits, 20 homers, a record 650 at-bats and 734 total plate appearances, a record 143 singles, 32 doubles, 5 triples, and 111 runs scored. Jeter was selected to 14 All-Star teams, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1996, won the Series MVP Award in 2000, won five Gold Gloves and five Silver Slugger awards, and was the Yankees captain from 2003 through his retirement in 2014. Jeter’s number 2 is expected to be retired by the Yankees, and he is expected to be part of the Hall of Fame Class of 2020.
1. Cal Ripken, Jr., Baltimore Orioles, 1981-2001. Hall of Fame Class of 2007
Cal Ripken, Jr. not only is the top single franchise player of the past 25 years, an argument could be made that Ripken is, in fact, the top single franchise ballplayer of all time. Certainly, some may argue for stats like the ones that Mickey Mantle put up with the Yankees. But Ripken’s trump card is that his loyalty to his franchise and to the game of baseball is unparalleled. His 2,632 consecutive games played shattered the previous record held by Lou Gehrig of 2,130. That he set this record during a period of time when baseball transitioned from a game where shortstops were coveted for their defense to an offensive-driven spectacle makes his streak even more remarkable as he was skilled enough as both an offensive and defensive player to stay in the lineup and rarely, if ever, come out for a defensive replacement or a pinch hitter.
Ripken got his career off to a hot start. After only hitting .128 in 40 plate appearances during a brief call-up in 1981, Ripken exploded with 28 homers and 93 RBIs to go with a .264 batting average in 1982. Ripken’s efforts earned him the 1982 American League Rookie of the Year award and even won him a few votes for MVP (he finished 30th in balloting.)
Though Ripken’s streak started during the 1982 season, 1983 was the first year in which Ripken played in every game that his team played in. Ripken upped his game, batting .318 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs. During the season Ripken was selected to his first All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger award for shortstops. The rest of the Orioles elevated their game as well, making it to the 1983 World Series. Although Ripken struggled to a .167 batting average in the World Series, his .400 average against the White Sox helped the Orioles get there, and his teammates picked up the slack as the Orioles beat the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games-to-1. After the season Ripken won his first American League Most Valuable Player award.
As Ripken progressed through his career and drew attention for his offensive prowess as well as his defensive abilities at shortstop, people began to take notice of his consecutive games streak. Fans throughout baseball began to wonder if Ripken, who was developing a reputation as an iron man, would be able to match or beat Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record of 2,130.
Ripken rarely gave the Orioles any reason to believe that he should be taken out of the lineup. He hit 20 or more home runs twelve times, including 10 consecutive seasons from 1982 to 1991, drove in over 100 runs four times (and over 90 four more,) and had a batting average over .300 five times, including a .340 average in 86 games during his age 39 season of 1999. He was selected to every All-Star Game from 1983 through 2001 and the only full season in which he did not get a nod to the game was his rookie season of 1982.
Ripken’s best overall season statistically was 1991. As his consecutive games played streak continued to add up, Ripken established career highs in batting average (.323), home runs (34), and RBIs (114.) Ripken also led the league in total bases with 368 and won his second American League Most Valuable Player award.
Ripken officially broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak on September 6th, 1995 in a game against the California Angels. The game was stopped for several moments while the fans applauded Ripken and he gave a speech and took a victory lap around Camden Yards. Later in the game, Ripken would hit a homer, sending the crowd into a frenzy again.
In 1996, Ripken would find himself back in the playoffs for the first time since 1983. Ripken helped fuel the Orioles’ offensive attack, hitting .278 with 26 homers and 102 RBIs. Ripken would hit .444 in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians, but the Orioles however would fail to advance to the World Series, falling to the Yankees in the ALCS, while Ripken only hit .250.
Ripken and the Orioles found themselves in the post-season one more time in 1997. Again, Ripken had post-season success. Though the Orioles again failed to advance to the World Series, Ripken hit .438 in the ALDS against Seattle and .338 with a homer in the ALCS against the American League Champion Cleveland Indians.
After 2,632 consecutive games played, and making a permanent move from shortstop to third base, Ripken took himself out of the lineup on September 20th, 1998, the final home game of the season for the Baltimore Orioles.
Injuries hindered Ripken through the final three seasons of his career, limiting him to 86 games in 1999 and 83 games in 2000. In his final season, 2001, Ripken had one more memorable moment. Voted to the American League All-Star team as the starting third baseman, Ripken was approached by starting shortstop Alex Rodriguez who, out of deference and respect to Ripken, offered him the opportunity to play shortstop for the first inning of the game, which also gave Ripken the all-time record for All-Star Game appearances at shortstop. Ripken played in the top of the first, then later hit a home run off Chan Ho Park. Ripken retired at the end of the 2001 season at age 40.
For his career, Ripken put up a .276 batting average, 431 homers and 1,695 RBIs to go with 3,184 hits. Ripken won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 1982, the American League MVP Award twice (in 1983 and 1991,) and was named to 19 All-Star teams. He won two Gold Glove awards as a shortstop and eight Silver Slugger Awards. His number 8 has been retired by the Orioles, and he was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2007.
Going forward it seems likely that even fewer players will stick with one team throughout their careers. As sabremetrics increasingly play a role in the game of baseball, free agency evolves and mid-season and off-season trades increase in complexity and teams dump “bad contracts” of players in decline, movement of players seems likely to only increase. Not even high-dollar, long-term contracts seem to ensure that a player will remain a franchise staple. In 2012, it appeared likely that Matt Kemp would remain a Dodger until at least very late in his career when he signed an 8-year, $160 million deal. Three years later he found himself packaged to the San Diego Padres in a deal that netted the Dodgers Yasmani Grandal, Joe Wieland, and a prospect that they flipped for Jimmy Rollins. Rollins is also a case in point: a career player for the Philadelphia Phillies over 15 seasons, he found himself moved to Los Angeles to help the Phillies in their rebuilding process and to fill the Dodgers’ need at shortstop.
A few players remain intriguing as potential career-long players for a single franchise going forward. Clayton Kershaw appears to be on pace to put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in Los Angeles, while Felix Hernandez‘s cult-like following in Seattle makes him a potential career-long Mariner. Jered Weaver has given hometown discounts to remain with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the past, and is a good bet to stay with the team and near his family in Southern California as long as he can pitch effectively. Dustin Pedroia appears to be on a similar career track with the Boston Red Sox.
The size and length of Giancarlo Stanton‘s contract makes it possible he may spend his entire career in Miami, though the Marlins’ financial track record and Stanton’s ability to hit baseballs a long way make it possible that a team with the ability to take a large contract on their payroll may make a move for him or take him on when his opt-out comes up at around the halfway point of the deal. Buster Posey is consistently in the MVP conversation in San Francisco, and with the Giants moving Posey out from behind the plate and having him play at first base more frequently, while grooming replacement catchers at the expense of Brandon Belt seems to indicate that the Giants have a long-term interest in keeping Posey, and hoping that his bat and leadership presence in the clubhouse will help the team continue its recent pattern of winning the World Series every other year.
With all the great talent not only playing right now, but coming up from the minor leagues, statistically, some of these players will spend their entire careers playing for one franchise. It will be interesting to see who makes this list in another 25 years.