Building a team from scratch? A panel of experts sees the future and lays the foundation with a core of young stars
IN THE mood to argue? SI surveyed 14 major league experts—general managers, assistant G.M.'s, scouting directors, coaches and a pitcher with Hall of Fame credentials—asking each of them to name the five current players he would draft first if he were starting a team, and only the most inside of baseball insiders could have guessed who were the top two vote getters: Mets shortstop Jose Reyes and Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who were listed on eight ballots each.
The object, as it was explained to the panelists, was to win the World Series this year and build a contender for the future, while not worrying about cost because there was no payroll limit. Even so, the 25 players who received votes would have made for a relatively cost-efficient roster ($188 million total, less than the Yankees' payroll) despite eye-popping talent from top to bottom.
The 24-year-old Reyes was also the leader in the 5-4-3-2-1 scoring system with five first-place votes and 36 total points, giving him a wide margin over points runner-up Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees (two firsts, 23 points) and putting him way ahead of Papelbon (one, 17) by that reckoning.
Batting .318 with 37 steals in 46 attempts through Sunday, Reyes was cited by several voters as having a near-perfect combination of speed, defense and hitting. Says one National League coach, "He's the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and if he gets on base 40 percent of the time, he'll set a record for runs scored."
Rodriguez, who may be headed for his third MVP award (.315 average, 27 home runs, 73 RBIs), was named on seven ballots. One voter who picked him, an American League executive, at first crossed his fingers in hopes Rodriguez could still play shortstop; he then decided A-Rod most likely couldn't handle it after three-plus years at third base but ultimately concluded, "That's O.K., I'll still have the best hitter in the game."
Tigers righthander Justin Verlander, who no-hit the Brewers last week, finished fourth in the survey with six votes, followed by Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Padres righty Jake Peavy, who tied for fifth with five votes each. Said an AL executive who made Mauer his first choice, "It's very difficult to find [a player with] his package of skills. He controls the running game, is a premium hitter and has a lot of upside."
The panel strongly favored all-around position players over power hitters, up-the-middle players over corner players and youth over experience. Fifteen of the 25 are under 30, but one AL front-office man couldn't resist taking 37-year-old Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. "He's the key ingredient in the Yankees' recipe the last  years," he says.
Pitching wasn't ignored on any ballot, as every voter selected at least one starter. Perhaps the two most surprising vote getters were catchers Russell Martin of the Dodgers and Yadier Molina of the Cardinals, who entered 2007 with three full big league seasons between them. The NL exec who picked Molina wanted the 24-year-old's game-calling and throwing skills. "I don't care what anyone else thinks," he says. "I'm going to win with Molina."
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Here are the results of SI's survey of 14 major league experts, who each named the first five players they would draft in starting a new team. (Points calculated on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis.)
PLAYER, TEAM, POSITION
Jose Reyes (above), Mets, shortstop
Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox, closer
Alex Rodriguez, Yankees, third base
Justin Verlander, Tigers, starting pitcher
Joe Mauer, Twins, catcher
Jake Peavy, Padres, starting pitcher
Grady Sizemore, Indians, centerfield
Johan Santana, Twins, starting pitcher
Albert Pujols, Cardinals, first base
Derek Jeter, Yankees, shortstop
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners, centerfield
Chase Utley, Phillies, second base
Players receiving one vote each: outfielders Carlos Beltran (Mets), Vladimir Guerrero (Angels), Torii Hunter (Twins); infielders Miguel Cabrera (Marlins), Prince Fielder (Brewers); catchers Russell Martin (Dodgers), Yadier Molina (Cardinals); pitchers Josh Beckett (Red Sox), Roy Halladay (Blue Jays), Dan Haren (A's), J.J. Putz (Mariners), Mariano Rivera (Yankees), Takashi Saito (Dodgers).
JUSTIN TIME Verlander, who no-hit Milwaukee on June 12, was the No. 4 pick in SI's poll.
REBECCA COOK/REUTERS (INSET)
JOHN IACONO (REYES)