Today, for the first time, I am publishing a master list of the 20 most valuable players in Cleveland sports. It is a list I hope to update several times a year.
The list is limited to professional players. With the demise of indoor soccer's Force and the fact that the Barons are a minor-league hockey team, that means this list will almost always be exclusively comprised of Browns, Indians and Cavaliers players.
I've come up with three basic criteria categories for the list:
What does the player mean to his organization?
Is this the type of player the team thinks they can build around? Does he help them win games? Does he increase the legitimacy of the organization? How much would losing this player hurt his team?
What does the player mean to the fans and city?
How much does having this player boost Cleveland's collective morale? Is he a fan favorite? Does the player give back to the community in any way?
What is the player's marketability?
Does the player get the name of himself, his team and the city out in the regional or national spotlight? More importantly, does he do it in a positive way (call this the Albert Belle rule).
Without further ado, the inaugural master list...
1) LeBron James, Cavaliers
Answers to the above questions: Yes. Most certainly. By a mile. Fatally. Like chugging Prozac. Of course. He's starting a basketball camp in Akron this summer. Every time he pulls on a jersey that says "Cleveland" across the front, it's like pure gold.
In a sentence, no one in Cleveland approaches this guy's value.
2) Grady Sizemore, Indians
It might seem like a bit of a stretch to place a second-year outfielder this high, until you count the fact that productive leadoff hitters don't grow on trees, and the fact that no one in Cleveland sports, save LeBron, is more marketable.
Sizemore, a former University of Washington quarterback recruit, has five-tool talent. In his prime, he projects as a 30-homer, 30-stolen base man who can hit over .300, complete with Gold Glove-caliber defense. The Indians view him as an organizational stallion, otherwise they wouldn't have dealt Coco Crisp.
His looks take care of the rest. Armed with matinee-idol cheekbones, his face will continue making smitten females buy "Mrs. Sizemore" shirts.
3) Travis Hafner, Indians
Grady gets lots of ladies. Hafner gets lots of dudes.
Don't take that the wrong way.
The type of fan base Sizemore has built up with women, Hafner has built up with men. The motivations, of course, are quite different.
Guys love the nickname: "Pronk." It's weird. It's cool. It's nonsensical. It's monosyllabic. It can be purchased on the back of a T-shirt for $24.99. Guys love the fact that Hafner looks like some cross between Paul Bunyan and Vin Diesel, like someone who isn't above having a beer or six after the game.
The nickname would mean nothing without a bat to back it up. Hafner earns his money to that end, hitting .305 last year and cementing himself as the best DH in the game not named Papi.
4) Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers
The Cavs' 7'-3" center has struggled for recognition throughout his career. He's gangly, European and plays a style that is not camera-friendly. But none of that diminishes what he means to the Cavs and Cleveland.
In all the years Z missed with foot injuries, we saw what he meant to the team on the floor. His absence is a big reason why we've been waiting on a playoff berth since 1998. And if you think he's not marketable, I'd ask you to talk to a member of Cleveland's Lithuanian community. If Joe Blow thinks Z a stiff, Lithuanian immigrants think Z is an icon, a homeland boy who's made it big.
5) Reuben Droughns, Browns
Impending DUI trial aside, Droughns is the one proven commodity the Browns know they have. With little help available, the Browns hitched Droughns to the wagon and he pulled them to at least half of their six wins last season.
A Pro Bowl would do wonders for Droughns' national image, and with a pair of 1,200-yard seasons to his credit, it's not outlandish to think he might be playing in Honolulu in February 2007. Right now, he's one of the best-kept secrets in the NFL.
6) Willie McGinest, Browns
He hasn't done a darn thing for Cleveland yet, but by his mere presence, McGinest sharply ramps up the talent and leadership levels on defense.
Phil Savage likened this signing to what might have happened had the Browns landed Reggie White in 1993. It might not quite be like lassoing the "Minister of Defense," but with his hardware and reputation, McGinest certainly makes Cleveland more than fly-over country for NFL defensive free agents now.
7) Victor Martinez, Indians
Much like Ilgauskas, Martinez is beloved in his homeland of Venezuela, but largely flies under the radar in the U.S.
If Martinez could guard against his habitually-slow starts, he would be untouched as the best offensive catcher in baseball, certainly as Mike Piazza nears retirement.
For the Indians, Martinez is a rock. Boasting the best second-half batting average in baseball last year, he ended the season at .305. If he hits .280 in April and May, he could feasibly finish a season with a .330 average, and all sorts of bells and whistles would be going off.
It would behoove the Indians to find a new position for Martinez to save his body.
8) Larry Hughes, Cavaliers
The only caveat concerning Hughes is a big one: he can't stay healthy.
But when he is healthy, he is just what the doctor ordered alongside LeBron. Hughes excels at just about every phase of the game. He passes well, he drives fearlessly, he plays energetic (if not always textbook) defense. The only possible shortcoming is his shooting, and even that proved not to be a liability in November and December.
Not to mention he does it all with a personality that allows himself to accept his supporting-cast role alongside LeBron.
With a healthy Hughes, the Cavs would probably be challenging the Heat for the second-best record in the East right now.
9) LeCharles Bentley, Browns
Having a weak offensive line sets up a domino effect: line can't protect, quarterback gets rushed, gets hit, makes bad throws, confidence is shattered, and the next thing you know, you have Tim Couch.
Bentley's arrival automatically increases the chance that Trent Dilfer or Charlie Frye will be able to consistenly succeed. Bentley won't get a lot of face time once the season starts, but the foundation of the Browns' offensive line just went from play sand to granite.
10) Cliff Lee, Indians
Hands down, Lee is the best returning starting pitcher for the Indians. Time may prove him the ace of the staff, though C.C. Sabathia is the knighted one.
He won 18 games last year, and was on the outskirts of Cy Young Award consideration. Twenty wins isn't out of the question this year.
It might not be 2006, but Lee is a strong candidate to become the first Tribe Cy Young winner since Gaylord Perry.
11) Phil Dawson, Browns
A good kicker is like a good plunger. You don't need one until you need one. But when you need one, you really need one.
Other than an injury in 2000 and a late-season slump in 2004, Dawson has always been there for the Browns since 1999. In 2005, he made 27-of-29 field goals. In his career, he has six game-winners. This is one guy who deserves the test of a postseason game in late January. He is one of the best kickers in the league.
12) Bob Wickman, Indians
Whether you or the Indians want to admit it or not, your baseball team needs Wickman.
Without Wickman, the Tribe bullpen would take a giant leap in the direction of the 2004 'pen.
Wickman saves games. It's not pretty, but it's something he consistently does. When Wick's body finally betrays him, the Indians had better hope Fernando Cabrera is ready to close, or the Tribe is going to be set scrambling for someone.
13) Ted Washington, Browns
The mere fact that so many new additions are on this list shows just how threadbare the Browns were prior to this winter's free-agent feast.
Washington should do for the defensive line what Bentley will do for the offensive line. For a defensive front that was 30th against the run last season, Washington will take up a lot of space and force opposing quarterbacks to pass more. Taking away the run is more than half the battle for an NFL defense.
14) Flip Murray, Cavaliers
Murray is far from a franchise cornerstone, the reason why he's not higher on the list. But when you talk about a safety net, they haven't come much better in the history of Cleveland sports.
The Cavs' acquisition of Murray last month is right up there with the Indians' 1995 deadline deal for Ken Hill in terms of giving a Cleveland team just what they needed. Since coming over from Seattle, Murray has hit a game-winning three-pointer, a game-tying three at the end of regulation, and has sparked a mammoth come-from-behind rally against the Lakers.
The Cavs might be hovering around .500 without Murray. He has been everything the Cavs could want out of stretch-run rental.
15) Jhonny Peralta, Indians
Omar who? Well, not exactly. But you can't overshadow Peralta's breakout season last year by measuring him against his predecessor.
Once Peralta was placed in the third spot in the batting order, the final piece seemed to fall into place, and the Indians' offense took off. Peralta might not duplicate his .292 and 24 homers this year, but he will go on to become an upper-echelon offensive infielder with a competent glove. Like the other Indians on this list, Peralta is one of GM Mark Shapiro's favored "core players."
16) Braylon Edwards, Browns
A decent rookie season was derailed by a torn knee ligament in November. No one knows if Edwards will be ready for the start of training camp in July, but that doesn't diminish his long-term impact.
For the Browns to be an elite team in several years, Edwards will need to break through and become a star receiver. The talent is unquestionably there. It's a matter of proper nurturing and staying healthy. He can't help but be a foundation player for what the Browns are trying to build.
17) C.C. Sabathia, Indians
He was unfairly branded an ace by an Indians organization hungry to promote itself in the pits of rebuilding. What C.C. actually is, however, is a innings-eating mid-rotation guy. If he were a bit more consistent and could get a grip on his conditioning, he'd be a true stud. He certainly has showed the ability is there in stretches.
18) Ronnie Belliard, Indians
Belliard arrived amid weight jokes. He was a paunchy hole plug signed to a one-year deal in 2004. But since then, he's cemented himself as a pretty darn good second baseman with both the bat and glove.
He plays the game at 100 miles per hour, hustling out every ground ball and making sliding stops in the field. He looks too chubby to be fast, but if you've seen him play his position, you know it's not true. His arm is good enough to allow him to play 10 to 15 feet into the outfield and still make throws.
19) Drew Gooden, Cavaliers
He lacks consistency, still prone to having nights where he disappears. But Gooden is the only Cavs player who brings any semblance of low-post defense to the table on a nightly basis. if coach Mike Brown ran the offense through him, he could average 18 points per game. But he has humbled himself, deferred to LeBron and Z, and has gleaned most of his points off rebounds.
20) Eric Snow, Cavaliers
His stat line is withering with age, but Snow still brings a worthwhile presence. Fans might not truly realize how valuable his leadership is until the playoffs.
Snow is also one of the most active Cleveland athletes in the community. His full-court fathers program encourages inner-city dads to get involved in the lives of their children. He routinely offers tickets to Cavs games through the program.
Knocking on the door...
Andy Marte, Indians; Gary Baxter, Browns; Donyell Marshall, Cavaliers; Joe Jurevicius, Browns; Kellen Winslow Jr., Browns; Aaron Boone, Indians