Who are the all-time best players from Puerto Rico?

September 29th, 2022

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, MLB.com is presenting a series of roundtables, debating the best players from various Latin American countries. Today’s topic: the best players from Puerto Rico.

Alyson Footer, moderator/editor: We’ve gathered today to debate who are the best players from Puerto Rico, which over time has produced some of the most decorated players in baseball history. Roberto Clemente, with exactly 3,000 hits and one of the best arms in history, seems to top the list. But there are others who certainly have a case, including a couple of active players in the midst of incredibly productive careers. Is Clemente the clear-cut No. 1?

Nathalie Alonso, editorial producer, Las Mayores: I didn’t need to look up any numbers to know it’s Roberto Clemente, but I looked them up anyway, and his 94.8 bWAR, which is the most among Puerto Rican-born players and 37th all-time, speaks volumes. The second highest bWAR among Puerto Rican players is Carlos Beltrán’s 70.1 So, there is a 24.7-point difference.

Mark Feinsand, executive reporter: I don’t think anybody has a case to be No. 1 other than Clemente. His WAR is much higher than anybody else, his impact is obviously superior to anybody else, and he made more All-Star teams than anybody else. This should really be a roundtable for who is No. 2.

Alonso: There are 11 Puerto Rican players who hit more home runs in the Major Leagues. But Clemente is a former NL MVP and the most well-rounded. Won 12 Gold Gloves and had an arm like few others in right field. And he’s also the only player from P.R. with 3,000 hits to his name.

Sarah Langs, researcher/analyst: It’s definitively Roberto Clemente. I am the stats person, and I don’t even need stats for that one. Just an incredible career, incredible person and he does also rank tops among Puerto Rican-born players in WAR, but again, I don’t even need that to make the point.

Feinsand: There are four Puerto Rican-born Hall of Famers (Clemente, Ivan Rodriguez, Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda) and at least one other HOFer who grew up there (Edgar Martinez), but Clemente is a clear-cut No. 1.

Alonso: There could be a fifth soon, which will be really interesting. And by soon, I'm not even referring to Yadier Molina, who will likely get there eventually, too.

Carlos Beltrán, in my mind, is firmly in second place. Not only is he second in bWAR behind Clemente, he’s also first in RBIs (1,587), runs scored (1,582) and games played (2,586), and he ranks in the top three in home runs, doubles and stolen bases. And when he retired as a player, he looked like a guaranteed Hall of Famer. He’ll be on the ballot for the first time in 2023, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how much support he gets in light of his involvement in the Astros sign-stealing scandal.

Footer: Will the trash can saga hurt him in voting?

Feinsand: I don’t think the trash can thing should hurt Beltrán, but it will. He’s No. 3 on my list and should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but some voters will hold it against him -- at least on his first ballot.

Had Beltrán retired at the end of 2016, he would have been a lock Hall of Famer. The 2017 World Series is tainted, but even if you take that line off his resume, it’s Cooperstown-worthy.

Langs: Beltrán is a clear-cut Hall of Famer by stats, for sure. And at the time when he won that World Series, I remember thinking that was the final item for the résumé. But of course now there’s a different perspective on that.

Feinsand: For the No. 2 argument, I would go with Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez]. He has the third-highest bWAR of any PR-born player (68.7), was the most dominant defensive catcher of his generation (13 Gold Gloves), won seven Silver Sluggers and was an All-Star 14 times. I am one of the biggest Beltrán fans around, but you can argue he was never the best outfielder in the game. Pudge owned the catching position for more than a decade.

Langs: I agree with Mark on Pudge at No. 2. The dominance he had at such a demanding position will always distinguish him, for me.

Feinsand: Yadi, to me, is Pudge-lite. He wasn’t quite as good as Pudge, but he has some World Series rings to bolster his case. There’s an argument for him to be in the top five of this conversation, though I don’t know if I would put him there. Pudge’s bWAR is 26 points higher than Yadi’s.

Footer: Where does Orlando Cepeda fit in here?

Feinsand: Just as we did in the Dominican roundtable, I struggle to compare eras. Cepeda was great, there’s no question. But just as I had trouble comparing Juan Marichal to Pedro Martinez, I have the same issue with Cepeda against Beltrán, Pudge, etc.

The one player on this elite list who played in Cepeda’s era was Clemente, whose bWAR was 94.83 compared to Cepeda’s 50.10. That’s a huge gap.

Alonso: Cepeda is still fourth among PR-born players in home runs with 379 and RBIs with 1,365, so he's definitely in my top five.

Langs: Cepeda is such an important player in the history of players from Puerto Rico, in my mind, debuting just a few years after Clemente. I know his numbers are dwarfed by some of the more recent guys, but I feel like his being a Hall of Famer does speak plenty. As Mark just said, it’s so difficult to compare eras.

Feinsand: That said, Cepeda hit 379 home runs in an era where home runs weren’t as prevalent as they are now. He averaged 32 homers and 107 RBIs with an .891 OPS in his first seven seasons. In the decade after that, he averaged 16, 62, .806. He has a Don Mattingly-type of feel to me.

Not in terms of total numbers, but in terms of early dominance followed by a decade of good, not great.

Langs: Also an all-time nickname, in "The Baby Bull."

Footer: And the inspiration behind the best ballpark dish in the country, the Cha Cha Bowl in San Francisco.

Feinsand: The fact that Cepeda played for six teams from 1965-1974 -- in an era where free agency was not part of the game -- says something to me about his greatness during that decade.

East Coast bias alert: I would also like to give some props to Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada. Neither are Hall of Famers, but both switch-hitters rank in the top 10 of Puerto Rican-born players in bWAR, both were key cogs in the Yankees’ late-1990s dynasty, and both had wonderful careers.

Footer: Posada playing the most taxing position and playing that deep into October year after year after year definitely carries some water here.

Alonso: To counteract the East Coast bias, Edgar Martínez, a Hall of Famer, born in NYC and raised in Puerto Rico, deserves a shoutout in this conversation too.

Footer: Does Edgar make the top 5? Or no, because he was a DH?

Alonso: Considering the other players on the list, I say no, precisely because he was a DH.

When you talk about Clemente, Pudge, Yadi, defense is a big part of it.

Feinsand: And before people start yelling that WAR isn’t the end-all stat that we may be arguing, it’s interesting to me that Jose Cruz is fifth on this list. He made two All-Star teams, never hit 20 homers in a season, never won a Gold Glove, never won a World Series and is rarely in this conversation. I don’t think he should be, but it should be noted that his career WAR is higher than that of Cepeda, Bernie, Delgado, Posada and Yadi.

Edgar can be in the discussion for the greatest Puerto Rican-born hitter, but not player.

Alonso: I was surprised when I looked up the list and saw Cruz there and had a similar thought, Mark.

Feinsand: Cruz played the same number of seasons as Yadi and his WAR is 12 higher.

Langs: Yadi’s WAR is predominantly defense, for what it’s worth.

Footer: One of the reasons why these debates are fun is because we also speculate where current stars might end up in the conversation when their careers end. Anyone stand out to you as possibly making the top five of all-time? Carlos Correa? Francisco Lindor?

Feinsand: I don’t think Correa or Lindor will challenge the top five. If one of them can, it would be Lindor, but that’s a tough list to crack at this point.

If either of them finishes with a better overall career than Bernie, Posada or Carlos Delgado, that would be quite an accomplishment.

Langs: It’s such a tough list to ascend. So much talent here. It is fun to think about how we heralded the defense of our top five of sorts, and both Correa and Lindor are known for defensive ability as well. I wonder if that’s something that will help push their numbers up, and potentially extend their longevity. But even if they don’t make it to that top five, they are such fun players to watch.

Feinsand: Here’s an interesting question: Every player we have mentioned to this point is a hitter. Who is the best PR-born pitcher? Without looking, can anyone tell me the pitcher with the highest bWAR?

No starting pitcher born in Puerto Rico has more wins than ... Javier Vazquez! He’s 165-160, and he’s the current WAR leader at 43.39. Nobody else is higher than 18.47!!

Alonso: While we're talking about current players, it also occured to me that really we're just talking about position players here. Does Edwin Díaz have a shot at the title of "best pitcher from PR" if he keeps this up?

Langs: Wow I just looked at the pitchers, and I was not expecting that. I do wonder if Díaz ends up being that if he continues to be a really dominant closer for a long time.

Footer: Let's wrap up by ranking the top three players from Puerto Rico. Go!

Feinsand: Clemente-Pudge-Beltrán.

Langs: Clemente, Pudge, Beltrán.

Alonso: Clemente, Beltrán, Pudge.