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Every year I try to make a team of players whose salaries are equal or less than Alex Rodriguez’s. This season, I wanted a challenge. My rules – since this is my column after all – is that players that no one has really heard of but that made a huge blast this season, such as Lew Ford, were ineligible. Meaning that those surprise guys can’t be on here. And that every player – all 25 – makes less than one million per year. That’s right, every single player on this team makes less than one million dollars. Here’s the team!

Catcher: Joe Mauer (Minnesota Twins; $300,000)
– All right, not many people have heard of him before this season, but I believed with all the hype that he should be eligible. The main reason that Mauer made the list is because he can flat out hit. In his first season in pro ball, Mauer hit .400 in Elizabethon, Tennessee, in the Appalachian league. Next year he hit .302 in 2002 in the Quad City Advanced rookie league. He followed that performance up with last season, hitting .335 in A ball and .341 in AA. He does not have much power at the time, but that is something that will come along. His athleticism behind the plate -- despite being 6-4, 230 -- is incredible. Pitchers are already raving that he is a good catcher, so the star looks pretty bright for this young kid.

First Baseman: Adam Dunn (Cincinnati Reds; $445,000) – He’s not quite legal, since this isn’t his normal position, but he has played there a little bit. Dunn does everything at the plate with the exception of not striking out. He has tremendous patience at the plate, but to raise his batting average and on base percentage to the levels where they should be for a superstar but Dunn must cut back on the strikeouts. He can do this by not chasing off-speed stuff off the plate and hitting the inside fastball, not a very easy task.

Second Baseman: Marcus Giles (Atlanta Braves; $430,000)
– Brian’s younger brother Marcus tore up the minors in his time spent there. He finally showed what he could do last season in the majors as an everyday player at the keystone position. His swing is more compact, which may result in less power but a higher batting average. He has also become more disciplined at the plate, can play defense, and steal some bases.

Shortstop: Jose Reyes (New York Mets; $307,500) – The Mets sparkplug currently plays second base because of import Kazuo Matsui, but Reyes qualifies for the Shortstop nod on my team. He might be able to his for some power throughout his career, but stealing bases is what he supposed to do. His patience at the plate is very good, a requirement for a leadoff hitter. He has good instincts and will be one of the great shortstops of this time period.

Third Baseman: Hank Blalock (Texas Rangers; $550,000) – Hank Blalock recently signed a five-year extension with the Texas Rangers and for good reason. He will be a cornerstone for this team for as long as he remains playing with the Rangers. The two things against Blalock are that he can’t hit lefties that well and he is not as patient as most budding superstars need to be. He has an excellent bat, good defense, great arm, and lives baseball.

Left Fielder: Rocco Baldelli (Tampa Bay Devil Rays; $320,000) – Thrown into the major league fire at the age of 22, Rocco proved that he could hold his own. He has quick hands, some power, and very good speed. He also has a great work ethic and lives baseball. The only knock against him is that he needs to learn more patience at the plate and to use the whole field when he’s hitting.

Center Fielder: Vernon Wells (Toronto Blue Jays; $870,000)
– I entertained the idea of Corey Patterson until I found that Wells qualified for this team. Patterson is good, but Wells is better. In his first two major league seasons, Wells drove in 100 runs. He hits everything into the gaps, and hits mistake breaking balls and low fastballs. He is a very intelligent player and has greatly improved his patience at the plate. Oh yeah, he plays Gold Glove caliber Center Field.

Right Fielder: Austin Kearns (Cincinnati Reds; $400,000) – Austin Ryan Kearns is going to be a good hitter. He has a quick bat and a 30 homer potential. His patience is to be admired, his determination at the plate to be envied, and his knack to pull pitches frowned upon. He can hit most all pitches well, but pitchers have had luck with hard stuff on his hands. His speed on the base paths is average, but he can take plenty of bases. His arm and range are both good.

Designated Hitter: Miguel Cabrera (Florida Marlins; $320,000) – I know that Cabrera is not a designated hitter, but I’m pretty sure that he can handle the rigorous times they go through. The baby-faced, 21-year-old was a brilliant performer in last year’s postseason. His continued hitting has earned him the label of “the next Albert Pujols,” which is quite enviable. He can hit lefthanders rather easily, but right-handed pitchers give him a little bit of trouble, only when they throw breaking balls for strikes. Don’t bother throwing fastballs, because those will be deposited on the other side of the fence. He also has good defensive skills at third and in right field.

Bench: Chone Figgins (Anaheim Angels; $320,000), Jeff DaVanon (Anaheim Angels; $375,000), Johnny Estrada (Atlanta Braves; $312,500), and Joe McEwing (New York Mets; $500,000) – Figgins makes this team because he is one of the biggest speedsters on the bench of any major league club. Jeff DaVanon showed that he is able to hit for a little power when he got playing time last year, so he earns a backup spot on my team. Johnny Estrada of the Atlanta Braves seems to hit for very good average, and maybe the power will develop sometime in the future. Joe McEwing only earns a spot on this team because he can do everything. Outfield, infield, catch, you name it.

Starting Pitcher: Brandon Webb (Arizona Diamondbacks; $335,000) – Brandon Webb finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting last season, but he should have won it. He throws a jaw-dropping sinker around 90 MPH with plenty of late movement. He compliments his best pitch with a curveball and a straight changeup. When on the mound he holds runners well and fields his position adeptly.

Starting Pitcher: Dontrelle Willis (Florida Marlins; $353,500) – Dontrelle won the Rookie of the Year award last year and he was great as a rookie last season. Willis, along with Jack McKeon and Miguel Cabrera, turned the fate of the Florida Marlins around last season. Also, Dontrelle was a big draw, with many fans coming to games he pitched and more tuning in to see his games. He has a very deceptive windup with amazing pitches. He throws a mid-90s fastball, slider, and a changeup that needs improvement.

Starting Pitcher: Carlos Zambrano (Chicago Cubs; $450,000)
– Zambrano has some of the best stuff on his real MLB team. Considering that he plays for the Cubs, that’s saying a lot. His bread and butter pitch is a two-seamer that flies in the low to mid 90s and has awesome late movement. He also throws a four-seam fastball, slider, and hard splitter. The main thing holding Zambrano back is the number of walks he gives up since his pitches have such great movement. His defense is good enough and he can hit (for a pitcher).

Starting Pitcher: Jerome Williams (San Francisco Giants; $308,000) – Jerome pitched well last season, with twenty-one starts in make-the-postseason pressure situations. He has long been heralded as a future ace of the Giants and he must continue pitching like he has to live up to that billing. He has a low 90’s fastball with pinpoint control and he also throws a slider. He plays good defense and can hold runners on well.

Starting Pitcher: Horacio Ramirez (Atlanta Braves; $330,000)
– Horacio came up last season to the major leagues last year and received tutelage from pitching coach Leo Mazzone and pitcher Greg Maddux. He resembles the next Tom Glavine, as he throws sinkers and changeups away, always away, to right handed hitters. He has a low-90s fastball, along with a great cut fastball. He pitched well last season, but was given six runs per nine innings by the Braves offense.

Bullpen: Brendan Donnelly (Anaheim Angels; $375,000), Scot Shields (Anaheim Angels; $375,000), Francisco Rodriguez (Anaheim Angels; $375,000), Ben Weber (Anaheim Angels; $900,000), Oscar Villarreal (Arizona Diamondbacks; $325,000), Damaso Marte (Chicago White Sox; $500,000), and Ryan Wagner (Cincinnati Reds; $302,500) – I’m seeing plenty of red here, as in Angels. The closer duties should go to Ryan Wagner. This kid is very special and could be as good or better than the other Wagner (Billy). I personally got the chance to see Wagner pitch last season, and I was impressed. His slider is the best in the Major Leagues and no right- handed hitter can make contact with it. His low-to-mid-90s fastball is sometimes confused with a breaking ball due to its movement and he also throws a changeup, which he doesn’t really need. Ben Weber, Brendan Donnelly, Scot Shields, and Francisco Rodriguez are all guys that can pitch an inning or two often and at the end of the year will have a sub 2.75 ERA. (The Angels manager is quite lucky to have those four in his bullpen.) Right-hander Oscar Villarreal is a potential closer in Arizona and he is quite adept at pitching. The final arm in the bullpen is left-handed Damaso Marte. He has quite the job being the only left-handed pitcher in this bullpen.

(Lineup)
SS Jose Reyes ($307,500)
2B Marcus Giles ($430,000)
CF Vernon Wells ($870,000)
DH Miguel Cabrera ($320,000)
3B Hank Blalock ($530,000)
RF Austin Kearns ($400,000)
1B Adam Dunn ($445,000)
C Joe Mauer ($300,000)
LF Rocco Baldelli ($320,000)

Bench Chone Figgins ($320,000)
Bench Jeff DaVanon ($375,000)
Bench Johnny Estrada ($312,500)
Bench Joe McEwing ($500,000)

(Rotation)
SP Brandon Webb ($335,000)
SP Dontrelle Willis ($353,500)
SP Carlos Zambrano ($450,000)
SP Jerome Williams ($308,000)
SP Horacio Ramirez ($330,000)

(Bullpen)
Mid Scot Shields ($375,000)
Mid Oscar Villarreal ($325,000)
Mid Francisco Rodriguez ($375,000)
Set Damaso Marte ($500,000)
Set Ben Weber ($900,000)
Set Brendan Donnelly ($375,000)
Closer Ryan Wagner ($302,500)

Total cost: $10,359,000

There are a few weaknesses on this team. The starting rotation doesn’t have any true aces, like someone who can pitch to Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson levels. The bullpen only has one left-handed reliever, which does not bode well for any situational match-ups. Also, the bullpen is filled with one or two inning guys, so in extra innings games, five or six pitchers could be used. The major strength for this team is the offense; all of the kids can flat out rake. The bullpen is loaded with power arms and can shut down an opponent.

(Ed. note: Special thanks to espn.com for their payroll information and scouting reports on the above players.)