With the 2016 MLB season right around the corner, Sports Illustrated is previewing everything.
With the start of the 2016 MLB season right around the corner, Sports Illustrated’s baseball staff is breaking down everything, from breakouts to World Series predictions.
Find all the preview content below.
Time to place your bets, everyone: On this week's edition of The Strike Zone podcast, SI senior writer Ben Reiter joins Ted Keith and Stephen Cannella to take on Las Vegas, as the trio discusses predicted 2016 win totals across the league and pick their standout over/under lines.
Having just completed a spring training trip to Arizona and Florida, Ben jumps on the air with Ted and Steve to discuss which teams look strongest and weakest relative to their Vegas projections, focusing on four in particular: the Angels, Rays, Rangers and Rockies. Over the course of the show, the trio debate whether the Angels should consider the unthinkable and trade Mike Trout to rebuild a talent-deficient roster; if the Rays can find enough offense to supplement their terrific pitching; if the Rangers can prove that last year's American League West title was no fluke; and if the Rockies can actually find a path to future contention. Finally, Ben, Ted and Steve do a lightning round over/under for several teams, including the Cubs, Red Sox, Pirates and more.
Want more top-notch baseball talk delivered straight to you every week? Then subscribe to The Strike Zone podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud. Have any questions, comments or thoughts on the show? Reach out to Ted, Steve or producer Jon Tayler on Twitter.
Check back on SI.com next week for another episode of The Strike Zone.
Who's going to bust out as a star this year, and who's simply going to bust? Before the start of the regular season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are picking 10 players (five from each league) who appear to be headed for breakout seasons and 10 players likely to be disappointments. Be sure to bookmark these articles so you can tell them how wrong they were in September.
Who will be the American League’s breakout players in 2016? Below are my five picks, listed alphabetically, who could take a huge step forward this season. Before we get to the list, though, a few quick notes on the selection process. Rookies were not eligible, as Jay already did a fine job identifying the AL’s most promising newcomers last week. I’ve also excluded 2015 rookie stars who are lined up to have their first full seasons this year. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano and Luis Severino could all be first-time All-Stars in 2016, but no matter how good Correa might be this year, last season was clearly his breakout. Instead, I tried to identify the players whose major league track records are a little longer but less clearly pointed toward stardom whom I nonetheless expect to be impact players in 2016.
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Red Sox
The 40th pick in the 2011 draft, Bradley was one of the Red Sox’s top prospects in 2013 and ’14, but by last season, the large discrepancy between his performances at Triple A and in the majors had become a problem. An elite defensive centerfielder, Bradley doesn’t have to rake to be valuable, but through Aug. 8 of last year, he had hit just .188/.267/.268 in 601 major league plate appearances. Then it happened: In a span of five games, Bradley went 13 for 22 with four doubles, two triples and three home runs. That performance was capped by a 5-for-6 afternoon against the Mariners at Fenway in which Bradley collected five extra-base hits and drove in seven runs in a 22–10 Red Sox victory. When the smoke cleared, his season batting line was .250/.340/.500 (up from .203/.307/.351 prior to the game).
Fluky as that might have seemed, Bradley maintained that new line the rest of the way, hitting .248/.331/.496 over his final 45 games as the Red Sox made a late surge toward respectability. He bore some resemblance to the hitter who hit .281/.365/.451 over parts of three Triple A seasons—enough so that the Red Sox entered the off-season with full confidence in Bradley, a player they have often contemplated trading, as their centerfielder for 2016. But what makes Bradley a potential breakout player is his glove, not his bat. All he has to do at the plate is hit well enough to keep the centerfield job; his play in the field will make him a star.
Starlin Castro, 2B, Yankees
What a second: Castro is a three-time All-Star, has nearly 1,000 major league hits and led the NL with 207 hits in 2011. How does he qualify for this list? Because he posted a mere 89 OPS+ over the last three seasons combined and averaged less than one Win Above Replacement per season over those three campaigns. That cost him the shortstop job in Chicago last season and led to him being traded to the Yankees in December.
Call Castro a bounceback candidate if you prefer, but his continued stardom is hardly a given at this point. That said, he won’t turn 26 until next week, and his bat found new life after he was benched in August. Castro hit .353/.373/.588 in 143 plate appearances over the remainder of the regular season, climbing off the bench to claim the Cubs’ second base job, and he will play that lower-profile, lower-pressure position in New York, as well. Castro isn’t going to repeat that line over a full season, but he’s shown that he can hit .300 with a .340 on-base percentage when he's right, and a .450 slugging percentage isn’t out of the question as he moves closer to his prime-age seasons. Add in improved play in the field thanks to his less-demanding position, and Castro could be a four-win player for the Yankees this year, if not better.
Rougned Odor, 2B, Rangers
Just 22 years old, Odor is the next great second baseman in baseball. The Rangers rushed him to the majors in 2014, promoting him directly from Double A after trading Ian Kinsler and losing Jurickson Profar to injury. Odor held his own on talent alone but should have been at Triple A, and he was clearly overmatched to start the season. But after just a month back in Triple A (during which he raked to the tune of a .352/.426/.639 line), he came back ready. From his return on June 15 through the end of the regular season, Odor hit .292/.334/.527 with 15 home runs in 91 games. He was also an impact player in the Division Series against the Blue Jays, hitting .278/.381/.500, leading the Rangers in times on base (eight) and runs scored (seven) in the five-game series and making things happen with his bat, his legs and his head. He should be in the conversation for the AL’s starting second base spot in the All-Star Game for the next decade, at least.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays
Big things were expected from the 5’8” Stroman after his impressive rookie season in 2014, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee nearly wiped out his '15 campaign entirely. It’s evidence of his extraordinary character that he not only refused to see his season as lost—he worked his way back for a September cavalry run for the Blue Jays’ rotation—but also used the extra time on his hands to finish his degree at Duke. Stroman’s return exceeded all expectations: He made four regular-season starts, beating the second-place Yankees twice and allowing just two runs in 22 innings in his final three outings. He then leapfrogged deadline addition David Price to become Toronto’s playoff ace, drawing the start and earning the win in the decisive fifth game of the Division Series against the Rangers (besting Cole Hamels), then pulling out another big win in Game 3 of the ALCS to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Royals.
Stroman may have to contend with an innings limit this year due to his youth (he’ll be 25 on May 1), his size, the time he missed last year and the fact that he has never thrown more than 166 1/3 innings in a single season across all levels. Still, he should be the ace of another playoff team this season, and one scout I spoke to this spring thinks he could contend for this year’s AL Cy Young award.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
What Stroman has in brains (both on the mound and off), Walker has in brawn. Possessed of a classic starting pitcher’s build, the 6’4” Louisiana native is a former blue-chip prospect with an upper-90s fastball whose emergence as a front-end starter has been slowed by injury (shoulder bursitis in early 2014) and the need for some adjustments to his mechanics and his repertoire. Things started to turn around for Walker with his final start last May, though by then he already had an ERA in the sevens that would distort his strong finish. Over his final 20 starts last year, Walker went 10–3 with a 3.62 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and a 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Now 23, he has a 170-inning season under his belt (169 2/3, to be exact) and a much improved defense behind him courtesy of new general manager Jerry Dipoto. Walker looks poised to be the front-end pitcher he’s long been expected to be.
Byron Buxton is just 22 years old, but it feels as though we—or more to the point, the Minnesota Twins—have been waiting forever for the speedy centerfielder to become a star at the major league level. The No. 2 overall pick of the 2012 draft cracked the top 10 on multiple prospect lists the following year, was the consensus top prospect in the game heading into '14 and topped three of the four major lists (Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com and MLB.com) a year ago. He finally reached the majors last June and played 46 games for the Twins, but a sprained left thumb cost him six weeks, making it his second season in a row missing significant time due to injuries. One at-bat short of exhausting his rookie status (the cutoff is 130), he still impresses talent evaluators to such a degree that only Dodgers infielder Corey Seager outranked him on the major lists this year, making him the most sensible choice to lead our ranking of AL impact rookies.
Not every top prospect is headed for the majors this season, of course, and many who are still have obstacles in their paths, whether they be service clock considerations, veteran stopgaps blocking their path on the parent club's roster or the need for finishing touches at Triple A. After examining five such youngsters from the National League on Tuesday, what follows here is our American League list. As talented and promising as each of these players are, none is as strong a bet to start the season with a big league job à la Seager or Mets pitcher Steven Matz.
Players are presented by the average of their ranking on the four prospect lists mentioned above; a hat tip to the hard workers at those sites whose observations drive the scout-based information herein. Note that while players with professional experience in Japan, South Korea and Cuba are considered rookies and made some prospect lists, they are not being considered here.
Byron Buxton, Twins, CF
BA: 2; BP: 2; MLB: 2; ESPN: 2 (Average: 2.0)
Between wrist and concussion woes in 2014 and then the thumb injury last year, Buxton has lost significant developmental time, playing in just 149 regular season games across the two seasons, plus another 13 in the 2014 Arizona Fall League. In Double A and Triple A last year, he hit .305/.367/.500 with 22 steals and 13 triples in 72 games, but at the major league level, he looked overmatched, struggling with breaking ball recognition en route to a .209/.250/.326 showing with an ugly 44/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
What keeps Buxton’s prospect rankings so high is that scouts still rave about his tools. That starts with his elite, game-changing speed, which rates the maximum score of 80 on the scouting scale and helps him have great range in spacious Target Field. When paired with his 70-grade (“plus-plus”) throwing arm, Buxton is a future Gold Glove contender whose defense alone should be able to keep him afloat until his bat comes around—and there’s a whole lot to love about the bat. “This is still an elite offensive player,” wrote Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus. “His hand-eye coordination rivals anyone’s. His fast hands and above-average bat speed give him the potential for at least a plus-hit tool, maybe more.”
Buxton does have some holes in his swing that major league pitchers were able to exploit, but there’s every reason to think that he will come around. Opinions on his power range from above-average to true plus; he’s not going to mash 30 to 40 home runs like Mike Trout, but 20 is certainly possible, and that would look all the more tantalizing when paired with 40 steals. The Twins project him to be their Opening Day centerfielder, but that doesn’t mean that they’re without alternatives if he struggles this spring. Danny Santana, who played 69 games there in 2014, is the most likely to start in center if Buxton returns to Triple A, with Eddie Rosario probably getting a handful of games out there as well. Those are both short-term solutions however; expect Buxton to spend most if not all of this season in Minnesota.
Joey Gallo, Rangers, 3B/LF
BA: 8; BP: 10; MLB: 9; ESPN: 12 (Average: 9.8)
Gallo is a familiar name to prospect hounds thanks to his light-tower power and his penchant for swinging and missing. The 22-year-old lefty slugger, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick who made his major league debut last June 2, homered in his first two games for Texas and in five of his first 14. But then pitchers began to exploit his aggressive approach and the holes in his swing, and he struck out 22 times in his final 40 plate appearances before being sent back to the minors. Including a September call-up during which he played sparingly, he hit just .204/.301/.417 with six home runs in 123 PA for the Rangers, as well as .240/.342/.520 with 23 homers in 374 PA combined at Double A Frisco and Triple A Round Rock. He’s working this spring on improving his plate discipline and making the right adjustments from pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat without getting caught up in a cycle of endless tinkering.
Beyond Gallo’s power—the product of his plus bat speed, quick wrists and the tremendous leverage he creates from his 6'5", 230 pound frame—he’s certainly got the arm for third base, though his quickness and hands have raised questions, and he isn’t going to supplant incumbent Adrian Beltre. Texas experimented with him in leftfield as well last year, and that’s his more likely route to immediate major league playing time. That said, there's quite a crowd competing for time both at third base and leftfield, including the recently signed Ian Desmond; former top prospect Jurickson Profar; and veterans Josh Hamilton and Justin Ruggiano, who could platoon in left. And that's without even mentioning 20-year-old outfield prospect Nomar Mazara, who placed even higher on the BP and ESPN lists. Still, Gallo should be in the majors at some point this season.
Blake Snell, Rays, LHP
BA: 12; BP: 14; MLB: 14; ESPN: 21 (Average: 15.3)
The 23-year-old Snell is the latest in the long line of Rays pitching prospects, “a legit, top-of-the-rotation, lefthanded pitching talent,” according to according to Jim Callis of MLBpipeline.com, an MLB.com website. A supplemental first-round pick back in 2011, the 6'4" lefty is coming off a dominant 2015 in which he rocketed from High A to Triple A, beginning the year with a 46-inning scoreless streak and finishing with eye-popping numbers, including a 1.41 ERA (the lowest of any starter in the minors) with 10.9 strikeouts and 0.5 homers per nine in 134 innings.
Snell’s 92 to 95 mph fastball can touch 97, but it’s the pitch’s late life that draws raves; BP's Crawford called it “borderline plus-plus because of its movement [with] more life than any lefthanded pitching prospect in baseball.” His slider is a second plus pitch, with a sharp break that generates swings and misses; noted ESPN's Law, the pitch “looks as if it comes out of the sky thanks to his high three-quarters slot and ability to stay on top of the ball.” Snell’s changeup, though still something of a work in progress, has plus potential as well. And while his control has been an issue, it improved markedly last year as he showed off a new-found maturity and coachability.
So long as Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez and Matt Moore are all healthy, Snell doesn’t figure to start the year in the majors. Still, Smyly, who made just 12 starts while pitching through a partial rotator cuff tear, and Moore, who made a rough return from Tommy John surgery, have their own questions to answer this spring. Snell could return to Triple A for as few as 20 days to delay his free agency a year, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he makes his debut in late May or early June.
Jose Berrios, Twins, RHP
BA: 17; BP: 19; MLB: 28; ESPN: 26 (Average: 22.5)
Such is the Twins’ wealth of young talent that they have two prospects here: Buxton and Berrios, the latter a 21-year-old righty drafted out of Puerto Rico as a supplemental first-rounder in 2012. Splitting last year between Double A and Triple A, he put up a 3.03 ERA with 9.5 strikeouts per nine (against just 2.1 walks per nine) in 166 1/3 innings; his total of 175 strikeouts led all minor leaguers. Minnesota's fans clamored for him to join the much-improved big club as it battled for a wild-card berth last summer, but he was already 27 innings beyond his '14 count, and his age and smallish size (6-foot, 185 pounds) already generate concerns about his durability.
Berrios throws a 92 to 96 mph fastball, a plus curve and an above-average changeup that has a chance to become a plus pitch as well. “He’ll add and take away velocity from his curveball,” wrote BP's Crawford. “[A]t times it’s a legit power offering and at times a softer 12-6. They’re both quality pitches, and both can be located at the bottom of the strike zone.” Berrios does have a tendency to get in trouble high in the strike zone when he overthrows his fastball. Of his changeup, Double A Chattanooga pitching coach Stu Cliburn told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “[F]rom the right side [it] reminds me of Johan Santana’s, the action that it has.” Wrote Law, “He has the command and control, the secondary stuff and the poise to succeed in the majors now.”
Beyond Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson, the Twins have no shortage of rotation candidates, including Tommy Milone, who’s coming off a solid season (3.92 ERA in 128 2/3 innings) and is out of minor league options; Ricky Nolasco, who’s been dreadful over the past two seasons but is still owed $25 million; Trevor May, a power arm who split last year between the bullpen and rotation; and Tyler Duffey, who made a solid late-season showing in the rotation. Still, Berrios is good enough to cut the line once the Twins feel that he’s ready, and with this team now a viable contender, there’s little time to waste with subpar pitching. Expect to see him in Minnesota soon.
A.J. Reed, Astros, 1B
BA: 11; BP: 55; MLB: 40; ESPN: 44 (Average: 37.5)
The 6'4", 240-pound Reed is a 22-year-old lefty-swinging slugger whom Houston drafted in the second round in 2014 out of the University of Kentucky, where he also pitched. Last year, he hit a combined .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers combined at High A and Double A. His approach at the plate and his plate discipline are both outstanding, and his power is borderline plus-plus, though concerns about his bat speed have led to a great deal of variance in his prospect rankings. ESPN's Keith Law wrote, “The knock on Reed coming out of Kentucky . . . was that his bat speed wasn’t great, maybe not even quite average. . . . His eye at the plate and his decision-making are both so good, however, that even if he gets a pitch he can’t turn on, he can still shoot it the other way for a hit.” That’s particularly important, because Reed is a player who is already facing frequent defensive shifts.
Defensively, Reed has a plus throwing arm and moves well for a big guy, which is to say that he’s playable at first base, but he's not the second coming of Keith Hernandez. With just 53 games at Double A, he may be in need of more seasoning, and the current Astros’ regime has yet to call up a position player without at least a cursory stop in Triple A; even 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa played 24 games there last year. But with Jonathan Singleton the top alternative and the likes of Preston Tucker, Marwin Gonzalez, Luis Valbuena and (the other) Matt Duffy also in the mix, Reed presents the most complete solution to the Astros’ first base situation. The guess here is that unless one of those other players is on a roll, Reed could be in Houston around the time of the Super Two cutoff in late May or early June.
Welcome to Part 3 of the 2016 Trade Value player rankings! A quick refresher on what I'm doing here: Looking at a number of factors (age, performance, contract status, etc.) and using statistical analysis, I've ranked the top 50 players in baseball for this season by their trade value—essentially trying to answer the question of "If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?"
In Part 1, I laid out the ground rules and listed the players who had fallen off last year's rankings, this year's honorable mentions and Nos. 50–40 on the 2016 edition. In Part 2, we counted down Nos. 39–21. Today in Part 3, we rank the final 20—the best of baseball's best.
For a full breakdown of the Trade Value's history and rules, check out the intro in Part 1. Let's get on with the rankings!
All contract figures from Cot's Contracts; all WAR figures from baseball-reference.com.
20. Sonny Gray, SP, Athletics
Last Year: 34
19. Gerrit Cole, SP, Pirates
Last Year: 33
18. Corey Kluber, SP, Indians
Last Year: 15
17. Noah Syndergaard, SP, Mets
Last Year: Not Ranked
We’ve now reached the “really great young pitchers who are not quite as great as Clayton Kershaw, but they are much cheaper” part of our program. Here’s a look at the remaining salary commitments owed to these four fine righthanders:
• Gray and Cole will each earn the league minimum (or close to it) in 2016 and are each arbitration eligible from '17 through '19.
• Kluber is signed through 2019 for $35.5 million with a '20 club option for $13.5 million (or a $1 million buyout) and a '21 club option for $14 million (or a $1 million buyout), and the value of the options could jump to $4 million each based on Cy Young voting.
• Syndergaard will make the league minimum for the next two seasons and is arbitration eligible from 2018 through '21 (assuming he meets “Super 2” status).
We can scrutinize each of these four pitching stars and find specific quirks. Gray takes advantage of his home ballpark better than any of the four, suppressing hit rates thanks in part to MLB’s most spacious foul territory at the Coliseum. That makes him a slight performance risk if the A’s were to trade him to a team with a more hitter-friendly park. Cole slashed his walk and home-run rates last season, showing the biggest improvement of the four from 2014 to '15, but he’s also a Scott Boras client, so re-signing him before he can reach free agency will be a tall order. Kluber has the best fielding-independent numbers of the foursome over the past two seasons and that long and highly favorable contract, but he also turns 30 in April. Syndergaard is just 23 years old, throws 100-mph heat, complements it with a hammer-of-Thor curveball that limited opponents to a .180 average last season ... and, well, he really doesn’t have any obvious weaknesses, so he could grow into the best pitcher in that outrageously great Mets rotation.
16. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
Last Year: Not Ranked
In his dazzling rookie season, Lindor staked his claim as arguably the second-best defensive shortstop in the game (behind only Andrelton Simmons). A wizard in the field throughout his minor-league career, Lindor showed off so much exceptional range, such soft hands and such a strong throwing arm that he had a viable case for a Gold Glove award despite playing just 99 games.
But what if he’s an All-Star-caliber hitter too? That’s what Lindor was in 2015: He batted a cool .313/.353/.482, showed surprising power with 12 homers and 22 doubles in 390 at-bats and swiped 12 bases in 14 tries for good measure. Those offensive numbers bear watching: Nearly 35% of the balls Lindor hit into play fell for hits—an unusually high figure given that he ranked nowhere near the league leaders in line-drive rate or hard-hit rate. Then there's Lindor’s minor-league track record, which pointed to a competent but hardly dominant offensive player. Then again, top players sometimes make a big jump as they mature (Lindor is just 22), and his speed could help his bat play above what scouts projected for him (16 infield hits last season helped a lot).
Six years of diving stops and rocket throws would be enough to earn Lindor a lofty place in our rankings regardless. If he keeps hitting the way he did in 2015, though, he’s got a good case for a spot in the top 10.
15. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays
Last Year: 36
The only player in the top 50 who has already reached his 30th birthday, Donaldson being at the absolute height of his powers outweighs his date of birth. Gift-wrapped to the Jays last off-season for a stick of gum and a badly worn 1984 Doug Flynn O-Pee-Chee card, Donaldson annihilated the American League, blasting 41 homers, playing his usual excellent defense and bagging his first MVP award. Thanks to his late bloomer career path, Donaldson can’t test the open market for another three years. Following an electrifying summer in baseball-mad Toronto, that’s a fantastic feeling for Jays fans.
14. Mookie Betts, CF, Red Sox
Last Year: 40
An all-around terror on an otherwise underachieving Red Sox team, Betts batted .291/.341/.479, whacked 18 homers, stole 21 bases and impressed with the glove in his first go-round as an everyday centerfielder in the big leagues. We haven’t even seen Betts’ full array of skills yet, given the .400-plus on-base percentages he posted in the minors. Remember Jacoby Ellsbury’s off-the charts 2011 campaign for Boston—the one that placed him second in MVP voting and set the stage for the Yankees to overpay him for seven years of misery? That might be Betts’s upside, only without the turning-into-a-pumpkin part.
13. Madison Bumgarner, SP, Giants
Last Year: 5
The gift that keeps on giving, Bumgarner’s impossibly team-friendly contract yielded huge dividends yet again for the Giants in 2015. For the microscopically low price of $6.75 million, Bumgarner delivered career bests in (regular-season) innings pitched, strikeout rate and walk rate, obliterating any concerns of a hangover following the 270 innings he piled up between the regular season and playoffs during the Giants’ run to the World Series a year earlier. Counting the two club options the Giants will surely pick up (barring the sun exploding or AT&T Park getting hit by a meteor), Bumgarner will earn $45.25 million over the next four years. With the power of #EvenYear voodoo behind him, Bumgarner could have five rings before his deal finally runs out.
12. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox
Last Year: 4
Though Bumgarner probably eats around Sale’s weight for breakfast, the two aces could otherwise be mistaken for doppelgängers. They’re both the undisputed lefty aces of their staffs; they're both elite pitchers who don’t yet have Cy Young hardware but could get there soon; they're separated by just four months in age; and they're both signed through 2019 to contracts that enable their employers to spend money on other needs, knowing they have franchise players locked up for a fraction of what they’d go for as free agents. Sale gets the slight nod because of his video game-like strikeout numbers, but this is more or less a tie.
Enjoy watching the South Side’s 6'6", 180-pound outlier obliterate AL hitters for as long as this lasts; we might not see another pitcher quite like him for a long time.
11. Chris Archer, SP, Rays
Last Year: Not Ranked
Another pitcher whose contract looked like a team-friendly steal from the minute he signed it, Archer’s big breakout last season makes the numbers on that deal look like typos. The owner of one of the league's most lethal sliders, Archer’s 252 strikeouts ranked second in the AL, and his home-run rate was the 10th-lowest among qualified Junior Circuit starters. Archer becoming the charismatic face of the franchise (and even a skilled color commentator during playoff games) provides star power for a revenue-strapped franchise that badly needs it, too.
The cost for all that good stuff? A mere $2.75 million this season and just $42 million over the next six once the Rays (or whoever Archer's future employer is) inevitably pick up the two attractive club options in 2020 and '21.
10. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates
Last Year: 2
He’s got three years left on one of the most team-friendly contracts the game has seen in years, but we’re already hearing buzz about a possible mega-extension; people were writing columns about it a year ago. Hammering out a solution might not be that simple, though. For one thing, Pittsburgh perpetually ranks near the bottom of the league in payroll, so finding the money to make a deal work could be challenging. For another, it’s not clear why there should be any urgency here. Yes, McCutchen is one of the greatest players in franchise history; he's a terrific ambassador for both the city and the game and the kind of player for whom you’d one day like to build a statue outside the ballpark. But the Pirates are also exactly the kind of team that shouldn’t be messing with the attractive three-year, $41.5 million agreement they have with McCutchen through their club option year of 2018. Moreover, he will be 32 when this contract expires. Sentiment aside, should the Pirates even want to throw a giant pile of money at McCutchen for the decline phase of his career?
9. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
Last Year: 42
After ending both 2013 and '14 with knee injuries, Machado showed what he can do with a full, healthy season. Playing all 162 games, he batted .286/.359/.502, cranked 35 homers and played his usual fantastic defense, cementing him as one of baseball's best all-around third basemen. He’s just 23 years old, and players who are this good this young often go on to become perennial All-Stars—or better.
Baltimore’s problem is that those days on the disabled list still count toward service time, and Machado has just three years to go until free agency. Still, three years of a player who looks a little like a combination of Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray is still pretty damn valuable.
8. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Last Year: Not Ranked
It might seem bold to rank a player this high when his entire major league track record consists of just 27 games played. But the most valuable commodities in baseball are players who display exceptional skills at an early age and burn as little service time as possible. While Seager might only have those 27 games in the majors, we’ve got a pretty good stack of evidence to suggest that he’s going to be a star. In 390 minor-league games, he batted a robust .307/.368/.523. Much of that damage came while playing in hitter-friendly ballparks, but Seager also racked up most of those numbers before turning 21. To that, you can add his eye-opening .337/.425/.561 major league debut, as well as the fact that he plays shortstop at a time when nobody hits remotely that well at the position anymore. Seager is still just 21 and offers six years of team control; 29 rival teams are hiring hypnotists to go infiltrate Dodgers president Andrew Friedman’s office as you read this.
7. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
Last Year: 30
Third base has become a wonderland of prime talent over the past few years, so much so that trying to rank the best of the bunch becomes a nearly impossible task. Donaldson just won the MVP, so you could argue that he’s the best right now. Kris Bryant just won the Rookie of the Year award, so you could argue that he has the brightest future—except that Bryant is actually six months older than Machado, who’s already clocked nearly 2,000 plate appearances in the big leagues.
Then there’s Arenado. Over five years younger than Donaldson and offering one more year of team control than Machado, the Rockies' hot-corner man put up Paste from "Bases Loaded" power numbers last season and made a number of ludicrous plays at third. As with any Rockies hitter, there’s some skepticism over how much Coors Field impacts his stats, and as anyone who scrutinizes that ballpark will tell you, Coors tends to have a greater impact on singles, doubles, and triples than it does on homers. Arenado is a prime example of that trend: He clubbed 20 homers at home and 22 on the road in 2015. Unfortunately, he also batted .316 at home versus just .258 away from Coors. Let’s not nitpick too much, though. If you hit bombs and make Gold Glove plays like Mike Schmidt in his prime, and if you’re 24 years old, then you’re a bona fide superstar.
6. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
Last Year: 7
5. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Last Year: 18
How many fan bases in pro sports are feeling better about life right now than Cubs fans? Rizzo and Bryant, who anchor the best infield in baseball, combined for 57 homers and 134 extra-base hits last season, and that was in Bryant’s first brush with the big leagues. The Cubs’ service-time shell game enables the team to keep Bryant through 2021, matching the long-term deal it gave Rizzo, who won’t even make more than $7 million a year until '19. Bryant will be 29 when he can test the open market, and Rizzo will be 32, so the Cubs should get most of both players’ prime years.
In his final full minor-league season, Bryant batted an absurd .325/.438/.661. If he starts playing on that level in the majors, just imagine how fun afternoons at Wrigley Field will become.
4. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
Last Year: 3
The most anonymous star in the game, Goldschmidt never got much respect in the draft (he was an eighth-round pick) or in the minors (he never cracked a major top-100 prospects list). After some early success in the majors, the Diamondbacks gave him a contract that similarly undervalued his potential, so they’re now grateful to have one of the best hitters on the planet locked up for the final three years of a five-year, $32 million deal (plus a club option for 2019). And despite his consistently huge major league numbers netting him three All-Star Games, two Silver Slugger awards, two Gold Gloves and two MVP runner-up finishes, MLB hasn’t exactly built a bunch of multi-million-dollar ad campaigns around Goldschmidt.
If Arizona general manager Dave Stewart has his way, that could change soon, as the D-Backs hope to ride a pair of gigantic off-season moves for Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller into playoff glory. But whether or not Greinke justifies the 700 Learjets he’s getting paid, and whether or not the Snakes grow to regret giving up a king’s ransom for Miller, one thing probably won’t change: Goldschmidt will still crank out .300/.400/.500 seasons, year after year after year.
3. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
Last Year: 6
Whoa! A 23-year-old outfielder does a spot-on impression of Stan Musial in his prime, and he can’t even crack the top-two? That’s where Harper finds himself after a season in which he was the undisputed best player in baseball, leading the league in homers, on-base percentage, slugging and any iteration of park-adjusted offense you can possibly imagine. Why? Because if Boras urges his run-of-the-mill clients to test free agency rather than accepting an extension from their existing team, imagine the sirens that would go off in his office if anyone from the Nationals so much as sent him a funny cat video.
Harper will get to test the market right as he hits his 26th birthday, and he’s got a good chance to land the richest contract in sports history when he does. Three years of Harper are going to be an amazing thrill ride for Nats fans, and one of those might even bring D.C. its first World Series win in nearly a century. That’s still not enough to trump two-to-three years of additional control for the next two guys.
2. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros
Last Year: Not Ranked
Remember when (some) experts clucked their tongues at the Astros for taking Correa with the first pick in the 2012 draft, arguing that the move was designed to save the team money rather than just going for the best player available? The Astros did, in fact, save money, but 3 1/2 years later, it’s clear they got the best player available, too.
Correa took the AL by storm in his rookie campaign, blasting 22 homers in 99 games, playing sound defense at his extremely demanding position and looking like he could suit up for the Texans in his spare time. The Astros going from a third straight 100-loss season to the playoffs in just two years is one of the best stories in baseball. Correa’s potential to become an every-season MVP candidate gives the team a great chance to ensure that success keeps going for years to come.
1. Mike Trout, OF, Angels
Last Year: 1
Four years of this column, four years with Trout on top. A terror from his first full major league season at age 20, Trout’s skill set has evolved even as his productivity has stayed sky-high. We’ll probably never again see anything close to 49 steals in a season from him (though he’s still an asset on the base paths), and he doesn’t make quite as many spectacular catches as he once did (though he’s still a plus defender who will occasionally make you weep with joy). What Trout mostly is now is a straight-up masher, a player whose power numbers keep escalating to the point where future 50-homer seasons can’t be ruled out.
Trout has got an argument for four straight MVP awards, he’s somehow still just 24 years old, and the Angels have him locked up for five more years. Now get him some damn help already, so we can watch the best player on the planet lay waste to the World Series, too.
Welcome to Part 2 of the 2016 Trade Value player rankings! A quick refresher on what I'm doing here: Looking at a number of factors (age, performance, contract status, etc.) and using statistical analysis, I've ranked the top 50 players in baseball for this season by their trade value—essentially trying to answer the question of "If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?"
Yesterday, I laid out the ground rules and listed the players who had fallen off last year's rankings, this year's honorable mentions and Nos. 50–40 on the 2016 edition. Today, I'm tackling Nos. 39–21; tomorrow, I'll rank the top 20.
For a full breakdown of the Trade Value's history and rules, check out the intro in Part 1. Let's get on with the rankings!
All contract figures from Cot's Contracts; all WAR figures from baseball-reference.com.
39. A.J. Pollock, CF, Diamondbacks
Last Year: Not Ranked
When the Braves and Diamondbacks first started talking about Shelby Miller a couple months ago, the rumor that kept coming up was that Atlanta wanted Pollock in exchange for the young righthander. That the Braves had to “settle” for a king’s ransom highlighted by No. 1 pick Dansby Swanson says a lot about how good Pollock is. Even in the hitter’s haven that is Chase Field, batting .315/.367/.498 with 20 homers, 39 steals and excellent defense in centerfield makes you an MVP candidate—or at least it would in a parallel universe in which more baseball writers value numbers as highly as they do reputation, or your team’s place in the standings.
38. Jake Arrieta, SP, Cubs
Last Year: Not Ranked
Arrieta is a free agent in two years and Scott Boras is his agent, so any team that trades for him in our made-up universe can’t assume long-term control. But what an electrifying two years those would be. Arrieta claimed his first Cy Young award last season, no mean feat considering how good Clayton Kershaw and the Koufax-ian Zack Greinke were in 2015. Arrieta’s second-half performance, in which he flashed a 0.75 ERA, was record-breaking. Assuming the wall he hit in the playoffs doesn’t have any lasting effect, he’ll go into 2016 as the nearly unhittable ace for the team widely considered the favorite to win the National League pennant.
37. Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
Last Year: 38
The only player in the big leagues to have “partay” affixed to the end of his name as a term of endearment, Marte is the type of player who can beat you in more ways than you can count. Over the past three seasons, he’s been one of the NL’s best and steadiest hitters (especially once you adjust for the pitcher-friendly dimensions of PNC Park); he’s stolen 101 bases; and he’s played very good defense in leftfield. Paired with Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, Marte has helped form what’s arguably the best all-around outfield in the majors.
Marte’s still something of a hacker at the plate, salvaging his on-base percentage by also being the most plunkable player in the league. If he ever learns to be more patient and wait for better pitches to drive, he could join the ranks of the NL’s super-elite. That would be a huge boon to the Pirates, who have Marte locked up inexpensively through 2021.
36. J.P. Crawford, SS, Phillies
Last Year: Not Ranked
The second-best position player prospect in baseball (No. 1 is another shortstop), Crawford is one of the most polished 21-year-olds you’ll ever see. He’s a well-above average defender at that crucial position, owns terrific contact-hitting skills (with more walks than strikeouts playing at A ball and Double A last year) and boasts emerging gap power, even if that might not translate to big homer totals in the majors. The Phillies have overhauled their front office, locking up and promoting some bright, young analytical minds and sweeping away the last remnants of the Ruin Tomorrow Jr. Era. When the next contending team arrives in Philly, Crawford will be the All-Star fan favorite leading the charge.
35. Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners
Last Year: 20
Finally, a few signs of mortality. In 2015, Hernandez saw his ERA spike by nearly a run and a half, posting his worst strikeout and walk rates in four years, the second-highest home-run rate of his career and his lowest average fastball velocity ever at 91.8 mph. One of the biggest reasons for Hernandez’s status as a potential future Hall of Famer might also be responsible for some slippage in his skills: He’s fired 200-plus innings in eight straight seasons and will open his 12th big-league season still just shy of his 30th birthday.
Let’s not get carried away, though. Even in a down year, King Felix was a key asset for the M’s, and plenty of teams would gladly take him at $26 million a year through 2019 in a bizarro world in which Seattle ever made him available.
34. Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays
Last Year: Honorable Mention
Stroman became a mini-legend in Toronto in 2015—not bad for a guy who made just four regular-season starts last year. A seemingly devastating knee injury during spring training figured to knock the effervescent righty out for the entire year. Instead, he became a patent and trademark mogul, got his college degree from Duke, turned into a social media icon with his delightful Tweets, shocked even the most decorated medical minds with his lightning-fast recovery, flashed a 1.67 ERA in those four regular-season starts and became one of the leading forces behind Toronto’s push to the ALCS
As entertaining as Stroman is off the field, his on-field accomplishments are legitimate too, highlighted by a career 55.6% ground-ball rate and fewer than two walks allowed per nine innings—both much needed skills when pitching in a hitter’s park like Rogers Centre. With David Price gone, Jays fans have lamented management’s inability to find a replacement for the top of the rotation. But it’s quite possible that the new staff ace is already on the roster, and Stroman might be it.
33. Kyle Schwarber, OF/C, Cubs
Last Year: Not Ranked
If you ever want to watch a grown man make an ass of himself, Google “Jonah Keri Schwarber”. Built like Matt Stairs and boasting a powerful uppercut swing, the Schwarbs launched multiple monstrous homers in his debut season. In Stairs-ian fashion, Schwarber also ranked among the league leaders in walk rate, working lots of deep counts, looking for pitches to drive and taking free passes as they came.
Schwarber probably won’t play more than a handful of games at catcher and is a defensive liability in leftfield, too. Still, there aren’t many players you can project for 30 homers and 100 walks (or close to it) every year, and he's got a shot to join that rare cohort. Throw in the fact that he’s not yet 23 years old, and the Cubs have themselves a keeper.
32. Addison Russell, SS, Cubs
Last Year: Not Ranked
Russell wasn’t nearly as dazzling as Schwarber with the bat, but the good news is that he excelled in the field, ranking among the league leaders in Defensive Runs Saved at one of the toughest positions on the diamond. Offensive improvement could come soon: Russell put up big numbers in the minors, with uncommon power and on-base ability for a shortstop. The Cubs are already Las Vegas’ early favorite to win the pennant this year, and if Russell’s bat starts to catch up with his glove, they’ll become even more formidable.
31. George Springer, OF, Astros
Last Year: Not Ranked
One-hundred and eighty games into his major league career, Springer’s career line sits at an impressive .256/.354/.463—28% better than league average over that time. But for the second straight season, he spent an extended stretch of time on the disabled list, this time a two-month absence with a wrist injury.
You can still see the All-Star he’s poised to become: Springer slashed his strikeout rate in 2015 and tapped into some of the base running prowess that allowed him to swipe 45 bases three years ago in the minors. With his impressive power and Minute Maid Park's Crawford Boxes working in his favor, he could be a 30–30 guy some time soon. A healthy Springer could blossom into one of the 10 best players in the league. The Astros will have the rest of the decade to see if that happens in Houston.
30. Jose Fernandez, SP, Marlins
Last Year: 24
29. Matt Harvey, SP, Mets
Last Year: 13
Make no mistake: There’d be an absolute feeding frenzy if either of these aces suddenly became available. With Tommy John surgery now in the rearview mirror for both flame-throwing righties, we should expect both to dominate for the next three seasons. So why aren’t Harvey and Fernandez higher on this list, given their combination of elite stuff and youth? Because three years are almost certainly all you’re going to get, given that this is another pair of Boras clients.
A trade might not be that far-fetched either. Various columnists have proposed trading Harvey, and Fernandez’s name surfaced endlessly in off-season rumors. Still, just because a trade might make lots of sense (though less now for the Mets as they’ve done a solid job of filling their lineup holes) doesn’t mean it’s likely to happen until at least season’s end. Given the Marlins’ history of selling off assets, let’s agree to meet here again next winter for some hot, hot Hot Stove action.
28. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins
Last Year: 14
The one major asset the Marlins didn’t sell, Stanton theoretically holds the most expensive contract in baseball history. In reality, it’s not hard to imagine him opting out after the 2020 season. The way salaries have been rising, the seven years and $218 million that’ll be left in his deal at age 31 might constitute a bargain. That and Stanton could get sick of being a Marlin by then (if not sooner) if the Fish continue to wallow near the NL East basement under erratic ownership. A rich team making a run at one of the game’s most fearsome sluggers can’t be ruled out; industry scuttlebutt says a couple have already tried, just without any success.
The 2019 Dodgers roster notwithstanding, Stanton needs to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season, having missed 39 or more games in three of the past four seasons. He’s just 26 years old and a chiseled physical specimen with better-than-average speed and playable outfield range, so he at least seems like the kind of player who will age well. But until Stanton can avoid the freak injuries that have hindered his rise to stardom, we’re left to do little more than savor what he can do when he’s actually on the field: absolutely murder baseballs.
27. Dallas Keuchel, SP, Astros
Last Year: Not Ranked
In 2014, Keuchel was an extreme ground-ball pitcher who parlayed weak contact into solid results despite a flaccid strikeout rate. In 2015, Keuchel’s strikeout rate surged—he fanned more than four batters for every one he walked—and that combination of whiffs and weak contact fueled his first Cy Young award.
Keuchel is a soft-tosser by modern standards, with a fastball that averages about 90 mph, so he has a few skeptics doubting his ability to sustain last season’s elite performance. You could also quibble about the 246 innings Keuchel fired between the regular season and playoffs and wonder if there might be a bit of a year-after hangover. But even if Keuchel does regress a bit, getting three years of even a near-elite pitcher at arbitration prices is worth a hell of a lot in today’s market.
26. Buster Posey, C, Giants
Last Year: 11
Posey’s stellar 2015 campaign did absolutely nothing to harm his standing in the baseball world. The second-best season of his illustrious career (by Wins Above Replacement) saw Posey hit .318/.379/.470 with 19 homers, an elite contact rate, top-notch defense and a career-high 150 games played. So why did he fall 15 spots on this year’s list? First, a golden age of young talent ushered a slew of amazing rookies into the league last year, bolstering an already terrific collection of under-25 major league talent. Second, Posey will be 29 years old by Opening Day, and catchers often age poorly and break down after they hit 30. There’s hope on that second front, though: Posey has been extremely durable over the past four seasons (playing no fewer than 147 games in a season), and the Giants have deftly shifted Posey to first base a bit more every year, to where he only squatted for 106 games last season.
25. Miguel Sano, DH/OF, Twins
Last Year: Not Ranked
In recent years, general managers have changed the way they evaluate players, placing a heavier emphasis on the value of defense. Jason Heyward’s youth and on-base ability helped his market value, but he wouldn’t have landed the richest position player contract this winter without his Gold Glove-caliber defense. It’s not like home runs are going out of style, though, as newly minted multi-millionaire signees Chris Davis and Justin Upton can attest.
Sano worked on his outfield defense this off-season, so we might see him play games there in addition to third and first base to supplement lots of playing time at designated hitter. Wherever he ends up, though, Sano is going to earn a ton of money himself, and it’s going to be entirely because of his bat. Pro-rate Sano’s rookie stats over a full season and you get 70-plus extra-base hits to go with a gaudy .385 on-base percentage. And since he's just 22 years old, there’s good reason to believe he’ll improve, too. Now consider that Sano will make around the league minimum for two more years and that he can’t test free agency until 2021, and you have a truly drool-worthy asset.
24. Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
Last Year: 8
An older but also more established version of Sano, Abreu is another hulking AL Central slugger who’s made the talent evaluators who loved him many moons ago look like savants. Abreu’s numbers slipped significantly following his majestic rookie season, but he still ranked among the league’s best hitters, batting .290/.347/.502 with 30 bombs. Even better, the White Sox control Abreu’s rights for his age 29–32 seasons at the low, low cost of $44 million over four years. With third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie now on board, Abreu will anchor an offense that figures to score far more runs this season.
23. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Last Year: 41
The fancy projection systems pegged the 2015 Red Sox to do big things, with ambitious outlooks for big-ticket free agents Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and for up-and-comers like Bogaerts and Mookie Betts. Sandoval and Ramirez were busts in year one, but Bogaerts and Betts were anything but, emerging as one of the best up-the-middle duos in the American League. Bogaerts’s aggressive approach—he walked just 32 times in 654 plate appearances—paid off with a .320/.355/.421 line, a fine accompaniment to his better-than-average defense in his first full big-league season as an everyday shortstop.
Some of those numbers could regress, given the uncharacteristically high .372 batting average on balls in play Bogaerts put up last season. On the other hand, he hasn’t yet tapped into the power potential he showed as a precocious teenager zooming through the minors, and at age 23, he has lots of room to improve.
22. Jacob deGrom, SP, Mets
Last Year: Honorable Mention
Look at deGrom’s major league resume and you’ll find zero flaws. In 2014, he stormed into the league by racking up 22 stellar starts, striking out more than a batter an inning, posting a 2.69 ERA and winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. In year two, he was even better: He struck out a few more batters, chopped one free pass per nine innings off his walk rate, made 30 excellent starts, lowered his ERA to 2.54 and made three terrific starts in the playoffs before struggling a bit in his final outing during the World Series.
This high on the list, though, you’d better be bullet-proof. My initial top-50 list had deGrom ranked in the teens, and when I ran it by a GM, this was his response: “Too high for me—older and has had surgery. Think he's going to break again.” Mets fans will have to hope that five more years of affordable control over a pitcher who is already one of the best in the league trump the possibility of a return to the multiple Tommy John surgery days of the team’s recent past.
21. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers
Last Year: Not Ranked
Kershaw didn’t win the Cy Young award this time around (though he had a pretty good argument for it), but he's still widely considered the best pitcher on the planet, given his rare combination of top-of-the league track record and youth. Ah, but that contract. The Dodgers have more money than several sovereign island nations, so $163 million (not including performance bonuses) over the next five seasons—or $98 million over the next three, if Kershaw exercises his post-2018 opt-out—poses no problem for their gargantuan payroll. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a penny-pinching team like the Rays running to spend that kind of money, let alone giving up three or four great young players in trade for the privilege of spending all that dough. Call this ranking a happy medium, then feel free to mock me as a know-nothing Canadian on your forum of choice.
Coming tomorrow: the final 20 players on this year's list.
Baseball is a copycat sport. Whenever a team surges to unexpected success, rivals go hunting for the secret sauce that enabled that rise to glory. With the Royals coming off a World Series victory and two straight pennants, the latest trend has some wannabe contenders hoarding relief pitching, hoping to build Kansas City-like superpens.
But if demand for top relief pitchers were truly soaring, we’d see that reflected in their price tags. Instead, teams mostly continue to buy solid relievers without paying through the nose. Meanwhile, the price for starting pitchers has shot to the moon: The Cardinals tossed $80 million at Mike Leake, the embodiment of a league-average pitcher, and no one blinked.
With that in mind, say hello to the fourth annual edition of my MLB Trade Value column. For the first three years of its existence, this column ran at Grantland.com, but with Grantland set free to go play on a farm somewhere upstate (don’t tell the kids the truth!), I’m thrilled to bring it to my new gig at Sports Illustrated.
So what is the MLB Trade Value column, exactly? Put simply, we try to answer the age old question that’s spurred so many barstool debates: Would you trade this guy for that guy?
That’s where this exercise gets tricky. Rather than simply ranking a player based on talent or raw numbers, we need to consider a wide range of factors. How old is he? What does his health record look like? For how many years does his team control him, and at what salaries? Given all of those factors and more, we then ask an elemental question: If every team made every player available via trade, which guys would fetch the greatest return?
To build this list, I used plenty of statistical analysis, including advanced defensive metrics, age curves, pitcher attrition rates and even how often certain agents steer their clients toward free agency rather than re-signing (Scott Boras clients get dinged accordingly). But this is still a subjective exercise, with no indisputably right or wrong answers. Would you rather have Clayton Kershaw making $32–33 million a year for the next five seasons, or Chris Archer making a total of a hair over $20 million for the next four (with very affordable club options for 2020 and '21)? As tough as it would be to pass on the greatest pitcher on Earth, you’d have to consider Archer (and the gigantic cost savings you could use to buy several other really good players to go with him).
I posed all of these questions to a bunch of general managers, assistant general managers and other talent evaluators. I pored over the numbers, contracts and many other variables that go into making players desirable. The end result is a list of the 50 most valuable players currently employed by major league organizations (minor leaguers were considered; players in Japan, Cuba, college, high school and elsewhere are not), as well as some honorable mentions who just missed the cut. We'll split the rankings into three parts: Part 1 will hit the players who fell off last year's list, the honorable mentions and Nos. 50–40; Part 2 will cover Nos. 39–21; and Part 3 will be the top 20.
A quick word before we get started: Bill Simmons came up with the idea to rank all NBA players by trade value many moons ago, and I’m grateful that he blessed the idea of an MLB Trade Value series when we worked together at Grantland. I also want to acknowledge the excellent work of FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron, who’s been doing his own MLB rankings for the past several years.
Before we get to the rankings, however, a quick look at the rules.
1. Contracts matter
Jose Bautista is a better hitter than Christian Yelich, but Bautista will be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2016 season, and the Marlins control Yelich’s rights through '22—at a very affordable price.
2. Age matters
Curtis Granderson and A.J. Pollock put up similar offensive numbers in 2015, but Granderson is 34 and Pollock is 28, suggesting Pollock has more productive years ahead of him.
3. It’s all relative
If every team started shopping every player as a trade candidate, which players would attract the biggest return from any of the other 29 clubs? For instance, if we’re comparing the trade value of Xander Bogaerts and Kyle Schwarber, we’re not concerned that the Cubs have a dynamic, young shortstop of their own in Addison Russell, or that the Red Sox have a ton of quality outfielders (and multiple talented, young catchers too). Instead, we want to know this: If every team were allowed to bid on Bogaerts and Schwarber, which player would net the greater return?
4. Positional scarcity matters
If a shortstop and first baseman put up comparable offensive numbers, the shortstop is the more valuable player, since it’s much tougher to find someone with the defensive chops to handle short than one who can man first. That’s already accounted for in the Wins Above Replacement metric, which you’ll see referenced occasionally here, but it bears repeating.
5. Defense, park factors, and other variables not immediately apparent in superficial stats matter
These are not fantasy baseball rankings, so a player who hits 30 home runs isn’t necessarily more valuable than one who hits 20, or even five.
6. The list runs in reverse order
If Sonny Gray is No. 20 on this list, it means the Athletics likely wouldn’t trade him for anyone ranked 21–50, but they would have to at least consider swapping him for the players ranked 19–1.
All contract figures from Cot's Contracts; all WAR figures from baseball-reference.com.
Missing The Cut
Devin Mesoraco (No. 50) played in just 23 games in 2015 due to a serious hip injury. If he’s healthy come Opening Day, he’ll likely mash.
Edwin Encarnacion (49) and Jose Bautista (48) were two of the driving forces behind the Blue Jays’ first playoff run in 22 years. They’re also both free agents at the end of this season. Whatever happens from here, we’ll always have this.
Kyle Seager (47) is a good player on a good deal, but like several other players on last year’s list, he fell off largely because 2015 was a historic year for rookie talent.
Gregory Polanco (45) needs to show he can hit over a full season if he’s to jump back onto this list. His youth, multiple tools and strong second half make him Honorable Mention-worthy.
A few months after Cubs manager Joe Maddon called Jorge Soler (44) “Vladimir Guerrero with plate discipline,” the 23-year-old became the subject of hushed trade rumors after a disappointing season. He could still break out at any time and belongs with Polanco in that Honorable Mention-with-upside class.
Employing an ace like Cole Hamels (39) for $73.5 million guaranteed over the next three years (or $87.5 million over four, if the Rangers exercised his 2019 option rather than buying it out) is a pretty sweet deal given the massive contracts getting handed out to inferior pitchers lately. He’s probably something like No. 53 on the overall list.
Carlos Gomez (37) and Stephen Strasburg (36) can test free agency at season’s end.
Some players fail to take a step forward after a big rookie season; Yordano Ventura (35) was one such player.
Andrelton Simmons (32) can’t hit, which (along with his increasingly expensive salary and the Braves’ desire to start from scratch) explains why he got traded to the Angels in November despite his Ozzie Smith-level defense.
Troy Tulowitzki (31) is now on the wrong side of 30, and the Jays owe him at least $100 million over the next five years. That’s a lot of dough for an injury-prone player whose numbers away from Coors Field are a question mark.
Yadier Molina (29) and Adam Wainwright (28) suddenly look like old players on the downside of their careers rather than franchise cornerstones.
Julio Teheran (27) had a multi-year contract that looked a lot more team-friendly before he posted an ERA over 4.00 with fielding-independent numbers that were even worse. He’s still Honorable Mention material, though: He offers five years of below-market rate control and is one of only 16 pitchers to throw 200-plus innings the past two seasons. He’s also the youngest member of that group.
I moved Freddie Freeman (26) around far more than any other player before essentially ranking him at No. 51. Pros: Good hitter, just 26 years old, controllable through 2021. Cons: Not cheap at $20 million-plus a year after 2016 and doesn’t have overwhelming power numbers for a first baseman, having slugged above .500 just once and topped out at 23 homers.
Yan Gomes (25) offers a staggering six more years of inexpensive control. He also struck out 104 times against just 13 walks last year, marking his second straight season of fading plate discipline and turning him into a replacement level hitter.
Evan Longoria (21) just turned 30, has been a fairly ordinary offensive player the past two years and is no longer cheap.
The Rangers control the rights to Yu Darvish (17) for just two more seasons, and we might not see him until May or June after Tommy John surgery last spring.
Michael Brantley (16) just misses this list; off-season shoulder surgery created just enough uncertainty to nudge him off.
An injury-plagued 2015 campaign dampened the numbers of Jonathan Lucroy (12); he’s still Honorable Mention-caliber with two dirt-cheap seasons of team control to offer.
Yasiel Puig (10) missed 83 games due to injuries and benchings, saw his offensive numbers plummet and flashed multiple defensive lapses. A clause in his contract also wipes out his artificially cheap salaries in 2017 and '18, pushing him into arbitration. His erratic and disruptive off-field behavior—which you may or may not trace back to his horrifying past—also casts doubt over his future.
Injury concerns reared their ugly head again in 2015 for Anthony Rendon (9). Add to that his middling power and Boras as his agent, and multiple execs I talked to were a bit bearish on his future.
In addition to players like Soler, Polanco, Hamels, Freeman and Brantley, here are a few other players who just missed the cut but are still worth highlighting.
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians
Joe Panik, 2B, Giants
When healthy, Kipnis is one of the best hitters in the game at second base, and he offers five years of club control, with the next two coming for the dirt-cheap sum of $15 million. But injury concerns and a drop in power numbers the past two years keep him off the top 50. As for Panik, the Giants control his rights for five more years—a good thing when you employ one of the best contact hitters in the game.
Garrett Richards, SP, Angels
Shelby Miller, SP, Diamondbacks
Carlos Martinez, SP, Cardinals
Michael Wacha, SP, Cardinals
Danny Salazar, SP, Indians
Jose Quintana, SP, White Sox
Luis Severino, SP, Yankees
Richards made the list last year after a dominant season cut short by a violent knee injury. He fired 207 strong innings in 2015 and projects as one of the best righthanders in the American League for the next few years.
Miller is just 25 years old, controllable for the next four years, and coming off a terrific season once you ignore antiquated stats like win-loss record. If we based trade value solely on what Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart thought, he’d be really high on the list.
Martinez and Wacha are both really good and really young, but they also both carry injury concerns. Salazar, meanwhile, has absolutely filthy stuff, strikes out more than a batter an inning and is a pretty good bet to make me regret leaving him out of the top 50.
There are really no holes in Quintana’s resume: He’s racked up 200 or more innings three years in a row, turned 27 on Jan. 24, is cheap and controllable through 2020 and prevents runs year after year, leaning on excellent command.
Severino looked nearly unhittable at times following his August call-up last year, only turned 22 last month and can’t test free agency until 2021.That gives you some idea of how loaded this year’s Trade Value class is when an asset that attractive can’t quite make the cut.
Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals
Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
J.D. Martinez, RF, Tigers
Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Rays
Known mostly as a speedster and stellar gloveman at the start of his career, Cain blossomed into an all-around star last year, combining Gold Glove-level defense with a more potent bat. If the Royals controlled him beyond 2017, he’d be a cinch to make the top 50.
Pederson was the three true outcomes king of baseball for the first couple months of 2015; along with his speed and capable defense in centerfield, that made him look like a leading Rookie of the Year candidate and franchise building block. After that, the homers and walks parts of the three true outcomes went away, and he just struck out a ton. The youth and talent are still there for big years ahead.
Martinez has quietly turned into one of the most devastating power hitters in the game, filling the void left behind after Victor Martinez—predictably for anyone who wasn’t Tigers owner Mike Ilitch—crashed back to Earth after his massive, mid-30s contract year. The Astros have done some phenomenal things during their cellar-to-playoffs run; releasing Martinez for nothing two years ago was not one of them.
Kiermaier is the one of the toughest players to evaluate in baseball. One advanced defensive metric has him saving 42 runs more than the average centerfielder last year, which is roughly equivalent to Miguel Cabrera’s offensive contributions last year. If we can even partly trust those defensive metrics, five years of control over Kiermaier become huge, even if he merely settles in as just a half-decent hitter.
Travis d’Arnaud, C, Mets
The profile on d’Arnaud hasn’t changed: He’s young, can rake, plays good defense and offers lots of team control. He’s also a perennial injury risk. If he can ever resolve the health issue, d’Arnaud could grow into a multiple-time All-Star for the Mets.
Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies
In the minors, Franco established himself as one of the best hitting prospects in the game, with impressive power and good hand-eye coordination to help limit strikeouts (albeit with few walks) and the kind of rough defense that made you figure he’d shift from third base to first soon. In his first extended stint in the majors last season, Franco batted .280/.343/.497 in 80 games and flashed every single one of the traits he’d shown down on the farm. He might become Ryan Howard’s replacement once the big first baseman’s onerous contract finally runs out this fall.
That takes care of the honorable mentions. Now: Onto the top 50! A reminder: We're doing Nos. 50–40 today, with 39–21 coming tomorrow and the top 20 on Friday.
50. Salvador Perez, C, Royals
Last Year: 19
Don’t ever start an argument about starting catchers who play in Missouri; it’ll end terribly. As with Molina before him in St. Louis, Perez has earned an outsized reputation as a star with Kansas City. Since bursting into the league with a .331/.361/.473 debut in 2011, Perez’s offense has declined in each of the following four seasons, with a .260/.280/.426 mark that rated as 13% worse than the average AL hitter on a park adjusted basis despite a career-high 21 homers. The main culprit for that lack of productivity is an absolutely abysmal batting eye, one that netted just 13 walks in 553 plate appearances last season and far too many outs. Even for a catcher, Perez is unfathomably slow, costing his team a few more runs every year.
But Perez is supposed to be a defensive mastermind, and that surely helps his team a great deal, right? Well, turns out that while Perez might (or might not) possess tough-to quantify defensive skills such as calling the right pitches at the right time or making pitchers feel at ease, he consistently ranks as one of the worst catchers in the game when it comes to framing pitches for strikes.
Perez is still, unquestionably, a valuable asset. He’s 25 years old, his power numbers have ticked up year by year, he’s a popular teammate and he might possess a range of defensive skills that aren’t easy to track. But whether through maturing into his prime years, having Ned Yost ease off his workload a bit so he doesn’t fade in the second half every year or some other mechanism, it’d be nice to see Perez consolidate his skills and become the elite player that he isn’t yet—even if his supporters think he’s already there.
NB: Since the initial writing of this blurb, Perez has signed a five-year, $52.5 million extension, taking him through his age-31 season. The Royals might've done this to keep their catcher happy, but there certainly wasn't much of an on-field reason to do it, with Perez under team control through 2019 before the extension. Before that new deal, he was ranked 46th on this list, thanks in part to his (formerly) criminally cheap contract—he was owed just $2 million this year, with club options for the next three years at just $3.75 million, $5 million, and $6 million. With that no longer the case, I've accordingly dropped him a few spots.
49. Rougned Odor, 2B, Rangers
Last Year: Not Ranked
Though his team got bat-flipped out of the playoffs by the Jays, Odor enjoyed a coming-out party during the 2015 ALDS. The toolsy second baseman reached base eight times in 21 plate appearances, cranked a screaming, line-drive homer off lefty ace David Price, looked smooth at second base and generally made life miserable for Toronto. Those who’ve followed his career for a while shouldn’t have been surprised.
Ranked as the 39th-best prospect in baseball heading into the 2014 season, Odor made his major league debut at age 20, a precocious occurrence that usually bodes well for a player’s future. Odor’s playoff breakout last fall followed an impressive regular season in which he cranked 16 homers, 21 doubles and nine triples in 120 games, showing off athleticism and better-than-average defense at the deuce and establishing himself as one of the most fun-to-watch young players in the game. He just turned 22 on Feb. 3 and might be years away from hitting his peak—a scary thought for the rest of the AL.
48. Taijuan Walker, SP, Mariners
Last Year: Not Ranked
Of the 36 pitchers who tossed enough innings to qualify for the AL ERA title last year, Walker’s 4.56 mark ranked fourth-worst once you adjust for the pitcher friendly environment of Safeco Field. So why is he considered the 48th-most valuable commodity in baseball?
First of all, about two-thirds of the pitches that Walker threw last year were fastballs, and for good reason: It’s a nasty pitch that averaged better than 94 mph and produced lots of weak contact. Second, Walker’s peripheral stats belie that poor ERA. He clocked a shade fewer than four strikeouts for every one walk in 2015 and was especially beastly at home, with a strikeout-to-walk mark of better than six-to-one. Finally, he’s 23 years old, healthy and can’t test free agency for five more years. As terrible as the Mariners’ recent track record has been on developing position player prospects, Walker’s star potential could at least alleviate a bit of that pain.
47. Carlos Carrasco, SP, Indians
Last Year: Not Ranked
The top 50 went through multiple iterations before finally landing on this final version, and no player got moved around more than Carrasco. That’s because no player drew such a wide range of opinions from front-office types. When Carrasco was higher on the list, one exec said: “Too high—he's older and had a lot of arm issues already, which is why he signed his deal.” After Carrasco got bumped down, a GM I talked to said Carrasco should be higher, due to “the combination of elite performance, term of control and contract value.”
They’re both right. Carrasco is coming off a season in which he ranked second among qualified AL starters in strikeout rate and third in strikeout-to-walk rate. The Indians can control his rights through 2020 for just $37.5 million (not counting performance bonuses) if they pick up his two club options. On the other hand, Carrasco will be 29 on Opening Day, and 2015 marked the first time he’d ever made more than 21 starts in a major league season. He’s a hell of a bargain, but it’s tough to bank on him as a bona fide star.
46. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins
Last Year: 43
So, ummm ... mulligan? Buxton’s highly-anticipated MLB debut was a bust. The player viewed by most as the best prospect in the game the past two years batted just .209/.250/.326 with 44 strikeouts and just six walks in 138 MLB plate appearances. But not every rookie hits the ground running; count Mike Trout, as well as future Hall of Famers like Tom Glavine, among those who struggled at first before ramping up their game.
At a minimum, Buxton is an absolute blur on the base paths who’s going to chase down a zillion gappers with his blazing speed and gun down plenty of base runners who dare test his arm. If his hit and power tools eventually catch up, he’ll battle guys like Trout and Carlos Correa for MVP trophies every year.
45. Christian Yelich, OF, Marlins
Last Year: 23
Yelich isn’t one of the 50 best players in the game, at least not yet. Still, he has a lot of factors working in his favor. Just 24 years old, he already has nearly 1,500 major league plate appearances under his belt, the kind of youth-plus-experience profile that often portends future success. He’s a gifted spray hitter whose ability to go to all fields and bang out lots of doubles (as well as his above-average speed) will serve him well in spacious Marlins Park. Finally, his contract’s a beauty, with the Fish owning his rights through 2022, and he's due to make just $11.5 million over the next three seasons combined. If Yelich ever develops some over-the-fence power, his contract would go from being a bargain to full-on grand larceny.
44. Tyler Glasnow, SP, Pirates
Last Year: Not Ranked
43. Julio Urias, SP, Dodgers
Last Year: Not Ranked
42. Carlos Rodon, SP, White Sox
Last Year: Not Ranked
41. Lucas Giolito, SP, Nationals
Last Year: Not Ranked
After legions of top prospects stormed their way to the majors last season, this year’s crop lacks high-ceiling potential, especially among position players. That leaves a quartet of pitching prospects as the best bets to become future big-league stars, with their paths to glory potentially starting as soon as this year.
ESPN’s Keith Law tabbed Glasnow as the No. 7 prospect in baseball in his midseason rankings last year, and with good reason. At 6'8", 225 pounds, Glasnow is the archetypal tall righthander, generating lots of swings and misses—293 strikeouts in 233 2/3 innings over the past two minor-league seasons, with just six homers allowed. He still walks too many batters, but after closing out last season with eight strong starts at Triple A, he should be pitching in Pittsburgh very soon.
At just 19 years old, Urias is the youngest pitcher in this group—and someone the Dodgers have deemed untouchable over years of trade talks. He also made it all the way to Triple A by season’s end, a fast and impressive pace for someone that young. The Dodgers made multiple moves to shore up their rotation this winter, and Urias can benefit from more seasoning down on the farm. But a Kershaw-Urias combo atop the rotation is a real possibility in the near future.
Rodon used up his rookie eligibility last season but remains White Sox property for at least six more years. He also proved he belonged in the majors. There were some issues with walks, but Rodon also fanned a batter an inning, posted one of the lowest home-run rates in the league, and caused opponents’ faces to do wacky things after witnessing the majesty of his vicious slider.
Giolito rates as the best pitching prospect in the game right now, among both prospect hounds and baseball ops minds. A bruiser at 6'6", 255 pounds, he generates the kind of big fastball you’d expect from a pitcher that size, with a wipeout curve to go with it. At age 21 and with just eight starts above A ball, Giolito probably still has to wait a bit before donning a Nats uniform. But if you’re wondering how and why Washington would be willing to let a rotation anchor like Jordan Zimmermann bolt via free agency, Giolito’s the answer.
40. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
Last Year: 46
Here’s what I wrote about Altuve last year after a monster 2014 campaign:
"So why isn’t he even higher? Here’s one NL executive’s assessment: 'Different evaluators will treat a player with his unique skill set differently. Certainly a net positive asset value, but not close to my Top 50.' Another talent evaluator (mostly) jokingly called Altuve 'Jeff Keppinger with wheels.'"
My apologies to both Altuve and Keppinger for that comp! While the Astros’ 5'6", 165-pound dynamo is one of the smallest players the game has seen in decades, he also possesses incredible natural talent. Altuve packs great speed and supernatural hand-eye coordination into his small frame, which makes hitting well above .300 look like a snap (in an era when so few hitters do that anymore). Just 25 years old, he's already a three-time All Star and two-time Silver Slugger winner and is owed a tiny $20.5 million through 2019 (assuming the Astros pick up his two club options, which is a mortal lock), making him a cornerstone player for a young team on the rise. Watching him and Correa turn double plays for the next four years is going to be a treat, especially since Correa looks big enough to eat Altuve ... as an appetizer.
Coming tomorrow: Part 2 of this year's Trade Value rankings, with Nos. 39–21.