In the run-up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, there was a fair bit of talk about players deemed untouchable—the ones unavailable in a deal that even the most aggressive team would be prepared to make. Consider, for instance, what an executive told ESPN’s Jayson Stark about what the White Sox were seeking in exchange for ace Chris Sale: "your five best prospects, and that might not be good enough."
No player is truly untouchable, of course, but such talk got us thinking: If a team had to rebuild its entire roster and could keep only one player in the organization, who would that be? In several cases, the answer is obvious, as the game is awash in a wave of brilliant young players who are already stars and have several years of club control ahead. But in some cases, that player might not yet be on the big league roster, and in others, it’s a tough call between an aging veteran who may be past his peak and a youngster who hasn't quite put it together.
On Thursday, we gave our choices for the 15 American League clubs. What follows here is our best attempt to do the same for the 15 National League teams, taking into account current performance, age and contract status, with an eye toward anticipating the future rather than clinging to the past. Admittedly, it’s a snapshot in time, and a couple months from now we might feel differently. With that in mind, here are the NL's Untouchables.
All stats are through Thursday, Aug. 4; teams are listed alphabetically.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
With 17 home runs and 69 RBIs, Goldschmidt is having another strong year, though it's far from his best. Still at age 28, there’s little reason to think that he’s no longer one of the game’s elite first basemen, a fearsome middle-of-the-lineup presence and a good-to-great defender. He’s exceptionally affordable, making just $5.75 million this year, with a maximum of $33.25 million for 2017 to '19.
Dansby Swanson, SS
Swanson was the No. 1 pick of the 2015 draft—by the Diamondbacks, who curiously packaged him to the rebuilding Braves in a deal for Shelby Miller last December. Though he’s scuffled a bit at Double A, hitting .261/.338/.410, he’s already a top-10 prospect on three of the four major midseason lists. All five tools are at least above average, and his speed/power combo could be exceptional when he arrives in Atlanta, probably in 2018.
Kris Bryant, 3B/OF
With Jake Arrieta’s performance having leveled off this season from otherworldly to merely great, the choice here comes down to Bryant, 24, and 26-year-old first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Both are disciplined sluggers and strong defenders, but Bryant’s combination of being two years younger and possessing the ability to shine at the tougher defensive position carries the day. With 26 home runs in 2016, he’s already matched his total from last year's Rookie of the Year campaign, and on a per-162 game basis, he’s averaging 7.0 Wins Above Replacement.
Nick Senzel, 3B
Hard times have fallen upon Cincinnati, and for as much as we love Joey Votto, he’s a month away from turning 33 and due a bajillion dollars through 2023 ($172 million, actually). Pitching prospects Robert Stephenson, a 23-year-old righty, and Amir Garrett, a 24-year-old lefty, both have their proponents, but there are questions about whether their futures lie in the rotation or bullpen. Bypassing that debate, the choice here is Nick Senzel, the No. 2 pick of the 2016 draft and a 21-year-old third baseman who is already thumping at A ball, with a .954 OPS in 31 games. Many considered the University of Tennessee product the best college hitter in the draft, with all five tools average or better.
Nolan Arenado, 3B
Things are starting to come together for the surprisingly competitive Rockies. Before a torn thumb ligament ended his season, shortstop Trevor Story was one of this season’s most unexpected breakouts, and righty Jon Gray is emerging as a potential staff ace. But since so much can befall even a good pitcher in Colorado, the choice here is for third baseman Nolan Arenado, an elite defender who led the NL in homers last year with 42 and is first again this year with 27. He’s under club control through 2019, guaranteeing years of highlight-reel plays to come.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Corey Seager, SS
This choice gets right at the heart of this exercise. On the one hand, you’ve got 28-year-old Clayton Kershaw, a three-time NL Cy Young winner who was in the midst of the best season by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000 when he was felled by a herniated disc that will keep him out for a minimum of two months. He’s signed for another $131 million through 2020 but can opt out after '18. On the other hand, 22-year-old rookie shortstop Corey Seager is living up to the hype, hitting for a 140 OPS+ and playing solid defense. The uncertainty of the southpaw’s current state tilts the decision in favor of the kid, in the toughest call for any of the 30 teams
Jose Fernandez, SP
As his Home Run Derby showcase proved, Giancarlo Stanton has power that’s second to none, but his injuries and early-season slump are a reminder that he’s not superhuman. The nod here goes to 23-year-old Jose Fernandez, who in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery is missing bats like never before—an MLB-best 13.1 strikeouts per nine—as the Marlins emerge as a surprise playoff contender.
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Orlando Arcia, SS
The day after Jonathan Lucroy left town at Monday's trade deadline, the Brewers’ next positional centerpiece arrived in the form of 21-year-old shortstop Orlando Arcia, who debuted on Aug. 2. Though he went 0 for 4 in a 3–2 win over San Diego, he projects as a top-of-the-order contributor with his speed, gap power and contact-centric approach. What's more, he already has a powerful arm, great range and top-notch instincts that make him an exceptional defender.
New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard, SP
With Matt Harvey’s dreadful season ending in surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, the choice comes down to two other overpowering righties, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. There’s much to be said for both, but Syndergaard’s age (he’s four years younger, turning 24 on Aug. 29), extra year of club control (through 2021) and dominance (10.9 strikeouts per nine compared to 8.8 for deGrom) make him the man here. He’s one of the game’s most captivating players thanks to a power arsenal that has produced more pitches of 100 mph or faster than any starter this year.
J.P. Crawford, SS
In their first full season of rebuilding, the Phillies have shown off some promising young arms in Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vincent Velasquez, but the rebuilding effort’s centerpiece is 21-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford, who topped Baseball Prospectus’ midseason prospect list. Now at Triple A Lehigh, his power hasn’t come around yet, but his other tools all grade out at plus or better, highlighted by his speed and strong arm. He’s an All-Star in the making.
Gregory Polanco, OF
Whether it's a prolonged slump or a sudden decline, former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen is out of the running here, but between outfielders Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte and ace Gerrit Cole, the Pirates have a wealth of established, controllable talent vying for this honor. It’s not an easy call, but the 25-year-old Cole missed five weeks, has seen his strikeout rate decline and is controllable through “only” 2019. The 27-year-old Marte (under control through 2021) is averaging 6.2 WAR per 162 games since the start of '13 thanks to the impact of his speed on both sides of the ball. Polanco, 24, has power and plate discipline that are more advanced than Marte at the same age, and he’s controllable through 2023. He gets the nod, but there’s no wrong answer here.
St. Louis Cardinals
Carlos Martinez, SP
Injuries have helped make this an uncharacteristically rocky season for the Cardinals, but they’ve got a wealth of young talent—outfielder Stephen Piscotty, shortstop Aledmys Diaz and pitchers Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and top prospect Alex Reyes are all 25 or younger—for consideration here. Ultimately, the pick here is for the 24-year-old Martinez, who has ace-level stuff, has shown more durability than Wacha and is under control through 2019.
San Diego Padres
Anderson Espinoza, SP
Though the argument can be made for 25-year-old Wil Myers, he’s just passed 100 games in a big league season for the first time and is now a first baseman, albeit an All-Star one. Given the rebuilding nature of the Padres, the pick is for 18-year-old Venezuelan righty Anderson Espinoza, who was just acquired from the Red Sox last month in exchange for lefty starter Drew Pomeranz in a deal that had talent hounds applauding. He can touch 99 mph with his fastball, has two plus secondary pitches and was a consensus top-25 choice on midseason prospect lists.
San Francisco Giants
Madison Bumgarner, SP
Catcher Buster Posey is on a Hall of Fame track, but the combination of his age (29), mild offensive decline (139 career OPS+, 124 this year) and $110 million due after this season throws the choice to 26-year-old ace Madison Bumgarner. Not only is he having his best season in terms of ERA (2.25) and strikeout rate (10.1), but he's also a threat with the bat, and he's under control through 2019 for just $33.25 million.
Bryce Harper, RF
After a historic, MVP-winning season at age 22, Bryce Harper has been in a funk for much of this season, becoming almost too disciplined a hitter as he swings less and less. Still, given his age, his resumé to date and his remaining club control (he won't be a free agent until after the 2018 season), he’s the National to build around, even with fellow former No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg enjoying a career year on the mound and top pitching prospect Lucas Giolito waiting in the wings.