- We're picking the 50 players with the highest trade value in baseball, counting down to No. 1. Who is tops in MLB?
Welcome to Part 2 of the 2017 Trade Value player rankings! Breaking down multiple 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, "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 as well as this year's honorable mentions. On Wednesday, I started our countdown with Nos. 50–31. On Thursday, I unveiled Nos. 30–21. Today, we finish with the top 20, including a new No. 1 for 2017.
To jump directly to the top 20, click here.
All contract figures from Cot's Contracts; all WAR figures from baseball-reference.com.
Last Year: 33
The story of how Schwarber overcame a seemingly season-ending knee injury to show up for the World Series and rake is the stuff of legend (and the wonders of modern medical technology). Add that story to his moonshot home run in the 2015 NLDS and his generous frame, and the overheated Babe Ruth comparisons are sure to follow. But even when we float back down to reality, Schwarber still has the potential to become one of the most potent hitters in the game, having flashed a .245/.355/.487 line in his rookie season that was 32% better than league average (per wRC+), and that came after some huge numbers at Indiana University and in the minors. He’s a defensive liability wherever he plays, but Schwarber should mash enough over the next five years to become a prime asset for a perennially strong Cubs team.
Last Year: Honorable Mention
A year ago, we didn’t know if Martinez would start. Now he has a $51 million contract that could pay him another $35 million and bind him to the Cardinals through 2023. Among NL starting pitchers last season, only fellow Cardinal (now Brave) Jaime Garcia topped Martinez’s 56.4% ground-ball rate.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Teheran is entering his seventh major league season, yet he’s still just 26 years old. The righthander’s 2015 season now looks like an outlier, sandwiched between three other campaigns in which he never posted an ERA higher than 3.21, with fielding-independent numbers in the same ballpark. More improvement might be on the way, too: Teheran fired his slider a career-high 26% of the time in 2016 and held opponents to a career-low .185 batting average against it. Owed just $37.3 million over the next four years, Teheran is the rare Brave who could be either a huge trade piece or a key rotation cog pitching big innings in the two-to-three-year window when Atlanta has a chance to be good again.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Here’s what I wrote about Freeman last year:
“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.”
We finally got the breakout, as Freeman cranked 34 homers and hit a massive .302/.400/.569, better than stars like Anthony Rizzo, Yoenis Cespedes and even NL MVP Kris Bryant on a park-adjusted basis. Like Teheran, Freeman made his major league debut at a young age and is just 27 years old despite already amassing nearly 3,800 big league plate appearances. Not every team would jump on a contract that has five years and $105 million left on it, but for bigger-revenue clubs, this kind of blend of huge talent, proven results and youth would make Freeman an outstanding get.
Last Year: Not Ranked
You’d have to call the 2015 deadline deal that sent Fulmer to the Tigers and Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets a win for New York, given the impact Cespedes has had and especially after the Mets successfully re-signed him to a long-term deal. Still, getting a player deemed expendable because the Mets were overflowing with young pitching talent has worked out great for Detroit, as Fulmer surged to a surprise Rookie of the Year award in 2016.
Fulmer was regarded as a good prospect but maybe not a great one, garnering just a single top-50 ranking prior to last season (Baseball America had him at No. 47). Then he crashed the majors and delivered the third-lowest ERA in the league for any AL pitcher with 150 or more innings pitched (3.06). The question now is whether that level of performance is sustainable: His fielding-independent numbers suggested something closer to a 4.00 mark, as Fulmer benefited from the eighth-highest strand rate in the league. Putting runners on base only to leave them out there has been shown to be a nearly impossible skill to sustain over the long haul.
Last Year: Not Ranked
At first glance, you might wonder why Gray is ranked ahead of Fulmer. After all, Gray’s 4.60 ERA was more than a run and a half higher than Fulmer’s mark. Here’s where understanding context comes into play. Gray pitches his home games at Coors Field, the toughest park for pitchers in the majors by a wide margin; Fulmer pitches his home games at Comerica Park, which plays pretty close to neutral. Now consider the factors a pitcher can best control, in this case with a particular focus on strikeout rate and home-run rate. Gray and Fulmer gave up home runs at nearly identical rates (just under one per nine innings) in their 2016 rookie campaigns, except Gray did it at Coors. The strikeout gap is what’s really jarring: Gray punched out 26% of the batters he faced last year (sixth-best in the NL for pitchers with as many innings pitched or more); Fulmer struck out a closer-to-league-average 20.4%.
Strikeouts aren’t everything, but preventing a hitter from putting the ball in play is still the best way to limit damage and avoid the vagaries of leaky defense and bad luck. Gray’s swing-and-miss stuff could make him a better long-term bet for success, especially if we learn to define success differently for pitchers toiling in extreme environments. If Gray were a Dodger, we might already be talking about him as The Next Big Thing. For the playoff-curious Rockies, he may yet earn that title soon enough.
Last Year: 46
Buxton’s 2016 was truly a tale of two halves.
First half: .212/.253/.364, 58 wRC+ (42% worse than league average)
Second half: .238/.315/.497, 114 wRC+ (14% better than league average)
Even during that much improved second half, Buxton still struck out an unacceptably high 34.1% of the time; for the season, he whiffed 35.6% of the time, with a not-so-nice 6.9% walk rate. There’s a ton of refinement that needs to happen if Buxton is going to approach the hype that came with him being a No. 1 draft pick and the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball, but we’re already talking about a better-than-average defender with mesmerizing speed. If he can replicate those offensive numbers that we saw after the break last year, he’s an excellent player. If he can get his batting eye in shape, too, he’ll be a star.
Last Year: Not Ranked
A point of clarification about hitter strikeouts: Plenty of sluggers succeed in the big leagues despite striking out a lot. The bigger issue is predictive rather than based in present-day analysis. Story struck out a massive 31.3% of the time in his rookie season. Given that Coors Field is much friendlier to doubles and triples than it is to home runs (and it already fuels a ton of home runs), a high whiff rate could limit Story’s ability to take full advantage of his home park and blossom into stardom. Then again, we’re in pretty much uncharted territory here—shortstops simply don’t strike out this much, but they also don’t typically hit Dave Kingman-level bombs this often either.
Strikeouts or not, you still take a shortstop who is both a capable defender and hit at a 45-homer pace (!) in 2016, prorated over 162 games. The trio of DJ Lemahieu at second base, Story at shortstop and Nolan Arenado at third base tops any other infield triumvirate in the league, and at ages 28, 25 and 24, respectively, they may well get better, too.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Following the young shortstop boom that’s brought us Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Story and others, we might now be entering a bit of a young catcher boom.
Contreras’s periodic defensive struggles made Joe Maddon lean on David Ross and Miguel Montero a bunch in the playoffs last year. But his bat is legit, as he dialed up an excellent .282/.357/.488 rookie campaign; for comparison’s sake, that topped the numbers Ben Zobrist, George Springer and Justin Turner delivered, on a park-adjusted basis. Though you never want to try to read minds, the frequency of Contreras’s defensive miscues in the postseason when compared to the regular season could’ve been signs of inexperience and nerves more than a lack of ability; he was considered a highly athletic catcher with a playable glove coming up through the system. If you want to know why the Cubs are considered likely to reel off multiple titles in the next few years, having five beastly 25-and-under position players on the roster is it.
As for Sanchez, his big league debut was so good, there’s a natural urge to doubt if it could be real. A fine prospect who still never garnered a top-25 ranking in any major publication, Sanchez hit like Mickey Mantle in his big league debut, with a .657 slugging average that topped any hitter not named Albert Pujols in the past decade. A cynic might compare Sanchez’s coming-out party with Shane Spencer instead, invoking the Yankees rookie who slammed 10 homers in his 27 games and slugged an impossible .910 over that span. Both those comparisons are rooting in hyperbole, but the good news for Sanchez is that he has a cushion, in that he can actually hold his own behind the plate.
If Sanchez can settle in with 20-plus-homer power and spend most of his time catching, he’ll be a core member of the impressive youth movement that the Yankees are building. If we get even a whiff of that Mick-like power, you can start planning out the next Yankee Great Retirement Tour for right around 2037.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Hendricks is 27 years old; the Cubs can keep him through 2020; and he just led the majors with a 2.13 ERA. The question is if he can do that again or even come close. Let’s return to strand rate to understand the skepticism. In 2015, Hendricks stranded just 69.9% of the batters that he faced, ranking 66th among the 78th major league pitchers who qualified for the ERA title that year. Last season, he stranded 81.5% of the runners he put on base, surging to fourth-best in baseball.
Some of the credit for that goes to the Cubs’ defense, which went from good in 2015 to historically great in ‘16. But with Kyle Schwarber likely to get regular playing time in leftfield and natural regression likely to strike, Chicago probably won’t look like a collection of eight Ozzie Smiths every day again this year. Defense aside, stranding runners usually comes down to luck (for context, less-than-immortals Ian Kennedy and Dan Straily also finished top 10 in MLB in strand rate last season), so it’s probably unrealistic to expect Hendricks to keep pitching like Greg Maddux with runners on. But we’re still talking about a pitcher who lacks elite velocity but makes up for it with great command and an ability to induce weak contact by keeping hitters off balance. If Hendricks is your No. 3 starter, you’re going to be a terrifying team to face.
Last Year: Honorable Mention
We’re reached the outfield portion of our rankings! The next seven players on our list are all outfielders, with six of the seven slated to start in center this season; the other has just enough range and athleticism to pull it off if asked to do so.
From July 1, 2015 to the final game of that season, Pederson batted .170 with a .284 slugging average, striking out 76 times in 73 games. Even at a time when league-wide strikeouts keep hitting record-high levels, Pederson’s whiffing became alarming. He saw just eight plate appearances in five games against a righty-heavy Mets staff during the Dodgers’ NLDS loss to New York, as the team fretted over the huge holes in their young centerfielder’s swing.
Pederson’s strikeout rate dipped only slightly in 2016 (to 27.3% from 29.1%), but he also crushed balls on the sweet spot of his bat more frequently than all but seven National League hitters last season (per Statcast’s “Barrels” statistic), smashing 25 homers and 26 doubles in 137 games last year. Pederson has also shown he can hold his own in center (he saved one run more than the average centerfielder in 2016), is still just 24 years old and offers four years of team control.
Some weaknesses might be tough to overcome. Pederson has showed huge platoon splits, and it might always remain a smart idea to bench him against the Madison Bumgarners of the league. His swing-for-the-fences approach also means he’s likely to continue striking out a bunch. Still, even a modest improvement in his batting eye, when combined with his huge raw power, could produce some truly eye-popping numbers.
Last Year: Honorable Mention
Considered by many talent evaluators to be the best defensive player in the game at any position, Kiermaier has the numbers to back up the claim: In the past two seasons, he’s saved a mind-boggling 67 more runs than the average centerfielder. That’s by far the highest total for any player at any position, per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved.
His offense might be on the verge of taking off, too. Kiermaier greatly improved his batting eye in 2016, hiking his walk rate to a career-best 9.7% and swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than he ever has in his big league career, resulting in a career-best for on-base percentage. Kiermaier supplements those qualities with electric legs: He’s swiped 39 bases in the past two seasons at an 83% success rate and ranked sixth in the American League in Baserunning Runs, a catch-all stat that measures both base stealing and a runner’s ability to take extra bases and avoid getting thrown out. Baseball-Reference gauges how often players successfully take an extra base when running the bases; among players with 400 or more plate appearances last year, the most prolific player in the majors last year by that metric was Kiermaier, doing so a jarring 77% of the time. (Those defense and baserunning numbers look even more impressive when you consider that he played in just 105 games last year due to injuries.)
Kiermaier is entering his age-27 season with just over 1,300 major league plate appearances on his resume. If he can consolidate his offensive gains, baserunning prowess and supernatural defense with a healthy season, he might become one of the 10 best all-around players in the league. And now, thanks to an arbitration system that woefully undervalues players like Kiermaier (as well as Ender Inciarte and others on this list), the Rays control his rights for the next six years guaranteed at just $53.5 million.
Last Year: Not Ranked
We talk all the time about defensive value around these parts. The most stats-savvy front offices pore over their own proprietary defensive metrics like they’re the Dead Sea Scrolls. Statcast just added a new stat called Catch Probability, which is designed to take a spectacular defensive play and measure exactly how spectacular it actually was. Hell, Jason Heyward signed a $184 million contract after the 2015 season, and he hit about as well as Jason Alexander last year. (Sorry, that’s an unfair comparison. Nobody swings like Costanza.)
The enduring question remains how widespread defensive adulation has become in baseball, and if an all-world fielder can ever hope to approach the value of an elite hitter in the eyes of most front offices. Inciarte has shown gradual hints of offensive improvement in his relatively young major league career, including his own improved batting eye. But his calling remains his defense, which ranks right there with Kiermaier, Billy Hamilton and the other great fly-chasers in the game.
The Braves’ analytically-inclined GM, John Coppolella, loved the 26-year-old Inciarte’s glove so much that he gave him a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension that with a club option could lock up his services through the 2022 season. That contract would have tons of value for a few teams, but probably a lot less for a bunch of others.
Last Year: 31
Springer is the lone rightfielder in this group and is better known for his bat than his (still very solid) glove: Among 48 outfielders with as many plate appearances over the past two seasons, Springer ranks 10th in park-adjusted offense. That productive bat, combined with a full appreciation for defensive excellence arguably not yet washing over all 30 MLB teams, slides him into this spot just ahead of Kiermaier and Inciarte. At age 27 and with four years of team control to offer, Springer would become a highly popular trade candidate in the bizarro universe in which he’s suddenly thrust out there for 29 other teams to pursue.
Last Year: Not Ranked
The glove was always there for Bradley, but in 2016, the bat finally arrived. Blessed last season with both regular playing time and health, Bradley set career bests in virtually every offensive category, hitting .267/.349/.486. This was a continuation of his 74-game mini-breakout in 2015, giving us a year and a half of evidence that the formerly glove-only centerfielder is now an all-around threat.
Multiple, subtle signs of progress suggest that those offensive gains might be sustainable. Bradley swung and missed less often than ever before and also hit more line drives and made more hard contact than ever before. But in an era in which shifts squelch hits on ground balls and hitters are learning to drive balls in the air with more pronounced uppercut swings, Bradley still needs to kill fewer worms: Of the 75 AL hitters to qualify for the batting title last year, only 18 slapped the ball on the ground more frequently than he did.
Last Year: Not Ranked
At 28, Eaton is slightly older than Bradley and Kiermaier, but he more than makes up for it with an outrageously team-friendly contract, one that pays him a modest $38.4 million through 2021, assuming his employer picks up its two club options. Eaton is one of several examples of players in these rankings who actually have been dealt in the past few months, providing a real-life view of his trade value. In this case, it was immense, with the Nationals flipping dynamic young righthanders Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez (and more) to the White Sox to gain Eaton’s services for the next half-decade.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Hey look, it’s another multi-tool centerfielder in his prime on a wildly attractive contract. In this case, the Phillies dropped $30.5 million on Herrera just three months ago, with two club options that could keep him in Philly through 2023. Herrera’s strong numbers through the first two years of his big league career (.291/.353/.419) might not even tell the full story; he owned a .401 on-base percentage as late as June 21 before cooling off down the stretch. In addition to wielding a solid batting eye, Herrera is a heady hitter who sprays the ball all over the field: Among NL hitters last year, only batting champ DJ LeMahieu and veteran contact hitter Howie Kendrick hit the ball more frequently to the opposite field. Entering his age-25 season, all of Herrera’s key skills (power, speed, contact rate, walks) are improving, and he’s a top-10 defensive centerfielder so far in his young career, too. Look out.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Throughout the season, I’ll be working with Nick Pollack to bring you cool stats, GIFs and other goodies, courtesy of his excellent site PitcherList.com. Let’s start with Sanchez’s fastball: Only two other AL starting pitchers generated more value from their heaters last season than Sanchez did. As Pollack explains: “[It’s] a sinker with some of the prettiest movement you'll ever see.” Sanchez generated a huge 58% ground-ball rate and 23.4% infield popup rate with that pitch in his breakout 2016 season. The 24-year-old righthander still needs to refine his command after posting the 12th-highest walk rate among AL starters last year. Still, you watch the wicked action on that fastball—it will sometimes run as severely as it can sink—and start to wonder how anyone can ever square up a pitch against this guy.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Moncada has earned the phenom label from the moment scouts first set eyes on him. Ranked the No. 2 prospect in the game by Baseball America this year, the 21-year-old's smooth and powerful lefthanded swing has engendered frequent comparisons to seven-time All-Star Robinson Cano. We also have a real-life gauge of his trade value, following the blockbuster deal that sent him, flame-throwing righthander Michael Kopech and two other prospects to Chicago for Chris Sale. But not everyone is sold. One AL exec expressed consternation when I turned in a first draft of these rankings that had Moncada slotted significantly higher.
“Moncada is very high and a very risky prospect. He swings and misses A LOT. He doesn’t really have a position yet (although he’ll be fine at second and probably better than fine in centerfield), and his makeup is … in question among the scouting/front office circles. He does have star potential if it all clicks. But given the choice of Christian Yelich (controllable through 2022 and definitely awesome) and Moncada, I would take Yelich 100 out of 100 times. For me, Moncada fits with Buxton more than with the group you have him with now.”
Duly noted. The broader point about teams favoring proven players who are still young and offer lots of affordable and controllable service over top prospects who might get to that point also resonates. Players like Yelich thus get bumped higher on this list, while Moncada and a few others slip a few spots. If we really are looking at the second coming of Cano, though, Moncada might crack the top 20 next year.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Ranked just behind Moncada by Baseball America, Swanson is the linchpin in the Shelby Miller heist that funneled him, Inciarte and young righthander Aaron Blair from Arizona to Atlanta. Swanson’s pedigree (he was the No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft) and scouting reports are both glowing. Though not top-of-the-scale in any one facet of the game, BA gives Swanson robust 60 grades (on the scouting scale of 20–80) for hitting, speed, fielding and arm, plus a 50 for power. Baseball Prospectus similarly heaps on the accolades: “The swing is simple, and he uses the big part of the park. He can go the other way naturally with a bit of inside-out. Overall, it’s a plus hit tool, and he could have some full seasons where he hits .300. The approach is already solid considering his dearth of experience against upper-level arms. He’s a polished shortstop who will stick at the position.” A 129-at-bat debut in which he hit .302/.361/.442 didn’t hurt either. Get excited, Braves fans.
Last Year: 23
Bogaerts is a case study in the power of lift. In 2015, Bogaerts hit 2.05 ground balls for every one fly ball. A bunch of hard line drives and a few seeing-eye hits still enabled a .320 batting average, making him a valuable hitter despite few walks and tepid power. Bogaerts chopped that ratio to 1.3 ground balls for every one fly ball in 2016, and the results were immediate and dramatic: a career-high 21 home runs, a career-best .446 slugging average and even an uptick in walks as he both improved his plate discipline and elicited more fear from opposing pitchers.
Just 24 years old and also showing off elite baserunning skills, Bogaerts would rank higher but for two factors. First, the Red Sox only control his rights for three more years. Second, advanced defensive metrics don’t much care for him, with Bogaerts rating as 10 runs worse than the average shortstop by Defensive Runs Saved last season, placing him 33rd in the majors at his position. He could conceivably consolidate all of his skills into superstardom, though if it takes him another year or two to do so, that might simply mean that his long-term employer will have to fill out a nine-figure contract.
Last Year: Honorable Mention
I’ve been ranking Quintana too low for the past several years, and the MLB execs I spoke to for this piece couldn’t take it anymore.
“Quintana is too low. Four years at his rate of pay for a now-impact starting pitcher,” opined one. Said another sharp baseball mind: “I agree, Quintana is too low. It all boils down to the risk aspect, but he’s a consistent, proven No. 2 type locked in on a cheap deal. I know we’re all about hitters and upside, but [it] probably can’t hurt to push him ahead of some of the babies?”
I left a few of those babies (several supremely talented position players with less than one year of major league service time) ahead of Quintana anyway. But you’re looking at arguably the most consistent pitcher in baseball: He has logged 200, 200 1/3, 206 1/3 and 208 innings in the past four seasons, with ERAs of 3.51, 3.32, 3.36 and 3.20 (and similarly steady and excellent fielding-independent numbers). Assuming his employer picks up the 2019 and ‘20 options on his deal, Quintana is owed a scant $35.4 million over the next four seasons. Think about the big money that teams like the Cubs were able to spend in free agency as a result of having all that young, highly affordable talent on the roster, and you get a glimpse into what Quintana would offer any team that pries him away from the rebuilding Sox.
Last Year: 26
For all the strides we’ve made in quantifying defense at most positions, many elements of catcher defense remain a mystery. We now have sortable tables to show us which catchers save the most runs every season with their ability to frame pitches, but we still lack metrics to break down catchers’ game-calling ability with accuracy. When a catcher comes out in the middle of a dangerous inning and puts his arm around his pitcher for reassurance, and a double play ensues—where’s the stat for that?
By the measurables, Posey is the best catcher in today’s game, with a résumé that could soon make him one of the greatest of all time. He’s a career .307/.373/.476 hitter in an extreme pitcher’s park, numbers so impressive that his still-excellent .288/.362/.434 line in 2016 seems like a letdown. His pitch-receiving skills are better than anyone’s, with Posey saving nearly 27 more runs than the average catcher by advanced framing stats. Given the enormous success of the Giants and their pitchers since Posey became a full-time catcher in 2010, even those gaudy figures might not fully reflect the massive positive impact he has on his team.
Signed for five more years at $21.4 million a year (plus a $22 million club option in 2022), Posey doesn’t come cheap. But he’s still a building block player as he approaches his 30th birthday, and lots of other teams would kill to have him.
Last Year: 22
If deGrom is healthy, this ranking is too low. If he’s not, it’s too high.
That’s where we’re at with deGrom, who’s tied for the third-lowest ERA (2.74) among all starting pitchers since making his major league debut in 2014. Those numbers are supported by a spellbinding five-pitch repertoire that includes a fastball that can reach the high-90s and a slider that clamped down opponents to a .174 batting average last season. deGrom touched 97 mph in his spring debut March 4, a promising sign following last fall’s surgery to repair the ulnar nerve in his pitching elbow. If his repetition-based rehab allows him to stay healthy and make the mechanical adjustments necessary to reclaim the tick and a half he lost on his heater last year, he could become the best No. 2 starter in the universe.
Last Year: 11
Archer’s 4.02 ERA was the highest for any full season in his major league career by a wide margin. His 30 home runs allowed made his home-run-per-nine rate balloon to Wade Miley levels despite Tropicana Field ranking as one of the ballparks least conducive to homers. Even ignoring his ghastly 9–19 record (because wins and losses are a poor gauge of performance), Archer’s 2016 campaign at first blush looks like something you might expect from a scrap-heap fifth starter, not a staff ace. But when I talked to Rays manager Kevin Cash at spring training, he was staunchly optimistic that last year was a mirage.
“I thought Chris had a couple of starts where he had first-inning troubles, he couldn't quite get through the first,” Cash said. “But if you go back and look at his numbers [and compare them] from last year to the year before when he really put himself on the map as an elite starting pitcher with elite stuff, they were the exact same numbers except for eight home runs maybe. That was the difference. I don't think eight home runs justifies that big of a flip-flop.”
That spike in home runs wasn’t entirely a fluke, though. Check out the steep jump in pitches up and out over the middle of the plate from Archer’s stellar 2015 to his shaky '16; you throw 50 more pitches in that danger zone over the course of a season, and you’re going to get yourself in trouble. Still, Archer is a workhorse who’s made 99 regular-season starts over the past three seasons and throws one of the nastiest and most effective sliders in the game. Among AL pitchers, only Chris Sale has whiffed a higher percentage of batters than Archer has in the past two years. He’s working on a pause in his delivery this spring that he hopes will disrupt hitters’ timing. Plus, Archer’s contract makes him so aggressively inexpensive (he’s owed just $38.5 million over the next five years, assuming his team picks up two club options in 2020 and ‘21) that he’s a bargain if he’s merely an innings eater and a total steal if he returns to his ‘15 form.
Last Year: Not Ranked
Here’s another case where the contract is so overwhelmingly team-friendly, you trust the numbers to catch up with the talent. In Polanco’s case, it’s starting to happen. A moderate power hitter in the minors, he broke out with 22 homers last season. Subtler 2016 signs of growth included a more aggressive approach on pitches in the zone, more contact on pitches in the zone, and falling behind in the count less frequently than before. Add that to his strong defense (the Pirates are shifting him from rightfield to PNC Park’s incredibly spacious and challenging leftfield this year) and plus baserunning, and owing Polanco just $61 million through the next seven seasons (counting two club options) looks like a hell of a deal.
Last Year: 32
If you’re looking for a predictor of future greatness, an excellent place to start is to glance at a player’s age. If he’s holding his own at various levels of the minor leagues and into the majors at a younger age than most of his peers, that bodes well for his chances of blossoming into stardom.
Russell dominated at high A ball as a teenager. He hit a ton as a 20-year-old in a 50-game cameo at Double A. The Cubs skipped him past Triple A and into the majors, where he took over as the everyday shortstop at age 21. In his second big league season, at age 22, Russell made the All-Star team, parlaying his combination of a mature hitting approach, precocious power and Gold Glove-caliber defense into a campaign worth 4.3 WAR, thrusting him into the same value neighborhood as Posey and 2016 batting champ DJ LeMahieu. Still just 23 years old and with his best days likely still ahead, Russell is a young cornerstone player on a team that’s chock full of them.
Last Year: Not Ranked
We’ve now arrived at the most speculative part of our program. On one hand, you’ve got executive after executive preaching the virtues of more experienced (but still young) players signed to favorable contracts, and how that kind of track record elevates such players above top prospects. But in this case, the devil is in the details. The execs I spoke to raved about both Bregman and Benintendi, noting that their highly advanced bats made them safer bets for stardom than even top prospects like Moncada and Swanson.
Bregman broke into the majors last year and flashed tons of power from the start, slugging an impressive .478 following a monstrous half-season at Double A. Benintendi looked even more polished in his big league debut, batting .295/.359/.476 and roping line drives at an impressive 25% clip in his 34-game audition. Both players turn 23 this season. Both offer three years of team control at the league-minimum salary and six years all told. Both project as instant contributors on contending teams, projected to bat in the top half of what might be the two best lineups in the league, with Benintendi potentially sliding into the No. 3 spot. If two of the best teams in baseball have this much faith in these two—and both GMs and assistant GMs from so many other teams drool over the mere thought of somehow wresting them away—that’s a pretty strong sign that Bregman and Benintendi are keepers.
Last Year: 40
Three years ago, when Altuve broke out by hitting .341/.377/.453, one exec labeled the Astros’ second baseman a rich man’s Jeff Keppinger, declaring that sky-high batting average to be empty calories and deriding his lack of power, walks and defense. Nope. Altuve demolished everything in sight last season, batting .338/.396/.531 and leveraging an improved batting eye and supernatural hand-eye coordination into a near-MVP season. Even then, one skeptical general manager who got a look at the first draft of our top 50 wondered if Altuve was ranked too high—“[he] probably belongs in the 30s.”
Nope. Altuve has blossomed into one of the most terrifying offensive players in baseball. He’s led the league in hits three straight seasons, he’s a beast on the basepaths, and even at 5’5”, the man who crushed 71 extra-base hits last year will make you pay if you miss your desired location by an inch. Despite spectacular quickness and athleticism, Altuve has been a middling to terrible fielder throughout his major league career, but getting this kind of offense from a middle infielder is still a boon for the up-and-coming Astros. Still just 26 years old and signed to an impossibly cheap contract that pays him a mere $17 million over the next three years, Houston fans are thrilled to have the man who measures exactly one Altuve.
Last Year: 37
Few players in baseball demand a closer look than Marte. He owns one of the worst batting eyes in baseball, striking out nearly five times for every walk he’s earned in the past two seasons, but he partly makes up for that shaky plate discipline by turning himself into target practice—only two players have been hit by more pitches over the past three seasons. Marte’s power might seem middling for a corner outfielder, but he is no typical corner outfielder, with leftfield at PNC Park arguably the toughest to cover in all of baseball—and he’s shifting to center this year.
Get beyond those quirks, and you have one of the most consistent players in the game. Marte has swiped 148 bases over the past four seasons. He’s been the best defensive leftfielder in the game over that stretch, saving 68 more runs than the average player at his position. His overall production makes him perennially All Star-worthy, generating 5.4, 5.1, 5.4, and 4.9 WAR in those four years. All that, and the Buccos control his rights through 2021 for just $48.5 million.
Last Year: 45
Account for both playing time and park factors, and Yelich was already the 10th-best hitter in the National League in his age-24 season. Then consider that Yelich is yet another player signed exceedingly cheaply, with about $62 million coming his way over the next six years. Finally, read this article by Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan and ponder how great Yelich could be if, like Josh Donaldson and other elite hitters, he supplements his superior hitting skills by switching to a more uppercut swing.
Last Year: 18, 13 and 12
What would you rather have: five years of Kluber, three years of Bumgarner, or three years of Sale?
When we last left Kluber, he’d run out of gas in Game 7 of the World Series, but only after carving up batters all year long, including terrific performances in Games 1 and 4 of the Fall Classic. Kluber has thrown more regular-season innings than Bumgarner and Sale over the past three seasons and produced more overall value on a park-adjusted, fielding-independent basis. The only knock on him is he turns 31 next month; Sale is entering his age-28 season, Bumgarner his age-27. There’s still a strong argument for Kluber, though, given the two years of additional control, his terrific track record of durability to match Bumgarner’s, and the fact that his velocity has remained remarkably stable.
Still, Father Time can be merciless, handing a slight edge to Bumgarner and Sale. Of those two lefty aces, give Sale the slight nod: Only Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have punched out a higher percentage of batters over the past three years, and Sale has eaten planets without the benefit of AT&T Park’s forgiving dimensions. We just witnessed Sale’s real-life trade value too: a top-of-the-charts hitting prospect who’s been compared to Robinson Cano, a fire-breathing righthander who can pump his fastball into triple digits, and more.
Last Year: 3
He’s as talented a player as there is in the world, but Harper has got only one truly extraordinary season on his resume: his 2015 campaign, when he finally approached the impossible, Ted Williams-like expectations thrust on him since he was a teenager in Las Vegas launching 500-foot homers. Incredibly, Harper is still just 24 years old, and a spring training in which he showed up to camp looking like The Rock and led the Grapefruit League in homers has cranked up the hype machine yet again. Trading potential like this seems almost unimaginable, but it’s also quite possible that Harper’s best days don’t come until 2019, when he might be playing for another team.
Last Year: 15
If you watch this eight-minute video tutorial that Donaldson offers MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa, you’ll understand so much of what’s driving baseball today. The proliferation of finely-tuned scouting reports and well-crafted defensive shifts has turned ground balls into graveyards for hitters. That’s prompted hitters to do exactly what your Little League coach always ordered you not to do: Swing for the moon. Donaldson’s quick-twitch uppercut swing enables him to generate huge power despite carrying a frame that would look puny by major league slugger standards a decade ago. Combine that majestic swing with consistently Gold Glove-level defense, and you have an elite commodity, even if it’s just for two more controllable seasons.
Last Year: 9
Here's another 24-year-old superstar who can test free agency a year and a half from now and is still ostensibly untouchable. Machado’s immense power has improved in each of the past three seasons, and he’s a Brooks Robinson-level defensive talent who’d dominate at shortstop if the O’s ever moved him back to the position full-time. The free-agent market of 2018–19 has often been viewed as The Bryce Harper Class. Given the Orioles star’s two-way excellence at a premium position, 10 years from now we might look back and declare it The Manny Machado Class instead.
Last Year: 4
My favorite spring training story this year, by a mile, was Goldschmidt’s repeated self-flagellation. In 2016, the Diamondbacks' first baseman hit .297/.411/.489 and ranked 11th among National League position players in WAR, seventh in stolen bases, fourth in runs scored, third in the league in on-base percentage and first in walks. Still, Goldschmidt was bitterly disappointed in his performance: “I honestly didn’t play as well as I needed to, I didn’t hit enough balls hard, and when you’re doing that, you’re not going to hit as many home runs. It wasn’t just home runs, there was a lot of other things I didn’t do as well, and that all falls on me.”
These are the standards you set for yourself when you’re one of the 10 best players in the league, a two-time MVP runner-up with three years of cheap control left who remains wildly underrated because the D-Backs’ previous management team couldn’t run a Wawa, let alone a Major League Baseball team.
Last Year: Not Ranked
You can throw out a lot of reasons for why MLB keeps getting younger and why so many young players are thriving from almost the moment they make it to the Show. Maybe a generation of kids eschewing the multi-sport upbringings of their predecessors leads to more polished early-20s phenoms flourishing in the majors. Maybe more advanced technology and training methods breed better talent. Maybe big league hopefuls are paying closer attention to nutrition, mental preparation and myriad other factors that few people bothered to care about a generation ago.
Whatever the reason, we now watch a rookie like Turner break into the bigs, tap into power we never knew he had and bat .342/.370/.567 with 13 homers and 33 steals in 73 games, and we probably don’t lose our minds as much as we should. Known far more for his speed and line-drive stroking abilities than his power as a prospect in the Padres’ and Nationals’ systems, Turner needs to prove his newfound thump is for real. If he can even come close to replicating his 2016 numbers now that he’s back at his natural position at shortstop, the Nats will get at least six years of nirvana from one of MLB’s newest young stars.
Last Year: 7
For some MLB players, the path to stardom starts early. Ken Griffey Jr., for example, was the precocious Kid who tagged along with his World Series-winning dad, destroyed all competition in Little League and high school, got picked No. 1 in the draft, wowed fans from day one and soared into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
That was most definitely not Arenado’s path. An impressive hitter, Arenado was a chubby kid described as “duck-footed” by scouts who seemed destined to end up at catcher, where his supposed lack of mobility might not harm him as much. That characterization is almost impossible to believe now. Arenado has made good at that early offensive prowess, developing into one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, but he’s also become a spectacular third baseman, making one incredible play after another through a combination of lightning-quick reflexes and a rocket arm.
The Rockies rank among the most anonymous and least successful franchises in baseball despite playing in a gem of a ballpark with spectacular views in a lively neighborhood that draws healthy crowds every year. The good people of Denver would love to see Arenado sign a massive contract extension and dazzle the world in Rockies purple for another decade.
Last Year: 6
Like Arenado, Rizzo has come a long way to become a star. A sixth-round draft pick (No. 204 overall) by the Red Sox back in 2007, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 18. The Sox traded him to the Padres, where he raked in the minors, got called up and immediately laid an egg, batting a horrendous .141/.281/.242 in his 49-game debut in 2011. After a promising first season in Chicago, Rizzo slipped to .233/.322/.419 in his second season as a Cub, and the doubts resurfaced.
Today, Rizzo is a three-time All-Star, a World Series champion and one of the four pillars (along with Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell) that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer used to build the team’s young nucleus. He’s also the Cubs’ comic relief, breaking the tension before one of the greatest Game 7s in sports history by quoting lines from “Rocky” while dancing in the clubhouse buck-naked. He’s signed through the rest of his prime for $54 million over five years (counting two club options), and he very well might win multiple more rings before he’s done.
Last Year: 17
Syndergaard is the only pitcher ranked in our top 14, which speaks to both Thor’s greatness and the fickle nature of pitching. Tommy John surgeries continue to plague the sport, even with greater medical technologies and awareness of overuse risk higher than they’ve ever been. To enter the rarified air of our top 10, a pitcher must be young, durable under substantial (but not too substantial) workloads and under team control for many more years at a discounted rate. A positive relationship to the moons of Jupiter doesn’t hurt, either.
Syndergaard checks all those boxes. He’s 24 years old, ramped up to 30 starts and 183 2/3 innings in his first full major league season, and is bound to the Mets for five more years, with one more at pre-arbitration prices. His performance is similarly unimpeachable: Syndergaard led all ERA title-qualified NL starting pitchers in WAR last season, finishing third in strikeout rate, tied for first in strikeout-to-walk rate, third in park-adjusted ERA and first in park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching. Watch Syndergaard fire his 101-mph fastball anywhere he wants it, then drop the Hammer of Thor on unsuspecting victims, and you wonder how anyone ever hits the guy.
Last Year: 14
Imagine how great a fly chaser Jackie Bradley Jr. has to be to push Betts out of centerfield. The good news for Red Sox fans is that Betts gets to do his best Dewey Evans impression in rightfield at Fenway, which might be the toughest such expanse in the majors. Oh, and Betts hit .318/.363/.534 last season, cranked 31 homers, led the majors in Baserunning Runs and might not have peaked yet, given that he’s just 24 years old. Given how flush the Red Sox are and how great Betts already is and could still become, he’ll be bowling for green very soon.
Last Year: 2
On one hand, Correa took a slight step back after an otherworldly rookie season: He struck out more often, fell behind in early counts more often and hit for less power than he did when he dazzled the league in 2015. On the other hand, Correa hit a solid .274/.361/.451, has got enough range to play a respectable shortstop, and—wait, we’re nitpicking an all-world talent who’s still just 22 years old! Correa might be the infield version of Harper: Every year he takes the field, it feels like absolute destruction might be on its way. The best is almost surely still to come.
Last Year: 16
The greatest World Series Game 7 of all time nearly had a whole different set of heroes. Rajai Davis would’ve been the unlikely home run-hitting hero after besting Aroldis Chapman in a legendary eighth-inning battle, but a far more likely hero would’ve been Lindor. One of the most electrifying glovemen on the planet made yet another spectacular defensive play right when the stakes were highest, ranging behind second base and into centerfield to throw out Dexter Fowler and temporarily save the game in the ninth inning.
If all Lindor offered were his incredible glove, dayenu. But Lindor has grown into so much more, defying offensive expectations by posting a sparkling .306/.356/.454 line in his first 257 major league games. He’s as fun to watch as any player in the league, with dazzling athleticism, a slash-and-dash approach and a beaming smile that won’t raise his trade value but is still damn infectious. You might typically think of a franchise player as a Goliath who simply overpowers the competition and swats 40 homers a year. In Cleveland, it’s a 23-year-old, 175-pound bundle of joy.
Last Year: 1
Given the benefit of time, it’s easy to spot a legend. But what happens when a legend is already walking among us and might have 15 more years of all-time greatness still to offer?
Mike Trout, simply put, is Willie Mays. Don’t believe me? Check out Mays’s numbers in his first five full seasons after his two-year stint in the army compared to Trout’s first five full seasons after his brief 2011 debut. (wRC+ measures park-adjusted offense; a mark of 100 is league average, 120 is 20% better than league average, and so on.)
We can quibble with historical estimates of defensive value from 60 years ago and how to apply those to overall value. But the bottom line is that Trout, to this point in his career, has been a Mays clone, and Mays is one of the three best baseball players who ever lived.
Last Year: 5
Yes, I am ranking two players higher than present-day Willie Mays. Trout is so good that he might be worth twice as much as the $119 million he’s owed over the next four years, but the Cubs get to employ Bryant for the next five years for less money. And while Bryant hasn’t quite achieved Trout-level transcendence, he’s earned a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award and a World Series ring in his first two major league seasons. He’s already one of the most potent hitters in the game and keeps improving, slashing his strikeout rate, hiking his power game last season and improving his defense and versatility in year two of his already electric career. Hell, he’s even an elite baserunner despite his big 6’5”, 230-pound frame, dazzling the baseball world by scoring from first on a single in Game 7 of the World Series.
Bryant is pretty close to a perfect player—and that’s still not good enough to be No. 1.
Last Year: 8
His first full season netted an All-Star berth, a Silver Slugger award, a Rookie of the Year award and a third-place finish in MVP voting. He’ll be royally underpaid and bound to his team for the next five seasons. He’s an absolute beast of a hitter, but unlike National League titans like Bryant and Joey Votto, he does so while holding down one of the two most challenging spots on the diamond, at shortstop. And somehow, he’s still just 22 years old, making him two years and change younger than Bryant and nearly three years younger than Trout. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection system pegs him performing slightly better than Bryant over the next five seasons, and with just 800 major league plate appearances under his belt, there’s good reason to think he’s going to get even better.
Corey Seager, the crown is yours. Wear it wisely.