Quickly

  • We're picking the 50 players with the highest trade value in baseball, counting down to No. 1. Who is tops in MLB?
By Jonah Keri
March 22, 2017

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.

Icon Sportswire

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.

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

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.

Icon Sportswire

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.

Icon Sportswire

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.

Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

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.

John Leyba/Denver Post

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.

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

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.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

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.

L to R: Tim Warner/Getty Images | Icon Sportswire

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.

Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images

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.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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.

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

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.

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

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.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

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.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

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.

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

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.

Adam Hunger/Getty Images

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.

Icon Sportswire

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.