There used to be a yearly column in Sports Illustrated and Baseball Prospectus called the Ultimate Fantasy Draft written by BP’s Nate Silver before he became a full-time political analyst. The premise was if every player in baseball were granted free agency, which players would produce the most value over the next six seasons. I wrote a similar article for my now-dead Baseball Mastermind website in 2008 and will do so again here, determining the most valuable assets in Major League Baseball for the next five seasons (2011-2015).
This is not a “Who is the best player in baseball?” article, nor is it a fantasy baseball article, so age and defensive ability factor into the equation significantly as well as injury history. These factors will diminish the value of Josh Hamilton (having the best season in baseball in 2010) and Roy Halladay, the oldest player on the list (even though he is probably the best pitcher in baseball today). I included players like Hamilton, Halladay and Cliff Lee over some younger players because this is a five-year window and two or three MVP-caliber seasons, followed by two decline-phase or even injury-limited seasons are still worth more than five good, not great seasons.
This season was particularly difficult to assess because there are so many good young pitchers in the game today. Combine that with the fact that there have been many injuries and down years from some of the key position players such as Chase Utley, Ryan Braun, Dustin Pedroia, Justin Morneau, Kevin Youkilis and Grady Sizemore to name a few.
I projected aggressively, yet cautiously with Justin Upton, Stephen Strasburg and Jayson Heyward because, while any of these players may break out into superstardom as soon as next season, as we have seen with many young players (Upton, Delmon Young, Matt Wieters), they may scuffle and produce at a below-average rate for a few seasons in making adjustments.
I looked at career statistics, advanced statistics for offense and defense and of course, their age, position and injury history. Again, this is not the MVP award — defense actually matters. Thanks to Vincent Hull, Andrew Grant and Cameron Weiss for consultation with the list. Without further ado, here are the Top 30 Franchise Players in MLB:
1. Albert Pujols (31-35): Down year? How about first player ever to start their career with 10 straight 30 home run seasons (.332/.426/.624 lifetime), despite continuously playing through injuries. Also, Pujols has made himself one of MLB’s best defensive players since converting to first base. By the time Pujols is done, he’ll be one the greatest ever to play the game. All hail the King.
2. Joe Mauer (28-32): One season removed from leading the American League in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while playing catcher. He may move out from behind the plate eventually and the Twins would be wise to spot him at designated hitter, but five more years of outstanding production is ahead.
3. Miguel Cabrera (28-32): After the first half of the season, some people wondered: is Miguel Cabrera the best hitter in baseball now? After quitting drinking and recommitting himself to baseball in the off-season, he now leads the American League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He might be.
4. Hanley Ramirez (28-32): Not having a marquee season offensively in 2010 and after improving his defense last season, he has regressed again to below average. Still, players with his combination of power and speed age well. If he ends up staying at short, his offensive value is maximized. If he eventually moves to third or center, he may become a plus defensive player.
5. Evan Longoria (25-29): Longoria is now just entering his prime seasons, after hitting very well in his first two-plus years (.280/.359/.514). Plus-plus defense at the hot corner, and he has cut down his strikeouts while improving his walks each of the last three seasons. That is a scary trend for the rest of the league.
6. Troy Tulowitzki (26-30): Elite offensive production from shortstop with power and some speed, plus above average play at short. He is now in his prime.
7. Ryan Zimmerman (26-30): .296/.374/.535 hitter this season and last combined with plus-plus defense (total package – range, hands and strong, accurate arm). To put his defense into context, his glove alone this season to-date is worth more than Vladimir Guerrero at the plate.
8. Felix Hernandez (25-29): Younger than David Price, King Felix has 1,094 career innings pitched with a 3.31 ERA. Hernandez combines velocity/command/movement on his fastball and absurd secondary pitches (slider, curve, change) to wreck offenses. May not win many games on a weak Seattle team, but that underscores the lack of importance of wins more than anything he is doing on the mound.
9. Joey Votto (27-31): Votto is in his prime and having an MVP season, hitting .323/.422/.592 with 29 home runs and playing above average defense at first. He will be the face of a young, talented Reds team for the foreseeable future.
10. David Wright (28-33): Much was made about his power outage last season in Citi Field, but Wright is back, hitting 19 this season. Strikeouts have become a problem for Wright the last two seasons and his defense — last season aside (where he was a butcher) — tends to be about average.
11. Justin Upton (23-27): To think Jupton is only 22 this season is a scary thought, but making it to the majors at 19, he is just tapping into his offensive potential and the best is yet to come. He will develop into a prodigious offensive player and he has made himself into a plus defender in right. Strikeouts are the only knock against him. He very easily could be a top-10, top-five guy next season.
12. Adrian Gonzalez (29-34): Good offensive production is masked by PETCO Park as Gonzalez is a career .303/.372/.562 hitter with 108 home runs on the road (compared to .262/.360/.440 with 58 home runs at home) with above average defense. If he is traded to a better hitting ballpark, he will be an offensive juggernaut.
13. Jon Lester (27-31): The story goes that Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell stood up in a meeting, where a potential Johan Santana trade was being discussed, and said Lester would develop into a better pitcher and was not worth including in a trade for the Twins ace. He was right.
14. Robinson Cano (28-32): One of the best pure hitters in baseball, batting well over .300 in four of his six seasons, and Cano is just beginning to tap into his power. In an era where good hitters strike out 120+ times per season, Cano’s career high was 85 in 2007. Cano is an average defender at second who makes flashy plays due to a strong, accurate arm and the cool flip throw–we’ve all seen it in action.
15. C.C. Sabathia (30-34): If Sabathia were an animal, he would obviously be a horse. 898.2 innings pitched 2007-10 with 18 complete games.
16. Josh Hamilton (30-34): If this were a list of best tools and talent, Hamilton would reign supreme. His path to the big leagues and superstardom has been well-chronicled, but he came into the game late and this season, we are witnessing the peak of that talent. He will probably move to right field and may continue to be bothered by nagging injuries.
17. Carl Crawford (29-33): Crawford will get paid this off-season and rightfully so; he is a good top of the order hitter, amassing 401 career stolen bases and hitting for some power, making up for a lack of patience. As good as he is on offense, his defense in left is so good that it makes up close to half his overall value.
18. Josh Johnson (27-31): Since returning from Tommy John surgery, Johnson has pitched 470.2 innings with a 3.12 ERA and in the last two seasons, cemented himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Now in his prime, the 6’7”, physical monster has eye-popping stuff, including a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a high-80s to low-90s slider.
19. Clayton Kershaw (23-27): Kershaw’s dominance flies under the radar as his innings have been carefully managed since he made his debut at age 20. To put it into perspective: while Tim Lincecum was striking out college hitters, Kershaw was in the major leagues, compiling 436 career innings with a 3.24 ERA and 448 strikeouts. Next season, he will be ready to go 200+ innings and unleash hell on the league.
20. Ryan Braun (27-31): This season has been a down year for Braun (.296/.354/.478 with 18 home runs) and his lack of patience has prevented him from consistently tapping into his prodigious raw power. Still, he is in his prime and his potential alone makes him a good bet for some monster seasons. Once Prince Fielder is traded or departs as a free agent, Braun will need to move to first base because he is a liability in left.
21. Jason Heyward (21-25): Next season, at age 21, it is a lot to expect Heyward to become an elite player, but he has that kind of ability. His age 20 season compares favorably with Justin Upton’s. He may have a quicker learning curve as his K:BB ratio has been better than Upton’s in the same season. He will be a monster but it may take him a season before he’s the .300-hitting 30 home run monster we all envision.
22. Roy Halladay (34-38): Ranking Roy this highly knowing he’ll be in his late-30s is a testament to how good Halladay is. His combination of pin-point command and movement on all of his pitches allows Doc Halladay to carve up offenses. At 33, he is still the best pitcher in the game, leading the league in complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts, walks per nine innings and strikeout to walk ratio. After reading that, I feel like a fool for ranking him so lowly, but age is the great equalizer. At a time when most pitchers are well past their prime, he will be adding to his Hall of Fame resume.
23. Prince Fielder (27-31): Fielder is a bat-only player with a bad body, but what a bat. He is in his prime and young enough where his bat will more than make up for below-average defense or a move to designated hitter.
24. Tommy Hanson (24-28): Great four pitch mix–fastball, slider, curve, change–with excellent command of each one. The Braves will have to monitor his workload, especially if they make the playoffs this season. He is the next big thing. Think Adam Wainwright but better and younger.
25. Adam Wainwright (29-33): Wainwright is a great pitcher in his prime. Fantastic command and control makes him a perennial Cy Young candidate. With a National League leading 2.06 ERA and 17 wins, this season may be his first.
26. Tim Lincecum (27-31): The Giants rode Lincecum hard in 2008-09 and he responded by winning the Cy Young Award and the strikeout crown each season. However, that has taken its toll as his velocity and command have been down this season. He is still having a fine season, just not up to his standard. With his size, I have concerns he may have back trouble. He will need to improve his command in order in order to stay elite. Can he do that with his current mechanics?
27. Stephen Strasburg (22-26): The ability is undeniable. With 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings, he would lead the majors if he qualified. On top of the blazing fastball, his command is pin-point. The Nationals will bring him along slowly and won’t get up to 200 innings for 2-3 years. By the time he gets there, he may be the best pitcher in baseball, health permitting.
28. Carlos Gonzalez (25-29): CarGo is a five-tool monster, having a fantastic season hitting .320/.350/.566 with 25 home runs and 19 stolen bases. The biggest knock against him is a very unhealthy 23:107 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He will need to improve on that to avoid being a good-not-great .290/.330/.480-type hitter.
29. Dustin Pedroia (27-31): Pedroia can flat-out play. With so much ability across the board, he is a good bet to maintain his established level of production–my only concern being his power. Watch out for the laser show.
30. Colby Rasmus (24-28): Rasmus has been very good — a shade below Grady Sizemore at the same age. On the bright side, Rasmus hits lefties much better and strikeouts less often. He is more than ready to play every day for the Cardinals at the top of their lineup.
31. Brian McCann (27-31): An offensive force behind the plate, McCann is a .291/.360/.495 career hitter. Catchers tend to wear down earlier than other position players, but McCann has averaged 138 games in each full season.
32. David Price (25-29): Devastating fastball and slider. Still learning at the big league level. There is more to come.
33. Cliff Lee (32-36): Lee’s career path gives me pause. What happened to the number three starter who was abducted by aliens and replaced with a strike-throwing machine? Will he be this good next season as a Yankee? How about at 35-36?
35. Chase Utley (32-36): Torn hip flexor is a concern. Utley was in the discussion for best player in baseball a season ago.
36. Matt Kemp (26-30): Offensive/defensive/baserunning setbacks this season are confusing, the talent is not.
37. Ubaldo Jimenez (27-31): Devastating stuff, but command keeps him off the list.
38. Mark Teixeira (31-35): Just leaving his prime but he still has a lot of good years left and is excellent with the glove.
39. Zack Greinke (27-31): One year removed from a brilliant season, still having a good one. He’ll be back to form next season.
40. Francisco Liriano (27-31): Has finally put his Tommy John surgery behind him. Great season, great pitcher.
Players to Watch
Delmon Young (25-29): Finally tapping into his potential. Another guy who has been around forever but is still very young.
Domonic Brown (23-27): Minor league pitchers are happy he’s gone. .296/.373/.464 minor league career who got better as he moved up. A physical monster.
Elvis Andrus (22-26): Has played very well despite his youth, especially defensively. Increasing his patience this season has cost him his power, but he’ll put it all together soon.
Matt Latos (22-26): Fantastic season as a 21-year-old. He may move up the list quickly.
Mike Stanton (21-25): Unbelievable power. Just mind-boggling. Strikeouts will be high.
Matt Wieters (25-29): Poor major league production, but most evaluators still believe he will hit.