And now, for the top 10. For the first time ever (I believe), it’s all position players. There’s a good young crop of guys who play the field and don’t come with the risks inherent with pitchers, and the toughest part was ordering them. You’d take any of these guys and be thrilled about it. Did anyone manage to dethrone the defending champ from the top spot? Scroll down to find out.
#10 – Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington: +16.4
Zimmerman is one of the game’s best players, but also one of the game’s best kept secrets. He is consistently ignored in things like All-Star placement and MVP voting despite the fact that he’s one of the best players in baseball. Because he’s not a premier power guy or an up-the-middle player and his value is largely tied to his defensive excellence, his excellence gets lost in the crowd, but it shouldn’t. He’s awesome. At $26 million over the next two years, he’s also one of the cheapest elite players in baseball, though the lack a true long term deal drags him down a bit. Still, his present value is sky high, and offsets most of the lack of value beyond 2013.
#9 – Rickie Weeks, 2B, Milwaukee: +13.4
After a somewhat slow start to his career, Weeks has blossomed into a fantastic player. He’s one of the premier power hitting middle-infielders in the sport, and while many projected that he’d have to move off of second base as he aged, he’s actually improved defensively to the point where he’s now legitimately good there. His injury history is still something of a concern, but at 28, Weeks hasn’t had any health problems the last few years, and the long term contract the Brewers signed him to ($42 million over the next four years) is so cheap that he’s a massive bargain even if he misses time each season.
#8 – Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta: +6.0
It seems like there’s a race to see who can get off the Heyward bandwagon the fastest, as injuries and a .224 batting average have soured a lot of people on the Braves young outfielder. But if you look past BA, he’s showing all the same skills he did last year. His power is still there, as his ISO and HR/FB rates are basically unchanged. He’s still walking and he’s still making contact when he does swing. But instead of the .335 BABIP he posted last year, he’s at .251 this year. When balls start falling in again, Heyward will remind everyone that he’s still one of the best young hitters in baseball, and, remember, he’s only 21. There’s serious long term upside as long as he can stay healthy.
#7 – Joey Votto, 1B, Cincinnati: +18.5
There’s no question that Votto is a premier player in baseball, and if the Reds could have gotten him locked up sooner, he’d be several spots higher on this list. But with just two years and $27 million left on his deal after 2011, it’s tough to put him any higher than this. Breakouts like Votto are exactly why teams are becoming so aggressive in trying to get their young stars locked up early, because the Reds are now facing the reality that they might lose him in a few years. His next contract is going to be nutty, and it might not come from the Reds.
#6 – Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh: +11.8
Already a terrific all-around player, McCutchen has added power this year and made himself into a legitimate MVP candidate at age 24. His broad base of skills suggests that he’ll age extremely well, there’s no injury history to worry about, and the Pirates control his rights for four more years after this one. They haven’t yet locked him up to a long term deal, but even if he goes through the arbitration process, he’ll still be a tremendous bargain. If you want to start handing out praise for why baseball is relevant in Pittsburgh again, start with McCutchen.
#5 – Justin Upton, OF, Arizona: +11.4
When Arizona put Upton on the block this winter, it seemed like they might questioning whether he was ever going to be able to get his contact rates under control to become the star slugger that he was expected to develop into. Well, it’s a good thing they held onto him, because that’s exactly what he’s done this year. With all his other skills holding steady, he’s drastically reduced his strikeout rate and taken his game to the next level, becoming one of the best all-around hitters in baseball in the process. It’s easy to forget that he’s just 23-years-old, and while he might not be the best hitter in the game, he has that kind of upside, and he’s plenty good right now.
#4 – Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston: +17.2
Boston’s second baseman continues to be overshadowed by larger players who take a disproportionate share of the credit for the team’s success, but Pedroia has been their best player for several years now. At 27, he’s now having the best year of his career, and the idea of his elite performance being a fluke should be all but forgotten. Over the next three seasons, he’s guaranteed just $28 million, and the Red Sox hold an $11 million team option for 2015 as well, so Pedroia’s going to be massively underpaid for his prime years. While Adrian Gonzalez is getting the love this year, don’t forget Pedroia – the engine that drives the Red Sox success.
#3 – Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado: +17.9
There just aren’t any flaws in Tulowitzki’s game. He’s a premium defensive shortstop who can really hit, drives the baseball, doesn’t strike out anymore, and is generally just excellent at nearly every aspect of the game. There are some teams who would balk at giving a guy with his injury history a 10 year deal, but the Rockies clearly believe in their franchise player, and unlike his last contract, this one can actually be traded (he could void the last one if dealt to another franchise) if they decide to move him at some point. It’s nearly impossible to think of a scenario where Colorado would give him up, but if they did put him on the market, the demand would be absurd.
#2 – Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto: +15.7
I debated putting Bautista at #1 for quite a while. No player in baseball has more present value than the Blue Jays slugger, who is currently in the midst of one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen. At just $14 million per year for each of the next four years, he’s producing at a best-player-in-baseball level while getting paid a little less than Jason Bay or Adam Dunn. The Blue Jays saved themselves at least $100 million with the extension they gave Bautista last winter, which now looks like one of the best decisions any GM has ever made. But, in the end, as good as Bautista is he just couldn’t quite reach the top spot on this list. He’s fantastic, but he’s also 30-years-old, and there’s still some lingering question about how long he can keep this up. The package is good enough to be the second most valuable asset in baseball, but he’s not quite at the level where he could pass…
#1 – Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay: +18.9
Yes, this is getting old. Even I would love to see someone else at the top of the list. But, the reality is that he’s one of the best players in the game (third in baseball in WAR over the past three calendar years) being paid like a utility infielder. He makes $2 million this year, $4.5 million next year, $6 million the year after that, and then the team options kick in; $7.5, $11, and $11.5 million respectively. If (when) all the options are picked up, the Rays will owe him $40 million over the next five years. He might not be as good as Bautista right now, but the age and salary difference make up for the gap in performance, and so Longoria retains his spot at the top of the list. This contract will eventually run out, and someone will dethrone him as the King Of All Trade Value, but it didn’t happen this year.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.