And now we come to the best of the best. These guys are both the present and the future of the sport. They’re great now, they’re going to be great for a while, and they’re the kinds of players that we’ll be telling our grandkids about.
|27||395||9.6 %||26.6 %||.302||.370||.610||.414||153||5.2||4.9||4.5|
Under Team Control Through 2017: $11M, $16M, $17M, $20M
A few years ago, in one of the least prescient things I’ve ever published, I wondered whether the Rockies squandered a lot of money by signing Gonzalez to a seven year, $80 million extension. He was coming off one good year, had been traded multiple times before, didn’t control the strike zone particularly well, and looked like a pretty strong regression candidate.
Gonzalez did regress, but the rest of what I wrote was really wildly wrong. Salaries in baseball have exploded, and at age-27, Gonzalez is once again looking like a superstar. Yeah, Colorado makes his numbers look better, but he’s still running a 153 wRC+ even after we strip out the effects of Coors Field. He still strikes out a lot, but the power has reached a level where they don’t matter so much, and he’s refined the rest of his game to add value even when he’s not hitting the ball over the wall.
Gonzalez only has one more “cheap” year left on the deal before his salaries escalate, but even at an AAV of $16 million per year over the remaining four years on the deal, he’s still a huge bargain. Those four years cover his prime seasons, leaving little chance for dead money, especially given the prices teams are paying for power hitters at this level now. Gonzalez’s inconsistency and injury history makes him imperfect, but he’s still a terrific player signed to a deal that pays him a fraction of his market value.
|25||406||12.1 %||20.2 %||.313||.395||.557||.405||157||6.2||1.7||4.2|
Under Team Control Through 2019: $1M, $3M, $6M, $9M, $11M, $15M option
A couple of years ago, Goldschmidt was considered something of a fringe prospect, a guy who was interesting but had limited upside. Baseball America never ranked him higher than 11th in the Diamondbacks Top 30, so he wasn’t even considered a premium prospect within their organization, much less baseball overall.
Yeah, I think we missed the boat here. 1,200 plate appearances into his career and Goldschmidt has a 135 wRC+, and he’s athletic enough to add value with both his glove and his legs. If he keeps hitting like he has so far this year, he’s going to get first place MVP votes at the end of the year. Oh, and he’s going to make a million bucks next year.
If the Brewers decision to sign Carlos Gomez this spring was the best decision of the year, extending Goldschmidt before he had this breakout ranks a close second. They now own his rights for six years, and none of the five guaranteed years are going to cost them any real money. Even if Goldschmidt regresses, this is still a pittance for he’s likely to be. And if he doesn’t regress, this might turn into the best contract in baseball.
I don’t know precisely how Goldschmidt went from being a mediocre prospect to an elite hitter, but it happened, and now the Diamondbacks have one of the best first baseman in baseball signed through his age-31 season for just a little bit more than Alex Rodriguez will make this year alone. Buying power on the open market is crazy expensive, but the Diamondbacks aren’t going to have to worry about doing that for a while.
|23||224||13.4 %||26.3 %||.250||.357||.458||.357||128||-3.9||-0.6||0.7|
Under Team Control Through 2016: Arbitration
If David Price is the player on this list most likely to be traded, Stanton isn’t that far behind. The price that the Marlins are able to extract for their star right fielder is going to be fascinating. A couple of months on the DL with a bad knee and the dissipation of an extra year of team control have hurt his value, but he’s still perhaps the game’s most exciting young slugger. He’s 23 and has a career wRC+ of 138. The players who have done what Stanton has done at this age are mostly in the Hall of Fame.
In some ways, his situation is pretty reminiscent of Miguel Cabrera, and not just because they both came up in Miami. Cabrera was absurdly great early, then saw his stock fall slightly as he got closer to free agency and concerns about his durability arose. The Tigers swooped in, signed him to a long term deal, and you know the rest. There’s a real chance that something similar could happen with Stanton.
Yes, right now, he’s only got three years of team control remaining, but a team acquiring him is acquiring him for the right to lock him up, and his cost is going to reflect that right. Franchise players like this aren’t available in their early-20s very often, and even coming off a down year and somewhat concerning knee issues, the price is going to reflect the rarity of a player like this on this on the trade market.
Stanton is going to bring back a mint when the Marlins trade him. The price is probably going to blow us all away.
Under Team Control Through 2018: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
Contract included, Matt Harvey is the most valuable pitcher in baseball. Just 24, he’s already turned into a legitimate ace, succeeding in every possible aspect you could think to measure. His velocity is trending up, not down. He doesn’t walk anyone. He strikes out everyone. His FIP is actually better than his ERA, which is hilarious considering that his ERA is 2.35. He’s been better against lefties than righties. He’s efficient. There are no nits to pick here. This is pretty close to the perfect young pitcher season.
But he is still a pitcher, and it could all go terribly wrong tomorrow. Mets fans don’t need a reminder about the risks of young pitching. Baseball fans, really, don’t need that reminder either. Before there was Matt Harvey, there was Stephen Strasburg. Before Strasburg, Mark Prior. Before Prior, Rick Ankiel. Before Ankiel, Dwight Gooden. These stories don’t always end as well as they start. They usually don’t end as well as they start.
But there’s also Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and the rest. Some great young pitchers become great older pitchers. And it’s not like hitters are risk free either, so while Matt Harvey might be peaking right now, every team in baseball would sign up for the right to see if Harvey could be more Kershaw than Prior. It’s basically impossible for a pitcher to have more trade value than Matt Harvey does right now.
|26||367||9.5 %||11.2 %||.325||.395||.536||.398||162||-2.6||-0.6||4.1|
Under Team Control Through 2022: $11M, $17M, $20M, $21M, $21M, $21M, $21M, $21M, $22M option
Buster Posey has followed up last year’s 163 wRC+ by posting a 162 wRC+ this year. Buster Posey is a catcher. Catchers don’t hit like this. Most first baseman don’t hit like this.
That is probably the lingering question hanging over Posey’s head, however. How much longer will he be a catcher, because a lot of his current value is tied to his ability to produce offense at a position where offense is scarce. If he moves to first base, he’d still be an excellent player, but he would be less excellent. So, how long can he stay behind the plate?
My guess is longer than we might think. Posey’s not the kind of bat-first catcher that you eventually move out from behind the dish because you can’t handle his defensive issues anymore. He’s not Carlos Santana or Mike Napoli. He might not be the best defensive catcher in the game, but he’s not actively hurting the Giants back there. I don’t see any reason to have Posey stop catching until it begins to wear him down physically. And given what he’s doing over the last year and a half, good luck proving that catching is hurting his offensive production.
The contract the Giants gave him was a win for both sides. Posey will be well compensated and has long term security, while the Giants have a premium player under team control for the bulk of his career. He’s not cheap in the sense that other players on this list are, but the value associated with having this kind of player at a good price is still immense.
|27||399||11.0 %||22.3 %||.278||.356||.507||.367||138||10.8||-1.0||4.4|
Under Team Control Through 2023: $8M, $11M, $12M, $13M, $14M, $15M, $15M, $19M, $20M, $13M option
Here’s a fun fact: Evan Longoria, known for his superlative defense and not really considered one of the game’s best hitters, has a career wRC+ of 136. Prince Fielder, a bat only player who got $214 million as a free agent, has a career wRC+ of 141. Evan Longoria is Prince Fielder’s offense combined with Adrian Beltre’s defense. Evan Longoria is an amazing and still under-appreciated baseball player.
And you know, there’s his contract. If they exercise the 2023 option, the remainder is $140 million over 10 years, taking Longoria through his age-37 season. On the one hand, Longoria probably won’t be a star in 10 years. On the other hand, $13 million isn’t going to be a lot of money to a baseball team in 10 years either.
Longoria’s health issues are the only real detracting factor here. If he was perfectly healthy all the time, we’d just rename this thing the Countdown to Evan Longoria. That he’s likely to spend some time on the DL each season makes him just great instead of practically perfect. There’s a reason the Rays chose this guy to build their franchise around, and it’s the same reason why the Rays are a terrific baseball team. Evan Longoria is a superstar.
|26||388||9.5 %||14.2 %||.302||.376||.471||.365||136||6.7||4.4||4.3|
Under Team Control Through 2018: $7M, $10M, $13M, $14M, $15M
Andrew McCutchen is baseball’s prime example of the sum being better than the whole of its parts. He’s not the best defensive center fielder in the game. He doesn’t have elite power. He doesn’t make more contact than anyone, or draw an inordinate amount of walks. He’s not an elite base stealer. There isn’t a single that that McCutchen is better at than anyone else in Major League Baseball.
But he’s so good across the board that the overall package is a franchise player. A center fielder with first baseman’s offensive skills who also adds value with his legs, and by the way, doesn’t turn 27 until next year. McCutchen probably isn’t as good as he can be yet. He’s great, and there’s room for more.
A year ago, when he signed his extension to stay in Pittsburgh last year, there were actually questions about whether he was worth the $51 million they committed to him. If he was a free agent today, he’d get $250 million. Instead, the Pirates will pay him an average of about $12 million per year over the next five years, and McCutchen stands to help put Pittsburgh back on the map in Major League Baseball. I’d call that a pretty good signing.
|20||435||3.7 %||16.3 %||.310||.337||.470||.349||118||16.0||-1.9||4.2|
Under Team Control Through 2018: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
It’s important to remember that defense peaks early. Athleticism generally only declines after a player makes his big league debut, and the plays we’re seeing Manny Machado make at third base, he probably won’t be able to make forever. He’s an amazing defensive third baseman, but he might not always be this amazing.
The good news is that offense peaks later, and Machado’s offensive development should overwhelm any kind of defensive loss he sustains as he ages. He’s already a pretty good big league hitter at age-20, and when the doubles power turns into home run power — and he learns to not swing at every pitch he’s thrown — Machado could easily turn into one of the game’s best two way players.
If the Orioles moved him back to shortstop, we’d be comparing him to Troy Tulowitzki. As it is, he looks like he might end up following Evan Longoria’s path to stardom. Either path is just fine, and you shouldn’t worry too much about whether he’s playing third base or shortstop. He’s a huge defensive asset at both positions, and the gap in value between those two spots is more a fantasy baseball thing than a real baseball thing.
No matter where he plays, though, he’s got superstar written all over him. He’s not anything close to a finished product, but the upside is just so obvious. I’d imagine the Orioles will sign him up for a very long time once this season is over, because this is the kind of player you build championship teams around.
|20||242||14.9 %||18.2 %||.264||.371||.522||.381||145||-2.0||-0.4||1.6|
Under Team Control Through 2018: $0.9M, Arbitration
I still think, from a looking-back-in-20-years perspective, that Bryce Harper has a chance to be the best player of this generation. His offensive skills are so special that he could easily develop into one of the best hitters in the history of the sport. Barring a serious injury, I will be very surprised if Harper doesn’t end up in the Hall of Fame. He’s that kind of player.
But, right now, that’s only good enough for #2. Because as good as Harper’s future looks, in the present, he’s still more good than great. The power isn’t fully developed yet. He’s not a great baserunner. He’s a good defender for a corner, but he’s not among the game’s best ball hawks. He’s a special kind of young hitter, but everything else is just good, not great.
And then there’s the health. You never want to see a young player having knee problems. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not ideal either. He’s also shown a penchant for playing the game at 100% all the time, even if that means sacrificing his body in order to do so. Eventually, he will have to learn that it’s better to let a ball hit the wall than be peeling yourself off the ground every day. It might take awhile for that to sink in.
And finally, there’s the price. Harper’s going to be a Super Two player, getting four bites at arbitration, and his prices are going to skyrocket. Scott Boras knows what Harper is, and he’s not going to be easy to lock up long term. While there’s five more years of team control, he’s going to be pretty expensive by the end of those five years, and he’s not a sure thing to give up free agency.
So, as much as I’m completely and utterly in the tank for Bryce Harper’s bat, I can’t overlook the legitimate questions. There are real issues here. Maybe they will all turn out to be nothing. For the good of baseball, that’s what I’m hoping for.
|21||426||11.0 %||16.4 %||.322||.399||.565||.410||166||1.1||5.7||5.7|
Under Team Control Through 2017: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
Ladies and Gentleman, the best player in baseball. He’s 21.
Mike Trout is basically perfect. After having the best age-20 season of all time, he’s followed it up by being just as good. From a skills perspective, he’s even getting better, as he’s cut his strikeout rate down and now really doesn’t have any flaws. He’s gotten a little bigger, so maybe he’s not quite as good at the parts of his game that involve running as he was last year, but he’s still among the most valuable players in the game at non-hitting things.
Without knowing how conversations went, it’s impossible to know why the Angels haven’t locked up Mike Trout yet. Just back up the truck and give him whatever he wants. The rest of the Angels are kind of a disaster, but this guy is single handedly keeping them from going off the rails.
There is no player in baseball more valuable than Mike Trout. Even with just four years of team control left at uncertain prices, he’s on another level. This is the game’s premier asset.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.