Continuing on in the week long series on the 50 most valuable assets in major league baseball. If you missed the introduction, it can be found here.
Ranking, Player, Position, Franchise, 2006-2008 WPA/LI
5. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis, 13.79 WPA/LI
4. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets, 9.05 WPA/LI
3. Grady Sizemore, CF, Cleveland, 8.47 WPA/LI
2. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida, 7.11 WPA/LI
1. Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay, 0.80 WPA/LI
Pujols is the perfect hitter. Among active players, he has the highest career batting average, second highest career on base percentage (only Coors-aided Todd Helton is higher), and highest career slugging percentage. There is literally no one in the game that can compare to his abilities with a bat in his hands. He has remarkable bat control, a great approach, and terrific power. And, just for good measure, he’s made himself an outstanding defensive first baseman – perhaps the best in the league. Even at $16 million a year through 2011, he’s still a ridiculous bargain for the level of play he provides. Only the nagging injuries that have kept him out of the line-up too frequently keep him from being further up this list, but make no mistake, we will all tell our grandchildren that we got to watch the great Pujols play.
When you have a 25-year-old third baseman who hits like Mike Schmidt, you sign him up for as long as you possibly can and do a happy dance. That’s what the Mets did with Wright, inking him to a deal that will keep him in Queens through 2013. Wright’s a very good hitter, and there’s still room for power growth that could allow him to make the leap to great hitter. His defense at third has improved quite a bit, and the offense he provides from the hot corner at a young age makes him a legitimate star.
Still just 25-years-old, Sizemore has added legitimate home run power to his repertoire this year, as he’s just two home runs away from matching his 2007 season total before this year’s all-star break. The power surge, combined with a slight decrease in strikeout rate, shows the maturation of a player just entering his prime. He has a legitimate chance to go 40-40 this year, and oh yea, he plays a pretty good center field as well. He will never be the premier player in the game at any one particular skill, but his excellence at everything makes him a superstar. While it’s been a disappointing year in Cleveland, the Indians’ fans have to be happy that they have this kid under contract for the next four years for a total of $26 million. He’s the building block around which a great franchise can be established, and the production he gives his team for what their paying him makes him one of the game’s truly great assets.
I expect there to be a minor outrage that Ramirez isn’t #1 on this list, and when the assumption that you’re the second most valuable asset in the game is controversial, you know you’re pretty special. Ramirez’s bat has developed far faster than anyone could have expected, and he’s turned into one of the premier power/speed guys we’ve seen in the last fifty years. In the history of baseball, only 13 players have posted an Isolated Slugging Percentage of .200 or higher in the same year that they stole 50+ bases. Here is that list. Look at the names on there – Cobb, Henderson, Morgan, Bonds – and you’ll see just how impressive Ramirez’s combination of skills are. And just in case the offense isn’t impressive enough, he plays shortstop. Sort of. Because as great of a hitter as he is, Ramirez isn’t really much defensively, and realistically, he should probably be in center field. While he has the physical tools to handle shortstop, the instincts and reactions just aren’t there, and his skills would be maximized in the outfield, where his raw speed would allow him to make up for the first step that he doesn’t have. While it takes away some of the value of his bat, it certainly doesn’t diminish Ramirez’s value much – he’s still a franchise player and a great, great talent.
And now, for the most valuable asset in major league baseball – Evan Longoria.
Yes, I know, he only has a half season of major league experience, and we have to be careful drawing too many conclusions from sample sizes that don’t include more than 300 major league at-bats. However, the value of his abilities is so great, and his contract is so ridiculously awesome for Tampa, that the positives more than outweigh the negatives and make him the guy I wouldn’t trade for any other one player in the game.
He’s just 22 years old, but he already is showing legitimate middle of the order power, posting a .256 ISO thanks to 39 of his 79 hits going for extra bases. When you have a kid who can drive the ball like Longoria can at a young age, you have a special hitter in the making. The power is simply a pleasant surprise, however, as Longoria is a legitimate all around hitter who has a good approach at the plate and can hit to all fields. We’re not looking at an Adam Dunn type of slugger, but rather a complete hitter who can also turn on a fastball and put it in the seats. Meanwhile, his defense is nearly as good as his offense, as he’s already one of the game’s best defensive third baseman. He has enough range that it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to play shortstop, and the Rays have already acknowledged this ability by putting him there earlier this year. His hands and footwork are top notch, and his abilities with the glove are reminiscent of a younger Scott Rolen. While he’s going to be a terrific hitter, he’s also going to toss in top shelf defense as well. You just don’t find 22-year-olds who are this good at both aspects of the game this soon.
On ability, he’s terrific, but it’s really the contract that he just signed that puts him over the top. Tampa wisely saw a star in the making and decided to strike early, locking him up to a contract that gives them the ability to keep him around for eight more years after this one, and at salaries that are going to be laughably low by the end of this deal. He signed away the absolute prime of his career for an absolute maximum of about $50 million, and Tampa is only on the hook for a guaranteed $17.5 million through 2013. If Longoria gets hurt and regresses significantly, well, they didn’t pay him much anyway. If he turns into the perennial all-star that we should expect him to, then he might go down as the least compensated superstar in recent history.
When you have a 22-year-old who can hit, field, run, and has agreed to play for bargain salaries until he’s 31, well, you have a player you just shouldn’t trade.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.