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
10. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado, -1.00 WPA/LI
9. Tim Lincecum, RHP, San Francisco, 2.45 WPA/LI
8. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Seattle, 3.22 WPA/LI
7. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia, 10.49 WPA/LI
6. Brian McCann, C, Atlanta, 2.84 WPA/LI
When he’s healthy enough to take the field, you can count on one hand the list of human beings on the planet who are better defensively than Tulowitzki. According to pretty much every possible way you could evaluate defense – stats, scouts, magic 8 ball – Tulo was somewhere between 20 and 30 runs better than an average defensive shortstop last year. Shortstops are, of course, the very best defenders in the game already, so Tulo was heads and shoulders ahead of the best of the best. When recounting how Colorado made it to the World Series last year, nothing deserves mention before Tulo’s defense. There are still legitimate questions about whether he’s just going to be an average hitter or develop into a good one, but here’s the thing – if he puts up a major league average offensive line, his defense is good enough to make him a 4 to 5 win player alone. If he turns himself into a real hitter, he’ll be the best player in the game. The Rockies were wise to lock him up when they did.
There haven’t been too many college arms in recent years that caused as much division coming into the draft as Lincecum. His diminutive size, unorthodox mechanics, and crazy workloads at the University of Washington convinced a lot of people that the risks surrounding him had reached the level of red flags. The Giants, however, ignored the risks, focused on the reward, and have reaped the benefits of one of the game’s best young pitchers. Lincecum’s power arsenal allows him to miss enough bats that the lack of command isn’t a huge problem, and he’s dominated the National League since showing up in San Francisco. At 24 and with just over one full year of service time, he’s a long way from any kind of real payday, and as long as he keeps his right arm attached to the rest of his body, he’s going to keep getting people out with his unique pitching style.
I, among others, have been hyping up King Felix for so long that a significant portion of people view him as a disappointment for not turning into the game’s best pitcher to date, so I feel somewhat compelled to remind those people that Felix is still 22 years old. He has racked up just short of 600 major league innings at an age where a normal pitching prospect is still in Double-A. He’s shown extended flashes of brilliance, and his stuff is still better than any other pitcher alive. The upside is still off the charts, and there’s an argument to be made that trading him right now, for anyone, would be selling low. However, he’s garnered enough service time that he stops being free next year, and he’s a couple of years away from what will almost certainly be the biggest free agent contract ever given to a pitcher. As much as I love Felix, he still hasn’t become the ace he can be, and he’s going to get paid like the greatest pitcher in history pretty soon. It’s time to take your throne, kid.
There’s a pretty good argument to be made that, right now, Utley is the best player in baseball. His consistency over the last four years has made him one of the game’s truly elite hitters, and it doesn’t hurt that he plays a terrific second base. There are better hitters, and there are better fielders, but there aren’t any who offer a better package of both. If he doesn’t win an MVP award soon, he should just steal the pair that have already been given to his undeserving teammates. However, he’s already 29, second baseman don’t age particularly well, and he’s getting paid like an All-Star. That’s enough to knock him down a few pegs on this list, but don’t let it talk you out of realizing just how great he really is.
The return of McCann’s 2006 power has allowed him to re-establish himself as the game’s premier offensive force behind the plate, and at just 24, he’s off to the kind of start to a career that ends in Cooperstown. When you offer the combination of middle-of-the-order offense and the ability to catch, you have a remarkably valuable player. The Braves got McCann signed long term at the right time, and thanks to their prescience, he won’t earn market value until he becomes a free agent in 2014. By then, Atlanta will have received the prime years of his career for a grand total of $27 million. That’s a huge asset.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.