The Franchise Player

A few weeks ago, I was asked the popular barstool argument question: if you could start a franchise with just one player – with contracts and dollars being irrelevant – who would it be? I’d guess that a lot of us have had that conversation more than once. It’s a fun topic to talk about.

There are a few names that naturally get mentioned early on. Joe Mauer, Evan Longoria, and Hanley Ramirez are popular choices because they’re established stars and still in the earlier stages of their careers. Albert Pujols and Chase Utley get nominated for their sheer greatness, even though they’re already past their primes. Miguel Cabrera draws a mention from people who want to build around a premier young hitter. And then you’ll have the guy who likes pitching and brings up Tim Lincecum, Josh Johnson, Jon Lester, or Felix Hernandez.

There’s one guy that never gets brought up, though, who might just be the best answer of them all: Ryan Zimmerman. He shares the spotlight with Adam Dunn and Stephen Strasburg in Washington, but given how good he has become at such a young age, his star should shine the brightest.

Last year, Zimmerman had his breakout season, putting up a +6.6 win season that ranked as the ninth best in baseball. This year, he’s followed it up with a +6.0 win season so far, ranking second. Since the beginning of the 2009 season, only Albert Pujols has posted a better WAR than Zimmerman. He has become a complete all-around player, adding patience and power to an already impressive skillset.

Because he came up at an early age and was just a good hitter rather than a great one out of the gates, his reputation has seemingly not yet caught up with his abilities. However, let’s just throw this out there:

Rest-of-season ZiPS projections:

Zimmerman: .289/.366/.526, .388 wOBA
Longoria: .276/.360/.519, .385 wOBA
Ramirez: .307/.384/.509, .393 wOBA

Those are basically an estimate of true talent level, and it sees no discernible differences between the three as hitters. While the other two have significantly better career slash lines, Zimmerman’s performance over his last 1,100 plate appearances has been better than either of the other two.

Defensively, he and Longoria couldn’t be more similar, as they are the two premier young defensive third baseman in the game. Which one you like more is basically a matter of preference – they’re both outstanding. Ramirez does not rate out nearly as well, but of course he’s playing a more difficult position and being compared to better defenders overall. I would still place him a bit behind both of the third baseman in defensive value, but the gap isn’t as large as simply comparing their UZRs would suggest.

Longoria turns 25 in October, while Zimmerman turns 26 a couple of weeks prior to that. Ramirez turns 27 in December. Ramirez has a bit better offensive track record but is the oldest and worst defender of the trio. Longoria is the youngest, but his best season at the plate is not as good as the best season of either of the other two.

It is splitting hairs to pick between them, but gun to my head, I think I’d take Washington’s third baseman. Right now, he’s the perfect blend, combining Ramirez’s offense with Longoria’s defense into one unbelievably good package.

If his teammates were more talented, he’d be have a strong case for the NL MVP right now. Zimmerman has truly become of the game’s great young players, and the guy I’d point to if I could only take one player to begin a franchise.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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11 years ago

Give me Troy Tulowitzki over the Z pack.

11 years ago
Reply to  Jay

Dammit Jay! That’s what I get for taking too long to write my post.

11 years ago
Reply to  Jay

What is the obsession with Tulowitzki among some people? Yes, he is very good, but he is also injury-prone and at times inconsistent.

Zimmerman is a much better player and they’re the same age.

11 years ago
Reply to  Bando

Not to mention that Tulo gets a big boost from Coors that Zimmerman does not enjoy.

11 years ago
Reply to  Bando

His main injuries have been a quad, a hand laceration, and a broken wrist. The latter two are not the kind that are likely to occur again, though the wrist might have lasting effects.