Part 1 of our second-annual MLB Trade Value Rankings debuted on Wednesday. Today, we’re rounding out the list by examining baseball’s top 35 trade chips. Remember, last year’s rankings appear in parentheses.
Group 8: Wait, Scott Boras Represents Only One of These Guys?
35. Salvador Perez, C, Kansas City Royals (42): All three of the players in Group 8 are signed to contracts lasting three years or more, which will save their teams huge stacks of cash. Let’s dissect Perez first: Following a long and pleading Gchat conversation with Grantland writer and Royals aficionado Rany Jazayerli last year, we included Perez in the top 50 based on the strength of his astonishingly cheap deal and his short track record of major league success. In 2013, Perez finally logged his first season as a full-time catcher in the majors, and it was a great success: He delivered offense 5 percent better than the league average,1 excellent defense, and the health and stamina to play 138 games. After that campaign, Perez’s contract looks even more unbelievable. Like, it’s actually impossible to believe. The Royals owe Perez $1.5 million in 2014, $1.75 million in 2015, and $2 million in 2016. KC then has a $3.75 million club option for 2017, followed by a $5 million option for 2018 and a $6 million option for 2019, which would normally be Perez’s first two years of free agency. That’s $20 million for his next six seasons, for a four-win player. That’s an incredible deal for the Royals; it’d be a great deal for Perez if this were 1987.
34. Matt Moore, SP, Tampa Bay Rays (26): Moore has been something of an enigma for the Rays since making his big league debut in 2011. He flourished in the final month of that regular season, then tossed seven shutout innings against the Rangers in his playoff start. He pitched well in 2012, his first full season, but struggled with command, walking more than four batters per nine innings. His 2013 season was even more confusing: In his first 10 starts, Moore went 8-0 with a 2.21 ERA, but he benefited from good fortune, getting away with too many walks and allowing a microscopic .209 batting average on balls in play. His final 17 starts of the year weren’t nearly as effective, with Moore posting a 4.03 ERA; as he walked even more batters, his luck evened out. By year’s end, his surface stats (17-4, 3.29 ERA) didn’t remotely match his advanced metrics (3.95 FIP).
For 2014 and beyond, it comes down to this: When Moore commands his fastball, he’s one of the 10 best pitchers in the AL; when he doesn’t, he can’t use his devastating changeup as effectively, and looks more like a no. 3 starter. The thing is, the Rays owe Moore only $35 million over the next six years, assuming they pick up all three club options, which seems guaranteed. If Moore can pound the strike zone with more consistency going forward, he’ll easily become a top-20 commodity.
33. Carlos Gomez, OF, Milwaukee Brewers (NR): The shocking thing about Gomez, the Boras client, is that he signed a three-year contract extension just before the start of his potential walk year. Granted, the three-year, $24 million deal seemed reasonable at the time, with Gomez having just completed the first big league season in which he hit at all. Following an enormous 2013 breakout campaign in which Gomez hit 24 homers, stole 40 bases, posted a .284/.338/.506 line, and played all-world defense in center field, however, that price tag looks like spare change by MLB standards. But hey, Boras got $120 million for Elvis Andrus the following month, and Andrus promptly hit like a slightly better version of Carlos Zambrano. You win some, you lose some.
Group 9: Why Yes, I’d Love a Ludicrously Gifted Shortstop in His Early Twenties, Thanks for Asking
32. Jurickson Profar, SS, Texas Rangers (18); 31. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox (NR): Profar didn’t hit well in his first extended big league stint, while Bogaerts scuffled a bit in 50 regular-season plate appearances after making his own debut in 2013. No matter. Both players come advertised as future All-Stars, boasting the able bat and slick glove that make them capable of excelling as the everyday shortstops on winning teams. Bogaerts, who saw some time at third base in 2013, figures to replace Stephen Drew at short in 2014. Profar, who played all over the field in 2013, had come up in a bunch of trade rumors,2 as the Rangers were seemingly fighting a middle-infield logjam with Andrus, Profar, and Ian Kinsler in the mix. However, Kinsler’s trade to Detroit clears the way for Profar to get 600 at-bats and start what the Rangers hope will be a star career. Profar is just 20 and Bogaerts is just 21, meaning they might not even reach their peaks until after their teams’ six years of control are up. At some point, these two are going to be very, very wealthy individuals.
Group 10: You Wouldn’t Get to Keep Them for Long, But Man, They’d Be Great to Have
30. David Price, SP, Tampa Bay Rays (12): There are legitimate questions floating around about Price, given the sharp drop in his fastball velocity last season, the corresponding drop in his strikeout rate, and the first DL stint of his career. Still, let’s not go nuts with the nitpicking. Price threw the ball wherever he wanted all year long, walking just 27 batters in 27 starts. After returning from the DL, Price matched his 2012 Cy Young form, posting a 2.53 ERA and a nearly 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate (!!!). We also have a theoretical gauge of Price’s trade value, assuming the rumors of Price for Profar-plus were based in fact, or the murmurs of Price for brilliant Mariners pitching prospect Taijuan Walker are true. Price can test the market in two years, but he might be an acquiring team’s ticket to October during that span.
29. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (14): Kershaw might be the toughest call of all. On the one hand, while there are no sure things in baseball, Kershaw bagging another Cy Young award next year is a pretty strong bet. On the other, Kershaw is just a year away from free agency. Even the best pitcher in the game can offer only so much value if a team gets him for just one season. A hypothetical trade for Kershaw would, however, give the acquiring team an exclusive window within which it could hammer out a contract extension. That extension would almost certainly be the biggest in baseball history for a pitcher, and Kershaw would be well worth it. He’s the best pitcher on the planet, he never gets hurt, he’s 25 years old, and all teams3 now have more money with which to work than ever before. There’s no realistic scenario that would cause the Dodgers to trade Kershaw this winter, but in our land of make-believe, the feeding frenzy for Kershaw’s services would be something to behold.
28. Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore Orioles (NR): Davis, baseball’s best power hitter in 2013, falls into the Price/Kershaw category: He provides limited team control (in Davis’s case, two years), but a ton of value during that span. Davis is just 27 years old and thus figures to be right in his prime in 2014 and 2015, even if he experiences some likely regression following the .286/.370/.634, 53-homer hurt he laid on the league last season. Since 2013 was Davis’s first huge year, and since he was a part-time player just two seasons ago, he might be amenable to a contract extension in lieu of going forth into the great unknown without financial assurances. Pegging an appropriate dollar value for a potential Davis deal is a challenge given the Grand Canyon–size gap between the Hank Greenberg numbers he put up during his peak in 2013 and the replacement-level player he was in 2011. Extending Davis would require hoping this is another Jose Bautista situation, a late-twenties breakout with enough staying power to be a worthy investment for the next few years. Since it feels like we haven’t seen Davis’s kind of power since Greenberg actually played, many teams would probably love to take that chance.
Group 11: The Once and Future Aces
27. Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers (13): Verlander took home the biggest prize last offseason, reeling in a seven-year, $180 million deal. Then, strange things began happening. The most reliable starter in the AL lost more than two ticks off his fastball early in the year. It’s not unheard of for pitchers to throw a bit softer at the beginning of the year, though, and Verlander put up Verlanderian numbers anyway, striking out more than a batter per inning and flashing a 1.55 ERA through his first seven starts. He struggled badly over his next 10 starts, striking out plenty of batters but posting a 5.52 ERA while allowing too many total and extra-base hits. That’s when half the baseball world freaked out.
In our collective rush to declare that star players are finished, we prematurely wrote Verlander’s eulogy. Yes, the big righty was throwing far too many meatballs. The problem was curable, however, as the rest of Verlander’s season reflected: He posted a 3.18 ERA over his final 17 starts, then looked unhittable in three October starts. Just try telling the shell-shocked A’s that Verlander is through. If someone offers you odds on a Scherzer vs. Verlander bet for 2014, with you getting Verlander, jump on that sucker.
26. Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates (NR): Cole is a pitching prospect, and pitching prospects are land mines smothered in crazy-ex sauce. But Cole is the bluest and chippiest of the blue-chippers: The no. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Cole is a 6-foot-4, 235-pound BAMF who wields four plus pitches and got better as his rookie season wore on. He lit up the league in September, then pitched very well in his first two playoff starts. He’ll probably be the Pirates’ no. 1 starter by July; he’ll definitely be Pittsburgh’s property all the way through 2019. Of course, we’ve seen enough young pitchers break down over the years to plant a seed of doubt, even for a pitcher with promise as perfect as Cole’s. A position player this young, this skilled, and this cheap would rank at least 10 spots higher.
Group 12: The Winner of the ‘Give This Cluster of Good Hitters a Clever Name’ Contest Will Receive My VHS Copy of Caddyshack
25. Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland Indians (31): Kipnis, like fellow Group 12 second baseman Dustin Pedroia (more on him in a bit!), moved up a few spots this year. There are conflicting factors at work with a young player like Kipnis. On the one hand, he’s now one year closer to free agency (the end of 2017). On the other, Kipnis took a big step forward in 2013 (even if his fantasy stats look nearly identical to those he posted in 2012). The biggest improvement was Kipnis’s 73-point jump in slugging average. That stemmed partially from his improved batting average (from .257 to .284), but more from his line-drive rate, which was one of the league’s highest, and his big jump in doubles (from 22 to 36). Kipnis’s climbing walk rate and the 61 total steals he’s posted the past two years (at a high success rate) round out the diverse skill set for one of the game’s highest-offense middle infielders. He has a bunch more All-Star appearances in his future.
24. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Colorado Rockies (HM): Gonzalez’s failure to make last year’s list was mostly the result of my stubbornness over the Coors Field effect. But CarGo put up gigantic numbers in 2013, following a beastly 2010 and two pullback seasons in 2011 and ’12. Different players take advantage of home park environments in different ways that sometimes can’t be perfectly expressed with park-factor adjustments, and a .302/.367/.591 line in the post-PED era looks pretty damn great regardless, grading out to 49 percent above average per wRC+.
Gonzalez also runs extremely well for a big guy, swiping 21 bases in 24 tries last season — his fourth straight year with 20 or more steals — while also excelling at going from first to third, first to home, and second to home on various balls in play. He’s one of the top-fielding left fielders in the league. He’s 28 years old. Even at an average of nearly $16 million per year over the next four seasons, CarGo brings skills most teams would take in a heartbeat. The big question from here is health. Gonzalez played in just 110 games last season, and hasn’t topped 135 in the past three years. Of course, he was nearly a five-win player anyway (second best among all MLB left fielders in 2013), and an optimist could argue that Gonzalez would post astronomical numbers if he stayed healthy for close to a full campaign.
23. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays (NR): Myers just won AL Rookie of the Year honors, but it still feels like he has lots of room to improve. He struggled at times with strike zone judgment in his debut season, and his routes to the ball in right field could stand to get a lot better — no surprise for someone who came up as a catcher. Still, he has six years to go before free agency. Watch these home run highlights, note his power to all fields (his first career homer was a grand slam to right-center at Yankee Stadium), and dream of a hitter who even in the offense-dampening confines of Tropicana Field could become a perennial .300-average, 35-homer guy.
22. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston Red Sox (29): Unlike Kipnis, Pedroia already has multiple All-Star appearances and an MVP to his name. His trade value was starting to wane as he neared the end of the six-year deal he signed in late 2008, but by extending him for eight years and $110 million, the Red Sox secured one of the best all-around players in baseball, a Gold Glove–caliber second baseman who hits for average, controls the strike zone, shows extra-base pop, and runs well. Critics can split hairs on a few things, most notably Pedroia’s numbers being Fenway-aided.4 But Pedroia’s game checks every box, including makeup.
Group 13: Aces Signed to Big Contracts
21. Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (NR): Wainwright is older than all the other aces who’ve signed big extensions over the past two years (Verlander, King Felix, Cain, etc.), but pitchers don’t necessarily have the same aging curves as position players, who typically peak in their mid- to late twenties. While fastball velocity drops as pitchers get older, the best ones find other ways to improve, whether by developing a new pitch, improving pitch sequencing, or even learning how to control the running game. There’s also something of a survivor effect, where pitchers who are still performing well and staying healthy in their thirties are more likely to find success than younger pitchers who are doing one or neither of those things. Wainwright has suffered his share of injuries, including a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery and cost him the 2011 season.
At age 32, however, his fastball velocity has held firm right around 91, complementing one of the best curveballs of this generation. He has also developed a cutter that’s suddenly the second-best of its kind among all starting pitchers. Wainwright got lost in the shuffle a little bit last season while Kershaw and Scherzer lit up the stat sheet and an armada of dynamic rookies emerged. Wainwright remains one of the five best pitchers in the game, however, and five years and $97.5 million for someone that good is still a relative bargain.
20. Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners (15): Hernandez is yet another player who signed a lucrative extension not long after last year’s rankings were published. We had him at no. 15 last year, so it might seem odd that we’re moving him down now that he’s under team control for six years instead of two. Of course, he’ll also make an average of $25 million per year through 2019. A team like the Dodgers would pounce on Hernandez at that price, but many other teams wouldn’t. The biggest reason for Hernandez’s slight downgrade, however, is how many other players in their early to mid-twenties turned in big 2013 seasons. There’s certainly no reason to worry about Hernandez’s skills — not at age 27, and not after posting the best strikeout and walk rates of his career. The King stay the King.
Group 14: Expensive But Worth It
19. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets (NR): Wright didn’t make this list last year because he was a year away from testing the open market. He signed an extension two weeks after the Trade Value leviathan went up, though, so here we are. Wright turns 31 in two weeks and delivered his best season six years ago, so we should temper expectations at least a bit. Still, he’s been one of the five best players in baseball over the past two seasons by advanced metrics, ranking way up there regardless of which stats you favor.
There have been multiple studies comparing one-dimensional players (especially sluggers) to players with more diverse skill sets, most recently Dave Cameron’s look at outfielders. The results are always the same, with the multi-tool players aging the most gracefully. Wright’s still good for double-digit stolen bases, still does a great job fielding his position, still hits for average, and still draws walks. Thirty-plus homers might be a stretch, but 20 or more over a full season should be doable now that Citi Field’s fences have moved in to non-cruel dimensions. Seven years and $127 million for that repertoire, in this market, with lower salaries in the deal’s final two years to accommodate some expected decline? Yes, please.
18. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies (23): I live in Denver. I’m at Coors Field a lot. Last fall, I spent two hours talking to de facto Rockies general manager Bill Geivett about … everything, really. And I still have no idea what the Rockies are doing, other than making arguably the best party atmosphere in and around any ballpark even better. This winter’s Tulowitzki dance continues that theme. Tulo’s name came up in trade rumors with the Cardinals, a team with enough talent to revitalize the Rockies’ stockpile of good, young players and potentially set Colorado up with its best starting rotation ever. Instead, the Rockies more or less came out and said Tulo isn’t going anywhere under any circumstances. So, OK, they see an open window over the next two or three years, with Tulo and CarGo in their primes. But then why did they just trade Dexter Fowler for a bucket of beans?
None of those moves or non-moves is that bad in isolation; Tulo is a superstar who, even when he plays only 130 games a year, is still the best shortstop in baseball and one of the 20 best players in the majors, and Fowler is a perfectly fine player who also has gigantic home/road splits. The bigger issue is that management doesn’t seem to have much of a tangible plan, other than keeping its biggest star in town so fans will keep lining up to buy $12 microbrews on sunny afternoons and the club can keep raking in gigantic gobs of money that it pretends not to have.
Actually, forget everything I just said. That’s a pretty brilliant plan.
Group 15: Under-25 Building Blocks
17. Matt Harvey, SP, New York Mets (HM): Harvey would’ve been a top-10 guy if not for his torn UCL and subsequent Tommy John surgery. He throws harder than almost anyone else, has more out pitches than almost anyone else, strikes out more batters than almost anyone else, walks fewer batters than almost anyone else, and crushes batters’ hopes and dreams better than almost anyone else. But 2014 is lost, and with it a season of dirt-cheap service time. Plus, even though the success rate for returning from Tommy John is very high nowadays, we have to assign Harvey an injury risk number higher than zero moving forward. Still, that’s a tiny blemish on a 10-carat diamond ring.
16. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins (7): Stanton might have more raw power than any hitter in the NL, with one homer per 15 at-bats so far in his career5 despite playing his home games in two Miami pitchers’ parks. But he has also already burned up half of his six years of team control. Moreover, he’s not a perfect player by any means, with the ninth-highest strikeout rate in the majors since his 2010 debut, inconsistent defense, and, most troubling of all, far too many games missed due to injury (85 over the past two seasons). A team would have to empty its farm system to acquire him, with no guarantee of getting the world-beater it was hoping to land.
15. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals (8): Strasburg falls a few spots from last year, since there’s now at least a little doubt over his ability to take over the world. There’s the still-tough-to-fathom innings-limit gambit of 2012, which sparks doubt over whether there was something else at play aside from a shot-in-the-dark guess at his appropriate workload in the thick of a pennant race. Then there are the multiple (relatively minor) injuries he sustained last season, including a lat strain, forearm tightness, and elbow surgery in October to remove some loose bodies in the arm.
Strasburg still throws 95-plus, with a hammer curve and great change. He’s 25 years old, and he’s an elite strikeout guy with good command and a ground ball rate that surged to 51.5 percent in 2013. But we’re down to three years of team control, and we haven’t yet seen that vintage Doc Gooden season that Strasburg was supposed to deliver by now. And while Strasburg’s agent, Boras, did in fact negotiate extensions for Gomez and Andrus, it’s tough to see him encouraging Strasburg to forgo what could be a preposterous free-agent payday.
14. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (NR): We’ve written plenty about Puig already. He is a supremely talented, electrifying five-tool player who also overthrows too many cutoff men, swings at too many bad pitches, and won’t have 38 percent of the balls he hits in play land as hits forever. With Puig, the good and the bad go together, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging both.
The scope of his talent and the volatility of his numbers create a ton of potential variance. We can’t just assume he’s the next Vladimir Guerrero, even if the early returns are legendary. Puig also has a weirder contract than most players coming off a rookie season, as he is owed $2 million in 2014 (instead of the usual league minimum for a player with less than one year of service time), then $10 million over the following two seasons, followed by the right to opt out of his current deal and into arbitration, where he’d make mountains of money. Still, let’s not get too cute here. We’re talking about not only a centerpiece player, but also the rare guy who’d be a lock to put butts in the seats just by suiting up. He’s Yasiel Freaking Puig.
13. Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco Giants (27): Bumgarner should have ranked higher last year, so we’re correcting matters this time. Assuming the Giants pick up their two club options, they own Bumgarner’s rights over the next six years for just $56 million. That might be half of what he’d make on the open market if he became available tomorrow. For that money, the Giants get a lefty with four plus pitches6 who has topped 200 innings pitched in each of his first three full seasons, has never hit the DL during that time, and has one of the game’s best year-by-year strikeout rate progressions. Bumgarner plays in a league, division, and home ballpark that help his numbers, but the Yankees would offer the Giants half of the East Village if the 24-year-old hurler were made available.
Group 16: The Cardinals Wouldn’t Trade Yadier Molina If the Fate of the World Depended on It
12. Yadier Molina, C, St. Louis Cardinals (44): Wins Above Replacement underrates Molina, maybe severely. For one thing, the stat doesn’t account for his great pitch-framing ability. Molina is also widely regarded as one of the, if not the, best handlers of pitchers in the league. We now have ways to measure pitch-framing ability; we have no idea how to measure the latter skill. Catcher ERA, probably the most commonly used metric for trying to gauge a player’s talents as a field general, is deeply flawed. So, leaving aside his framing, handling, and any other intangible factors, we’re left with a .300 hitter with good gap power who never gets hurt and plays elite defense.
That’s been enough to make Molina a six-win player in each of the past two seasons, with the understanding that he’s significantly better than that when factoring in all the other knowns and unknowns. He’s owed an average of $14.5 million per year over the next four seasons; if that figure were $25 million per, he’d still be a steal. He’s 31 years old, so we could start seeing some drop-off in performance. For now, though, Molina just might be the best player in the NL.
Group 17: The K Kings
11. Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers (33): Both pitchers in Group 17 move up this year after huge seasons. In 2013, Darvish posted a 2.83 ERA in one of the toughest environments in the majors for pitchers. He also led the league in strikeout rate by a mile. The contract that he signed after getting posted by the Nippon-Ham Fighters always projected as a bargain, once the posting fee was covered. With Darvish establishing himself as a perennial Cy Young candidate, though, the four years and $41 million he has left on his deal look like typos.
10. Chris Sale, SP, Chicago White Sox (16): Meanwhile, Sale followed an excellent 2012 season with an even better 2013 campaign, posting a 3.07 ERA and similar defense-independent numbers. He averaged more than seven innings per start, and has put aside the durability concerns that hung over him when he converted from relief to the rotation. He is owed just $31 million over the next four years, or $57 million over six if the White Sox pick up his 2018 and 2019 options.
Group 18: All the Home Runs
9. Miguel Cabrera, 3B/1B, Detroit Tigers (9): You’re all familiar with Mr. Cabrera’s work by now. For some absurdly in-depth Cabrera analysis, including stats, heat maps, and screen shots that will make you think he might be some kind of cyborg rather than a flesh-and-blood human, check out our nerding-out feature on him from the summer. Officially, Cabrera is signed for two years at $44 million. Try to find a team that would complain about his contract status if the Tigers lost their minds and suddenly made him available.
8. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks (HM): Remember our Trade Value Rules: Position matters. To make this list, a first baseman needs to hit a ton, never get hurt, and field his position very well; if he can run a bit, that doesn’t hurt. Goldschmidt did all of that in 2013. The 26-year-old bruiser blasted 36 homers and hit .302/.401/.551, which, even after adjusting for the hitter-friendly Chase Field, still works out to 56 percent better than league-average offense. He also played in 160 games, was the second-best defender at first base per the Defensive Runs Saved stat, and even stole 15 bases7 after swiping 18 in 2012. Now check out the deal he signed in March: five years at $32 million, with one club option totaling $14.5 million. Year 1 is done, but the rest of those seasons still look glorious for the D-backs given their All-Star slugger’s price and production.
Group 19: Bienvenido a Miami
7. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles (19): The two 2013 injuries that made baseball diehards gasp the loudest were Harvey’s torn UCL and Miami native Machado’s knee injury. You didn’t have to be a Mets fan to lament Harvey needing surgery and being lost for 2014, and you didn’t need to be an Orioles fan to be bummed over Machado being out until at least Opening Day 2014, and maybe longer.
The bigger concern for Machado is the possibility of long-term effects. We don’t make Brooks Robinson comparisons lightly, but …
The range, rocket arm, and amazing instincts make Machado the second-most electrifying gloveman in the game, behind only Andrelton Simmons. Whether the O’s keep Machado at third or make the right move and shift him to his natural position of shortstop, where he’d likely have an even greater positive impact on his team, we have to hope this wizard hasn’t suddenly lost a big chunk of his magical abilities. Machado plays all-universe defense, has good contact skills as a hitter, boasts enough gap power to have tallied 51 doubles last year, and is just 21 years old (!), which is why he ranks this high even given the possibility that he’ll lose some mobility following the knee injury. We’ll tell our grandkids about a player as gifted as Machado, just as our grandparents would regale us with tales of Brooksie’s greatness.
6. Jose Fernandez, SP, Miami Marlins (NR): Fernandez is the highest-ranked pitcher on this list. He’s also currently my favorite player in baseball.8 Here’s what we’ve written on Fernandez this year:
But forget the hyperbole. The tangible proof of Fernandez’s elite status is out there for all to see: a 2.19 ERA in his rookie season, which no amount of adjusting for league or home park can turn into something not great; the second-highest strikeout rate in the NL; four pitches that tie hitters in knots; and the fact that he’s only 21 years old.9
We should also appreciate what a great story he is. Fernandez jumped into turbulent waters to save his mother from drowning during their escape from Cuba. His reunion last week with the beloved grandmother he left behind is one of the biggest tearjerkers of the year. And maybe most importantly, Fernandez has claimed the most coveted honor of all: He’s the most GIFable baseball player. In the world.
Group 20: They Could’ve Been Teammates!
5. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants (4); 4. Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay Rays (5): There are always what-ifs in baseball, especially when it comes to the draft. But given the success the Rays had with their top picks in 2006 (Longoria) and 2007 (Price), we might need to give a team of scientists 100 years to figure out how Tampa Bay chose Tim Beckham over Buster Posey with its top pick in 2008. As much success as the Rays have enjoyed in uncovering hidden gems via trades and free agency, and as good as they’ve been on the field since ’08 despite carrying puny payrolls, few teams have whiffed as badly on their draft picks as the Rays have in the past half-decade.
Tampa Bay’s loss has been San Francisco’s gain, with Posey becoming the Platonic ideal of a franchise player. Posey is a terrific hitter, he has worked his way up to become a plus defensive catcher and game-caller, and, freakish home-plate collision notwithstanding, he’s the kind of durable workhorse a team can rely on to play nearly every day, a rarity for a catcher.10 He’s also 26 years old, and he’s locked up through 2021 (or 2022, if the Giants or whichever other team owns his services by then wants to keep him at $22 million that year).
Longoria is a great franchise player in his own right. He’s an excellent hitter whose numbers look even better once we adjust for Tropicana Field’s deceptively nasty park effects for hitters. He’s also a vacuum cleaner at third base and a pivotal part of the Rays’ constant efforts to field one of the top defensive lineups in the game. For the purpose of Trade Value discussion, Longoria’s most interesting attribute might be the deals he and his agent Paul Cohen have worked out with Tampa Bay. The Rays first approached Longoria about a long-term deal while he was still in Triple-A, then got his name on a contract just six days into his Rookie of the Year season. In retrospect, the deal looks astoundingly prescient, maxing out at $48 million over nine years assuming all the various options and other clauses were triggered. Last November, Tampa Bay doubled down by signing Longoria to a six-year, $100 million extension that’ll keep him locked up through 2022, or 2023 if that club option gets picked up.
While it’s true that teams have a lot more leverage when negotiating with a player under contract than they do when bidding on the open market, it’s hard not to compare Longoria’s deal to the $153 million the Yankees just pledged to Jacoby Ellsbury and feel that the Rays did well yet again. Tampa Bay’s recent draft failures and the imminent Price trade mean the Rays are going to need to find more front-line talent to complement their usual array of bargain moves, but they’ve got Longoria for the next decade, and that’s a damn good start.
Group 21: Want ‘Em, Need ‘Em, Gotta Have ‘Em
3. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals (2): Harper remains a top-three Trade Value guy based on ability and scouting opinions more than anything, because several players with similar levels of experience have put up better numbers. When SI‘s Tom Verducci wrote about Harper back in 2009, he called the Las Vegas–based teenager “Baseball’s LeBron,” adding: “Golf has Tiger Woods, basketball has LeBron James, hockey had Wayne Gretzky and military history had Alexander the Great, but baseball, like jazz, is a discipline that does not easily engender prodigies … So good and so young is Bryce Harper, however, that he explodes baseball convention.” Those words weren’t just hosannas from a seasoned and well-respected writer; they reflected the opinion of every talent evaluator in baseball. When Verducci revisited Harper in May of last year, right after Harper’s major league debut, it was impossible to overlook the irony involved. “Harper’s debut was the most anticipated debut in baseball history,” Verducci wrote, “if only because of the volume, scope, and speed of coverage we give professional sports.” Basically, Harper is megahyped because Verducci and I and everyone else who writes about the sport drools over Harper’s ability. Harper has Roy Hobbs’s image, and he’s half as old.
Harper’s actual numbers are still plenty good, of course. He improved on his 2012 debut season, posting a .274/.368/.486 line in 2013 while showing a better batting eye, slightly more pop, and more overall ease playing the game. But really, this ranking is all about the future, namely the five years before Harper can test the free-agent market at the tender age of 26, plus the value in owning his rights before that happens. The Nats or a hypothetical suitor11 could potentially lock him up well into his thirties, covering the length of what could be a monumental stretch of prime years.
2. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates (3): McCutchen leapfrogs Harper this year, because when you’re a 27-year-old player with no weaknesses who’s coming off your first MVP award and you’re under team control for the next half-decade for basically the Darren Dreifort contract, you’ve earned that promotion. And more improvement could be on the way.
Deep fly balls can be a fickle species, and in McCutchen’s case, they netted nine more doubles but 10 fewer homers in 2013; a return to 30-homer territory in 2014 would crank his value even higher. McCutchen’s also showing strong trends in line-drive rate and posted the second-best strikeout and walk rates of his career in 2013. There’s absolutely nothing not to love.
Group 22: The Best
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, New York Yankees (NR)
Group 22: Let’s Start the Bidding at $400 Million
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels (1): We make jokes at A-Rod’s expense, because how can we not? But when we look at Mike Trout’s future, we’re looking at Rodriguez’s past, at least when it comes to contract negotiations. When A-Rod signed his free-agent deal with the Rangers for a quarter-billion dollars, he did so at age 25. It was Rodriguez’s historic talent, but also his abnormally young age for a player who’d already used up his first six years of service time, that made Texas owner Tom Hicks’s contract offer so stratospheric.12
That’s where we are with Trout. He’s the best player in the game, and he still has a year to go before arbitration and four years left before free agency. He made $510,000 last season. And if baseball suddenly declared Trout a free agent in a mysterious Rickey Henderson–in–Little Big League kind of way, we probably really could start the bidding at $400 million. Trout was a 10-win player in each of his two big league seasons, having logged the best season ever for a 20-year-old and the best season for a 21-year-old.13 And he’s still improving in multiple ways, including the 110 walks he racked up in Year 2 as he learned to be more patient and wait for his pitch.
That’s what makes all of this so thrilling. What if this isn’t his ceiling? What if Trout’s upside goes beyond posting numbers a tick below what Willie Mays did in his prime? For now, in the middle of baseball’s cold, dark offseason, we’re limited only by our imaginations. So far, Trout has given us no reason to believe in limits.