On Monday we started the enormous task of bringing the Grantland Trade Value franchise to Major League Baseball. Now it’s time we wrap it all up with the rest of our top 50 assets in the league.
Group 10: The Once and Future Second Basemen
31. Jason Kipnis
30. Ben Zobrist
29. Dustin Pedroia
Kipnis hit .272/.333/.507 in his 36-game audition in 2011, and looked on his way to challenging those numbers after a blistering start this year before hitting just .233/.322/.328 in the second half. Still, Kipnis was a three-win player in his first full major league season, he plays an up-the-middle position, and his minor league track record points to a player with pop, speed, and a good batting eye.
Zobrist and Pedroia are both several years older than Kipnis, and closer to free agency. They’re also wildly productive players, signed at outrageously low prices. Zobrist would be an interesting case study if the Rays ever did shop him. Over the past four seasons, only Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols have been more valuable to their teams, at least according to Wins Above Replacement. But there’s no way in hell Zobrist would command anywhere near as much money as Cabrera or Pujols did had he hit the open market at the same time as the two big sluggers signed their megadeals. That’s because Zobrist does all the things that get overlooked by awards voters, Hall of Fame voters — most everyone, really. He walks a ton, hits a lot of doubles, plays stellar defense (at multiple positions), and runs the bases brilliantly for a player who doesn’t necessarily have elite raw speed. Still, the Rays have to be thrilled to have locked up Zobrist as cheaply as they did; the guy slated to be their Opening Day shortstop in the spring will make just $20 million over the next three years.
The fact that Pedroia’s the only member of the Red Sox on this list tells you a lot about the state of the franchise. Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are no longer considered blue-chip commodities, and most of the core players from the most recent winning Red Sox teams have either fallen off badly, moved on to other teams, or both. Pedroia’s the lone top player left from Boston’s last playoff team in 2009 who’s still in his prime, at 29 still an excellent fielder who’s a tough out and a reliable source of extra-base hits. He’s owed just $31 million over the next three years, making him a fine keeper but also prime trade bait if Ben Cherington & Co. really wanted to go all the way in their rebuilding process. Of course he’s far more likely to stay in Boston for years to come, because he’s a very good player, because he’s the biggest link to those winning teams, and because he very well might not be as good away from Fenway, where Pedroia takes full advantage of the Green Monster (career home OPS: .883, career road OPS: .778). If Xander Bogaerts, Matt Barnes, Jackie Bradley, and the young talent acquired in the Adrian Gonzalez trade can hurry and catch up to Pedroia and Will Middlebrooks sometime soon, that’d be swell.
Group 11: Pitching Building Blocks
28. Johnny Cueto
27. Madison Bumgarner
26. Matt Moore
R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young, but Cueto was right there with the best in the league, posting a 2.78 ERA, 3.27 FIP, and 3½-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate. A fully formed no. 1 starter at age 26, the Reds smartly got pen to paper early, which means Cueto is Cincinnati property for the next three years, at just $27 million (including a $10 million club option in 2015).
Bumgarner reached that level last season, looked ready to repeat that performance for much of 2012, oddly tanked down the stretch, then couldn’t get anyone out during the first two rounds of playoffs either. Still, we’re talking about a 23-year-old left-hander who ranks behind only Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Kershaw among NL pitchers over the past two seasons in K:BB rate. The Giants owe him a mere $33 million over the next five years, or $57 million if they exercise both their options on him.
Moore’s résumé’s mostly about potential at this point. A late-season callup in 2011, Moore showed his chops in Game 1 of the ALDS that year, tossing seven innings of two-hit, shutout ball. He navigated a bumpier road in 2012, walking more than four batters per nine innings and producing merely decent results. Still, you won’t find many lefties who can consistently throw 94 mph, much less with as little apparent effort as Moore does. The bill for Moore’s next four seasons? Just $10 million, with not one, not two, but three club options that could keep him in Tampa Bay through 2019 for a total of just $36 million. His career hasn’t started as quickly as Evan Longoria’s did. But we might be looking at another edition of The Original Longoria Contract, a deal tantamount to grand larceny that let the Rays retain another potential future star and invest bigger bucks elsewhere (including back in Longoria).
Group 12: These Guys Aren’t Getting Traded, But It’d Be Fun to See What Would Happen If They Did
25. Jose Bautista
24. Starlin Castro
23. Troy Tulowitzki
22. Matt Kemp
Tulo and Kemp are franchise players, the Cubs likely saved themselves $50 million or more in locking up Castro for seven years, and Bautista’s next three years will look criminally cheap if he stays healthy and keeps swatting homers.
OK, there are theoretically some scenarios that could see one of these guys traded:
A. Tulowitzki can’t stay healthy, at which point the Rockies decide to sell him at 45 cents on the dollar, picking up a ton of salary in the process.
B. Ninja Alex Anthopoulos trades Bautista for Guillermo Mota. Cynical media portray the move as another sign of Toronto’s GM taking his relief-pitcher fetish too far … until Mota moves back to his old position of shortstop and hits 78 homers.
C. The Dodgers decide they don’t feel like running $250 million payrolls anymore and stage an everything-must-go sale.
D. Starlin Castro stops throwing the ball into the stands from short, instead chucks one clear out of Wrigley, striking 12 saloongoers and causing a mass “Trade Starlin” movement.
E. The Nationals decide they’re sick of Stephen Strasburg.
That’s about it, really.
Group 13: The Kids
21. Brett Lawrie
20. Dylan Bundy
19. Manny Machado
18. Jurickson Profar
Prospecting isn’t easy. For every Mike Trout and Bryce Harper there are many Todd Van Poppels and Brien Taylors. Still, baseball’s compensation structure skews heavily in favor of teams going young. It’s conceivable that Profar, Machado, and Bundy, none of whom have played even one-third of a season in the big leagues, will crash and burn rather than fulfill the world’s massive expectations. But the mere possibility that these three megaprospects will become stars begs for a sky-high ranking, given that all three won’t make much more than league minimum for three more years, and won’t get to shop their services to the highest bidder for six. Oh, sure, you could point to the Rangers theoretically blocking Profar by keeping Elvis Andrus longer than they need to, Machado settling at third rather than at short, thus diminishing his overall value, or Bundy being a high school pitcher, which comes with plenty of baked-in risk. But let’s be real: The talent’s there, the opportunity will be there, and the Rangers and Orioles will pay each of these guys $20.5 million less than Vernon Wells will make next year. If anything, these rankings might be a little low.
Lawrie’s a similar case, though not an identical one. He’s played a full year in the big leagues, and been merely good rather than great, hitting .273/.324/.405 and playing very good defense (a knock against him coming up as a prospect without an obvious position). Funny thing about prospects: When they’re in the minors, or rip off a quick 16-for-31 to start their major league career, the sky’s the limit. But barring a Trout-like rookie season, cooler heads prevail and actual talent evaluation wins out. Lawrie is still an excellent prospect, someone with the skill set and youth (he’s 22 and more than holding his own in the majors) to become a fringe MVP candidate one day. Still, if he’d run for prime minister a year ago, he might’ve won. Now, we’re talking governor general at best.
Group 14: Going Off the Reservation
17. Aroldis Chapman
Aroldis Chapman is, as of this writing, a relief pitcher. There is no scenario, in the history of the universe, in which a relief pitcher should be the 17th-most valuable trade chip in baseball. Not Aroldis, not Eckersley or Gagne in their primes, not vintage Mo, not anyone.
By Opening Day, the Cuban Missile may finally be launched. The latest reports have the Reds close to signing Jonathan Broxton to a three-year contract. Though the Broxton deal isn’t official yet and we don’t know for sure if a Broxton signing would spur a Chapman move to the rotation, Reds GM Walt Jocketty has hinted that the team might elect to do exactly that.
Expecting him to repeatedly fire 100-mph fastballs as a starter might be a stretch, given the endurance required to get through six, seven, eight innings every time out. But we’re talking about a lefty with the kind of fastball-slider combination that … we’re not going to bring up Randy Johnson yet, but it’d be fascinating to see how those two offerings would fare if thrown 100 times a game, or if Chapman could develop an effective changeup to complement his core stuff. He’s owed just $5 million in base salary over the next two seasons. Even throwing in likely hefty arbitration awards for 2015 and 2016 (the 2015 player option on the six-year amateur free-agent deal he signed in 2010 will almost certainly be declined, but Chapman remains Reds property through ’16), plus $10 million in prorated signing bonuses through 2020, Chapman would be paid so much less than other top starters that the upside here is almost unfathomable.
Daniel Bard and others offer cautionary tales. Maybe Chapman’s mechanics aren’t well suited to starting. But damn, wouldn’t it be fun to see what happens?
Group 15: The Aces
16. Chris Sale
15. Felix Hernandez
14. Clayton Kershaw
13. Justin Verlander
12. David Price
11. Gio Gonzalez
Sale was one of the 10 best pitchers in the game this year, he’s 23 years old, has lower mileage on his arm, and the White Sox can do with him as they please through 2016. Gonzalez came in third in Cy Young voting, he’s 27, and the Nationals owe him just $38 million over the next four years, with a pair of $12 million club options thereafter that could be royally cheap if he stays healthy and productive. Practically speaking, there’s no way that Kershaw or Verlander will get traded, not even with both two years away from free agency. The Dodgers have shown they’ll throw ungodly amounts of money at slightly above-average players, let alone all-world pitchers, so Kershaw’s staying. Mike Ilitch would probably spend $250 million, a pancreas, and unlimited Crazy Bread if that’s what it takes to keep Verlander in Detroit for the next eight to 10 years.
Hernandez and Price, on the other hand? By this time next year, both may very well be playing for different teams. We’re not going to belabor the point too much on King Felix; the only time you see a Yankees writer make up a fake, preposterously unbalanced trade suggestion for him is on days ending in Y. The Mariners already gave Felix one contract extension, and the combination of local and national revenue ensures they’d have the money to offer another. Of course the M’s are also woefully lacking in position player talent, their best prospects closest to the majors pretty much all pitchers and young bats like Justin Smoak who are already starting to look like busts. You can count on one hand the number of teams with enough elite young talent to land the 26-year-old ace. But having Felix for two years at $40 million, with an exclusive negotiating window to extend him through the rest of his prime, would be an incredibly attractive scenario for those few teams. If the Royals were willing to start a conversation with Wil Myers, or the Yankees with Boone Logan, a lock of Derek Jeter’s hair, and 10 cc’s of Aura and Mystique, at the very least you wouldn’t hang up, right?
Price seems far more likely to be traded before he reaches free agency than does Felix. The Rays’ offseason search for bats would seem likely to send James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson out of town in a trade, since Andrew Friedman & Co. don’t spend big bucks in free agency. But three years of team control for Price also mean three big-ass arbitration awards coming down the pike. Kershaw and Verlander being unattainable and Hernandez possibly so would only heighten the interest in Price, a top-10 MLB pitcher who’s just 27 years old, has improved every year of his career, just won his first Cy Young, and may have room to get better given the positive trends in his strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates. With Price, the Rays missed their window to get the kind of huge discount that have kept Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Matt Moore, and Shields in town for multiple years at low prices. It might be nice to see them ante up for a superelite talent anyway. But gun to my head, I’d guess he’s playing somewhere else by Opening Day 2014 … with a very slight chance of moving earlier.
Group 16: Don’t Bother Asking
10. Jason Heyward
Six months ago, ESPN conducted its annual MLB Franchise Draft, asking 30 writers and broadcasters from the extended WWL family to answer this question: “If you were starting a franchise and you could pick any player in professional baseball, who would be your franchise player?” Somehow the random draft order had me picking last. And somehow I landed Jason Heyward.
As I wrote at the time:
When we did this draft a year ago, [Jason] Heyward went No. 7 overall. Now he’s available at No. 30. So what happened in the past 12 months?
• He suffered a serious shoulder injury that landed him on the DL, then wrecked his numbers the rest of the year.
• It got so bad that the Braves benched him in favor of Jose Constanza, a nearly-28-year-old journeyman who’d hit six homers in more than 700 minor league games.
• At season’s end, Braves GM Frank Wren refused to endorse Heyward as the team’s starting right fielder for 2012, lamenting the Braves’ lack of offense at the position in ’11.
Heyward still struggles vs. lefties, still strikes out a little too much, and hasn’t hit as many homers as people would like. He also walks a ton, is an excellent all-around defender, runs exceptionally well for a guy who’s 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, and has shown hints of big offensive production on the way, with his isolated slugging, fly-ball rate, and live-drive rate all trending higher. Two years ago in spring training, he hit balls so far in batting practice that he routinely smashed cars in the parking lot, leading the Braves to install protective Jason Heyward Nets.
Oh, and he’s 22 years old. Sign me up.
All of that, except he’s now 23 and owns a five-win and a 6.6-win season after three years in the big leagues. If batting average weren’t still overrated, I’d say Heyward has an MVP award or two in his future.
9. Miguel Cabrera
Three years, $65 million. Could be $85 million and he’d still have some ravenous suitors in an alternate universe where the Tigers made him available. He is, after all, the second-most valuable player in the American League.
8. Stephen Strasburg
The innings cap that launched a thousand angry columns is behind us, so what now? There’s no denying Strasburg’s talent, whether from the scouting or performance angle. The only question at this point is health. Was limiting Strasburg’s workload and depriving the Nats of their best pitcher during the team’s first trip to the playoffs a stubborn, ill-advised move? Or do the Nationals know something about the state of Strasburg’s arm that the rest of us don’t, beyond the usual caveats for a pitcher who’s had Tommy John surgery? Pitchers are inherently riskier investments, which is why Albert Pujols and Joey Votto can land 10-year contracts but pitchers never do. Even the most infinitesimal possibility that Strasburg might have concerns beyond the usual ones is reason enough to leave him out of the top five. Here’s hoping he makes that slightly conservative ranking look foolish next season.
Group 17: Gone in the Next Two Years, But Man, It’s Gonna Cost Ya
7. Giancarlo Stanton
Less than a year after taking the hot stove league by storm … less than seven months after opening a new, $634 million stadium built through the bamboozling of local government and taxpayers, a deal so shady it resulted in an SEC probe … less than four months after they dumped a bunch of money by trading away a former franchise player … the Marlins made a deal that drove the baseball world berserk, even if it was just another case of a shrewd owner taking advantage of a broken system. Miami’s clearance sale on Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and others angered several Marlins left behind, including their lone remaining star player.
Giancarlo Stanton is a professional obliterator of baseballs, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound behemoth who blasted homers at a rate of 49 per 162 games in 2012. He’s only 23, he’s going to win a bunch of home run titles … and fans and media outlets are already dreaming up fake trades to lure him to their respective cities. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Stanton traded by Opening Day 2015. But he’s probably not going anywhere this offseason, not when he’s making league minimum and the Marlins control his rights for four more years. This ranking reflects Stanton’s tremendous ability and contract status more than his specific situation in Miami. When the time does come for a trade, the hope is that the Marlins will do better than the last time they traded a once-in-a-decade slugger.
Group 18: The Untouchables
6. Ryan Braun
5. Evan Longoria
4. Buster Posey
3. Andrew McCutchen
Braun’s one of the three best hitters on Earth, and over the next eight years he’ll make a tick more than half what Pujols is getting over the run of his 10-year deal. Long gone are those early, nightmarish days at third base, with Braun evolving into a capable corner outfielder. His baserunning prowess is impressive for someone with that much power, with 30-plus steals in each of the past two years and high marks for taking the extra base. He’s also exceptionally durable, having played in 150 or more games in each of his first five full big league seasons.
Braun and Longoria are about an eyelash apart on this list, even though their games are quite different, with Braun’s offensive numbers requiring no caveats, and Longoria delivering far more defensive and positional value. Longoria gets the slight edge here, given they’re both owed $136 million for the duration of their contracts, but the Rays get 10 years of Longoria at that price vs. eight of Braun in Milwaukee, and Longoria is also two years younger. And if you’re wondering, we left Longoria at exactly the same rank we gave him before his new, $100 million contract extension. Part of that’s due to Longoria hitting year six of his original deal, making him merely a gigantic steal and no longer the biggest heist imaginable for the four years he had left. That’s also due to a notable drop-off after number seven: Stanton is a preposterously gifted power hitter but isn’t the all-around threat that Braun, Longoria, and company are, and we’ve noted the risks with Strasburg and other lower-ranked players.
Posey’s been in the big leagues for less than three full seasons. During that time he’s won the Rookie of the Year award, two World Series titles, and just bagged the NL MVP trophy. He’s 25 years old, he’s a catcher who can actually handle the position, and he’s Giants property for four more years. You can nitpick anyone if you try hard enough: Posey caught just 114 of the 148 games in which he appeared last year, and the Giants might be tempted to preserve his knees and bat by playing him more at first as the years go on, plus he doesn’t (yet) offer the kind of way-under-market deal that keeps him locked up for six, eight, or 10 years the way McCutchen, Braun, and Longoria do for their teams. These are, obviously, very minor complaints given what Posey offers.
McCutchen would have been a reasonable MVP choice this year in his own right, and the Pirates should thank Flying Spaghetti Monster five times a day that Cutch is theirs through 2018 for just $63 million. Maybe you worry a bit about McCutchen’s .375 batting average on balls in play bolstering his breakout .327/.400/.553 season. But it’s also possible that at 26, he hasn’t yet hit his ceiling, and that his extraordinary opposite-field power might portend even bigger power numbers down the road.
Group 19: The Debate
Bryce Harper vs. Mike Trout
The newly minted Rookies of the Year have drawn comparisons to Bird and Magic, their own legendary rookie seasons, and the hoop duo’s subsequent transformation of the NBA into the relentless cash cow it is today. There’s not a baseball fan alive who doesn’t believe both players will be megastars of the highest order, the kind of rare talents you’ll go out of your way to watch, the kind of players who can rewrite a franchise’s history. Pat Listach and Bob Hamelin they are not.
Still, there would seem to be a clear pecking order here. Trout just put up the best season by any under-21 position player in baseball history; Harper was about as good as Miguel Montero. They were both rookies, Trout was much better in his rookie season, ergo Trout wins.
Or does he? Harper is 14 months younger than Trout. If we’re talking about late-30s middle relievers near the end of the line, that age gap means nothing. Considering Harper just completed his age-19 season, it could mean a hell of a lot. Consider these stat lines:
Ken Griffey Jr.
Age-19 Season: 127 games, .264/.329/.420, 2.8 WAR
Age-20 Season: 155 games, .300/.366/.481, 5.3 WAR
Age-19 Season: 124 games, .322/.397/.524, 4.6 WAR
Age-20 Season: 150 games, .328/.449/.635, 8.9 WAR
Age-19 Season: 48 games, .232/.264/.408, -0.2 WAR
Age-20 Season: 146 games, .358/.414/.631, 9.8 WAR
There are other examples, though not as many as you’d like to form a big sample, since we’re talking about Hall of Fame–level players who broke in as teenagers, a double rarity. Still, we might be a year away from Harper putting up the kind of season Trout just did in his age-20 campaign. There are other factors working in Harper’s favor, too, from a 1.043 OPS in September and October that might point to serious progress in his approach (though it might’ve simply been random variance) to Trout’s likely unsustainable .383 batting average on balls in play last season to word out of Anaheim that Trout might get shifted to left field even though he’s a Gold Glove–echelon center fielder — a move that might very well hurt his overall value. Harper’s final trump card is this: The Nationals get to keep him for six more years, while the Angels get Trout for only five.
After all that, there’s still no getting around the notion that the best player in baseball just celebrated his 21st birthday. If we’re lucky, the next 15 years will play out just like Bird vs. Magic, where both players claim the title of best of the best before one finally wins it for good years later. Until then, Bryce Harper is no. 2, and Mike Trout is no. 1.
This article has been updated to correct a typo in Johnny Cueto’s ERA.