BtB's 50 Best of the Next 5 Years: No. 40 - No. 31

Yesterday we kicked things off with the first ten names to come off our list, the proverbial guys that are projected to be really good but not quite "let's-build-around-this-guy" good. You know, the Achmed Khan-type guys, but not quite the dominant Pablo Sanchez-type beasts.

Guys listed yesterday were all over the place, including some of the biggest stars of two years ago (Grady Sizemore), today (Mark Teixeira) and tomorrow (Neftali Feliz). We saw the major declines of Teixeira and Jayson Werth in Year 3 and the surprising rise of Kyle Blanks to offensive prominence. We even saw that Feliz could end up being a monster starting pitcher, reinforcing the idea that his current travails in the bullpen should be nothing but temporary.

Today though, we won't be discussing any pitchers, as all ten of the names are those of position players. This shouldn't be surprising to anyone, pitchers are the most volatile of baseball players and their performances among the most difficult to project, so get used to seeing a whole lot of hitters from here on out. And also, Steve's explanation of the methodology of the projections can be read here, for anyone who missed it earlier this week.

Let's get started though, with No. 40 as we make our way through the 50 best players of the next 5 years.

No. 40: OF Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado (Age 24; Total projected WAR: 19.53; WAR Years 1-5: 3.8, 4.0, 4.1, 4.0, 3.7)

Gonzalez is a well-traveled guy, having been dealt twice since emerging as a top prospect before landing an everyday spot in the Rockies' outfield. After signing with Arizona out of Venezuela in 2002, Gonzalez established himself as one of the team's best prospects before being sent to Oakland in the deal that sent Dan Haren to the desert before the 2008 season.

The 24-year-old struggled while splitting time between Oakland and Triple-A Sacramento, including an ugly .278 wOBA in 85 games with the Athletics. But even so, he was just 22 during that season, and the Rockies bought into his potential enough to let him be one of the centerpieces of the deal that sent franchise cornerstone Matt Holliday packing. Gonzalez immediately made good on his side of the deal in 2009, destroying Triple-A to the tune of a .446 wOBA, earning a call-up to Colorado. Splitting time between left and center field, Gonzalez put up a 2.1 WAR in 89 games while flashing above average offense and a plus glove as well.

Considering his wide array of skills and his youth, Gonzalez would seem to be an obvious fit for this list. The projections have him at 3.7 WAR in Year 1, the lowest Y1 mark of any of the players discussed in today's post, and his peak comes in Year 3 with a 4.1 WAR performance in his Age-26 season. Considering that Holliday doesn't fare much better than CarGo on this list and he's a tad more expensive if you hadn't caught that yet, I think that we can safely say that Dan O'Dowd and company came out of that trade nicely.

No. 39: OF Nick Markakis, Baltimore (Age 26; Total WAR: 20.25; WAR Years 1-5: 4.5, 4.4, 4.0, 3.9, 3.5)

While he doesn't get a whole lot of attention, probably not even as much as his center field counterpart Mr. Jones, Markakis is one of the biggest reasons that there's hope for the O's in Baltimore. After establishing himself with a strong rookie season in 2006, Markakis emerged as one of the best players in the AL in 2008 with a monster 6.3 WAR season.

In 2008, his second straight season with 40+ doubles, 20+ homers and a .300+ batting average, he nearly doubled his walk rate to over 14%, which along with a +12 UZR made him the second-most valuable outfielder in the American League, behind only Grady Sizemore (who conveniently placed No. 41 on this list). Expected to maintain that performance in 2009 as a 25-year-old, Markakis saw his walk rate plummet back down to an even worse mark than in 2007, which combined with a lower BABIP and a poor defensive effort gave him easily the worst performance of his MLB career.

Even so, Markakis was still a league average player in 2009 with all of his struggles, leaving reason to be optimistic going forward. His walk rate in 2010 is currently identical to his 2008 mark, and he's essentially all the way back from his 2009 struggles with the exception of his power, which is something that Daniel actually touched on in detail a couple weeks ago. Our projections have him bouncing back with consecutive ~4.5 WAR seasons in the first two years followed by a solid decline. Markakis is projected to see dips in performance as a 28-year-old and as a 30-year-old, primarily in the form of offensive decline.

The Orioles are probably hoping that this is the least that they get, considering that they owe Markakis a hefty $61M through 2014.

No. 38: 1B Miguel Cabrera, Detroit (Age 27; Total WAR: 20.36; WAR Years 1-5: 4.7, 4.3, 4.2, 3.8, 3.4)

If you want to talk about the best hitters in baseball, Miguel Cabrera wouldn't be a bad place to start. He's only 27, but he already has four 40+ RAA/5.5+ WAR seasons under his belt. Arguably the best hitter in the AL at the moment, he combines monster power and inane hitting ability with a developed approach at the plate, making him an all-around threat with a bat in his hands.

While Cabrera is already at +22 RAA in 2010 despite playing in just 49 games so far, our projections don't see Cabrera reaching the +40 RAA plateau ever again as Cabrera peaks this year in his Age-27 season. A +37 RAA in Year 1 is still quite impressive though, good enough to support a 4.7 WAR that would still make him one of the best first basemen in the game.

As a player who depends almost solely on his offense to provide value, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Cabrera's WAR takes some serious hits as his offensive performance suffers. He's projected to be a +34 RAA bat or better through the first three years of projections, but in his Age-30 season he sees a nearly 3 run decline in his RAA, something that would then be repeated the following season.

Even the 3.4 WAR he puts up in Year 5 is still pretty impressive, if he had put that up in 2009 he still would've been among the 5 or 6 best first basemen in the AL. With the way that this guy is going, people should be gearing up for a pretty easy Hall of Fame debate in a few years.

No. 37: 2B/OF Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay (Age 29; Total WAR: 20.63; WAR Years 1-5: 4.9, 4.5, 4.2, 3.8, 3.3)

Apparently, Zobrist's historic 2009 was good enough to convince our projections that Zobrist has some staying power. After shocking the baseball world by leading all position players in WAR last season, Zobrist has continued to be one of the best second basemen in the league in 2010.

Zobrist came over to Tampa from Houston in the 2006 Aubrey Huff trade as a relatively unheralded prospect. He always had a patient approach at the plate, but his glove wasn't great at shortstop and he had minimal power, even for a middle infielder. But as many have discussed before, something clicked for Zobrist in 2008 when he changed his swing with the help of "swing mechanic" Jaime Cevallos.

His new swing gave him plus power like never before (.249 ISO in 2008/2009 in MLB, .176 ISO in 2007 at Triple-A), which made him a major threat as a hitter when combined with his other skills. Put together his newly found hitting ability with a glove that plays much better at second than shortstop, and you have one of the best all-around keystone guys in all of baseball.

Our projections peg Zobrist for a big 4.9 WAR in Year 1, a major decline from 2009 but still good enough to rank among the best middle infielders in the game. Zobrist, though, holds up one of the most consistent aging curves of all of the players on this list. He sees a substantial decline of roughly 0.3 to 0.5 WAR between each respective season, hitting his peak in Year 1 and his valley in Year 5. Then again, for a late bloomer like Zobrist, this shouldn't be surprising as we saw with Jayson Werth. Guys just get worse when they hit their 30's, it's nature, you know?

No. 36: OF Matt Holliday, St. Louis (Age 30; Total WAR: 20.95; WAR Years 1-5: 5.0, 4.6, 4.3, 3.8, 3.2)

Holliday is one of those guys that would be much closer to the top of the list if we did it a few years ago. At 30 years old, he's still one of the best players in the game, but the next five years are highly likely to include at the least the beginning of Holliday's decline phase.

Presumably, some would argue that Holliday's decline has already begun. His numbers are sitting at their worst levels since 2005, particularly in the power department, where his ISO is sitting at .154 on the year. But he's still posting a .372 wOBA, and our projections see him aging fairly nicely into his mid-30's.

Holliday is the first player on our list to put up a 5.0 WAR season, which he's projected to do in Year 1, followed by some stark decline. And of the players we've listed so far, only Mark Teixeira is projected to see a larger decline in his WAR between Year 1 and Year 5, which shouldn't be surprising as they're two of the oldest players listed.

By Year 5, Holliday is projected as a roughly average defensive left fielder and a +15 RAA bat, a fraction of the player that he is now, but still a solidly above average everyday player. Yeah, it won't be as easy to swallow his $17M salary then, but there's little doubt that Holliday makes the Cardinals a much better team.

No. 35: SS Jose Reyes, New York (NL) (Age 27 this month; Total WAR: 20.99; WAR Years 1-5: 4.8, 4.4, 4.3, 3.9, 3.6)

Yeah, so clearly we think that Reyes can go back to being near the player that he was in 2008 and beyond. Our first shortstop on the list, after putting up 5.5+ WAR seasons in 2006-2008, Reyes played in just 36 games last season and is struggling to the tune of a 0.5 WAR in 49 games this season.

But before the injuries and ineffectiveness, Reyes was among the best shortstops in the game. He was never a prototypical walk machine at the top of the order, but he was routinely good for a .280-.300 batting average, .350-.360 on-base percentage and solid power for the position. Combine that with his world-class speed, and you have one very dynamic hitter right there.

When you factor in Reyes' plus glove at shortstop with his variety of offensive skills, it shouldn't be surprising that he's on this list even after his issues the past two years. Our projections no longer see Reyes as above average at shortstop, he's roughly average to below average during the duration of the five seasons, but he still retains a good deal of value with his bat.

Reyes was about 19.4 RAA per 700 plate appearances from 2006 through 2008, and our projections peg him at +18.1 in Year 1, which helps to support his impressive WAR. He sees major declines after Years 1 and 3, finishing in Year 5 as a roughly +10 RAA bat and a slightly below average glove at shortstop, still good enough to be one of the better shortstops in the game. Not bad for a guy with a 1.3 WAR and less than 90 games played since the 2008 season.

No. 34: OF B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay (Age 25; Total WAR: 21.09; WAR Years 1-5: 4.3, 4.4, 4.4, 4.0, 3.9)

Upton is another guy that the projections still believe in despite struggles that have lasted beyond just this season. Upton stumbled his way to a .310 wOBA in 2009, showing little of the plus power that made him so threatening in 2007 and 2008.

Upton has improved somewhat in 2010, he's been league average offensively this season, but it's still hugely disappointing from a player who's often shown flashes of elite offensive skill. Considering that Upton is an above average defender in center field and a legitimate 40+ stolen base threat, he'd be one of the best players in baseball if he could put it all together at the plate.

Our projections don't quite see him reaching the highest of his ceilings, but even with some improvement into an above average hitter, Upton emerges as one of the better outfielders in the game. Upton also conveniently is entering what should be the most productive chunk of his career, his age-25 through age-29 seasons, which lends to his impressively consistent projected WAR totals.

In each of the five projected seasons, Upton is a +14 to +18 RAA hitter and a +2 to +6 defensive center fielder, which makes him one of the best center fielders in the game. Then again, these projections are probably being a tad optimistic on Upton, because I think that we're getting to that point where we need to ask some very serious questions about B.J.'s continued struggles.

No. 33: OF Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay (Age 23; Total WAR: 21.11; WAR Years 1-5: 3.8, 4.1, 4.3, 4.4, 4.4)

And finally, we have the one player on our list with ZERO experience in the majors. If you wonder why people in Tampa Bay aren't going so crazy about the struggles of Upton and Carl Crawford's impending departure, Mr. Jennings is probably the main reason why.

Jennings, arguably the best outfield prospect in the game, has been absolutely killing the ball in the upper minors since regaining his health in 2009 following years marred by DL stints and missed opportunities. After putting up a wOBA over .400 last season, Jennings has struggled somewhat in 2010, but it hasn't dimmed his star all that much.

With his expected arrival in Tampa Bay at some point this summer, our projections see the Rays immediately adding of the better center fielders in all of baseball. Described by many as "The Next Carl Crawford", Jennings combined elite speed with an impressive ability to get on-base and solid gap power, along with the ability to play top-notch defense in center field.

While his bat shouldn't be as impressive in Year 1 while he adjusts to the toughest league in the world, Jennings' glove is likely peaking soon as he hits the peak of his athleticism. He only projects at +8 RAA in Year 1, but a projected defensive mark of over +7 enables him to put up a near-4 WAR regardless. His glove is projected to get progressively worse over the course of the projections, but that's more than offset by a bat that's projected to progressively improve over time as well.

And a funny little note, Yankees top prospect Jesus Montero actually just missed making the list, finishing No. 52. He would've joined Jennings as one of two players on the list with zero MLB experience as of today.

No. 32: 3B Ian Stewart, Colorado (Age 25; Total WAR: 21.12; WAR Years 1-5: 4.4, 4.5, 4.4, 4.0, 3.9)

I'll be honest: I didn't think that Stewart would end up anywhere near this high. He's shown flashes of big-time power and the ability to get on-base with Colorado, but he's struck out nearly one-third of the time and he's accumulated just 3.3 WAR in over 1000 plate appearances in the big leagues.

But I definitely see the signs of improvement, too. His contact rate has risen each season, his swing-and-miss rate has decreased each season, and his strikeout rate is actually sitting slightly above 26% this season, a significant improvement from his previous marks. Considering his impressive raw power, willingness to take a walk and solid performance defensively at the hot corner, though, it would seem that Stewart does deserve a good deal more attention than he's gotten lately.

Our projections have him as a roughly 4+ WAR player in each year of the projections, with little in the way of significant decline. Like Upton, the next five years should take up a good deal of Stewart's prime, so his numbers likely won't see the major decline of guys that hit their mid-30's at some point during the projections. Between Stewart and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (more on him later), the Rockies are quietly putting up quite the duo on the left side of their infield.

Then again, Stewart made the BA Top 100 prospects list four times, peaking at No. 4 overall in 2005, so his emergence as a top talent really shouldn't be all that surprising to anyone, I suppose.

No. 31: C Brian McCann, Atlanta (Age 26; Total WAR: 21.20; WAR Years 1-5: 4.6, 4.5, 4.2, 4.1, 3.8)

And we'll finish today's portion with the second of four catchers to grace this list, Atlanta's Brian McCann. McCann established himself as one of the game's best catchers as a 22-year-old in 2006, putting up a wOBA over .400 and a WAR over 5 in 130 games with the Braves.

He's continued to be arguably the best catcher in the National League, averaging 4.4 WAR per season in each of his four full seasons. With at least 55 extra-base hits in each of the past four seasons, McCann has been a major power threat at the plate during his career, and he's taking major steps in terms of plate discipline, including a monster 15.8% walk rate in 2010 thus far.

While he's below average behind the plate, he's absolutely serviceable there, and few guys in baseball are capable of that while hitting the way that McCann does. Our projections have McCann as a +20 RAA bat in Years 1 and 2, with multi-run declines in RAA following Years 2 and 4. Then again, even in Year 5 as a well below average catcher and a declining bat, he's still near 4 WAR and among the best catchers in the NL.

The biggest thing with McCann is probably going to be health going forward. He's logged a ton of innings at catcher before his 27th birthday, and it should be interesting to see how long he can stay healthy while sticking behind the plate. I'm certainly not suggesting that it's time to move McCann off of catcher, and McCann certainly has the bat to play elsewhere anyways, but he certainly won't be anywhere near the Top 30 on this list if he needs to move off of catcher for whatever reason.

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