After a few days off to let everyone take a breather from the mind-numbing excitement of our most recent series, let's dive back into our list of the 50 Best Players of the Next 5 Years. We're closing in on the top of the list, past the guys that you simply want to build around, and into the guys that make you want to write a piece about how they'll probably end up in the Hall of Fame before everything is said and done. Oh, you guys don't get that kind of urge? Yeah, I suppose I'm probably alone on that one. Whatever, I'm a loner and a rebel, Dottie.
Enough with lame references to Pee Wee's Big Adventure though, because we've got the future of baseball to talk about here. Or, well, the future of baseball through 2015. Alas... let's go!
For those who missed them last week or just want a reminder of who else made the list and how we went about projecting this stuff, here's the first portion of the rankings (No. 41-50), along with the second (No. 31-40) and third pieces of the list (No. 21-30). And as a healthy reminder, this list reflects only the value of on-field performance, completely ignoring salary and contract status. A win is a win, whether it put the team back $2 million or $12 million. For Steve's methodology on how the projections work, you can click here.
No. 20: OF Adam Jones, Baltimore (Age 24; Total projected WAR: 22.69; WAR Years 1-5: 4.4, 4.6, 4.7, 4.7, 4.3)
At the moment, Jones is just one of many Orioles players struggling to keep their head above the replacement level waters, with a 0.1 WAR mark through 56 games thanks to some solid defense in center field. His hitting on the other hand? Pretty scary, with a .283 wOBA thanks to poor showing in terms of contact, power and plate discipline.
Jones came over to Baltimore in the well-regarded 2008 Erik Bedard trade, routinely considering one of the great trading heists of recent memory with trades like the Teixeira deal and the Colon deal. He established himself as the team's primary center fielder in 2008 at age 22, flashing a plus glove but a bat that needed a good deal of work still. That work appeared to manifest itself in 2009, as Jones improved in nearly every facet of his offensive game, managing to land on the AL's All Star Team. He finished the season with a 1.8 WAR that was identical to his 2008 WAR though, as his defense went from +6 in 132 games to -7.5 in 119 games according to UZR, although it's worth noting that he's never posted a negative DRS mark (+5 DRS in 2009 compared to -7.5 UZR).
2010 was supposed to be Jones' breakout season, as evidenced by me choosing him in our Ball on a Budget draft. Of course, the projections also had huge expectations for Jones coming into 2010, with CHONE and ZiPS being the most bullish, as each projected Jones to post a wOBA of at least .355, an improvement from his .343 wOBA from 2009. Our projections are equally optimistic on Jones, projecting similar offensive improvement even if his glove never really projects as plus again.
We have Jones as a +20 RAA (runs above average) bat in all five projected seasons, peaking with a +25.4 RAAin Year 4, with his WAR never dipping below 4.3 in any season. His defense is projected as roughly average, with an accumulated UZR of just -4.3 over the five seasons in center field. His total projected WAR of 22.7 would easily put him among the best center fielders in the game. The only center fielders to put up a better total WAR in the past five years...
No. 19: OF Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh (Age 23; Total projected WAR: 23.06; WAR Years 1-5: 4.2, 4.5, 4.7, 4.8, 4.8)
Hey, it only took the Pirates like ten years to find a legitimate cornerstone for their team... it could've been worse, right? I mean, it's not like they took Bryan Bullington and Daniel Moskos over B.J. Upton and Matt Wieters in the draft or anything..
That being said, McCutchen is quite legitimately the best player that the Pirates have had in a long, long while, at the very least since the Jason Bay of 2005/2006. Routinely considered one of the best outfield prospects in the game since being a first-round pick out of high school, McCutchen combines awesome speed with power and plate discipline that are seemingly improving every year. Projected as a star center fielder in the leadoff-type mold, McCutchen has already been moved out of that spot in Pittsburgh thanks to some impressive showings of middle-of-the-order power potential. After putting up a 3.3 WAR in his 2009 rookie season, he's already up to 1.6 WAR this season despite a defensive performance that UZR hasn't graded too hotly.
McCutchen is a guy that I could conceivably see finishing a season with a near-.400 OBP, 20+ homers, 30+ steals and a whole lot of sick crazy catches in the middle of the outfield before he hangs up his cleats. He's that kind of dynamic player, the full package from a baseball standpoint. Our projections agree, at least from an offensive standpoint. While he starts off as a +19 RAA player in Year 1, he peaks with consecutive +28 RAA seasons in Years 4 and 5. Basically, he's the same projection as Jones but with a higher peak, a lower valley, and more value coming from offense rather than defense.
No. 18: RHP Tim Lincecum, San Francisco (Age 26 in 8 days; Total projected WAR: 23.15; WAR Years 1-5: 5.7, 5.2, 4.6, 4.1, 3.6)
Going by my gut, this is one of those guys that I just waver on sometimes. Obviously he's a tantalizing talent like few we've seen before, but how long can Lincecum really keep stacking 225+ inning seasons on that 5-11, 170 frame? He's already lost 3 MPH on his fastball, and while he's clearly made the adjustments necessary to continue to thrive, I just wonder if he could make them again with another velocity drop. I mean, going from 93-96 to 90-93 hurts, but if he drops down to say, 88-91, then he could finally take a serious dive in performance.
At this point, that's all projection though, because Lincecum is on his way to once again being among the best pitchers in the NL. He put up respective WAR marks of 7.5 and 8.2 in his first two full seasons, and while he's not quite on that pace right now, his approximately 6.5 WAR pace would still make him an elite starter. Most of Lincecum's decline this year can be attributed to an increase in walks handed out, but I still think it's worth noting that Lincecum's contact and whiff rates are presently by far the best of his career, so he's definitely still doing a lot of things right.
Our projections have Lincecum as the second-best pitcher of the next five years, peaking in Year 1 before his basic age-based decline after his Age 27 season. He remains the second-best pitcher in the game in all five seasons, behind the same guy in every season. And that guy happens to be the next guy on our list, and he's pretty good. You might be surprised, though, to find out that it's NOT Ubaldo Jimenez.
No. 17: RHP Zack Greinke, Kansas City (Age 26; Total projected WAR: 23.75; WAR Years 1-5: 5.8, 5.3, 4.7, 4.2, 3.7)
The pride of KC, people have seemingly forgotten that Greinke damn near matched Ubaldo's monster start to 2010 last season. You know, when he put up a 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP and a 9.4 WAR that's the best single-season mark for a pitcher in the FanGraphs WAR era (2002-present).
I suppose it shouldn't be too surprising that people have kind of softened up on praising Greinke, considering he's currently 1-7 on the year, and more importantly, his numbers are essentially down across the board. Obviously, nobody expected a repeat of his historic 2009, but nobody expected his contact rate to rise by nearly 10% while his whiff rate would almost get cut in half either. If he continues to pitch to contact like he has so far in 2010, then he's really not much of an ace anymore, and he's back to being more of a No. 3 starter or so. He's still showing his impressive command, but as a fly ball pitcher, he needs to miss bats to go along with that command in order to really be a top of the rotation pitcher. Otherwise, we might end up looking at Greinke's 2009 like we look at Brady Anderson's 1996, albeit in a less extreme way: an absolutely monster, uncharacteristically great season by a good player.
But it's probably too early to make any distinctions like that, particularly with a pitcher as talented as Greinke. Given that Greinke and Lincecum are projected for such similar Year 1 performances while having the projections cover the same chunk of their careers in terms of age, it shouldn't be surprising that their projections are so similar.
No. 16: 2B Dustin Pedroia, Boston (Age 26; Total projected WAR: 24.16; WAR Years 1-5: 5.3, 5.2, 4.8, 4.7, 4.2)
The only, lonely Red Sox player on the list, Pedroia's projected as the AL's best second baseman over the next five seasons. This shouldn't really be surprising to many, he's already arguably the best second baseman in the AL and he's entering his prime seasons.
Still, Pedroia is leaving reasons to believe that his 2008 MVP will end up signifying by far the best season of his career. His 6.6 WAR made him a deserving candidate that year, but he dropped down to just 5.0 WAR in 2009 and he's on pace for another drop down to about 4.2 WAR this season. Our projections don't see that kind of drop happening for another five years though, as Pedroia can reasonably be expected to bounceback at least somewhat from his underwhelming offensive performance so far this season.
One could attribute a lot of his issues this season with some bad luck on BABIP (.331 in 2008, .261 in 2010), but that also may imply that Pedroia was rather lucky with his BABIP in 2008. In 2009, his BABIP was essentially league average, and that should be reasonable baseline for him going forward. Unsurprisingly, our projections see 2009 as the closest reflection of Pedroia's true talent. Our projections see some slight improvement from his bat, from a +18 RAA in 2009 to a +20 RAA in Year 1 of the projections, which he maintains for two years before one of his two substantial offensive declines.
At this point, Pedroia's projection essentially looks like that of Ben Zobrist, but Pedroia's Laser Show is projected as slightly better than Zorilla's bat.
No. 15: OF Ryan Braun, Milwaukee (Age 26; Total projected WAR: 24.67; WAR Years 1-5: 5.4, 5.3, 4.9, 4.8, 4.4)
This begins a nice run of monster sluggers on the list, as it's much easier to project monster offensive numbers from a guy like Prince Fielder than it to project that Nyjer Morgan can repeat a roughly +30 UZR. And when you think of guys that carry big lumber, Braun's name is presumably one of the first to crop up.
After bursting into the league with his memorable barrage of hits and homers in 2007, Braun's done little to slow down, with consecutive 4.5+ WAR seasons in 2008/2009. While he hasn't been able to match his unreal .310 ISO from Year 1, he's progressively improved his walk and strikeout rates, and he's continued to post a really good batting average.
He put up a +45 RAA last season in Milwaukee, and our projections see him sticking around as a 40+ RAA bat through the first four projected seasons before a decline down to a +37 RAA in Year 5. Still, even factoring in his below average defense at a non-premium defensive position (LF), that kind of consistent offensive production makes Braun one of the most valuable players in the game.
Only four players on this list are projected to accumulate more value offensively, and unsurprisingly, one of those guys happens to not only be the next guy on this list, he happens to be one of Braun's teammates as well.
No. 14: 1B Prince Fielder, Milwaukee (Age 26; Total projected WAR: 25.46; WAR Years 1-5: 5.5, 5.4, 5.1, 4.9, 4.5)
As you can see, the Brewers will be set up with quite the middle-of-the-order if they can somehow retain Fielder's services going forward. That's not likely, but those two have had a nice run. Fielder showed quite quickly that he could follow in the large footsteps of his home-run-hitting dad Cecil, when he hit 50 home runs in his second MLB season at the tender age of 23.
He struggled to repeat that performance the following season, as he saw his home run total drop to just 34, while his RAA was more than cut in half, from +49 in 2007 to +24 in 2008. Fielder quickly put those concerns to rest though, as he bounced back in 2009 with 46 home runs and a +54 RAA that put him third in baseball behind Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer.
Projected another +50 RAA season from Fielder would be tough, but if you round up, we have him at +50 in Year 2 after putting up a +49.4 mark in Year 1. As a below average defensive first baseman, essentially all of his value comes from his bat though. So while he's projected as the second-best hitter in baseball over the next five years, he's only projected as the 14th-best player overall.
No. 13: OF Matt Kemp, Los Angeles (NL) (Age 25; Total projected WAR: 25.49; WAR Years 1-5: 5.3, 5.3, 5.3, 4.9, 4.8)
I'll just start off with this: our projections totally ignore that Kemp currently has a -18 DRS and a -16 UZR through 57 games, which would essentially amount to him being the worst defensive center fielder in recent memory by far. I'm sure it's some combination of wacky batted ball distribution, sample size wackiness, and some actual defensive struggles by Kemp, but this guy graded out as above average in center last season, so I have a tough time imagining that he's suddenly forgotten how to play center field.
Kemp is still hitting well this season, he's got 11 homers and a .354 wOBA, but the defensive numbers put him at roughly replacement level so far this season. Our projections not only see Kemp improving significantly upon what he's doing so far in 2010 defensively, but offensively as well. Kemp finished 2009 with a +21 RAA, but we project Kemp to put up an improved +26.4 RAA in Year 1, with a peak at +28.6 in Year 3 and no single-season RAA's worse than +25.5.
Combine that kind of impressive offensive consistency with a glove that projects as essentially average over the course of the five years, and you have one monster center fielder in terms of value. No center fielder projects as well as Kemp does over the next five seasons, which shouldn't be too surprising considering that Kemp was the NL's best in 2009.
No. 12: 3B David Wright, New York (NL) (Age 27; Total projected WAR: 25.89; WAR Years 1-5: 5.8, 5.4, 5.3, 4.9, 4.6)
So yeah, we here at BtB don't believe that David Wright's demise began when he turned 26, or that he has some sort of child-like fear of that scary alley in CitiField. And frankly, considering that he's on pace for roughly 5.75 WAR this season, nobody else should really think that either.
Wright probably will never again be the player that was worth over 16 WAR in 2007/2008, when he was maybe the best player in the NL outside of Pujols, but if he can continue to be a star-quality hitter and a solid defender at third base, he's still quite easily one of the top players in baseball.
The increase in his strikeout rate the past two seasons (28% in 2009/2010, 19% in 2007/2008) is definitely worrisome, particularly given the big drop in his contact rate, but if the patience and power are still there, then Wright should still be fully capable of excelling as a hitter even with a few more swing-and-misses.
We projected Wright to bounce back from his 2009 (+20 RAA) to put up a +34 RAA in Year 1, although that would decline progressively with each following season until his +26 RAA in Year 5. He no longer projects as an above average defender, he's below average in each season but never worse than the -4.8 mark in Year 5. Still, that kind of bat could play anywhere, so having it come from a serviceable defensive third baseman still makes him one of the better players in the game.
Yeah, we might be past that day when David Wright was clearly the best 3B in the National League, but he's still projected as one of the 12 best players in baseball over the next 5 years.
No. 11: 3B Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco (Age 23; Total projected WAR: 27.84; WAR Years 1-5: 5.4, 5.7, 5.7, 5.7, 5.3)
Sandoval exploded onto the scene in 2008 by destroying every level that he played at, including Advanced Single-A, Double-A, and the National League (.345 batting average, 1.2 WAR in 41 games). The Big Panda is routinely regarded as a favorite among fans, thanks to his unusual appearance (he's very large, and very... round?) and astonishing hitting ability, as he came into 2010 with a MLB batting average of .333 in over 700 plate appearances.
Beyond that, though, Sandoval is actually a shockingly good all-around ballplayer. He put up a 5.3 WAR in his first full season, primarily playing third base, and he surprised many by actually playing the position fairly well. He's an aggressive hitter but when he makes contact he generally hits it very hard, and he's taken some serious strides to improve his approach at the plate over the past two years. His size obviously lends to some solid power (.226 ISO in 2009), but he's not a huge home run guy, and in the past he's generally depended on having a high BABIP to succeed.
I'll be honest, though. I'm really skeptical about Sandoval being this high. He's a brilliant player but given his build and how unorthodox his method for success is, I have a tough time believing that he'll last too long as a truly great player. Our projections have him as worth at least 5.3 WAR in all five projected seasons, which would give him six consecutive 5.3+ WAR seasons including 2009. The only guys who do that kind of thing are the Pujols', Utley's and Ramirez's of the world, and I hesitate to put Sandoval into that class of player yet.
That being said, Sandoval never projects as worse than 31 runs above average offensively, peaking with consecutive seasons with RAA's over +36. But more so than the offensive numbers, I'm skeptical that Sandoval will never post a season with a defensive mark worse than -4.8, particularly if he's expected to stay at third base. I like Sandoval a lot, and I like these projections a whole lot too, but few guys on this list represent more risk and reward than Big Panda.