BtB's 50 Best of the Next 5 Years: No. 5 - No. 1

Wouldn't that be crazy if in baseball they did opening lineups the same way they did in basketball? You know, the lights dim, the fireworks and lasers begin, the music blares from loudspeakers, and you get to hear, "Leaaaaaaaaading off and playing shortstop tonight...   out of Kalaaaaaaaamazooooo Central High Schoooool...  Number Two...     DERRRRREK JEEEEEETERRRRRRRR!!!!!!" Fireworks explode, Jeter comes onto the field covered in spotlights while hopping around and high-fiving his non-starting teammates. Doesn't that just sound like a fan's dream?

...   Yeah, maybe not. In fact, that all sounds pretty freakin' awful. But on the other hand, those kind of festivities might be appropriate for today, as we go through the concluding five players on our list of the 50 Best Players of the Next 5 Years. Now unfortunately, nobody agreed to any sort of big ceremony with pretty lights and shiny trophies, so we'll have to settle for a nice post with a pretty picture instead.

And for those of you who missed all the fun 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), third (No. 21-30), fourth (No. 11-20), and fifth (No. 6-10) pieces. 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 projection method, click here.

I'm sure that the anticipation is killing all of you guys though, so we'll kick it off with one of the least surprising inclusions on our list.

No. 5: 1B Albert Pujols, St. Louis (Age 29; Total projected WAR: 30.29; WAR Years 1-5: 6.9, 6.5, 6.2, 5.7, 5.1)

Well-regarded as baseball's best hitter and player, Pujols would probably be one of the most common players listed if you polled the public to do a similar set of rankings. Pretty much the ultimate hitter, Pujols leaves the career's of young pitchers drowning in his wake, with a combination of power, patience and innate hitting ability that makes him one of the best hitters of all-time. One of the few players with career numbers that actually compare favorably to all-time greats, Pujols is a guy who's been so impressive in his first nine-plus years in St. Louis that he would probably get a good deal of Hall of Fame support even if he retired today.

In his nine full seasons, he's never put up a wOBA below .400 or a WAR below 5.7, and his WAR hasn't dipped below 7.9 since 2002. Not only does he provide essentially every skill that one could hope for in a hitter, but he's a smart baserunner and one of the best defensive first basemen in the game, a jack of all trades.

Put it all together, and even with the monster decline in true talent level predicted by Steve, Pujols still grades out as the fifth-best player of the next five years. Pujols has put up RAA's over +70 in each of the past two seasons, with just one RAA mark below +65 since 2002, but Steve projects that kind of dominance to end immediately in Year 1. Pujols remains a +50 RAA or better bat for just two years before decline brings him into the upper-40's in RAA.

Pujols' defense never grades out as worse than league average, but with a bat that deteriorates so quickly, particularly between his 2009 performance and the initial year of the projections, it's not surprising that Pujols isn't atop this list. If this list had been done a few years ago, he absolutely would've been at or very near the top, but the fact that his initial decline phase still puts him up among the five best players in the game is pretty impressive, I would say.

No. 4: OF Justin Upton, Arizona (Age 22; Total projected WAR: 30.68; WAR Years 1-5: 5.3, 6.0, 6.3, 6.5, 6.6)

Over the last week, I've seen a decent amount of discussion here on BtB about who would make the top 5 on this list. Generally speaking, four of the names came together pretty quickly, but readers seemed to have a difficult time discerning who the fifth man would be. It wasn't until this morning that reader BlackOps finally made the correct guess: it would be Mr. Upton.

Now, it seems like some of you might've already forgotten a little bit, but Upton broke out in a Heyward-like way last season. After a solid showing in his 2008 rookie season, Upton came into 2009 as Arizona's everyday right fielder and put up a 4.6 WAR as a 21-year-old on the back of a .388 wOBA and defense that graded out above-average. Now, nobody was that surprised though, as Upton was once regarded as one of the best high school position player prospects ever before being picked No. 1 overall by Arizona, and was ranked as the No. 2 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America before the 2007 season.

So when he mashed through the minor leagues on the way to establishing himself as an MLB star, few people were particularly surprised, and a lot of people actually expected it. Even with all of his success though, Upton has still had a lot of trouble with strikeouts, issues that have really cropped up again in 2010 with his early-season struggles. That being said, he showed in 2009 that he can get his strikeout rate in check, and few players can be more dangerous than Upton when they're making contact on a consistent basis.

Our projections actually see Upton improving again in Year 1, with a slight improvement from his RAA per 150 games from +31.3 to +34.6, although his defense grades out as closer to average. The improvement on offense is consistent with Upton, as he doesn't reach his peak Age-27 season until Year 5, at which point we project Upton for a +52 RAA on his way to a 6.8 WAR that actually is the best in baseball in Year 5.

With his combination of offensive upside and youth, pretty much nobody should be surprised to see Upton on this list, even if you're like half-surprised that he's this high.

No. 3: 3B Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay (Age 24; Total projected WAR: 32.27; WAR Years 1-5: 6.3, 6.5, 6.6, 6.6, 6.2)

If we were doing this based on value relative to salary and contract status, Longoria would be the easy winner like he was in FanGraphs' Trade Value Series. But the brilliance of Longoria's contract [from Tampa Bay's perspective] has been spoken of at length, so let's focus on just Longoria's on-field greatness here.

Longoria was pretty much destined to be a star from Day 1, as an elite draft pick that became an elite prospect before immediately establishing himself as an elite player. With an elite bat and an elite glove, you've probably noticed the whole pattern with Longoria here: he's really, really good at pretty much everything. After putting up respective WAR marks of 5.3 and 7.1 in his first two seasons with the Rays, he's actually on pace to surpass both of those marks in 2010, as he's continued to develop as a hitter.

Longoria utilizes big raw power with an improving approach at the plate, he's consistently cut down on his strikeout rate while improving his contact rates and batting averages since arriving in the majors. Combine that kind of bat with one of the best 3B gloves in the game, and you have Mr. Longoria, an absolute beast on the field.

Our projections essentially see Longoria repeating his big 2009 performance in Year 1 but with a less impressive defensive effort (+17.7 UZR in '09, +10.1 UZR in Year 1). There isn't much room for improvement for the 24-year-old former shortstop, as his RAA range from +29 to +35, while his UZR only ranges from +6.4 to +10.1. Within any season, Longoria isn't projected to be the best hitter or defender in the game, but he shows remarkable consistency in being well above average in all facets of the game, which lends towards him being ranked as the third-best player of the next five years.

No. 2: C Joe Mauer, Minnesota (Age 27; Total projected WAR: 32.85; WAR Years 1-5: 7.1, 6.8, 6.6, 6.3, 6.0)

One of the game's best hitters and easily the game's best catcher, Mauer may never be able to repeat his historic 2009 performance, but he's still in line to be one of the all-time great backstops ever before everything is said and done. One of the few players to put up an 8+ single-season WAR in the FanGraphs Era (2002-present), Good Ol' Joe is often regarded as the AL's best player these days, as an above average defensive catcher that's often regarded as one of the best hitters in baseball.

While his power burst from last season likely isn't sustainable, his ISO last season was .222 compared to a .155 career mark and his HR/FB was completely out of line with his career norms, he's still a well above average hitter thanks to an unreal ability to make contact and a textbook approach at the plate. He's posted OBP's over .400 in three different seasons, with a career OBP mark of .407, and he's already won three batting titles, which is three more than any other AL catcher has ever won.

Basically, Mauer is like few players we've ever seen before, and the projections do a good job of reflecting that. While the first five full years of Mauer's career were impressive (26.8 WAR), we actually project him to build on that a good deal in the next five seasons, despite the fact that he'll already be nearing 32 by the end of the projections. His bat will never again reach the historic heights of 2009 (+56 RAA), but a return to his previous career-high levels is projected, with a +35 RAA in Year 1.

Even with a bat that declines progressively in each season, Mauer is easily one of the most productive players in the game as an above average defensive catcher. No other catcher comes even close to projecting like Mauer as a hitter, and the ones that are within even 15 RAA of Mauer annually are regarded as below average defensively. This guy is truly a marvel to watch, and apparently project as well.

No. 1: SS Hanley Ramirez, Florida (Age 26; Total projected WAR: 33.59; WAR Years 1-5: 7.1, 7.1, 6.7, 6.5, 6.2)

What? You weren't expecting Stephen Strasburg here, were you?

Hanley's greatness at shortstop has become so routine in the past five years that I think that some people forget that on a year-to-year basis, he's often putting up among the very best numbers in the game.

His dominance with the bat has been well-documented, which isn't surprising. This is a guy with three straight .400+ wOBA's under his belt. In those three seasons, he's put up at least a .300 batting average, .386 OBP, .200 isolated power and a RAA of at least +43 in each respective season. This guy has put up a 30-30 season, two 50+ steal seasons, a .342 batting average in 2009, and in 2008 he managed to get just 67 RBIs despite hitting 33 home runs with a batting average over .300. To put things simply, Hanley is an absolute monster with the lumber.

But what makes Hanley truly special is that he's shortstop, and he's actually developed into a pretty solid one. People often hear about Hanley's poor defense, work ethic and hustle, but few players do more with their talent than Ramirez does, even if that's partially because he seems to have an infinite well of it. 

Ramirez developed the reputation as an awful defender after putting up respective UZR and DRS marks of -21 and -28 in full-time duty in 2007, his second straight season with below average defensive marks. But he's shown significant improvement since then, with accumulative UZR and DRS marks of -1.6 and +7 since the beginning of the 2008 season, indicating that he's roughly average with the glove.

Our projections disagree with that notion, labeling Ramirez as below average for the duration of the projections, starting with a -4.7 mark in Year 1 before dropping down to -8.6 in Year 5. What's astonishing though, is that even though we are seemingly underrating his defense somewhat, he's still projected as baseball's best player over the next five seasons.

The projections see little reason to believe that Ramirez won't continue to be a +40 RAA or better bat, projecting him as no worse than +41 in any season, peaking with marks of +46.7 and +46.9 in Years 1 and 2, respectively. He projects as the fourth-best hitter in baseball over the next five years, behind only Pujols, Fielder and Upton. Notice that all of those guys play non-premium defensive positions though, while Ramirez tools his trade as a shortstop.

When we started outlining this series and speculating about what a list could look like, Ramirez was one of the first names that popped into my head as a candidate to go No. 1. It appears that his reputation does in fact match his on-field brilliance though, because BtB's projects Hanley to be baseball's best player over the next five seasons. Oh, and for a little perspective, Derek Jeter has been the game's best shortstop of the past five years, and he put up a total WAR of 25.3 over those five seasons. So yeah, we're anticipating that Hanley is about to have a pretty crazy run as the game's best player.

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