Most of you guys are probably too old to have any idea what I'm talking about, but remember that old computer game Backyard Baseball? You know, the one with all the kids, and you would begin each game by choosing a roster from all of the kids sitting on the bleachers? Well, as Steve outlined yesterday, here at BtB we're going to pick a little [big] team of our own, taking the best 50 players of the next five years, where the options on the bleachers aren't little Dante Robinson or speedy Pete Wheeler, but Hanley Ramirez, Justin Morneau and Roy Halladay, among others.
Now, in case you missed it, Steve went through the methodology for how we came up with the projections yesterday, while pointing out a few of the caveats with the projections as well. So, if you need to directly reference anything about how we came up with a particular number, that post would probably be a good place to start.
But to make things clear again, this is what we're talking about, on a basic level. Unlike FanGraphs' Trade Value Series, which ranked players directly by value factoring in salary and contract status, these rankings are all about performance. A 7 WAR year from A-Rod that put the Yankees back $32M is the same as a 7 WAR season from Jason Heyward that costs Atlanta a mere $500K, this is purely looking at things from an on-field perspective. Because our goal here isn't to rank the players based on their value relative to their salary, it's merely to highlight which players are projected to be the best in the game over the next five years completely independent of how much that's going to cost.
So with all of that out of the way, I'd like to happily present to everyone the first portion of our list of the 50 Best Players in Baseball over the next five years, the players ranked No. 50 through No. 41 on our list.
No. 50: 2B Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee (Total projected WAR: 17.45; Projected WAR Years 1-5: 4.1, 3.7, 3.6, 3.2, 2.8)
Weeks has been around so long that it's easy to forget that he's still only 27. A patient hitter with plus power for a middle infielder, many prospect evaluators projected Weeks to become one of the best players in the game. While attending Southern University, he was routinely regarded as one of the most talented hitters in college baseball, and he ran away with player of the year honors in 2003 after setting numerous records. After being drafted by the Brewers in the first round, he was ranked among the ten best prospects in all of baseball twice by Baseball America, being ranked No. 5 in 2004 and No. 8 the following year.
But Weeks' biggest issue at the major league level hasn't so much been his performance, it's been his inability to stay on the field. He established himself as Milwaukee's everyday second baseman in 2005, but he's only played in 100 games and exceed 500 plate appearances in two seasons. When healthy, he's been an above average hitter with a glove that's improved some over the years but still probably doesn't grade much better than average. He's shown flashes of the ability to be significantly better, though.
Steve's projections have Weeks finishing his first season as a roughly 4 WAR player, which is certainly reasonable given the numbers he's put up when he's been healthy. This is especially true when you consider that Weeks should actually be entering the very best seasons of his career now, as position players generally peak around their Age-27 season. Weeks may never win a batting title or be among the best hitters in baseball like some had hoped, but middle infielders with his combination of power and patience are a rare breed.
No. 49: OF Seth Smith, Colorado (Total WAR: 17.51; Years 1-5: 4.1, 3.7, 3.6, 3.2, 2.9)
Smith is getting some extra playing time in Colorado now, something that we touched on here at BtB earlier this morning. He may not be much of a household name, but his presence on this list shouldn't surprise you that much. The 27-year-old outfielder has had trouble getting playing time in Colorado over the years, although his role has consistently expanded in the past two seasons.
Smith emerged in Colorado last season after destroying Triple-A for two years, posting a .293/.378/.510 line on his way to a 2.9 fWAR in just 387 plate appearances. He's always had a patient approach and good power, which has certainly manifested itself at the major league level, his .224 ISO and 11% walk rate for his career are well above average. And he's not one of those high-strikeout sluggers, either, his walk rates in the minors were consistently below 20% and his 2010 mark is currently sitting at 12.7%.
Smith will always be somewhat limited by his struggles against left-handed pitching, his .314 wOBA against lefties pales in comparison to his .387 mark against right-handers, but just look at someone like Curtis Granderson, who's awful against lefties but still accumulates great numbers. If he can make even some remote improvement against lefties to go with his potent bat against right-handers and above average defense in the outfield corners, he could emerge as one of the best outfielders in the game.
Smith projects almost identically to Weeks in terms of wins above replacement, with his WAR marks being within 0.2 of Weeks in each of the five projected seasons. He starts off as a roughly 4.1 WAR player, a reasonable projection for this season given his hot start, but finishes as a roughly 2.8 WAR player in his age-31 season.
No. 48: OF Jayson Werth, Philadelphia (Total WAR: 17.57; Years 1-5: 4.4, 4.1, 3.6, 3.0, 2.5)
If we pushed back this list so we could look at 2008 through 2012, Werth would probably be significantly higher on the list, as he's been one of the best outfielders in baseball since the beginning of that season. But unfortunately, Mr. Werth was a bit of a late bloomer in Philly and didn't really begin to thrive until he was already 28. That has the soon-to-be free agent closing in on his 32nd birthday next season, making him a particularly old player given the nature of this list.
Certainly, you could look at this list and say that Werth could be higher if we began looking a year or two back. But I would argue that Werth's presence here in general is impressive given his age and the fact that he plays a corner outfield spot. The former elite prospect combines an impressive combination of power and speed (60 home runs, 40 steals in past two seasons) with a patient approach at the plate and above average defense in right field, making him a roughly 4-5 WAR player over the course of a full season.
Our projections have his decline beginning in the first season though, with a 4.4 WAR mark compared to the respective 4.8 and 5.0 marks he posted the previous two seasons. He stays above 4 WAR through the second season, but declines roughly a half-win each season after that before finishing with a sub-2.5 WAR season in the final year, making him a roughly average everyday player.
No. 47: 3B Mark Reynolds, Arizona (Total WAR: 17.58; Years 1-5: 3.9, 3.8, 3.5, 3.3, 3.0)
The 26-year-old third baseman is a tough case to project, as it's hard to imagine that a guy can succeed for that long with a strikeout rate that consistently saddles up near 40%. After hitting 28 homers in his first full season and 44 homers in his breakout last season, ZiPS projects him to finish this season with 35 home runs, in spite of another 200+ strikeout season.
He's known as a below average defender at third base, but according to the metrics he's performing significantly better in 2010, and he's actually a pretty good base runner for someone of his size, he stole 35 bases in 2008-2009. The biggest questions would really seem to be about whether he can stick at third base long-term and how long he can keep going before his exceptionally low contact rates win out.
Our projections actually have Reynolds finishing with a worse WAR in the first season than any of the guys below him on this list, a 3.9 WAR mark that would be a career-high for the slugger. He won't see the sizable decline early the way that Werth does, his bat should actually improve in Year 2, but his glove will consistently get worse from here on out. Reynolds will never truly be one of the best players in the game because his inability to make consistent contact limits him so much, but he's definitely one of the best power hitters that baseball has at the moment.
No. 46: LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles (NL) (Total WAR: 17.66; Years 1-5: 3.6, 3.6, 3.6, 3.6, 3.2)
And we have our first pitcher on the list! Now, I know Steve noted this before but I'll say it again: it's not nearly as easy to project pitchers as position players. This shouldn't be surprising, pitchers can make the kind of year-to-year improvements and changes that don't match those of hitters.
And it should be noted that this projection for Kershaw includes a variety of different projection results. We all know about Kershaw's incredible skill, and I think that we can safely say that he's at the very least capable of winning a Cy Young or two. But at the same time that we can plausibly see a scenario where he's a +7 WAR pitcher every year, we can also picture the Mark Prior scenario too, where his arm blows out and he's a +0 WAR pitcher every year.
Kershaw's projection fits nicely into the middle of that, having him as a 3.6 WAR pitcher for the first four years before seeing some small decline in Year 5. Kershaw already has a 4.2 WAR season under his belt from 2009, but we're going by adjusted runs allowed instead of FIP, and it's really tough to project a 22-year-old pitcher to post a +4 WAR season. A 3.6 WAR on average from Kershaw may seem somewhat disappointing to some, because this is a guy with stuff that just leaves your jaw dropped, but if the Dodgers can get that many wins out of him before he hits free agency I'm sure they'll be quite happy.
No. 45: 1B/OF Kyle Blanks, San Diego (Total WAR: 18.02; Years 1-5: 3.2, 3.5, 3.7, 3.8, 3.8)
For those of you who were freaking out about Blanks' rough start to the 2010 season, hopefully this should make you feel a little better. Blanks is on the DL right now after completely falling on his face to begin the 2010 season, posting a .282 wOBA while striking out a league-leading 45% of the time. But Steve's projection sees right through that, projecting Blanks as a +20 bat in Year 1 while getting progressively better in each of the next five seasons.
Blanks is an interesting case because he's clearly blocked from his ideal position by Adrian Gonzalez, but given his size he realistically can't play anywhere but first base long-term. But wherever he does fit, one can expect him to mash. The projections see Blanks taking small steps with his bat in each of the first three seasons before establishing himself as a roughly +30 bat in the final two years. To put that into perspective, Evan Longoria and Kendry Morales were roughly +30 bats last season, and you know, most people were pretty happy with their performances.
Blanks is definitely limited somewhat by his lack of defensive flexibility and the high strikeout rates, but guys that handle the bat as well as he does with his kind of power and approach at the plate generally show some level of success in the majors.
No. 44: C Chris Iannetta, Colorado (Total WAR: 18.07; Years 1-5: 4.1, 3.8, 3.7, 3.4, 3.1)
For those of you wondering why so many people were confused when the Rockies sent Iannetta down to Triple-A in May, this is probably a good reason why: he's a damn good baseball player. The projections have Iannetta as a +3 WAR player in all 5 seasons, which isn't surprising from a solid defensive backstop with an above-average bat.
He sees the biggest declines after Year 1 and Year 4, but overall the declines are essentially across-the-board. Presumably, Iannetta's contact issues will catch up to him at some point, as his career strikeout rate is over 27%, but he's still a catcher with plus power that knows how to take a walk.
When guys like Jason Kendall and Brian Schneider can get multi-year deals, it puts the value of having a high-quality catcher under control into perspective. Iannetta might never put up flashy counting numbers or a decent batting average, but few catchers will offer more value in a variety of other ways. Not bad for just one of FOUR catchers to land on this list.
No. 43: 1B Mark Teixeira, New York (AL) (Total WAR: 18.22; Years 1-5: 4.5, 4.1, 3.8, 3.3, 2.6)
Obviously, if we were going by value Tex wouldn't come anywhere near this list. But the big power hitter is still one of the best players in the game, particularly at the plate, and his present offensive prowess should make up for a substantial decline in the latter years of the contract.
One of the best switch-hitters in baseball, Teixeira is pretty much the prototype for a quality all-around hitter, capable of tossing up a .300 batting average, around 100 walks and/or 30+ homers in any given season. Unfortunately, as an aging first baseman, his bat accounts for pretty much the entirety of his value, so any decline there will essentially spell the end of Teixeira's time as an elite player.
He's off to a rough start this season, but that's not unusual for him, and he projects as a +29 to +33 bat in each of the first three years of the projections. It's not until Year 4, during his Age-33 season, that Teixeira sees some major declines in his performance. In those final two years, he sees a small decline in his defensive numbers, but his offensive value decreases by over 5 runs each in Years 4 and 5, leaving him as a +20 bat by Year 5 and a very slightly above average regular overall.
No. 42: RHP Neftali Feliz, Texas (Total WAR: 19.16; Years 1-5: 3.9, 3.9, 3.9, 3.9, 3.5)
I'd like to make one thing clear: Feliz doesn't make this list as a reliever, he makes it as a STARTER.
Now, we all know about Feliz. He's got a monster fastball that touches 99 and two offspeed pitches that could reasonably be classified as "plus". He's currently the Closer in Texas, a role that he's relishing in. But still, these projections show that Feliz could still be so much more if given the chance to start.
Steve's projections have Feliz as a roughly 3.9 WAR pitcher as a starter in each of the first four years before a decline in Year 5 similar to that of Kershaw, as all of the pitchers are [unfairly I might add] placed on the same aging curve. But still, this just shows how impressive Feliz has been on the mound. Just using his minor league numbers primarily as a starter and his major league numbers as a reliever, his projected numbers would've put him in a class with guys like Jered Weaver, Cole Hamels and Jair Jurrjens in terms of WAR.
This obviously doesn't factor in the potential that Feliz stays in the bullpen or doesn't prove capable of smoothly transitioning to the rotation, but seeing his name on this list is pretty impressive nonetheless.
No. 41: OF Grady Sizemore, Cleveland (Total WAR: 19.36; Years 1-5: 4.4, 4.1, 4.0, 3.6, 3.3)
I know, I know, there are a lot of reasons to be down on Sizemore right now. He's really looked like a fraction of his old self out there this season, he's not even playing right now due to injuries and he really hasn't been an elite player since the 2008 season now.
But still, this is Grady Sizemore, a guy who averaged 6.4 WAR per year in his first full four seasons. It's tough to believe that guy who was +97 offensively from 2006-2008 could totally fall apart with the bat by 2010, and the projections agree with that notion.
Sizemore is projected as a +22 bat in Year 1, with major periods of decline coming after Years 1 and 3. But he's never able to come close to the 7+ WAR marks he posted in 2006 and 2008 because his defense is projected as below average in center field from here no out. So while the projections like Sizemore for a solid bounce back, they like him to become a roughly 4-5 WAR player for 3 years before another decline into the 3.0-3.5 WAR range.
It seems pretty likely that the days of "Grady Sizemore: Best CF in Baseball" are over, but as we can see here that doesn't mean that he can't still be one of the better players in the game. It's just that he's no longer a cornerstone, build-everything-around-him-type player.