Let's be real. Any time a group of ESPN writers huddle together and use some wacky rankings to determine a list of best anything in sports, it's going to be wrong.
Not because they don't know what they are doing, but because in an attempt to stray from statistical biases and satisfy the masses' expected shock value, the list becomes skewed.
Exhibit A: Matt Kemp, he of 1 home run shy of 40/40 and eight hits shy of the Triple Crown in 2011, is apparently not as good as 12 other MLB players in the game today. While I won't debate that players like Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez are elite, they don't belong ahead of a five-tool, every day player.
Determining the correct order is pretty simple, really. It just takes a few hours to get everyone lined up in the right order. So, hands against the wall, boys. Here goes my shot at re-ordering the ESPN 500 top 100. The order it should be in.
Arizona Diamondbacks - 2
Colorado Rockies - 2
Los Angeles Dodgers - 2
San Diego Padres - 0
San Francisco Giants - 6
Chicago Cubs - 2
Cincinnati Reds - 4
Houston Astros - 0
Milwaukee Brewers - 6
Pittsburgh Pirates - 1
St. Louis Cardinals - 6
Atlanta Braves - 3
Miami Marlins - 5
New York Mets - 1
Philadelphia Phillies - 9
Washington Nationals - 3
Los Angeles Angels - 5
Oakland Athletics - 0
Seattle Mariners - 2
Texas Rangers - 8
Chicago White Sox - 1
Cleveland Indians - 2
Detroit Tigers - 5
Kansas City Royals - 3
Minnesota Twins - 1
Baltimore Orioles - 2
Boston Red Sox - 7
New York Yankees - 7
Tampa Bay Rays - 3
Toronto Blue Jays - 2
There are 30 starting pitchers, 7 closers, and 63 position players in my top 100 - 48 are from the A.L., 52 from the N.L.
Ryan Madson (ESPN Rank - 99), Ben Zobrist (97), Johnny Venters (93), Brett Lawrie (83), David Robertson (82), Yu Darvish (62), Matt Moore (55)
Madson is a good closer (though injured for the year), but not in the class of Heath Bell, who is my first closer in the Top 100. Zobrist is very talented as a utility player, but seems to have a case of the odd years; meaning, he had big years in 2009 and 2011, but struggled mightily in 2008 and 2010.
Venters and Robertson are set-up men, which I can't put in the top 100 in good conscious. If there's a difference between a closer and a starter as I claim, there's also a big difference between a starter and a set-up man, even if it's just the mentality of the roles.
Lawrie, Darvish and Moore have all shown flashes of brilliance in their very young, American careers, but I need at least a full season out of them before I crown them a Top 100 player.
On the Bubble:
Johnny Cueto (101), Andre Ethier (105), Jason Heyward (106), Tim Hudson (111), Doug Fister (118), Mark Buerhle (134), Jaime Garcia (139), Jemile Weeks (237)
Cueto, Hudson, Fister, Garcia and Buehrle are five guys I think are going to have big seasons from the mound. Mat Latos takes some pressure off Cueto in Cincinnati, Fister thrived in Detroit down the stretch, Garcia is just plain good, and Buehrle and Hudson will hold down the fort as the old men; I'll take each of them to win 15 games this season for the Marlins and Braves, respectively.
Ethier hasn't had a full, healthy season in a while, but when he's on, there is no doubt he's a top-100 player. If he stays off the DL in 2012, he may work his way into the rankings. Along the same lines, I fully expect Jason Heyward to bounce back from his sophomore slump and put up some sexy numbers.
My big dark horse is the young, exceptionally talented second baseman of the A's, in Weeks. He has shown a knack for getting on base, and he can hit for power, hit for average and steal bases. Weeks is a switch hitter and plays dazzling defense. Look for him to have a breakout year.
Now, let's get to the full rankings:
ESPN Rank: 98
Congratulations to my Mr. Irrelevant of the Top 100. Garza is a solid pitcher, but he's not doing anything to get mentioned with the likes of Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw. Or even former teammates David Price and James Shields for that matter.
Garza has good command and a nice arsenal of pitches, but I'm still waiting for him to put together that one "oh my god" year. Until then, he sits as the only member of the top 100 with triple digits next to his name.
162-game averages: 12-12, 3.83 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 174 K
ESPN Rank: 100
You're going to notice a lot of closers sliding down my rankings because I don't believe they have as much value as a starter who goes six or more innings in any given game, let alone as much as a position player who contributes every day. Bell is an exception, though he doesn't move up too much.
Bell has been an All-Star three seasons in a row, saving at least 40 games each year. The Marlins paid him lavishly for that success this offseason, and I expect more of the same out of the burly right-hander. He is truly a top-10 reliever in baseball right now.
By the way, don't ask me why Bell has a lefty's glove on in his picture. He's definitely a righty. But he is a notorious prankster.
162-game averages: 21 SV, 3.06 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 77 K
ESPN Rank: 94
Jimmy is getting on in age, but he's definitely still one of the 100 best players in baseball. When healthy, Rollins can put up nice power numbers for a shortstop, steal bases and hit for a decent average. He's no Troy Tulowitzki, but J-Roll does hit leadoff and from both sides of the plate.
Hopefully the Phillies will continue to extend Rollins (in more diminished roles as he gets older) so he can be a Phillie for life. The 2007 National League MVP winner isn't done yet, though. He's just 33 years old, and looks to have some nagging injuries behind him. He's currently signed through the 2014 season.
162-game averages: .272 AVG, 17 HR, 72 RBI, 37 SB
ESPN Rank: 74
Our first big mover comes in the form of a young hurler I've taken to calling "Felix Hernandez, Jr." Pineda came up with the Mariners in 2011 and was devastatingly good. He's got the build, the confidence and the filthy stuff to be a future ace. But you have to be worried about the kid's health.
He's already hit the DL in his first season as a Yankee with shoulder soreness. It's bound to happen to pitchers with that much torque in their release. If it becomes a chronic injury, Pineda may need to either move to the bullpen, or adjust his game. I really like what he did last year, but it remains to be seen if he can have continued success.
162-game averages: 9-10, 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 173 K
ESPN Rank: 75
I have nothing against Paulie. I actually really like him, dating back to the Dodger days of his youth. I just happen to think there are approximately 95 players in baseball who are better. Despite being 36, I think Konerko has a few good years left in that bat of his.
Konerko is similar to a couple other players, like David Ortiz, in that everyone knows they will hit a wall eventually. Big sluggers like that have to slow down eventually. And while I don't think 2012 is that year, I do expect a drop-off in production from Konerko's two big seasons in 2010 and 2011.
162-game averages: .282 AVG, 32 HR, 102 RBI, .500 SLG
ESPN Rank: 71
Beckett bounced back in 2011 and had a very good year for the Red Sox. Does that excuse his 2006, 2008, and 2010 seasons with Boston (5.01, 4.03, 5.78 ERAs, respectively)? I think not. Because of his early-career success with the Marlins, I think people are tricked into believing he's better than he is.
Don't get me wrong—Beckett has great stuff. Some of the best stuff in the game, actually. But that doesn't necessarily mean he's a great pitcher. His career ERA has ballooned to almost 4.00, and while he's looked masterful here and there and has put together some big seasons, Beckett is maddeningly inconsistent and injury-prone.
162-game averages: 15-10, 3.84 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 199 K
ESPN Rank: 69
Ranking Wieters 69th was very generous on ESPN's part. They must have taken into account the massive amount of potential the 25-year-old catcher possesses. He's good defensively, and his bat finally started to show some promise in 2011, but he's not a top-70 player just yet.
Last year, Wieters had his best pro season to date, hitting .262 with 22 homers and 68 RBI on a last-place team. He also made the American League all-star team and won his first Gold Glove. If Wieters continues to progress, he could be an absolute star by the time he hits his prime in a few years.
162-game averages: .265 AVG, 19 HR, 74 RBI, .415 SLG
ESPN Rank: 61
What? Don't look at me like that. I'm not sold on Kennedy just yet. He is a fantastic talent who had an incredible season in 2011. He's only 27, so he may just be hitting his prime, but his lack of success prior to last year has me skeptical. This is the year for Kennedy to prove me wrong and make a big jump on this list.
Obviously, going 21-4 in any fashion is impressive. But Kennedy faded down the stretch a little bit and had a ridiculous offense backing him. If the D'Backs win another division crown with him at the helm of the rotation, I'll be more of a believer. Until then, he's merely a guy with great stuff who had one good year.
162-game averages: 14-8, 3.65 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 178 K
ESPN Rank: 64
Let's just be frank about it - ESPN absolutely loves Brian Wilson. That beard has done wonders for his status as a closer among fans. Wilson is definitely good. There's no getting around that. But the closers he was ranked ahead of is a little ridiculous.
Again, I tend to rank closers lower than most because I don't see as much value in them as I do in a starter or a position player. So that does affect Wilson's rankings here. But since he took over as the Giants' closer, he has been a heart attack waiting to happen. He usually converts, but not without a little drama.
Just check out his career numbers. They are definitely not startling for an "elite" closer.
162-game averages: 37 SV, 3.17 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 73 K
ESPN Rank: 125
Everyone out there should keep underrating Kendrick, and he will gladly keep mashing his way to respectability among the fans. Before I even get to the numbers, let me point out that Kendrick can pretty much play anywhere on the diamond, outside of the 90 feet between the mound and home plate.
At age 28, Kendrick is just entering his prime. That should excite Angels fans who already have Albert Pujols and Kendrys Morales in the heart of that order. Kendrick has improved his bat and his glove every single year, and earned his first all-star berth in 2011. Look for another five or six years of impressive play out of Howie.
162-game averages: .292 AVG, 12 HR, 75 RBI, 15 SB
ESPN Rank: 96
Yes, it's true that I have a bromance with the Kansas City Royals. So what. That doesn't change the fact that Gordon finally came into his own in 2011 after years of being a failed top prospect, tons of strikeouts, and a position change from third base to the outfield. It's a good time to be hitting his prime.
Gordon posted career highs in every single category last season, and is a borderline five-tool player. Even more impressive than his .303 average or increased power numbers, was the fact that he had 20 outfield assists. The gold glover was rewarded with a four-year deal from the Royals earlier this week.
162-game averages: .262 AVG, 20 HR, 72 RBI, 13 SB
ESPN Rank: 90
I like Weeks' game, but his little brother Jemile might just sprint straight by him on this list by the end of the 2012 season. As for the big bro, he's hit his prime in stride, upping his average and power totals in the last couple years. He also plays a flashy second base out there.
In 2011, he was limited by injury, but still had a big hand in that explosive Milwaukee offense. Weeks needs to cut down on his strikeouts (usually averages twice as many K's to walks), but if he continues to drive in runs and steal bases, he'll have a spot in the middle of that order.
162-game averages: .255 AVG, 23 HR, 67 RBI, 21 SB
ESPN Rank: 84
I mustache you a question: Does Axford's facial hair make him more or less intimidating? I say it breaks even, but the fact that the batter will simply be in awe of the 'stache means they can't fully focus on the pitches coming their way. Or Axford could just be really good.
In 2011, Axford was automatic in the ninth inning for the Brewers, notching 46 saves. He looks to be the Brew Crew's closer for the foreseeable future, and rightfully so. The guy got MVP votes last year and even finished in the top 10 for Cy Young.
162-game averages: 37 SV, 2.26 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 89 K
ESPN Rank: 76
This is through no fault of his own. Latos is a good pitcher, he has just yet to have a season that puts him in the upper echelon of starting pitchers. This could be the year in Cincy, however. He has a solid offense backing him, and he gets the opportunity to start against the Cubs and Astros multiple times.
I'm still not entirely sold on Latos, despite his impressive 2010 season in which he logged 14 wins and a sub-3.00 ERA. Exhibit A: He regressed to the tune of a 3.47 ERA last season. That's still a nice number, but not as good as he should be. He has a ton of talent, so I'm waiting to see if he breaks out for the Reds in 2012.
162-game averages: 13-14, 3.37 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 195 K
ESPN Rank: 73
This drop is not a reflection on Avila. I love this guy. I think he's going to be a great player. But ESPN's rankings were just far too generous for a backstop with just one good year on his resume. Granted, he's still young at 25, which is why I think he's got a chance to be special.
For now though, Avila is simply the 86th best player in baseball. He hits for power, boosted his average last year, and can handle the pitching staff like a champ. I'm expecting the offensive numbers to improve with Prince Fielder in the lineup in 2012, and for Avila to start establishing himself as a star.
162-game averages: .270 AVG, 18 HR, 75 RBI, .453 SLG
ESPN Rank: 70
If Feliz was still closing, I would have argued in the opposite direction; that is, he would be too low at 70. I think he'd be more in the 50-55 range if he hadn't been switched to the rotation. But since he HAS been switched, and we don't know all that much about what he's capable of doing, I'm slotting him at 85.
Not all pitchers can make a successful transition from starter to closer or vice versa. I bet you didn't know Eric Gagne was a starter before he transitioned to a record-breaking reliever. Well, he was. And he was awful. I think Feliz has the stuff to be a good starter, but I need to see it before I just throw him any higher on this list.
162-game averages (as a closer): 33 SV, 2.55 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 72 K
ESPN Rank: 52
There's no doubt about it, Papelbon is a good closer. Yet, he's shown a tendency to collapse in big moments (need I remind you of Game 162 last season?). I think that is a combination of him being put in a lot of big moments as he closed for a good team, and maybe a bit of him being overrated.
Not by much though. He's got electric stuff and a ridiculous intensity level. I think the Phillies overspent for him this offseason, but they won't be disappointed. He'll put up similar, if not a little better numbers than Ryan Madson, but he's going to bring a lot more fire and passion to the mound.
By the way, did you know the 31-year-old already has 219 career saves? Wow. Do I smell a trip to Cooperstown in his future?
162-game averages: 37 SV, 2.33 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 87 K
ESPN Rank: 133
An early candidate for the biggest mover has to be Aramis. He's been an all-star third baseman for years, but very quietly was the most productive at his position in the National League in 2011. How he got overlooked for the top 100 baffles me. I guess winning the Silver Slugger wasn't enough.
Just what exactly about his .306/26/93 season last year landed him such a large snub? I won't try and figure it out. All I know is that Ramirez is one of the better right-handed hitters in baseball, even at the ripe old age of 33. I would be shocked if he didn't put up big numbers for at least three more seasons.
162-game averages: .284 AVG, 30 HR, 108 RBI, .500 SLG
ESPN Rank: 51
Normally, I have a tough time placing guys without a full season in the books this high on any list (see: Dee Gordon, Jemile Weeks), despite their immense talent. But, I'm making an exception for Strasburg. Just not as big of an exception as Strasburg-happy ESPN. Why am I being so kind to the kid? Well...
...have you seen him pitch? My goodness. He's got some incredible tools in his arsenal. And if not for that arm injury, we might even be talking about him as one of the better pitchers in the game already. He pairs a 100-MPH fastball with a freakish changeup and a biting breaking ball. You've got to love Strasburg's potential, but let's give him a full season before we rank him so high.
162-game averages: 12-8, 2.54 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 232 K
ESPN Rank: 137
Braves fans must love this young slugging first baseman they've raised through the farm system and up to impending stardom. Last season's Rookie of the Year runner-up put on a show, launching homers like nobody's business and racking up a decent list of clutch hits.
It's also impressive to see a power hitter at that age creeping up on a .300 average and .350 on-base percentage (.282, .340 respectively). The one thing Freeman, like most young players, must work on is cutting down strikeouts. His walk total was almost three times less than his strikeout total in 2011.
162-game averages: .277 AVG, 20 HR, 70 RBI, .444 SLG
ESPN Rank: 92
Movement: + 12
Yes, Gio ranks ahead of Strasburg. Calm down. This is going to be one of the biggest off season pick-ups in all of baseball when the season comes to an end. In two seasons with the offensively-challenged A's, Gonzalez won a combined 31 games. Doesn't anyone else realize how ridiculous that is?
The averages below aren't going to reflect how good Gonzalez has become. He was a spot starter and reliever at first, and posted some hefty ERA's. But since being moved into the rotation, he's thrived, significantly increasing his stats in every category. It's only a matter of time before Gio reaches the 20-win plateau.
162-game averages: 14-12, 3.93 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 189 K
ESPN Rank: 85
I think the Big Puma deserves a little lovin'. If he plays five more seasons, he will be creeping up on 2,700 hits and 500 home runs. He's going to finish his career as one of the more quietly great switch hitters of all-time. Since coming over to St. Louis, he's proved people who doubted his ability at his age wrong, capping it all with a ring in 2011.
Will he keep putting up 30/100 seasons? Probably not. But is he still a very good hitter? Absolutely. I expect at least two more good seasons out of Berkman, before he starts to tail off significantly and look for DH'ing jobs in the American League.
162-game averages: .296 AVG, 33 HR, 109 RBI, .545 SLG
ESPN Rank: 167
I didn't realize one below average season from a guy who was an all-star his first ten seasons in the league pushes him completely off the list of 100 (150, even) greatest players in the game. That's like saying Albert Pujols is done because he failed to reach the .300 and 100 RBI mark for the first time ever in 2011.
Give me a break. Ichiro's still got it, and the way he plays, you could be seeing five or more years past this season of him in America. Lest we forget, when Ichiro came over to the States in 2001 from Japan, he was an all-star, gold glover, silver slugger, Rookie of the Year and MVP. Very few players in the history of the game can say that. The future Hall-of-Famer (who will demolish 3,000 hits by the way) is still elite.
162-game averages: .326 AVG, 9 HR, 56 RBI, 39 SB
ESPN Rank: 91
Someday Victorino will get the respect he deserves for being such a catalyst in that Philadelphia lineup. And a stalwart outfielder. It really does count when you are a gritty gamer like Victorino. When you are always hustling on the field, opposing pitchers will be afraid to have you on base, let alone at the plate.
And being such a spark infuses life into a team. Sure, the Phillies have had talented rosters since Victorino's been there, but it seems like all nine guys are always playing at a high level, which I attribute partly to Victorino setting the pace. Besides, his numbers stand out higher than most people realize.
162-game averages: .279 AVG, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 28 SB
ESPN Rank: 54
Movement: - 22
James Shields is a darn good pitcher. But the 54th best player in baseball? Methinks not. He's a solid workhorse, good for over 200 innings a season, but 2011 was the first year he finally put it all together. Shields finished third in the Cy Young voting last year, largely in part to a sub-3.00 ERA.
While his record didn't exactly reflect his success last year, you have to look at the 11 complete games, 1.04 WHIP, 4 shutouts and 225 K's and just be amazed. That's an incredibly good year for any starter. And I hope Shields maintains that level of success, but the five previous years didn't show me much.
162-game averages: 13-12, 3.96 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 189 K
ESPN Rank: 58
Wilson is a very good pick up for the Angels. I don't know if he's worth all the hype he's been getting over there, but as a decently cheap tag-along to Albert Pujols, you can't complain (I say cheap, because Matt Cain's huge deal with the Giants dwarfs the $77 million over 5 years the Angels gave Wilson). Especially if he's going to record double digit wins and a sub-3.00 ERA as the number three starter.
His averages won't quite show this, because he was a reliever for a few years before converting to the rotation, but Wilson has really nasty stuff. He throws hard, he has good control and is smart. He has a knack for getting roughed up though, and I'd like to see some postseason success before tabbing him as a top-60 player.
162-game averages (including his years as RP): 7-6, 3.60 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 109 K
ESPN Rank: 63
Andrus is the first position player from the Rangers to make an appearance here. But I promise, he won't be the last. There's still a long way to go. Andrus was bred to be a top of the order, base-stealing threat. And so far, he hasn't disappointed.
The scariest thing is that Andrus has hardly even touched his ceiling. He could improve on average and defense, even though he's not terrible in either category. Andrus is a very well-balanced player, who is a perfect fit between the multitude of power hitters in the Texas lineup.
162-game average: .271 AVG, 4 HR, 49 RBI, 37 SB
ESPN Rank: 176
Remember that bromance I have with the Royals? Well Butler is the main target of my affection. This guy is so unfairly devoid of praise, it's criminal. All the big slugger does is drop 15-20 jacks a year and hover around a .300 average with 90 RBI. Yet, he's never been an all-star and has already been surpassed in popularity by teammates Hosmer and Gordon.
I don't know why Butler has slipped so far under the radar, but what I've done here is something ESPN didn't: research. I knew he was good. My fantasy teams could attest to that. But, I didn't realize the 25-year-old has been averaging such solid numbers. This was an easy jump for me to make, putting Butler in the Top 100.
162-game averages: .297 AVG, 17 HR, 87 RBI, .458 SLG
ESPN Rank: 88
For how much ESPN seems to love Castro, I was shocked to see him so low on the list. I'm here to do the dirty work for ESPN, and move him up sixteen spots here. You could make an argument that he should be higher even, but I'll wait until Starlin shores up that defense a tad bit.
As for the bat, this is the one the Cubs must continue to build around. I think the new front office team of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are smart enough to recognize that. Castro, only 22 and entering his third big league season, set career highs in almost every category in 2011, and reached the 200-hit plateau. If he continues to improve, watch out.
162-game averages: .304 AVG, 7 HR, 61 RBI, 18 SB
ESPN Rank: 80
Santana is another young star you're going to have to keep an eye on. I think 2012 is the year he fully breaks out and becomes a star. He's already a solid backstop, but his bat is what intrigues me. Although he's got Carlos Pena-esque batting averages so far in his career, Santana can really rake.
In just over 200 professional games, Santana has 33 home runs and 101 RBI. He's still young, so expect those to be the numbers he puts up in a 162-game season very soon. The Indians are on the right track, and Santana needs to keep hitting like crazy for them to contend anytime soon.
162-game averages: .244 AVG, 27 HR, 81 RBI, .459 SLG
ESPN Rank: 56
NAP-O-LI! NAP-O-LI! The chant that would have haunted Cardinal fans forever if the Rangers had hung on to win the World Series last year. I didn't see Napoli's breakout 2011 coming. And don't tell me you did, liar. But I was thoroughly impressed with not only his ability to keep it up all season, but that he hit well over .300.
The average and consistency was a nice bonus to an already loaded Texas lineup, but I believe Napoli proved himself as an underrated defender last year. If he can duplicate the power numbers of last year and continue to play well behind the plate, he might rise even higher in the rankings next season.
162-game averages: .264 AVG, 32 HR, 85 RBI, .514 SLG
ESPN Rank: 89
Come on, ESPN. You're better than this. There's a difference between a guy like Jason Heyward who had a ton of hype and a good rookie year, and a guy with a ton of hype and a GREAT rookie year. Watching the two play, you can understand why Heyward had a dip in productivity in his second season.
But when I observe Hosmer's swing, I see a lot less holes than in Heyward's. I would be shocked to see Hosmer have a sophomore slump at all, let alone one as bad as J-Hey's. I'm thinking Hosmer can crack .300 in 2012 and maybe even get to 25 home runs.
162-game averages: .293 AVG, 24 HR, 99 RBI, 14 SB
ESPN Rank: 50
I'd still say 68th is a bit generous. Of course, I loved what I saw from Kimbrel in his rookie season last year. But I'm not like every fantasy manager and his or her mom, who is taking Kimbrel as the first closer off the board. The kid is very impressive, but still has work to do.
For example, before you completely jump on the bandwagon, remember that Kimbrel blew eight saves last year. That's way too many for any reliever, regardless of how many opportunities you've had. So keep an eye on Kimbrel. He's going to have a fantastic career, just give him a couple more seasons to get acclimated.
162-game averages: 32 SV, 1.75 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 114 K
ESPN Rank: 53
Gallardo has a long way to go before I trust him with a ranking higher than this. In fact, I'm not sold on the entire Brewers' "big three." I suppose they are all good enough in their own ways, but I would rather have four different Angels pitchers in the rotation ahead of Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.
Anyway, let's not rain on Gallardo's parade too much. He IS a good pitcher. But he can be erratic, and he has never had a full season with an ERA below 3.50. That's not terrible, but it's not elite. I do like that he's young and improving though. I'll take him to win 20 games at least a couple times in his career.
162-game averages: 15-10, 3.63 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 214 K
ESPN Rank: 87
Now this ranking by ESPN was just blasphemy. Even at 66, I feel a little bit off. In my mind, Pence is a Top 50 player, but I couldn't justify jumping the players ahead of him just yet. If he has another big season in 2012, we're talking about a solid 20-25 spot jump.
You've got to love the way Pence plays. He's a hustler who plays tough defense and has a ton of ability in the batter's box. Raw power complements his good eye, and he can run the bases to boot. He's just entering his prime, and I expect his numbers to explode over the next few seasons.
162-game averages: .292 AVG, 25 HR, 91 RBI, 14 SB
ESPN Rank: 57
If Youk wasn't injured so often over the last two seasons, I'd be putting him much higher, because his numbers would have been better. But now that I have to worry about his health, I have to worry about his productivity. Still, when healthy, Youk is one of the better all-around players in the American League.
Even after injuries forced him to miss a combined 102 games in the last two years, Youkilis has put up decent numbers when he was on the field. And for his career, his averages are still studly. He's on the downside of his prime, but if he can still drive in runs, the Red Sox have a bonus in that lineup.
162-game average: .289 AVG, 23 HR, 98 RBI, .492 SLG
ESPN Rank: 66
It's a bold strategy to move Howard up at all. Some may argue I should have moved him down. But we all know that Howard is one of the most prolific power hitters in the game today when he's healthy. And last year's freak injury seems to be progressing well, so it's just a matter of time before he gets back to playing and justifying this ranking.
If he gets back to form, this is a guy who can shoot up these rankings really fast. He's' had four seasons of at least 135 RBI and three seasons of 45 or more home runs. As with all power hitters, he's also struck out over 150 times in seven straight seasons.
162-game averages: .275 AVG, 45 HR, 136 RBI, .560 SLG
ESPN Rank: 67
Utley is another example of a high risk/reward guy. Over the past few seasons he's been battling his own injury woes. But when on the field, he's one of the best all-around players in baseball. He can hit for average and power, steal bases and plays a nifty second base.
If the Phillies get a productive season out of Utley and a good half-season out of Howard, they will more than likely win the N.L. East again. But considering Utley hasn't played more than 115 games since 2009, it's unlikely that they will get more than maybe 130 in a best-case scenario.
162-game averages: .290 AVG, 27 HR, 101 RBI, 16 SB
ESPN Rank: 72
Big Papi is a perfect example of someone defying the odds of age. Being a designated hitter for a good chunk of his career has helped, I'm sure. But Ortiz is also just a hitting machine. Maybe people around baseball expected a regression in 2011. Instead, Ortiz smiled and hit .309 on his way to a fifth Silver Slugger award and seventh all-star selection.
At age 36, Ortiz has to slow down eventually, but I don't see it happening until 2013 at the very earliest. I'd even venture to say Ortiz could keep up these great numbers for two more seasons. Time will tell, but until that big boy breaks down, he's a sure-fire top 100 player.
162-game averages: .283 AVG, 35 HR, 118 RBI, .544 SLG
ESPN Rank: 77
Ricky Romero deserves better than 77th on this list. Wrong again, ESPN! Since breaking into the bigs in 2009, Romero has just gotten better and better every year. His crowning achievement so far was being named an all-star in 2011 when he posted 15 wins and a 2.92 ERA.
I've slated Romero as a dark horse candidate for the A.L. Cy Young award in 2012 on a good-looking Blue Jays team. If Romero continues to improve statistically like his career trends suggest, we may be looking at an 18 game winner with a 2.60 ERA this season.
162-game averages: 15-11, 3.60 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 180 K
ESPN Rank: 78
If Romero is deserving of a higher spot than 77th, Asdrubal Cabrera is absolutely worth pushing up too. Sure, he "broke out" in 2011, but if you've been watching baseball since 2007 when Cabrera made his debut, you've seen a rising star getting more comfortable with his swing every year.
We knew from the get-go that Cabrera would be a magician at shortstop, but the way his offense has progressed has been a really pleasant surprise. In the four years prior to last, he had combined to hit 18 home runs. So bombing 25 last season could be a sign of big things for the Indians.
162-game averages: .281 AVG, 13 HR, 78 RBI, 13 SB
ESPN Rank: 95
Beltran is my biggest mover out of players already ranked in the top 100. Can someone please explain to me why Beltran is suddenly worse than 94 players in baseball? Don't forget, he hit .300/22/84 between the Mets and Giants last season.
Beltran has lost a step as age and injuries have started to catch up, but he's still covering some ground in the outfield and can swipe a bag or two if asked to do so. The real value the Cardinals got is that his eye and power stroke (from both sides) haven't gone missing at all. He's no Albert Pujols, but he's no scrub, either.
162-game averages: .283 AVG, 28 HR, 105 RBI, 27 SB
ESPN Rank: 79
And Phillips continues to get no respect by the experts in Bristol. It's all fine and dandy to be a funny, likable guy but at some point the analysts need to realize what an explosive talent Phillips is on both sides of the ball. We know he can play a mean second base, but it's his bat that gets understated.
Phillips has driven in at least 75 runs every year since coming to Cincinnati, and is both a home run and base-stealing threat. He's a free agent at the end of the 2012 season and smack dab in the middle of his prime. Needless to say, bidders should be aplenty and cash should be flowing for his services.
162-game averages: .272 AVG, 20 HR, 82 RBI, 22 SB
ESPN Rank: 81
Michael Young is so underrated that his own team nearly pissed him off before last season that he was going to pursue a new organization. Obviously, signing Adrian Beltre to play third and moving Young to a utility role worked out just fine for Texas. But the point is, Young's game deserves more respect.
The 7-time all-star has probably been the quietest player to average 200 hits per season you've ever heard of. But that's exactly what he's doing, with some power numbers to boot. He can swipe a bag and play defense at multiple positions, making him a great overall value to have. Utility man extraordinaire!
162-game averages: .304 AVG, 16 HR, 89 RBI, .451 SLG
ESPN Rank: 86
There are certain young players that should understandably be ranked low because they have yet to prove themselves on the big stage (see: Strasburg). Bumgarner does not fit in that category for a couple reasons. The least of which being his postseason success.
In the Giants' 2010 title run, Bumgarner went 2-0 with a 2.18 ERA in 3 starts, including shutting out a loaded Texas Rangers lineup for 8 innings in the World Series. That kind of mettle can't be taught or bought, and that's exactly why Bumgarner gets to slide all the way up near the top 50. Oh, did I mention he's only 22 years old?
162-game averages: 13-12, 3.10 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 182 K
ESPN Rank: 68
Really? Bruce ranked 68th? I was tempted to go top 50 with him on my list. At age 25, Bruce already has 100 career homers and a knack for the walk-off heroics. He and Joey Votto form an intimidating lefty duo in the heart of that order, and after they both got long-term deals, it should stay that way for years to come.
I think Bruce has one of the smoothest lefty swings in the game. He hits for a lot of power, but also strikes out a fair amount. To me, Bruce is Adam Dunn, but younger, faster and more reliable with the glove. Also he gets on base more and hits for a higher average. Yes please, I'll take a little more Bruce!
162-game averages: .256 BA, 32 HR, 87 RBI, .474 SLG
ESPN Rank: 65
Kung-Fu Panda has very sneakily become one of the better players in baseball over the last two years, his fluctuating weight be damned. Sandoval has power from both sides of the plate and can pick it at third. He also boosted his average over .300 for the first time since 2009 last season.
In 2011, Sandoval only played 117 games, but still had his second-best season for power, hitting 23 home runs and driving in 70 runs on an offensively-challenged Giants team. I like what Sandoval brings to the plate with that swing, and I think the 25-year-old has a lot of big years ahead of him. That's just what San Francisco needs.
162-game averages: .307 BA, 22 HR, 86 RBI, .501 SLG
ESPN Rank: 131
Jones is another big mover on my board. He's the great hope of the Baltimore Orioles, checking in at .280/25/83 last season, similar to the two years before that. I would like to see Jones start to draw more walks, but that will come with age. He's only 26 coming into the 2012 season.
I think as A.J. starts to enter his prime, the O's are going to have a true star in their outfield. Besides the big bat, Jones has above average speed and a really solid glove to go with it. He's only won a single Gold Glove award to this point, but should have more by the time his career is over. Look for a run at 30 bombs this season.
162-game averages: .275 AVG, 19 HR, 76 RBI, .437 SLG
ESPN Rank: 60
When David Wright is healthy, he's easily a top 20 player. He possesses a rare combination of 30/30 potential, while also playing exceptional defense and hitting for a high average. In his best season in 2007, Wright hit .325 with 30 homers, 107 RBI and 34 steals, and took home the Gold Glove at third.
Unfortunately, injuries hampered him last season and have been a plague throughout his young career. But if he's fully healthy in 2012, I expect huge things from Wright, even on a bad team in New York. And he's still not in his prime, so when that time hits we could be looking at him as a superstar again.
162-game averages: .300 BA, 27 HR, 106 RBI, 22 SB
ESPN Rank: 59
Cruz has become an absolute monster the last three seasons, as if the Rangers needed anymore offensive firepower. More important than the actual numbers he puts up are how he does it. As we saw in the postseason last year, when Cruz launched eight homers and drove in 16 runs in three series.
The one worry with Cruz is his health. He's never played more than 128 games in a season in his career. Which more than anything, is terrifying. The thought of Cruz getting a full 150+ game season and eclipsing his abilities (already a 30/90 guy) should shake opposing pitchers to their core.
162-game averages: .270 AVG, 32 HR, 98 RBI, 16 SB
ESPN Rank: 102
Valverde not being in the top 100 is an absolute travesty. It seems as if there's a very small percentage of fans outside Detroit who noticed that he notched 49 saves in 2011. Out of 49. Yes, the guy was perfect in the ninth, and has a legitimate shot at breaking Eric Gagne's record save streak of 84.
Going back to 2010, Valverde has converted 54 straight regular season saves. So if things go right and he is as dominant as last year closing out games, he definitely has a shot. No matter what happens, Valverde is absolutely an elite closer, and the second best in the game in my opinion (Isn't it obvious who number one is?).
Update: Valverde read this and decided he hated me...then promptly blew a save on Opening Day. Streak, over.
162-game averages: 32 SV, 3.02 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 80 K
ESPN Rank: 42
There is no denying Greinke's talent. But I'm willing to sacrifice all the lovely people in Wisconsin's feelings to tell you a secret: He's not that great. His numbers are good in the grand scheme of things, but for the amount of praise he gets, he's absolutely overrated.
Sure, I'll put him in the echelon of good pitchers, but he can't even touch guys like Jon Lester or Chris Carpenter. Give the kid props for his Cy Young award season in 2009. He definitely deserved it. But until he can string together a few seasons like that, he's only going to be moving down on this list.
162-game averages: 12-11, 3.82 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 177 K
ESPN Rank: 32
Now this drop in the rankings wasn't out of spite. I still think Teixeira is an elite hitter, even though the general consensus around baseball these days is that he's over the hill. I'm not going to argue with the big offensive numbers he's put up despite a dip in batting average.
Not to mention, Tex has four Gold Gloves at first base. He hasn't hit over .300 since 2008, but the power numbers haven't gone anywhere, and I don't see them fading for another few years. Keep picking him up in your fantasy leagues, people. He's still got plenty of value.
162-game averages: .281 AVG, 37 HR, 120 RBI, .532 SLG
ESPN Rank: 47
This is the first time ESPN nailed it with the exact ranking, and they couldn't have picked a better guy. Fans of pitching have to like Waino. He's one of the rare pitchers who could be a good closer (he was on the mound for the final out of their 2006 World Series win), and convert to a great starter.
He finished second in the Cy Young voting back in 2010, but his 20-11 record and 2.42 ERA would probably have gotten the job done in most years. He seems to be getting better, and will definitely climb higher on this list if he can bounce back from Tommy John surgery in 2012 and return to his dominant form.
162-game averages: 15-8, 2.97 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 164 K
ESPN Rank: 34
McCann looks pretty upset in this picture because I moved him down 12 slots from ESPN's original rank. Or maybe because the Braves were on the verge of completing a historic collapse to miss the playoffs last season. Either way, ESPN had him far too high.
I can understand the draw - he can play some decent defense and hits cleanup in a good lineup. But is he really better all around than Yadier Molina, Buster Posey or a healthy Joe Mauer? No way. McCann has made six straight all-star appearances, but his big bat doesn't make up for his defensive deficiencies.
162-game averages: .286 AVG, 25 HR, 99 RBI, .486 SLG
ESPN Rank: 49
I really love that ESPN made a good decision ranking Yadi this high in the first place, but I had to bump him up ahead of McCann for a couple reasons. First, Molina improves offensively every single year. And while he won't put up the power numbers that McCann does, he'll hit for a higher average and he's much more clutch.
But this ranking is all about defense, and there's not a catcher in the Majors who can handle a pitching staff better, gun down base stealers, and block balls in the dirt better than Molina. It's not even close, and if you disagree, talk to the four straight Gold Gloves. He's a modern-day Pudge Rodriguez. Yes, I just wrote that.
162-game averages: .274 AVG, 9 HR, 67 RBI, .993 Fielding %
ESPN Rank: 44
Another good ranking by ESPN here, although if this guy is the 44th best player in baseball, you know the Rangers are loaded. Kinsler is a utility extraordinaire. By that I don't mean the traditional definition of someone who can play multiple positions at a moment's notice (although I don't doubt his ability in that).
I mean a guy who puts up good, not great numbers in every single category, as well as plays good defense. He's not an all-around star like Matt Kemp or Carlos Gonzalez, but he's leading the tier of players just below them. Kinsler is in the middle of his prime right now and could put up a 30/30 season.
162-game averages: .275 AVG, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 29 SB
ESPN Rank: 37
Holliday is great, but definitely overrated every single year. Since he left Colorado, his offense has declined and his injuries have increased. If you can count on Holliday to stay healthy for a full season, he can still drop a .300/30/100 line on you.
But long gone are the days of 35 homers, 130 RBI and a shot at 20 stolen bases. The frequency by which the injury bug bites this guy has me worried. I'm going to predict that by age 36 (2016), Holliday is in the AL doing a little DH'ing duty. For now, he's a solid hitter who will never live up to his previous talent.
162-game averages: .315 AVG, 29 HR, 110 RBI, .541 SLG
ESPN Rank: 39
I'm optimistic too, ESPN. If (and this is a big IF) Mauer is healthy, he's the best all-around catcher in the game. By a mile. Yadi Molina has him in defense, but nobody can even come close to matching this guy's offensive output in a full season. The Twins will really need Mauer to stay on the field in 2012 to compete.
Mauer has a sweet left-handed swing, and it's a shame that we didn't get to watch it in action last season. He is just entering his prime, and will hopefully provide us with some more batting titles and Gold Gloves for a few more years. What kind of fan doesn't enjoy seeing that?
162-game averages: .323 AVG, 15 HR, 89 RBI, .471 SLG
ESPN Rank: 43
This feels strange to write, but A-Rod is one of my sleeper picks for 2012. As in, yes he's older and slower and less productive. But I contend that he is in better shape coming into this season, he's shied away from the spotlight, and seems to have taken a leadership role with the team.
Now bring in the fact that he'll be spending a little more time DH'ing instead of trying to play a full season at the hot corner, and you've got the makings for another huge season from Rodriguez. I'm thinking something along the lines of .280/30/110 is on the horizon. I'll pause for you take a second to contemplate how to track me down and kick me in the balls...done? Good.
162-game averages: .302 AVG, 42 HR, 128 RBI, .567 SLG, 21 SB
ESPN Rank: 41
All Andrew McCutchen has done since breaking into the league in 2009 is hit for average, hit for power, steal bases, and play great outfield defense. Sounds like a pretty intriguing combination to me. At 25 years old, he is one of the bright young stars in the game, and Pittsburgh did good to lock him up long-term.
Cutch's stats have improved every year, and I expect no different in 2012. I'm looking for something around 30 homers and 100 RBI and inching closer to the .300 mark in average. Oh, and don't forget that the dude can fly - I'll look for 25 stolen bases in 2012 from the face of the Pirates franchise.
162-game averages: .276 AVG, 20 HR, 77 RBI, 30 SB
ESPN Rank: 45
Zim's gotta be top 40. He's been the only constant on the Nationals until very recently. He also showed a leap of faith by signing long-term in the nation's capital. Maybe he knew something we didn't. But the Nats look poised to make a playoff run in the near future, if not this season. And Zimmerman's going to be the biggest part of that run.
He's not even in his prime yet, and Zimmerman has already been averaging nearly 30/100 every full season he's played. That is one big question mark with him though - can he stay healthy? He's missed large chunks of a couple seasons due to injuries. When on the field, Zimmerman is one of the best in the game.
162-game averages: .288 AVG, 25 HR, 95 RBI, .479 SLG
ESPN Rank: 48
Show the kid a little respect, ESPN! I know he got run over by Scott Cousins (Cue: Giants fans around the globe cringe at Cousins' name) early last year and it ended his season. But that doesn't mean we forget about his Rookie of the Year season of 2010. If you think the Giants were winning the World Series that year without the catcher, you're in need of immediate medical attention.
Posey was a big prospect coming out of Florida State, and the Giants definitely didn't miss in that draft. Putting together 162-game averages is easy for Posey; he's only played 160 career games. And in that full season's worth of contests, he's proven himself to wield a tough, clutch bat. But even better, he is a fantastic catcher.
162-game averages: .294 AVG, 22 HR, 89 RBI, .462 SLG
ESPN Rank: 30
Johnson is a victim of my theory that a starting pitcher holds less value than position players. I moved him back, but he's still a top 10 starter in the Majors without a shade of doubt. He missed the 2011 season with an arm injury, but is back this year to anchor the Marlins' new-look rotation.
He was an all-star in 2009 and 2010 before getting injured, and rightfully so. He put up two really nice years and looked to be a dark horse favorite for Cy Young last season. This may be the season for Johnson. But if not, it can't be far away. He's just entering his prime and pitching for a contender now.
162-game averages: 14-7, 2.99 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 192 K
ESPN Rank: 29
Another victim of my theory, Carp slides down just in front of Johnson for a couple reasons: postseason success and experience. Both pitchers have been riddled with injuries over the years (Carp was just placed on the DL to start 2012). But, Carpenter always seems to bounce back strong from his ailments.
I know David Freese was the Cardinals' real postseason MVP with his timely hitting, but there's no getting around how important the St. Louis ace was down the stretch. At times, he seems to single-handedly place the team on his back and carry them to greatness. That's something no number can measure.
162-game averages: 14-9, 3.76 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 169 K
ESPN Rank: 31
You've got to love Lester if you are a fan of pitching. The lefty has power, movement, accuracy...all of the above. Even if Lester sometimes struggles early in the season, he always bounces back to put up huge numbers for the BoSox.
Lester has quickly established himself as one of the game's premiere pitchers, and I have no doubt that he'll win a Cy Young in his career if he stays healthy. Considering he's only 27 and has won 15 games or more in all four of his full MLB seasons, I expect another big one from Lester in 2012.
162-game averages: 17-7, 3.53 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 197 K
ESPN Rank: 28
I love me some Grandy Man, I really do. But I think donning the pinstripes and the big home run total last season might be clouding ESPN's judgment a tad bit. I still want my quick, short-swinging outfielders hitting for a respectable average. Granderson can't quite claim that yet.
Granderson is definitely still one of the stars in baseball. He is a really good outfielder and has 30/30 potential every year. But I preferred the Detroit version of Grandy. The one who would hit near .300 and not strike out a ridiculous amount of times (169 in 2011).
162-game averages: .267 AVG, 28 HR, 81 RBI, 17 SB
ESPN Rank: 24
Weaver is almost exactly the same as his big brother, Jeff. Except that Jered is twice the pitcher. I was fully expecting another Jeff Weaver when Jered came up with the Angels. A serviceable starter who will eat up innings and post average numbers for any time who will take him.
Instead, I got a bona fide ace. Jered has won at least 11 games in each of his first six seasons. You've got to like that he's just entering his prime and putting up Cy Young-caliber numbers for Los Angeles. I'm expecting another improvement across the board in 2012 from Weaver.
162-game averages: 16-9, 3.31 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 188 K
ESPN Rank: 38
Most starters get moved down in my system. Cain is someone I had to take exception to. His numbers aren't there, but that's because the Giants have had a terrible offense for almost all of his career. But I honestly can't think of another pitcher who is more underrated in Major League Baseball than Matt Cain.
And the Giants obviously took note, signing him to a huge deal earlier this week. Why? Well, not only does Cain regularly post a low ERA and WHIP, but he'll pitch over 200 innings and get close to 200 strikeouts along the way. Did I mention he was lights-out in the playoffs in 2010?
162-game averages: 12-12, 3.35 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 181 K
ESPN Rank: 35
Some people may take exception to me vaulting Haren and Cain over Weaver, Lester, Carpenter and others. But I think it's justified. Here's why: the 30-year-old Haren is consistently dominant like the rest. But he's also a 30-year-old veteran with seven double digit win seasons. Even though he spent two years as a reliever. Color me impressed.
Haren's bread and butter is impeccable control and a very steady game plan. He's the poor man's Roy Halladay. A very easy, confident pace to his game. And it doesn't hurt that he throws hard, has a sharp breaking ball, and doesn't get rattled easily. I'll take Haren to start my rotation any day.
162-game averages: 14-11, 3.59 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 188 K
ESPN Rank: 40
The player formerly known as "Mike" is certainly worthy of a top 30 slot on this list. Some might consider 40 a generous ranking from ESPN. However, I can see past that nonsense. Yes, he's young, but if you are a regular watcher of baseball, you know that Stanton is a star in the making.
It still bothers me that Stanton didn't get any Rookie of the Year love in 2009 when he hit 22 home runs, but I can live with it. He strikes me as a modern-day Vladimir Guerrero. By that I mean, he will play good defense, has a cannon for an arm, and will swing as hard as humanly possible at every pitch. The guy is just 22 right now and should bring his average up and cut his strikeouts down very soon.
162-game averages: .259 AVG, 36 HR, 94 RBI, .522
ESPN Rank: 46
This ranking by ESPN was getting some of the most intense hate-tweetage from fans. And there's good reason why. If we are talking about legitimate five-tool threats, how can you not have CarGo in the top three of that list? He hits for average and power, steals bases and plays incredible outfield defense.
Was it last season's injury that had ESPN's panties in a bunch? I don't know. But what I do know, is that Gonzalez is still young, still getting better, and that he's bad news for opposing pitchers. At age 25 in 2011, he hit 26 homers, drove in 92 and stole 20 bases. And he missed 35 games. You do the math.
162-game averages: .298 AVG, 28 HR, 96 RBI, 24 SB, .521 SLG
ESPN Rank: 36
I'll admit, I wasn't sold on Beltre until this most recent year. I was still bitter that he left the Dodgers after a huge year, and then bombed in Seattle. I didn't like that he posted big numbers in a contract year in Boston and then...proved all my doubts wrong. I'm still not sure how a man who ends up on his back knee after half his swings has so much power, but it's quite impressive.
So now, I'll eat my words. I'm officially a fan of Beltre's game. And I mean his whole game, because despite the gaudy offensive numbers, he can really flash some leather too. Watch out haters - Beltre is on pace to creep up on 3,000 hits by the end of his career. That would put him straight into Cooperstown.
162-game averages: .276 AVG, 26 HR, 92 RBI, .469 SLG
ESPN Rank: 33
I'm banking on Hanley bouncing back from an underwhelming, injury-riddled player in 2011 to the potentially legendary hitter of the years previous. And despite a very public rift over his moving to third base to make room for Jose Reyes, I think his head is finally on straight and he's ready to roll.
From 2007-2010, Ramirez put up four straight seasons where he averaged .319/27/83 with 36 steals. Now, he's healthy, entering his prime, and surrounded by a better team. I'd be shocked to see Ramirez not return to his regular self in 2012 and put up another huge season.
162-game averages: .306 AVG, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 41 SB, .505 SLG
ESPN Rank: 27
Let's move North from Hanley a bit, and settle in Tampa Bay, where one of the best pitchers in baseball has been since day one. Price has been one of those rare top draft picks (out of Vanderbilt in 2007) who rose right through the system without any roadblocks and contributed to the big club.
When Price hit the scene for Tampa's 2008 World Series run, it was incredible to watch. A tall, strong lefty with a slinging release and just devastating breaking pitches was quite a commodity. Today, he has established himself as one of the best young pitchers in baseball. He's already won 19 games in a season and is only 26 years old. Price will be a great one when all is said and done.
162-game averages: 15-10, 3.38 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 193 K
ESPN Rank: 26
And right back to Miami we go for number 25. Jose Reyes is the absolute ideal leadoff hitter. A switch-hitting guy who makes good contact and can also send one deep occasionally. I understand why teams weren't necessarily clamoring for his free agent services this winter - he has spent chunks of the last three seasons on the DL.
But he was cleared as healthy, and how can you ignore a guy who once stole 78 bases in a single season? Reyes is a professional hitter with a rare intensity to his game. Not to mention, once he gets on base, the game is immediately changed. There's no telling how big of a difference that can make over the course of a season in the win column.
162-game averages: .292 AVG, 12 HR, 65 RBI, 57 SB
ESPN Rank: 25
Finally, mercifully, the logjam of Rangers in the top 100 comes to an end. Hamilton is the best of the bunch, overall. Despite loud rumblings among the Texas fan base that he is trade bait because of a poor Spring and unreliable health, Hamilton isn't going anywhere. Except maybe over the fence a couple dozen times.
Everyone knows Hamilton's story. Former number one overall pick gets into drinking and doing drugs, almost loses his life, bounces back to win the MVP. It's much more complicated than I made it seem there, and it's also a fantastic tale. The fact that Hamilton was man enough to admit mistakes (multiple times), dust himself off and become one of the most feared hitters in the game speaks volumes to me.
162-game averages: .308 AVG, 32 HR, 117 RBI, .543 SLG
ESPN Rank: 22
Pedoria is a spark plug for this Red Sox team. He seems to be a lot bigger than his 5' 8", 165 pound frame suggests, because his intensity more than makes up for it. And it helps that Pedroia hits a surprising amount of home runs for such a little body.
His real value lies in being an all-around performer. Pedroia plays a really great second base and obviously puts up big numbers with his bat. I hope his injury issues don't crop up again, because the 28-year-old former Rookie of the Year and MVP has a very solid career ahead of him.
162-game averages: .305 AVG, 17 HR, 78 RBI, 19 SB
ESPN Rank: 20
The former World Series MVP must be drooling over the contract Matt Cain just recently received from the Giants. Hamels is a better pitcher in every way, and is due to be a free agent at the end of 2012. Also, he's still young with plenty of time to boost his resume even more.
That being said, he already has a pretty good slate of numbers on the back of that baseball card. Even though Hamels is the third-best pitcher on his own team (a testament to the Phils' rotation), he might have the brightest immediate future. He is only 28, but has great command and one of those fastballs that just explodes into the zone.
162-game averages: 14-10, 3.39 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 206 K
ESPN Rank: 23
Ellsbury really proved himself in 2011 with an MVP-worthy season leading off the order for the Red Sox. After a stand out rookie year in 2008 and a season in which he stole 70 bases in 2009, Ellsbury had a rough 2010, missing most of the campaign with an injury.
Back healthy in 2011, he showed what Jacoby Ellsbury is all about; .321/32/105 and a Gold Glove later, the Red Sox have hit the jackpot with their young lefty. And even better, Ellsbury has only been caught stealing 39 times in his career, out of 214 attempts.
162-game averages: .301 AVG, 17 HR, 75 RBI, 56 SB
ESPN Rank: 21
Before fading at the end of 2011, Upton was the trendy pick for N.L. MVP. But fear not, D'Backs fans...Upton is still just 24 years old and has a huge career ahead of him. It's straight up scary that Upton could potentially have 12 to 15 years of averaging 30 home runs ahead of him.
For all you counting at home, we are talking 500-home run potential. Upton worked on cutting down his strikeouts and raising his average last season to help his overall game. It definitely paid off, as he improved in both areas. If he keeps that discipline and continues to impress in the outfield, we are talking about the next great star in baseball.
162-game averages: .277 AVG, 25 HR, 83 RBI, 17 SB
ESPN Rank: 16
I love watching Evan Longoria play as much as the next fan, but I had to move him down a few spots. I don't believe he's as good as advertised. His average has dropped in recent years, and though he maintains the power numbers, he's injury-prone at a dangerously young age.
Considering he's only 26 and has won Rookie of the Year, two Gold Gloves and hit 113 career homers, maybe he should be higher. But his .244 average last season is extremely worrisome in my opinion. I am a believer that he will bounce back in 2012 with even better numbers (and hopefully some more awesome walk-offs).
162-game averages: .274 AVG, 33 HR, 115 RBI, .495 SLG
ESPN Rank: 17
Sometimes I forget just how young Prince Fielder still is. Considering he's already had a 50-homer season and is approaching 250 for his career, it's pretty incredible to think he's just 27 years old. At this pace, we are talking about a legitimate candidate for 500 career homers in about six or seven years.
And if the Tigers move him to DH full time at some point to save his health, could we be seeing a 600-home run slugger in the making? He's certainly on pace to surpass his father, former all-star Cecil Fielder in career numbers. And I'm sure Prince would love nothing more than to see that happen.
162-game averages: .282 AVG, 37 HR, 106 RBI, .540 SLG
ESPN Rank: 12
Call me crazy for putting a 42-year-old closer this high on the list, but I have two rebuttals to that. First of all, ESPN did it! Just kidding, that's not my real rebuttal. I love Mo in the top 20 because he's earned it. He is far and away the greatest closer of all time and deserves the respect that such a prestigious ranking comes with.
And he's not even close to being over the hill, even at his age. In 2011, still saved 44 games with a sub-2.00 ERA and sub-1.00 WHIP. That's just ridiculous. Plus, we all know his reputation in the postseason. Now with five World Series rings as a lifetime Yankee, perhaps 2012 wouldn't be a bad season to end his career on.
He has the Major League record of 603 saves, and he's done it all with class, humility and (most impressively), one main pitch in his arsenal. If Rivera does walk away after this season, I'll be the first to admit to moistness in the old eyeballs.
162-game averages: 39 SV, 2.21 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 72 K
ESPN Rank: 9
Nothing against Tim Lincecum, but 2010 worries me. That, and there's just no way he's better than Cliff Lee. Especially nine spots better. I understand Timmy is a two-time Cy Young winner with a very long, bright career ahead of him. But he just can't be placed in front of the 15 players he trails quite yet.
Now, I fully expect Lincecum to improve further in 2012 and be in the thick of the Cy Young race, but when I take his whole body of work into account, he barely misses top 15 in baseball. The mark of an elite pitcher is when a season of a 3.43 ERA and 231 strikeouts is a "let down."
162-game averages: 15-9, 2.98 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 246 K
ESPN Rank: 8
Tulo is another guy I had to move out of ESPN's original top 10. It gets really tough at this point to determine which of the epic stars is better than another, but I guess I'm a bigger fan of what Joey Votto, Robinson Cano and others who jumped him bring to the table.
That being said, Tulo is just 27 years old. He's won two Gold Gloves and constantly puts up unprecedented offensive numbers for a shortstop. Assuming he stays on the field regularly, I fully expect him to win a couple MVP awards and go down as one of the best to play the position.
162-game averages: .293 AVG, 28 HR, 103 RBI, .505 SLG
ESPN Rank: 19
No, I didn't bump Votto up because he offered to give me a chunk of his big pay day. I moved him up because he's won an MVP award and has even better offensive numbers than Tulowitzki. Since coming up full time in 2008, Votto has gotten on-base at a clip of .405. That's just ridiculous for a power hitter.
Don't let the big numbers fool you - Votto is as crafty as they come at first base, last year's Gold Glove being Exhibit A. When you have an all-around star like Votto hitting in the heart of your order, it's no wonder the Reds were eager to lock him up. I wouldn't be shocked at all to see Votto hit 400 home runs while maintaining an average over .300 during his career.
162-game averages: .313 AVG, 31 HR, 105 RBI, .550 SLG
ESPN Rank: 5
The fact that King Felix is soon-to-be 26 years old absolutely boggles my mind. I feel like I've been watching him buckle batters' knees for a decade by now. And I know that dropping him and Lincecum out of the top 10 may seem like blasphemy, but the five guys ahead of Felix are truly deserving.
Hernandez is pretty much a lock for double digit wins, a sub-3.00 ERA and 200 strikeouts every year, even with Seattle's poor run support behind him. He has had outliers, like last season's 3.47 ERA. Again, nothing to scoff at, but much higher than his usual.
162-game averages: 14-11, 3.23 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 210 K
ESPN Rank: 11
Now do you see why Felix had to be moved down? Just because his chest says "New York," there's no reason to discount C.C. as one of the greatest pitchers of our generation. The big boy has 176 career wins already and he's just entering his 31st year.
Dare I say, if Sabathia continues to average 18-20 wins over the next five seasons before age takes a toll, could we be looking at a 300-game winner before all is said and done? Barring a catastrophic injury, I think he will be the next one to join the club. That would cement a plaque in Cooperstown for the Vallejo, CA native.
162-game averages: 17-9, 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 193 K
ESPN Rank: 10
Unfortunately for Sabathia's trusty young teammate, Robinson Cano had to be the last guy bumped to make room for my top 10. While I don't disagree at all that he's one of the best players in the game, I'm going to take the other 10 ahead of him. You can't really go wrong with a top 10 at this point, but Cano needs another big season to warrant me moving him back in.
You would think two straight seasons of stellar defense and over 100 RBI and a .300 average would get the job done. But you'll see why he isn't included when the top 10 is revealed. Cano's numbers actually dipped a little bit last season, though they stayed at an MVP level. I've got high hopes for Cano - he's 29 and smack dab in the middle of his prime and smack dab in the middle of the best lineup in baseball.
162-game averages: .308 AVG, 22 HR, 96 RBI, .496 SLG
ESPN Rank: 15
ESPN, you disappoint me again. When we're listing players by pure value, how about a guy who is so talented that he single-handedly led the Padres to the playoffs? Then he completely brushed off the bright lights of Boston in 2011 and put up another monster year.
Gonzalez has to be in the top 10. He's right in the middle of his prime and shows no signs of slowing down. Lest you forget, he's a three-time Gold Glover too. So while he is paid for his bat, he brings tremendous value as a defender too.
162-game averages: .293 AVG, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .514 SLG
ESPN Rank: 14
And even more than Gonzalez, how about a guy who has hit almost 100 combined homers in the last two seasons? The young pitching in Toronto is a big reason that they are climbing their way back to contention. But let's be real. Joey Bats is The Big Kahuna in Canada these days, and rightfully so.
Although Bautista was a late bloomer, waiting until he was 29 to have his first good season, this is a list of the best players in baseball right now. And he absolutely fills that mold. Bautista has showed he can hit for average and power, and carry an entire offense on his back. He has finished 4th and 3rd the last two years in MVP balloting. If the trend continues, he'll bring home the hardware by the end of 2013.
162-game averages: .254 AVG, 29 HR, 80 RBI, .481 SLG
ESPN Rank: 18
Moving so far up this list when you're already in the top 20 either means the author has a slight obsession, or you're just that incredibly good. We'll call it a combination of both. But there's no denying Lee's mastery on the mound at every stop he's had in the Majors.
He was erratic when he was younger in Cleveland, but whatever adjustment he made was absolute money. Because since winning the Cy Young in 2008, Lee has been lights out for Cleveland, Texas, Seattle and Philadelphia. Even though he's on the wrong side, I'm expecting another five solid years or so from the southpaw.
162-game averages: 16-9, 3.65 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 179 K
ESPN Rank: 6
I'm sure to get some flak for placing Braun in a similar position to ESPN. A lot of haters out there are still wondering why he's not suspended for the alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. Well, folks...it's science. He tested positive and was proven innocent. Get over it.
Now back to the reason he's so high on the list. The reigning N.L. MVP winner went bonkers last year, puling in his fourth straight all-star nod. He also won Rookie of the Year in 2007 when he hit .324/34/97. Braun can play D, steal bases, and has done nothing but mash opposing pitching since day one.
162-game averages: .312 AVG, 36 HR, 118 RBI, 21 SB, .563 SLG
ESPN Rank: 13
Oh, yeah. I went there...sorry Brewers fans, but Matt Kemp was the MVP last year, and everyone outside Wisconsin knew it. It still amazes me that he didn't run away with the award, considering he was one home run short of a 40/40 season and eight hits shy of the Triple Crown (reaching either milestone would have assured him of the honor).
Playing for a team that doesn't make the playoffs clearly has a big affect on voters. But that's a conversation for a different day. The reason Kemp is this high on the list is that he hit .324 with 39 home runs, and 126 RBI last year. He had 40 steals and won a Gold Glove in center. Kemp truly is the best five-tool player in the game today.
Oh. And by the way, that WAR stat really does matter. And Kemp led everyone in baseball by a mile last year, at a crazy 10.0 mark.
162-game averages: .294 AVG, 26 HR, 94 RBI, 30 SB, .496 OBP
ESPN Rank: 2
Doc Halladay is arguably the best pitcher in baseball. In fact, I can see any of my 5-4-3 going in any order. But he's the only one without hardware from 2011, though he had a great case. I don't necessarily agree with ESPN having him at 2, considering the four players ahead of him. But he is definitely one of the most valuable players in the game.
Halladay came over to the Phillies a few years ago in search of the ring that had been eluding him for so long in Toronto. While they've come close, he has yet to win it all. Hopefully his time will come, because no future Hall-of-Famer deserves the type of pain that comes with never winning a title. The man threw a playoff no-hitter for heaven's sake!
162-game averages: 18-9, 3.23 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 180 K
ESPN Rank: 7
I know he's young, but did you watch baseball last year? There's a difference between looking at this kid's stats and actually seeing him pitch a game. Because the latter is something to behold. Kershaw is only 24 years old and already has the 2011 Cy Young under his belt. Not to mention winning the pitching Triple Crown (most wins, most strikeouts, lowest ERA), with the likes of Halladay and Lee in his league.
He's gotten better every year in the bigs and shows no signs of slowing down. With a blazing fastball and a sharp breaking ball, he's got the stuff to complement his own smarts and accuracy on the mound. It's no joke that this kid has been proclaimed the next Sandy Koufax. Time will tell.
162-game averages: 14-8, 2.88 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 216 K
ESPN Rank: 4
What's the only way to top a Cy Young/Triple Crown winner on a list of best baseball players? How about taking home the Cy Young and MVP awards in the same season? Well, Justin Verlander did just that in 2011 with his historic season for the Tigers. His dominance was unmatched last year.
And at a fairly young age (29), I expect Verlander to continue his success. The former Rookie of the Year has pitched at least 200 innings for five straight seasons and struck out at least 7.3 batters per nine in each of those seasons. He had good seasons before 2011, but it all came together right in his prime for the ace last year. He's definitely the front-runner to defend his award in 2012.
162-game averages: 18-10, 3.54 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 209 K
ESPN Rank: 3
Miguel Cabrera is hands down the second best player in baseball. His bat is just too destructive to ignore. You might look at that and say so is Prince Fielder's, so is Adrian Gonzalez's, etc. They don't even compare to the numbers that Cabrera has consistently posted throughout his career.
The talent level of this 28-year-old (that's frightening) is just off the charts. Every single year since his rookie season in 2003 (when he went yard off Roger Clemens in the World Series, mind you), Cabrera has hit at least 25 home runs, driven in triple digits and hit over .290. There is no doubt in my mind that Miggy is a future Hall-of-Famer.
162-game averages: .317 AVG, 33 HR, 118 RBI, .555 SLG
ESPN Rank: 1
I hate to make it all this way and just agree with ESPN, but I have no choice. There is no budging on this point: Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball. Still. When you fail to reach a .300 average and 100 RBIs (.299 and 99, respectively) like Pujols did in 2011 for the first time in your career on season number 11, you are something special.
Albert has been dominating since he came up and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award. And he's a three-time MVP winner, although he legitimately could have five or six by now if not for the presence of Barry Bonds in the early 2000's. The man can run the bases and plays a Gold Glove-caliber first base to boot.
Luckily for us fans, he's only 32 years old and there's plenty more where those numbers came from. Cooperstown, just save us all some time and give him the plaque now.
162-game averages: .328 AVG, 42 HR, 126 RBI, .617 SLG