ESPN 500: Re-Ordering the Top 100
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:
100. Matt Garza, Chicago Cubs
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
99. Heath Bell, Miami Marlins
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
98. Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia Phillies
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
97. Michael Pineda, New York Yankees
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
96. Paul Konerko, Chicago White Sox
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
95. Josh Beckett, Boston Red Sox
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
94. Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
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
93. Ian Kennedy, Arizona Diamondbacks
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
92. Brian Wilson, San Francisco Giants
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
91. Howie Kendrick, Los Angeles Angels
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
90. Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals
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
89. Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers
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
88. John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers
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
87. Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds
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
86. Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers
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
85. Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
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
84. Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies
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
83. Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers
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
82. Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
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
81. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
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
80. Gio Gonzalez, Washington Nationals
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
79. Lance Berkman, St. Louis Cardinals
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