MLB

MLB Superstars Who Could Carry 'Face of MLB' Torch Post-Jeter

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2014

MLB Superstars Who Could Carry 'Face of MLB' Torch Post-Jeter

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    The landscape of Major League Baseball won't be the same after the 2014 season, opening the door for the next generation of stars to firmly plant their flag on the game without having to look up at the old guard.

    This change comes thanks to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announcing on his Facebook page that the upcoming season, his 20th wearing the pinstripes, will be his last. 

    In typical Jeter fashion, the announcement was elegant, understated and respectful of everyone around him. Even though there are at least seven months, barring a playoff appearance, before we bid The Captain adieu, it already feels like there is a hole in the game. 

    Fortunately Jeter is leaving the game at one of its highest moments. There is more parity today than ever before, with Jayson Stark of ESPN.com writing that 28 of the 30 teams have had at least one winning season in the last five years. 

    Revenues have increased across the sport, with MLB recently signing new television contracts with Fox, TBS and ESPN worth $12.4 billion. 

    But more important than that is the new talent popping up all over the game. Young players have become all the rage in Major League Baseball, with teams holding onto their prospects like precious diamonds, making room for new faces to leave their stamp on the sport. 

    With Jeter leaving after this season, there are a host of players who can take over the crown as MLB's signature star, but these six, in particular, have the best credentials. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Criteria

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    Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    There are no right or wrong ways to decide which player is the face of Major League Baseball. Everyone has their own criteria. Rarely will two people's idea be the same, making this entire discussion open for debate.

    Here are the main factors that we are looking at in deciding what makes a player worthy of being declared the face of MLB. 

    Performance on the field: It's simple, the only way to be viewed as a superstar is to play like one. Being regarded as one of the best players, if not the best, is vital to this discussion. 

    Age: With respect to well-established superstars, like David Ortiz, it would be pointless to have someone ascend to the throne when they aren't likely to be around for more than one or two years after 2014. 

    Injury history: You have to stay on the field to perform, so players like Matt Kemp and Troy Tulowitzki, who are young enough and talented enough to be on the shortlist of "best players in baseball," are disqualified because they can't be trusted. 

    Off-field history: Being marketable and accessible to fans is an important part of being the face of any group. Players who have had issues in the past, be it with performance-enhancing drugs or other substances, get dinged. 

    Prospects: Even though there are a lot of high-ceiling players getting ready to take center stage in the very-near future (Xander Bogaerts, Byron Buxton, etc.), until we know what they are going to do against MLB competition, it's impossible to put them on a list like this. 

No. 6: Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Detroit Tigers

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    One thing that you will see when looking at this particular list is how important age is to becoming the face of Major League Baseball. Jeter is going to be 40 years old in June, so we don't want to pass the torch to a player like David Ortiz, who would appear on this list if not for the fact that he's 38. 

    Miguel Cabrera, who will turn 31 in April, certainly isn't an old man by baseball standards, but he's by far the oldest player on this particular list, which is why he appears in the sixth spot. 

    Going by resumes, no position player can match Cabrera's credentials as the next face of MLB. He's won back-to-back MVP awards with no real reason to think he can't win it for a third consecutive time in 2014, and finished in the top five four other times (2005, 2006, 2010, 2011). 

    Cabrera has been an All-Star eight times in 11 seasons, led the league in homers twice (2008, 2012), RBI twice (2010, 2012), slugging percentage twice (2012, 2013), batting average three times (2011, 2012, 2013) and on-base percentage three times (2010, 2011, 2013). 

    No player in baseball can match Cabrera's consistently high level of offensive production since he debuted in 2003. 

    Three years ago, Cabrera wouldn't have placed on this list. His personal life appeared to be falling apart, as he was arrested and charged with a DUI during spring training in 2011, reportedly telling police officers, "Do you know who I am, you don't know anything about my problems" (via USA Today).

    With no incidents since, Cabrera appears to have turned his life around. He's become an icon in the sport and is not far from punching a ticket to Cooperstown. 

No. 5: Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore Orioles

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    I admit that putting Manny Machado fifth in this group is putting a lot of faith in him after just one great season at age 20.

    I'm also relaxing my rule about injuries, after he suffered an ugly knee injury at the end of last year that required surgery, keeping him out of spring games until at least mid-March and possibly missing the start of the regular season. 

    Machado has already established himself as one of the best defensive players in baseball, thanks to plays like the one above. He finished fourth in baseball last year with 35 defensive runs saved, behind fellow defensive wizards Andrelton Simmons (41), Carlos Gomez (38) and Gerardo Parra (36). 

    Machado also led baseball in Ultimate Zone Rating (31.2) and defensive value (33.6). Of all the players in MLB who might one day have a play as good/memorable as Jeter's flip to home against Oakland in 2001, Machado would be first on the list. 

    His instincts and feel for the whole diamond, as well as situations, are what you would see from a 10-year veteran, not a 21-year-old getting ready for his second full season. The play he made against Tampa Bay, known as the "Pump Fake," as a rookie in the middle of a playoff race two years ago, faking a throw to first and throwing a runner out at third, was incredible. 

    Keep in mind that Machado is still growing into his offensive game. He's listed at 6'2", 180 pounds, but will get bigger in the next couple of years and boast more power than he did in 2013. Some of those 51 doubles he hit last year will start to go over the fence, giving him a real shot at turning into an annual 25-homer player. 

    He made the All-Star team, finished ninth in AL MVP voting and won a much-deserved Gold Glove in 2013. And that's just the beginning of what he's capable of doing on the diamond. 

No. 4: Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals

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    Bryce Harper could easily move up to the top spot on this particular list by the end of 2014. He's as physically gifted as any hitter in baseball, boasting the kind of power you find only in video games and already impressing with his ability to get on base at such a young age. 

    The problem with Harper is his all-out style of play makes him an injury risk. He played in only 118 games last season, battling knee and hip problems after running into a wall on April 29 against Atlanta. 

    It's still too early in Harper's career to call him injury-prone, which is why he still ranks high on a list for future faces of MLB. But you do wonder if he can tone down the way he plays enough to do all the things he's capable of and stay on the field for 150 games. 

    There is also the matter of Harper's personality. He's a very confident young man, but that confidence can come off as arrogance, like in this exchange he had with a reporter during the 2012 postseason (via HardballTalk.com). 

    One reason Jeter has been a star for two decades is the way he always deflects credit from himself and says the right thing to reporters, even though he's never really saying anything if you listen to him talk. 

    Harper doesn't need to have Jeter's personality, nor should he, in order to be someone that MLB builds around. He just has to show up and keep getting better. After all, we are talking about a 21-year-old entering his third season. 

No. 3: Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    In putting this list together, Clayton Kershaw was guaranteed to have a spot on it.

    The Dodgers ace fits all the criteria listed earlier, getting ready to start his age-26 season, winning two Cy Young awards in the last three years and finishing second in 2012, leading the league in ERA and WHIP the last three years and strikeouts twice (2011, 2013). 

    That consistent high level of performance makes Kershaw the best pitcher in baseball. Last May, Jonah Keri of Grantland.com wrote an article about Kershaw's growing legend and found a way to compare the left-hander to a former Dodger great without sounding hyperbolic. 

    Maybe Koufax’s peak years are so impossibly good that no one in today’s game can ever hope to match them. But at this point in his career, you can say Clayton Kershaw’s name in the same sentence as Sandy Koufax’s and not get dismissed with the swipe of a left hand. 

    When you factor in everything Kershaw has already done, and how many years of greatness he still has left, he belongs on this list. 

    The problem was deciding where to slot Kershaw. Pitchers, especially starters, have a hard time getting the same kind of attention as position players because of the nature of their job. They aren't on the field day after day, putting on rare displays of excellence with the bat or glove. 

    Starting pitchers take the ball once every fifth day, appearing in 34 or 35 games per season if they are lucky. They have more direct control over the outcome of a game than a position player when they do play, so their value can't be understated. 

    As a result, Kershaw slides right toward the middle of this list, behind the two best position players in baseball. 

No. 2: Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Andrew McCutchen's ascension to the top of the baseball world has been fascinating to watch. It's no coincidence that the Pittsburgh Pirates have returned to relevance after he took off. 

    Going by FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, McCutchen was the best player in the National League last year (8.2). He set a career high with a .404 on-base percentage, while posting his third straight 20-20 season, en route to winning the NL MVP award. 

    On numbers alone, McCutchen, still just 27 years old, could be called the next face of Major League Baseball, if he wasn't already. But his status as a symbol of hope, like Pittsburgh's very own Batman, for a franchise that badly needed one and ambassador for the game pushes him way up the list. 

    McCutchen signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract with the Pirates in March 2012, buying out his first two free agent years and leaving a lot more money on the table when you consider what he could have gotten on the open market. 

    After agreeing to the deal, McCutchen sounded excited to be a member of the Pittsburgh franchise at a time when no one had any faith in the organization (via MLB.com). 

    I know that it's amazing, to be blessed with the talent to perform at the Major League level and to work this deal out. I definitely wanted to be here. I grew up down the road ... you go down 64, make a left at 17, you're in my hometown [Fort Meade, Fla.]. My colors were black and gold in high school; didn't even have to change my colors. It was just meant to be.

    McCutchen was speaking at the Pirates' spring training facility in Bradenton, Florida, so it's very convenient for him to return home as the team prepares for the start of the season. 

    In addition to his enthusiasm on the field, McCutchen has done incredible work for charities in and around the Pittsburgh area.

    He takes his role as a Major League Baseball player seriously, using his name recognition to do good work in other areas. 

    What more could you ask for from the face of Major League Baseball?

No. 1 Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

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    How many superlatives are there in the English language? However many there are, it's not enough to describe Mike Trout. 

    Even though he doesn't have the trophies to show for it because the team around him hasn't won enough games, Trout is the best player in baseball. He's the first player since Barry Bonds in 2003-04 to post consecutive seasons with at least 10 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. 

    Trout actually got better from 2012, which was one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, to 2013. His approach got better, increasing his walk rate from 10.5 percent to 15.4 percent, striking out less in more plate appearances and increasing his on-base percentage by 33 points. 

    Trout will play most of this season at age 22, the same age Evan Longoria was when he debuted for Tampa Bay in 2008. 

    No player in baseball can match Trout's all-around ability on the field. He's going to win an MVP award sooner or later, assuming the Angels put a team around him good enough to convince voters he's worthy of the honor. 

    It's hard to imagine how Trout improves on his first two seasons, but we said the same thing at the start of 2013 when he had all the pressure in the world on him after his debut season. 

    Trout's already been doing some marketing appearances, most notably for Subway sandwiches, but the sky is the limit for how high he can climb. 

    With so much amazing young talent in MLB, Trout stands head and shoulders above the rest, and will be a worthy successor to Jeter as the face of the sport. 

     

    If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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