It's a choice any general manager would drool over: Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton or Yasiel Puig—which young National League outfield stud do you take? There is no wrong answer; all three have established themselves among the game's five-tool elite.
|Big 3: Comparing the Numbers|
|Baseball-Reference.com (as of July 22)|
But if you had to pick, who gets the edge? As Puig's Los Angeles Dodgers square off against McCutchen's Pittsburgh Pirates and Stanton's Miami Marlins face the division-rival Atlanta Braves, it's as good a time as any for the debate.
The Case for McCutchen
Back in 2011, McCutchen made Jayson Stark of ESPN.com's All-Underrated Team. Three years later, he's the reigning NL MVP—but it's possible McCutchen still doesn't get the credit he deserves.
As of Tuesday, McCutchen owned a better batting average (.322), on-base percentage (.419) and slugging percentage (.562) than he posted in his MVP campaign.
His 17 home runs put him on pace to eclipse his 2013 total of 21. He's swiped 16 bases in 17 attempts. And his blazing speed helps him track down balls in the gap that others wouldn't touch.
On July 12, the Minneapolis Star Tribune conducted a poll of baseball writers from all 30 MLB teams, asking them to rank the best all-around players in their respective leagues. McCutchen won the NL vote going away.
In casting his vote, Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post put it succinctly: "McCutchen does everything on the field as well as or better than everyone else in the league."
At 27 years old, McCutchen is entering his prime. If he retains his NL MVP crown, he'll be the first player to do so since Albert Pujols in 2008-09 and the first Pittsburgh Pirate since Barry Bonds to win the award twice.
Pretty good company.
The Case for Stanton
In the post-steroid era, power is at a premium, which makes Stanton—arguably the best pure power hitter in the game—a rare commodity.
Stanton has hit 23 home runs, tied for the NL lead. But it's the sheer majesty of his drives that truly turns heads.
According to ESPN.com's home run tracker, Stanton's bombs travel an MLB-leading "true distance" of 425.3 feet. And he doesn't hit many cheap shots; only three of his home runs have failed to clear 400 feet.
At the Home Run Derby in Minnesota, Stanton dropped more than a few jaws, including McCutchen's.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life in person," McCutchen said of Stanton's 510-foot Derby dinger, per Fox Sports Florida's Christine De Nicola. "That was pretty impressive. I know I'll never hit one that far regardless. It's never going to happen."
Of course, Stanton is far from a one-dimensional masher. He complements his prodigious pop with above-average speed and improved plate discipline. He's raised his average to .292 and OBP to .392, compared to .249 and .365 a year ago. And he's got an absolute cannon in right field.
The scariest part is that, at the tender age of 24, he might get even better.
The Case for Puig
As we've noted, Puig's power has dropped off considerably of late. Since June 1, he's managed just one home run, and he had a notoriously disastrous showing at the Home Run Derby and in the All-Star Game itself.
Still, the irrepressible Cuban belongs squarely in the conversation.
Even with the lack of pop, any talk of a sophomore slump for Puig is overstated. Take a look at his .308/.396/.519 slash line. Or just watch him play—he's the same high-energy game-changer he's always been.
Even without the long balls, he still looks like Puig. (He's missed a couple of games after taking a pitch off the hand, but X-rays were negative, per ESPN.com's Mark Saxon.)
Sometimes that comes back to bite him, like when he flips his bat after a walk and almost hits the umpire.
Usually, though, Puig's enthusiasm and unerring drive are assets to his team. He's such a force on and off the field that it's easy to forget he's only 23 years old and has had fewer than 800 MLB at-bats.
Despite his brief service time, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has already noticed a progression in Puig's game.
"His patience at the plate has really been shocking, a quick adjustment,'' Mattingly told USA Today's Josh Peter. "The other part is just paying attention, slowing down a little bit and playing under control."
If he can harness his raw talent, in other words, the sky's the limit.
So Who's Got the Edge?
As the youngest and least experienced of the trio, Puig arguably has the highest ceiling. But right now, his numbers and track record—especially in light of his recent struggles—knock him down a notch.
Stanton is undoubtedly a guy you'd want to build a franchise around—as the Marlins apparently plan to do, spurning all trade offers, per USA Today (via ESPN.com). And his otherworldly power sets him apart in a league increasingly dominated by pitching and situational execution.
It's McCutchen, though, who leads the pack for now. He may not have Stanton's pop or arm or garner the media attention that's heaped on Puig, but he's the most well-rounded of these three complete packages. And he's in his prime right now, elevating the once-woeful Pirates into contenders.
You may disagree, especially if you're a fan of the Marlins or Dodgers. Here's something we can all get together on: It's going to be fun to watch these budding superstars grow and push each other—now and for years to come.