The 100 Best Players in Baseball Today (Part 4: #40-21)

John ChurchCorrespondent IOctober 24, 2010

The 100 Best Players in Baseball Today (Part 4: #40-21)

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    ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 13:  General view of atmosphere during the 81st MLB All-Star Game at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 13, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)
    Michael Buckner/Getty Images

    Nos. 60-41

    60. Matt Kemp

    59. Zack Greinke

    58. Derek Jeter

    57. Andrew McCutchen

    56. Yovani Gallardo

    55. Shin-Soo Choo

    54. Matt Cain

    53. Vladimir Guerrero

    52. Jimmy Rollins

    51. Clayton Kershaw

    50. Torii Hunter

    49. Cole Hamels

    48. Adam Dunn

    47. Dan Haren

    46. Nick Markakis

    45. Jose Bautista

    44. Jered Weaver

    43. Andre Ethier

    42. Nelson Cruz

    41. Johan Santana

    Here's Part 4...

No. 40: Kevin Youkilis

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    With Manny Ramirez long gone and David Ortiz no longer the player he was in 2004, the Red Sox' most dependable hitter of the past few seasons has probably been Kevin Youkilis.

    A favorite of sabermetricians for regularly posting a high OPS, Youk has been a crucial part of the Red Sox' success this decade.

    He may have the most unorthodox batting stance in the game today, but it obviously works for him. In 2008 and 2009, he finished in the top 15 in MLB in SLG. He was on pace for another strong season in 2010 before a thumb injury cost him the final two months of the campaign.

    Often overlooked is the fact that Youkilis is also a Gold Glove-caliber defender at first base and third base. Youk doesn't do it with jaw-dropping physical ability, but with hustle and heart; love him or hate him, you have to respect that.

No. 39: Chris Carpenter

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    After two brilliant seasons in 2005 (in which he won the NL Cy Young) and 2006, Chris Carpenter made only four starts the next two years after Tommy John surgery in 2007.

    He returned with a vengeance in 2009, going 17-4 with a 2.24 ERA and a jaw-dropping HR/9 of 0.3. Had an oblique injury not cost him a full month of the season, he may very well have added a second Cy Young award to his resume.

    Originally a highly-touted Blue Jays prospect, Carpenter was pretty much a .500 pitcher his days north of the border. He's been dynamite in St. Louis though; since joining the team in 2004, he has gone 84-33 (.718 WP) with a 2.98 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

    There are few pitchers in the game today with more impressive resumes than Carpenter. With another strong season in 2010 behind him (16-9, 3.22 ERA in 235 IP), he's not quite done adding to it either.

No. 38: Ichiro Suzuki

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    It feels like he's been around forever, but Ichiro just continues to amaze. In 2010, he became the first player in major league history to record 10 consecutive seasons of 200 hits or more. With one more such season, he will become the first player ever to record 11 seasons of 200-plus hits.

    Ichiro has finished first or second in the league in hits each of his 10 seasons in the majors.

    The Japanese superstar is hardly a one-trick pony though. A prototypical leadoff hitter, Ichiro complements his batting mastery with speed to burn, as he has stolen at least 26 bases each season in the majors. He is a pure joy to watch in the field as well, known for acrobatic catches, excellent range and the best throwing arm in the game today.

    Though the first 1,278 hits came in Japan and as such don't count in MLB record books, Ichiro does have 3,522 hits under his belt. Looking as though he still has several good years ahead of him, he could very well eclipse Pete Rose's total of 4,256 for the title of "global hit king." Even if he were to never play another game, he's a sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famer.

No. 37: Jayson Werth

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    You watch Jayson Werth play now, and it's almost unfathomable that as recently as the beginning of the 2008 season, he was still a platoon player.

    He was let go by the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers before finding his way to Philadelphia, where he would develop into one of the premier right fielders in the game today.

    The Phillies' lineup went through a collective slump for a large part of the summer, and Werth's RBI total suffered because of it, but his other stats were all very strong. He finished in the top 10 in the NL in OBP, SLG, BB and runs. A potent slugger, Werth also has some speed, as he had back-to-back 20-steal seasons in 2008 and 2009.

    Add in that he is more than able in right field (with a superb arm), and you've got a five-tool player, albeit one who took a while to fully develop. As such, Werth is due for quite the handsome payday this winter.

No. 36: Jon Lester

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    As Josh Beckett had a hard time staying on the field and struggled greatly when he was on it, Jon Lester quickly took over the role of staff ace in Boston. The electric young lefty went 19-9 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 225 K (tops among all southpaws).

    The 26-year-old has emerged as one of the game's top young pitchers, which is quite impressive given what Lester has been through in his life.

    In 2006, Lester was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. Fortunately, it was treatable, and CT scans in December of that year showed the disease to be in remission.

    Since then, Lester has hit the ground running in the major leagues, pitching 5.2 shutout innings in the decisive game 4 of the 2007 World Series. He followed that up with a no-hitter against Kansas City in 2008.

    It's quite the story, and Lester isn't nearly done adding to it. Alongside Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and a hopefully resurgent Beckett, look for him to lead a bounce-back season for the Red Sox in 2011.

No. 35: Justin Morneau

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    Before a concussion knocked him out for the season in early July (an injury that looked much less severe at the time), Justin Morneau was on pace for perhaps the best season of his career. That's saying something given the first baseman did win the AL MVP award back in 2006.

    In 81 games this season, Morneau posted a .437 OBP and .618 SLG, both well above his career averages.

    Whether or not he would've maintained an OPS north of 1.000 over the entire season is questionable (his career OPS is .869), but Morneau did in 2010 what he's been doing for years now: drive in runs. Until 2010, the Canadian slugger had driven in 100 every year since that MVP campaign in 2006.

    He and teammate Joe Mauer make up one of the best 3-4 duos in the majors today. When you consider that the Twins won the AL Central even with him missing the last three months of the season, you know that team will continue to be a force for years to come.

No: 34: David Price

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    He may have closed out the seventh game of the 2008 ALCS that sent the Rays to the World Series, but David Price always projected to be an ace starter rather than a closer. Two years later, he has fulfilled that potential.

    The lefty cemented his status as Tampa Bay's ace with a breakout season in 2010, going 19-6 with a 2.72 ERA (third in the AL), 1.19 WHIP and 188 K (eighth in the AL).

    Drafted first overall by the Rays in 2007, Price showed flashes of his ability in a predictably up-and-down 2009 season. He put it all together over the course of a full season in 2010, as he was picked to start the All-Star Game for the AL.

    With a lethal arsenal highlighted by an explosive fastball and sharp slider, he helped lead the Rays to their first AL East championship.

    If the Rays are to withstand what looks to be a devastating offseason and compete next season, they'll need Price to continue his dominance. Fortunately for them, we likely have yet to see the best of the 25-year-old.

No. 33: Dustin Pedroia

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    Dustin Pedroia's "laser show" was limited to just 75 games this past season, as he dealt with an assortment of injuries. You wonder where the Red Sox would've finished if they'd had the 2008 AL MVP's services the entire season.

    He is the classic case of a player who doesn't wow you with one skill but compensates by doing a little bit of everything.

    A scrappy player who easily endeared himself to Red Sox nation with his blue-collar style of play, Pedroia hit .317 with a .380 OBP for the world champion Red Sox en route to the AL Rookie of the Year Award. The next season, he showed power was part of his game by hitting 17 home runs with 73 extra base hits (seventh in the AL).

    His all-around excellence was enough to earn him AL MVP honors, along with Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.

    He was on pace this season for better than 20 home runs and about 20 stolen bases, walking nearly as often as he struck out, so Pedroia clearly is still a force to be reckoned with atop the Red Sox lineup.

No. 32: Adrian Gonzalez

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    The San Diego Padres were able to shock the baseball world and contend in the NL West all season long, and it was almost entirely because of their pitching staff.

    The team boasted a porous offense that was singlehandedly carried by their slugging first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez. He was the only player on the team to hit more than 14 home runs, drive in more than 60 runs and post an OPS above .800.

    A-Gone might be best known for being the best hitter on an otherwise light-hitting team, but the guy can flat-out hit. This past season, he finished third in the NL in BB (93), eighth in HR (31) and seventh in OPS (.904). For his career, he is averaging 170 hits, 32 HR and 99 RBI per 162 games played.

    He is such a force at the plate that it's easy to forget how good he is with the glove. He won Gold Gloves for his play at first base in both 2008 and 2009.

    If the Padres want to build on their surprise 2010 success, they're going to have to improve their offense. Clearly, they've already got their cleanup hitter in place.

No. 31: Ubaldo Jimenez

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    Before the 2010 season, serious fans probably knew who Ubaldo Jimenez was. It didn't take long for the Rockies' ace to ensure even the most casual baseball fans knew his name.

    His no-hitter against Atlanta on April 17 began a stretch in which Jimenez allowed just four ER in 68.1 innings. Such early season dominance led to the live-armed right-hander sporting a sub-1.00 ERA into June, and he took a 15-1 record into the All-Star break.

    It's never been a question of stuff with Jimenez, as the baseball world has known for some time he is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers around with off-speed pitches to complement his heat. He is extremely hard to hit (his .209 BAA in 2010 was second best in MLB).

    However, Jimenez has been known to shoot himself in the foot with poor control. Wildness was a big reason his ERA rose an entire run from the end of June on and he failed to reach 20 wins.

    In spite of 92 BB, he still sported a 1.15 WHIP in 2010. He's hard enough to beat as is; imagine what he'd do with slightly better command.

No. 30: Ryan Howard

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    After winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 2005 playing in just 88 games (and effectively stamping Jim Thome's ticket out of Philly), Ryan Howard embarked on a stretch of production the likes of which is rarely seen.

    Starting with his MVP 2006 season in which he led baseball in HR (58), RBI (149) and finished eighth in BA (.313), Howard put together four consecutive seasons of at least 45 HR and 135 RBI. The only other players in history to have done that are Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa.

    He's proven to be very durable, playing in at least 143 games each of the past five seasons. Though his struggles in this season's NLCS have been a hot topic, Howard has been a strong postseason performer in his career, with an .895 OPS in 146 postseason ABs.

    The Phillies rewarded Howard last offseason with a five-year, $125M extension. Many felt the team severely overpaid for a player who is in decline. If he can help the Phillies win another World Series or two, I'm sure they won't mind paying him handsomely down the road.

No. 29: David Wright

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    Despite hitting .307 with a very respectable .390 OBP, David Wright lost his home run stroke last season. Citi Field didn't help, but Wright only hit five home runs on the road in 2009, so it was more than a case of his home ballpark sapping his power.

    Whatever caused the outage, it's a thing of the past now, as the Mets' third baseman rebounded in 2010 with a 29 HR, .503 SLG season.

    As injuries continued to wreak havoc on the Amazins (they only had three players play in more than 134 games), Wright re-emerged as the team's best, most productive player. His speed was an asset as well, as he swiped 19 bases, not far off his career average of 22.

    While his resurgence power-wise was encouraging, his average (.283) and OBP (.354) did drop off from the totals we're used to seeing from him, and his 161 strikeouts were easily a career high.

    If he maintains this power and gets back to hitting .300 with fewer strikeouts, you're looking at a sure-fire top 15 player.

No. 28: Mariano Rivera

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    The greatest closer of all time remains the best in the game today.

    When he posted a career-worst 3.15 ERA in 2007, some wondered if Mo was finally losing his touch. Since re-signing with the Yankees during that offseason, all he's done is save 116 games in 124 opportunities with a sub-1.00 WHIP in each season (his career mark in that statistic is a sparkling 1.00).

    With 551 saves under his belt, he is only a season or two away from joining Trevor Hoffman in the awfully exclusive 600 club.

    That said, when he finally retires, his legacy will have to be how unbelievably good he was in the postseason. In 139.2 postseason innings, Rivera has a lower ERA (0.71) than WHIP (0.77). Since blown saves started to be recorded back in 2002, he has blown only three postseason save opportunities.

    Mo once again is a free agent this offseason, but you'd hardly know it, as he is still effective as ever and as such is almost certain to re-up with the Bombers this offseason. It's hard to envision anyone else closing out games for them.

No. 27: Prince Fielder

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    2010 is a pretty telling sign of the kind of player Prince Fielder is. In a down year, Cecil's kid still hit 32 home runs, led the NL in BB and posted an OBP of .401.

    Yet in comparison to seasons like 2007, in which he hit 50 home runs to lead the NL, or 2009, in which he hit 46 bombs with an NL-high 141 RBI, Fielder's 2010 season looks pretty underwhelming.

    The slugger's emergence has coincided with the Brewers' return to relevance. His 50 home run season in 2007 established a new franchise record. Strikeouts have always been a part of his game, but so are walks, as he's finished in the top 10 in the league in walks three of the last four seasons.

    He'll never be a Gold Glove first baseman, but he's come a long way defensively the last few years.

    It's widely assumed that Fielder will be playing elsewhere next season with Milwaukee unwilling to meet his sky-high salary demands. It is scary to think of what this kid could do playing half his games at Fenway Park or U.S. Cellular Field.

No. 26: Josh Johnson

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    Just as he followed Ubaldo Jimenez in the 2010 All-Star Game, Josh Johnson assumed the Colorado righty's mantle in June as the can't-miss pitcher in baseball. In 71.1 innings pitched in June and July, Johnson went 6-2 with a 1.26 ERA and 77 K compared to 11 BB.

    He hasn't always gotten a lot of fanfare pitching in Florida, but he has become very hard to ignore the past few seasons.

    Johnson's career appeared to hit a major roadblock in 2007 when he needed Tommy John surgery, but it took him less than a year to return to the mound. He hasn't looked back since, as he went 7-1 with a 3.61 ERA in 87.1 innings that season. In 2009, he established himself as the staff ace with a 15-win, 3.23 ERA, 191 K season.

    2010 was easily the best season of his career though, as his 2.30 ERA was second only to Felix Hernandez, and he would've set a new career high in strikeouts and maybe wins if he hadn't been shut down for the last month of the season.

    Either way, Johnson is just entering his prime and has plenty of dominant seasons left in him.

No. 25: Carlos Gonzalez

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    Watching highlights of Carlos Gonzalez this season, including his game-winning, cycle-completing home run on July 31, I found myself saying the same thing: This guy has been traded twice?

    Car-Go was considered a blue-chip prospect, but that didn't stop Arizona from trading him to Oakland for Dan Haren, who traded him for Matt Holliday a year later.

    The D-Backs and A's loss has been the Rockies' gain, as the young Venezuelan has blossomed into a superstar. He took home his first batting title with an average of .336 and finished in the top 10 in the NL in HR (34), RBI (117), SB (26), R (111) and OPS (.974). He was an asset on the field as well, starting 34 games at each outfield position.

    I'd have considered him for the top 20 were it not for drastic home (26 HR, .380 AVG) and road (8 HR, .289) splits that showed he was a beneficiary of the thin air in Colorado. Bottom line, the guy can play regardless of what ballpark he calls home.

No. 24: Matt Holliday

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    After starting the 2009 season in Oakland, hardly looking like the player who led Colorado to the World Series in 2007, Matt Holliday was traded to the Cardinals and promptly regained his old form.

    In 63 games with St. Louis, he hit 13 home runs with 55 RBI and a 1.023 OPS. Hitting behind Albert Pujols certainly has its perks.

    The deadly duo remained intact when Holliday re-signed with the Cardinals last offseason for seven years, and he has continued hitting since. In his first full year in St. Louis, he finished fifth in the NL in BA (.312), seventh in RBI (103) and fifth in OPS (.922).

    Fortunately, it does not appear he'll be remembered in St. Louis as the guy who committed the fatal error against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the 2009 NLDS. With the Cardinals bringing back a lineup anchored by him and Pujols and a deep pitching staff, it might not be long until Holliday is a part of more enjoyable experiences than that series was.

No. 23: Justin Verlander

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    As Felix Hernandez, David Price and CC Sabathia dominated the AL Cy Young discussion, Justin Verlander mostly flew under the radar in 2010. Very quietly though, he put together another fantastic season.

    In 224 innings, the Tigers ace went 18-9 (his fourth 17-plus-win season in five years) with 219 K and established new career bests in ERA (3.37) and WHIP (1.16).

    Since 2006, few pitchers in the AL have been better than Verlander. He has finished in the top five in the AL in wins, K and IP each of the past two seasons. He's proven to be remarkably durable, topping 200 innings each of the last four years and not going to the disabled list once.

    Save for an off year in 2008, his stats suggest he's getting better every year—a scary thought for AL hitters.

    Who knows if he'll ever win an ERA title, but Verlander does just about everything you could ask of an ace. When he's on, few in baseball are harder to hit. The Tigers are known to covet power pitching, and in Verlander, they've got as good a young power pitcher as there is in baseball atop their rotation.

No. 22: Ryan Zimmerman

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    The spotlight may have shined on Washington this summer because of Stephen Strasburg, but the Nationals' best player is still Ryan Zimmerman.

    Largely a finished product when the Nationals took him with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft, Zimmerman started making his mark in the majors in no time, hitting 20 HR and driving in 110 his rookie season in 2006.

    With the exception of an injury-marred 2008 season, Zimm has continued to get better each season since, hitting .292 with 33 HR and 106 RBI in 2009, making his first All-Star team and winning a Silver Slugger award as well. He followed that up with another fine season in 2010, establishing new career highs in AVG (.307) and OBP (.388).

    He is very much a two-way player, as he is one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, winning his first Gold Glove in 2009 with a solid chance for a second in 2010.

    It appears the Nationals finally are out of neutral, and Zimmerman is as big a reason for that as anyone.

No. 21: Ian Kinsler

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    As he's moved around the Ranger lineup the last few seasons, Kinsler has taken on many forms as a player.

    In 2008, he was a consummate top-of-the-order hitter, hitting .319 with 26 steals and rarely striking out. The next season, the average dropped substantially (.253), but in addition to 31 steals, he hit 31 home runs.

    No matter how he does it, when he's healthy, Kinsler gets it done.

    He may have joined the 30-30 club in 2009, but his 2008 season was quite impressive as well. That year, he set career highs in H (165), 2B (41), AVG (.319) and SLG (.517), all of which still stand today as career bests.

    Kinsler has no issues getting on base (.382 OBP in 2010), and he makes things happen on the bases. For his career, he is averaging 28 SB (and just five CS) per season.

    The knock on Kinsler and the one thing holding him back is his inability to stay healthy. In five full seasons in the majors, he's played in more than 140 games only once. His style of play is certainly conducive to injuries.

    With a stretch of seasons like his 2009 campaign, Chase Utley and Robinson Cano would have a little more company in the best second baseman in baseball debate.