Who are the best players in the league?
It’s a debate that will persist for as long as there is professional baseball.
But it’s one thing to argue it during the season—predicting who the best players will be is a horse of an entirely different color that eats oranges instead of apples.
In this slideshow are my picks for the best players in the American League for 2011—one for each position, plus a DH, five starting pitchers and three relievers—along with explanations for why I snubbed the closest competitors.
In addition, I've included my best guesstimate, completely unscientific projections for how each player will fare in the coming season.
Please do not hold me accountable for the accuracy of my predictions, especially for the pitchers (unless I'm right, in which case feel free to make me into some sort of demigod).
Be sure to tell me who I got wrong!
Projected Stats: .307/.396/.556, 33 homers/100 RBI/88 runs/0 stolen bases, 6.8 WAR
Justin Morneau played exactly half a season (81 games) for the Minnesota Twins before a concussion knocked him out for the rest of 2010.
His numbers prorated over a full season: .345/.437/.618 with 36 homers, 112 RBI, and a Ruthian 10.6 WAR (for comparison, Josh Hamilton led the majors with 8.0 WAR). And, of course, there’s his fantastic defense (18.0 UZR/150).
Miguel Cabrera might be the more popular pick here, and the bar is set pretty high for Adrian Gonzalez.
But assuming Morneau is healthy, he could regress significantly and still be the best first-bagger in the league.
Projected Stats: .319/.400/.511, 22/79/120/16, 6.9 WAR
Foot problems limited 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia to just 75 games last year, but he gave the Boston Red Sox their money’s worth when he was in the lineup.
In addition to posting an .860 OPS, Pedroia was on pace to set career highs in homers (26), RBI (89), walks (80), and WAR (7.1). And at age 27, Pedroia is only getting better.
Giving Pedroia the edge over Robinson Cano was tough after the Yankees’ keystoner’s fantastic 2010 season, but Pedroia’s defense and history of performing at an elite level give him a slight advantage.
Projected Stats: .289/.377/.519, 28/102/91/11, 6.6 WAR
After a phenomenal rookie season and an MVP-caliber sophomore campaign, Evan Longoria quietly gave the Tampa Bay Rays another elite performance at the hot corner in 2010, adding improved speed (15 steals) and plate discipline (10.9 percent walk rate) to his already impressive toolset.
Especially noteworthy is his eye-popping defense, which UZR rates as 44 runs above average over the last three years.
Third base is a tough position in the Junior Circuit—Adrian Beltre had a better 2010 season, and Alex Rodriguez has a more impressive track record.
Still, I’m going with the guy who had accumulated almost 20 WAR before his 25th birthday.
Projected Stats: .290/.365/.379, 4/56/101/43, 4.2 WAR
After making a run at Rookie of the Year in 2009, Andrus disappointed for the Texas Rangers last season, losing almost all of his power (18 extra bases—not extra base hits) and dropped 1.2 wins’ worth of value with his glove alone.
And yet, he demonstrated improved plate discipline, and a .317 BABIP is a little low for a speedy groundball hitter.
Andrus takes the title here almost by default—with Derek Jeter, Marco Scutaro and Asdrubal Cabrera coming off down years, his only real competition is Yunel Escobar.
And given Andrus’ age (22) and pedigree, I’ll go with him.
Projected Stats: .318/.393/.462, 11/83/85/2, 4.9 WAR
Of all the positions on the team, this one was the most obvious.
The 2009 AL MVP regressed significantly in 2010, yes still managed an .871 OPS and 5.1 WAR from the most demanding position in the game while helping the Twins to an AL Central championship.
He’s not likely to win another MVP trophy anytime soon, but he’s a good a catcher as there is in Major League Baseball.
However, this contest was closer than you might think.
Carlos Santana demonstrated power and plate discipline beyond his 24 years in 54 games last year.
Assuming he can fully recover from his horrific knee injury, he’ll almost certainly usurp Mauer inside two years.
Projected Stats: .328/.376/.548, 35/103/92/6, 5.9 WAR
The outfield has to start with Josh Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP and last year’s best player in baseball.
It’s hard to know what to expect from a late bloomer who had never played so well over a full season and was a below-average hitter in 2009, but J-Ham has the pure talent to maintain his status as an elite player.
Projected Stats: .308/.405/.501, 24/97/95/18, 6.2 WAR
Fresh off signing the most team-friendly contract of the offseason, Shin-Soo Choo is without question the best player no one talks about.
By one measure, Choo was worth 7.3 wins to the Indians last season, and given his improving strikeout and walk rates, he may be getting even better.
Projected Stats: .295/.359/.538, 29/86/102/26, 6.3 WAR
Nelson Cruz seems poised to chase an MVP trophy as soon as he plays a full season’s worth of games.
A true five-tool player, Cruz combines great power (.258 ISO last year) with good speed (17 steals) and Gold Glove-worthy defense (12.4 UZR/150).
He was worth 5.1 WAR in 108 games last year—the equivalent of 7.7 over a full season.
This was the hardest position to pick, which is telling since it was also the one that had the most available spots.
Jose Bautista has earned a spot in the discussion after blasting 54 homers last year. Carl Crawford seems destined for big things in Fenway Park. Ben Zobrist would be a good pick if he can find his 2009 groove.
There’s even an argument to be made for Brett Gardner. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see a big return from someone like Carlos Quentin or Grady Sizemore.
Projected Stats: .249/.382/.517, 36/110/91/2, 3.6 WAR
For several years, Adam Dunn has been one of the most consistent power hitters in the game. But for the last few seasons, he’s also been one of the worst fielders in baseball history.
He won’t have to worry about that now that he’s with the Chicago White Sox, where only his bat will matter.
David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Jorge Posada all are viable candidates as well, but none is as sure to pack a punch as Big Donkey.
Projected Stats: 15-11, 2.89 ERA, 236.1 innings pitched, 217 strikeouts/63 walks allowed/18 homers allowed, 5.9 WAR
Where else would we start if not with the reigning AL Cy Young? Last year, King Felix led the majors with his 2.27 ERA and was named the Junior Circuit’s top hurler despite earning just 13 wins.
But while Hernandez is sure to be an elite starter again in 2011, expect his numbers to come down to earth.
FIP and xFIP, better estimators of pitching talent than ERA, have Felix at 3.04 and 3.26, respectively, last year.
He’s outperformed his peripherals three years in a row, but don’t expect his .263 BABIP to last.
Projected Stats: 16-8, 2.92, 204 IP, 211/63/11, 5.7 WAR
Last year’s best pitcher no one cared about, Francisco Liriano finally rediscovered his pre-Tommy John surgery stuff in 2010 after two seasons of scuffling.
With his strikeout, walk and groundball rates all approaching his 200 levels, Liriano re-emerged as an ace for the Minnesota Twins, going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA.
And yet, Liriano was even better than his superficial stats would indicate. His 3.06 xFIP was the best in the league, and his 2.66 FIP and 2.93 tERA reinforce the notion that he would have been a Cy Young contender if not for his .331 BABIP.
Projected Stats: 16-11, 3.14, 218.2 IP, 209/65/21, 5.7 WAR
You might not think of an elite pitcher when you hear Justin Verlander’s name, but the 27-year-old lefty ranks in the top five in wins (83), strikeouts (958) and WAR (25.3) over the last five seasons.
In 2010, he produced one of his finest seasons to date, earning 18 victories with a 3.37 ERA.
Like Liriano, Verlander was plagued by bad luck last year—impressive though his ERA was, his 2.97 FIP was even better.
And, at age 28, there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to pitch at a high level. In fact, he could still get better.
Projected Stats: 17-7, 3.04 ERA, 205.2 IP, 223/69/17, 5.7 WAR
It can’t be easy to carry the Boston Red Sox’ rotation on one’s shoulders, but that’s exactly what Jon Lester did in 2010.
He overcame an increase in his walk rate by posting a career-best 53.6 percent GB rate. He won 19 games with a 3.25 ERA.
What can we expect from Lester going forward? It’s reasonable to think he can cut down on the walks, but he doesn’t need to make any adjustments to maintain his status as an ace.
Still, at 27, he could improve—if he can maintain his worm-burning ways and get his K/9 rate over 10, you’re looking at a Cy Young threat.
Projected Stats: 14-9, 3.12 ERA, 219.1 IP, 221/50/27, 5.6 WAR
After years of waiting for Jered Weaver to emerge as an elite starter, he delivered in 2010, posting a 3.01 ERA and striking out more than a batter per inning for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
Don’t count on him maintaining a HR/FB rate below eight percent, but his FIP (3.06) and age (28) suggest that he’ll be an ace again in 2011.
The AL’s pitching isn’t as good as the NL’s, but that doesn’t mean narrowing down this list was easy. CC Sabathia is a sure bet to do well in 2011, though the three-year negative trends in his strikeout and walk rates are worrisome.
Twenty-five-year-old David Price looked fantastic in his first full season, but his peripherals aren’t strong enough (yet) to support an ERA south of 3.00. Same goes for Clay Buchholz. And Dan Haren is a good bet to rebound with the Angels.
Projected Stats: 34 saves, 1.97, 67.1 IP, 76/17/6, 2.0 WAR
With apologies to Brian Wilson, the Kansas City Royals’ Joakim Soria is simply the best reliever in baseball.
Armed with great control (2.2 BB/9), improving groundball tendencies (48 percent GB rate) and a 9.7 K/9 rate (actually a down year for him in that respect), Soria notched 43 saves with a sparkling 1.78 ERA in 2010.
He enters the season at age 26, meaning—scary as it sounds—he could still be developing.
Projected Stats: 36 saves, 2.34, 63.2 IP, 52/14/7, 1.8 WAR
There are a couple of red flags in Rivera’s 2010 stats that could mean trouble: His strikeout rate fell by more than three strikeouts to an unintimidating 6.75 K/9, and his xFIP (3.65) was his worst since tracking began in 2002.
Still, Mo has outperformed his peripherals eight times in his last nine seasons and 12 of his last 14. He’ll find a way to shut teams down.
Projected Stats: 42 saves, 2.54, 74 IP, 80/20/7, 1.7 WAR
Neftali Feliz began the 2010 season as a 21-year-old set-up man. Within a few weeks, he was the closer on a team that would win the AL pennant; at the end of the season, he was named Rookie of the Year.
Assuming he isn’t moved to the rotation, there’s no reason to think he won’t continue humiliating teams foolish enough to be losing to the Rangers in the ninth inning. He’s a guy to watch for years to come.