With another season in the books, I figured it was a good time to come up with another list of the 100 best players in the game today.
In evaluating and ranking players, I considered several stats, ranging from traditional counting stats to sabermetrics. Stats I placed particular emphasis on include OBP, SLG, wRC+, ERA, K/BB, FIP, Fld, and Fangraph's WAR. In compiling the list, I mostly considered stats since the start of the 2009 season, with a slight emphasis on stats from this past season.
For the sake of listing who the best players in the game right now are, you won't find players who suffered season-ending injuries early in 2011 such as Josh Johnson, Buster Posey, or Adam Wainwright on the list, even if they undoubtedly would've made the list had they stayed healthy.
Without further ado, the top 100 players in Major League Baseball today.
The hard-nosed, gritty shortstop enjoyed a breakout campaign, hitting .269/ .310/ .491 with 30 home runs and 80 RBI (despite only playing in 129 games), all while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
A steady contact hitter most of his career, 2011 saw Yadier Molina take a step forward as a power hitter, as his 14 HR and .465 SLG were both career highs.
That said, the Cardinals' backstop makes this list because of his work behind the plate, as he is probably the best catcher in the game today. Renowned for his throwing arm and ability to handle a pitching staff, Molina already has three Gold Gloves on his mantle and hasn't won his last.
While Mat Latos couldn't repeat the success of his stellar 2010 campaign, the 24-year-old nonetheless enjoyed a very solid sophomore season. His 8.57 K/9, 1.18 WHIP, and 3.16 FIP were far more representative of the caliber of pitcher he is than his 9-14 record.
While Latos is moving from pitcher's paradise Petco Park to the far more hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, his ability to rack up strikeouts and minimize traffic on the basepaths should help him remain successful going forward.
Hitting amongst such all stars as Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart often goes unnoticed but has been an integral part of the Brewers since his first full season in 2007.
A staple in the middle of the Milwaukee lineup at one time, 2011 saw Hart move to the top of the lineup, where he flourished (15 HR, 36 RBI, .301/ /.366/ .551 in 256 AB hitting first).
Since becoming their full-time left fielder in 2010, Brett Gardner has brought an element of explosive speed to the Yankees' lineup. His 96 SB in that time frame are the second most in baseball, behind only Atlanta's Michael Bourn.
As his tenure in New York has coincided with those of such established table-setters as Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, and Curtis Granderson, Gardner has actually gotten the majority of his AB the past three years out of the ninth spot, giving the Yankees enviable speed at the bottom of the order.
2010 was a lost season for the "Kung Fu Panda," though it didn't stop the Giants from winning the World Series. The young Venezuelan put that season behind him though and looked like a player reborn in 2011 (23 HR, 70 RBI, .909 OPS).
While he doesn't walk as much as you'd like to see from a power-hitting corner infielder (career 7.4 BB%), he still manages to get on base at a very respectable rate (career .356 OBP).
After three productive seasons in Tampa Bay, the highlight being a superb 2008 ALCS that merited him series MVP honors, Matt Garza was traded to the Cubs last Winter. While he got off to a rather pedestrian start, the second half of the 2011 season saw him rebound to post sparkling numbers (2.45 ERA, 6-3, 3.27 K/BB) for a losing team.
In the end, he finished 13th among all starting pitchers with a WAR of 5.0. If the Cubs do decide to move him this off season, they're sure to fetch a handsome return.
Since the White Sox inexplicably traded him to the Yankees, Nick Swisher has become a key cog in the Bombers' lineup, hitting 81 HR with 256 RBI and an .854 OPS in three seasons in the Bronx. Such production has helped Swisher, one of the most likable players in the game, become a fan favorite in the Bronx.
While he'll rack up his fair share of strikeouts (career 21.2 K%), the former Athletic has always had a knack for getting on base (career .360 OBP).
2011 saw age finally start to catch up with Roy Oswalt, as the 6.02 K/9, .275 AVG, and 1.34 WHIP he posted were all career worsts. His 3.44 FIP and 0.65 HR/9 (despite his home park being a bandbox) suggests the veteran still has something left in the tank though.
While the Phillies don't appear to have much interest in bringing him back, Oswalt figures to draw plenty of interest, as several teams could benefit from his presence in the middle of their rotation.
Heath Bell took over the ninth inning duties in San Diego following the departure of Trevor Hoffman and hasn't looked back since. His 132 saves since the start of 2009 are the most in baseball, and he ranks seventh among relievers in WAR (4.8) in that same time frame.
Bell will no longer call the pitcher's paradise that is Petco Park home, as he is now a member of the Marlins. While it remains to be seen how Miami's new stadium will play, Bell's career 3.07 K/BB and 48.3 GB% suggest he should have continued success whether the park favors pitchers or not.
Written off by many after failing to live up to an unfair billing as the next George Brett, Alex Gordon finally put it all together in 2011, hitting .303 with 23 HR, 87 RBI and an .879 OPS.
In addition to the strides he's made at the plate, Gordon has flourished since moving from third base to left field, as his 20 assists in 2011 were by far the most in MLB among left fielders. In light of his breakthrough campaign, you have to think the 27-year-old has played his way back into Kansas City's long term plans.
While his days as an MVP-caliber player are long behind him, Jimmy Rollins remains one of the game's better shortstops. Having topped 30 stolen bases in nine of 11 seasons, he's the Phillies' catalyst and an invaluable part of their lineup.
While his defense is not what it used to be, he remains a serviceable shortstop. Rollins recently re-upped with the Phillies, which should help Ruben Amaro sleep better at night, as he'd have been hard-pressed to replace him.
After two seasons of remarkable consistency, 2011 saw Shin-Soo Choo take a step back in no small part due to injuries (he played in only 85 games). Though he was limited to just 47 AB after the All-Star break, he at least looked like his former self in those AB (3 HR, 8 RBI, 1.000 OPS).
When healthy, Choo is not only Cleveland's best player but one of the best right fielders in the game. His 11.1 WAR between 2009 and 2010 was 14th best among all hitters in MLB in that time frame. If he avoids the injury bug, expect a return to that form in 2012.
One of the breakout stars of 2011, Alex Avila came from out of nowhere to assert himself as one of the best catchers in the game. The Tigers' backstop finished eighth in the AL in OPS (.895) and was the starting catcher at the All-Star game.
On top of his offensive prowess, Avila is a fine catcher, as his CS% of .320 was fourth best among all catchers in 2011. While the addition of Victor Martinez may have put Avila's role in doubt at first, there's no doubt now that he's the Tigers' man behind the plate going forward.
Not gifted with typical ace stuff, Mark Buehrle nonetheless has carved out a fine career for himself by doing all the little things that lead to success on the mound. His career BB/9 is a splendid 2.05 and the three time Gold Glover is one of the best fielding pitchers in the game today.
Few pitchers exemplify durability like Buehrle, as he has topped 200 innings each of the past 11 seasons. The veteran southpaw opted to follow Ozzie Guillen to South Florida this Winter, and he should prove to be invaluable to an otherwise young Marlins' rotation.
One of the most promising young arms in an organization loaded with young pitching, Tommy Hanson burst onto the scene in 2009, living up to his hype as Atlanta's top prospect. That season, he went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 127.2 IP, good for a third place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Injuries limited him to just 22 starts in 2011, but he did show ace potential when he was on the mound, posting an 11-7 record, 1.17 WHIP, and 3.09 K/BB. With good health, 2012 could very well be the year Hanson fulfills that potential.
Traded from the Angels to the Blue Jays in a deal involving Vernon Wells, Mike Napoli was then flipped to the Rangers in a deal that garnered little fanfare. As if Wells' putrid season didn't make the deal look bad enough, Napoli rubbed salt in his old team's wound by helping their division rival win the AL pennant.
Despite playing in just 113 games, Napoli set career highs in HR (30) and RBI (75) among other offensive categories and posted a gaudy 1.045 OPS. Had Texas won the World Series, he surely would've been named series MVP (2 HR, 10 RBI, 1.164 OPS). Is it any wonder Tony Reagins is no longer the Angels' GM?
Carlos Quentin has established himself as a power bat to be reckoned with since arriving on the South Side of Chicago prior to the 2008 season. Were it not for a self-inflicted wrist injury down the stretch that year, he may well have won AL MVP, as his 36 HR, 100 RBI, and .965 OPS were all among the best in the AL.
While he hasn't approached those gaudy totals since, he's still topped 20 HR each of the past three seasons. Were it not for his injury proneness and simply awful right field defense (career -31.9 Fld), his run-producing ability would probably merit him a higher place on the list.
Though injuries and inconsistency have plagued Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill the past few seasons, Gio Gonzalez has developed into a legitimate top of the order starter for the A's. His 8.56 K/9 since the start of 2009 is the eighth best mark among all starters.
What keeps him from ranking higher on this list is that he has the highest BB/9 in the majors (4.29) over that same time frame. If he can ever harness his control, there's no telling what he's capable of.
Since his arrival spurred the controversial decision to move Michael Young from shortstop (neither the first or last time Texas has moved the veteran), Elvis Andrus has validated the decision by developing into one of the game's best shortstops.
Having learned under the great Omar Vizquel his rookie season, Andrus has become a defensive wizard, as his 19.2 Fld since 2009 is third best among all shortstops with at least 400 games played. He's no slouch offensively either, as his speed and baserunning instincts make him an effective catalyst.
After showing great potential his first four years in the majors, 2011 saw Asdrubal Cabrera put it all together. The young Venezuelan finished second only to Troy Tulowitzki among all shortstops in HR (25) and RBI (92), and his .792 OPS was fifth best among all players at that position.
His defense has been the subject of much debate lately. The more traditional fan will tell you no one in baseball had more web gems in 2011, while the sabremetric community will tell you he finished last among all shortstops in UZR in 2011. It's a contentious debate that isn't ending any time soon.
Since Roy Halladay was traded to Philadelphia, Ricky Romero has asserted himself as the ace of a promising young Toronto rotation. Since debuting in 2009, the Jays' former first-round pick has gone 42-29 with a 3.60 ERA and has gotten better with each passing season.
His career GB% is a very strong 54.6 percent, and while he's not a dominant strikeout pitcher, his career 7.12 K/9 suggests he can rack them up on occasion. Prone to wildness early on in his career, his BB/9 has been going down each year (3.20 in 2011). We've yet to see the best from this young southpaw.
Singled out by many for years as a breakout candidate, Michael Morse finally put it all together in his age 29 season, albeit not without a stroke of fate. After starting the season in a left field platoon, he took over as Washington's starting first baseman after a shoulder injury ended Adam LaRoche's season.
Morse made the most of the opportunity, finishing fourth in the NL in SLG (.550), eighth in OPS (.910), ninth in HR (31), and tenth in RBI (95). Whether his future is at first base or in the outfield, it's clear he's worked his way into the Nationals' plans.
It's hard to know what to make of Ubaldo Jimenez. In 2010, he took a 0.93 ERA into the month of June and was 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA at the All-Star break. Though he stumbled down the stretch, he still managed to finish third in the NL Cy Young vote and looked like one of the game's up-and-coming young starters.
However, his stock in Colorado fell so much after a rocky start to 2011 (6-9, 4.46 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) that the Rockies jumped at the opportunity to move him before his stock could fall even more, trading him to the Indians for an impressive return. While he ended 2011 with an unsightly 4.68 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt given his age and a solid 2011 FIP of 3.67.
After losing the 2009 season to Tommy John surgery, Shaun Marcum resurfaced in 2010 to make 31 starts for the Blue Jays with impressive results (13-8, 3.64 ERA, 3.84 K/BB). His stock rose so much, Toronto was able to net prized prospect Brett Lawrie when they traded him to the Brewers.
Many gushed at the thought of Marcum, who'd had success pitching in the AL East, pitching in the NL, and he did not disappoint. In his first season with Milwaukee, the right-hander set career bests in innings pitched (200.2), ERA (3.54), and FIP (3.73) and played a key role in getting the Brewers to the postseason.
Though All-Star caliber center fielders haven't been easy to come by the past few seasons, Michael Bourn has been one of the best at the position since his breakout season in 2009. His 13.8 WAR since 2009 is second only to Matt Kemp among center fielders, and he leads all players with 174 SB in that time period.
Such speed makes it easier to cope with the fact that he has basically no power (career .087 ISO). That speed translates into strong defense in center field as well, as his 22.9 Fld since 2009 is third best among all center fielders, and he won back-to-back Gold Gloves in 2009 and 2010 with Houston.
Though his celebrity did not explode until the second half of the 2010 season, when he started sporting his now trademark black beard, Brian Wilson actually has been one of the game's best closers since 2009. He trails only Heath Bell for the most saves since the start of that season (122).
Injuries marred his 2011 campaign, as he started the season on the DL with an oblique injury and struggled to find his rhythm when he returned (5.07 BB/9, 1.47 WHIP). Despite the lost season, he'll be just 30 on Opening Day 2012. So long as he's healthy, there's still plenty of reason to "fear the beard."
This may have been the toughest call I had to make throughout the entire list. On one hand, Chase Utley simply has not been able to stay healthy the past two seasons, averaging just 109 games played. Injuries clearly effected his on field performance in 2011, as his .259/ .344/ .425 line was well below his career average.
On the other hand, since the start of 2009, Utley is eighth among all hitters in WAR (17.6). This is why I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Each year from 2005 to 2009, he finished with at least 20 HR, 90 RBI, and an OPS north of .900. With a strong finish to his career, Utley could very well find his way to Cooperstown.
Though no longer a franchise player (even though he'll be getting paid like one the next six years), Alex Rodriguez remains an offensive force when healthy. That said, as he's gotten older, staying healthy has become an issue with A-Rod, as he hasn't played in more than 150 games since his MVP season in 2007.
That didn't stop him from topping 30 HR and 100 RBI in both 2009 and 2010 though. 2011 did prove to be a lost season for him, as he was limited to just 99 games and his .823 OPS was the worst mark of his career. Fortunately for him, he has the DH role to help him stay healthy and maximize his production the next six years.
The Braves' rich inventory of young pitching is getting a lot of attention these days and with good reason, but their best pitcher right now remains Tim Hudson. Plagued by injuries in 2008 and 2009, Hudson has bounced back nicely since, making 67 starts, winning 33 games, and posting a 3.03 ERA over the past two seasons.
Though 2011 saw a spike in his K/9 (6.6), that's never really been his bread and butter. Instead, Hudson gets by with the ground ball, as his career GB% is a robust 59 percent. Though he's getting up there in age, Hudson's pitching know-how should help him remain an effective pitcher as he nears age 40.
After a disappointing 2010 season, Jonathan Papelbon rebounded to post one of the strongest seasons of his career in 2011, as his 1.53 FIP was easily his best mark in six big league seasons. After posting a rather unhealthy 3.76 BB/9 in 2010, he cut that mark down to 1.40 in 2011, which had a lot to do with his microscopic WHIP of 0.93.
Since taking over the ninth inning job in Boston in 2006, few closers have been better than Papelbon. The best closer in Red Sox history, 2012 will see the eclectic flamethrower take his talents to Philadelphia. While I doubt he's worth $50M over four years, look for "Paps" to remain one of the game's elite closers going forward.
After showing glimpses of his ability his first two seasons, 2008 saw Andre Ethier put it all together (20 HR, 77 RBI, .885 OPS). He put up even better totals the following season, hitting 31 HR with 106 RBI (both career highs). Perhaps his most impressive feat that season was the four walk-off home runs he hit, tying a single season major league record.
2011 wasn't as kind to Ethier, as his SLG plummeted to .421 (58 points below his career average). Playing through a knee injury surely didn't help though, and while he'll likely never outdo his performance from 2009, there's hope Ethier's 2012 stats will be more in line with his career averages (18 HR, 74 RBI, .843 RBI).
Hyped for years while in Cincinnati's farm system, Jay Bruce debuted in the majors in 2008 and made a splash from the get go, hitting .254/ .314/ .453 with 21 HR with 52 RBI. Though he's become a fixture in the Reds' lineup since, the sweet-swinging slugger is still just 24 and seems to just be scratching the surface of his potential.
Though 2011 saw his OPS (.815) drop 31 points from the year prior, he did set career highs in HR (32) and RBI (97) and made his first All-Star team. Though there are doubts about Joey Votto's future in Cincinnati, fans in the Queen City can take comfort in knowing Bruce is in the fold through 2016.
After fading into obscurity thanks to two injury-plagued seasons, Carlos Beltran was able to play 142 games this past season. While he's no longer the player who nearly carried Houston to the World Series by himself in 2004, it's clear now he's still an All-Star caliber player when healthy.
Beltran got off to such a hot start for the Mets (15 HR, 66 RBI, .904 OPS), Sandy Alderson was able to net top prospect Zack Wheeler when he traded him to San Francisco. Though the Giants didn't make it back to the postseason, that can hardly be pinned on Beltran (7 HR, 18 RBI, .920 OPS after the trade).
Much like Beltran, injuries plagued Aramis Ramirez in 2009 and 2010, and his production suffered so much that many doubted he'd ever regain his 2004-2008 form. With his OPS sitting at .742 on May 31, 2011 was looking like a lost season for Ramirez as well. From that point on though, he went on a tear.
Over the next four months, Ramirez hit .315 with 22 HR and 74 RBI, re-establishing himself as one of the game's best third basemen. 2012 will see the veteran move about 90 miles North and suit up for the Brewers. While his defense has gotten worse in recent years and speed has never been an asset of his, his bat should prove to be quite the asset to a Brewers team trying to get over the loss of Prince Fielder.
When word came out that the Cardinals had signed Lance Berkman to be their everyday right fielder, many (including me) thought the move would backfire completely, the thinking being that Berkman was washed up and couldn't handle right field. Berkman's 2011 season goes to show why John Mozeliak is GM of the Cardinals and why people like me are not.
Not only was the deal not a bust, it proved to be one of the best, most impactful moves of the 2011 off season. Berkman showed flashes of his pre-2010 form, hitting .301/ .412/ .547 with 31 HR and 94 RBI, putting the Cardinals' offense over the top (they scored the most runs in the NL) and ultimately helping them win the World Series.
After the worst year of his career in 2010, Josh Beckett bounced back nicely in 2011. The right hander set new career bests in ERA (2.89) and WHIP (1.03) and finished in the top five in the AL in both categories. Such production makes the four-year, $68M deal Beckett signed in April 2010 look a lot better than it did this time last year.
While there's never been any doubting Beckett's ability when healthy, staying healthy has often been easier said than done, as he's topped 200 innings just three times in ten big league seasons. At age 31, he's starting to exit his prime, but there's no reason Beckett can't remain a very solid number two starter going forward.
The traditional DH has become something of a dying breed in recent years, with several teams opting to rotate several players in that spot to give them a breather. That hasn't been the case in Boston though, as David Ortiz has remained productive well into his 30's, assuring himself plenty of at-bats despite bringing basically no defensive value to the table.
It seemed Big Papi was headed for a steep decline after a lackluster 2009 season in which he posted the worst OPS (.794) and ISO (.224) of his tenure in Boston. Since then however, he's bounced back nicely, ranking in the top 10 in the AL in OPS each of the past two seasons. That kind of production merits him a place on the list regardless of whether or not he's allergic to leather.
Through the end of June, Atlanta's much-lauded acquisition of Dan Uggla was looking like a total bust. As the calendar flipped to July, he boasted a revolting .587 OPS (almost 250 points below his career mark) with just 12 HR and 28 RBI. He returned to form after the All-Star break though, as he hit 21 HR with 48 RBI, a .948 OPS, and enjoyed a 33-game hitting streak (the longest streak in Atlanta Braves' history).
Uggla is the only second baseman in baseball history to hit at least 30 home runs in four straight seasons. Such a feat would merit him a higher place on the list if not for the fact that he is a horrendous second baseman (his -29.7 Fld since 2009 is the worst mark among all second baseman). As long as he's hitting moonshots, it seems the Braves are content to live with his defense.
Death, taxes, and dominance from Mariano Rivera. Baseball fans have known these three constants since Mo took over the closer's role in New York following John Wetteland's departure after 1996. With one devastating pitch, his cutter, the 42-year-old Panamanian has saved more games than any player in baseball history and carved out a Hall of Fame career.
You don't need to look much further than his astounding career WHIP (1.00) and K/BB (4.04) to know why he has been so successful. He is such a master at minimizing traffic on the bases, as his career postseason WHIP (0.76) is nearly lower than his ERA (0.70). In addition to being the greatest closer who ever lived, Mo just might be the most likable Yankee this side of Yogi Berra.
After a disappointing 2009 that saw him get off to a hot start only to miss the last three quarters of the season with a hand injury, some started wondering if Rickie Weeks would ever fulfill his vast potential. He put those worries to rest with a monster 2010 season, as his 29 HR were the second most among all second baseman and he tied Robinson Cano for the highest WAR (6.5) at that position.
Though he missed 44 games, 2011 was an otherwise successful season for Weeks, as his .818 OPS was fifth best among all second baseman and he was chosen to partake in the Home Run Derby. Once a liability on defense, Weeks has developed into a decent defender at second base, posting a tolerable 3.4 Fld over the past two seasons.
Since coming to Cincinnati from the Indians prior to the 2006 season, Brandon Phillips has established himself as one of the best all-around second basemen in the game. The product of Raleigh, North Carolina has a 30-30 season and three Gold Gloves to his name and plays the game with a charisma that makes him awfully hard not to like (well, unless you're a Cardinals fan).
2011 was Phillips' best season since his breakout 30-30 season in 2007, as he hit 18 HR with 82 RBI and an .810 OPS. Per usual, he contributed on the other side of the ball too, as his 11.4 Fld was the best among all NL second basemen and he won his second gold glove in as many years.
Kimbrel showed the baseball world glimpses of what was he was capable of down the stretch in 2010, posting an astonishing 17.42 K/9 in 40 innings. Trusted with the role of closer, Kimbrel squashed any doubt he could replicate that dominance over a full season, setting a new rookie saves record with 46, not missing a beat as far as strikeouts go (14.84 K/9), and winning the NL Rookie of the Year.
Kimbrel's success no doubt was due in part to his improved control, as he shaved his BB/9 from 6.97 in 2010 down to 3.74. The end result was a K/BB (3.97) representative of his dominance. Jonathan Papelbon and Mariano Rivera have had more accomplished careers, but as it stands right now, Kimbrel is the best, most dominant closer in baseball.
Dave Duncan has a number of pitcher success stories to his credit, and Chris Carpenter is among the most impressive of those stories. Given up on by Toronto, Carpenter landed in St. Louis and bought into Duncan's philosophy of pitching to contact. The results have been staggering (95-42, 3.06 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 3.66 K/BB, 30.1 WAR), and Carpenter has helped the Cardinals win two World Series during his tenure.
Plagued by injuries in the years following the Cardinals' 2006 World Series victory, Carpenter has had more luck staying healthy lately, making at least 28 starts each of the past three seasons. He'll turn 37 next April, but his success in the 2011 postseason (4-0, 3.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP) shows he still has something left in the tank.
From 2008 to 2010, Hunter Pence was a model of consistency and one of the few bright spots for some mostly awful Astros teams. During that three year stretch, Pence hit exactly 25 HR in each season, drove in at least 72 runs, and stole at least 11 bases. The 28-year-old native Texan was having a career season (11 HR, 62 RBI, .827 OPS) when the Astros shipped him to Philadelphia.
The move to a better lineup, a more hitter friendly park, and an immeasurably better team worked wonders for Pence. In 54 games with the Phillies, he hit 11 HR with 35 RBI and a .954 OPS. While his UZR in 2011 was an unsightly -4.8, it bears mentioning that mark was as high as 12 as recently as 2009, and he is young enough that it's not inconceivable he could again become an asset in right field.
Few players exemplify the Moneyball maxim that the batting eye is just as important as the five traditional tools quite like Kevin Youkilis. There are players ranked below him with more talent than Youkilis, but Boston's third baseman has made a career for himself through his patient approach at the plate. His career BB% is an impressive 13.1 percent, and that's led to a career OBP just shy of .400 (.391).
Youk is an asset on the other side of the ball as well, as he can play both first base and third base adequately. If not for the fact that he's missed an average of 51 games the past two seasons, he would rank closer to 40 than 50.
By any measure, Carl Crawford's 2011 season was an unmitigated disaster. His OBP was an appalling .289, he mustered just 18 SB (he averaged 51 a season his first eight years), and his defense in left field was hardly up to his standards. That merited him a big time drop on this year's list (he ranked #13 last year), but I'm not prepared to give up on him and drop him from the list altogether.
For one, compared to year's past, Crawford had pretty rotten luck in 2011, as his .299 BABIP was 29 points below his career average. Additionally, it's entirely feasible the pressure of living up to the richest contract ever given an outfielder and being a key piece to a team with serious championship expectations got to him. At age 30, Crawford isn't due for a career season, but I don't think a return to his mean performance his first eight seasons is completely implausible.
Very quietly, Ian Kennedy had a very solid 2010 season (3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.79 K/9) for a Diamondbacks' team that finished last in the NL West. While that season hinted at good things to come for the former Yankee farmhand, I don't think anyone could've foreseen what was to happen in 2011.
What happened was arguably the most striking, dramatic breakthrough made by any player in 2011. Kennedy finished first in the NL in wins (21), fifth in innings (222), sixth in WHIP (1.09), and seventh in ERA (2.88), in addition to an excellent 3.60 K/BB and 5.0 WAR. He helped lead Arizona from worst to first and made a legitimate case for NL Cy Young. At age 27, the D-Backs' ace is just entering his prime and should just keep getting better.
Ben Zobrist has come quite a ways since his days as Tampa Bay's super utility man. Given a full season's worth of at-bats in 2009, Zobrist responded by hitting 27 HR with 91 RBI and posting the 10th best OPS in the league (.948). Zobrist's WAR since 2009 is 19.2. This is the third highest mark in the majors in that time frame and ranks ahead of such hitters as Miguel Cabrera, Troy Tulowitzki, and Joey Votto.
A huge part of Zobrist's value undoubtedly is his ability to play just about every position on the field, though he made almost 80 percent of his starts at second base in 2011. While Zobrist doesn't wow you with one particular tool, his considerable skill at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths makes him one of the most well-rounded players in the game today.
Give CJ Wilson credit. He implored Rangers' management to give him a chance to pitch out of the rotation prior to 2010, and he made them look awfully good the past two years. Over the past two seasons combined, the 31-year-old southpaw is 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA and 49.2 GB%. His 10.5 WAR over that time period is ninth best among all starters in the majors.
A spike in K/9 and major drop in BB/9 led to Wilson posting a career best 2.78 K/BB and 1.19 WHIP in 2011. It bears mentioning Wilson's success since 2010 has come in spite of making half his starts in the bandbox that is the Ballpark in the Arlington. With Wilson going home to Anaheim and the far more pitcher-friendly Angels' stadium in 2012, there's no reason not to expect him to remain successful.
Once one of baseball's brightest young stars, David Wright fell into obscurity after a rough first season calling Citi Field home. The spacious ballpark sapped Wright's power, as he posted career lows in HR (10) and SLG (.447). He bounced back nicely in 2010 though, hitting 29 HR with 103 RBI and an .857 OPS.
However, after six straight seasons of playing in 144 or more games, Wright missed 60 games in 2011 with a stress fracture in his lower back. When he came back from the injury, it clearly hampered his play on the field, as his .772 OPS and 1.9 WAR were both the worst marks of his career. Because of the injury and his excellent 2010 season that preceded it, he gets the benefit of the doubt.
Ever since he took over as their starting center fielder following Aaron Rowand's departure, Shane Victorino has been a huge part of the Phillies' success, helping them win five straight division titles. 2011 was the Flyin' Hawaiian's best season yet, as he posted career highs in OPS (.846), wRC+ (135), and WAR (5.9).
Before 2011, he'd registered four straight seasons of at least 25 stolen bases. In addition to his prowess in the field and on the base paths, the three-time Gold Glove winner plays excellent center field defense. Add it all together and you get one of the best all-around center fielders in the game today.
As the 2011 season started, James Shields was coming off a tough 2010 season and was an afterthought with such pitchers as David Price and Jeremy Hellickson headlining the Rays' rotation. By season's end, he made sure people were talking about him. Shields led MLB with 11 CG, finished in the top five in the AL in innings (249.1), K (225), ERA (2.82), W (16), and WHIP (1.04), and finished third in the AL Cy Young vote.
Shields has been a workhouse, topping 200 innings every year since 2007. A huge part of his success has been limiting free passes, as Shields' career BB/9 is a superb 2.07. While it seemed Shields had exhausted his use to the Rays not even a year ago, whether he sticks around as a key member of the rotation or is parlayed into more prospects, it's clear Shields has some purpose to serve in Tampa Bay.
The case of Ryan Howard is a confusing one. On one hand, the longtime Phillies' first baseman's counting stats looked very good again in 2011, as he topped 30 HR and 100 RBI for the sixth straight season. On the other hand, his AVG (.253), OBP (.346), and SLG (.488) all continued to trend downward, and he's reached the age where those trends can't be expected to turn dramatically in the other direction.
Howard's porous defense (career -20.1 Fld) and base running (career -28.7 BsR) saps his WAR and makes him an easy target among sabremetricians, but wRC+ has been kinder to him as his 2011 mark was a solid 123. Bottom line, Howard doesn't look like a player who's going to age well. His production merits him a place on the list for now though.
On Opening Day 2010, Paul Konerko was 34 years old, and the sentiment around the game was that the slugging first baseman's best days were behind him. Obviously, Konerko missed the memo. 2010 was arguably the finest season of his career, as he hit 39 HR with 111 RBI and posted a career best .977 OPS.
The captain of their team and one of the best players in franchise history, Jerry Reinsdorf ponied up to keep Konerko on the South Side another three years last Winter. Despite some doubt he'd approach his 2010 totals, 2011 was another fine season for Konerko, as he topped 30 HR and 100 RBI again and finished seventh in the AL in OPS (.907).
Long regarded as one of the best hitting catchers in the game, 2011 saw Victor Martinez shift mostly to DH duties. While Comerica Park may have hurt his power stroke (12 HR), V-Mart nonetheless had an excellent year, tying a career high with 40 2B, 103 RBI, a .330 BA (fourth best in the AL), and posting an .850 OPS. The former Indian and Red Sox put the Tigers over the top and helped them win the AL Central.
While Martinez doesn't walk much, he compensates by rarely striking out (career 11.1 K%). Originally signed by Detroit to split time at C, 1B, and DH, he'll move to the DH spot full time in 2012 to protect his knees. While his value would be greater if he caught part time, it's understandable why the Tigers would want to do everything they can to protect a bat as lethal as V-Mart's.
From the time he made his debut in 2007, it was clear the sky was the limit for Yovani Gallardo. For whatever reason though, the live-armed Mexican was plagued by second half struggles in both 2009 and 2010. That trend did not continue in 2011, as Gallardo put it all together over the course of a full season, finishing the year with career highs in W (17), innings (207.1), ERA (3.52), and K/BB (3.51).
Gallardo's success continued on into October, as he stymied the Diamondbacks in the NLDS, giving up just two runs in fourteen innings while striking out fourteen. He's always shown the ability to rack up strikeouts, and his control has improved every year. Gallardo isn't much fun for hitters to deal with it as is, and at 25, he's just scraping the surface of what he's capable of.
Tumultuous doesn't begin to describe the months that led up to the 2011 season for Michael Young and the Texas Rangers. For the second time in three years, the Rangers asked Young to switch positions, this time from third base to designated hitter/utility man. To say the least, Young was not pleased, going so far as to request a trade. Eventually, he calmed down and accepted his role.
The situation proved to have no effect whatsoever on Young's play, as he enjoyed yet another fine season. He contended for the AL batting title all season long and finished the season with a superb .338 AVG. Additionally, he drove in 106 runs (despite hitting just 11 HR) and posted a very solid .854 OPS and 127 wRC+. Young has been putting up these kinds of numbers since 2003, and he is rightfully considered by many the greatest player in Rangers' franchise history.
As the Giants have returned to relevance the past few seasons, Matt Cain concurrently has blossomed into one of the best pitchers in baseball, teaming with staff ace Tim Lincecum to form an enviable one-two punch. 2011 was Cain's best season yet, as his 2.88 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 2.91 FIP, and 5.2 WAR all represented the best marks of his career.
The young Alabamian has proved to be very durable, topping 31 starts each of his first six seasons. While his career GB% is just 37.2 percent, Cain takes advantage of AT&T Park's spacious outfield and gets a healthy amount of his outs in the air (career 44.2 FB%).
While there's been talk of the Giants trading Cain in hopes of bolstering their offense, I can't fathom why they would break up such an embarrassment of riches by parting with such a talented young pitcher.
What a difference a year makes. While his 2010 campaign wasn't exactly up to his standards (a career .306 AVG and .886 OPS), Hanley Ramirez still enjoyed a very strong season (21 HR, 76 RBI, 32 SB, .853 OPS). 2011 was a year to forget though, as injuries and inconsistency hampered Ramirez on the field and he was the subject of criticism off of it.
To be blunt, Ramirez has an awful attitude. His handling of his benching at the hands of Fredi Gonzalez in 2010 (which eventually led to Gonzalez's dismissal) was absolutely despicable, and given his reported displeasure with the Marlins' signing of Jose Reyes, he does not strike me as a team player.
Nonetheless, when healthy, Ramirez may well be the most complete, gifted player in baseball today. One can only hope he puts a stop to his prima donna ways in time to make the most of his Hall of Fame-caliber talent.
After four years of punishing minor league pitching, making scouts drool in the process, the Marlins promoted Mike Stanton from AA straight to the majors in June 2010. In 100 games, he hit 22 HR with 59 RBI and an .833 OPS, showing baseball fans glimpses of the potential that caused Baseball America to name him the third best prospect in the game prior to the 2010 season.
Stanton's light-tower power was on full display his first full season in the majors, as he finished fifth in the NL in HR (34) and eighth in SLG (.537). The 22-year-old slugger posted a wRC+ of 138 and WAR of 4.5. A three sport star in high school, few players are in Stanton's class as far as pure athleticism goes.
With his awesome power comes strikeouts and his base running acumen needs work (-3.8 career BsR), but that's to be expected of such a young player. Make no mistake; in Stanton, the Marlins have a true diamond in the rough.
One of the many bright young players the Rays have been stockpiling and developing for the better part of a decade, David Price has made the leap from much-hyped prospect to staff ace. After an up-and-down first full season, the Vanderbilt alumnus broke out in 2010, going 19-6, posting a 2.72 ERA, starting the All-Star game, and finishing second in the AL Cy Young vote.
As good as he was in 2010, advanced metrics suggest the young southpaw was even better in 2011. This past season, Price posted career bests in FIP (3.32) and WAR (4.7). Additionally, his K/9 continued to rise (from 8.11 to 8.75), while his BB/9 was down almost an entire run from the year before.
As good as he already is, the 26-year-old is still learning his craft and getting better—a scary thought for AL hitters.
In an era in which power out of the catcher position has become more and more rare, Brian McCann has been a key run producer for the Braves since his first full season in 2006. Despite only playing 128 games in 2011, he still managed to hit 24 HR to tie his career high. Since 2009, McCann is second only to Mike Napoli among all catchers in HR (66) and Victor Martinez in RBI (242).
While there's no doubting he can hit, accounts of his defense are more conflicting. He allowed the most stolen bases in the majors last season (104), and his career CS% of .237 leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, his CERA of 3.61 was second best in the majors, and he's said to have a good rapport with Atlanta's pitching staff.
Whatever defensive shortcomings he may have, his career averages of 25 HR, 99 RBI, and an .844 OPS make them a lot easier to live with.
Hard as it may be to believe, as recently as 2009, Adrian Beltre was wasting away in the hitter's purgatory known as Safeco Field, playing out a failed mega deal. At the time, he signed a one-year with Boston prior to 2010, his monster 2004 season with the Dodgers was acknowledged as a contract-year fluke, and few believed he'd ever approach that form again. As it turns out, all Beltre had to do was get out of Seattle.
Since the start of 2010, Beltre is in the top ten among all players in SLG (.557) and WAR (12.7) and in the top fifteen in HR (60), RBI (207), ISO (.247), and wRC+ (137). On top of his offensive prowess, with the exception of Evan Longoria, the three-time Gold Glover is without equal at third base.
The butt of jokes among baseball fans mere years ago, with a strong enough finish to his career, it now is not implausible that Beltre could someday make it to the Hall of Fame.
Hopes were high for Zack Greinke when the 2009 AL Cy Young winner was traded from Kansas City to Milwaukee last December. His tenure in the Brew City did not get off to a good start though, as he fractured a rib playing basketball and missed the first month of the season. When he did return, he looked awfully rusty, taking an ERA north of five into the All-Star break.
From there on though, he started to look like his old self. In 15 second half starts, Greinke went 9-3 with a 2.59 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 3.52 K/BB. Since the start of 2009, he is fifth among all starters in FIP (2.87) and K/BB (4.13) and seventh in WAR (18.4).
Along with Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum, Greinke is part of a lethal trio atop Milwaukee's rotation that should help them stay competitive in the post Prince Fielder era.
After years in the minors, Nelson Cruz earned the Rangers' starting right field job prior to 2009 and promptly established himself as a slugger to be reckoned with, hitting 33 HR and finishing second to Prince Fielder in the Home Run derby. He was even better in 2010 (though he only played in 108 games), hitting 22 HR with 78 RBI and a .950 OPS.
Though he again struggled to stay healthy in 2011 and his .312 OBP left much to be desired, Cruz had a postseason to remember (this play notwithstanding of course). In the ALCS against Detroit, Cruz hit six HR with 13 RBI, both records for a postseason series.
Cruz is the complete package as well, as he has averaged over 15 SB a season since 2009 and his 12.4 Fld in that same time frame is tenth best among all right fielders.
Much-hyped during his time in Pittsburgh's minor league system, Andrew McCutchen started validating the hype almost immediately after taking over as Pittsburgh's everyday center fielder in 2009. In 108 games, he made his mark as a catalyst, hitting .286 with 12 HR, 54 RBI, and 22 SB. In the two years since, he's just kept getting better and better.
McCutchen is a splendid athlete and one of the absolute fastest players in the majors today. While that speed has made him a terror on the base paths, it did not start translating into prowess in the field until this past season.
After posting a combined -15 Fld his first two seasons, he posted a solid 3.5 Fld in 2011 and has all the skills necessary to be a great center fielder.
A monster 2009 season with the Braves and Angels earned Mark Teixeira a mammoth eight year, $180M contract with the Yankees. The slugging first baseman was worth every penny his first year in the Bronx, finishing in the top 10 in the AL in HR (39), RBI (122), SLG (.565), and OPS (.948) and winning his third Gold Glove.
Since then, his numbers have tapered off. While his HR and RBI totals have remained impressive, his AVG and OBP are trending downward, and both 2010 and 2011 saw him post an OPS over 50 points below his career average.
His defense remains strong though (his 8.6 Fld in 2011 was third best among all first basemen), and given his friendly home ballpark and considerable protection in the Yankee lineup, it's not totally inconceivable Teixeira could return to his pre-2010 form.
Since overcoming lymphoma his rookie year, Jon Lester has developed into one of the most electric southpaws in the game today. 2008 proved to be his breakout year, as he went 16-6, logged 210.1 innings, posted a 3.21 ERA and 5.1 WAR, and pitched a no-hitter against Kansas City. The following two seasons saw Lester come into his own as a strikeout pitcher, as his K/9 jumped from 6.50 his rookie year to 9.96 in 2009 and 9.74 in 2010.
A popular preseason pick to win AL Cy Young honors, his 2011 campaign was not on par with his previous two seasons, though he certainly didn't pitch poorly. His season did end on a sour note, as his forgettable September (1-3, 5.40 ERA) helped bring about the Red Sox' epic collapse.
That said, he'll be just 28 on Opening Day, and his best days certainly are ahead of him.
You look at his stats, and it's hard to fathom that Dan Haren has been traded three times in the past eight years. Clearly, it's been more a matter of Haren being in demand than unwanted. The three-time All-Star is the epitome of a workhorse, as he has topped 200 innings each full season in the majors. His 16.9 WAR since the start of 2009 is the eighth best mark among all starters.
The key to Haren's success is his pinpoint control, as his career BB/9 is a jaw-dropping 1.9. Combine that with the fact that he is a solid strikeout pitcher and you get a splendid career K/BB of 4.04. He has led his league in that statistic three of the last four seasons.
Though it'll be Jered Weaver who gets the ball for the Angels on Opening Day 2012, make no mistake: Haren is a bona fide ace.
Few players bring as broad a skill set to the table as Ian Kinsler. The Rangers' second baseman had arguably the best season of his career in 2011, as he enjoyed his second 30-30 season in three years, posted an .832 OPS, and a 7.7 WAR that was sixth best among all players and the best mark of his career. He was a huge contributor defensively as well, as his Fld of 15 was third best among all second basemen.
When healthy, Kinsler is dynamic. He plays the game with such reckless abandon that staying healthy is often easier said than done though, as he's played in over 140 games just twice in six big league seasons.
Both times he's played at least 140 games though, he's had a 30-30 season. The 29-year-old is one of the best players on a Texas team that is gleaming with talent.
Justin Upton was called up to the majors in 2007 at age 19. As is to be expected of such a young player, his few seasons were a bit of a rollercoaster ride. The first overall pick from the 2005 draft had a breakout 2009 season, hitting 26 HR with 86 RBI, 20 SB, and a .899 OPS. He took a bit of a step back in 2010 as a power hitter though, as his SLG dropped by 90 points and his OPS fell to .799.
2011 proved to be Upton's best year yet. He rediscovered his power stroke, hitting 31 HR, slugging .529, and posting a 6.4 WAR that was the best mark of his career and the thirteenth best in the majors. His huge role in Arizona's rise to the top of the NL West helped him finish fourth in the NL MVP vote.
Considering he just turned 24 this past August, it's safe to assume Upton hasn't yet reached his peak, which is pretty scary given how good he already is.
While the biggest debate centering around the Nationals right now is whether or not Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper will be the face of the franchise one day, as it stands now, there's no doubt that player is Ryan Zimmerman. In an age where All-Star caliber third basemen have become quite rare, Zimmerman has established himself as one of the best in the league at that position on both sides of the ball.
2009 was Zimmerman's breakout year, as he made his first All-Star team and finished with 33 HR, 106 RBI, an .889 OPS, and a 7.3 WAR. On top of that, he posted a 13.7 Fld and won his first Gold Glove: his 24.6 Fld since 2009 is fourth best among all third basemen. He followed that season up with another excellent campaign in 2010, setting a career high in OPS (.898) and posting the sixth best WAR (7.2) in the league.
Though injuries sabotaged his 2011 season, considering his performance in the two years prior, there's no doubt Zimmerman is one of baseball's brightest young stars.
With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the fold, Cole Hamels slots in the third spot in the Phillies' rotation. That said, he'd be the number one starter on well over half the other teams in baseball. After making the All-Star team and finishing sixth in the NL Cy Young vote in 2007, Hamels came of age in October of 2008, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in five starts and leading the Phillies' to their first World Series win in over a quarter century.
His heavy workload from 2008 took a toll the next season, as he posted an underwhelming 10-11 record and 4.32 ERA, though his 3.72 FIP suggested he really didn't pitch that poorly. He's bounced back nicely since though, winning 26 games the past two seasons, posting a 2.92 ERA that is seventh best among all starters in that time frame.
As it stands now, Hamels is set to hit free agency following the 2012 season. Given that the Phillies are starting to get very old, very quickly, they would do well to lock up Hamels (who'll be just 28 on Opening Day) before he can hit the open market.
Once best known as Jeff's little brother, Jered Weaver has gotten better and better each year, become one of the game's best pitchers, and made a name for himself in the process. 2009 saw the Northridge, California native go 16-8, post a 3.75 ERA, and top 200 innings for the first time in his career. By the time John Lackey left for the Red Sox, it was clear who'd assume the role of staff ace in Anaheim.
Since then, he's certainly pitched like an ace. In 2010, Weaver was named to the All-Star game for the first time and won the strikeout title with 233. He was even better this past season, as he carried a sub-2 ERA into August. Up to that point, he fought Justin Verlander tooth and nail for the AL Cy Young before Verlander pulled away down the stretch.
In the end, he finished with career bests in W (18), ERA (2.41), and IP (235.2), and inspired hope he'll add a Cy Young to his mantle before he calls it a career.
After a half-season hiccup in Oakland and the cavernous Coliseum, Matt Holliday has solidified his status as one of the game's best hitters since joining the Cardinals. In 63 games with St. Louis down the stretch in 2009, the long-time Colorado Rockie hit .353 with 13 HR and 55 RBI and a 1.023 OPS. He hasn't let up the past two seasons either, making the All-Star team and posting an OPS north of .900 in each season.
Holliday's 17.3 WAR since the start of the 2009 season is ninth best among all hitters in that time period. While not a particularly good left fielder, his bat more than makes up for it.
For all the talk of how devastating the loss of Albert Pujols is to the Cardinals, it bears mentioning that in Holliday, they have an excellent player to build their new-look offense around.
Few players in the game today are as big an enigma as Carlos Gonzalez. You watch him play at Coors Field in Denver, and you wonder how he was ever traded twice before his 25th birthday. His home splits since joining the Rockies are staggering; 49 HR, 153 RBI, .347/ .404/ .653 in 704 AB. Like many Rockies before him though, it appears CarGo benefits from playing half his games one mile above sea level.
His road splits with Colorado are as follows; 24 HR, 85 RBI, .271/ .325/ .452. That batting line is one befitting a solid, league average player but not a batting champion or MVP candidate (he finished third in 2010).
Fortunately for Gonzalez, he'll be in Denver a long time, as he signed a deal last Winter that'll keep him with the Rockies through 2017. At age 26, he is just now approaching his prime and has all the talent needed to start hitting away from Coors' Field.
From the time he reached the majors, it was clear Clayton Kershaw was a special talent. The southpaw led baseball in H/9 (6.3) his first season in the majors, inspiring sentiment across the baseball community that if he could ever learn to throw strikes (his BB/9 in 2009 was 4.8), he could be the second coming of Sandy Koufax. While his 2010 season was very strong, it wasn't until 2011 that Kershaw started living up to those lofty expectations.
The Dodgers' ace went 21-5 with a 2.28 ERA, made the All-Star team, and claimed the NL Cy Young award. He shaved his BB/9 all the way down to 2.1, which combined with his penchant for the strikeout, made for an eye-popping 4.59 K/BB.
With electric stuff, flawless mechanics, and time on his side (he's only 23), there's not a whole lot to dislike about Kershaw. With the benefit of good fortune, there's no telling what he can accomplish in his career. Those Koufax comparisons are not off base.
You watch Josh Hamilton play, and as a baseball fan, it terrifies you how close his career came to not panning out. Having overcome drug addiction and gotten his life in order, Hamilton resurfaced with the Reds in 2007 and started showing the potential the Rays saw when when they took him first overall in the 1999 draft. He was then traded to the Rangers and the rest, as they say, is history.
In his first year in Texas, Hamilton hit 32 HR with 130 RBI, a .901 OPS, and put on a performance in the Home Run Derby that won't soon be forgotten. While advanced metrics suggested his defense was sub par in 2008, it has improved since then (19.2 Fld since 2009).
Though injury prone, there isn't anything on a baseball field this guy can't do; they don't call him "The Natural" for nothing. It's an uplifting story that's going to make for a great movie some day.
Some players take years to get accustomed to the majors, and some hit the ground running from the start. Boston's Dustin Pedroia falls in the latter category, as he accomplished more in his first two seasons in the majors than some players do in their entire careers. The Arizona State alumnus hit .317 with a .823 OPS in 2007 and helped the Red Sox win the World Series.
He was even better the next season, hitting 17 HR with 83 RBI, 20 SB, 9.9 Fld at second base, and a 6.9 WAR. For his efforts, he was awarded the 2008 AL MVP award. Though he missed over half the 2010 season with injuries, he came back in 2011 and enjoyed his best season yet. Pedroia set career highs in HR (21), RBI (91), and WAR (8), and posted an excellent 17.9 Fld at second base en route to his second Gold Glove. A big part of Pedroia's success has been his batting eye, as his BB% has risen every year since 2008.
As Pedroia is still just 28, look for his "laser show" to go on for years to come.
Despite hitting 30 home runs and making his first All-Star team, it appeared Curtis Granderson's career had plateaued in 2009. Not sold on his ability to hit lefties, the Tigers traded him to the Yankees in a much-talked about three-team blockbuster deal. His first season in the Bronx didn't inspire much hope that the trade had been a worthwhile one for the Yankees, as he hit just .247 with 24 HR and a .792 OPS. With 2011 in the books, needless to say, the deal looks a lot better for the Yankees.
After years of not being able to solve southpaws, Granderson eviscerated lefties to the tune of 16 HR and a .597 SLG in 191 AB. The end result was the best season of his career, as he finished with a career high in HR (41), RBI (119), OPS (.916), and wRC+ (146). And though advanced metrics suggested he was a below average center fielder in 2011, plays like these make it hard to buy that completely.
It's clear now that not only is Granderson not on the wrong side of his career, he may well have an MVP-caliber campaign or two left in him.
Having already gotten one huge paycheck from the Yankees, CC Sabathia worked hard in 2011 to secure another big time payday at season's end. While Justin Verlander and Jered Weaver dominated the Cy Young discussion, CC Sabathia had arguably his best season since joining the Yankees, finishing in the top 5 in the AL in W (19), IP (237.1), and K (230). The effort was enough to command a new deal with the Bombers for at least five years and $122M.
Since his rookie year in 2001, Sabathia has been as consistent and durable as any pitcher in the league. The Vallejo, California native has pitched at least 180 innings and won at least 11 games each season in the majors.
His career record is a staggering 176-96, and as the burly southpaw has showed no signs of slowing down, it's not a stretch to think his final career totals will warrant him admission into Cooperstown.
While he sure doesn't look the part, Tim Lincecum is an ace in every sense of the word. His first season breaking camp with the Giants, all Lincecum did was go 18-5 and lead the NL in W-L% (.783), H/9 (7.2), HR/9 (0.4), and K/9 (10.5) en route to the NL Cy Young award. 2009 was more of the same, as "The Freak" took home the award yet again.
While he could not pull off a three-peat in 2010, it's safe to say that was a pretty good year for Lincecum too. During the 2010 postseason, Lincecum went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 4.78 K/BB in leading the Giants to their first World Series win since moving to San Francisco. Though he went 13-14 in 2011, it was obviously a byproduct of the Giants' hapless offense, as his peripherals were all in line with his career averages.
Still just 27, I have a sneaky feeling he hasn't won his last Cy Young.
Marred by injuries for years, Jose Reyes was able to stay on the field long enough in 2011 to build up tremendous value as he entered free agency. The speed demon swiped 39 bases, won the NL Batting Title (.337), and set career bests in OPS (.877) and wRC+ (149). In light of his impressive campaign, he was able to land a very nice deal with the Miami Marlins.
A difference-maker at the plate, he's generally regarded as a competent shortstop as well. When healthy, Reyes can take over a game and is the most dynamic catalyst in the game today. Unfortunately, he's had to deal injuries each year since 2008 and hasn't topped 140 games since that campaign.
If the Marlins are going to take a step forward and return to the playoffs in 2012, they'll need a full season out of their new $106M man.
Down the stretch in 2007, Jacoby Ellsbury came up to the majors and made a difference for the Red Sox, helping them win the World Series. The next few seasons saw him develop into an explosive catalyst (albeit one with little power), as he stole 120 bases between 2008 and 2009. However, he played in just 18 games in 2010 and made three separate trips to the disabled list. As the Red Sox entered the 2011 season, Ellsbury's future with the organization was in doubt.
With 2011 in the books, it's safe to say Ellsbury's future with the team is secure. In his age 27 season, Ellsbury came of age as a power hitter, hitting 32 HR with 105 RBI and a .928 OPS, all while remaining a terror on the base paths (39 SB). Additionally, he played a fantastic center field (15.6 Fld) and won his first Gold Glove. His 9.4 WAR led the majors, and he finished second in the AL MVP vote.
Rather than a pure speedster, it's clear now Ellsbury is one of baseball's great young five-tool players.
After wearing four different uniforms in the span of less than twelve months, last winter Cliff Lee landed back in the town he wanted to be in all along; Philadelphia. The move immediately made Lee the best number two starter in the game and the Phillies' rotation the talk of baseball. Though the Phillies as a team fell short of expectations, the same cannot be said of Lee.
In his first season back in the City of Brotherly Love, the 2008 AL Cy Young winner finished in the top five in the NL in W (17), IP (232.2), K (238), ERA (2.40), WHIP (1.03), and CG (6). His 20.5 WAR since 2009 is third best among all starters. The key to the crafty lefty's success is his exceptional control, as he has posted a BB/9 of two or less each of the past four seasons, and his 2010 K/BB was an eye-popping 10.28.
It took him years to do it, but the southpaw has put it all together, and as it stands today, he's the best left-handed pitcher in the game.
All the talk leading up to last offseason was that Prince Fielder had run his course in Milwaukee and that the Brewers would have to trade him and get something for him before he left. Doug Melvin didn't go that route though, as he kept Fielder, bolstered his pitching staff, and went all in for 2011. It worked out pretty well for both sides: the Brewers had one of the best seasons in franchise history and Fielder set himself up for a huge payday with a monster season.
2011 saw Cecil's son finish in the top three in the NL in HR (38), RBI (120), BB (107), and OPS (.981). Since 2009, Fielder ranks among the top ten in baseball in HR (116), RBI (344), and SLG (.547). Such production makes it easier to live with the fact that he'll never win a Gold Glove (career -36.3 Fld).
In six seasons in the Brew City, Fielder established himself as one of the best players in Brewers' history. Barring a miracle, his tenure with that organization is over. Still unsigned for 2012, no player left on the market has the capacity to alter the landscape of MLB next season like Fielder does.
With no help whatsoever from the Mariners' offense the past few seasons, Felix Hernandez has had to get by on stuff alone. Fortunately for him, the 25-year-old Venezuelan has arguably the best pure stuff in the game today. Though he burst on to the scene at the age of 19 in 2005, it was Hernandez who made major league hitters look like boys (2.67 ERA, 3.35 K/BB in 12 starts).
Since 2009, King Felix ranks in the top five among all starters in ERA (2.73) and WAR (18.5). Despite a 13-12 record (courtesy of Seattle's historically bad offense), he was able to win the 2010 AL Cy Young on the strength of his AL best 2.27 ERA and 249.2 innings.
With all due respect to Stephen Strasburg and Clayton Kershaw, if given the chance to start a franchise with one pitcher, I'd have to go with this young flamethrower. If he could ever get run support on a consistent basis, you're looking at a 20-win threat every year and a potential Hall of Famer.
Despite playing half his games at Petco Park, Adrian Gonzalez mashed in his time with the padres, averaging 32 HR, 100 RBI, and an .888 OPS in five years in San Diego.
As the 2010 season concluded, popular sentiment was that the San Diego native could take his game to another level with the benefit of a more hitter friendly ballpark. After arriving in Boston in a Winter Meetings blockbuster, Gonzalez fulfilled that promise.
In his first season with the Red Sox, Gonzalez nearly won the AL batting title (.338), finished in the top 10 in the AL in RBI (117), OPS (.957), and wRC+ (153), and set a new career best in WAR (6.6). The 29-year-old was an asset in the field as well, winning his third Gold Glove at first base.
Well-documented as the Red Sox' supposed woes may be, you could do a lot worse than to build your team around this fantastic hitter.
For years, Roy Halladay was stuck on some thoroughly mediocre Blue Jays teams. There was nothing mediocre about his performance in Toronto though, as he went 37-21 with a 2.78 ERA and a gaudy 5.59 K/BB his last two seasons north of the border. When his Blue Jays' tenure came to an end following a trade to Philadelphia, Halladay had accumulated a Cy Young award and a 148-76 record.
To say his first season in Philadelphia was a success would be a gross understatement. Doc led the NL in W (21), IP (250.2), CG (9), BB/9 (1.1), and K/BB (7.3) en route to the NL Cy Young award, pitched a perfect game in May, and pitched the second postseason no-hitter in baseball history with an iconic performance against the Reds.
As he was almost as good this past season (his 8.2 WAR led all pitchers), the only goal Halladay hasn't accomplished since coming to Philadelphia is winning a World Series and eventually, I think he'll check that one off the list too.
If he never throws another pitch in the majors, Halladay is still a surefire Hall of Famer. As the veteran right-hander is showing no signs of slowing down, it seems inevitable Doc will some day take his place alongside the greatest pitchers to ever play this game.
A seemingly loaded position mere years ago, MVP-caliber third baseman are hard to come by these days. However, the Rays have themselves a truly elite player at that position in Evan Longoria. Even in a down year in which injuries sabotaged his AVG (.244), Longoria still managed to hit 31 HR with 99 RBI, an .850 OPS, and a 6.1 WAR that ranked sixteenth among all hitters in 2011.
The product of Long Beach State made a quick impression on the Rays in 2008, hitting 27 HR with 85 RBI and a .874 OPS, winning the Rookie of the Year award, and leading Tampa Bay to the World Series. He's kept getting better and better, as his 21.3 WAR since 2009 is second only to Albert Pujols in that time frame.
Longoria is not only the best hitting third baseman in the game today, but the game's best fielding third baseman as well. Since the two-time Gold Glover came into the league, his 54.8 Fld is not only best among all third baseman but the third best among all players regardless of position.
A genuine difference-maker on both sides of the ball, few players today epitomize "franchise player" quite like Longoria. In just four years, he's already treated baseball fans to some iconic moments and at 26, he'll likely treat us to many more before he calls it a career.
Robinson Cano arrived in the majors in 2005 and soon after, the sweet-swinging second baseman was deemed by many a candidate to some day win a batting title. The next year, at age 24, he nearly did just that, as he hit .342 (third best in the AL), posted an .890 OPS, and won his first Silver Slugger award. He hit a wall in 2008 though, posting a sub par .715 OPS and leaving his future in the Bronx in doubt.
Since then however, Cano has realized the potential the Yankees knew he had when they signed him as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic. Cano has averaged 27 HR, 104 RBI, and an .890 OPS the past three seasons, and his 16.4 WAR in that time frame is third best among all second basemen.
Cano's talents were on full display during the 2011 Home Run Derby, which he won in convincing fashion. At season's end, he took home his third Silver Slugger award. He has a Gold Glove from 2010 to his name as well and is regarded as having one of the best arms at second base in the game.
With Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on the downside of their careers, Cano has emerged as the Yankees' best player. Not only does he remain a solid bet to win a batting title before it's all said and done, an MVP award could be in his future as well.
It wasn't long after Justin Verlander cracked the Tigers' rotation in 2006 that the baseball world took note of just how high the young flamethrower's ceiling was. In light of his 2006 Rookie of the Year campaign and no-hitter against Milwaukee in 2007, consensus developed that with the fine-tuning of some rough edges, the Tigers' ace could become the best pitcher in the game. While his 2009 and 2010 seasons were excellent, it wasn't until 2011 that he fulfilled his potential.
Verlander was arguably the most talked about player of the 2011 season. The Tigers' ace won the AL Pitching Triple Crown with 24 W, a 2.40 ERA, and 250 K, set a new career best in K/BB (4.39), and led the Tigers all the way to the ALCS. For his efforts, he was awarded not only the AL Cy Young award but the AL MVP as well, making him the first pitcher to win both awards since Roger Clemens in 1986.
Since 2009, Verlander's WAR is 21.7, a shade below Roy Halladay for the best mark among all starters in that time frame.
Verlander is not yet 29 years old, and already he is a four-time All-Star and has a jaw-dropping 107-57 career record. He has everything you could want out of a pitcher. He is the best pitcher in the game right now, and there's no reason he can't hold on to that distinction for years to come.
Joey Votto doesn't seem to generate the kind of buzz players like Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, or Mark Teixeira do. Playing in small market Cincinnati probably doesn't help. Make no mistake though: since the young Canadian came into the league, few in the league, let alone first baseman, have been better.
Since 2009, the Reds' first baseman ranks in the top five in baseball in AVG (.318), OBP (.418), wRC+ (161), and WAR (18.9). His best season yet remains 2010, in which he posted career bests in HR (37) and RBI (113), led the NL in OPS (1.024), and took home the NL MVP award in a near unanimous vote.
It's not unusual for slugging first basemen to be allergic to leather, but Votto certainly doesn't fall into that category. His 7.8 Fld since 2009 is sixth best among all first basemen. He won his first Gold Glove in 2011 and he hasn't won his last.
Under contract for two more years, doubt that Votto will stay in Cincinnati beyond 2013 is starting to grow. As such, the Reds would be well-served to either parlay the slugger into a handsome package of prospects or take advantage of having one of the game's best hitters in the fold for another two seasons.
After an excellent first three seasons, Matt Kemp looked primed to take off and as such, was a favorite among prognosticators to win the NL MVP award in 2010. It didn't quite work out that way, as Kemp took a big step back, posting a career worst season (.249 AVG, .760 OPS) almost across the board save for a career high 28 HR. Despite speculation he'd be moved, Kemp stayed with the Dodgers. With the benefit of hindsight, it's now clear that would've been a disastrous move by Ned Coletti.
It took a year longer than many expected, but Kemp established himself as one of the premiere talents in the game today. L.A's center fielder finished second in the league in WAR to Jacoby Ellsbury, contended for the NL Triple Crown deep into the season, and fell a single HR shy of becoming the fifth member of the 40-40 club. If not for the Dodgers' woes (compared to the Brewers' success), Kemp likely would've beaten out Ryan Braun for the NL MVP award.
While it's long been expected Kemp's tools would translate to success at the plate, he's been the subject of criticism for his defense and baserunning in the past. He made major strides in both in 2011 though, to the point that he won his second Gold Glove.
Kemp was rewarded handsomely for his MVP-caliber season, signing an eight year, $160M extension. If you're a Dodgers' fan, you can only hope they get their act together in time to capitalize on having such a dynamic player to build their team around.
Troy Tulowitzki made an impact in the majors right from the start, hitting 24 HR with 99 RBI and an .838 OPS his rookie year and leading the Rockies all the way to the World Series. Since then, he hasn't disappointed. With Matt Holliday long gone and Todd Helton past his prime, Tulo has taken over as the face of the franchise.
The numbers leave no doubt that Tulowitzki is the best hitting shortstop in the game today. Since 2009, he leads all shortstops in HR (89), RBI (292), OPS (.930), wRC+ (137), and WAR (18.4). And unlike his teammate Carlos Gonzalez, Tulo's stats cannot be chalked up to the thin air in Denver, as there is but a slight discrepancy between his home (49 HR, 176 RBI, .324 AVG, .395 OBP, .597 SLG) and road stats (40 HR, 116 RBI, .283 AVG, .357 OBP, .510 SLG) the past three seasons.
That said, to deem Tulowitzki an offensive shortstop would be to not do him justice at all. With excellent range and a cannon of a throwing arm, the two-time Gold Glover is widely accepted as one of the best defensive shortstops in the game today (if not the best).
Given the position he plays, his clubhouse presence, and the way he carries himself off the field, it should come as no surprise that Tulowitzki grew up idolizing Derek Jeter. As he is under contract through 2020, it's entirely possible that when all is said and done, Tulowitzki will have carved out as lasting a legacy in Denver as Jeter has in New York.
It should come as no surprise that the Brewers' return to relevancy the past five seasons has coincided with the emergence of Ryan Braun. Since his breakout rookie season in 2007 (34 HR, 97 RBI, 1.004 OPS in 113 games), the Mission Hills, California native has established himself as a force at the plate, on the basepaths, and in the field.
In each of his five big league seasons, Braun has topped 25 HR, 97 RBI, and 14 SB. Since 2009, he ranks in the top 10 among all players in RBI (328), AVG (.318), SLG (.548), and wRC+ (154). This past season, he joined the 30-30 club, was named to the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger award for the fourth consecutive season, and led the Brewers all the way to the NLCS. For his efforts, he was awarded the NL MVP award.
When Braun arrived in the majors, he was a third baseman. Needless to say, that didn't quite work out (-27.9 Fld in 2007), so Milwaukee moved him to left field. He's taken to that position much better, as his excellent arm has helped him rank among the league leaders in assists the past few seasons.
Fortunately, it sounds as though his failed drug test this past season was indeed brought about by unusual circumstances as he claimed from the start. It would've been a shame for him to be branded just another cheater just as he emerged as one of the game's premiere players.
37 HR, 99 RBI, a .906 OPS, and 5.1 WAR. For many players, that's a career season. For Albert Pujols, it's a "down year." Hard as that may be to believe, he has set the bar that high. Through the first ten seasons of his career, Pujols posted a sub .1000 OPS just twice, won six Silver Slugger awards, made the All-Star team nine times, won three MVP awards, and finished in the top five in the voting another six times. They don't call him "The Machine" for nothing.
2011 saw Pujols fail to drive in 100 runs for the first time in his career and post the worst OPS (.906) and WAR (5.1) of his career. Excellent marks, but not on par with his career averages. Come October however, not only did he play as well as he ever has, he put on what might be the signature performance of his career thus far.
In Game 3 of the World Series, Pujols hit three home runs to join Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players in baseball history to accomplish such a feat. In 18 total postseason games, he hit .353 with 5 HR, 16 RBI, and a 1.155 OPS and helped the Cardinals secure their eleventh championship in franchise history. The series win further cemented a legacy in St. Louis already cast in stone.
It also proved to be the end of Pujols' run in the Gateway City, as he left to sign a megadeal with the Los Angeles Angels this past month. He'll be hard-pressed to outdo his historically good eleven year stretch in St. Louis and the pressure to perform will be immeasurable. On the other hand, if he's risen to the occasion every time he's been faced with adversity yet, why doubt him now?
Mired in controversy over an ugly drunk driving incident, Miguel Cabrera's life was in disorder just as Spring Training 2011 began. While many had no clue what to expect from Cabrera in 2011, Jim Leyland was not one of them, predicting he would have the best season of his career. Cabrera did just that, as his .344 AVG and .448 OBP were not only the best marks in the AL but the entire league. Most importantly, he made it through the season without further incident off the field.
Since coming over to Detroit from Florida in as lopsided a trade as you'll ever see, Cabrera has been everything the Tigers could've asked for and more between the lines. His .421 OBP over the past three seasons is the highest among all players, and he also is in the top five in RBI (334), AVG (.332), wRC+ (163), and WAR (18.9) over that time frame.
At the plate, Cabrera is that rare player who doesn't sacrifice average for power or vice versa. On the other hand, the best thing that can be said about his defense is that he's not a liability. He's made strides over the years though and is at least a capable first baseman.
Since he exploded on to the scene in 2003, pitchers haven't had much luck finding ways to get Cabrera out. In fact, it seems the only person capable of stopping him is himself. Hopefully, his off-the-field issues are behind him at last because at the rate he's going on the field, this once in a generation talent is Cooperstown-bound.
Fun as prognostication is and certain as some things may be, in baseball, there are some things that simply cannot be foreseen. If you need further proof, look no further than Jose Bautista. If in August 2009 someone said that in two years, the Blue Jays' utility man would be mentioned among the best players in baseball, not only would no one have believed it, but many people would've laughed. Such is baseball that unlikely as such a prediction seemed, it has in fact become a reality.
Since his shocking breakout season in 2010 (chalked up to a leg kick he instituted at the urging of hitting coach Dwayne Murphy), no player has been as big a one-man wrecking crew as Bautista. Over the past two seasons, the Blue Jays' right fielder leads all hitters in HR (97), SLG (.613), wRC+ (174), and WAR (15.2). In both seasons, he's made the All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger award, and finished in the top five in AL MVP voting.
Undoubtedly, he earns his paycheck at the plate, but by no means is Bautista a one dimensional player. Though not a Gold Glove-caliber player at either position, he's an adequate fielder at both third base and right field.
After years of struggle, Bautista has finally put it all together. As he is already on the wrong side of 30 though, it's unclear just how long he can keep up this pace. No matter what the future holds for him, there's no denying his ability these days. As it stands right now, he is the best player in Major League Baseball.