B/R's MLB 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 First Basemen in 2020

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2018

B/R's MLB 20 for '20: Projecting Top 20 First Basemen in 2020

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Baseball is a tough sport to predict day in and day out, and it becomes exponentially more difficult to project when looking years into the future. But that's exactly what we're going to be doing here.

    Back in the summer of 2015, I wrote a series dubbed "B/R's MLB 20 for '20" wherein I predicted who the top 20 players would be at each position when the 2020 season rolled around.

    Three years later, it's time for an update.

    In this edition we look at the first base position, where Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt will all still be in the prime of their careers and vying for the top spot, alongside reigning National League Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger.

    Before we dive into the top 20, we'll take a look back at that original list with the benefit of hindsight and also shine a light on a few prospects who could be making waves two years from now.

    Enjoy.

            

    Previous 20 for '20 series entries: Catchers

The Original List (Published July 10, 2015)

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    AJ Reed
    AJ ReedAssociated Press

    Original Top 20 First Basemen List

    1. Anthony Rizzo, CHC
    2. Paul Goldschmidt, ARI
    3. Freddie Freeman, ATL
    4. Josh Bell, PIT
    5. Eric Hosmer, KC
    6. Buster Posey, SF
    7. Jose Abreu, CWS
    8. Matt Olson, OAK
    9. AJ Reed, HOU
    10. Bobby Bradley, CLE
    11. Dominic Smith, NYM
    12. Casey Gillaspie, TB
    13. Miguel Cabrera, DET
    14. Greg Bird, NYY
    15. Jon Singleton, HOU
    16. Joey Votto, CIN
    17. D.J. Peterson, SEA
    18. Brandon Belt, SF
    19. Dan Vogelbach, CHC
    20. Christian Walker, BAL

            

    Hindsight Breakdown

    This was a stark improvement over the catcher list.

    The top three guysAnthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freemanwere no-brainers, and they again reside near the top of the rankings in our updated version.

    Josh Bell and Matt Olson were still prospects when the original version was written, and they've since ascended into starting roles and shown the offensive tools to be middle-of-the-order producers for the foreseeable future.

    Notably absent from the list is Cody Bellinger.

    He was a fourth-round pick in 2013 and spent his first two seasons in the relative anonymity of rookie ball. If the original article were written at the end of the 2015 season, he certainly would have made the cut.

    The biggest whiff has to be AJ Reed.

    He was a second-round pick in 2014 after winning the Golden Spikes Award during his junior season at Kentucky. When the original article was written, he was in the middle of a monster season in which he posted a .340/.432/.612 line with 34 home runs and 127 RBI in High-A and Double-A combined. Reed looked destined for a spot in the middle of the Houston lineup.

    Instead, he struggled in his first taste of MLB action (141 PA, .164 BA, 34.0 K%) in 2016 and only appeared in two games in 2017.

    Bobby Bradley still looks like the first baseman of the future in Cleveland, while the door hasn't yet closed on Dominic Smith's and Casey Gillaspie's chances to carve out MLB roles.

    The expectation with including Buster Posey was that he'd transition to first base from behind the plate before 2020 rolled around, but that no longer looks like the case.

Projected Top 10 First Base Prospects for 2020

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    Lewin Diaz
    Lewin DiazBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Before we get into predicting the top 20 first basemen at the MLB level in 2020, let's take a look at who might top the position's prospect lists two years from now.

            

    1. Brendan McKay, Tampa Bay Rays (2020 Age: 24)

    Two-way standout whose future role is still unclear. Advanced approach and plate discipline to be a .400-plus OBP guy. Has far more walks (23) than strikeouts (13) so far in full-season debut. Might top out at 20 home runs but still a potential impact run producer.

           

    2. Josh Naylor, San Diego Padres (2020 Age: 23)

    Starting to tap into what many considered the best raw power in the 2015 draft. Has been pushed aggressively since being traded to the Padres. First base-only profile makes his future in San Diego uncertain following the Eric Hosmer signing.

              

    3. Lewin Diaz, Minnesota Twins (2020 Age: 23)

    Signed for $1.4 million as part of 2013 international class. Hit .292/.329/.444 with 33 doubles and 12 home runs in first action above rookie ball last year. Has 55-grade power, which will drive his value. Clear path to playing time in Minnesota if he continues to develop as hoped.

             

    4. Pavin Smith, Arizona Diamondbacks (2020 Age: 24)

    Extremely polished hitter who would be on the fast track in most organizations. Blocked by Paul Goldschmidt in Arizona. Could take over the starting job in 2020 if Goldschmidt walks in free agency.

             

    5. Nick Pratto, Kansas City Royals (2020 Age: 21)

    Best pure hitter among prep players in 2017 draft. Smooth left-handed swing and plus bat speed should allow him to tap into his considerable raw power, though that could take some time. The first base job will be his for a rebuilding Royals team as soon as he proves ready.

             

    6. Seth Beer, 2018 draft (2020 Age: 23)

    Looked like a candidate to go No. 1 overall in the 2018 draft after phenomenal freshman season at Clemson. Now perhaps the most polarizing prospect in the class. Below-average athlete who will generate all of his value with his bat. Huge left-handed power still gives him significant upside.

             

    7. Evan White, Seattle Mariners (2020 Age: 24)

    Lacks prototypical first baseman profile, and power might be his weakest tool. Could still be a perennial .300 hitter with plenty of doubles. Elite athlete at the position who could easily handle a corner outfield spot. Looks to have a clear path to the long-term job in Seattle.

             

    8. Triston Casas, 2018 Draft (2020 Age: 20)

    Has as much raw power as anyone in the 2018 draft thanks to a strong 6'4", 238-pound frame. Plus athlete for his size who currently plays third base and has also shown a low-90s fastball off the mound. Question is whether his hit tool will develop enough to tap into that pop.

             

    9. Luken Baker, 2018 Draft (2020 Age: 23)

    Better prospect as a pitcher coming out of high school when he would have been an early pick in the 2015 draft if not for a rock-solid commitment to TCU. Injuries pushed him off the mound and have cost him significant time the past two seasons. Physically imposing at 6'4" and 265 pounds with raw power to match. Has to avoid injuries.

             

    10. Gavin Sheets, Chicago White Sox (2020 Age: 24)

    Had a huge junior season at Wake Forest when he posted a 1.053 OPS with 21 home runs and 84 RBI in 63 games. Raised walk rate from 9.0 to 15.6 percent between sophomore and junior seasons. Hit tool is still developing, but he could be the heir to Jose Abreu.

           

    Honorable Mentions

    • Will Craig (PIT)
    • Samir Duenez (KC)
    • Tyler Nevin (COL)
    • Josh Ockimey (BOS)

Honorable Mentions and Notable Veteran Omissions

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    Ryon Healy
    Ryon HealyJason Miller/Getty Images

    Next Five

    Justin Bour, MIA
    Ryon Healy, SEA
    Jose Martinez, STL
    Dominic Smith, NYM
    Sam Travis, BOS

            

    Excluded Due to Age and Expected Regression

    Yonder Alonso, CLE
    Miguel Cabrera, DET
    Chris Davis, BAL
    Yuli Gurriel, HOU
    Joe Mauer, MIN
    Mitch Moreland, BOS
    Hanley Ramirez, BOS
    Carlos Santana, PHI
    Justin Smoak, TOR
    Eric Thames, MIL
    Ryan Zimmerman, WAS

20. Ryan O'Hearn, Kansas City Royals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 26

    Ryan O'Hearn was the biggest beneficiary of the Kansas City Royals' failure to re-sign Eric Hosmer this past offseason. He now looks like the clear successor at first base.

    After going in the eighth round of the 2014 draft, he posted an impressive .361/.444/.590 line with 16 doubles, 13 home runs and 54 RBI in 64 games in rookie ball.

    In the three following seasons, he launched 71 home runs while steadily climbing the organizational ladder.

    There's a good deal of swing-and-miss to his game, and he'll likely never approach a .300 average. His power is legit, though, and he'll get every chance to earn a long-term role for a team that is short on young assets.

19. Ryan McMahon, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 25

    Drafted as a third baseman, Ryan McMahon shifted across the diamond as he approached the big leagues since Nolan Arenado was blocking his path at the hot corner.

    He has nothing left to prove in the minors after hitting .355/.403/.583 with 39 doubles and 20 home runs over 519 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A last year.

    However, he's hit just .174 while striking out at a 32.1 percent clip in 84 plate appearances at the big league level the past two seasons.

    With high-priced veteran Ian Desmond now seeing the bulk of the action at first base, McMahon is back in Triple-A after breaking camp with the starting job.

    It wasn't the outcome the Rockies were hoping for this year, but he's still young enough to figure it out.

18. Greg Bird, New York Yankees

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 27

    It's easy to get excited about Greg Bird's potential.

    However, he's yet to show the ability to stay healthy for an extended period of time, which makes it hard to place him any higher in these rankings.

    Bird was called upon to replace an injured Mark Teixeira down the stretch in 2015, and he turned heads on his way to an .871 OPS with 11 home runs in 46 games.

    However, his entire 2016 season was lost to a torn right labrum, and he played in just 48 games last season while battling an ankle injury. A strong showing in the playoffs last year had him looking like a potential breakout candidate for 2018.

    Instead, he's again on the shelf, this time recovering from surgery to remove a bone spur from his right ankle.

    If he can stay healthy, he's capable of being a top-10 guy on this list. That's a big if at this point.

17. Matt Thaiss, Los Angeles Angels

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    A catcher at the University of Virginia, Matt Thaiss made the move out from behind the plate at the onset of his pro career after going No. 16 overall in the 2016 draft.

    Viewed as one of the more advanced hitters in the class, he's backed that up by walking at an 11 percent clip in parts of three minor league seasons.

    The biggest question is whether he'll develop enough power for the position.

    MLB.com wrote: "There are concerns that Thaiss won't have the power to fit the first base profile, but there is more pop for him to tap into, and he sees value in knocking out 30 doubles annually while trying to get on base at a 40 percent clip."

    Thaiss could wind up benefiting from a shift in leaguewide philosophy, as home run production has been watered down in recent years and there's a premium being placed on on-base ability.

16. Daniel Murphy, Washington Nationals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 35

    It appears I whiffed on assuming Buster Posey would make the full-time move to first base by 2020 the first time this article was written, but that hasn't scared me off from making another position-change prediction.

    Daniel Murphy has essentially always been a first baseman trying his best to play second base. After beginning his career in a utility role of sorts, he's spent the bulk of the past six seasons playing second base.

    During that time, he's posted a brutal negative-64 defensive runs saved. Things haven't gotten any better with age, as the negative-15 DRS he tallied last year was the worst single-season mark of his career.

    Murphy is a free agent at season's end. The Nationals could conceivably bring him back to play second base for one more year before shifting him over to first base once Ryan Zimmerman's contract is up after 2019.

    One of the best pure hitters in the game, he's still capable of making an impact at the plate in his age-35 season, even if his power has begun to diminish.

15. Ronald Guzman, Texas Rangers

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    The Texas Rangers signed Ronald Guzman to a $3.45 million bonus as part of the same 2011 international free-agent class that saw Nomar Mazara land a then-record $4.95 million bonus.

    While Guzman has never hit more than 16 home runs in a season in the minors, there's enough raw power in his 6'5", 225-pound frame to think he can develop into a perennial 20-homer threat.

    His present swing is tailored more for line drives. He used his compact stroke from the left side to hit .298/.372/.434 with 22 doubles, 12 home runs and 62 RBI at Triple-A last year.

    Assuming Joey Gallo takes over as the everyday third baseman once Adrian Beltre retires, Guzman should become a fixture at the other infield corner.

14. Peter Alonso, New York Mets

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    The New York Mets selected Peter Alonso in the second round of the 2016 draft after he posted an impressive .374/.469/.659 line with 14 home runs and 60 RBI in 58 games during his junior season at the University of Florida.

    After posting an .883 OPS with 27 doubles, 18 home runs and 63 RBI between High-A and Double-A last season, he's been one of the hottest-hitting prospects in baseball to begin the 2018 campaign.

    Back at Double-A Binghamton, he's hitting .378/.496/.694 with eight home runs and 25 RBI through 28 games.

    It's reasonable to think he's leapfrogged Dominic Smith as the first baseman of the future for the Mets. That future could start as soon as the second half of this season.

13. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 36

    How productive will a 36-year-old Joey Votto be in 2020?

    With a contract that pays him $25 million annually through 2023, he's a safe bet to have a firm grasp on an everyday job.

    While he's bound to have lost something in the bat speed department, it's reasonable to believe his elite plate discipline will be intact.

    With that in mind, something like a .270/.400/.450 line seems doable.

    That's good enough to believe he can still be a top-15 first baseman in what is the twilight of most players' careers.

12. Bobby Bradley, Cleveland Indians

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 24

    Bobby Bradley has legitimate 60-grade power that will be his ticket to the big leagues.

    A third-round pick in 2014, he annihilated rookie ball pitching to the tune of a .361/.426/.652 line that included 13 doubles, eight home runs and 50 RBI in 39 games.

    He slugged 79 home runs in the three years since and showed a steadily improving approach along the way, trimming his strikeout rate from 29.7 to 22.9 percent last year while making the often difficult jump from High-A to Double-A.

    Defense will never be his strong suit, but he's turned himself into a passable first baseman.

    Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso both have team options for the 2020 season. The continued development of Bradley will play a major role in whether both are exercised.

11. Jake Bauers, Tampa Bay Rays

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 24

    A seventh-round pick by the San Diego Padres in 2013, Jake Bauers was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays prior to the 2015 season in the three-team blockbuster that included the likes of Wil Myers, Trea Turner and Steven Souza Jr.

    He reached Double-A in his age-19 season and has been well ahead of the developmental curve throughout his pro career thanks to an advanced approach at the plate.

    Bauers hit .263/.368/.412 with 31 doubles, 13 home runs, 63 RBI and 20 stolen bases at Triple-A Durham last season, walking at a 13.6 percent clip while striking out just 19.5 percent of the time.

    While Bauers is athletic enough to handle the outfield, he's a much better defender at his natural position of first base. He should get a chance to push for the everyday job before the 2018 season is over.

10. Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 32

    Brandon Belt is in the second season of a five-year, $72.8 million extension that he signed at the start of the 2016 season.

    While he's never been a prolific power threat with a career high of 18 home runs, that hasn't stopped him from being a 3.0-plus WAR player four times during his six full seasons in the majors.

    Strong on-base skills, solid gap power and plus defense are all things that should age well as he enters the tail end of his prime during the 2020 season.

    He's off to a strong start in 2018 with a .951 OPS and 1.5 WAR in his first 32 games, lending even more credence to the idea that he could be a top-10 player at the position two years from now.

9. Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    Part of the reason Eric Hosmer was able to secure a massive eight-year, $144 million deal in free agency is his age.

    It's easier to pay top dollar for a player when you're spending on his prime seasons, and Hosmer hit the open market after turning in a career year offensively at the age of 27

    He hit .318/.385/.498 with 31 doubles, 25 home runs and 94 RBI last season while improving his walk rate (8.5 to 9.8 percent) and strikeout rate (19.8 to 15.5 percent).

    While it's hard to imagine he'll top 25 home runs now that he'll be playing half his games at Petco Park, there's plenty of value in a .300 average and strong on-base numbers, and he'll still be squarely in the prime of his career in 2020.

8. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 33

    Jose Abreu slugged 124 home runs over his first four seasons in the majors after defecting from Cuba and joining the Chicago White Sox.

    However, it's his .301/.359/.524 batting line during that time that provides confidence he'll be going strong heading into his age-33 season.

    The power is great, but Abreu can flat-out hit.

    He's worked hard to become an average defender (0 DRS, 1.5 UZR/150 in 2017) despite his limited athleticism, and he's shown impressive durability in averaging 154 games his first four seasons.

    Abreu is under team control through the 2019 season. He may be playing elsewhere in 2020, or the White Sox could make it a priority to lock him up to be a leader in their young clubhouse.

7. Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 26

    The first time this series was written, Matt Olson was fresh off a 37-homer, 117-walk season at the High-A level as a 20-year-old.

    However, he struggled with the jump to the upper levels of the minors in the years to come. By the time the 2017 season rolled around, his prospect star had faded considerably.

    After a pair of first-half stints with the big league club in 2017, he was called up for good Aug. 8, and he ended up posting a 1.003 OPS with 24 home runs and 45 RBI in 216 plate appearances.

    While an otherworldly 41.4% HR/FB ratio was bound for regression, his plus power and strong on-base skills are the real deal. He looks like a cornerstone piece for a young Oakland team on the rise.

6. Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 27

    Lost in the shadow of the historic season Cody Bellinger posted for the Los Angeles Dodgers, fellow rookie Josh Bell enjoyed a solid first season for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    Handed the starting first base job out of spring training, he posted an .800 OPS with 26 doubles, 26 home runs and 90 RBI to finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

    After never hitting more than 14 home runs in a season in the minors, it was promising to see Bell turn his tremendous raw power into more over-the-fence production in his rookie season, and there could be more on the way.

    He's still learning the nuances of first base after beginning his career as an outfielder, but he's athletic enough to become a plus with the glove as well.

5. Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 27

    The Philadelphia Phillies' Double-A affiliate plays in perhaps the most hitter-friendly ballpark in all of minor league baseball. When Rhys Hoskins posted a .943 OPS with 38 home runs there in 2016, it didn't send him soaring up top prospect lists.

    However, his performance proved to be an accurate preview of things to come.

    After starting the 2017 season with a .966 OPS and 29 home runs in 115 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, he was finally called up to the majors Aug. 10.

    In his first 18 games in the big leagues, he posted a 1.236 OPS with 11 home runs in 76 plate appearances. He eventually cooled off, but it was clear the Phillies had something special on their hands.

    Even if his power regresses considerably in his first full season—and there's no reason to think it will—he's walked at an impressive 18.3 percent clip to this point in his MLB career, and his solid approach will be valuable in itself.

    While Hoskins is currently manning left field following the offseason signing of Carlos Santana, he could begin transitioning back to the infield by 2020 when Santana will be 34 and in the final guaranteed year of his contract.

4. Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 24

    It's not out of the question to think Cody Bellinger could be No. 1 on this list two years from now.

    He just needs to prove his historic rookie season was the real deal before there are any thoughts of lumping him into the same category as the three proven superstars ranked ahead of him.

    A huge 2015 season catapulted the former fourth-round pick into the top prospect conversation. He posted an .873 OPS with 33 doubles, 30 home runs and 103 RBI as a 19-year-old at the High-A level.

    Two years later he was in the majors, as he was called up April 25 to fill a hole in left field before settling in as the everyday first baseman in place of an injured Adrian Gonzalez.

    By the time the 2017 season was over, he had set an NL rookie record with 39 home runs, posting a .933 OPS along the way and winning NL Rookie of the Year honors unanimously.

    The sky is the limit.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 32

    Where will Paul Goldschmidt be playing in 2020?

    The Arizona Diamondbacks star has a $14.5 million team option for the 2019 season before he hits the free-agent market for the first time in his career.

    With the massive Zack Greinke contract on the books and a number of young players who are growing increasingly expensive, it remains to be seen if the D-backs will be able to keep him in the desert.

    Wherever Goldschmidt winds up playing, he should still be one of the game's best.

    It was tempting to put Cody Bellinger ahead of him for the simple fact he'll be eight years younger, but Goldschmidt has proved himself year in and year out. The same can't be said for the reigning NL Rookie of the Year yet.

    As for the two guys ahead of him, they'll both be two years younger when the 2020 season rolls around. That was reason enough for Goldschmidt to be slotted at No. 3, as the risk of regression becomes greater once you're on the wrong side of 30.

2. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    Freddie Freeman can be considered "1A" on this list. The only thing he doesn't have on the No. 1 player is durability, and that hasn't necessarily been his fault.

    When healthy, Freeman has been as productive as any hitter in the game.

    Since the start of the 2016 season, he's hitting .305/.403/.571 for a 157 OPS+ that ranks third among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that span.

    He would have been squarely in the NL MVP conversation last season if not for a fractured wrist that cost him 44 games.

    The Atlanta Braves are a team on the rise, and the club's increasing profile should only help Freeman get the exposure and recognition he deserves in the years to come.

1. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 30

    Anthony Rizzo is off to a rough start in 2018, hitting .190/.268/.310 while also taking an early trip to the disabled list with back tightness.

    However, that's no reason to throw in the towel on a player who has been one of the most consistent offensive threats in the league over the past several seasons:

    • 2014: 140 G, 152 OPS+, 32 HR, 78 RBI, 5.2 WAR
    • 2015: 160 G, 146 OPS+, 31 HR, 101 RBI, 6.4 WAR
    • 2016: 155 G, 143 OPS+, 32 HR, 109 RBI, 5.5 WAR
    • 2017: 157 G, 132 OPS+, 32 HR, 109 RBI, 4.3 WAR

    Add to that his stellar defensive work (36 DRS during that four-year span) and the intangibles he brings as a leader both on and off the field for a young Chicago Cubs team, and he's every bit deserving of the top spot in these rankings.

    For those of you still hung up on his slow start, he's batting .308 with a .950 OPS and three home runs in six games since the calendar turned to May.

              

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted, and accurate through Tuesday's games. A player's 2020 age refers to how old he'll be on July 1 of that year—roughly the midway point in the season.