Every MLB Team's Franchise Cornerstone Heading into 2022 SeasonMarch 25, 2022
Every MLB Team's Franchise Cornerstone Heading into 2022 Season
Unlike, say, basketball and football, there's only so much that one player in Major League Baseball can do to win games for his team. It really takes a village.
And yet, every team in MLB nonetheless has that one guy it's building around.
With the start of the 2022 season bearing down, we've taken a fresh look at each team's cornerstone player. These are generally established stars—typically on the young side, but not exclusively—who are under control for the long haul. In others, they're super-prospects whose major league debuts are nigh.
From Juan Soto to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to Wander Franco and a handful of others, some choices were all too obvious. Others were frankly hard to make, and are therefore quite debatable.
We'll go division by division, starting in the American League East and ending in the National League West.
American League East
Baltimore Orioles: CF Cedric Mullins
Though top prospects Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez are just about ready for the majors, the Orioles already have a central superstar in Mullins. He was an unlikely candidate for the role going into 2021, but then he emerged as an All-Star and ultimately claimed the first 30-30 season in club history. He's at a prime age at 27 years old, and his club control runs through 2025.
Boston Red Sox: 3B Rafael Devers
It arguably should be shortstop Xander Bogaerts in this spot, but Boston's signing of Trevor Story is a signal the team is preparing for Bogaerts to opt out of his contract after 2022. Luckily, Devers is just 25 and due to stick around through at least 2023, pending a possible contract extension. He's topped 30 homers in two of the past three years, and he is one of MLB's leading hard-contact merchants.
New York Yankees: RHP Gerrit Cole
It's not that we don't see Aaron Judge, but we can't help but focus on how he's due for free agency after this season. As his contract runs through 2028, Cole is the guy the Yankees will be building around for a while. He's finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting twice in the past three seasons, and he nearly set a club record for strikeouts in 2021. So even at 31, he's firmly among baseball's top aces.
Tampa Bay Rays: SS Wander Franco
When a guy only has 70 major-league games under his belt, you don't sign said guy to an 11-year, $182 million contract unless you believe he's capable of greatness. And Franco, who's only 21, surely is. Despite his youth and inexperience, he took off with a .323/.382/.503 line in his final 50 games of 2021 and then badgered the Red Sox in the playoffs. Did we mention he's a shortstop? Because he's a shortstop.
Toronto Blue Jays: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Contrary to Franco, Guerrero says the Blue Jays have not yet approached him with an extension offer. They'd better get on that before his club control runs out in 2025. It may have taken Guerrero two seasons to find his bearings in the majors, but all he did in his third was hit .311/.401/.601 with 48 home runs and a mile-high pile of hard-hit balls. Not bad for a guy who only just turned 23 on March 16.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox: CF Luis Robert
The White Sox's decision to extend Robert before he even debuted in 2020 is looking pretty good. It would even be looking great if he hadn't missed significant time with a hip injury in 2021, but at least he dominated with a .350/.389/.622 line and 12 homers in 43 games after he got healthy. Offense like that combined with his Gold Glove-winning defense from 2020 would put the 24-year-old in MVP territory.
Cleveland Guardians: RHP Shane Bieber
Jose Ramirez is one of the best position players in baseball, but his contract with the Guardians is down to a lone option for 2023. Bieber is due to stick around through at least 2024 and, health permitting, his upside as a pitcher is as high as Ramirez's as third baseman. The 26-year-old showed as much in 2020 when he won the AL Cy Young Award on the strength of a 1.63 ERA and 5.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Detroit Tigers: 1B Spencer Torkelson
Granted, Torkelson hasn't yet taken his place for the Tigers at first base. But courtesy of Miguel Cabrera's willingness to move into an everyday role at designated hitter, the job is there for him. The 22-year-old, who was Detroit's No. 1 pick in 2020, merely has to take it. Considering that he posted a .935 OPS with 30 home runs across three levels of the minors last year, this task can be described as "doable."
Kansas City Royals: SS Bobby Witt Jr.
Meanwhile in Kansas City's camp, Witt is looking to lock down a gig in the Royals infield. By the look (and sound) of things, it's going well. For now, you can find the 21-year-old in the No. 1 spot in MLB.com's prospect rankings on account of how he has all five tools. Like Torkelson, he also excelled in the minors last year by hitting 33 homers and stealing 29 bases to go with a .936 OPS.
Minnesota Twins: CF Byron Buxton
In Carlos Correa, the Twins have a brand new $105.3 million man at shortstop. But because he has opt-outs after 2022 and 2023, it's doubtful he'll be sticking around for long. Buxton, on the other hand, will only leave Minnesota before the end of his contract in 2028 if he's traded. Perhaps it'll come to that, but not if (fingers crossed) the 28-year-old stays healthy and makes full use of his prodigious power and blazing speed.
American League West
Houston Astros: RF Kyle Tucker
Alex Bregman sure looked like Houston's cornerstone by the end of his AL MVP runner-up season in 2019, but less so now after two forgettable years. It's a good thing the Astros have Tucker, who's only 25 and just beginning to come into his stardom. He was the best hitter in baseball after May 8 last year, tallying a a .329/.394/.620 line with 25 homers and 12 steals. He's under club control through 2025.
Los Angeles Angels: CF Mike Trout
This is the one that made us say, "Oof." But we ultimately sided with Trout over fellow MVP Shohei Ohtani for two reasons. For one, Trout has three MVPs to Ohtani's one. For two, Ohtani is slated for free agency after 2023, while Trout's contract runs through 2030. As he's now 30 years old with just 477 games to his name over the past five seasons, the only question is how Trout will hold up physically.
Oakland Athletics: C Sean Murphy
Given how frequently star players leave the organization before their club control is up, "Who is the A's franchise player?" is kind of a trick question. But Murphy is the best they have for now. He's a Gold Glove-winning catcher whose offensive upside is higher than last year's performance (i.e., a 98 OPS+) indicates. Because he's controlled through 2025, the 27-year-old might even still be with Oakland come next season.
Seattle Mariners: LHP Robbie Ray
This spot should perhaps belong to Jarred Kelenic, who used to be an elite prospect, or Julio Rodriguez, who is very much an elite prospect right now. We've given it to Ray because he's actually an established ace who was an All-Star in 2017 and the AL Cy Young Award winner last year. If his five-year, $115 million contract is any indication, the Mariners are bullish on the 30-year-old remaining an ace for a while still.
Texas Rangers: SS Corey Seager
Elsewhere on the topic of big contracts in the AL West, the Rangers made a 10-year, $325 million roll of the dice on Seager prior to baseball's lockout. It's a huge commitment to a guy who hasn't always been healthy, but a healthy Seager is indeed an elite player. The 27-year-old has put up a .306/.381/.545 slash line over his last 147 games, which isn't counting his MVP-winning turn in the 2020 World Series.
National League East
Atlanta: RF Ronald Acuna Jr.
Perhaps Atlanta didn't need Acuna to win the World Series last year, but it's not exactly fair to hold that against him. Even despite last year's ACL tear, he's still one of just six players to hit 100 home runs and steal 70 bases by the age of 23, and one of five to also do so with a 130 OPS+. Even if he isn't quite 100-percent healthy upon his return this year, no biggie. He's under contract through as far as 2028.
Miami Marlins: RHP Sandy Alcantara
The Marlins already have an impressive young core even though there's still talent left to mine from their farm system. For now, Alcantara is the guy in the middle of it all. The Marlins ensured as much by extending him in December, and they got an absolute steal in doing so for just $56 million through 2026. That's pennies for a guy with a 100 mph fastball and a 134 ERA+ across the last two seasons.
New York Mets: RHP Jacob deGrom
Even we have reservations about labeling a 33-year-old hurler with an iffy elbow as a "cornerstone." But unless Francisco Lindor snaps out of his two-year funk and starts living up to his $341 million contract, things are going to keep revolving around deGrom in Flushing. To wit, the Mets went 46-37 while the two-time Cy Young Award winner was healthy last year, compared to 31-48 after he got hurt.
Philadelphia Phillies: RF Bryce Harper
There was a palpable "Gee, I don't know about this" feeling in the air when the Phillies signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract three years ago. Well, he's since won another MVP and hit 83 more home runs to further boost a career resume that's starting to look Hall of Fame-worthy. And amazingly, he won't even turn 30 until Oct. 16 of this year.
Washington Nationals: RF Juan Soto
It's not for lack of trying that the Nationals have yet to extend Soto, as he says they made him a 13-year, $350 million contract before the lockout. They'll have to do better than that, though. In baseball's modern era, Soto's .432 on-base percentage is the best among all players who took at least 2,000 plate appearances through the age of 22. Literally the best. In well over 100 years. Pay the man.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs: RF Seiya Suzuki
Even as recently as a week ago, the Cubs arguably didn't have a cornerstone player in place. Now they do in Suzuki, who signed a five-year, $85 million contract. It bodes well enough that he models himself off Mike Trout, and even better that he looked the part in Japan. For six years, his baseline performance was roughly a 1.000 OPS and 30 home runs. Plus, he's only 27 years old.
Cincinnati Reds: 2B Jonathan India
Over at The Athletic, C. Trent Rosecrans rightfully wrote that the Reds aren't so much as rebuilding as they are simply slashing payroll. But, hey, at least they still have India. Not that he ever was going to go anywhere after winning the 2021 NL Rookie of the Year by way of a .376 OBP and 21 homers, of course. Yet it's still good to know that the 25-year-old gives the team at least one player to build around.
Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Corbin Burnes
Though Christian Yelich is signed through 2028, he's fallen too far from his MVP-caliber seasons in 2018 and 2019 to be called a cornerstone. It's more so the hurlers who stand out in Milwaukee, and especially Burnes. He was absolutely electric in winning the 2021 NL Cy Young Award, posting a 2.48 ERA with an even better 1.99 xERA. The Brewers will have the 27-year-old atop their rotation through 2024.
Pittsburgh Pirates: CF Bryan Reynolds
Don't look now, but Oneil Cruz and Ke'Bryan Hayes sure look like keepers on the left side of the Pirates infield. Yet in Reynolds, the team also has one of the more overlooked superstars in baseball out in center field. He's hit over .300 in both of his full seasons, and with 67 extra-base hits last year. The 27-year-old is controlled through 2025, and perhaps longer if the team offers him an extension to his liking.
St. Louis Cardinals: 1B Paul Goldschmidt
Though there is some exciting young talent in St. Louis, it's really the veterans that make the Cardinals go. Goldschmidt, in particular, was the better part of the club's dynamic corner infield duo in 2021. The 34-year-old hit .294/.365/.514 with 31 homers, which was kind of a ho-hum affair by his standards. Since his first full season back in 2012, he's been the most valuable hitter in baseball short of Trout.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks: 2B Ketel Marte
With a 110-loss 2021 season fresh in their wake, the Diamondbacks' current core might not necessarily be in for the long haul. Yet there is hope for a turnaround in 2022, and that much more so if Marte lives up to what he showed as an MVP contender in 2019 and again in brief spurts throughout a 90-game sample in 2021. If so, the D-backs can keep building around the 28-year-old through as far as 2024.
Colorado Rockies: INF/OF Kris Bryant
Prior to signing Bryant to a seven-year, $182 million contract, the Rockies didn't really have a signature star in their lineup. Now it's all on him, for good or ill. While this could end up being another Ian Desmond-ian misstep by the Rockies, there's perhaps a non-zero chance of the 30-year-old Bryant reverting back to his MVP-caliber form of 2015-2017, when he averaged 6.1 rWAR and 31 homers.
Los Angeles Dodgers: RF Mookie Betts
There's no shortage of stars in Los Angeles, but there's only one who's signed all the way through 2032. Courtesy of a bothersome right hip, Betts had his ups and downs in 2021. Yet, he still made his fifth All-Star team and tacked on a strong postseason performance. Health permitting, the 29-year-old should have a few more years left as one of the best—if not the best—players in all of baseball.
San Diego Padres: SS Fernando Tatis Jr.
It sure seems like Tatis broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident in December, which is not a good look. Yet it's understandable that the Padres aren't going to void the 23-year-old's $340 million contract, which runs through 2034. He's young enough to learn from the incident, and certainly too talented to cast aside. To wit, he's the only shortstop in history with 80 homers and 50 steals through his first three seasons.
San Francisco Giants: RHP Logan Webb
The Giants are sort of in between cores at the moment, but Webb figures to be as much a part of the next one as he was part of last year's Buster Posey-led group. He arose as a proper ace, riding his utterly nasty sinker-slider combination to a 2.40 ERA over his last 20 regular-season starts and then allowing just one run in 14.2 innings in two playoff outings. He's just 25 and controlled through 2025.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.