The Top 25 MLB Players at the Start of 2022 Regular Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 4, 2022

The Top 25 MLB Players at the Start of 2022 Regular Season

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    Juan Soto is on the list.
    Juan Soto is on the list.The Washington Post/Getty Images

    If you have a favorite Major League Baseball player, maybe it's because there's just something likable about him even if his talent isn't up to par. Chances are, though, that your favorite is one of the good ones.

    Who knows? He might even be among our top 25 MLB players at the start of the 2022 season.    

    We didn't deploy any kind of fancy statistical formula to generate this list. It was all about good, ol' fashioned subjectivity. Though we did consider players' recent track records and outlook for 2022, the ultimate idea was to come up with a list that we could look at and go, "Yeah, that's about right."

    One stipulation we did have is that guys had to actually be healthy in order to be considered, which required us to leave out three highly notable players.

    We'll start with them and several other honorable mentions. We'll then count down our top 25 players, going five at a time for the bottom 15 and one at a time for the top 10.

Injured Players and Other Honorable Mentions

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    Fernando Tatis Jr.
    Fernando Tatis Jr.Associated Press

    RF Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta

    Acuna earned MVP votes in each of his first three seasons and might have won the award last year if he hadn't torn his ACL just before the All-Star break. He's looking to return in early May, though it sounds like Atlanta will take its time easing him back into a full-time role.


    RHP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

    The Mets and, well, everyone can look at deGrom's 1.94 ERA since 2018 and conclude that he's baseball's best pitcher when he's healthy. Yet he hasn't been so since the first half of 2021, because of first a UCL sprain and now a stress reaction in his shoulder.


    SS Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

    Between his power, speed and arm strength, Tatis might be baseball's top athlete in addition to arguably its most purely entertaining star. But as if his troublesome left shoulder wasn't enough for the Padres to worry about, he's now facing a three-month recovery from a broken wrist.


    2B Jose Altuve and 3B Alex Bregman, Houston Astros

    Altuve was the American League MVP in 2017, and Bregman darn near won the award in 2019. Yet both have seen their returns diminished since those peaks, which makes it hard to take anything for granted even though both players still have legitimate upside.


    SS Tim Anderson and 1B Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

    Abreu was the AL MVP in 2020, and Anderson is the rarest thing in baseball these days: a consistent .300 hitter. Yet there is a question of whether both players are more high-floor than high-ceiling. Abreu's value is heavily linked to his power, while Anderson's red flags include injuries and a disinterest in walks.


    1B Paul Goldschmidt and 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals

    On the plus side, these two corner infield-mates combined for 10.2 rWAR in 2021. But even in doing so, neither Arenado nor Goldschmidt came especially close to the otherworldly production they put up as they ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the National League in rWAR from 2015 to 2019. 


    A Few More

    • DH Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
    • RHP Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians
    • CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
    • SS Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
    • 1B Matt Olson, Atlanta
    • CF George Springer, Toronto Blue Jays
    • RHP Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers

25-21: Mullins, Bichette, Tucker, Guerrero and Devers

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    Cedric Mullins
    Cedric MullinsNick Wass/Associated Press

    25. CF Cedric Mullins, Baltimore Orioles

    2021 Stats: 159 G, 675 PA, 30 HR, 30 SB, .291 AVG, .360 OBP, .518 SLG, 135 OPS+, 5.7 rWAR

    It was only recently that Mullins revealed he broke out in 2021 after he had surgery for Crohn's disease and subsequently lost 20 pounds from a resulting infection. If he can go through that and still post a 30-30 season with 10 outs above average in center field, the sequel could be even more impressive.


    24. SS Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays

    2021 Stats: 159 G, 690 PA, 29 HR, 25 SB, .298 AVG, .343 OBP, .484 SLG, 123 OPS+, 5.9 rWAR

    It's somewhat bothersome that Bichette shuns walks by swinging so much. He's also erratic on defense. But that's really it as far as the bad stuff goes, as his qualities include a solid bat-to-ball skill and both power and speed. And since he's only 24, it's possible he'll make the bad stuff go away.


    23. RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

    2021 Stats: 140 G, 567 PA, 30 HR, 14 SB, .294 AVG, .359 OBP, .557 SLG, 147 OPS+, 5.7 rWAR

    Yordan Alvarez is the easy pick as Houston's best hitter, but it was Tucker who paced all of MLB with a 174 wRC+ after May 8 of last year. That was him fully realizing the potential he teased in 2018 and 2019, and it's not even to mention that he's a capable baserunner and defender.


    22. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

    2021 Stats: 161 G, 698 PA, 48 HR, 4 SB, .311 AVG, .401 OBP, .601 SLG, 169 OPS+, 6.8 rWAR

    This is lower than anyone would expect to find Guerrero after he, well, put up the above line in 2021. Especially considering that he tore many covers off many balls. But in light of his past fitness issues and defensive limitations, we'll risk eventual humiliation by slotting him below more established stars.


    21. 3B Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

    2021 Stats: 156 G, 664 PA, 38 HR, 5 SB, .279 AVG, .352 OBP, .538 SLG, 132 OPS+, 3.5 rWAR

    Perhaps Devers' defense leaves much to be desired, but there's a case for him as the best pure slugger in MLB. Even in spite of a down year in 2020, the guy leads all batters in both hard-hit balls and extra-base hits over the last three seasons. And since he's still only 25, he may yet get even more dangerous.

20-16: Bogaerts, Buehler, Cole, Ray and Burnes

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    Corbin Burnes
    Corbin BurnesGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    20. SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

    2021 Stats: 144 G, 603 PA, 23 HR, 5 SB, .295 AVG, .370 OBP, .493 SLG, 127 OPS+, 4.9 rWAR

    Next to Devers in the Boston infield, Bogaerts comes with his own defensive question marks at shortstop. Yet nobody at the position has been as consistently good on offense in recent seasons. Indeed, Bogaerts is the only shortstop to top a 120 OPS+ annually since 2018.


    19. RHP Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

    2021 Stats: 33 GS, 207.2 IP, 149 H (19 HR), 212 K, 52 BB, 2.47 ERA, 165 ERA+, 6.7 rWAR

    This is arguably too low for a hurler who's pitched to a 144 ERA+ over the last four seasons, culminating in a 2021 campaign that saw him finish fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting. But as much as we still like Buehler (and specifically, his stuff), we have questions as to whether last year's results are sustainable.


    18. RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees

    2021 Stats: 30 GS, 181.1 IP, 151 H (24 HR), 243 K, 41 BB, 3.23 ERA, 133 ERA+, 5.7 rWAR

    Only Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer have accumulated more rWAR than Cole over the last four seasons, and he even had the first 320-strikeout season since 2002 in 2019. Yet even as he finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2021, his dominance slipped a tad after MLB banned sticky stuff in June.


    17. LHP Robbie Ray, Seattle Mariners

    2021 Stats: 32 GS, 193.1 IP, 150 H (33 HR), 248 K, 52 BB, 2.84 ERA, 154 ERA+, 6.7 rWAR

    Lest anyone remark that Ray has only had one good season, let's grant that the guy was an All-Star and a premier strikeout artist for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the back half of the 2010s. And so he was again in 2021, and this time with good enough control to basically run away with the AL Cy Young Award.


    16. RHP Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers

    2021 Stats: 28 GS, 167.0 IP, 123 H (7 HR), 234 K, 34 BB, 2.43 ERA, 176 ERA+, 5.6 rWAR

    Burnes might look like another for the "one good season" crowd, but it was actually in the final weeks of 2020 that he began his ascent as an ace. All told, his last 36 starts have yielded a 2.26 ERA with 298 strikeouts and just 47 walks over 210.2 innings. His peripherals, meanwhile, are even more intimidating.

15-11: Seager, Machado, Semien, Turner and Freeman

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    Corey Seager
    Corey SeagerChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    15. SS Corey Seager, Texas Rangers

    2021 Stats: 95 G, 409 PA, 16 HR, 1 SB, .306 AVG, .394 OBP, .521 SLG, 145 OPS+, 3.7 rWAR

    Look, $325 million is a lot for a guy with an extensive injury history and what's likely a limited future at shortstop. Yet Seager is undeniably a game-changer when he's healthy. For evidence, see his 147 OPS+ and 31 homers over the last two seasons and his MVP-winning performance in the 2020 World Series.


    14. 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres

    2021 Stats: 153 G, 640 PA, 28 HR, 12 SB, .278 AVG, .347 OBP, .489 SLG, 131 OPS+, 5.0 rWAR

    It's easiest to stump for either Guerrero or Devers as baseball's hard-hit king, but Machado is the only hitter with more than 1,400 hard-hit balls since Statcast arrived in 2015. Since he also fields his position quite well, he's looking at yet another year as an All-Star and MVP contender.


    13. 2B Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers

    2021 Stats: 162 G, 724 PA, 45 HR, 15 SB, .265 AVG, .334 OBP, .538 SLG, 133 OPS+, 7.3 rWAR

    Semien has been just OK for much of his career, yet his 2019 and 2021 seasons make it impossible to ignore his humongous upside. All he did both years was play in all 162 games while hitting for power and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. More of that in 2022 would force us to put him closer to No. 1 in 2023.


    12. SS Trea Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

    2021 Stats: 148 G, 646 PA, 28 HR, 32 SB, .328 AVG, .375 OBP, .536 SLG, 146 OPS+, 6.5 rWAR

    It's apparently Turner's lot in life that he has to share lineups with hitters who are even bigger stars than he is. But given that he's batted .330 with 40 homers and 44 stolen bases since the start of 2020, his own excellence is certainly getting harder to deny.


    11. 1B Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers

    2021 Stats: 159 G, 695 PA, 31 HR, 8 SB, .300 AVG, .393 OBP, .503 SLG, 133 OPS+, 4.7 rWAR

    The sheer consistency of Freeman's hitting excellence is impressive enough, as he's the only player to top a 130 OPS+ annually since 2013. And in 2021, he didn't fall as far from his MVP-winning form in 2020 as you might think. He still put up MVP vote-getting numbers despite being one of the least lucky hitters in the sport.

10. RHP Zack Wheeler, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 32 GS, 213.1 IP, 169 H (16 HR), 247 K, 46 BB, 2.78 ERA, 150 ERA+7.6 rWAR

    True, Zack Wheeler didn't make it into our ace rankings. But that's only because the Philadelphia Phillies are going with Aaron Nola as their Opening Day starter while Wheeler recovers from right shoulder soreness.

    Otherwise, the 31-year-old has gone from being an essentially league-average pitcher to MLB's most prolific producer of pitching rWAR in two seasons with the Phillies. Because he led all NL pitchers in innings, strikeouts and rWAR, it's frankly an upset that he lost the NL Cy Young Award to Corbin Burnes in 2021.

    As far as what's changed in the last two years, Wheeler bumped his average fastball up to 96.9 mph in 2020 and then 97.1 mph last season. Yet he's also simply become a better pitcher. To name just one way, by getting strike one more frequently in 2021 even as he shied away from throwing first-pitch fastballs.

    All this helped lead the way to the best strikeout rate of his career, and batters only hit the ball at an average of 84.6 mph when they made contact. Because this is perhaps the only recipe for success for a pitcher who has to contend with a bandbox home park and a bad defense, Wheeler will need to keep it up in 2022.

9. RHP Max Scherzer, New York Mets

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    2021 Stats: 30 GS, 179.1 IP, 119 H (23 HR), 236 K, 36 BB, 2.46 ERA, 166 ERA+, 6.0 rWAR

    The New York Mets will be without our No. 1-ranked ace while Jacob deGrom is out with his shoulder injury, so it's a good thing that their rotation also features a guy who could have ranked No. 1 in his own right.

    Max Scherzer is now nine years into his reign as an ace, and what a reign it's been. Since he won the first of his three Cy Young Awards with the Detroit Tigers in 2013, he leads all pitchers in strikeouts, innings and rWAR, with a 149 ERA+ that ranks third among pitchers who've made at least 100 starts.

    As he's 37 years old, Scherzer should be slowing down. Yet the very fact that his three-year, $130 million contract exists is confirmation that he isn't. To wit, he's still chucking it out there in the mid-90s and just plain avoiding contact with the best of 'em.

    Though Scherzer's propensity for missing bats is his most salient feature, it bears mentioning that his marks for exit velocity and hard-hit rate have been consistently above average throughout the Statcast era. So in spite of his age and his hamstring "hiccup," as he called it, it's hard not to see him as the best pitcher standing.

8. SS Carlos Correa, Minnesota Twins

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 148 G, 640 PA, 26 HR, 0 SB, .279 AVG, .366 OBP, .485 SLG, 131 OPS+, 7.2 rWAR

    When the Minnesota Twins signed Carlos Correa to a three-year, $103.5 million contract in March, they addressed their weakness at shortstop with a 27-year-old who leads all players at the position in rWAR since his debut season in 2015.

    Though he's been hit-or-miss in the batter's box in recent years, he still boasts a 127 OPS+ for his career and is fresh off perhaps his best season. His 26 home runs set a new career high and all his key peripherals—including a .296 expected batting average—were safely better than average.

    On the other side of the ball, the 6'4", 220-pounder has long since silenced questions about his ability to stick at shortstop. Specifically, by accumulating 47 defensive runs saved and 49 outs above average since 2018 and winning his first Gold Glove in 2021.

    Because he's missed only 16 games over the last two seasons, Correa has also put some distance between himself and the "injury prone" label. As such, perhaps the only nit to pick is he's more of a jack of all trades than a master of any one thing when he's in the batter's box.

7. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 148 G, 633 PA, 39 HR, 6 SB, .287 AVG, .373 OBP, .544 SLG, 149 OPS+, 6.0 rWAR

    It's telling that Aaron Judge could struggle with injuries and some offensive slumps from 2018 to 2020 and yet still rack up more rWAR than all outfielders not named Mike Trout, Mookie Betts or Christian Yelich.

    Let that show it's a good thing to specialize in producing batted balls the likes of which are extremely difficult to turn into outs. Among all hitters who put at least 500 balls into play from 2018 to 2020, Judge led everyone with a 54.2 hard-hit rate and 94.9 mph average exit velocity.

    So it went for the New York Yankees' 29-year-old slugger in 2021, wherein he averaged 95.8 mph with a 58.4 hard-hit rate. Plus, two other things led to his having his best season since his MVP runner-up effort in 2017: much-improved health and a career-low 25.0 strikeout percentage.

    Judge's defense in right field typically grades well, though the catch there is that he's also a part-time designated hitter at this stage of his career. But if it's fair to assume that occasional DH duty is part of what kept him healthy in 2021, well, then who are we to complain about it?

6. 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 152 G, 636 PA, 36 HR, 27 SB, .266 AVG, .355 OBP, .538 SLG, 141 OPS+, 6.7 rWAR

    An interesting thought experiment concerns how much more famous Jose Ramirez would be if he were on the professional Mario Kart, played in a bigger market than Cleveland.

    Despite an inexplicably mediocre season in 2019, the 29-year-old has been a steady presence among baseball's top players over the last five years. He's just about averaged a 30-30 season on a per-162-games basis, and he's tied for third with Aaron Judge in rWAR among all position players.

    The switch-hitting Ramirez succeeds largely by way of a refined approach that results in his strikeout and walk rates tending to closely mirror each other. He also gets the most out of what power he has by specializing in pulled fly balls, and he was even running faster than ever in 2021.

    Meanwhile, Ramirez's defensive metrics tend to lean toward the positive. Our obligatory critique is that he likely doesn't have additional upside beyond what he's already shown. But when MVP-caliber performances are your baseline, well, that's kinda fine.

5. CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 36 G, 146 PA, 8 HR, 2 SB, .333 AVG, .466 OBP, .624 SLG, 195 OPS+, 1.8 rWAR

    Mike Trout isn't the No. 1 player in baseball? Or even No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4? What is this? 2011?

    Look, we know it doesn't feel right. But at the same time, consider where Trout ranks in rWAR among position players over the last two seasons compared to the preceding eight seasons:

    To be sure, this has a lot to do with the calf strain that ended the three-time AL MVP's 2021 season in May. Yet said injury is now part of an alarming trend, as well as a potential death knell for his already sagging baserunning production and an excuse for the Los Angeles Angels to think about moving him off center field.

    Nevertheless, a healthy Trout would be nothing less than a nightmare for opposing pitchers in 2022. Such was the case as the 30-year-old was leading MLB in OPS+ annually from 2016 to 2019, and even early in 2021 as he got off to one of the hottest starts of his career. 

4. RF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 141 G, 599 PA, 35 HR, 13 SB, .309 AVG, .429 OBP, .615 SLG, 179 OPS+5.9 rWAR

    Bryce Harper over Mike Trout sounds like something out of a prospect list circa the spring of 2012, or perhaps a hyperbolic and long-delayed reaction to Harper unanimously winning the NL MVP in 2015.

    But, really, is it that hot of a take to give Harper the nod over his longtime non-rival rival? He started somewhat slowly after joining the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019, but he's been on fire for a while now. Go back 248 games to Aug. 3, 2019, and he's a .296/.417/.601 hitter with the best wRC+ this side of Juan Soto.

    Harper basically didn't have any flaws in the batter's box as he was putting together his second MVP performance in 2021. True, he did post a whiff rate in the 11th percentile, yet his 43rd percentile strikeout rate speaks of how well he chose his spots. Otherwise, he simply crushed the ball all year.

    Outside the batter's box, Harper is an opportunistic baserunner and at least a threat to throw runners out on defense. He's thus less one dimensional than other hitters who are as good as he is...which is a very short list indeed.

3. RF Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 122 G, 550 PA, 23 HR, 10 SB, .264 AVG, .367 OBP, .487 SLG, 128 OPS+, 4.2 rWAR

    It was only four years ago that Mookie Betts became just the 14th position player to ever reach 10.7 rWAR in a season, and he did so despite missing 26 of the Boston Red Sox's games.

    Alas, Betts hasn't come close to replicating that feat in three seasons since then. He gave it a good run in 2019, but then had no chance in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020 and whatever chance he might have had in 2021 was undercut by a nagging hip injury.

    It's fair to have lingering concerns about last year's struggles, but all indications are that Betts is going into 2022 in full health. As long as that remains the case, the odds are pretty good that the 29-year-old will return to the extraordinary baseline that he established from 2016 to 2020.

    You know, the one in which he nearly averaged a 30-30 season on a per-162-game basis while generally tearing up the basepaths and winning five straight Gold Gloves. It may have been Trout who was baseball's de facto best player, but it was Betts who actually was the best in those years.

2. DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    2021 Hitting Stats: 155 G, 639 PA, 46 HR, 26 SB, .257 AVG, .372 OBP, .592 SLG, 158 OPS+, 4.9 rWAR

    2021 Pitching Stats: 23 GS, 130.1 IP, 98 H (15 HR), 156 K, 44 BB, 3.18 ERA, 141 ERA+4.1 rWAR

    If we had instead made individual lists for the 25 best hitters and 25 best pitchers in baseball going into 2022, Shohei Ohtani would have placed near the top of both.

    He really was that good on offense in 2021, and not just because he became the sixth player in major league history to top 45 home runs and 25 stolen bases in a season. In the sense that his barrel rate was in the 100th percentile and his sprint speed was in the 91st percentile, he took no shortcuts to those marks.

    As a pitcher, the 27-year-old was actually held back by his fastball even though he could get it up to 101 mph. So dangerous were Ohtani's splitter and slider, however, that he whiffed batters at an even better rate than Zack Wheeler and countryman Yu Darvish.

    Though a season like the one Ohtani had in 2021 had never happened in the major leagues, the man himself had a season a lot like it in Japan in 2016. So rather than a lack of precedent, the not insignificant possibility of his body breaking down is perhaps the only reason to doubt his ability to do it again in 2022. 

1. RF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

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    Marta Lavandier/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 151 G, 654 PA, 29 HR, 9 SB, .313 AVG, .465 OBP, .534 SLG, 175 OPS+, 7.1 rWAR

    As amazing as Shohei Ohtani was in 2021, counting his performance as the greatest of all time is a tad hyperbolic. By rWAR, his '21 season doesn't even rank among the top 300 in baseball history.

    In other words, it's very possible for a singularly talented hitter or pitcher to produce more value than a player who's great at both things. Hence why we feel comfortable about granting the No. 1 spot on our list to the best hitter in the game today: Juan Soto.

    The Washington Nationals star didn't even really get going until the second half of 2021, and yet he was still  the toughest out in baseball for the second year in a row. In so doing, he also cemented a place in history as the only player to top a .400 OBP in his age-19, -20, -21 and -22 seasons.

    Soto is also a better baserunner (i.e., 32-for-44 in stolen bases) and defender than he gets credit for, and the upward trajectories of his exit velocity and hard-hit rate suggest he has 40-homer power brewing in him. If it all comes together in 2022, even the Ted Williams comparisons will no longer do Soto justice.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.