Who Are the 20 Best MLB Players Right Now?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 2, 2022

Who Are the 20 Best MLB Players Right Now?

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    St. Louis' Nolan Arenado is a top candidate in the way-too-early NL MVP debate.
    St. Louis' Nolan Arenado is a top candidate in the way-too-early NL MVP debate.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Voting for Major League Baseball's 2022 All-Star Game won't even begin for another month, but it's never too early to start arguing over who is currently the best in the business.

    This ranking of MLB's top players is not exclusively rooted in 2022 production. It's actually more so based on what these players were able to accomplish over the past 3-plus years as opposed to the past 3-plus weeks.

    But early returns were certainly a big factor in, say, red-hot Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado ranking ahead of slow starters Juan Soto and Mookie Betts, or pitchers like Carlos Rodon and Kevin Gausman even landing in the top 20.

    Early returns (or, rather, the lack thereof) also played a key part in a few very good players missing the cut due to injury. If we were ranking players for a "rest of season" fantasy draft of sorts, all of Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jacob deGrom almost certainly would have made the cut. But they're relegated to honorable mentions for now.

    Statistics are current through the start of play on Sunday, May 1.

Honorable Mentions

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    Seattle's Logan Gilbert
    Seattle's Logan GilbertTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr. and Jacob deGrom

    Acuna just made his triumphant return to Atlanta's lineup on Thursday and even swiped two bags to prove that ACL is just fine. However, we opted not to include these three All-Stars who are working their way back from injury. That said, it would not be surprising in the slightest if all three are clearly in the top 20 by the end of July.

           

    Trea Turner

    Compared to leading the majors in batting last year (.328) and hitting even better in both 2020 (.335) and 2016 (.342), it has been a slightly down year for Turner (.276). But he's still faring quite well with at least one hit in all but four games played. Once the power starts to resurface (21.3 at bats per home run last season; one home run in 76 at bats this year), he'll be right back in the mix for the top 10.

               

    Carlos Correa

    Correa had to go 3-for-5 at the dish on Thursday just to bring his batting average back up to .200. Needless to say, things haven't gone according to plan for last year's fifth-place finisher in the AL MVP race. But June is typically when Correa does his best work, so let's check back in two months before doing anything drastic like writing this off as a lost season.

             

    Pablo Lopez and Logan Gilbert

    The beauty of small sample sizes is that a lot of pitchers have gotten out to unexpectedly impressive starts to the season. But we especially need to mention Lopez and Gilbert, each of whom has allowed just one earned run through four starts. And Gilbert's lone blemish was a solo shot in the first inning of his first start, so he hasn't allowed an earned run in his last 22 innings of work.

             

    Also strongly considered (in alphabetical order): Alex Bregman, Walker Buehler, Corbin Burnes, Gerrit Cole, Nester Cortes, Rafael Devers, Tommy Edman, Ty France, Eric Hosmer, Francisco Lindor, Shane McClanahan, Seiya Suzuki, Taylor Ward, Kyle Wright

20-17: Kershaw, Bogaerts, Rizzo and Hader

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    Milwaukee's Josh Hader
    Milwaukee's Josh HaderKeith Srakocic/Associated Press

    20. LHP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
    23.0 IP, 2.35 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 11.7 K/9

    When Kershaw got pulled seven innings into a perfect game in his first start of the season, there was a swift and fierce backlash over the "fragile" and "over-protected" state of starting pitchers these days. But now that the dust of that fracas has settled, can we all just marvel at the fact that this 34-year-old, oft-injured-in-recent-years lefty still has the stuff to mow down 21 consecutive batters, 13 of them by strikeout, in just 80 pitches?

    After that immaculate outing against the Twins, Kershaw proceeded to pick up wins over the Braves and the Padres. He's nowhere near the undisputed, best-in-the-business ace that he was in the 2011-17 timeframe, but he's still got some impressive tricks up his sleeve.

              

    19. SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox
    .375/.419/.500, 1 HR, 9 RBI

    Been a rough start to the year for Boston, but that certainly hasn't been Bogaerts' fault. While most of the league seems to be flirting with the Mendoza Line, the Red Sox shortstop is up closer to Ted Williams territory with AL-best marks of 30 hits and .375 average.

    From April 17-27, he went 23-of-46 (.500) at the dish with six games of at least three hits. However, he only managed to generate five RBI during that scorching stretch, because no one can seem to get into scoring position ahead of him.

             

    18. 1B Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees
    .273/.391/.675, 9 HR, 21 RBI, 2 SB

    Hard to ignore the MLB leader in home runs, right? But is this just a hot start that will quickly fade or is this more of a career renaissance for Rizzo? (A Rizzossance, if you will.)

    It bears mentioning that when he was traded to The Bronx Bombers at the deadline last July, everyone was intrigued to see what this left-handed hitter with well over 200 career home runs could do with that short porch in right field. He didn't do much with it last season, but seven of his nine home runs have come to right or right-center at Yankee Stadium.

    It's been a bit unexpected, but Rizzo legitimately might hang onto this home run crown.

               

    17. LHP Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
    9.1 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 10 SV

    Hader entered this season as a three-time All-Star with a career ERA of 2.26 and a preposterous K/9 rate of 15.4. And I'll be darned if the Brewers closer hasn't been even better than usual.

    The strikeout rate (14.5 per 9 IP) looks slightly down, but whiffing 44 percent of batters faced is right on par with his career average. He simply isn't facing as many batters per 9 IP because only six of the 34 have reached base against him (none of whom have scored). Hader is already 10-for-10 in save chances and is a big reason the Brewers have one of the best records.

16-13: Rodon, Buxton, Freeman and Franco

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    Minnesota's Byron Buxton
    Minnesota's Byron BuxtonBruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    16: LHP Carlos Rodon, San Francisco Giants
    23.0 IP, 1.17 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 14.9 K/9

    After a phenomenal 2021 campaign that included a no-hitter and four other starts in which he allowed just one hit, Rodon got a "prove it" contract with the Giants$21.5 million this year with a player option for $22.5 million next yearto show that 2021 wasn't a fluke after a mediocre 4.14 ERA over the previous six years.

    Get ready for him to decline that player option and make a boatload of money this offseason, because early returns in 2022 suggest that Rodon is the real deal. In each of the 29-year-old's four starts this season, he has struck out at least eight batters while holding the opposition to no more than three hits and one run. That includes five scoreless innings of work in San Francisco's only win during the four-game road series against the Mets.

              

    15: OF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
    .271/.340/.729, 6 HR, 11 RBI

    If he could just stay healthy, am I right?

    Buxton hit three home runs within Minnesota's first three games of the season. And then after a knee injury in Game No. 7 that kept him out of the lineup for five games, he hit another three home runs within his first three games back.

    Between 2020 and 2021, he hit 32 home runs in just 100 games played. That's a full-season pace of 52 dingers, plus around 40 doubles and 20 stolen bases. I suspect even most fans of the other four teams in the AL Central would agree it'd be cool if we could get just one year of this phenom playing in at least 150 games.

              

    14: 1B Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers
    .299/.382/.468, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 2 SB

    It's going to be at least another month or two before it's not super weird to see Freeman in Dodgers blue, but he sure does look comfortable in his new home. He already has seven multi-hit games and is leading Los Angeles with 23 base knocks.

    Speaking on behalf of the non-Atlanta fanbases of the NL East, it was pretty awesome to see Freeman go 4-for-11 with two home runs and two walks in his first series against the Braves. In his career, Freeman has hit .298 against the Phillies, .305 against the Mets and .315 against both the Marlins and the Nationals with a combined 122 home runs against those four teams.

               

    13. SS Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
    .313/.333/.578, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 3 SB

    The Rays took a pretty big risk in signing Franco to a back-loaded, 11-year, $182 million contract after all of 70 games in the majors. But with his second season going even better than his first, it's looking like Tampa Bay committed highway robbery.

    Franco came out on fire with hits in 11 of his first 20 at-bats, and he has since added some power to the mix with four home runs since April 19. Between Triple-A and the big leagues, Franco averaged a home run for every 35 trips to the plate. Four homers in the span of six games was quite the eye opener from a guy who was already impressive.

12-9: Gausman, Betts, Soto and Judge

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    Washington's Juan Soto
    Washington's Juan SotoNick Wass/Associated Press

    12: RHP Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays
    24.2 IP, 2.19 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 11.3 K/9

    It's weird that Carlos Rodon got a "prove it" contract while Gausmanwho had a 4.26 ERA from 2013-20 and never looked anything like an All-Star until this past seasonlanded a five-year, $110 million deal in free agency.

    But at least the Blue Jays are getting a solid initial return on that investment. Gausman only has one win to show for it, but he is leading all pitchers in FanGraphs WAR thanks to 31 strikeouts and not a single walk allowed. In three starts against the AL East (Red Sox twice, Yankees once), Gausman has gone 19.2 IP with 26 K and three earned runs allowed. Suffice it to say, Toronto would be thrilled if that continues.

                   

    11: OF Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
    .230/.352/.378, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 3 SB

    After eight consecutive seasons with an OPS north of .800 and career marks of .296 average and .890 OPS, Betts entered 2022 as a no-brainer top-five player in the league. But the 2018 AL MVP and five-time All-Star has not been his usual self.

    The good news is he's at least drawing a lot of walks and he typically heats up as the season progresses, saving his best for August and September. While he hasn't been Los Angeles' most valuable player to this point in the season, there's plenty of reason to believe he will be by season's end.

                   

    10: OF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals
    .241/.406/.443, 4 HR, 5 RBI

    Speaking of under-performers who are at least getting a bunch of free passes, Soto is batting just .241 but might still mess around and lead the majors in on-base percentage for what would be the third consecutive season. He has already drawn 21 walks to go along with his four solo home runs.

    Over the final two months of last seasonafter the Nationals traded away Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber and had no one left in the lineup to protect Sotohe walked 73 times (162-game pace of 207 bases on balls) and had an on-base percentage of .528 for a team that lost 40 of those 57 games. Fair to wonder why anyone would ever bother pitching to this star of the woefully sub-.500 Nats.

                  

    9: OF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
    .293/.361/.600, 6 HR, 13 RBI

    After 11 games, Judge was batting .250 with a solo home run in a losing effort serving as his only RBI of the season. But the mountainous outfielder heated up considerably during New York's current winning streak. Judge had a two-HR game against the Guardians, launched a ball a mile on his birthday against the Orioles and racked up four RBI in Thursday's victory over the O's.

    Judge has always been a great slugger, but keep an eye on that batting average. He hit a career-best .287 last year and is flirting with .300 in the early going of this season. That could be what pushes him over the top for an MVP award.

8-5: Guerrero, Harper, Ohtani and Machado

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    Los Angeles' Shohei Ohtani
    Los Angeles' Shohei OhtaniMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    8: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
    .286/.352/.545, 6 HR, 16 RBI

    Eight games into the season, Guerrero was batting .367 with seven runs scored and five home runs mashed. It looked like he might obliterate his MLB-best marks of 123 runs and 48 home runs from last year.

    But even with a power outage in the second half of April—one homer in his last 13 games—Guerrero is still in great shape for another spirited race for AL MVP after finishing as first runner-up to Shohei Ohtani in 2021.

             

    7: OF/DH Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
    .253/.319/.470, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 3 SB

    Since starting the season 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts, Harper has turned a serious corner with 10 extra-base hits and three stolen bases.

    The weird part of that is he started hitting the ball right when he got hurt. Harper has been battling through an injury to his throwing elbow that has relegated him almost exclusively to DH duties in recent weeks. Yet he went 7-for-14 with a double, a triple, a home run and two stolen bases in the recent four-game sweep of the Rockies. There's still a decent chance that the reigning NL MVP repeatsthough Nolan Arenado would likely win it if we were voting today.

            

    6: DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
    .236/.284/.416, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB
    19.1 IP, 4.19 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 14.0 K/9

    Less than one full month into the season, it'd be hard to justify going any lower than this for the dual-threat phenom who last year became just the 19th unanimous MVP in MLB history. But outside of a near-perfect start on the mound at Houston and a two-game stretch in which he hit three home runs at Texas, Ohtani hasn't looked quite right.

    Admittedly, that's a preposterous thing to say about a guy who is striking out 14.0 batters per nine innings pitched while on pace for a second straight season in the 25-HR/25-SB club. Trying to compare Ohtani to anyone else is effectively impossible. We can only compare Ohtani to his own previous seasons, and 2022 Ohtani hasn't been anywhere near as dominant as 2021 Ohtani.

              

    5: 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
    .386/.453/.614, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 4 SB

    No Fernando Tatis Jr.? No problem. Manny Machado has been the toughest out in baseball with 32 hits in his first 22 games.

    Machado had a five-hit performance in an April 14 blowout of the Braves and added another three hits the following night. And pour one out for Reds fans who will be seeing Machado in their nightmares until they next face him in 2023. In six games against Cincinnati, the Padres third baseman went 14-for-23 (.609) with a pair of home runs.

4. RHP Max Scherzer, New York Mets

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    New York's Max Scherzer
    New York's Max ScherzerJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Stats: 1.80 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 11.9 K/9, 4.1 K/BB

    Max Scherzer is always good, but especially so when first getting a change of scenery.

    When he relocated from Detroit to Washington before the 2015 campaign, he had a 1.51 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 10.7 K/9 through his first 10 starts with the Nationals. After getting traded to the Dodgers at last year's July deadline, he was unbelievably dominant in his first nine games, racking up a 0.78 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 12.3 K/9.

    Lather, rinse, repeat in Queens, as Scherzer has been darn near unhittable through his first four starts with the Mets.

    In his first start of the season, he went (by his standards) a bit easy on his former team from the nation's capital, allowing three earned runs with six strikeouts in six innings of work. He only threw 80 pitches, though, still getting his $43.3 million arm stretched out after the abbreviated spring training.

    But over the course of his next three starts against considerably better lineups (Phillies, Giants and Cardinals), "Mad Max" had a cumulative line of 19.0, 8 H, 2 ER, 27 K.

    Not too shabby for a guy who turns 38 this summer and theoretically should be running out of gas at some point in the not too distant future. Scherzer must be on some sort of Bud Heavy version of the TB12 diet, though, because he just keeps aging like a fine wine.

3. 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians

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    Cleveland's Jose Ramirez
    Cleveland's Jose RamirezDavid Dermer/Associated Press

    Stats: .342/.411/.722, 7 HR, 28 RBI

    It's been a hot minute since anyone even remotely flirted with breaking Hack Wilson's 1930 record of 191 RBI in a single season. The only players to even reach 160 in the past 80 years were Manny Ramirez (165 in 1999) and Sammy Sosa (160 in 2001).

    But Jose Ramirez has been on quite the RISP tear in 2022, compiling seven home runs and 28 RBI in his first 20 games.

    Surely no one expects him to maintain that 162-game pace of 57 homers and 227 ribbies, but surely no one expects him to crash and burn, either. Ramirez had 36 home runs last year and 39 in 2018, and has finished top six in the AL MVP vote in four of the past five seasons.

    He's out to a better start than usual, but this hasn't exactly come out of nowhere.

    One early curiosity, however, is the lack of stolen bases. Ramirez has always been an opportunist on the basepaths with 95 stolen bases over the previous four seasons, good for sixth-most in the majors during that time. But this season, he was caught stealing in his only attempt.

    If his legs show up and he ends up with something in the vicinity of 35 home runs, 130 RBI and 25 stolen bases with a .300 batting average, well, years like that don't just grow on trees. In MLB history there have only been three such seasons: Larry Walker in 1997, Hank Aaron in 1963 and Ken Williams in 1922.

2. 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals

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    St. Louis' Nolan Arenado
    St. Louis' Nolan ArenadoJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Stats: .375/.444/.681, 5 HR, 17 RBI

    Nolan Arenado has tapered off a bit in the slugging department since a blistering hot start.

    The Cardinals third baseman had at least one extra-base hit in eight of his first 10 games, finishing that season-opening stretch with five doubles, five home runs and 14 RBI. From 2015-21, Arenado led the majors in RBI (752; 71 more than his closest challenger), ranked second to Nelson Cruz in home runs (241) and was fifth in doubles (233), so no real surprises there.

    At the time, he was batting .368 and slugging .895.

    But while his slugging has dropped more than 200 points, his batting average has actually improved, as Arenado has become the patron saint of singles as of late.

    Then, of course, there's the platinum glove at the hot corner. Arenado does already have two errors at third base, but nothing to worry about. He's still one of the best in the business as far as FanGraphs Ultimate Zone Rating is concerned and has made several remarkable plays at the game's toughest defensive position. He gets a slight leg up on Jose Ramirez in these rankings because of that value added on defense.

    As noted one week ago, though, Arenado could opt out of the remainder of his contract after this season. And if he wins MVP before doing so and signs elsewhere, he would be the first reigning MVP to leave his team via free agency since Barry Bonds went from Pittsburgh to San Francisco after the 1992 season. Whole lot of season left before that becomes a real possibility, though.

1. OF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Los Angeles' Mike Trout
    Los Angeles' Mike TroutMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Stats: .323/.447/.694, 5 HR, 10 RBI

    As of Friday morning, Mike Trout was leading the majors in on-base percentage, slugging and, naturally, on-base plus slugging.

    Ho hum.

    Trout has yet to finish a season at No. 1 in MLB in all three of those categories, but he's always close, posting an OPS of at least .990 in each of the past seven seasons. In fact, Trout has four of the nine highest single-season OPS marks dating back to 2015 and is currently ahead (1.141) of even his personal best (1.090).

    Compared to his usual level of excellence, Trout actually started out a bit slow this season, too. Through 10 games played, he was batting .273 with five extra-base hits. Not bad, but chump change compared to batting .526 with three home runs, three doubles and a triple over the course of his subsequent five games.

    Trout was even more dominant at this point last season. At the end of the day on May 1, 2021, the three-time AL MVP had seven home runs, was batting .429 and had an OPS of 1.332. He was well on his way to a fourth MVP trophy until a torn calf muscle derailed his season two weeks later.

    Here's hoping for an injury-free 2022, because Mike Trout vs. Jose Ramirez is already shaping up to be an amazing AL MVP race.

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