Note: salaries are rounded estimates and include all team-controlled years. Rankings from the 2011 Trade Value series in parentheses.
10. (2) Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto – Signed through 2015 for $63 million
An early season slump and another low BABIP has Bautista performing at a more human level than the past few years, though he’s still among the best hitters in the game. However, he does turn 32 in October, so whether he’s going to remain an elite player for much longer is an open question. The steal of a contract that the Blue Jays signed him to in 2010 has four years left at $14 million per year, and then there’s a team option for 2016 at the same price. For the next couple of years, it’s a significant discount, though I probably wouldn’t expect the option to be exercised. For a team in need of a short term offensive boost without taking a huge hit to their payroll, Bautista would be one of the most appealing players in the sport.
9. (8) Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta – Under Team Control through 2015.
Heyward has bounced back nicely from his disappointing 2011 season, showing a different set of skills than what made him a heavily hyped rookie and flashing potential to be a premier all-around hitter. Still a few weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, Heyward already has 1,400 career plate appearances and has posted a 120 wRC+ during those three years. Guys who can do that over an extended period from 20-22 generally turn into superstars. There are downsides here, though — health has been an issue, for one, and he’s only three years from free agency. Any team trying to pry Heyward from the Braves would be hoping to land a franchise player, but would need to pony up a large contract in order to get his prime years locked up, and they probably wouldn’t come cheap given what Heyward has already accomplished. Still, he’s one of the best young hitters in the game, and a legitimate franchise cornerstone.
8. (24) Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington – Under Team Control through 2016
If durability wasn’t a question mark, Strasburg would be in the mix for the #1 spot. So, yes, he’s a pitcher, and we acknowledge that pitchers get hurt more often and have a high risk of flameouts, but we can’t just ignore the fact that Strasburg is outpitching everyone in baseball on a per-innings basis. His 67 xFIP- is the best mark of any qualified starter this year, and puts him on par with most recent Cy Young winners. There’s no question about Strasburg’s abilities — if his arm stays together, he’s a Hall of Fame talent. Any pitcher is a gamble, but Strasburg offers enough potential to make that a gamble that GMs want to take, especially given that they’d control his rights for four more years without the downside of a guaranteed contract.
7. (NR) Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers – Signed through 2019 for $153 million
It took about a month for Kemp’s 8 year/$160 million contract to look like a steal, as he spent April proving that last year was no fluke. He’s not the best defensive center fielder around and his lingering hamstring problems are a bit of a concern, but Kemp is still a 27-year-old five tool superstar who might just be baseball’s best overall player when he’s on the field. The Dodgers took a risk in paying him big money after what appeared to be a caree year, but Kemp is performing at an even higher level this season, and simply looks like he’s developed into one of the game’s true elite players. He probably can’t keep hitting as well as he has so far in 2012, but then again, we said that last year too.
6. (31) Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers – Signed through 2020 for $128 million
At age 28, Braun has essentially developed into a complete all around player. He’s always had power, but his game was rough around the edges before he made the leap last year. Now, with improved plate discipline, better defense, and more aggressive baserunning, Braun has no real weaknesses on the field. While I didn’t understand the Brewers desire to an extend his contract until 2020 when they already had him signed through 2015, the move now looks like it will save them tens of millions of dollars, and was one of the best decisions in franchise history. The Brewers have essentially locked up one of the game’s rare talents for well below market rates, and they didn’t have to guarantee years beyond age 36 in order to get a lower price. Braun’s a great player with a great contract, and is only this low because of the great wave of young talent that has pushed their way past him with their incredible production.