#50 to #46
#45 to #41
#40 to #36
#35 to #31
#30 to #26
#25 to #21
#20 to #16
And herein lie the best players in the game. Okay, not all of them, but a good handful of them. These guys are absolutely fantastic players, in the primes of their careers, and signed to deals that are discounts even if they’re not exactly cheap. This is the land of superstars, and the guys who might just lead the league in present value. Their long term value isn’t quite as strong, keeping them out of the top 10, but if you want to win right now, you want one of these five on your team.
#15 Clayton Kershaw (P)
Under Team Control Through 2014: Arbitration
Even last summer, I would have never considered ranking a player with 1+ year of team control this high. Even as good as Kershaw is, you can only produce so much value in 300 innings. However, with some coaxing from friends within the game, I have become convinced that the a number of clubs place a real value on exclusive negotiating rights to a player who is not set on reaching free agency. And indications are that Kershaw, while looking for a monster extension, is willing to sign a long term deal before testing the market.
Any team trading for Clayton Kershaw wouldn’t be trading for him for just one year. It would be a Johan Santana trade-and-sign situation, and the Dodgers would be compensated in prospects for the buyer’s ability to get Kershaw signed before anyone else could. Essentially, for this kind of player, I have become convinced that the market for their services is not in free agency, but is in the rush to own the rights to extend them, and in Kershaw’s case, the price to acquire those rights would be absurd.
He’s 25, and he’s like a hybrid of Felix Hernandez’s peripherals with Matt Cain’s ability to confound the norms of BABIP and HR/FB rate. There are other excellent pitchers in baseball, but Kershaw has claimed the title of the game’s best pitcher, and he doesn’t look like he’s going to give it up any time soon. If the Dodgers decide not to make him the first $200 million pitcher, you can bet that teams like the Yankees would gladly do so, and there would be enough interest in being the team to pay Kershaw a record contract that the Dodgers would reap the benefits of a serious bidding war.
More likely, though, is that the Dodgers just pay up, because if you’re going to spend $250 million to acquire the core of a disappointing failure, you should probably not then balk at spending $200 million to sign the best pitcher in the sport.
#14 Stephen Strasburg (P)
Under Team Control Through 2016: Arbitration
I’ve alluded many times to the risks of expecting too much long term value from pitchers, even the very best pitchers, and Stephen Strasburg is a prime example of why. He was maybe the best pitching prospect anyone has ever seen. In his rookie season, he posted an xFIP- of 51, which is a Pedro-in-his-prime kind of silly number.
Three years and one surgery later, his xFIP- is 92. He’s still an excellent pitcher, but it’s been awhile since he looked like the best pitcher on the planet. He might not ever look like that again. Pitcher aging curves are probably not curves, but instead, diagonal lines that point downwards. It is likely that Stephen Strasburg peaked in 2010, as a rookie.
All that negativity aside, teams would still be lining up out the door if the Nationals made him available. He’s got three years of team control left at arbitration prices, and the low innings totals and lack of sexy win numbers this year will keep his price reasonable. He still throws 95, gets strikeouts and ground balls, and has an ERA of 2.99. He might be worse, but worse than historically amazing isn’t so bad.
Strasburg is both terrific and kind of disappointing at the same time. Pitchers. Don’t build your franchises around them.
#13 Troy Tulowitzki (SS)
Under Team Control Through 2021: $16M, $20M, $20M, $20M, $20M, $20M, $14M, $15M option
Let’s just get this out of the way; Troy Tulowitzki is injury prone. The guy spends time on the disabled list every year. This probably isn’t going to change as he gets older and his body starts wearing down even more. But, even with the injuries, Troy Tulowitzki is a tremendous player. Assuming he can rack up a meager +1.5 WAR over the rest of the season, he’ll have posted his fourth +5 WAR season in five years, and he’s in the midst of his best season yet.
Even accounting for Colorado, Tulowitzki is just on another level for offense from the shortstop position, and he can actually play defense too. In terms of pure impact when he’s in the line-up, Tulowitzki is up there with anyone else in the game. The quantity of his playing time is occasionally a problem, but the quality dwarfs those issues.
And the remainder of his contract adds up to $145 million over eight years, assuming they exercise the team in 2021. Think about what Tulo would get as a free agent coming off a 160 wRC+ as a 28-year-old shortstop. We can point to his durability all we want, but we have to remember that Josh Hamilton — not exactly the Iron Horse himself — just got 5/125, and he had a bunch of other red flags too. And he was significantly older. And not a shortstop. And not this good of a hitter.
It might be hard to recalibrate our opinions to see 8/$145 as a massive discount, but in this case, it is. Tulowitzki is that good.
#12 Miguel Cabrera (1B/3B)
Under Team Control Through 2015: $22M, $22M
It would actually be a fascinating experiment to put Cabrera in free agency right now, then limit teams to two year maximum offers, just to see what they kind of value they’d put on that production. I think he might $50 million per year, given the fact that there would be no long term commitment required. Miguel Cabrera is simultaneously one of the highest paid and most underpaid players in the game.
You don’t need me to tell you how ridiculous Cabrera’s numbers are. He’s followed up his MVP season by making last year look like a slump. His teammates might not be living up to the hype, but Cabrera is putting the finishing touches on a Hall of Fame peak by having one of the best offensive seasons of all time.
Cabrera is a monster, and he’s the driving force behind the Tigers chances to win the World Series. They’re not trading him now, and they’re probably not ever trading him. I don’t even know how one would go about trying to make an offer without getting laughed at. Even with a shorter term contract at fairly high prices, Cabrera is still absurdly valuable and one of the closest things MLB has to an untouchable player.
#11 Yadier Molina (C)
Under Team Control Through 2017: $15M, $15M, $14M, $14M, $15M mutual option
Depending on how much you buy into The Molina Effect on STL’s pitching staff, there’s a case to be made that the Cardinals catcher might just be the best player in baseball. Even with our rudimentary defensive evaluations for backstops, ZIPS and Steamer project him as something like a +6 WAR player over a full season, and that gives him no credit for the non-throwing/blocking parts of his defense. If there’s a player in baseball that is underrated by WAR, it’s Yadier Molina, and WAR thinks Yadier Molina is awesome.
What looked like a shockingly high salary for a defensive specialist now looks like a hilarious underpay for the leading NL MVP candidate. If he’s not the best defensive player, he’s close, and he happens to be putting up a 145 wRC+ this year, which is higher than Mike Piazza’s career wRC+ of 140. I don’t know how long he can keep this up, but Molina is currently in the midst of one of the great stretches of catcher performance in baseball history.
That said, he is 30, and he’s carried an extremely heavy workload throughout his career, and his knees are already starting to hurt. The final four years of his contract take him through his age-34 season, and at some point, his body is going to say enough already. Molina probably won’t be an MVP candidate when this deal ends.
But the present value is just so high that it doesn’t matter much. Every team in baseball — except San Francisco — would tie themselves in knots in order to get him behind the plate, and the Giants might just do it for the fun of having the two best catchers in the game at the same time. Molina is a legitimate difference maker at a position that has few of them.