We close out this year’s list of the top 50 assets in the sport with a fantastic group of young players and The Contract That Keeps On Giving. You can check out 6-50 in the links below, and then scroll down to find out which of the game’s brightest young stars comes out on top.
Note: salaries are rounded estimates and include all team-controlled years. Rankings from the 2011 Trade Value series in parentheses.
5. (16) Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami – Under Team Control through 2016.
Stanton is a beast of a hitter, and he’s only getting better. He got to the Majors as a 20-year-old who struck out too much, but while he still swings and misses a lot, he’s got his strikeout rate down to acceptable levels, and he’s matured into the game’s best young power hitter. For comparison, Stanton has been better through age 22 than Miguel Cabrera, and on the same level as Ken Griffey Jr and Alex Rodriguez. He doesn’t offer the same kind of defensive value of those two, but young hitters don’t get much better than this. With four more years of team control, Stanton is one of the most valuable pieces in the game today, though his numbers are going to assure that he gets paid in arbitration. Given how quickly he’s become a great hitter, the Marlins may regret not locking him up sooner.
4. (1) Evan Longoria, 3B, Tampa Bay – Signed through 2016 for $38 million.
After a long stint at the top of this list, Longoria has finally been dethroned. Injuries have essentially wiped out his age 26 season, and he’s down to just four more years left on the seemingly never-ending contract the Rays signed him to as a rookie. However, this fall in the rankings is more about the three guys in front of him than about Longoria himself. Even with the durability questions, he’s still one of the game’s elite talents, and that contract is still paying him a tiny fraction of what he’s actually worth. In a normal year, Longoria would have still been in the mix for the top spot, but this isn’t a normal year. This is a year that has seen three young outfielders all perform at incredible levels, and that trio has emerged as the future of the sport. This is no knock on Longoria. He’s just been displaced by three guys who could each carry the sport on their back for the next decade.
3. (6) Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh – Signed through 2018 for $63 million.
McCutchen entered the year as a consistently solid hitter after posting a wRC+ of 125, 125, and 129 during his first three years in the big leagues. This year, McCutchen has exploded, turning doubles into home runs and outhitting every other player in the National League. His 187 wRC+ is second in baseball, and at age 25, he’s turned into a true superstar. He probably won’t keep hitting for power at this level, but even if some of those home runs turn back into doubles, he’s still a premier all around talent. The Pirates were extremely smart to lock up McCutchen over the off-season, buying out all of his arbitration years and getting his first three years of free agency as well. He’s worth several magnitudes more than the contract is going to pay him, and he’s almost single-handedly restored Pittsburgh’s credibility as a franchise. The Pirates have a superstar who isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and that’s good for both the city and the sport as a whole.
2. (20) Bryce Harper, OF, Washington – Under Team Control through 2018
When I finished the initial version of this list a couple of weeks ago, Harper was #1. His placement at second on this list really has nothing to do with his July slump — where he’s finally looked human for the first time since arriving in the big leagues — he just got passed by an epic tornado of brilliance in Anaheim. Harper is still the premier young talent in the sport. Comparisons range from Josh Hamilton (with plate discipline) to Ken Griffey Jr, and outside of an injury or off the field issue, it’s hard to see any career trajectory for Harper that doesn’t end with him as the best player in baseball.
What he’s doing in the big leagues as a teenager is special, and I’d still take his future over any other player on the planet. But, right now, Harper is simply a good player who can be a solid piece on a winning team. By next year, he could be a superstar, but he’s not quite there yet, which is just fine, because he’s 19-years-old. His future is amazing. His present is very good. That was good enough for the top spot until last week, when the #1 spot on this list was finally just torn out of his hands through sheer force by…
1. (21) Mike Trout, OF, Anaheim Angels – Under Team Control through 2017
Since getting called up to the Majors, Trout has been the best player in baseball, and it hasn’t even been particularly close. At his current rate of performance, he’d average +10.3 WAR per 600 plate appearances. For his career, Babe Ruth averaged 10.0 WAR per 600 plate appearances. Yeah. There’s just not much left to say about what Trout is doing right now. He’s almost certainly not going to keep this up because no one can keep this up, but what we’re seeing is a 20-year-old with no real flaws in his game.
39 of his 107 hits have gone for extra bases. He’s 31 for 34 in base stealing. He’s an amazing defensive center fielder. Three times he’s tried to bunt his way on base, and three times he’s been successful. He makes contact, he hits for power, he doesn’t swing at pitches out of the zone, and he can run like the wind. The only way Trout could be better at baseball is if he was also a dynamite pitcher with a 99 mph fastball.
When I was polling baseball people for their opinions on Harper versus Trout, it came down mostly on Harper’s side. But then, over the last two weeks, I’ve had a half dozen people send me notes saying that they’ve changed their minds. What Mike Trout is doing right now is something we haven’t seen since Alex Rodriguez in 1996. 20-year-olds aren’t supposed to be the best player in baseball. Right now, Mike Trout probably is.