Top 100 Right Now (#20-16)

Continuing our countdown of the top 100 players in the majors, we hit numbers 20 through 16 today. You can find the explanation and origin of our list here. Since we are only doing five players a post, we will be going even further in-depth. Alex will talk about the player’s past, while I will find comps for each player, trying to show how he projects in the future. As a quick refresher, here are 100-21:

T100 – Jordan Zimmermann – SP -WAS
T100 – Michael Bourn – CF – ATL
T98 – Gio Gonzalez – SP – WAS
T98 – Nick Swisher – RF – NYY
97 – Nelson Cruz – RF – TEX
96 – B.J. Upton – CF – TBR
95 – Jayson Werth – OF – WAS
94 – Miguel Montero – C – ARI
93 – Lance Berkman – 1B/RF – STL
92 – Ubaldo Jimenez – SP – CLE
91 – Yunel Escobar – SS – TOR
90 – Corey Hart – RF – MIL
89 – Josh Beckett – SP – BOS
88 – Carlos Beltran – RF – STL
T86 – John Danks – SP – CHW
T86 – David Wright – 3B – NYM
85 – Gavin Floyd – SP – CHW
84 – Alexei Ramirez – SS – CHW
83 – Buster Posey – C – SFG
82 – Matt Garza – SP – CHC
81 – Anibal Sanchez – SP – MIA
80 – Joel Hanrahan – RP – PIT
79 – Jay Bruce – RF – CIN
78 – Howie Kendrick – 2B – LAA
77 – Mat Latos – SP – CIN
76 – Yadier Molina – C – STL
75 – Alex Gordon – LF – KCR
74 – Chris Carpenter – SP – STL
73 – Chase Utley – 2B – PHI
72 – Doug Fister – SP – DET
71 – Desmond Jennings – OF – TBR
70 – John Axford – RP – MIL
69 – Jonathan Papelbon – RP – PHI
68 – Brett Gardner – OF – NYY
67 – Daniel Hudson – SP – ARI
66 – Justin Masterson – SP – CLE
65 – Sean Marshall – RP – CIN
64 – Matt Moore – SP – TBR
63 – Mark Teixeira – 1B – NYY
62 – Rickie Weeks – 2B – MIL
61 – Craig Kimbrel – RP – ATL
60 – Carlos Santana – C/1B – CLE
59 – Yovani Gallardo – SP – MIL
58 – C.J. Wilson – SP – LAA
57 – Jose Reyes – SS – MIA
56 – David Price – SP – TBR
55 – Mariano Rivera – RP – NYY
54 – James Shields – SP – TBR
53 – Madison Bumgarner – SP – SFG
52 – Mike Napoli – C/1B/DH – TEX
51 – Adam Wainwright – SP – STL
50 – Hanley Ramirez – 3B/SS -MIA
49 – Hunter Pence – RF – PHI
48 – Matt Wieters – C – BAL
47 – Alex Rodriguez – 3B – NYY
46 – Brett Lawrie – 3B – TOR
45 – Joe Mauer – C – MIN
44 – Shane Victorino – CF – PHI
43 – Carlos Gonzalez – OF – COL
42 – Brandon Phillips – 2B – CIN
41 – Jered Weaver – SP – LAA
40 – Matt Cain – SP – SFG
39 – Tim Lincecum – SP – SFG
38 – Giancarlo Stanton – RF – MIA
37 – Jon Lester – SP – BOS
36 – Cole Hamels – SP – PHI
35 – Kevin Youkilis – 3B/1B – BOS
34 – Jacoby Ellsbury – CF – BOS
33 – Josh Johnson – SP – MIA
32 – Brian McCann – C – ATL
31 – Stephen Strasburg – SP – WAS
30 – Josh Hamilton – OF – TEX
29 – Pablo Sandoval – 3B – SFG
28 – Zack Greinke – SP – MIL
27 – Curtis Granderson – CF – NYY
26 – Prince Fielder – 1B – DET
25 – Adrian Beltre – 3B – TEX
24 – Dan Haren – SP – LAA
23 – Ian Kinsler – 2B – TEX
22 – Matt Holliday – LF – STL
21 – Andrew McCutchen – CF – PIT

20 – Ryan Zimmerman – 3B – WAS – MLB (22)
Alex (20) – Ryan Zimmerman was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft. Zimmerman played his college ball for the Virginia Cavaliers in the ACC Conference. He hardly spent anytime in the minors, he got called up the Nationals when rosters expanded in September. 2006 was Zimmerman’s first full season in the majors, and he did not disappoint. He showed a good eye at the plate, and showed exceptional power. Overall his slash line was .287/.351/.471 (111 wRC+) and 4.4 WAR. He finished second in the rookie of the year voting, Hanley Ramirez finished first in the closest voting ever. Since then he’s had two outstanding seasons where he managed to post 7+ WAR. This year he’s off to a sluggish start though. The plate discipline is still there, but he’s seen his ISO fall all the way to .109 compared to his .187 career ISO. His wRC+ is also a disappointing 88. He’s continued to show good defense, and as the season progresses he should be able to post 3-4 WAR.

Lee (22) – Zimmerman’s all-around offensive skills plus his solid defense have him in this elite class. Through age 27, he has provided 25-30 career WAR to the Nationals. He is on a very similar career path as Scott Rolen, with Rolen edging him slightly in both wRC+ (127 to 119) and UZR (+69 to +52). They both fought through multiple injuries early in their career, though I don’t think Zimmerman will be able to maintain his defensive ability as long as Rolen has. Eric Chavez was Zimmerman’s equal offensively through age 27, but was about 30 runs behind in defense. Robin Ventura also had very similar statistics, though his offensive approach was more walk/contact oriented. The last year-plus has been tough for Zimmerman, fighting through injuries. His defense has suffered, along with his power, partially due to a drop in flyballs hit. His contact rate has also dropped 7-8% from his previous career average, which could be a precursor to more strikeouts. While he could be anything from Rolen to Chavez, I see Zimmerman ending up with a Ken Boyer or Sal Bando type career, very good, but not quite HOF worthy.

19 – Ben Zobrist – 2B/RF – TBR – MLB (81)
Alex (21) – Outside of the sabermetric community Ben Zobrist is probably one of the most underrated players in all of baseball. In 2003 he played for the Wisconsin Woodchucks of the Summer Collegiate Northwoods League and was named the team MVP as he led them to the championship. In 2004 he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the sixth round, but was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for Aubrey Huff in August of 2006. From 2006 to 2007 Zobrist faced some struggles, and in 2008 he managed to post 1.4 WAR in 62 games. In 2009 he broke out, posting 8.7 WAR. He showed outstanding power, hitting for a .246 ISO to go with a wRC+ of 153. On top of his offense, he also managed to be an above average defender. This year he’s off to another good start. His .196 ISO is right around his career average but he should see some improvements do to his low .225 ISO. Zobrist continues to be a key member of the Rays, all while being one of the more underrated players in the game.

Lee (18) – Zobrist was a difficult player to find a career path that matches his own. Trying to find a player who provided around 20 WAR while having so few PA through age 31 was tough. The pre-1900 players don’t apply, since seasons were much shorter then, and they played at a high level for many years. Jackie Robinson and Edgar Martinez are on the list, but neither one of their situations are what I’m looking for. I then came across a man named Solly Hemus, someone even I had never heard of before. A shortstop for the Cardinals in the early 50′s, Hemus played good defense and get on base a ton, similar to Zobrist. As far as Zobrist’s future, his good plate discipline and defense will let him continue as a very good player, but under-appreciated by many. He could end up with career rates similar to Lou Whitaker, but the late start leaves the totals lower.

18 – Clayton Kershaw – SP – LAD – MLB (5)
Alex (19) – Clayton Kershaw was taken with the seventh pick in the 2006 draft, out of Highland Park High School. He was believed to be the best high school pitcher available and even has gotten comparisons to Sandy Koufax. He made his debut in 2008, but struggled with his control. He finished that season with a 3.91 FIP. Last year was a breakout year, he struck out over 27% of batters that he faced and walked only 6%. Overall he finished with a 2.47 FIP and 6.8 fWAR. This season he isn’t striking out as many batters but the walk rate continues to decline. His 3.13 FIP is a little high, but as the season goes on that should fall to the 2.90 range.

Lee (14) – Starting at age 20, Kershaw has accomplished much more than most 23-year-olds in history. He is one of twenty pitchers to accumulate 15 WAR through age 23, posting similar totals as Bret Saberhagen, Felix Hernandez, fellow Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, and Sam McDowell. After struggling with control his first couple years, he cut that rate in half last year while retaining the strikeouts. The lefties’ fastball-curve combination has been easily compared to Koufax, who also went through the same control issues at a young age. I do not foresee the eventual destruction of the elbow and retirement at age 30, but most pitchers on that list struggle to pitch well past 35. If Kershaw can get to 3000 IP and keep his rates near his current career figures, he will be likely be in the HOF discussion similar to Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and Kevin Brown (minus the attitude and PEDs).

17 – Justin Upton – RF – ARI – MLB (28)
Alex (14) – Justin Upton was another player that got drafted right out of high school and made it to the big leagues before he was 20. He was taken with the first pick of the 2005 draft out of Great Bridge High School, by the Arizona Diamondbacks. From 2007-2008 he played in 151 games and produced some decent numbers. Last season when he was 23 was when he really broke out. He finished the year with 6.8 WAR and showed all the tools that made him the first overall pick. He showed off his power by posting a .240 ISO. He also showed an exceptional eye at the plate. He finished the year with a 140 wRC+. Defensively he was spectacular as well. He saved 15 runs with his range, and had a UZR of 7.7. He’s continuing to be one of the better defensive outfielders in the game. This year he has run into some struggles offensively. His ISO is a sub-par .133 and he only has a 101 wRC+. Upton is too talented to struggle all season though, so expect him to return to his former self.

Lee (17) – We have another early debuter, with Upton making his first major league appearance at age 19. Like Kershaw, Upton hasn’t been historically good, though only 75 position players since 1901 have had two seasons of at least 3.5 WAR by age 23. Andruw Jones had a very similar start offensively, though his defense was miles ahead of Upton (and everyone else). By getting 2400 PA by age 23, Upton joins a list of 36 players, of which half are in the HOF and a couple more will be joining them soon. While hitting some of the longest home runs today, Upton does not hit a ton of them, which does hinder his overall production, partially due to his high K rate. If he can’t fix either one of those problems, he’ll probably end up with a Dale Murphy type career, very good, but not HOF worthy. If he can lower the Ks, he could have a Dave Winfield type career. If the HR totals match the raw power, he could end up like Reggie Jackson. If both get fixed, then Frank Robinson could be a comparison. That’s a huge range of potential, but at age 24, Upton has plenty of time to accomplish such feats.

16 – Felix Hernandez – SP – SEA – MLB (20)
Alex (17) – Felix Hernandez signed with the Seattle Mariners on July 4, 2002 as a non draftee free agent. He debuted in 2005 as a 19 year old and started fooling hitters right off the bat. He finished his first year in the majors with a 23.5 K% and a 7 BB%. His FIP was 2.85 to go along with 2.6 fWAR. Not bad for a 19 year old. Since then he has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Hernandez is off to another good season, posting similar K and BB% and his 3.12 FIP is right around where you’d expect. The glaring concern when it comes to Hernandez though is his sudden loss in velocity. His fastball typically sits around 93-94 MPH but so far this year it’s at 91 MPH. It’s hard to say if it’s cause for concern, but as long as Hernandez continues to do his thing he should continue to be one of the better pitchers that we have today.

Lee (13) – Called up to Seattle at age 19, Hernandez keeps the young guy streak alive. Aside from his first full season, he has been great, already amassing over 25 WAR, only one of 22 pitchers to do so since 1901. Again, half are in the HOF, with a couple more that could easily end up there. He is hard to find a comparison for, as far as stuff goes. His array of power offspeed pitches, especially the splitter/change, are really a modern phenomenon. The closest retired player I could imagine is Kevin Brown, throwing the heavy fastball to get groundballs. Hernandez is already halfway to 3000 IP, but his velocity is declining quicker than it should, though performance is holding steady. If it’s a conscious effort and he can keep his velocity at his current level for a few years, he should continue his HOF track. If it’s a sign of loss of arm strength, that 3000 inning mark will be tough to hit, especially at the same level of quality of his first 1500.

One Response

  1. Good picks. I am glad to see Zobrist up in the top 20. From what I know he seems to be a rather underrated player. Good post.

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