[Rev's Note: Matt Whitener is doing the impossible, counting down the top 100 baseball players of 2014. View Nos. 100-76 here.]
As the case always is, the game’s elite talent is spread around the diamond at every stop and in every role. While thus far only the first half of the list is being revealed, here is how the talent is split out across the field of the 2014 top 100 baseball players overall:
Of these players, 27 of the 30 MLB clubs are represented, with only the Padres, Cubs and Astros not seeing any representation this year (two more than last year’s countdown). Conversely, the Detroit Tigers lead the pack with eight players on the list, while the Cardinals, Dodgers and Nationals each have seven, respectively.
However, baseball is anything but an individual game. No matter how many individuals stand out, it still takes team chemistry to go over at the end. The Athletics (two players listed) and Indians (one) make a clear case as to why that is as true as ever.
However, today is about giving the solo spotlight its day in the sun. Here the 75th through 51st best players in the game today.
75. Ian Kinsler, Tigers: Kinsler is changing addresses (and leaving no bridge unburned behind him) and stands to be a much needed defensive upgrade in Detroit. In addition, he’s topped 150 hits for the three straight years and hit .277 as well, which forecasts well considering he’ll be looking to get on base ahead of the game’s best hitter from now on.
74. Justin Upton, Braves: One of the game’s biggest enigmas, whose talent is so obvious that it is nearly as frustrating to see his lulls as it is to watch his highs. But there still may be no young player that has a more proven potential, if that makes sense. He hit 27 home runs and scored 94 runs a year ago, despite only hitting four home runs between May and July.
73. J.J. Hardy, Orioles: A back-to-back winner of the American League’s shortstop Gold Glove added a Silver Slugger and an All-Star start to his quickly growing résumé last year. He has now topped 20 home runs in a season five times and is an inarguable reason why Manny Machado is biding his time at third base still.
72. Matt Cain, Giants: It was a tale of two halves for him last summer. After a miserable early season that saw his ERA float over 5.00, he came out of the All-Star break proving why he is among the best pitchers in the game, dropping his ERA to 2.36 in the second half, including a untouchable September where he only surrendered five runs over four starts.
71. Brian McCann, Yankees: The uber-consistent McCann, who has reached 20 home runs in seven of his eight full seasons, could be on the verge of a major breakout in his new home in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium is known for its hospitable nature for left-handed line-drive swingers, and McCann is among the better of those in the game.
70. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: D.C.’s franchise player battled with health and inconsistency last summer but fell in line late in the year to return to his usual standard — a standard that’s seen him reach 25 home runs in five of the last six years and hit .288 in the process.
69. Hunter Pence, Giants: The emotional conduit for the Giants had a big season in a year where very few followed suit in the Bay. He played in all 162 games, driving in 99 runs with 35 doubles, 27 home runs and stealing 22 bases, all while leading all NL right fielders in fielding zone rating as well.
68. Shane Victorino, Red Sox: The Flyin’ Hawaiian regained his form as one of the game’s best, gritty catalysts in Boston, as he proved with big hit after big hit in the Sox’ postseason run. In his first full season as a right fielder, he won the AL Gold Glove at the position, his fourth overall.
67. Ian Desmond, Nationals: It has been two Silver Sluggers in as many years for Desmond, who turned in a career-best 158 games and 80 RBI last year, while topping 20 home runs and 30 doubles for the second straight campaign. If one was to set out to make an all "most slept on" club, he would be a fine choice to man the shortstop role.
66. Josh Donaldson, Athletics: He became the motor behind the Athletics' second consecutive AL West title a year ago and finished in the top five in AL MVP voting. He posted a remarkable eight Wins Above Replacement figure by hitting .301 with 24 home runs and 93 RBI, while the recently converted former catcher is quickly becoming one of the best defensive third basemen in the game as well.
65. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals: While his wins dropped from 21 to 11 last year, it was more team than personal fault. He still turned in over 195 innings, an ERA at 3.36 and, most importantly, brought the same curveball/fastball duo that made him the first pitcher to ever win 20 games in less than 200 innings the previous summer.
64. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays: Canada has been very, very good to Edwin. Since moving north in late 2009, he has hit 124 home runs, including 78 the past two years combined. This has come in large part due to a shift in approach at the plate that has seen his strikeouts drop by over 30 from 2012 to 2013; he walked 20 more times than he whiffed a year ago.
63. Manny Machado, Orioles: The O’s prodigy has taken it to a level that is about five years premature by normal standards, but he is anything but that. He is the most naturally talented infielder to hit the game since Alex Rodriguez 20 years ago, and if his early standard holds in place (such as the AL-best 51 doubles he hit as a 20-year-old), he will be firmly rooted at the top of the game for the next decade plus some.
62. Joe Nathan, Tigers: He regained his elite form in the ninth last year, closing out 43 games while surrendering only 10 runs on the season. It was the fourth time he finished with better than 40 saves, and by season’s end he could sit at seventh on the all-time list.
61. Ben Zobrist, Rays: The game’s top Jack of all trades was at his usual versatile self again, playing his 157 games at five different positions. Over the course of his travels, he set a career-high for hits, drove in 71 runs and made his second All-Star appearance.
60. Jason Kipnis, Indians: He took a major step ahead in becoming the driving force for the resurgent Indians. The third-year second baseman made his All-Star debut in route to a career-best .284 average and 84 RBI, while turning in a second straight 30 stolen base year. He is one of the rising stars in the game, one Cleveland would be smart to lock up for a lot more summers soon.
59. Brandon Phillips, Reds: There is still no second baseman that can do what Phillips does with the glove, and while there have been downturns in his offensive value the past few years, especially on the base paths, he did drive in 100 runs for the first time a year ago.
58. Cole Hamels, Phillies: Luck was not on his side in regard to taking home credit for many victories last year, but he still turned in a very Hamels-like performance. He was a workhorse, turning in 220 innings and topping 200 strikeouts for the third time in four years. A bit more luck on his side, and that season looks much different in hindsight.
57. Carlos Gomez, Brewers: Understanding what goes into determining a player’s WAR figure can seem a lot like reading Russian arithmetic upside down, but to get a hint on what it takes to be statistically invaluable, look at Gomez’s 2013. The always superb defender turned in 24 home runs, 73 RBI, 40 steals, 27 doubles, 10 triples and scored 80 runs for the decrepit Brewers — all good for an NL-best 8.4 Wins Above Replacement level season.
56. James Shields, Royals: KC’s foray into “win now” mode came with the aggressive acquisition of Shields (which came at the cost of eventual Rookie of the Year Wil Myers), but he did not disappoint on his end of the deal. He pitched an AL-best 228 innings and 34 starts, winning 13 games amid some very tough situation losses and no-decisions. His job was to add legitimacy at the top of the Royal rotation, and the mission was accomplished.
55. Matt Kemp, Dodgers: Just two years ago, he checked in on this list in the top 10, but he’s plummeted down it since. He stays toward the middle due to the fact that he is an undeniably rare talent when he has been healthy. A prime example of his last two years is showcased in what his final game of 2013 represented: 3-for-4, home run and then injury to end it — then gone for months on end.
54. Jered Weaver, Angels: "Crafty" gets used as a way to describe a pitcher that is effective but just not in anywhere near an overpowering or easy-to-peg way. And by that definition, nobody is "craftier" than Weaver, who’s six pitches and varied arm slot delivery are equally frustrating as they are effective. He’s averaged 16 wins a season over the past four years, with three All-Star Games and a no-hitter to show for it.
53. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers: One of the steadiest hitters in the game, Gonzo is the lost factor in the mix of the Dodgers' success. Amid the entire buzz about Kershaw, Kemp, Hanley and Puig, he led the team in each of the Triple Crown categories a year ago, turning in a .294, 22-homer, 100-RBI year.
52. Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers: He turned his well-rounded skill set into a major pact with the Rangers, who in turn land one of the most versatile players in the game. Over his past four complete seasons, his on-base percentage has averaged nearly 40%, a number that instantly makes the everyday Texas threat, with Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre looming, even more terrifying.
51. Elvis Andrus, Rangers: When a guy a) saves a ton of runs and then b) helps create them on the other end, he’s major asset. Such is Elvis. He’s a wiz in the field (he increased his range zone rating to an awesome 6.23 last year and changed 2.1 wins in the Rangers’ favor with his glove work) and puts himself in position to create runs at the plate regularly. He stole a career-best 42 bases a year ago and combined to score or drive in 158 runs.
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