To say that winter has been rough this year would be like saying Willie Mays was just a “decent” ballplayer. But somewhere in the world, where sun is shining with God’s favor, baseball is being played. And with the season on the verge (and hopefully a true and just spring along with it), it is time to get back the business of baseball and the best in the world at it.
It has become an annual tradition for me to break down my Top 100 players in baseball today to welcome the season back, and as always, it is a daunting task at the very least. So to at least provide some context to the task that’s about to take off, here’s the goal of what’s to come:
The point is to determine the best player in baseball, period. Not who had the best year, who won what award or who has had the best career. The point is to answer the question of who are the 100 best players in the game today. This challenge will be chased via a context of statistics, talent, performance, consistency, potential impact on the coming year and the all-important, irreplaceable eye test. Stature entering it matters some, but in the end, it is all about separating the very top of the pack from each other.
Before each entry, there will be an assessment of what compromises the list this year, a look back at the previous entry and even who barely missed this one. But for now … let’s get into it, the 100 best baseball players in today’s game.
100. Torii Hunter, Tigers: He has quietly become one of the steadiest late-career producers in the last decade and has actually become more well-rounded player in his late 30s than he was at this point 10 years ago. He’s hit .308 for the Angels and Tigers since 2014, which could be aided in major part by his transition to right field and lessened defensive load.
99. C.J. Wilson, Angels: While the Angels have become synonymous with bad, big-money contracts in recent years, Wilson did his part to take his name out of that equation last year. He won a career-best 17 games on a 3.38 ERA and topped 200 innings for the fourth straight year.
98. Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: Sometimes you just know it when you see it, and with Rosenthal, his ascension from superb setup man to overwhelming closer last October was a selling point moment. As a rookie, across the regular and postseason, he rang up 126 strikeouts over 86 innings — and is just inheriting the ninth inning for a full season in 2014.
97. Shelby Miller, Cardinals: The talk about his lack of activity in the postseason overshadows the fact that he pitched unlike a man in his first go around the league most of the season. He ran up 15 wins as a rookie utilizing mostly just a fastball (albeit a really good one), and his 3.06 ERA was the 10th best total in the league. Not too bad for a 22-year-old.
96. Francisco Liriano, Pirates: He reinvented himself in the Pittsburgh staff last season and became one of the most efficient workers in the league. Gone are the days of the high-90s fastball of his Minnesota era. Now he works off the plate and changes speeds as good as anybody, using his sharp slider as his primary weapon. Staying healthy has been his struggle, but if he repeats that run, the Bucs will be in great shape again.
95. Matt Wieters, Orioles: Year-to-year consistency at the plate continues to elude Wieters, although he did top 20 home runs for the third straight year. However, defense is his calling card, and he does it better than any other AL backstop. The two-time Gold Glove winner has thrown out 37, 39 and 35 percent of all runners against him the last three years, while catching over 130 games each season.
94. Martin Prado, Diamondbacks: In the end, he may have ended up making out the best of the big Braves/D’Backs deal that Justin Upton headlined coming into last year. The uber-versatile Prado did everything the Snakes could have called on him for, playing 113 games at third base, 32 at second base and another 30 in left field — all the while running up 36 doubles and driving in a career-best 82 runs.
93. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers: A number of things had to fall in the Dodgers’ favor a year ago to turn around a season that found them at the bottom of the NL West in early May, and giving final frame to Jansen was a major part of it. He turned in a potent season, with 28 saves accompanying a miniscule 1.88 ERA over 75 games.
92. Yoenis Cespedes, Athletics: Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the entire story, because Yoenis Cespedes is better than any of the ones he put up a year ago. He has the full buffet of baseball tools, and watching it come in flashes is both exciting (such as his Home Run Derby hijack job) and frustrating (his .240 2013 average). But he is easily the most talented Athletic, and a breakthrough in Oakland likely rests on him just pulling it all together at once.
91. CC Sabathia, Yankees: The venerable warhorse had a valley in his ridiculously consistent career last season, seeing his ERA spike and his wins drop. However, he has come to camp in the not-so-cliché “best shape of his life,” and if he can keep his stuff consistent with his new frame, he will be a major part of whether the most recent Yankee overhaul breeds results that run deep into October.
90. Greg Holland, Royals: Win in eight against the Royals or it may be time to look ahead to the next day. Holland made the most of his first full year as closer, making good on 47 of 50 save chances, while limiting batters to a .170 average against. Add in the 194 strikeouts he’s notched over 2012-13, and it is clear he’s not headed towards being an elite late-inning option — he’s already there.
89. Victor Martinez, Tigers: Martinez returned in fine form in 2013, hitting .301 while providing an extra layer of insulation behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. With the second half of that duo moved out of the D, he’ll be charged with being the exclusive protector of the game’s best hitter — and could see some time back in the field as well.
88. Eric Hosmer, Royals: He proved the sophomore slump to be just that, putting his worrisome 2012 far behind him last summer. He topped .300 for the first time in his career, while setting career highs in five other offensive categories, before topping it all off with his first Gold Glove.
87. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers: He went from an under-the-radar trade acquisition in 2012 to a 200+ strikeout-creating, AL-ERA champion a year ago. He quietly finished fourth in the Cy Young race a season ago and surrendered only 9 home runs over 182 innings.
86. Jean Segura, Brewers: Milwaukee made the right choice in dealing off co-ace in Zack Greinke for his services, mainly because they got an answer for the next decade at shortstop in the process. An All-Star in his first year, he is already one of the top offensive shortstops in the game, running up 42 extra-base hits and 44 stolen bases along the way.
85. Albert Pujols, Angels: It is tough to see El Hombre’s stumble from unquestioned best player on Earth to not even just marginally overpaid, but nearly former star. But despite his total loss of a 2013 campaign, he just done too much to completely write off yet and will hit his 500th home run at some point this year (492).
84. Wil Myers, Rays: He delivered on the promise that made him the return for James Shields being shipped off to Kansas City before the season. He helped insert life into a Tampa offense that was mostly in neutral before his June promotion, going on to win AL Rookie of the Year honors in just half a season.
83. Kris Medlen, Braves: He proved that his record-setting 2013 was just a preview for his rise to the head of the Atlanta rotation. He won 15 games with a 3.11 ERA in his first full year as a starter, and after August 2, he did not surrender more than three runs in any start over the final two months of the year, while pitching at least seven innings in seven of those nine starts.
82. Andrelton Simmons, Braves: He’s entering his third season, and he is already the top defender in the game … and by a fair margin. While it still feels a bit early to put him in the Ozzie or Vizquel category, he did post a staggering 5.4 defensive Wins Above Replacement last year. Putting that into real-life terms, he won over five games with his defense alone and had a better than three-game difference over any other MLB shortstop.
81. Jayson Werth, Nationals: His return to health was the catalyst for the Nationals' second-half salvation last year. In his last 65 games, he led the NL in hitting with a .339 average and added 15 home runs and 49 RBI as well — in addition to a preview of coming attractions for a return to 2012 form for the Nats as a whole this summer.
80. Salvador Perez, Royals: While there is no shortage of talent in KC now, none is more important to the club than the 23-year-old catcher. An owner of a .301 career average and now a Gold Glove, in real time he is rounding into not only one of the best catchers in the game, but also one of the most indispensable players overall.
79. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals: He had his breakthrough season last year, tying for the NL lead in wins with 19 and shutouts at two. His 3.25 ERA marked the third straight summer of him making it to the mound 25 times while yielding fewer than 3.30 runs an outing. He’s a legit top option in all of the game now — and one of three such options in the Nats rotation.
78. Mike Napoli, Red Sox: The Beard made it back to October and showed out yet again. He's coming off a career-best season, with personal highs in RBI, hits, doubles and runs scored. Even more impressively, he was a major X-factor yet again in the postseason, hitting two decisive home runs in the ALCS and, perhaps most importantly, made sure David Ortiz could not be avoided.
77. Allen Craig, Cardinals: Craig will return to the outfield this season, but what really matters the most for St. Louis is that he returns with the same timely stroke he carried all through last year. With runners in scoring position, he went to another level, turning in an insane .454 average for the year, the third best single-season total all time.
76. Jon Lester, Red Sox: It was a resurrection year off sorts for Lester, who returned to his form of championship years past to bring another one to Boston. He capped a 15-win summer with a 4-1 fall, including two World Series wins where he surrendered a single run over 15 innings.
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