It is the midway point in of the top 100 baseball players for 2014 countdown, and now the climb toward the top moves into the top 50. Quite honestly, this is where it gets difficult. The balance between potential, a “good year” and standard bearers begins to get hazy, as the ever-evolving group of players just outside of the “face of the game” level sorts itself out.
But where does competition come into the mix regarding a player’s stock? In determining this list, team success is far from a nonfactor because the difference between a really good player and a great player is the impact of what he does. Granted, there are exceptions of amazing players in bad situations, but for the most part, the majority of the top guys play competitive seasons.
Forty-eight of the 100 players on this year’s list made the postseason, up two from last year’s list. This part of the list begins the bridge of players from visiting the postseason to coming out on top of it. There are a combined eight World Series rings and a Series MVP to boot. Shine that up with three former batting champs, a Cy Young winner and the two previous National League Rookies of the Year, and the business is picking up here in the countdown.
50. Madison Bumgarner, Giants: He is only 24 years old, but with his next win he will already be at 50 for his career. Add in the two World Series rings (he is 2-0, with a 0.00 career Series ERA in 15 innings) and an All-Star appearance, and he’s off to a pretty remarkable, yet under-the-radar, start to his career. He has topped 190 strikeouts each of the last three years, and his 2.77 ERA was fifth-best in the NL a year ago.
49. Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners: Armed with a deceptive motion and straightforward, knee-bending splitter, Iwakuma actually was the best arm in a Seattle rotation that features King Felix a year ago. In 345 career MLB innings, he has a 2.84 ERA over 63 games, and his 14-6 record, combined with a 2.88 ERA over 33 starts last year, saw him finish third in the American League Cy Young race.
48. Matt Carpenter, Cardinals: The course of the St. Louis season changed when "Marp" was moved to the top of the Cardinal lineup in mid-May. He went on a tear from that point on, leading the National League in hits (199), runs scored (126) and the topping the Majors in doubles with 55 — all while playing at second base for the first time in his entire life (he will move back to his natural third base this season).
47. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: There is a reason why so many teams are checking in on Stanton with the always willing to deal Fish but are turned back nearly immediately. He is a power prodigy at the plate; his 162-game average is 39 home runs per year, and if he can make it on the field more often (he’s only played more than 123 games once), we could be in store for something special.
46. Alex Gordon, Royals: He traded in a few doubles and some average last year for a bit more power, but it is with the glove that Gordo makes his meal. There is not a better defensive left fielder in the game. He cuts down runners on the bases in a way that is rare from his side of the field. His 34 outfield assists over the past two years are tops at the position, and led to Gordon taking home his second consecutive Gold Glove last summer.
45. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: It seems like it may be taking longer for the “Strasberg Era” to take off than anticipated, and that the Nats may still be using some kid gloves with him, but he still has a rare skill set that is improving. Batters hit only .207 against him over a career-high 183 innings, while he struck out more than 190 for the second straight year, and in the course dropped his ERA down to 3.00
44. Jose Reyes, Blue Jays: He never got going in his first year in the AL, with a nasty ankle injury limiting to him 93 on-and-off games. But at his best, he is still the most uniquely dynamic speed threat in the game. The 2011 batting champ stole 79 bases from 2011-12, and he remains the key to the Jays finding the revolution they were looking for a year ago.
43. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: Wrist injuries curved down his home run totals the past two years, but so far this spring, he looks like he's back to being the destroyer that won two long ball titles in 2010-11 with mammoth seasons of 54 and 43 homers, respectively. Regardless, there has not been an All-Star Game in the last four years that he hasn’t been a part of.
42. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers: The game’s most debated and uniquely talented enigma reached LA in June and nearly broke Joe DiMaggio’s rookie debut month record for hits with 44. For the rest of the season, he continued to fuel the Dodgers along the way, who were nine and a half games back when he was promoted — and finished as NL West champs with an 11-game separation. It is no coincidence.
41. Aroldis Chapman, Reds: At his best, he may be the most unhittable hurler in the game. Chapman struck out nearly 50 more batters than innings pitched a year ago, marking the second year he finished with a 40+ difference between the two factors. And the Reds finally seem poised to leave alone the idea of him starting games … and leave him to the business of turning nine-inning games into eight-inning affairs any day of the week.
40. Jay Bruce, Reds: He is one of the most slept on overall talents in the game and possesses both elite power and one of the top glove/arm combos in the game. In his six seasons, he’s never had a year stop short of 20 home runs, and over the past three he’s averaged 32 homers and 102 RBI a year. And at this point, NL base runners know that the extra base is not an option when the ball finds him.
39. Zack Greinke, Dodgers: His year started off with a broken collarbone from an awkward on-mound brawl but finished with him owning the best winning percentage in the National League. He is the second half of the best 1-2 pitching combo in the game, and considering he’s a former Cy Young winner who has won at least 15 games four of the last five years, there are days where he is still the better half.
38. Bryce Harper, Nationals: The prodigy dealt with a mix of injuries last year but continued to be one of the bigger difference makers in the game. He’s hit 42 home runs already and couldn’t enter a bar until last October. He’s a two-time All-Star at the ages of 19 and 20 and is already the most important player in D.C.
37. Jose Fernandez, Marlins: The 20-year-old made a debut impact along the lines of Doc Gooden and Kerry Wood, and made the Fish legit every fifth day. After a single minor league year (that he went 14-1 in), he made precociously easy work of the Majors, surrendering the fewest hits per game (5.8) in the NL, while finishing with a 2.18 ERA over 28 starts.
36. Prince Fielder, Rangers: 2013 was a “down year” for Prince, yet he still drove in 100 runs, hit 25 home runs and made the All-Star team. The only way that is possible is when the standards he has set (a career average of 35 homers and 107 RBI a year) are in place. In his new home in Arlington, he could stand to add a few more 40+ long ball seasons to his résumé as well.
35. Carlos Beltran, Yankees: He is returning to New York as a different man than he was when he left three years ago. During his tenure in St. Louis, Beltran reestablished himself as one of the game’s top contributors, with two-year totals of 56 home runs, 181 RBI and 162 runs scored.
34. Adam Jones, Orioles: The do-it-all O’s center fielder has put together a string of remarkably consistent, excellent campaigns. His average year from 2012-13: .286 average, 32 home runs, 95 RBI, 186 hits, 102 runs, 37 doubles and 15 stolen bases. Along the way, he has become a back-to-back All-Star, Gold Glove winner and added a Silver Slugger as well.
33. Matt Holliday, Cardinals: The hammer in the middle the Cardinal lineup rotates around; Holliday has been one of the most consistent hitters in baseball over the past decade. In 2013, he added his seventh year of hitting .300 or better, ninth year of 30 doubles or more, and passed 20 home runs for the eighth straight season.
32. Freddie Freeman, Braves: One of the wisest decisions of the offseason was the Braves’ decision to make Freeman their franchise cornerstone, via the $135 million extension he landed. But if his early career as an elite defender that brings a .300 average and regular extra-base hit machine is any indication of what’s to come, it is a no-brainer to lock up what could be an annual MVP contender.
31. Yu Darvish, Rangers: Nearly any day he goes out to the mound, he brings no-hit stuff with him, as he lost two such dates with pitching immortality after the seventh inning last year. His 277 strikeouts a year ago were the highest season total in 10 years, and he does so via a mix of (at least) six different pitches and a mid-90s fastball as the knockout punch.
30. David Ortiz, Red Sox: Papi remains one of the most respected hitters in the game (as his MLB-best 27 intentional walks proved), and he continued to put a stamp on his growing claim to be considered as the greatest designated hitter of all time. The nine-time All-Star hit .300 for the third consecutive year and took home MVP honors from his third World Series title after hitting .688 (yes, you read that right) in the Fall Classic.
29. Koji Uehara, Red Sox: Quiet as kept, Uehara most likely had the greatest season of relief pitching ever in 2013. He went from the third option as replacement closer to setting an MLB record for least walks/hits surrendered by innings pitched. Over this run, he retired 37 straight batters, which equaled out to 29 consecutive scoreless innings, a .130 average against and a 1.09 ERA on the year.
28. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies: An injury curbed what was to be a surefire career-best season for CarGo last summer. What he did in 110 games looked like a full season, hitting .302 with 26 home runs, 70 RBI and 21 steals. Despite the shortened load, he managed to win his third Gold Glove and second straight All-Star nod.
27. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers: He found his vintage form (and motivation) last year and got back to the business of being one of the most productive players in the game. He finished 8th in the MVP race despite playing only 86 games, as he hit .345 with 20 home runs, 25 doubles and 10 steals.
26. Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees: The game’s top base thief will be charged with getting the Yankees to the position where he left Boston at. For the third time in his career, he led the AL in stolen bases last season, topping 50 swipes for the third time in the process. He added in 48 extra-base hits in the process, for good measure.
I'm a firm believer that the closest I've gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I'll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and 'Live From The Cheap Seats'.