As the countdown of the top 100 players in baseball for 2015 turns the corner into its top 50 today, the margin of difference between its ranks gets tighter. Yet while the heat is picking up on the players' positions here, it becomes more and more evident of the team’s that are hosting the most talent among their ranks.
While baseball is far from a sport where one man makes a championship-level difference, a collection of such players in many cases truly can. Nine either current or former Giants or Royals players that made the top 100 played in the World Series last season, another 10 reached the league championship series from the Cardinals and Orioles. 19% of the population of the list made the MLB’s final four last season, while over half (51 out of 100) at least made the postseason.
What does all of this mean? It means that there truly is strength in numbers in the MLB and that spreading around the top talent is a far more promising proposition than making a huge investment in only one or two players. But does this mean that the teams that collect the most members of this list are in the best position to make a run for October this year? Not exactly.
While there is a clear correlation between stockpiling talent and making a run to October, it is not a guarantee of even a World Series appearance. Last year, the Detroit Tigers were the most populous team on this list with eight players showing up and added a 10th during the course of the season in acquiring David Price. However, it was all for naught as they fell in American League Division Series in short order.
So what does that say for this year’s most represented clubs, the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals, who tie at seven members of their Opening Day rosters represented among the top 100 players in the game? It says roughly the same thing it did for the Tigers last year: Nothing is guaranteed in a game where details rule.
And the same message should be heeded this year by the Toronto Blue Jays, who will place six players on this countdown, as well as the Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals and those same Tigers, who all place five players each on the countdown as well. It’s truly anybody’s game yet again this summer.
With that, let us start this year’s top 50 with a player that has defined the line between superstar value and championship-level difference maker.
50. Hunter Pence, Giants: It’s unfortunate that his value is going to have to be made most clear by the fact that he will miss a game for the first time in over two years to start the season due to a broken forearm. But make no mistakes about it, Pence is one of the most varied and indispensable talents in the game. At the plate he contributes a bit everywhere and is coming fresh off a season where he totaled 59 extra-base hits, finished second in runs scored, third in hits and ran up a .444 World Series batting average as well.
49. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs: The Cubbies' 25-year-old current cornerstone brought his substantial potential to life last season, finishing second in the National League in home runs with 32 and top five in doubles with 40. He also made his All-Star debut in the process and proved that he was well worth the value of players he had been swapped for in route to landing in Chicago, which includes Adrian Gonzalez and Andrew Cashner.
48. Freddie Freeman, Braves: His 2014 was considered a down year by his standards, but considering it included top 10 finishes in total bases, on-base percentage, hits, runs scored and 43 doubles (second most in the NL) perhaps that should be taken with a grain of salt. He will far and away be the axis of the rebuilt Braves lineup going forward, but they are in good hands with him in that driver’s seat.
47. Bryce Harper, Nationals: Considering he is a former Rookie of the Year winner who is entering his fourth season, it seems out of place to still discuss the potential of Harper. However, he is still only 22 years old and shows one of the game’s most tantalizing skill sets that is still bringing itself together. His importance to the Nats cannot be underscored enough, and factoring in the health issues facing his outfield mates Jayson Werth and Denard Span entering the season, it is safe to say that as Harper goes, so go the Nationals.
46. Justin Upton, Padres: He has averaged 23 home runs a season in his career and added a second Silver Slugger to his trophy case last year while only being 27 years old. And while he will be tasked with conquering the spacious confines of Petco Park this year, it should not be too difficult of an adjustment for his prodigious pop – his bat plays in any park.
45. Ian Kinsler, Tigers: 2014 was a revitalizing season for Kinsler, who played as if his fuse had been relit by being dealt away by the Rangers to Detroit. His revenge season saw him drive in a career-best 92 RBI atop the Tiger attack and reaffirm his place as one of the most dangerous all-around infielders in the game.
44. Evan Longoria, Rays: In all honestly, he’s been sliding some steadily in the last few years from the scorching-hot start he got off to in his career. But the sun is still high over the Rays' all-time leader in home runs and RBI as he enters his age 29 campaign. He drove in 91 runs while making it to the field for all 162 games last year. It is far from a reach to expect him to recapture his elite form.
43. Yu Darvish, Rangers: He will miss this year with Tommy John surgery, which is an unfortunate and likely damning result for the Rangers’ effort to return to prominence in the AL West. He is one of the game’s most dominant strikeout pitchers, running up 680 K’s in 545 career innings. Darvish is simply not the type of player who can be replaced in a rotation.
42. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: He is such a brilliant defender that even the type of reduction in offensive punch that he had last year can curve his value. A consummate leader and gamer, he won his third Gold Glove in four years in 2014 while also topping 300 doubles and 100 home runs for his career.
41. Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers: The unsung motor to the Dodgers’ success, Gonzo led the National League in RBI a year ago, which marked the seventh time in eight years that he reached triple digits in RBI. Add in the fourth Gold Glove he landed as well, and Gonzalez remains one of the quietly most overall valuable players in the game.
40. Michael Brantley, Indians: Cleveland’s left fielder broke out in a major way, finishing in the top three in the AL MVP race by the time it was all said and done. Brantley finished in the American League’s top five in batting average, on-base percentage, hits, doubles and extra-base hits. This all added up to the second best WAR stat in the AL (7.2) and to him becoming the most important player in the Indians’ revived push to reign above the AL Central.
39. Aroldis Chapman, Reds: He is the most intimidating pitcher in the game today. He threw over 400 pitches a year ago that topped 100 mph, which is underscored by the fact that he struck out over 50% of the batters he faced as well. When watching him unleash his wrath on opponents, it seems sort of unbelievable that they could even hit for the .142 average they have against Chapman since 2012.
38. Greg Holland, Royals: His past two seasons have been virtually carbon copies of dominance: 47 and 46 saves, 61 and 60 games finished and a .170 average against in each campaign. He has become the best closer in the American League and the end of the line at the back of baseball’s best bullpen.
37. Corey Kluber, Indians: He blew up on the scene a year ago, riding his overwhelming mix of a power fastball and precision control with his breaking ball to a surprising rise that ended with him becoming one of the most out-of-the-blue Cy Young winners in years. Kluber finished tied for most wins in the league, while finishing in the top three in strikeouts (269) and ERA (2.44) as well, in the process leading the AL’s top second-half rotation.
36. Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers: He was so good a year ago that he began to forge his way into the conversation for top catcher in the game. A master at pitch framing behind the plate, Lucroy raised his already solid offensive game to a new level, leading the Majors with 53 doubles and hitting .301 as well. Lucroy is turning himself into one of the most valuable presences in the game.
35. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals: For Zimmermann, the corner has been successfully turned from steady, top-end-of-the-rotation hand to elite hurler in all of the game. In the past two seasons, he has won 33 games on a 2.96 ERA, while not missing a start in three years. Along the way, he has made two All-Star Games, issued a no-hitter and finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting twice.
34. David Ortiz, Red Sox: While everything else seemed to go to hell in the Red Sox’s title defense season, it was Big Papi who turned in yet another of his increasingly timeless performances. Entering his age 39 season, Ortiz is 34 home runs away from 500 and crossed over 2,000 hits last summer. He has become the all-time standard at designated hitter and shows no signs of slowing down.
33. Jon Lester, Cubs: Coming off a career-year split between Boston and Oakland, where his 16 wins and 2.46 ERA both were the fourth best totals in the AL, Lester spent his winter as one of the most coveted free agents on the market. In the end, the 31-year-old decided to cross over to the Cubs, where his $155 million deal sent a loud and clear sign that the Cubs are ready to get back into the race immediately.
32. Alex Gordon, Royals: He is the rare player who makes a massive defensive impact from left field. Gordon has taken home four consecutive Gold Gloves, while making for an incredible 62 outfield assists and leading the AL in left field putouts over that time span as well. And let’s be clear on one thing, once and for all: There was no way he would have scored in Game 7, okay?
31. Jose Altuve, Astros: Checking in at around 5’6 on a tall day, Altuve’s impact is that of man of a much larger frame. Both his 225 hits and .341 batting average led the Majors, while his 56 stolen bases were the best in the AL. All set new Astros records, and he set in place that he is the building block that Houston will set its comeback effort around.
30. Cole Hamels, Phillies: He has won as many games in the past two years as he won in all of 2012 alone, but a smallish victory total should not tell the story of how good Hamels has actually been. He finished 6th in the NL Cy Young vote and had the second-best pitcher’s WAR impact last year despite posting a 9-9 record, due to the fact his ERA, strikeout and hits against totals all were top 10 in the NL.
29. Victor Martinez, Tigers: He was the best hitter in a lineup that featured Miguel Cabrera last year, which is saying a lot. V-Mart’s 2014 was good enough to turn him into an MVP runner-up despite playing only 37 games in the field. But when one turns in a league-best .409 on-base percentage, drives in 103 runs and has 65 extra base hits, it’s deserved.
28. Johnny Cueto, Reds: Another in an increasingly long line of pitchers whose fantastic seasons are lost in the shadow of even greater ones by Clayton Kershaw, Cueto was overwhelmingly brilliant in leading the Reds rotation a year ago. With his health on his side, he led the NL in strikeouts (242), innings pitched (243), batters faced (961) and lowest average against (.194), while winning 20 games for the first time as well.
27. Zack Greinke, Dodgers: In a crowded group of elite starters set to be available after this year, Greinke stands toe-to-toe with any of them. He is entering a potential walk year amid his six-year, $147 million deal he signed with an early out clause before 2013. Since heading to LA then, he has won 32 games over two years, while winning 72% of his starts. He also set an MLB record with a 21-game streak of two or fewer earned runs allowed as well and has easily earned every bit of what he has landed — and is to come.
26. Joey Votto, Reds: A knee injury interrupted his run of headlining performances last year and slowed his start to this spring, but the former MVP is still to be respected among the best and most disciplined hitters in the game. His .417 career on-base percentage is the top active mark in the game, and his .310 career batting average checks in at the fifth best active mark as well. A Comeback Player of the Year honor could be joining his personal honor by this time next year.
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