15) Salvador Perez
But wait, you say, how can Perez be ranked ahead of Buster Posey and Yadier Molina? Remember, this is a trade value column, and right off the bat you could eliminate half the teams in baseball from consideration for the other two guys because of their salaries (not to mention Molina's age). Perez is a sterling defensive catcher who's just 23 years old, is making just $1 million this season, and will earn the following over the next six years: $1.5 million, $1.75 million, $2 million, $3.75 million (team option), $5 million (team option), and $6 million (team option). So, assuming all the options are exercised, seven years of Salvador Perez will cost $21 million, or less than Posey will make each year from 2017 through 2021. That is a bargain, and affordable to every team in baseball. You may point out that Perez is not a great hitter and doesn't currently possess the skill set to grow into one (although he does possess the size; 6'3", 245 pounds). Fine, I will concede that point. But first, allow me to do a comparative study of some other catchers who broke into the majors at a particularly young age. First you will see their slash lines and home run totals through their age-23 seasons, followed by their career OPS+ and WAR (both versions) in parentheses:
Player A: 218 games, .301/.331/.451, 27 home runs (112 OPS+, 8.5 rWAR, 7.5 fWAR)
Player B: 294 games, .238/.291/.342, 16 home runs (99 OPS+, 26.8 rWAR, 28.9 fWAR)
Player C: 577 games, .281/.318/.416, 49 home runs (106 OPS+, 68.3 rWAR, 70.7 fWAR)
Player D: 274 games, .297/.382/.419, 11 home runs (95 OPS+, 41.5 rWAR, 40.3 fWAR)
Player E: 302 games, .276/.304/.420, 31 home runs (93 OPS+, 27.3 rWAR, 29.1 fWAR)
Player F: 274 games, .246/.323/.314, 8 home runs (99 OPS+, 25.9 rWAR, 28.5 fWAR)
Player G: 142 games, .216/.331/.355, 12 home runs (122 OPS+, 51.4 rWAR, 48.4 fWAR)
Player H: 378 games, .261/.331/.401, 37 home runs (112 OPS+, 44.7 rWAR, 44.8 fWAR)
Player I: 240 games, .252/.309/.444, 36 home runs (106 OPS+, 39.3 rWAR, 43.4 fWAR)
Player J: 254 games, .269/.319/.365, 12 home runs (98 OPS+, 34.3 rWAR, 31.3 fWAR)
Player K: 423 games, .280/.328/.390, 25 home runs (102 OPS+, 28.4 rWAR, 27.8 fWAR)
Player L: 491 games, .298/.351/.448, 49 home runs (126 OPS+, 57.4 rWAR, 62.3 fWAR)
Player M: 535 games, .296/.349/.424, 39 home runs (118 OPS+, 50.2 rWAR, 54.2 fWAR)
You can say that I cherry-picked a little, because I left out two guys who were incredible hitters at a precocious age AND able to handle being the everyday catcher for their teams; Johnny Bench and Joe Mauer. Who are the gentlemen listed? Player A, obviously, to judge by the low career WAR numbers, is Perez. The rest are, in order: Yadier Molina, Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Kendall, Benito Santiago, Mike Scioscia, Brian Downing, Bill Freehan*, Lance Parrish, B.J. Surhoff, Tim McCarver, Joe Torre, and Ted Simmons. As you can see, Perez at this age rates better than every one of those guys except Kendall, Torre, and Simmons. Kendall's career was derailed by a freak ankle injury when he was 25 years old, and the other two both became borderline Hall of Fame candidates.
*I would like to point out that I included Freehan even without being prompted to by my mother, who grew up a Tigers fan and should probably be president of the Bill Freehan Appreciation Club.
The point is, there is room and time for Perez to continue getting better with the bat. Molina, the worst of this group through age 23, hit .319/.359/.477 this season, and has been a very good hitter for the better part of five years now. All twelve players became established regulars with long careers in which they were at least close to league average hitters while playing the most difficult position on the field (or they hit well enough to move elsewhere, as in the case of Torre, Simmons, and Surhoff). Rodriguez at least should make the Hall of Fame, and Molina may eventually join him. So there's a chance that we will eventually see more of this from Perez in the future, but at the bargain price of a journeyman reliever.
It's been well-documented that even with the newer advanced metrics, catcher defense is very hard to quantify. That said, I think that having an all-around excellent catcher is perhaps the single biggest advantage a baseball team can have, simply because there are so few of them. I still occasionally think about what the Nationals might have had if they had left Bryce Harper behind the plate rather than making him an outfielder. Would he be as good as Molina or Posey? We will never know. This is all to say that the Royals have a catcher that they think is good, with more potential talent, and are hoping that he will eventually turn into Yadier Molina 2.0 while earning the salary of a far more modest personage.
14) Carlos Gomez
Were you aware that Gomez is only 27 years old? He debuted as a 21-year-old in 2007 with the Mets before getting shipped to Minnesota that winter as the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade. After four years of offering superlative defense and speed* but little with the bat, Gomez finally turned a corner starting last year, his third season in Milwaukee after being traded for J.J. Hardy, hitting .260/.305/.463 and more than doubling his career high with 19 bombs. This season he went up to .284/.338/.506 while swatting 24 dingers and stealing 40 bases and only getting caught seven times. Plus, he's still one of the very best outfielders in the game, with excellent range and a great arm. And again, he's only 27. For all of that production (8.4 rWAR this year), what are the Brewers paying him? Would you believe $4.3 million this year, with $24 million more coming over the next three years? That's just straight theft on a level with these guys, especially because at the end of that contract he'll only be 30, meaning that the Brewers are getting a tremendous discount on Gomez's peak years without paying for any of his decline (barring injury). I'd say that qualifies as valuable.
*I am ordinarily adamant about the uselessness of sliding into first base, but in this case he was avoiding a tag, so it's all good.
13) Justin Upton
I love it when I have an excuse to break out one of my favorite memes. It's easy to forget that Upton, playing his sixth full year in the majors (he had a 43-game stint in 2007), just turned 26 a couple months ago. For a little less than $15 million over the next two seasons, you could get a guy with a career slash line of .275/.356/.473, 135 home runs, and excellent defensive ability, with the possibility that he hasn't yet reached his peak performance. I say "you could get" because it is indeed possible. The Diamondbacks traded him this past winter because he wasn't gritty enough or something, because Kirk Gibson once hit a home run off of one leg in the World Series, damn it!
Sorry, got carried away there. Anyway, Upton cooled off considerably after his ludicrous April this year (.298/.402/.734 with 12 home runs), but an equally torrid August (.298/.392/.691 with 8 bombs) showed what he's capable of for long stretches. The younger Upton is an MVP-caliber bat and two-time All-Star who also gives you excellent glove work, has a cheap contract, and has yet to reach his prime. Unless you're the clutchiest of the clutchy former stars in baseball history, there's not a lot there that's hard to get excited about.
12) Chris Davis
One of the toughers guys to evaluate, because you have to wonder how much of this vast uptick in performance over the past year-plus is real, and how much is a mirage.* I'm going to hedge and guess that the answer is somewhere between last year's .270/.326/.501 and this year's outrageous .286/.370/.634 line, and closer to the latter at that. Let's say he's a .285/.355/.600 hitter going forward (eminently possible in Camden Yards for a guy with foul pole-to-foul pole power), especially since he's 27 years old and appears to have finally figured out the boundaries of the strike zone. Wouldn't you buy out his remaining two years of arbitration and two to four years after that with a generous contract? Me too. Of course, the Orioles missed the boat on giving Davis an extension last winter, after it was clear that he had turned the corner but, thanks to doing so in August, had not yet posted incredibly gaudy numbers. If his asking price gets too rich for their blood, however, I don't think that the O's will have trouble finding a taker, and can almost name their price.
*And no, I'm not talking about steroids. This guy has always been huge, with ridiculous power. I don't think he's using, and I don't particularly care for the people who are always hyper-suspicious about it.
11) Jurickson Profar
He's been playing just about every position except his natural one (shortstop) as the Rangers look for a way to get him and Elvis Andrus in the lineup together (and thus has somewhat predictably struggled with the bat this year), but the 20-year-old Profar (the youngest player in the major leagues) is still regarded as one of baseball's best young players. He hit .278/.370/.438 earlier this year in AAA (again, as a 20-year-old) before getting the call, so it should just be a matter of finding some comfortable place whenever the Rangers a) stick him in one place for awhile or b) trade him to a team that needs a good-hitting, good-fielding shortstop (paging the Cardinals). We're sticking Profar down here for now because he has not yet shown the same prowess at this level as similarly-aged players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado (or Jose Fernandez for pitchers), but don't be surprised if he's rocketed six or seven spots up these rankings in a year's time.
10) Miguel Cabrera
Wait, you ask, why is the best hitter on the planet all the way down in the tenth spot? For a couple of reasons. First off, he's currently 30 years old with a body type that doesn't age well (ask Albert Pujols, one of his best player comps). Second, his contract, while a bargain ($22 million for each of the next two seasons) offers less financial flexibility than the remaining guys on this list, all of whom (surprise!!!) are younger to boot. Plus there's the very real possibility that the Mike Ilitch is going to open the vault and overpay for Cabrera's age-33 through, say, age-38 seasons at a rate of $25 million or more a year.
Right now, however, Cabrera is worth every penny. Here are his top ten player comps through age 29, courtesy of Baseball-Reference: Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Mel Ott, Juan Gonzalez, Al Kaline, Andruw Jones, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle. Good Lord. In case you missed it, that's eight Hall-of-Famers and certain future Hall of Famers, plus a great two-way player who has a strong case (Jones). And then there's Gonzalez, who had an awesome first decade and was through as an everyday player by the time he was 32. There's always the worry that Cabrera's career could go that route, even if he looks invincible now. After all, he won his third consecutive batting title, but missed out on a second Triple Crown thanks to Davis. A career .321/.399/.568 hitter (read that slash line again), Cabrera was even better in 2013 (.348/.442/.636) than he was in 2012 (.330/.393/.606). And not just a little better, but noticeably better. He's also a durable player, with a career low of 148 games in a full season (not counting his 87-game rookie season in 2003). Cabrera's dominance should certainly be celebrated, as we haven't seen a hitter this much better than everyone else since a juiced-up Barry Bonds in 2004. He is not, however, the most valuable player in all of baseball because he's utterly one-dimensional, and that's why he's here at number ten.
9) Jason Heyward
The Braves' young outfielder has already been through a lot in his four seasons in the majors. First, there was the awesome rookie season, when he showed precocious plate discipline en route to a .277/.393/.456 line at the ripe age of 20, finishing second for Rookie of the Year to Buster Posey in 2010. Then there was the sophomore slump, a .227/.319/.389 effort that had some wondering if the Braves had rushed him to the majors in the first place. He bounced back last year, started slow this season thanks to an appendectomy (seriously, who gets those anymore?), then caught fire when moved into the leadoff spot by Fredi Gonzalez before taking a fastball in the chin last month and breaking his jaw in two places. Whew. My head is spinning. Here's what we know: Heyward has an advanced knowledge of his particularly large strike zone (he's 6'5", 240) and good power (.443 career slugging percentage), is a very good base runner, and an outstanding right fielder who can cover center if necessary. He has yet to hit for a high average and may never do so, but again, he's only 24 and has lots of time to develop further. Heyward is making $3.65 million this season, and with two more winters of arbitration eligibility looming, he is an excellent candidate for an extension. With or without that extension, however, he's a dynamite talent whom you can build your team around.
8) Yasiel Puig
Speaking of dynamite talents, what to make of this guy? There was no chance on Earth that he could sustain his incredible start to the season, and he didn't; Puig "cooled off" all the way to .319/.391/.534, assisted by a BABIP that's still a blistering .383. There aren't remotely enough embedded video links in the world to show what he's capable of doing. Hell, he's put Vin Scully at a loss for words twice this season, and Scully has been broadcasting Dodgers games since Harry Truman was in the White House and the team was located in Brooklyn. Did I forget to mention that the "Wild Horse" is 22 years old? Oh yeah, I did. He's 22 years old. When I was that age I was playing college rugby and drinking lots of Natty Light, not jump-starting a major league baseball team to a 42-8 stretch. That six-year, $42 million deal that the Dodgers signed him to over the winter is looking like more and more of a bargain. His highest annual salary over the life of the contract? $9.71 million in 2018. Not only has he turned in a supernova performance since getting called up in June, he's affordable for every team in baseball. That is value.
7) Giancarlo Stanton
With 117 home runs (so far) before his 25th birthday, Stanton already ranks in the top thirty all-time before that age. Given that he possesses perhaps the biggest raw power in all of baseball (he's not too shabby with the glove, either) and won't turn 25 until November of next year, there's every reason to believe that he could potentially vault into the top ten (although he has no prayer of catching Eddie Mathews and his 190 bombs). Well, every reason but one. Stanton has dealt with nagging injuries every season, and has played more than 123 games only once in his four seasons, back in 2011. He missed 46 games this year, and the Marlins' lineup went from pathetic to historically bad without him in it. If he could merely stay on the field, Stanton would probably jump two or three spots up this list. Even with the injuries, young Stanton is due a substantial raise this winter, his first of arbitration, and it may behoove the Marlins to look into trading him. Owner Jeffrey Loria is, or course, well-known as a skinflint, and Stanton has expressed plenty of dissatisfaction with the moves the organization has made. Even if some of Miami's younger players (Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich, etc.) provide reason for future hope, odds are that Loria won't want to pay Stanton the $8-$10 million he will surely demand in arbitration, with further increases the next two years. That makes Bigfoot the most likely player on this list to get shipped away. Someone will pony up an armada of prospects to get his bat into the middle of their order (Colorado, perhaps?), but his value will only decrease from here as the Marlins become less and less likely to meet his salary demands.
6) Paul Goldschmidt
No player on this list has gone as quickly from "overlooked" to "major star" as quickly as Goldschmidt. The big first baseman was an eighth-round pick back in 2009 who had a solid (though unspectacular) debut in 2011, batting .250/.333/.474 with eight home runs in 48 games. Fast-forward two years, and Goldschmidt hit .302/.401/.551 with 36 homers, serving as the key cog in Arizona's lineup. Prior to this season, the Diamondbacks wisely inked him to an incredibly team-friendly deal; they will pay him a shade over $32 million between 2014 and 2018, with a team option for $14.5 million the following year. That's an absolute steal for a 25-year-old middle-of-the-order thumper, even if he is positionally limited to first base (where, by the way, he is deft with the leather). Who cares? How many better-hitting first basemen are there in baseball right now? I'll spot you Chris Davis and Joey Votto (although his power output has dropped since his 2012 injury). Anyone else? Didn't think so. Given his yearly improvement and the benefit of playing half his games in Phoenix, Goldschmidt should continue to be one of the best hitters in baseball for several years to come, and at a very affordable price.
5) Wil Myers
If Myers were playing anywhere but Tampa Bay, he would probably be getting close to as much attention as Puig. Just as talented and brash, only with more polish as a player, Myers marinated in the minors for the first two-plus months of the season so that the Rays could delay the start of his arbitration clock by an extra year. After his call-up, he immediately became Tampa's second-best hitter, batting .293/.354/.478 while also playing a good outfield, an added bonus since he only converted from catching a couple years ago. Like Puig, he's 22 years old. Unlike Puig, the Rays can, if they choose, pay him around $500K for the next three seasons before he hits arbitration, or they can wait out one or two of those years before using the $25 million every team will get from MLB's new national television contract to lock him up long-term, a la Evan Longoria. Myers should continue to grow as a player for the next few years, and we may see some MVP-level play from him as soon as 2014.
A member of one of the most ridiculously talented draft classes in baseball history, McCutchen may finally get his national due this year now that the Pirates are playing meaningful September baseball for the first time since I was in fourth grade. He was the eleventh overall pick in 2005; other top-twelve picks included Justin Upton (1st), Alex Gordon (2nd), Ryan Zimmerman (4th), Ryan Braun (5th), Troy Tulowitzki (7th), and Jay Bruce (12th). Only Wade Townsend (8th overall) failed to ever reach the majors. McCutchen is 26 and near the top of his game as an outstanding two-way center fielder. He can hit (.286/.380/.490 career) and with impressive power for a dude who's all of 5'10" and 185, at least 15 of which is in his dreads. He's only rated as a good outfielder for two of his five seasons in black and yellow, but has a number of highlight-reel catches to his name and doesn't appear to be plagued by bad jumps or routes. If there's a quibble with Cutch, it's in his base-stealing; he's 126-for-171 in his career, a 73% mark that's lower than it should be for someone with his wheels and otherwise excellent base-running instincts. But he can be partially forgiven because for three years he was essentially the only offense that the Pirates had, which logically meant taking more risks on the bases.
So, to recap: a center fielder with a good glove, speed, and an excellent bat with a strikingly consistent track record is worth...how much, exactly? Well, McCutchen is currently in year two of a six-year, $51.5 million deal with a $14.75 million option for 2018, when he will be 31 years old. It's one of the best bargains in baseball, and should the Pirates ever implode again and desire to sell him off, they can probably ask for an entire farm system in return.
3) Bryce Harper
You probably knew which three guys were going to be at the very top of this list; the only question was in what order they should fall. Harper hasn't had the mega-breakout that I expected after all the hoopla of his 2012 debut, but he looked to be well on his way before he started running into walls and getting hurt. And that is the primary reason why Harper rates below Mike Trout and Manny Machado; he is, like any headstrong 20-year-old, utterly convinced of his immortality, a belief that cost him 44 games of this season and clearly affected his play after his return from the disabled list shortly before the All-Star break. To be clear, Harper still enjoyed the type of season that 99.99% of all 20-year-olds can only dream of: .274/.368/.506 with 20 home runs and excellent outfield defense. But he does need to learn to dial down the intensity just a notch. It's fine to talk about how his playing style emulates the all-out recklessness of Pete Rose, but you have to remember that Rose earned perhaps $10 million over the entirety of his lengthy career, a figure that Harper should eclipse two or three times before he is old enough to rent a car.* Even after adjusting for inflation, there's a LOT more money riding on Harper, and an expectation that he will be able, especially at his age, to stay on the field and contribute. The Nats probably hope that a winter of healing will lead to more (and more consistent) performances like the outrageous .344/.430/.720 April Harper gave them before slamming into a couple of fences and hurting his legs.
*The contract which the Nationals handed a 17-year-old Harper in 2010 pays him $9.9 million through 2015, so he's already guaranteed more money than Rose ever made as a player.
As I stated above, it's a shame that we'll never know what kind of player Harper might have been as a catcher (Johnny Bench 2.0?), but he has rapidly turned into a stellar outfielder, with good range (again, when healthy) and an arm that base runners should fear to unleash. He does need to improve his base running, as his pedal-to-the-metal approach earns him extra bases but also costs him unnecessary outs. Still, the precedent is that when someone is succeeding in the majors at such a young age, superstardom is the most likely outcome, and Harper should have plenty of opportunities to unleash his incredible potential.
2) Manny Machado
Three months older than Harper, Machado is nonetheless one year further from arbitration because the Orioles didn't call him up until July of last year. His bat is not nearly as advanced as Harper's (half as many walks in 38 extra games this year) despite his league-leading 51 doubles, but Machado provides more value as a stellar defender at third base who would probably be equally good at shortstop (assuming that his late-season injury doesn't prove to have lasting effects). According to UZR, Machado has been the most valuable gloveman in the game behind Andrelton Simmons, and has made lots of nifty plays throughout his brief career. Machado hit .283/.314/.432 this season; even if he only develops into, say, a .300/.340/.480 type (which should be easy enough to do in the Camden Yards bandbox), he will probably still be worth 8-10 WAR per year. He won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2015 season, by the way. When all is said and done, he might end up as the most valuable player from the impressive 2010 draft, which included Harper, Chris Sale, Matt Harvey, Christian Yelich, Yasmani Grandal, and several talents that have not yet cracked the majors.
1) Mike Trout
Surprise! Or rather, not a surprise at all. Here we have, hands down, the best player in baseball, who is just 22 years old and still happens to be another year away from arbitration. Please spare me any lines about Miguel Cabrera's team making the playoffs whilst Trout will presumably spend this October in his parents' Jersey basement, just like in 2012. Trout wasn't the guy doling out $325 million for the past-their-prime duo of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton while trading away prospects like hotcakes and failing to build a pitching staff (that would be Arte Moreno). No one else offers Trout's combination of on-base ability, power, speed, and defense, and you can easily argue that the gap between him and the rest of this list is more like the Mariana Trench. After all the hype regarding his fantastic 2012 season (.326/.399/.564), Trout has gone and gotten better at the plate (.323/.432/.557) while leading the league in runs (again) and walks. He steals bases (86-for-98 career), robs home runs, and does basically everything except gun dudes out on the bases from 300 feet away. He recently passed 20 career WAR (by both B-R and Fangraphs), which ranks him thirteenth all-time in Angels history. Thirteenth! With two more seasons like the last two he's had, he will leap all the way to second place behind Jim Fregosi, who needed eleven years with the Halos to reach 45.9 WAR.
But not only is Trout the best player in baseball by statistical measure, he's at or near the top of the list in entertainment value as well. There's his jailbreak speed, his web gems, the way the ball flies scorching off of his bat...there's just no one like him. And everybody in baseball knows it. So either Moreno will need to put together a nice extension soon (likely the most lucrative in baseball history), or Trout may very well become the first player to get $20 million (take the over) in his first year after arbitration. And I don't think I can say anything else that Rany Jazayerli hasn't said about him on Grantland. Barring injury, Mike Trout should have the highest trade value in baseball for at least the next seven years.