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Who is the Best Player in Baseball?

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about the person who should be anointed with the term “Best Player in Baseball.” As long as I can remember following baseball, there have been just three BPiBs. The first I remember was Ken Griffey, Jr. When he came into his own in the early 90s, there was seemingly nothing he couldn’t do and it was incredible to watch. He played amazing defense, he could throw, he hit, hit for prodigious power and he wore that backwards hat and looked like he was always having the time of his life. Griffey was replaced by his teammate, Alex Rodriguez, which seems a little bit like Brutus stabbing Caesar, but I don’t think it was anything quite so underhanded. For years, A-Rod was the best player in baseball. He played a premium defensive position and played it well. He stole bases. He hit homers. Then something like five years ago or so, the torch was passed to Albert Pujols, who is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. He’s a few notches down on the defensive spectrum from Griffey and A-Rod, but he plays first base as well as just about anyone and did I mention that he can hit?

So now, as Pujols is getting older, we’re frantically searching for a new Best Player in Baseball, but it’s something that is not so easy to find. These players have to jump out at you. You have to be watching a baseball game and all of a sudden see someone do something that normal people just cannot do. Over the first couple weeks of the season, what some feel is a worthy successor has emerged. He plays an outstanding shortstop, he hits homers, he hits for average and he even will occasionally steal a base. I’m talking, of course, about Troy Tulowitzki. The other thing he does is that he has a flare for the dramatic. Maybe not so much in the moment, but anybody who hits 14 homers in 15 September games when his team needs to be carried has a flare for the dramatic.

In a series against the Mets, Tulowitzki did the equivalent of slapping each of the Mets players in the face in front of the prettiest girl in the room. He made them look absolutely silly, going 10-16 with four homers, eight RBI, five runs and four walks. The man hit .625 for the series over 20 plate appearances! Yes, that’s a very small sample, but it’s still incredibly impressive. He hasn’t homered in his last six games, but his season line currently stands at .343/.451/.761. Again, it’s early, but that is still outstanding. He is as important a cog as anyone on one of the very best teams in baseball, and there’s serious value in that.

My question, though, is this: Is he truly the best player in baseball? Has he done enough to wrestle the title away from Albert Pujols? I think you have to look at it through more than the lens of this year and last September. While we may eventually look at these last two baseball months as the time when Tulowitzki began to take the title away from Pujols, I don’t think he’s done it just yet. Before anyone gets all excited, I’m well aware that he has two consecutive fifth place finishes in the MVP balloting, but he’s a mere two years removed from a very rough season. The Best Player in Baseball doesn’t have a track record as limited as Tulowitzki does at this point. That isn’t to take anything away from how amazing a player he is. It’s just not quite at the level of the BPiB.

For someone to be the very best player in all the land, I think they have to get on base at a .400 clip or better. I’d be willing to make an exception for someone like Tulowitzki because he’s been pretty close the last two years and plays an absolutely fantastic shortstop. The hits he takes away has to be worth the extra 20 points or so in OBP that he is missing. Still, though, he has to do it for more than just a couple of years in order for me to be a true believer that he is worthy of such a big title. You might be thinking that a .400 OBP is a really difficult feat to achieve, and you’d be absolutely right. In my mind, though, the Best Player in Baseball should be able to achieve more than most, if not all players.

I think that my argument might be a bit of a waste of time simply because at some point, I believe that Troy Tulowitzki will take over the helm as the best in the business. Of course, a lot can happen between now and that time. There are players all around baseball who have so much talent that they don’t have any idea what to do with it. The first name that popped in my head as someone who has been pretty good but could make a huge leap is Justin Upton. Essentially, anyone who is young and athletic (and quite good) has a chance to make the leap from good player to great player to the best. Obviously, one or two at most may emerge as contenders for the title, but there is the possibility that it happens.

So, after almost 900 words, I bring you the players who I think have an opportunity to be the Best Player In Baseball starting in about 2013:

Troy Tulowitzki: I’ve talked about it him more than enough throughout this entire post, and I think he’s the front runner to eventually take over the title. Detractors will cite Coors Field as a reason why he should not be labeled as the best, but he plays where his team plays and it’s not his fault that it’s a mile above sea level.

Buster Posey: It’s difficult for a catcher to be at the top of a list like this only because of the sheer fact that catchers play less games than other position players do. In the National League, too, Posey can’t take a half day off as a designated hitter. Still, though, if any one catcher is going to be able to take the mantle of BPIB, it’d be Buster Posey. He hits for average, power and gets on base in addition to being a good defensive catcher who keeps getting better.

Jason Heyward: Reading the stories about the sound of the ball hitting Heyward’s bat give me chills and I’ve never even heard it up close. They say it sounds like it did when legends hit the ball. The biggest thing between Heyward and the title is injuries. He was out for awhile last season and has already had some back trouble this spring, so there’s a chance that he may end up as a guy who is great when he’s in the lineup, but you can’t count on for more than 130 games per year. That’d be an unfair label to put on him at this point, but he unfortunately has to prove it wrong before people stop mentioning it. Heyward, like Posey, can hit for average, power and get on base, but he’s probably a little better than Posey at all three of those facets. He’s a right fielder, though, which takes some points away from him compared to a catcher.

Mike Trout: Trout is on this list for a couple of reasons. One, sometimes the best players in baseball sneak up on you as they actually become the best. Two, you’ve got to start young to stake claim to the title. His place on this list depends a lot on how aggressive the Angels are with Trout this season. Peter Bourjos is doing nothing more than keeping center field warm for Trout, so whenever this young man is ready he’ll be patrolling center for the Halos. Trout is a rare combination of size, speed, power, hitting ability and intangibles that you pretty much just see in the great ones. Sure, there’s an opportunity for a huge bust here, but if I had to bet, I’d say that Trout is going to become a superstar. He’s certainly an unlikely candidate for this role in the majors, but four years ago did anyone think that we’d  even be talking about Troy Tulowitzki as the best in the game?

Eric Hosmer: He’s on this list partially because this is ultimately a Royals blog and I have to play the homer role a little bit here, and partially because I think he has the tools to ultimately become an absolute superstar. Like Pujols, he only plays first base, but, also like Pujols, he does it extremely well, so defensively he should be up to the challenge. Offensively, Hosmer has a chance to be an absolute beast at the plate. I think it will take a little bit of wishful thinking to bring his offense to the levels of Pujols, but the potential is there within him to do just that. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Hosmer had multiple seasons of .300/.420/.550 and that line will be enough to at least vault him into the conversation. His odds are probably lower than anyone’s of being of the list, but he certainly has the talent.

Bryce Harper: I don’t know that I buy the hype to the extent that it’s been shoved down our throats for the better part of two years, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include Harper on this list. He has the pedigree of a Griffey or an A-Rod who started in the big leagues at such a young age. If he can truly do the things with the bat that people claim he can, and if he can play a competent center field, then he has an opportunity to be one of the best to ever patrol the field. That’s very high praise for someone who has played about 15 professional games, but this list is all about possibilities. The odds are that he won’t reach the lofty expectations set for him, but if he does, we could all witnessing something special.

Justin Upton: I think Upton is the least likely of all these players to take his place among the pantheon of players crowned as the best in the game, but I also think he has every ounce of ability necessary to be there. He’s still young and is improving in every facet of the game. If Justin Upton goes onto a 500 homer, 500 double, .300/.400/.540 career, I’m not sure anyone would be shocked. He has all the tools to be an amazing player, and just needs to put it together completely. If ever does, look out baseball world.

What I’ve learned from compiling this list is that the National League West has a chance to be incredible over the next four to six years. What I’ve learned even more is that there’s so much that goes into being the best baseball has to offer that very few people make the grade of possibilities. Three of the guys on the list have never seen a pitch in the Major Leagues, so they’re on this list more for what we think they might become rather than what they already are. It’s very easy to project greatness on a prospect. I believe that John Sickels predicted over 500 career home runs for one Alex Gordon. That hasn’t quite worked out as planned.

There were players I left off this list for various reasons. A guy like Joe Mauer is amazing, but who knows where he plays in two years? Miguel Cabrera is quite possibly the best hitter in baseball, but he plays a mediocre at best first base and he’s dealt with weight issues in the past, so he could balloon at any time. Someone like Robinson Cano is fantastic and has really improved his defense, but it’s tough to hand off the torch to someone who is already 28 years old. He’s got a lot of great baseball left in him, but his decline will come when some of the above players will just be hitting their stride. There were many others I thought of but discounted for whatever reason. My guess is that, of the players above, Troy Tulowitzki absolutely steals the show and takes the crown. He hasn’t yet, but with his combination of defense, hitting and flare for the dramatic he’s as good a bet as any to hold down the fort for a few years before the next young gun comes up and tries to take his crown.

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  1. wizscape
    April 22, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I would have to say Tulowitzki will be the guy, but in the meantime there’s Joey Votto. He’s had an OPS+ of 125 or better every year he’s been in the big leagues only no one noticed until last year.

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