#50 to #46
#45 to #41
#40 to #36
As we get towards the middle of the pack, we start to find players who have been among baseball’s best performers in 2013. While the last section was littered with potential, this section is more about realized potential, at least in 2013. These guys are highly talented players having terrific seasons, and as usual, their contract status is also adding value.
#35 Jose Bautista (3B/OF)
Under Team Control Through 2016: $14 million, $14 million, $14 million option
$14 million for a player of Bautista’s quality is a serious bargain. That said, his isolated slugging percentages for the past four years: .357, .306, .286, .239. Now 32, it’s probably unrealistic to expect Bautista to resume dominating the sport like he did a couple of years ago. He’s still a tremendous hitter, one of the best right-handed sluggers in the game, but he doesn’t appear to be other worldly anymore.
So, Bautista would be a short term value play for contenders looking to put themselves over the top. I’m not sure sure it’s a given that his 2016 option gets picked up, depending on how he ages over the next couple of years, so it’s probably best to look at this as 2/28 with the possibility of being 3/42. You’re getting elite performance for a few years at a significant discount, but there’s not a lot of long term value.
Still, if the Blue Jays did decide to blow things up and put Bautista on the block, the bidding war would get intense. He still projects as a +4 to +5 WAR player, and even mid market teams could afford his salary, giving them a shot at a legitimate star in order to make a deep playoff run. Toronto seems likely to hang onto him, but he’d be a fascinating trade chip if they did decide to get a little younger.
#34 Ian Desmond (SS)
Under Team Control Through 2015: Arbitration
Since the start of last season, Desmond has racked up +8.4 WAR, nearly three wins better than the next best shortstop; only Robinson Cano and Mike Trout have larger leads over their closest competition during that span. His error problem has basically disappeared, allowing him to solidify himself as a true shortstop, and he’s settled in as a 125 wRC+ hitter thanks to his power. His approach at the plate could use some work, but really, that’s nitpicking at a position where there aren’t any perfect players.
The downside here is the contract status, and Desmond is headed for his second round of arbitration and will be a free agent after the next two years are up. Given his recent success and the lack of quality shortstops, he’s in line for a significant payday. But, he’s just 27 now, so anyone acquiring him might still have time to get him signed to a long term deal that keeps him away from his mid-30s, and his spotty performance earlier might prove to keep his price reasonable. Still, without that kind of long term control, it’s difficult to place him any higher than this.
But during the next two years and change that the Nationals hold his rights, Desmond seems likely to be one of baseball’s most valuable pieces. A durable shortstop who can hit, and whose salaries are held down by the arbitration process, is a big time building block.
#33 Carlos Gomez (OF)
Under Team Control Through 2016: $7 million, $8 million, $9 million
And the best decision of the year goes to Doug Melvin, for deciding to buy Gomez’s first three free agent seasons for a grand total of $24 million. Had the Brewers let him hit free agency after this kind of age-27 breakout, he’d have been looking for a $100 million deal and maybe more. Instead, they now control one of the game’s more dynamic center fielders for the price of a decent platoon player.
It should be noted that Gomez almost certainly won’t keep up his current level of production. His .354 BABIP is 51 points higher than his own career average prior to 2013, and while he’s an excellent defensive outfielder, he’s not going to keep running a UZR that grades him out as +20 runs better than the average center fielder. Regression is coming.
But even a regressed version of Carlos Gomez is still pretty terrific. ZIPS and Steamer project him as a roughly a +4 WAR player going forward, and he’s entering the years that often result in peak performance. Like Desmond, he doesn’t draw walks but does everything else well, resulting in a fantastic player even if he gets there in an unconventional manner. Toss in a contract extension that looks like one of Scott Boras’ rare misses, and Gomez is a terrific asset for the Brewers.
#32 Shelby Miller (P)
Under Team Control Through 2018: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
A year ago, Shelby Miller was battling a long ball problem in Triple-A, but what he’s done in the big leagues since then has put to rest any questions about his status as one of the game’s best young pitchers. He’s only got 118 innings under his belt as a Major Leaguer, but there’s nothing to quibble with: he throws hard, has a knockout curveball, pounds the strike zone, and misses bats in the process. If you want to pick nits, you could complain about his lack of a third pitch, except his curveball works just fine as an out-pitch against both RHBs and LHBs, so there’s no large platoon split to worry about.
That he’s this low essentially reflects the risks associated with pitchers in general, and some lingering question about whether he’d be able to succeed at the same level without Yadier Molina. While no one that I’ve talked to has come right out and said that they devalue pitchers after they leave St. Louis, I have had several friends in the game mention that they think a lot of the STL pitchers benefit tremendously from Molina’s work. If a team really believes that Molina is a driving force behind that pitching staff’s success, they might be somewhat less willing to pay a premium to experiment with how well that pitcher would do throwing to another catcher.
But, of course, Miller was a very good prospect coming up through the minors, and Molina wasn’t him catching him then. I doubt he’d fall apart simply because he changed teams, and there would certainly be a line of teams that would love to see him prove this theory wrong on their squads. But, if you’re wondering why a 22-year-old who is dominating Major League hitters and comes with five more years of team control is this low, that’s basically the reason. Pitchers break, the track record is short, and the Molina factor might hurt his trade value a little bit.
Thankfully, though, he probably doesn’t have to worry about what he’d do throwing to someone else, because I don’t see any scenario where the Cardinals give him up.
#31 Starling Marte (OF)
Under Team Control Through 2018: Pre-Arb, Arbitration
It’s not entirely fair to call Marte a young Carlos Gomez, but beyond Gomez’s six additional home runs, their 2013 lines look much the same. Marte opened a lot of eyes with his fantastic early season play, and give his combination of athleticism and broad base of skills, he can regress and still be a terrific player.
As with Gomez, there are concerns about his approach at the plate, and whether pitchers will start exploiting his swing-at-everything plan. Like with Gomez, a lot of his 2013 value is tied up in defensive metrics and a probably unsustainable high BABIP. I don’t want to belabor the comparison, but they are very similar types of players having the same type of season. Only with Marte, you get two additional years of team control, both at near minimum salaries.
In some ways, I think I’m underselling his value by placing him here, but on the other hand, teams have shown that they’re not as willing to pay for speed-and-defense in the corners. Marte could certainly handle a move to center field, but his defensive value isn’t going to be as appreciated while he’s playing next to Andrew McCutchen, and the things he does well aren’t quite as sexy as launching balls into the upper deck. Like many young players with this set of skills, Marte’s actual value is likely higher than his trade value.
But there are enough teams out there who would love to make Marte their center fielder that Pittsburgh would have no shortage of suitors if they decided to make him available. Which they won’t, because he’s one of the primary reasons the Pirates are finally good.