However, I didn’t want this list to be predictive, hence the inclusion of a veteran pitcher, Max Scherzer, who is on pace to win his third Cy Young Award and is just a notch below Clayton Kershaw for the best pitcher in baseball.
I easily cobbled together an initial 20 names. The editing process was more of a challenge, but ultimately, lists such as this are always going to incur people’s wrath. Let me know how wrong I was, and enjoy!
He was in the shadow of Justin Verlander with the Detroit Tigers, but now, with the Washington Nationals, there is little doubt that Scherzer is one of the game’s best pitchers and most fearless. He just became the third-fastest pitcher to 2,000 career strikeouts by innings. Only Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson reached the mark in fewer innings.
When it comes to hardware, Scherzer has plenty. Scherzer, who won the AL Cy Young in 2013, won the NL Cy Young award in 2016 to become the 18th player to win two Cy Young Awards and the sixth to win in both leagues (Roy Halladay, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, Gaylord Perry).
If only Votto weren’t plying his trade for the perennial also-ran Cincinnati Reds, everyone would know what a sensational hitter he is.
Votto’s .316 batting average since 2015 ranks second in the NL in that span behind that of Daniel Murphy. His .998 OPS ranks first.
He’s also a star for a franchise that is long on history with numerous Hall of Fame players. Votto has six career seasons of 4.5 WAR or higher. The only Reds players with more such seasons are Johnny Bench (10), Pete Rose (10), Frank Robinson (nine) and Barry Larkin (eight).
I have a soft spot for the Houston Astros‘ little big man. Small in stature but long in talent and production, Altuve is a stud. Last season, he became the second second baseman in MLB history to hit .330 in a season with 20 home runs and 30 stolen bases (Roberto Alomar in 2001).
He also became the fifth second baseman in MLB history with at least three seasons with 200 hits. The other four are in the Hall of Fame.
The most underrated players in baseball history include names such as Stan Musial and Frank Robinson. The most underrated currently playing has to be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ quiet star. Goldschmidt finished second in NL MVP voting in 2013 and 2015. He’s the first player in franchise history with multiple top-five finishes.
The first baseman already owns the second-most WAR in franchise history (32.1) and the most by a position player. Only Randy Johnson accumulated more WAR with Arizona.
Manny Machado just missed the cut for me, but I can’t ignore this stud third baseman for the surprisingly robust Colorado Rockies this season. Arenado is a force at the hot corner, winning a Gold Glove in all four of his MLB seasons (2017 pending). The only other player to win at least four Gold Gloves to start his career was Ichiro Suzuki, who won in each of his first 10 seasons (2001-10).
While Arenado’s defense is flashy, his bat is also potent. Arenado is the fifth player with multiple 40-home-run, 130-RBI seasons before turning 27. He is 26 and won’t turn 27 until next April.
It’s only a matter of time before Lindor wins an MVP and brings a World Series win to long-suffering Cleveland Indians fans.
He has all the tools: Lindor posted 5.7 WAR last season. That was the second-highest total by an Indians shortstop in an age-22 or younger season. Only Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau had more WAR in such a season (6.0 in 1940).
All the aspects of Lindor’s game are on full display every night. He has 11.8 career WAR and is currently playing his third major league season. That’s the fourth-most WAR in a player’s first three career seasons — and the top mark is within his reach. Lindor trails only Kenny Lofton (14.2), Earl Averill (14.3) and Grady Sizemore (14.3).
4. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals
He’s brash and cocky, and maybe that rubs some people the wrong way, but Harper is the poster child for a new generation of baseball fans. He’s outstanding, and he knows it. Harper was just 22 when he won the 2015 MVP award in the NL, and he was the youngest to win the award since Johnny Bench in 1970 (and the fourth-youngest MVP in the history of the award).
Talk about making an impact right out of the hop: Harper debuted in 2012 and already has the ninth-most WAR in franchise history (24.2). That includes a ho-hum 2016 that he has erased with abandon so far this season.
He became the boyish face of a franchise that finally emerged from the depths of despair and won its first World Series since 1908, but pressure is nothing new to Bryant. Since his arrival in the majors, he has done nothing but fulfill Theo Esptein’s lofty expectations.
He’s the ultimate winner; Bryant has won something each season since 2013. As a college player in 2013, he won the Golden Spikes Award. In 2014, he was named minor league player of the year. In 2015, he won Rookie of the Year. In 2016, he won MVP honors … and a World Series.
Bryant’s third season in the majors isn’t even halfway over, and he has already hit 79 career home runs, 14 more than any other player in a Cubs uniform in his first three MLB seasons (Ernie Banks had 65).
Forget some hiccups against the Cardinals in the playoffs; he’s the best pitcher in the game and already one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Kershaw (55.3) already has more career WAR than all pitchers to wear a Dodgers uniform except Dazzy Vance (61.8) and Don Drysdale (61.3). That means Kershaw has more career WAR with the Dodgers than Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser and others.
In early June, Kershaw became the second-fastest player to 2,000 career strikeouts by games, reaching the mark in his 277th career game. Only Randy Johnson (262 games) got there in fewer games.
He’s the face of the franchise with the competitiveness and arsenal (you still see mystified expressions from hitters on the break of his curveball) that you need from the best in the game.
It’s almost a disservice to call him a modern-day Mickey Mantle because when it’s all said and done, he might be better than the Yankees great. Despite his first trip to the DL this season, Trout was off to the best start of his young career.
The only position players in baseball history with more WAR than Trout (52.0) in their first seven seasons were Ted Williams (63.5), Albert Pujols (54.7) and Mantle (52.1).
Trout has finished in the top two in MVP voting in each full season of his career (since 2012). He and Barry Bonds (2000-04) are the only players to finish top-two in MVP voting in five straight seasons since BBWAA began voting on the awards in 1931. Trout’s five-season streak is still active.