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May 30, 2013

The Lineup Card

Making the Case for Harper, Machado, or Trout

by Baseball Prospectus

See below for the results of a staff poll.

‚ÄčBryce Harper
1.
You can't really go wrong with any of these choices. In fact, I'm not sure that if you asked me tomorrow, I wouldn't have a different answer. As we saw last year, Mike Trout is fully capable of putting up a 10-win season. It wouldn't shock me if both Harper and Machado do similarly in the next few years, especially when Machado moves back to short. My choice of Harper is based on the fact that most of his value is wrapped up in his power, which ages well, rather than a bat/speed/fielding combo, the latter two of which basically peak in the early 20s and go downhill. Harper is no slouch in the field, nor on the bases, but he's not elite. He makes up for it with his bat, which makes him a better bet to hold his value over time. It's not that Trout and/or Machado are destined for replacement level next year, or that they don't both have some elite-level seasons left in them. It's just that power like that at 20 is very, very special. —Russell A. Carleton

2. There's no wrong answer here. Each player brings a different skill set and carrying tool (or tools) to the table. Still, Harper's power makes him impossible to pass up. He has the opportunity to lead the league in home runs a few times between now and the end of his career. It's rare to find that kind of power, let alone in a package that also features contact and speed abilities. Plus, he wears his hair funny. —R.J. Anderson

3. I don’t know Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or Mike Trout well, but I have had the chance to interview all three and came away impressed with each player’s maturity and drive to be great. However, of the three, Harper is the one who clearly stands out to me. Harper has been preparing for greatness since the time he first picked up a baseball bat, and he knows it. Many call it cockiness, but in my dealings with him, I’ve taken it as a guy just having great confidence in his abilities. What I find most endearing about Harper is that once you get past the rattail and the eye black, he is a player with an old-school approach to the game who would have fit in every era.

When you have three players with as much talent as Harper, Machado and Trout, makeup is often the separator. While all three have great makeup, there is just something very special about Harper. It’s something hard to explain and impossible to quantify. Just call it a gut feeling—and don’t make jokes about the size of my stomach. —John Perrotto

4. Bryce Harper first came to my attention when he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he was 16. That kind of hype is impossible to live up to, right? Not necessarily.

After a very impressive Rookie of the Year season in which he routinely embarrassed some of the game’s stars, Harper is already one of the elite players in baseball at age 20. Seriously. He’s seventh in the majors in wRC+ and 10th in wOBA (despite playing in serious pain the last two weeks). His ISO is second only to Chris Davis. His throwing arm is so feared that it’s almost never tested by baserunners anymore.

And it’s not exactly like guys are laying it in there for him to hit. According to Baseball Info Solution’s classifications, Harper has seen a smaller proportion of four-seam fastballs (26.5%) than anyone else since he’s come up. (BP’s hand-classified pitches give an identical percent, although there is no league ranking.) He’s also seen fewer pitches in the strike zone than anyone except for Josh Hamilton, who swings at just about everything.

Harper’s potential is demonstrated by the adjustments he’s made to big-league pitching. He is becoming a more rounded and knowledgeable hitter, learning to punish pitchers for pitching around him. His BB% is up and his K% down from last year, moving his BB/K ratio to 0.83—15th in the majors. Remember, he’s 20 years old, and he’s got Miguel Cabrera’s plate discipline. Harper’s also adjusting to the pitch selection he’s getting, with only two of his 12 home runs this year coming off four-seam fastballs.

Basically, major-league players are treating him as though he were a star at the peak of his game. Harper has earned that respect, but he’s only going to get better. The question is not so much how Bryce Harper will adjust to the big leagues as much as how the big leagues will adjust to him. —Dan Rozenson

5. While scouting directors were well aware of Bryce Harper by his freshman year of high school, the baseball prodigy became a household name in June 2009 (the end of Harper’s sophomore year) when Tom Verducci inked a cover story for Sports Illustrated on the future first overall selection. The article is an incredible read, worthy of your time and attention almost four years later, as a reminder of just how special Harper’s story truly is.

It’s a tale best fit for folklore: the 12-year-old playing in a travel tournament against kids two and three years his senior goes 12-for-12 with 11 home runs and a double; the 16-year-old competing in a home-run derby against draft-eligible high school seniors hits the longest home run in Tropicana Field history—502 feet, striking the wall above the jumbotron in right field; the high school sophomore forgoing his junior and senior year in favor of a GED and enrollment in junior college, going on to shatter numerous conference offensive records that spring—in a wood bat league, no less—while posting a triple-slash line of .443/.526/.639, recording 101 hits in just 228 at-bats (58 of them going for extra bases, 31 of them home runs), and stealing 20 bases for good measure; the phenom entering the major-league draft just a month after he should be completing his junior year of high school, is the consensus top talent in the draft class, and is selected first overall; the top prospect in baseball needing just 130 games in the minors before being promoted to Washington and beginning his major-league career at the ripe old age of 19 years and six months; the youngest player in the majors, in his inaugural campaign, earning a spot on the National League All-Star team two months after being promoted, and winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award three months after that—all while leading a Washington baseball team to the playoffs for the first time since 1933; the 20-year-old who, as of today, 183 games into his major-league career, has already established himself as one of the most-feared hitters in the game, and one of the top talents in all of baseball. 

Harper’s accomplishments leading up to the start of his major-league career were so through-the-roof incredible that nothing shy of a Hall of Fame career will serve as a satisfactory conclusion to his tale. True, Manny Machado, in his first full season at the major-league level, has begun to establish himself as one of the top third basemen in the game. And true, last year Mike Trout put together an historic season—one that Harper and Machado may never come close to replicating—en route to winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award and finishing second to Miguel Cabrera in AL MVP voting. True, both Machado and Trout would be young stars in any era. But only Harper has the opportunity to transcend the game itself.

Harper has spent the entirety of the last 10 years of his life as not only the best baseball player on his team, and in his league, but as the youngest baseball player on his team, and in his league, and by a wide margin. He has taken every opportunity between travel ball and the major leagues to avoid the path of least resistance. Harper seeks out opportunities to stack odds against himself, and then puts in as much work as necessary is necessary in order to not only avoid the seemingly inevitable failure staring him down, but to viciously smash through it. He is great, has always been great, and will remain great, because he knows no other possible outcome. He is our Big Fish, our opportunity to tell tales to our grandkids that induce simultaneous wonder and eye rolls. He is the embodiment of #want, and he is destined to make history—the game will accept nothing short of greatness from its legends, and Harper will accept nothing short of a legendary finish to his tale thus far spun. —Nick J. Faleris

Manny Machado
1.
Recently, I was talking to Charlotte Knights manager Joel Skinner about how marginal Triple-A utility players can find ways to stick in the majors. He said that the first thing big-league coaches and managers want to know is whether the Triple-A guy they’re considering can play shortstop. If he can’t, he drops down several pegs in big-league eyes. It’s so much harder to play shortstop than probably any other position except catcher, and if you can play it well, you are a rare breed.

If I’m choosing between these three great young players, I’m taking Manny Machado because Machado can play shortstop while hitting like a third baseman. There are not a lot of those guys out there anymore in the “post”-“PED” “era.” Manny Machado can in fact do many, many things, indeed everything Sam Miller hopes for. When I think of building my team around a single player, I think first of a player with uncommon, difficult-to-duplicate skills. I mean nothing against the fabulous Harper or Trout, but there are more outfielders with speed and power and the rest than there are shortstops with all the tools.

Machado not only has tools, he also has tremendous wiles, as Rays pinch-runner Rich Thompson can testify. That a 20-year-old kid just up from Double-A, not playing his natural position, in a tight game with major playoff implications against the nearest contender, would have the wherewithal to make this play—signifies major-league maturity and gamesmanship. I want that wherewithal.

The problem right now, of course, is that even though Machado played shortstop in 203 of his 205 minor-league games, when the Orioles called him up last season, straight from Double-A, they moved him to third base because J.J. Hardy was already playing shortstop. I’m hoping that, when Hardy’s contract is up, Manny gets to go back to shortstop, Jonathan Schoop is moved to third, and the two of them are like the Orioles having Cal Ripken and Brooks Robinson at the same time for years to come. —Adam Sobsey

Mike Trout
1.
If you vote for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado, you probably don't care about children. You wouldn't not care about children, would you? OK, it's not that extreme, and while the working title of my section was "give me Trout or give me death," I'd be thrilled to get any of them.

The first thing I'd do if I'm looking to start a team with one of these guys is to take a look at my home ballpark. If it favors left-handed power, it would be really hard not to take Harper, and if it has a small outfield, my love for Trout diminishes a little bit. But if it were a cookie-cutter park like a spring training field or say, maybe Atlanta, I'll take the guy who would be a center fielder on most other teams.

Trout's age-20 season was one of the top 50 since 1950 of any position player despite the fact that he came late to the majors, missed 23 games, and we had him lower than many advanced metrics did. This year, despite the Angels' removing him from center field, he's put up more MVP numbers. It's amazing to think of Trout as the "established" guy, but he's 14 months older than Harper and has the better numbers, so taking him is taking the guy who's done it, and Harper is the guy for potential with a career OBP 28 points lower and SLG 40 points lower. I love Harper, who would probably be my second choice, but watching his injuries at age 20 have scared me into thinking it's a riskier play. —Zachary Levine

2. Mike Trout is following up a historic rookie season (winning the Rookie of the Year award and getting robbed of the MVP award at the same time!), and he's right on the heels of Miguel Cabrera in what looks to be another MVP debate you won't be able to miss no matter how hard you try. Given his stellar MLB performance, he's the obvious choice to build a team around among the three young phenoms currently tearing up MLB. —Colin Wyers

3. Oddly, considering how much glorious goodness each of these players has, I can't help but focus on the downsides, the risk. For Harper, the risk is that he just plays too hard, too recklessly, and that he'll end up running into one wall too many (and never recovering) or running into many walls too many (and always being 85 percent). For Trout, the risk is that the speed can't coexist with both the size and the extra years he'll soon have. It's not just baserunning that his speed guarantees, after all. It's his ability to man center field, his ability to man it at an elite level, his ability to charge balls so hard that it offsets his middling throwing arm, his ability to turn singles into doubles, his ability to draw in infielders (not just third basemen but shortstops and second basemen), his ability even to draw in outfielders a step or two. For Machado, the risk is—well, the risk is that Harper doesn't run into those walls, or that Trout doesn't lose that speed, because it's just hard to imagine any player, even Machado, playing at a level like the one Harper and Trout have already played at.

Yes, Machado is great. He's great, and he is the only one who can play shortstop, and in every fake franchise draft somebody always drafts a shortstop first because it's the most important position on the diamond. But I would never bet on any player turning into a 10-win player. That rules out Machado. It rules out Harper. And it leaves Trout, because Trout already is a 10-win player. —Sam Miller

4. It goes without saying that there is no wrong answer here. All are amazing talented young players and each organization is lucky to have them. That said, I'm picking Mike Trout primarily for two reasons. First, his success in the big leagues last season. In his first full-ish season, he should have been the MVP. That’s nuts. (How’s that for analysis?) Harper and Machado were quite good last season as well, and both have had an amazing two-month start to their seasons this year, and yes Trout is older than both, but neither has played as well for as long as Trout has.

Beyond that, Trout can play a premium defensive position well. That might be said of Machado, though the Orioles must feel he's not as good a shortstop as J.J. Hardy, which is hardly a vote of confidence. I’m scared off from picking Harper by his injuries and over-the-top style of play. He’s got immense talent, and the only thing that looks like it will keep him from being one of the best in the game is if he repeatedly throws his body in to large, stationary objects. Unfortunately, it seems he’s keen on doing just that.

Trout has avoided injuries, hits for power (doesn’t just project to), runs, plays a great center field, and has done it over a large (for his age) sample of games. Trout may not end up being the best after everything is said and done, but if not, he’ll be close. And he’s the safest pick of the three.

I'll take Mike Trout. —Matthew Kory

5. I want to take Harper over Trout and Machado on his insane power (perhaps a more lasting skill than Trout's speed) and the fact that all he's doing right now is exactly what everyone expected him to do, but I keep getting these nasty Pete Reiser flashes. Reiser's balls-out style had him finishing second to his teammate Dolph Camilli in the 1941 MVP voting, but his subsequent injuries, both in major-league and Army baseball, meant that he was done in the big leagues before he turned 34, never topped 500 plate appearances after the war, and finished a career in which Leo Durocher compared him to Willie Mays at just 22 bWAR, a mere 134 wins shy of Say Hey's career total. I'm not saying that Harper will be read his last rites on the field in 2017, but in a close battle, every possibility counts. (I haven't yet explained why I'm taking Trout over Machado. This answer is easier: West Coast bias.) —Jason Wojciechowski

6. I was asked the "Trout or Harper" question on a recent radio spot, and when I grudgingly answered "Trout," the hosts groaned, briefly making me feel as if I'd played it too safe and used my 1-1 pick on a low-ceiling, high-floor guy instead of taking the riskier stud with the top tools. Then I remembered what Trout's tools look like, and I felt quite a bit better. Harper made it to the majors younger and with a longer history of hype, and he has more potential for a 50-homer season, so he's probably the sexier pick. But Trout has already proven he can play at a level that for Harper (and even more so for Machado) is still speculative. That, combined with the fact that Harper's heedless hustle make the odds of his suffering a career-altering injury (or series of injuries) seem slightly higher, was enough to make me a semi-reluctant member of Team Trout. —Ben Lindbergh

***

We also polled our staff on the order in which they would pick each of these players were they eligible to be drafted right now, receiving 28 responses. Here are the results: 

First-Place Votes
Trout 15
Harper 12
Machado 1

Harper-Trout-Machado
Ken Funck
Andrew Koo
John Perrotto
Mark Anderson
Mike Gianella
Russell A. Carleton
Joe Hamrahi
Nick J. Faleris
R.J. Anderson
Jason Cole
Dan Rozenson

Trout-Harper-Machado
Doug Thorburn
Daniel Rathman
Stephani Bee
Matthew Kory
Ben Lindbergh
Colin Wyers
Josh Shepardson
Bret Sayre
Sam Miller
Dan Brooks
Zach Mortimer
Rob McQuown
Zachary Levine

Trout-Machado-Harper
Jason Wojciechowski
Paul Singman

Machado-Trout-Harper
Adam Sobsey

Harper-Machado-Trout
Paul Sporer

15 comments have been left for this article.

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