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December 14, 2009

Future Shock

The Top 20 of the New Decade

by Kevin Goldstein

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As Major League Baseball gets ready to start another decade, who will be the most valuable players for the next decade? To find out, let's have a fantasy baseball draft, only this one goes by some different rules. Instead of a fantasy scoring system, we'll base the value on real baseball value, using something like our own WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). Just as importantly, there will be no trading and no future draft. In other words, if you are one of those people who are scared off by both the inconsistency and inability to depend on the health of pitchers, you best look else where, because just like real-world baseball, you can't just ignore pitching because it's risky. You have to take some, or have none.

Now that we've got the rules down, let's start drafting.

1. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins
2010 Birthday:
27 on December 23
In the last three seasons, Ramirez has been worth just short of 25 wins, and he's not even entering his prime yet. Sure he's not a very good shortstop in the field, but when you are talking about a 925-950 OPS every year, who cares?

2. Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks
2010 Birthday:
23 on August 25
Upton showed up on an MVP ballot in 2009, and on a better team, he would have been written on more. Even scarier is that his .300/.366/.532 season is just scratching the surface, because while it was Upton's third pro season, he was still the sixth-youngest player in the game. Offensively, he remains on a Griffey-esque career path, and I don't mean Sr.

3. Joe Mauer, C, Twins
2010 Birthday:
27 on April 19
The power that scouts had been projecting for nearly a decade finally showed in 2009, as Mauer had one of the best seasons in the history of catchers. The scary part? He might just be entering his prime. The only question at this point is how man more years can he catch, and the smart money is on him being a first baseman somewhere around the middle of the decade.

4. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
2010 Birthday:
26 on June 15
The winner of back-to-back Cy Young awards, his 2009 year was even better than his 2008, with both his hit and walk rates going down appreciably. Beyond being the best pitcher in baseball, he's also arguably the one whose health can be counted on the most, as he seems like that one-in-a-decade guy where innings and pitch counts just don't matter. By the end of the decade, he'll be pushing 3000 career strikeouts, or more likely, he'll already be there.

5. Zack Greinke, RHP, Royals
2010 Birthday:
27 on October 21
The 2009 season was a magical year for Greinke, but Lincecum's slight age advantage and longer track record of greatness gives him the edge. With his non-performance problems seemingly behind him, all systems are go for Greinke, who Royals fans will be able to enjoy for at least three more years.

6. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
2010 Birthday:
25 on October 7
The best third baseman in the game and just 24, Longoria has developed into a Gold Glove defender at the hot corner, and while his 2009 seasons looks to be a statistical doppelganger of his rookie year, there are indications of growth, primarily more walks and fewer strikeouts, both of which bode well for further growth. From the useless information department, Longoria is a perfect 16-for-16 stealing bases so far in his career.

7. Ryan Braun, OF, Brewers
2010 Birthday:
27 on November 17
It amazing to see the Braun has already amassed 974 total bases in his first three pro seasons, a fact made all the more remarkable by the fact that he started 2007 in the minor and played just 113 games for Milwaukee. His athleticism should make him effective for the entire decade, with a slow aging process, and he's the kind of hitter who can annually put up 200 hits, 80 of them going for extra bases, into his early 30s.

8. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals
2010 Birthday:
22 on July 20
Sure he's never pitched an inning in the majors, but if you were setting odds, who would be your pitcher most likely to win three Cy Young awards in the upcoming decade? If Strasburg isn't among your top three, you are only deluding yourself. On a scouting level, this guy is Tim Lincecum with half a foot more height, a better changeup, and a command that's a full two grades higher than the Giants' star.

9. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
2010 Birthday:
24 on April 8
Hernandez delivered his first truly great year in 2009, and with such an early start to his big-league career, he'll be a 25-year-old free agent after the 2011 season, and in line for the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, maybe even by a wide margin. Younger, and arguably more established than everyone above him, the only reason he ranks a touch lower is the fear of breakdown, as he's had some minor bumps in the road here and there, while scouts have always loved his stuff, but have also always worried about his mechanics.

10. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals
2010 Birthday:
30 on January 16
The oldest player on this list by a wide margin, but also the best current player in baseball who is showing no signs of slowing down. Even conservatively, Pujols is going to be pushing 3500 hits and 700 home runs by the time I'm writing this piece again ten years from now.

11. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers
2010 Birthday:
26 on May 9
The youngest player even to hit 50 home runs in a season, Fielder threatened to do it a second time in 2009, and chances are excellent that it will happen at least once more in the upcoming decade. Any purely offensively measurement pegs him as a better hitter than Braun, but with that body, there a chance of a Mo Vaughn-like precipitous decline in his early 30s.

12.Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox
2010 Birthday:
26 on January 7
This ranking surprised even me, which is shocking considering both the fan base and media coverage of the Red Sox. Still, he's been among the American League's Top 10 pitchers for each of the last two seasons, and with a more gaudy won-loss record, would get more attention. He still hasn't peaked yet, and could have a Cy Young in his future still.

13.Jason Heyward, OF, Braves
2010 Birthday:
21 on August 9
The top position player prospect in the game, Heyward has a chance at opening 2010 in the big leagues, and even if that doesn't work out, he'll be in Atlanta well before he can legally have a drink to celebrate his accomplishment. A potential "face of the franchise"-level talent, Heyward hits for average, hits for power, draws walks, and even runs a bit. If that sounds like Dale Murphy, you're not the first to think that.

14.Adam Jones, CF, Orioles
2010 Birthday:
25 on August 25
It seemed as if 2009 might be Jones' bust-out campaign, but second-half injuries mean Orioles fans will have to wait until this year. After spending most of his minor-league career as a shortstop, Jones has quickly developed into one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, and like Longoria, more walks and fewer strikeouts in 2009 portend even more offense to come.

15.Brett Anderson, LHP, Athletics
2010 Birthday:
22 on February 1
Eight high school pitchers were selected ahead of Anderson in the 2006 draft, of which seven pitched at Double-A or below in 2009. Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman reached the major last year, but Anderson was among the American League's top pitchers during the second half of the year, with a 3.48 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning. He's just getting started.

16.Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
2010 Birthday:
24 on October 10
Not only were the Pirates awful during the last decade, they were incredibly boring. McCutchen can at least change the latter with his power/speed game, and while his ceiling falls short of MVP level, he could hit 20 bombs and swipe 30 bases annually well into the latter part of the '10s.

17.Tommy Hanson, RHP, Braves
2010 Birthday:
24 on August 28
Had the Braves opened the season with Hanson in the rotation (which would have been the right decision), we'd be talking about your reigning National League Rookie of the Year. Instead, we're talking about one of the circuit's best young arms. The only thing keeping him from ranking higher is that some feel he's at his ceiling of a consistent 15-18 game winner as opposed to a true ace.

18.Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers
2010 Birthday:
22 on December 27
Porcello kept his straight fastball in his back pocket during much of 2009, as he learned on the job how to set up hitters and use his defense, but the Porcello everyone saw during the 163rd game of the season, when he whiffed eight Twins over 5 ⅔ IP, was the real deal, and he's among the best choices around for a 2010 breakout.

19.Matt Kemp, OF, Dodgers
2010 Birthday:
26 on September 23
Playing in a more friendly park, Kemp's numbers would make him a no-brainer, but even with the limits of Chavez Ravine, he might the best candidate for multiple 30-30 seasons in the next decade. His tools and athleticism should lead to a graceful aging process, and if he even ends up in a better offensive environment, he could put up monster stats.

20.David Wright, 3B, Mets
2010 Birthday:
28 on December 20
How great is it to hit .307/.390/.447 and have everyone talk about how bad your year was? That's what happens when a team as a whole fails to live up to expectations. As big a nightmare as 2009 was, Wright remains one of the games best young talents, and one who is just hitting his prime.

Just missed (in alphabetical order): Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Elvis Andrus, Rangers; Gordon Beckham, White Sox; Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; Robinson Cano, Yankees; Alcides Escobar, Brewes; Neftali Feliz, Rangers; Yovani Gallardo, Brewers; Bryce Harper, College of Southern Nevada; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers; Mat Latos, Padres; Jesus Montero, Yankees; David Price, Rays; Anthony Ranaudo, Louisiana State; Carlos Santana, Indians; Grady Sizemore, Indians; Mike Stanton, Marlins; Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies; Justin Verlander, Tigers; Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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