Who is the best player in baseball for each age group? PECOTA projections came out today, so let’s use the projected WARP totals for 2018 as our main guide while also leaving a little room for subjectivity when it seems necessary.
No teenager played in the majors last season, Julio Urias in 2016 was the only teenager to play in the majors during the past five seasons, and Bryce Harper in 2012 was the only teenage hitter to log at least 250 plate appearances in the majors during the past 20 seasons. So, for the age-19 spot I relied partly on BP’s just-released top 101 prospects list and partly on PECOTA. Both methods gave Vladimir Guerrero Jr. a slight edge over Fernando Tatis Jr. (Note: I’ve never written a sentence that made me feel older.)
Honorable mention: Vlad 2.0 ranked no. 4 in our top 101, with Tatis 2.0 at no. 9 and fellow 19-year-old prospects Sixto Sanchez (Phillies), Juan Soto (Nationals), Royce Lewis (Twins), Leody Taveras (Rangers), and MacKenzie Gore (Padres) also cracking the top 30.
This was an easy one. Ronald Acuna is the best prospect in baseball and PECOTA loves him too, already projecting the toolsy outfielder as an average big-league regular with 20-homer power and 20-steal speed if the Braves give him an extended opportunity this season. Acuna’s top three same-age comparable players are Byron Buxton, Mike Trout, and … Delmon Young. That really shows the whole spectrum of outcomes for a 20-year-old uber-prospect, but keep in mind that “Delmon Young” is forever going to ruin otherwise promising sets of comps for excellent prospects. That is his legacy.
Honorable mention: Forrest Whitley (Astros) and Bo Bichette (Blue Jays) are both really good 20-year-old prospects, and BP’s prospect crew also points to Kolby Allard (Braves), Estevan Florial (Yankees), Mike Soroka (Braves), and Triston McKenzie (Indians) as 20-year-olds worth highlighting.
This might be the trickiest age, because it’s the sweet spot featuring both elite-level prospects (Victor Robles, Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez, Brendan Rodgers) and former stud prospects who’ve already impressed in brief big-league stints (Ozzie Albies, Rafael Devers, Julio Urias). Last season Urias snagged the age-20 spot, but then he blew out his arm. PECOTA still likes him a lot long term, but it’s hard to justify Urias as the best 21-year-old when he might not even pitch again until midseason. PECOTA sees Albies as the clear choice for 2018 value alone, projecting him as a three-WARP second baseman following a debut in which he hit .286/.354/.456 with eight steals in 57 games.
Honorable mention: PECOTA also likes Devers a lot, and he out-ranked Albies on last year’s top 101 before a similarly impressive 58-game debut, so there’s certainly an argument for the Red Sox third baseman here. Robles (Nationals), Torres (Yankees), and Jimenez (White Sox) rank second, third, and sixth on this year’s top 101, respectively, and among 21-year-old prospects PECOTA is also fond of Luis Urias (Padres) and Luiz Gohara (Braves).
Last season I picked Cody Bellinger as the best 21-year-old, but not before a bunch of debate stemming from zero of the candidates having any big-league experience, ultimately trusting PECOTA’s view that he was the most ready to make an impact in the majors. There is no longer any debate, as Bellinger hit .267/.352/.581 with 39 homers in 132 games to make his first All-Star team, win Rookie of the Year, and finish top 10 in the MVP balloting. His top same-age comp is now Giancarlo Stanton, so suffice it to say that PECOTA is still deeply in love.
Honorable mention: Amed Rosario finished runner-up to Bellinger for the age-21 spot last season and still looks like the next-best option, along with top-20 prospects Francisco Mejia (Indians), Willy Adames (Rays), Mitch Keller (Pirates), and Michael Kopech (White Sox). PECOTA also sees Austin Hays (Orioles) and Shed Long (Reds) as potentially underrated prospects.
Another repeat winner in his age group, Carlos Correa reached full-on superstar status last season and PECOTA projects him as one of MLB’s top 10 players for 2018. He’s on a Hall of Fame path. Shohei Ohtani hasn’t even started his MLB career yet, but PECOTA is a big believer. Not only does Ohtani project as a front-line starting pitcher, with a sub-3.50 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning, his hitting projection includes a .460 slugging percentage. I’ll stick with Correa’s established track record, but if Ohtani comes anywhere near his projections as a rookie there might actually be a debate for the age-24 spot next season.
Honorable mention: Andrew Benintendi finished runner-up for Rookie of the Year after being a PECOTA darling as a prospect, so naturally he projects very well as a sophomore. Yoan Moncada, Ian Happ, Manuel Margot, Nomar Mazara, and Orlando Arcia are other young major leaguers with promising 2018 projections, and PECOTA sees Willie Calhoun as a prospect with the potential to make an immediate impact for the Rangers offensively.
“Nearly impossible” is how I described choosing between Corey Seager and Francisco Lindor for the age-23 spot last season and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Seager narrowly edged Lindor in WARP last season, 5.7 to 5.2, but PECOTA gives Lindor a slight edge for 2018 thanks to a better defensive projection and a belief that his power breakthrough last season is largely here to stay. I truly think this is a toss-up. Last season I trusted PECOTA and went with Sesger, so I’ll trust the projections again and go with Lindor, by the slimmest of margins.
Honorable mention: Lost in Seager and Lindor becoming MVP-caliber players is that Alex Bregman had a 2017 breakout, during which he made a believer out of PECOTA. In fact, Bregman projects just as well as Seager and Lindor offensively, with the difference being that he plays third base thanks to the presence of the aforementioned Correa at shortstop. There are lots of other really promising young major leaguers in this age group, including Luis Severino, Joey Gallo, Matt Olson, Jose Berrios, Addison Russell, Paul DeJong, Lance McCullers, Edwin Diaz, and my beloved Byron Buxton. Also of note: PECOTA thinks the Marlins snagged a helluva prospect in Lewis Brinson.
Last season Bryce Harper joined Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only players in the past 50 years to have multiple 1.000 OPS seasons through age 24, and now for his age-25 season PECOTA projects Harper as the third-best hitter in baseball behind only Mike Trout and Joey Votto. There is a ton of star power in this age group, and if you’re particularly fond of elite defense there’s even an argument to be made for someone other than Harper in this spot, but given what he’s already accomplished and what PECOTA expects from his bat in 2018 he’s still the choice here.
Honorable mention: The list of 25-year-old current and future stars is a long one, led by Mookie Betts, Noah Syndergaard, Manny Machado, Gary Sanchez, Trea Turner, Jose Ramirez, Rhys Hoskins, Aaron Nola, Xander Bogaerts, Miguel Sano, Kyle Schwarber, and Michael Conforto. I wouldn’t blame you one bit for preferring, say, Betts’ all-around value to Harper’s bat-driven excellence. It’s a helluva group.
PECOTA projects Mike Trout as the best player in baseball. Again. He’s projected to lead MLB in slugging percentage and True Average while ranking second to Joey Votto in on-base percentage, all while playing a solid center field and swiping 20-plus bases at a great rate. Trout owns two MVP awards, deserves at least two or three more, and has been the best player in the world since he was 20. He joins Mickey Mantle as the only position players since 1950 to surpass 50 career WARP through age 25, and if he matches PECOTA’s projection for this season he’ll have topped 60 career WARP through age 26.
Honorable mention: Kris Bryant won an MVP two seasons ago and Aaron Judge finished runner-up for an MVP last year. Here, they simply fall victim to being in the same age group as a baseball deity, as do other great 26-year-olds like Willson Contreras, Christian Yelich, Robbie Ray, and Carlos Martinez.
There’s no doubt that Coors Field inflates Nolan Arenado‘s raw numbers, because it inflates everyone’s raw numbers. He’s a career .314 hitter with a .958 OPS at home, compared to .264 with a .790 OPS on the road. Of course, he has an .850 OPS on the road during the past three seasons and PECOTA is designed specifically to contextualize performances that occur in extreme environments, projecting Arenado as the fifth-best hitter and the third-best defender among all third basemen. Arenado is a legitimate star and the easy choice for the top spot here, but after that it gets pretty tricky.
Honorable mention: This is a surprisingly mediocre age group given the longstanding conventional wisdom that 27 is the peak age for baseball players (it isn’t quite that simple, for various reasons). The next-best options are Yasiel Puig, Gerrit Cole, Marcus Stroman, Chris Taylor, J.T. Realmuto, Alex Wood, Ken Giles, Mitch Haniger, Marcell Ozuna, Jake Lamb, and Ender Inciarte.
Both reigning MVP winners are in the age-28 group, and PECOTA is no help in determining whether Jose Altuve or Giancarlo Stanton should get the honors here because they’re projected to have identical WARP in 2018. I’ll go with Stanton, in part because he had a higher WARP last season and in part because Altuve already won a slightly more important thing just a few months ago.
So far every “best” pick has been a position player, with very few reasonable arguments to even be made in favor of pitchers, but that changes in a big way once we get this close to 30. PECOTA absolutely loves Chris Sale, projecting him for the best ERA in baseball despite pitching in the American League and calling Fenway Park home.
Honorable mention: Stephen Strasburg is the obvious runner-up, followed in some order by Chris Archer, Jose Quintana, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka. For the best 29-year-old position player, take you pick of Starling Marte, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, Elvis Andrus, Mike Moustakas, or Adam Eaton.
This is similar to Mike Trout topping Kris Bryant and Aaron Judge for the age-26 crown. Paul Goldschmidt is an incredible player, producing at an MVP level nearly every season, and PECOTA projects him as one of the five most valuable position players in baseball for 2018. He is not, however, Clayton Kershaw. PECOTA sees Kershaw leading the National League in ERA for the sixth time in the past eight seasons—he also finished 13 innings short of a seventh ERA title—and the projected 2.54 mark would actually be his worst since 2010.
Honorable mention: Goldschmidt might be the most underrated superstar in baseball, and I suppose this isn’t helping. Some other 30-year-olds: Jacob deGrom, Dallas Keuchel, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Tommy Pham, A.J. Pollock, Kyle Seager, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Khris Davis.
(Now that we’re on the wrong side of 30, let’s go into lightning-round mode.)
PECOTA projects Posey to have the second-highest WARP in baseball, behind only Mike Trout.
Hey look, it’s the 2018 Baseball Prospectus Annual cover model!
Honorable mention: Adam Wainwright.
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