Welcome, ladies and gents, to the third annual Baseball Prospectus Ultimate Fantasy Draft. What, you are probably wondering, is the Baseball Prospectus Ultimate Fantasy Draft? It is the answer to this question: If you were starting a baseball team from scratch, which players would you want to build your team around? That is, which players would you take-and in what order would you take them-if your goal was to win as many championships as possible over the medium-to-long-term?

The specific ground rules of the UFD are as follows:

  • All players playing baseball in any professional league are eligible, including players in the minor leagues and players in professional leagues outside of North America.
  • All present contracts are wiped out. In other words, price does not matter.
  • Major league service time is also wiped out-all players are treated as rookies. However, the structure of MLB’s free agency rules is left intact. What this means is that you have six years of major league service time at your disposal before your player becomes a free agent. In most cases, this simply means that you’ll get the player’s 2008 through 2013 seasons-A-Rod’s performance from age 32 through age 38, for example, or Jose Reyes from age 25 through age 30. But if the player is still developing, you’re also allowed to stash him in the minor leagues and then start his service-time clock at some point in the future.
  • In spite of this being called the Ultimate Fantasy Draft, our goal is to assess value in a real-life baseball context, rather than in any sort of roto- or fantasy-specific context.
  • The rankings are entirely forward-looking; we are not attempting to reward performance based on what has happened in the past (including what has happened so far in 2008). Instead, we are solely concerned with which players will create the most value for our team going forward.
  • Off-field factors such as marketability are not considered, except to the extent that they affect on-field performance. So, Daisuke Matsuzaka does not get any extra credit because he helps you build your brand in Japan.
  • Finally, we assume that your primary goal is to win the championship, taking risks as necessary in order to do so. What that means is that this list tilts heavily to upside over certainty. The UFD isn’t for people who are content with second place.

These rankings take advantage of several proprietary Baseball Prospectus tools, including our PECOTA projection system, which produces seven-year projections for each player based on his historical comparables. Adam Jones could be the next Willie Mays, for example-or he could be the next Corey Patterson. However, we are by no means slaves to the numbers, as this sort of list necessarily requires us to lean heavily on our instincts and scouting impressions. Rankings from last year’s list are contained in parentheses.

Honorable Mention

Erik Bedard, P, Mariners, Age 29 (Unranked Last Year).
If we had done this list at the beginning of the year, Bedard’s talent might have ranked him somewhere in the 20s or 30s. I worry about someone who has taken such a long time to recover from injury, when that someone has never pitched more than 196 innings in a single season.

Clay Buchholz, P, Red Sox, Age 23 (–).
The results in Beantown haven’t been pretty-a 2-8 record and a 6.35 ERA thus far on the season. But Buchholz’s strikeout rate remains solid, and we need to grade on a curve for any 23-year-old pitching against AL East competition. The way to think of Buchholz is as a prospect rather than as a finished product. If Buchholz were still in Triple-A, he’d be dominating the league and would rank among the top half-dozen prospects in baseball; we rate him accordingly.

Matt Cain, P, Giants, Age 23 (–).
Cain looks like he could turn into a durable, Jack Morris-type of workhorse. But while his numbers have been good, they have not been extraordinary, and he has benefited significantly from his home ballpark, where the large outfield and stiff winds turn a lot of would-be home runs into long outs. Cain’s lifetime ERA away from AT&T Park, where his tendency to give up a lot of fly balls can get him into more trouble, is 4.07.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees, Age 25 (27).
As bad as Cano has been over portions of this season, I don’t know if people realize quite how good he was before: to be a Major League All-Star by the time you’re age 23 is a very rare thing, and Cano still owns a .303 career batting average. Certainly, the Juan Samuel career path appears more likely now, in which Cano fails to gel as a player because he never improves his batting eye. But he’s also a pretty good “buy low” player in any kind of fantasy league.

Adam Jones, CF, Orioles, Age 22 (–).
Two things we’ve learned about Adam Jones this year: his defense is terrific, and his plate discipline is terrible. Since he’s just 22 years old, I would tend to focus on the positive attribute.

Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves, Age 36 (–).
It was good to see Chipper chasing the .400 mark earlier in the season, since he’s tended to be taken for granted since winning the MVP in 1999. In spite of his frequent injuries, Chipper’s bat has been so strong of late-a 1025 OPS since the start of the 2006 season-that I’d expect him to retain significant value through the age of 40.

Cliff Lee, P, Indians, Age 29 (–).
Pitchers are more likely than hitters to have late-career breakouts, and Lee has gone from a number four starter to a number one by adopting a more straightforward style of pitching and learning how to keep the ball down. But he still doesn’t have any one real out pitch, and I worry about how well his numbers are going to hold up once hitters have a winter to digest his scouting reports and adjust their approach.

Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Red Sox, Age 27 (Honorable Mention Last Year).
Papelbon holds his HM spot from last year; his performance, if anything, has gotten better. But until closers start to be used more in the old Willie Hernandez mold, and pitching 120 innings a season rather than 60, it is going to be extremely hard for one of them to crack the Top 50.

Jhonny Peralta, SS, Indians, Age 26 (–).
Peralta has been almost completely overlooked; if he played in a bigger city and had a cool nickname, his 20-25 home runs a year from the shortstop position would make him a perennial All-Star.

David Price, P, Devil Rays, Age 22 (–).
What’s unique about Price is that he may be as low-risk a pitching prospect as you’re ever likely to find, having three years under his belt against SEC competition, and then having already graduated two minor league levels thus far this season. But I see more of a number-two starter here than a true number one. Price has struck out almost exactly one batter per inning thus far in the minor leagues. In the major leagues, that is a fantastic figure. In the minors, where a lot of hitters simply can’t hit a breaking pitch, it points toward a good-but-not-spectacular career.

Ben Sheets, P, Brewers, Age 29 (–).
Sheets is having his best season in years, and certainly his healthiest, and his 3.9-to-1 lifetime strikeout-to-walk ratio is among the best in major league history. He is nearly 30, however, and I don’t know what kind of bet you can place on this arm holding up over the next six seasons.

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies, Age 23 (–).
One of the things I try and emphasize is not to place too much emphasis on any one year’s worth of performance. Baseball players have off-years for all sorts of reasons, and Tulo, with his hand and quadriceps injuries, has some pretty good excuses. But it could have also been that 2007 was the outlier, when his performance exceeded that projected from his minor league numbers.

Justin Verlander, P, Tigers, Age 25 (49).
Which of these two pitchers is having the better season?

             IP   H   HR  BB   SO
Pitcher A   186  187  21  60  124
Pitcher B   186  165  17  75  146

Pretty close, huh? Pitcher A has given up fewer walks, but Pitcher B has an advantage in strikeouts and limiting base hits. The first pitcher is Justin Verlander in 2006, when he had a 3.63 ERA and a 17-9 record. The second pitcher is Justin Verlander this year, with his statistics extrapolated out to the same number of innings pitched. But this year, his ERA is 4.60, and his record is 9-13. There is a lot of luck inherent in pitching statistics, and this year, Verlander has gotten the worst of it, but that doesn’t make him a worse pitcher.

Now, we move along to the Top 50 proper…

50. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers, Age 23 (–).
Perhaps the Dodgers don’t fully appreciate Kemp, having forced him to compete with Juan Pierre for playing time in the spring. But there’s no reason that you shouldn’t. Kemp has a lifetime .306 average, a big power hitters’ body that should eventually produce 30 home runs per year, and plus speed that allows him to be a threat on the basepaths while looking surprisingly natural as a semi-regular center fielder. This is essentially the Andre Dawson skill set, and he still has room to grow.

49. John Lackey, P, Angels, Age 29 (–).
Lackey has that sort of Chuck Knoblauch thing going on, where he’s been called ‘underrated’ so many times that he may now be overrated. He’s been an exceptionally consistent and exceptionally durable pitcher; the triceps injury that kept him out of action in April represented the first time that Lackey had ever been on the DL.

48. Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins, Age 28 (–).
Remarkably, three of the 50 most valuable players in baseball-you’ll see Josh Hamilton and Johan Santana making an appearance later-were guys whose original employers were willing to let go of them for $50,000 in the Rule 5 draft. Uggla strikes out as often as a left fielder, but so long as he’s hitting home runs like a left fielder, the Marlins aren’t going to care.

47. Geovany Soto, C, Cubs, Age 25 (–).
Completely off the prospect radar screen until last year, Soto has salvaged a dire situation at catcher for the Cubs. Since the start of the 2007 season, Geovany Soto has a VORP of 43.4, whereas Cubs’ catchers not named Geovany Soto have a VORP of -7.6. Long-term, his career path should look a lot like Jorge Posada‘s. Full disclosure: Soto is presently my favorite baseball player, mostly because he looks every bit as Eurotrash as someone named Geovany Soto should.

46. B.J. Upton, CF, Rays, Age 23 (50).
He certainly hasn’t matched his 2007 numbers, but because his walk rate has improved so much, he has contributed to his club even in a down year, with a .380 OBP thus far on the season. If Upton winds up being a Kenny Lofton rather than a Gary Sheffield, that is hardly a complete disaster.

45. Carlos Beltran, CF, Mets, Age 31 (12).
Beltran has lost a lot of ground in our rankings, but that’s mostly just because he’s been lapped by some younger talent. While Beltran does not have quite the power stroke that he once did, he still contributes to the Mets in all phases of the game, and has been the rare example of a Scott Boras contract that turned out well for the acquiring club.

44. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Angels, Age 24 (26).
Kendrick was arguably the best pure batting average prospect since Tony Gwynn, having been a .360 hitter over the course of his minor league career. Because of his recurrent injury problems, there is still a sense that we haven’t quite seen all that he can do. Even if he merely winds up being a guy who hits .310 every year and bangs out 40 doubles, that is still a pretty valuable property in the middle infield.

43. Carlos Zambrano, P, Cubs, Age 27 (28).
Zambrano is just 27, but it feels like he’s been around for a dozen seasons. Still, he remains one of the most enigmatic pitchers in baseball. Until this year, Zambrano had continued to rack up tons of wins in spite of league-leading walk totals in both 2006 and 2007. This year, he’s revised his approach, getting his walk rate down to an acceptable number but experiencing a trade-off by missing fewer bats. Statistically speaking, he’s still a number-two starter masquerading as a one, but at some point you have to give deference to his adaptability, his durability, and his bat, which has produced 15 lifetime home runs.

42. Edinson Volquez, P, Reds, Age 24 (–).
How often do you get a 15-5 record and a 2.73 ERA out of a 24-year-old pitcher… and have to nevertheless worry that you lost the trade that got him to you?

41. Chad Billingsley, P, Dodgers, Age 23 (–).
Billingsley and Volquez have had nearly identical peripheral statistics this season; Billingsley has 162 strikeouts against 61 walks and 10 home runs allowed, and Volquez has 150 strikeouts against 70 walks and 10 home runs. We give preference to Billingsley, because he is one year younger and has a deeper arsenal of pitches.

40. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox, Age 25 (–).
For years, PECOTA had been touting Pedroia, while scouts would not take him seriously. When Pedroia started out his major league career hitting .182 in April, 2007, I thought I could see exactly what those scouts were seeing-with his short stature and his uppercut swing, he looked like a Little Leaguer trying to hit major league pitching. I promptly traded him in my roto league. For Yuniesky Betancourt. Obviously, I should have kept the faith, and let’s give the Red Sox credit for sticking with their game plan. In a lot of organizations, like the Cubs or the Dodgers, Pedroia would have been banished to Triple-A, become frustrated, and wound up working at a car dealership.

39. Roy Halladay, P, Blue Jays, Age 31 (25).
He loses a little bit of position on this list each year as he ages, but one thing that augers well for his future is his pitch efficiency, as he’s required just 3.60 pitches per plate appearances this season. Halladay may be the closest thing we have right now to vintage Greg Maddux.

38. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Angels, Age 28 (45).
Maybe he just requires a mid-season trade every year to really get him going. Teixeira differentiates himself from your ordinary slugger because of his outstanding defense, which has already won him two Gold Gloves, and he deserves more. As an aside, the word ‘Teixeira’ now appears in the Microsoft Word spell-check dictionary because of a complaint I made in the orginal version of this column.

37. Rich Harden, P, Cubs, Age 26 (HM).
We said at the outset that this list is all about upside. So I’m willing to accept some injury risk for pitchers, provided that they can be this good when healthy.

36. Lance Berkman, 1B, Astros, Age 32 (32).
I had to think carefully about whether I was overrating older first basemen after getting burned badly on David Ortiz and Travis Hafner from last year’s rankings. However, his pudgy appearance aside, Berkman is a notably better athlete than either of those guys ever were, and he certainly has had no trouble with the stick.

35. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers, Age 24 (47).
Prince’s power stroke has fully returned after getting off to a little bit of a slow start this season, perhaps because of the vegetarian diet that he adopted over the winter. Let’s hope that staying cheeseburger-free will help Prince to trim down a bit, because as good as his bat is, this body type doesn’t lend itself to long careers.

34. Nick Markakis, RF, Orioles, Age 24 (–).
Believe it or not, the Orioles actually placed two young hitters in the Top 50, and another into Honorable Mention. Markakis is probably never going to be a huge power hitter, but with a great line-drive stroke and an even better batting eye, he’ll be a top-of-the-order hitter for years to come.

33. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies, Age 29 (48).
So who’s the real Jimmy Rollins? Last year’s MVP version, or the merely good player that he’s been this year? Actually, I don’t think this is all that difficult to resolve: Rollins is a very good player who had a career year, which happens not infrequently when a player is near his peak age range (26-28).

32. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles, Age 22 (–).
Here is the other Oriole-and the only current minor leaguer to make our Top 50. Since last season, we have significantly revised our minor league forecasts to make them more conservative, but Wieters still blows the system out of the park, with a 1038 OPS thus far on the season in spite of playing in some pitcher-friendly environments. Wieters might be in the upper quartile of major league catchers if he put on an Orioles uniform right now-and he’s only 22.

31. Dan Haren, P, Diamondbacks, Age 27 (–).
Here’s a guy who just really understands how to pitch, mixing in fastball, splitter, and slider in perfect ratios. PECOTA likens him to a young Curt Schilling, which sounds just about right.

30. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals, Age 23 (11).
Like nearly everyone else in Washington-and I don’t just mean the Nationals-he’s had an off year. But let’s look at the resumé: a bat that was good enough to be considerably better than league average by the time Zimmerman was 21, plus Gold Glove-caliber defense that still goes underappreciated? Sounds good to me; his star has dimmed just a bit, but Zimmerman is still a franchise player.

29. Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers, Age 26 (HM).
His profile is starting to look a little bit like vintage Jeff Kent, a fellow late bloomer who had always projected as a decent bat, and then wound up being a borderline great one. In fact, Kinsler is a considerably better athlete than Kent and also plays superior defense. Just keep him away from pick-up trucks.

28. Joba Chamberlain, P, Yankees, Age 22 (–).
PECOTA tends to be extremely conservative with young pitchers, but before the year began, it had Joba rated as the number two prospect in baseball, trailing only Evan Longoria. In spite of all the consternation about whether he should start or relieve, and in spite of his presently being on the Disabled List, Chamberlain has really done everything to live up to PECOTA’s expectations, having struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings. Joba does feel like he might be the case where the star that burns twice as bright burns half as long, so I don’t necessarily expect a 15-year career, but I do expect some outstanding performances over the next half-dozen seasons.

27. Matt Holliday, LF, Rockies, Age 28 (–).
His career batting marks away from Coors Field are a .280 batting average, .346 on-base percentage, and .459 slugging average, which is pretty close to league-average for a corner outfielder. Even so, a player should not be punished just because he happens to have adapted himself exceptionally well to his home environment, and Holliday is an underrated defender-something that would play well just about anywhere.

26. Russell Martin, C, Dodgers, Age 25 (HM).
This is really one of the half-dozen most unique skill sets in baseball, with significantly above-average speed for a catcher, Gold Glove defense, and an outstanding plate approach. But a lot of Russell Martin’s value stems not from the fact that he plays better than other catchers so much that he plays so much more than other catchers. It is exceptionally rare for a catcher to work his way into as many as 150 ballgames in today’s environment. Martin did that last year, and he should be on pace to do it again this year, even if he occasionally has to cheat by playing third base.

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