Any conversation about the 2017 Major League Baseball season has to pay homage to the emergence of bicoastal sensations Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, the suddenly juggernaut-ish National League West, the Chicago Cubs’ surprising struggles and the Houston Astros’ breakthrough as a 100-win powerhouse.
Any discussion about the best player in the game begins and ends in the same place it has since 2012 — with the patch of grass encompassing center field at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Mike Trout rounds out this group only because the names are listed in inverse order of preference.
Which players assume the nine spots behind Trout on my top-10 best player list? The criteria are obviously subjective. Miguel Cabrera has the track record to merit inclusion, but he appears to be showing signs of slippage at age 34. Manny Machado has had a difficult first half, but he’s still a three-time All-Star with three top-10 MVP finishes to his credit at age 24. It won’t surprise anyone if he goes on a mega-tear after the break.
And how can a player be penalized for injury? Is it Freddie Freeman’s fault that he was plunked by a 94 mph fastball by Aaron Loup in May? Not from this vantage point.
I gave some thought to Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Mookie Betts, Joey Votto, Josh Donaldson, Francisco Lindor, Buster Posey and Machado before opting for the 10 players below. Sacrilegious as it might seem, I even considered Craig Kimbrel and his 0.48 WHIP before deciding it would take more than 60 dominant innings to make the cut.
10. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves: After posting career-best numbers in 2016, Freeman was motoring along with a 210 OPS+ this season when he went down with a fractured wrist. He has proved to be a fast healer, and his willingness to move across the diamond upon his return from the disabled list and play third base to accommodate Matt Adams reflects a team-first mindset. Listen to Freeman’s teammates gush about the attributes he brings to the franchise, and it tells you all you need to know about his impact. Former Braves general manager Frank Wren keeps looking better for that eight-year, $135 million investment in Freeman in 2014.
9. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies: Feel free to parse the career home-road splits (a .939 OPS at Coors Field compared to .775 everywhere else) or the .333 on-base percentage. Arenado is in a league of his own defensively at third base, and he brings a constant energy to the ballpark. I recently asked Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon about the lack of national attention Arenado has received, and all Blackmon wanted to talk about was what an injustice it was that Arenado finished fifth in the National League MVP balloting last season.
8. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros: It’s long past time to stop viewing Altuve as a diminutive overachiever and start regarding him for what he is: a monster producer and a force of nature in the middle of the infield and at the plate. Since the start of 2014, Altuve ranks fourth in the majors in WAR behind Trout, Donaldson and Paul Goldschmidt. Altuve’s longer record of achievement gives him a slight leg up on his teammate and double-play partner, Correa, who is on the fast track to elite status at age 22.
7. Chris Sale, LHP, Boston Red Sox: Sale has made the transition from an afterthought team in Chicago to a contender in Boston look as easy as, well, changing Sox. That 155-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio is ridiculous enough without the historical comparisons that Sale is eliciting. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he recently joined Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson as the third pitcher since 1893 to record 10 double-digit strikeout outings within his first 15 starts in a season.
6. Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals: Scherzer’s numbers are a testament to his excellence. But he also approaches the game with an old-school fervor that’s refreshing in an age of five-and-fly for starters. He leads the majors with six starts of eight innings or longer, and as the John Smoltzes and Ron Darlings consistently observe from upstairs in the broadcast booth, he cranks up the intensity in the late innings like a man who smells the finish line. Scherzer wins some serious Jack Morris points for treating each hit as a personal affront, wearing short sleeves in 40 degree weather, and wanting to go the distance every time out.
5. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs: The Cubs have been a disappointment, but Bryant continues to build on a resume that’s produced a Rookie of the Year and MVP Award at age 25. The power is a given, and this year Bryant leads the majors in walks and ranks 11th overall with an on-base percentage that’s a tick under .400. Bryant might be a star, but he’s always quick to say “yes” when manager Joe Maddon asks him to play first base, the outfield or anywhere else that benefits the team. Bryant has shown he can handle the expectations and demands of being the leading man for one of baseball’s most thoroughly scrutinized teams.
4. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals: While speculation builds over whether Harper will shoot for $400 million or $500 million as a free agent in 2018 — or join fellow Nevadan Bryant in the Chicago batting order — it’s good to see a healthy Harper back to playing with his natural confidence and swagger for the first-place Nationals. With a big second half, Harper has a chance to pocket his second MVP award by age 25. Then he can get to work on improving his .211 playoff batting average and helping Washington end its run of disappointing October finishes.
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks: After two runner-up MVP finishes, Goldschmidt is poised to duke it out with Harper and Arenado in the quest to win the award this year. Goldschmidt leads the National League in runs, RBIs and OPS while playing for an Arizona team that looks like a postseason lock. He also has 13 stolen bases and ranks second among MLB first basemen in defensive runs saved. Goldschmidt’s peers in the game know how good he is. Now it’s time for him to expand his profile before a national audience in October.
2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers: Kershaw is 29 years old, and he’s nearing the point where you have to ask, “How much more does he need to do to make himself a no-doubt Hall of Famer?” His 2.37 career ERA is the lowest by a pitcher (minimum: 1,500 innings) since 1920 — right ahead of Hoyt Wilhelm, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax and Jim Palmer. We all know where those four gentlemen wound up.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels: He’s been the classic amalgam of talent, work ethic, tools and modern metrics since his first full season in 2012. Trout has finished first or second in MVP balloting five straight times, so it wouldn’t be fair to let something as trivial as a torn thumb ligament knock him off his perch. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Mickey Mantle is Trout’s most similar age-related comparable, and that’s only fitting. Trout signed a $144.5 million contract, ditched the buzz cut and got engaged, but he continues to embody everything people expect in a superstar. Simply put, he sets the standard.