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Monday, April 17, 2006
Updated: April 19, 3:52 PM ET
Baseball's most valuable players

By Nate Silver
Special to Page 2

Maybe Scott Boras finds a technicality in the eighth paragraph of the fourth amendment of the collective bargaining agreement. Maybe Bud Selig and Don Fehr, dreading another round of labor negotiations, decide to call one another's bluff and blow the whole thing up. Maybe al-Qaida has invented a new, amnesia-inducing biological weapon, and for reasons unbeknownst to anyone, decides to test it on the executive offices of the 30 Major League Baseball clubs.

But here's what happens. The rosters of the 30 MLB teams, the organized minor leagues, and the professional leagues in Japan, Cuba and Korea are dissolved. All contracts are declared null and void. Everybody is a free agent. There is going to be a fantasy draft to end all fantasy drafts. And you're on the clock.

Baseball Prospectus' Projection System
You can learn more about Nate Silver's PECOTA system for projecting future player value and statistics at the Baseball Prospectus Web site.

Nate is also a co-author of the new Baseball Prospectus book, "Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong." Page 2 ran excerpts from the book earlier this month.

One important ground rule before we begin. Although a player's real-life contract is no longer of any consequence -- for instance, the Rockies can get out of paying Denny Neagle without having to invoke the Hooker Clause -- the current structure of Major League Baseball still applies. What that means, specifically, is that the players you draft will be under your club's control for six years of major league service time -- first under the reserve clause, then under the arbitration system. After that, they become free agents. The six years of service time don't necessarily have to be the next six years. For example, you could draft Brandon Wood, keep him in the minor leagues for two years, and then get his services for 2008-13. But it's still just six years. In other words, we're looking at the long term, but not the infinite term.

These rankings are informed by Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA. Among its other bells and whistles, PECOTA predicts a player's value not only for the current season, but also for many years upcoming. You can see, if you're really curious, how many sacrifice flies Torii Hunter is going to hit in 2009. But the rankings also take into account scouting judgments, injury reports, and a healthy dose of old-fashioned gut feel.

Pencils and scorecards ready? Here is your cheat sheet:

Daisuke Matsuzaka
Daisuke Matsuzaka's fastball at the WBC probably violated the Kyoto Protocol.
50. Daisuke Matsuzaka, P, Seibu Lions (25)
Rumors that he throws an unidentified flying object called the gyroball were greatly exaggerated, but the buzz surrounding Matsuzaka grew from a loud whisper into a kamikaze scream after his MVP performance in the World Baseball Classic. Matsuzaka has a fastball that has been clocked as high as 100 mph, and he's posted a 3.7 strikeout-walk ratio over his previous three seasons in Japan. Unlike other Japanese imports, he could emigrate to the United States while still in his mid-20s. PECOTA is reserved, seeing Matsuzaka as a No. 2/No. 3 guy rather than a true staff ace, but he'd likely benefit from the Nomo Effect until teams caught up with his scouting report -- and his heater.

49. Justin Verlander, P, Detroit Tigers (23)
Full disclosure: I am a Tigers fan. But this is an awfully tempting bandwagon to jump on. Among an impressive crop of rookie pitchers, Verlander is the only one who rates as major league plus in all three critical departments: stuff (he hit triple digits in his first start of the season against Texas), command (2.0 BB/9 over his professional career), and home run/fly ball prevention (just four bombs allowed in 119 minor league innings last season). Although his mechanics look a bit skittish to my eyes, Baseball Prospectus colleagues Will Carroll and Kevin Goldstein assure me that they're solid and repeatable, and much improved from his Old Dominion days.

48. Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers (22)
You can excuse Fielder if he looked a bit nervous during his first dozen at-bats this season -- much has been expected of the not-so-little Prince since he started swatting home runs into the Tiger Stadium overhang while taking batting practice with his daddy at the age of 12. Fielder combines as much raw power potential as any prospect in the game with a refined hitting approach, going the other way and using the count to his advantage. Given his bubbly build, he's likely to be a better player in his 20s than his 30s, but he could easily be at 200 home runs and counting before he deposits his first free agency paycheck.

47. Jeremy Hermida, OF, Florida Marlins (22)
It's rare that you'll see Baseball Prospectus criticize a prospect for being too patient, but that may be the case with Hermida, who had nearly as many walks (111) at Double-A Carolina last season as he did base hits (113). He's likely to go through some slumps this season once major league pitchers learn to hit the corners and exploit his passivity. But Hermida projects to add enough power to his athletic 6-foor-4 frame to eventually render that a dicey proposition, tipping the scales back in his favor. A Dwight Evans-type career could follow.

46. Chris Young, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks (22)
In Baseball Prospectus 2006, we made the bold claim that Young could turn out to become the White Sox' answer to Jeff Bagwell -- how'd they let that guy go? A .922 minor league OPS last season, impressive enough on its own, becomes all the more frightening once you consider that it came at Double-A Birmingham, one of the toughest hitting environments in the minor leagues. Young's only outstanding weakness is a propensity to strike out on tough breaking stuff, but he's Mike Cameron if he doesn't adjust -- and could show us what a healthy Eric Davis would have done if he does adjust.

Bobby Crosby
Despite a .249 career batting average, Crosby could become Oakland's golden child if he doesn't suffer any more strange injuries.
45. Bobby Crosby, SS, Oakland A's (26)
Crosby, on the other hand, has no discernable weaknesses, save for a propensity to get himself injured in the strangest ways: an ankle that collided with Sal Fasano's shin guard last September; a hand that collided with Robinson Cano's cleat on Opening Day. If Crosby can make it through the rest of the year without having arachnoid nightmares or a truck-washing accident, he projects for several seasons of .800-.850 OPS and a closet full of Gold Glove awards at short.

44. Ben Sheets, P, Milwaukee Brewers (27)
Speaking of injury problems, Sheets' recurring back issues following very heavy workloads in 2003 and 2004 were enough to have us demote him 10 slots from where he'd deserve to rank based on his statistical record alone. Good numbers for Brewers fans: 264, 32. Those were, respectively, the number of strikeouts and walks that Sheets had in 2004. Bad numbers for Brewers fans: 49, 13. Those were, respectively, the uniform numbers of Teddy Higuera and Jeff D'Amico.

43. Vernon Wells, OF, Toronto Blue Jays (27)
Sometimes the best breakout candidates aren't players who have never been spoken about before -- but rather, guys who have failed to live up to expectations in the recent past. PECOTA foresaw this pattern last season with Andruw Jones, and it sees the same potential in Wells -- a player who, like Jones, does too many things well on a baseball diamond to settle for league-average production.

42. Dontrelle Willis, P, Florida Marlins (24)
As Bill James has emphasized, the number of productive years that a pitcher has left may be better reflected in his strikeout rate than his date of birth. On that score, Willis and his league-average strikeout rate might be more like 28 than 24, and it's telling that two of his top three PECOTA comparables are Steve Avery and Jim Abbott. Still, Willis put to rest a lot of rumors about off-balance mechanics with a couple of excellent outings during the season's first week, and last season nearly became the youngest Cy Young winner since Roger Clemens in 1986. Look further down Willis' PECOTA comparables list and you'll find Jim Kaat and Tommy John -- two pitchers who had no problems with their longevity.

41. Brandon Webb, P, Arizona Diamondbacks (27)
Almost certainly the league's least heralded great pitcher, Webb rates as the best true power ground ball pitcher since Kevin Brown -- and remember that Brown didn't really get it going until he was in his 30s. Webb's breakout could happen earlier with the addition of Gold Glover Orlando Hudson at second base, who should give Arizona its most synergistic tandem this side of Steve Nash and Shawn Marion.

40. Brian McCann, C, Atlanta Braves (22)
One of the idiosyncrasies of the prospect shell game is that players who break into the major leagues in midseason are often held in less regard than guys who spend the whole season in the minors -- making themselves eligible for the myriad top 10 and top 100 lists that dominate hot stove discussions. McCann, along with the Reds' Edwin Encarnacion and the Tigers' Curtis Granderson, qualifies as a player to watch this season. PECOTA projects McCann to develop into a .290 BA, .370 OBP, 25 HR guy within the next several seasons. Given how well the Braves develop young talent, it's easy to share in that optimism.

39. Chris Carpenter, P, St. Louis Cardinals (31)
The flip side of the Dontrelle Willis quandary. Although Carpenter has the DNA of a 31-year-old -- and the labrum of a 310-year-old -- his strikeout total last season, just three off Jake Peavy's NL-leading total, suggests that he has several years worth of ace-worthy performance left. The Cardinals' cautious approach is another point in his favor -- in spite of throwing 242 innings last season, Carpenter's highest pitch count topped out at just 120. One hopes that experiences like the Cards' April 8 loss to the Cubs -- Carpenter was pulled after six shutout innings, only to watch helplessly as the bullpen blew the game -- doesn't test the wrong side of Tony La Russa's stubborn streak.

38. Lance Berkman, 1B-OF, Houston Astros (30)
Little-known fact: While Minute Maid Park is a fine home for right-handed hitters, it depresses the numbers of lefties to the tune of 10 to 15 percent, roughly comparable to RFK Stadium or PETCO Park. In other words, Berkman, who takes most of his at-bats (and does the vast majority of his damage) from the port side of home plate, is chronically underrated everywhere outside of the Houston Metroplex. Not that he needs much sympathy: Berkman's career OPS of .973 is the 17th highest in baseball history entering this season.

Ryan Zimmerman
With his all-around skills, Zimmerman gives The District a new kind of undercover operative.
37. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington Nationals (21)
Will Zimmerman become this generation's answer to Ron Santo? He's exactly the sort of player who is liable to be underrated for much of his career, playing in a pitchers' park, and overshadowed in his own division by David Wright and Miguel Cabrera. Still, Zimmerman has done nothing but hit since switching from pinging bats to cracking ones. PECOTA identifies his No. 1 comparable as Albert Pujols, but the more likely scenario is that he settles into a Jeff Kent-type of offensive profile, with Scott Rolen-caliber defense at the hot corner.

36. Marcus Giles, 2B, Atlanta Braves (28)
Hank Aaron played most of his career at 180 pounds. Yogi Berra stood just 5-8, before accounting for his hunchback. In this sense, Giles is a throwback player, using his diminutive stature to his advantage by shrinking his strike zone and taking advantage of his short stroke. The caveat is that smaller players tend to be more susceptible to the cruelties of injury and age -- think about what happened to Chuck Knoblauch -- but for the time being Giles remains every bit as underrated as his older brother.

35. Pedro Martinez, P, New York Mets (34)
The oldest player on our list -- Julio Franco just missed the cut. A few years ago, we might have been lower on Pedro, but that was before seeing what Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson have done in their 40s. The hallmark of a truly great player is that he performs at an elite level far longer than a mere mortal could. Random overspecific prediction: When his Mets contract terminates at the end of the 2008 season, Pedro will reunite with the Red Sox and become their closer, putting together a couple of Dennis Eckersley-like seasons.

34. Victor Martinez, C, Cleveland Indians (27)
PECOTA has one particular worry with Martinez, which is the ability of a slow-footed catcher -- Martinez has swiped only one bag in his career -- to maintain a batting average north of .300. Still, it's not like we're talking about Jason Kendall. Even if Martinez' BA corrects into the .270-.280 range, he'll be vying with Joe Mauer for the AL's All-Star catcher job for years to come.

Travis Hafner
Hafner has quietly grown into one of the most feared sluggers in baseball.
33. Travis Hafner, DH, Cleveland Indians (29)
Hafner is the Bill Pullman of the baseball world: so consistent that you might not even notice him. Since 2004, the lowest OPS that Hafner had in any full month was .810 (May 2005). So it was only fair that Hafner had a movie-star first week of the 2006 season, including a streak of reaching base 10 straight times, and four home runs in six at-bats. There is little separating Hafner from the considerably more famous David Ortiz.

32. Ryan Howard, 1B, Philadelphia Phillies (26)
Howard found himself at the proverbial fork in the road last season, with the Sam Horn Memorial Path to Nowhere on one side, and Albert Belle Boulevard on the other. Needless to say, after mashing a home run every 13.7 at-bats between the majors and the minors last season, Howard chose his course wisely. Howard stands a good chance to become the first major leaguer to strike out 200 times in a season. If he can learn to hit left-handed pitchers, he also stands a good chance to be the next major leaguer to cross the 60-home run barrier.

31. Brandon Wood, SS, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (21)
We're very excited about Brandon Wood. It's just that we seem to be slightly less excited about him than everyone else. The California League, the home for Wood's 101 extra-base hits last season, is an environment that yielded 11.5 runs per game last season, roughly equivalent to a pre-humidor year at Coors Field. Wood also needs to improve his strike zone judgment, and he's likely to move from shortstop to third base -- although that has more to do with the prodigiousness of his offense than his lack of glove. For now, our best guess is that he'll wind up with a career like Adrian Beltre's, but it won't take much more convincing -- Wood is off to a hot start at Double-A Arkansas -- to get us buying into the Cal Ripken/Mike Schmidt scenarios.

30. Carlos Beltran, OF, New York Mets (29)
Our research for "Baseball Between the Numbers" revealed that players really do hit better in contract years, and Beltran's prolific second half in 2004 was perhaps the most well-timed contract grab since the Louisiana Purchase. Fortunately for Omar Minaya, Beltran does enough things well to provide a reasonable return on his investment, even if he doesn't quite live up to his marquee billing. Even after his disappointing 2005, our PECOTA system figures that Beltran will be worth an average of $9.7 million per season over the next five years.

Jake Peavy
Peavy finished last year with a 13-7 record and a 2.88 ERA.
29. Jake Peavy, P, San Diego Padres (25)
PECOTA regards Peavy as the best long-term pitching prospect in baseball, outpacing even Johan Santana. But our team health reports system gave Peavy a bright red light, citing a myriad of health and mechanical problems that could presage a more serious breakdown. Given Peavy's inconsistent start to the season, the red light carries the day.

28. Michael Young, SS, Texas Rangers (29)
Apart from Michael Young, the only players to win a batting title in a season in which they played primarily at shortstop are A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra, Honus Wagner, Luke Appling, Arky Vaughn, Lou Boudreau and Dick Groat. Four of those players are in the Hall of Fame, another one certainly will be, and the other two were five-time All-Stars. So how is it that Young keeps such a low profile? He can't even take pleasure in Googling himself; the first hit that came up belongs to a Brit who designs esoteric bus shelters.

27. Howie Kendrick, 2B, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (22)
OK, so Baseball Prospectus has been beating on the batting-average-is-overrated drum since it came out of the womb. But when a player hits .360 over his first 1,200 professional at-bats, there comes a point when you just throw all that out the window, and just give credit to a guy who is looking more and more like he might be a once-in-a-generation, Tony Gwynn-type contact hitter. Or even scarier, Tony Gwynn with 20 home runs a season, and playing at a premium defensive position. Kendrick has a less risky profile than Wood, and may have just as much upside.

26. Roy Halladay, P, Toronto Blue Jays (29)
The telling thing about pitchers is that it isn't just the Rick Ankiels and Kerry Woods of the world -- virtually every elite pitcher in our top 50 is either dealing with an injury issue presently, has had a major injury in the recent past, or is an injury risk due to age or workload. Halladay's injury issues, at least, have been of a flukish nature, particularly the Kevin Mench line drive that he took off his leg last July. Considering that Halladay limited opponents to a .587 OPS last season and that his curveball buckles more knees than Tony Soprano on a coke bender, we think this is an appropriate hedge.

Check out Nos. 25 through No. 1.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus.