Baseball ratings are up by more than 20 percent this season, and I think I know the reason why. Rarely has there been so much star talent accumulated on the diamond at any one time. In New York you have a veteran third baseman who shed years of being labeled as a choker with one 14-homer, 34-RBI month. In Minnesota you have a young catcher who accomplished the improbable by winning the batting title last year -- and is now threatening to do it again. In Philadelphia you have a shortstop who has already hit nine homers -- and is overshadowed by not one but two shortstops in his own division.
Sorting through all these spectacular performances isn't easy, which is why we're proud to present Baseball Prospectus' second annual Ultimate Fantasy Draft. In concept, the UFD is pretty simple: If you were starting a baseball team from scratch, which players would you want to build your team around? In practice, these are the ground rules:
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 2007 through 2012 seasons -- A-Rod's performance from age 31 through age 37, for example, or Jose Reyes from age 24 through age 29. 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.
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 five-year projections for each player based on his historical comparables. Brian McCann could be the next Johnny Bench, for example -- or he could be the next Dave Nilsson. However, we are by no means slave to the numbers, as this sort of list necessarily requires us to lean heavily on our instincts and scouting impressions.
We present the Top 50 proper in Casey Kasem fashion. (Last year's rankings are in parenthesis.)
The 22-year-old B.J. Upton could be another Gary Sheffield in the making.
No. 50. B.J. Upton, 2B, Devil Rays, Age 22 (No. 25 last year)
In 2004, at age 19, Upton tore his way through Triple-A, spent much of his summer in Tampa Bay, and looked like a future superstar. This year, at 22, he's leading the Devil Rays in all major offensive categories, and his five-tool skills are coming to fruition. So what happened in between? Perhaps a failure on all sides to manage expectations. The Rays expected Upton's glove to be ready as quickly as his bat, while Upton didn't expect to find himself back in Durham. There are parallels between Upton and Gary Sheffield, another player who had an awesome minor league pedigree but whose defense and attitude made for a difficult adjustment to the major leagues.
No. 49. Justin Verlander, P, Tigers, Age 24 (No. 49)
So Verlander wins a Rookie of the Year Award and helps the Tigers to the World Series -- and he's stuck in the same No. 49 slot that he was a year ago? The concern is his strikeout-to-walk ratio-- a pedestrian 152-to-79 for his major league career -- suggests a No. 2/No. 3 pitcher rather than a future ace. It may be that Verlander, who relies as much on his guile as his plus-plus fastball, leaves something in the tank for when he needs it most. Last year he struck out 14.8 percent of batters with the bases empty, but that number rose to 18.6 percent with runners in scoring position.
No. 48. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies, Age 28 (NR)
Rollins isn't a name that jumped out at me when I first started considering candidates for this list. "Quick little shortstop, good player, great baserunner, decent glove, but nothing special" -- that's how the world has always thought of him. But all of the sudden Rollins has become something much more than that. Did you know that he had 79 extra-base hits last year -- more than Garrett Atkins, Miguel Cabrera and Andruw Jones -- and that he could join Barry Larkin and Alex Rodriguez as the only shortstops in the 30-30 club?
No. 47. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers, Age 23 (48)
As we mentioned last year, Fielder often gets mischaracterized because of the legacy left by his father. His strikeout rate is perfectly reasonable for a power hitter and his defense isn't bad. And even if he did it by generating bowling ball-like momentum, the man stole seven bags last year. Still, his power is where his value lies, and he should spend the better part of the next decade in the 30-40 home run range.
No. 46. Francisco Liriano, P, Twins, Age 23 (NR)
Before his injury, PECOTA thought he was the second-best pitcher in the game after Johan Santana. If I were doing PR for Liriano, I'd explain that his Tommy John surgery was just a way to keep his pitch counts down. TJ ain't what it used to be, and an increasing number of pitchers, ranging from Mariano Rivera to Chris Carpenter to John Smoltz, have recovered to be at least as good as they were pre-surgery. In some ways I prefer this course to a long series of ticky-tack injuries (think Rich Harden and Mark Prior).
No. 45. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Rangers, Age 27 (7)
This is all very strange. Established major league stars with robust skill sets don't just see their power evaporate at age 27. I expect one of two things to happen: It's revealed that Teixeira is suffering from an injury that is impeding his hitting mechanics, or his bat rebounds to 95 percent of its established levels. His slick defense gives him some margin for error.
No. 44. Andruw Jones, CF, Braves, Age 30 (20)
He's at the age where he's going to need to start making adjustments -- and so far, so good. Andruw no longer has the wheels that he once did in center field, but he makes up for it by getting tremendous reads as the ball leaves the bat. His bulk prevents him from legging out as many base hits, but he makes up for it by swinging for the fences more often. He may have lost a tick of bat speed, but he makes up for it by working the count more carefully; he has seen 4.13 pitches per plate appearance thus far this season, far above his 3.73 P/PA career norm. It's exactly these sorts of adjustments that should lock him in as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
No. 43. Chris B. Young, CF, Diamondbacks, Age 23 (46)
On his way to recovering from a slow start at the plate, Young often gets compared to Mike Cameron, but the better comparison might be a young Andruw Jones (his No. 8 PECOTA comparable). Like Jones, Young is probably not a candidate to be a .300 hitter, but everything else is just about perfect, including power, plate discipline, speed and center field defense. If nobody in your fantasy league has heard of the "other" Chris Young, the time to make the move for him is right now.
No. 42. Delmon Young, RF, Devil Rays, Age 21 (16)
Lost in the hubbub of the bat-throwing incident is that Young's offensive development has been a little flat over the past year and a half. Combining his performance in the majors and minors he has hit just 15 home runs and drawn just 22 walks since the start of the 2006 season. Young is still very ... young, but there's an increasing chance that he turns out a lot like older brother Dmitri, a merely league average player.
No. 41. Tim Lincecum, P, Giants, Age 23 (NR)
He was called up to the majors, perhaps for good, last Sunday and made his first big league start against the Phillies (a no-decision). He made five starts for Triple-A Fresno this season. In four of those he stuck out a combined 42 batters in 24.2 innings. In his other start he struck out just four batters -- but no-hit the Tucson Sidewinders for six innings. This is nothing new for Lincecum, who has limited opponents to a .123 batting average over the course of his minor league career and has struck out almost every other batter that he's faced. There are some questions about his mechanics and his physical stature (he's listed at 5'11" but is probably shorter), but he has two pitches that rate as a perfect 80 on the scouting scale, and it's been a long while since a prospect tore through the minor leagues in quite this way. In terms of pure upside perhaps only a half-dozen players on this list rate higher.
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