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Written by Lewie Pollis (Contact & Archive) on January 26, 2011
Who are the best players in the league? It's a debate that will persist for as long as there is professional baseball. It's one thing to argue it during the season. Predicting who the best players will be before the season is nearly impossible. Here are my picks for the American League, along with my completely unscientific projections for their stats.
(.307/.396/.556, 33 homers/100 RBI/88 runs/0 stolen bases, 6.8 WAR). Justin Morneau played exactly half a season (81 games) for the Minnesota Twins before a concussion knocked him out for the rest of 2010. His numbers prorated over a full season: .345/.437/.618 with 36 homers, 112 RBI, and a Ruthian 10.6 WAR (for comparison, Josh Hamilton led the majors with 8.0 WAR). And, of course, there's his fantastic defense (18.0 UZR/150).
Miguel Cabrera might be the more popular pick here, and the bar is set pretty high for Adrian Gonzalez. But assuming Morneau is healthy, he could regress significantly and still be the best first-bagger in the league.
Second Base: Dustin Pedroia (.319/.400/.511, 22/79/120/16, 6.9 WAR). Foot problems limited 2008 AL MVP Dustin Pedroia to just 75 games last year, but he gave the Boston Red Sox their money's worth when he was in the lineup. In addition to posting an .860 OPS, Pedroia was on pace to set career highs in homers (26), RBI (89), walks (80), and WAR (7.1). And at age 27, Pedroia is only getting better.
Giving Pedroia the edge over Robinson Cano was tough after his fantastic 2010 season, but Pedroia's defense and history of performing at an elite level give him a slight advantage.
Third Base: Evan Longoria (.289/.377/.519, 28/102/91/11, 6.6 WAR). After a phenomenal rookie season and an MVP-caliber sophomore campaign, Evan Longoria quietly gave the Tampa Bay Rays another elite performance at the hot corner in 2010, adding improved speed (15 steals) and plate discipline (10.9 percent walk rate) to his already impressive toolset. Especially noteworthy is his eye-popping defense, which UZR rates as 44 runs above average over the last three years.
Third base is a tough position in the Junior Circuit-Adrian Beltre had a better 2010 season, and Alex Rodriguez has a more impressive track record. Still, I'm going with the guy who had accumulated almost 20 WAR before his 25th birthday.
Shortstop: Elvis Andrus (.290/.365/.379, 4/56/101/43, 4.2 WAR). After making a run at Rookie of the Year in 2009, Andrus disappointed for the Texas Rangers last season, losing almost all of his power (just 18 extra bases hits) and dropped 1.2 wins' worth of value with his glove alone. And yet, he demonstrated improved plate discipline, and a .317 BABIP is a little low for a speedy groundball hitter.
Andrus takes the title here almost by default-with Derek Jeter, Marco Scutaro, and Asdrubal Cabrera coming off down years, his only real competition is Yunel Escobar. And given Andrus' age (22) and pedigree, I'll go with him.
Catcher: Joe Mauer (.318/.393/.462, 11/83/85/2, 4.9 WAR). Of all the positions on the team, this one was the most obvious. The 2009 AL MVP regressed significantly in 2010, yet still managed an .871 OPS and 5.1 WAR from the most demanding position in the game while helping the Twins to an AL Central championship. He's not likely to win another MVP trophy anytime soon, but he's a good a catcher as there is in Major League Baseball.
However, this contest was closer than you might think. Carlos Santana demonstrated power and plate discipline beyond his 24 years in 54 games last year. Assuming he can fully recover from his horrific knee injury, he'll almost certainly usurp Mauer inside two years.
(.328/.376/.548, 35/103/92/6, 5.9 WAR) Shin-Soo Choo, (.308/.405/.501, 24/97/95/18, 6.2 WAR) and Nelson Cruz (.295/.359/.538, 29/86/102/26, 6.3 WAR). We have to start with Josh Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP and last year's best player in baseball. It's hard to know what to expect from a late bloomer who had never played so well over a full season and was a below-average hitter in 2009, but J-Ham has the pure talent to maintain his status as an elite player.
Fresh off signing the most team-friendly contract of the offseason, Shin-Soo Choo is without question the best player no one talks about. By one measure, Choo was worth 7.3 wins to the Indians last season, and given his improving strikeout and walk rates, he may be getting even better.
Meanwhile, Nelson Cruz seems poised to chase an MVP trophy as soon as he plays a full season's worth of games. A true five-tool player, Cruz combines great power (.258 ISO last year) with good speed (17 steals) and Gold Glove-worthy defense (12.4 UZR/150). He was worth 5.1 WAR in 108 games last year-the equivalent of 7.7 over a full season.
This was the hardest position to pick, which is telling since it was also the one that had the most available spots. Jose Bautista has earned a spot in the discussion after blasting 54 homers last year. Carl Crawford seems destined for big things in Fenway Park. Ben Zobrist would be a good pick if he can find his 2009 groove. There's even an argument to be made for Brett Gardner. And I wouldn't be surprised to see a big return from someone like Carlos Quentin or Grady Sizemore.
Designated Hitter: Adam Dunn (.249/.382/.517, 36/110/91/2, 3.6 WAR). For several years, Adam Dunn has been one of the most consistent power hitters in the game. But for the last few seasons, he's also been one of the worst fielders in baseball history. He won't have to worry about that now that he's with the Chicago White Sox, where only his bat will matter.
David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jorge Posada all are viable candidates as well, but none is as sure to pack a punch as Big Donkey.
Lewie Pollis is a freshman at Brown University. For more of his work, go to WahooBlues.com. He can be reached