So let's say your team isn't one of the dozen or so teams still in contention for the playoffs this season. And let's say it wasn't really close -- that your team has a lot more Astros or White Sox in them than Nationals. It's a team in clear need of a rebuild from the ground floor up. But unlike Houston or Chicago, let's also say you don't have to wait for a top draft pick to pan out -- for our purposes, MLB has decided to hold a fantasy draft of every young player who has made his big league debut between the 2011 season and now. Don't sweat the details, like what "young" means (let's say under 25) or if a cup of coffee in 2010 should really disqualify a player (if you really want Josh Donaldson, don't let his 34 PA in 2010 stop you); it's a thought exercise, not something that's actually going to happen. It's a fantasy draft of the most exciting young talent in baseball with the goal of choosing the face of the franchise for the next six to eight years, and you get to choose second.
That's right, second. Giving you the first overall spot leaves you free to take Mike Trout, which you will do gladly -- despite only playing two of the years the thought exercise covers, the Angels centerfielder has already been far more valuable than any other eligible candidate, accumulating 19.0 WAR in just two seasons, proving himself an MVP candidate both this year and last despite playing for a team whose playoff aspirations keep ending earlier and earlier every season. A 21-year-old who has hit .317/.400/.539 for his career while having a good enough defensive profile to either play acceptably every day in centerfield or excel in one of the corners is the no-brainer choice, and the correct choice, and therefore just not interesting -- so Trout's being taken off the table.
While that still leaves a lot of very good, exciting young players up for grabs, it also opens up a lot more room for discussion. Put another way: after Trout, who is the best young MLB player to build a franchise around?
If you can't get Trout, it wouldn't hurt to get a guy who's been almost as good. Bryce Harper on the Washington Nationals made his debut last year, the same year as Trout's full-season debut, and he's a year younger; at age 20, he's already put up almost 1000 PA of .270/.351/.487 hitting, which only looks unimpressive when compared to the Angels outfielder's videogame numbers. While Trout was hardly unknown coming out of the draft, Harper was the guy getting put on the cover of Sports Illustrated and being called a phenom; he was projected as a five-tool generational talent: elite power, elite arm, above average ability to hit for average and speed who can still fake centerfield pretty well, although he's far better suited for one of the outfield corners. As good as he's been, though, he still doesn't quite have Trout's defensive profile nor his bat (yet), and the way Harper plays the game has gotten him hurt by his surroundings in ways that haven't manifested with Trout. He's still a great cornerstone for a franchise. Sooner or later, you're going to have to show him the money -- but that will be true of every name on this list, eventually.
Perhaps you've read one too many columns griping about Harper's attitude problems, though, and you want to pass on him (your loss, but hey, your choice). There are a couple other good outfielders available that fit the bill, though none with the ceiling and longevity that Trout and Harper promise. Two of them are Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Cespedes made the biggest impact of his young career this season at the Home Run Derby, where he put on such a magnificent show that his team, the Oakland Athletics, is opening up every home batting practice for the rest of the year to the public a bit earlier than usual just so fans can watch him take BP. Unfortunately, batting practice fastballs are the only pitches Cespedes has had sustained success against this season -- after a very encouraging rookie campaign where he hit .292/.356/.505, the Cuban has seen his OBP fall under .300 this year and only has 20 more extra base hits all season than he did at that Home Run Derby. Unlike Trout and Harper, the league adjusted to him and he hasn't yet been able to adjust back. Cespedes is also 27 years old, having played many years as a professional in Cuba before defecting to the United States.
Yasiel Puig is a similar commodity to Cespedes with a few very important differences. Most important is his age -- Puig is only 22, putting him much more in the age range of Harper and Trout than Cespedes, who is only younger than Delmon Young by about a month. He's more comparable to Harper than Cespedes, too; the scouting reports are eerily similar: plus-plus power, great bat speed, the ability to hit well for average, a cannon of an arm that makes him a valuable corner outfielder, even the ever-gnawing "maturity issues." As a prospect, his ceiling was thought to be a bit lower than Harper's, not only because Harper likely will develop even better game power than Puig once he really hits his stride, but also because Puig displayed worse plate discipline in the minors than Harper when not fed a steady diet of fastballs. So far these concerns have somewhat borne out -- Harper's career strikeout percentage and walk percentage are 19.7 and 10.7 respectively, while Puig's are 23.0 and 7.8. Still, Puig has less than a third of the plate appearances Harper does; it's possible those numbers get a bit closer together as the Cuban outfielder makes more adjustments. If you weren't in on Harper because of self-important sports columns about attitude problems, though, Puig's probably not your guy either; to hear some in the baseball media tell it, the Los Angeles Dodgers have already been eliminated from the playoffs due to some hypothetical mental gaffe of his.
Maybe an outfielder isn't your speed; maybe you want an anchor in your infield, as generally infielders who can field their positions carry more defensive value than corner outfielders, especially up the middle. There's a number of very good young defensive shortstops at the major league level -- Jose Iglesias of the Detroit Tigers and Adeiny Hechavarria of the Miami Marlins come to mind -- but the best of that lot is likely 23-year-old Atlanta Braves starter Andrelton Simmons. Simmons' overall defensive package is probably a tick better than Hechavarria's or Iglesias's, though not enough to put him in a clear tier above the two of them; what distinguishes Simmons from those two is his ability to hit. Simmons' .682 career OPS is modest, but it is far better than Hechavarria's .597, and while Iglesias actually has a slightly higher career OPS than Simmons at .693, that's been fueled by a bizarre season in which Iglesias has produced a batting average on balls in play of .376, almost all of them singles, resulting in a .324 batting average but only a .399 slugging percentage. Iglesias' true talent at the plate lies closer to the numbers he put up in almost 1000 PA at the Triple-A level: .244/.296/.292. Andrelton Simmons will never be Troy Tulowitzki at the plate -- and it's very much up for debate whether he's even better than him in the field -- but with Tulo unavailable for this exercise, Simmons is the clear choice for a franchise shortstop.
Manny Machado was supposed to be a shortstop who would eventually move over to third base as his body filled out, but with the position blocked by J.J. Hardy, the Baltimore Orioles just decided to move him over there early. The result has been a doubles-hitting defensive wizard at the hot corner, and while Adrian Beltre is still the best defensive third baseman in baseball, Machado is making the conversation very interesting. Machado hasn't hit quite as well as one would like out of a franchise cornerstone yet, but at 20 years old he still has time to grow into that. There's a chance -- an extremely speculative one, but a chance -- that Machado could still move back to short, and of course in this fantasy draft scenario if he were taken he could be moved back to that position immediately, but while he can handle the position with ease he's not the wizard that the Simmons and Hechavarrias of the world are there.
Taking a pitcher instead of a position player is certainly an option, but it's not a recommended one. Even the best starter only plays every five days, for one, and while any baseball player can get hurt, pitchers specifically are walking time bombs due to the stress that comes with throwing baseballs in the strange, unnatural way that MLB players do. Take, for example, 24-year-old Matt Harvey of the New York Mets. Harvey was a very well regarded amateur prospect coming out of the University of North Carolina, and when the Mets began developing him they directed his focus to his breaking and offspeed stuff instead of having him continue to pound minor league batters with his fastball, which led to some pretty unappealing numbers in the minors -- his 4.53 ERA in 59 2/3 innings pitched at Double A Binghamton being probably the biggest warning sign for observers who didn't understand what was going on with Harvey's development. Fast forward a year and change and Harvey's got four plus pitches with plus command, and somehow has been actually building velocity as the year has gone on. He won't win the NL Cy Young Award -- they might as well mail that one to Clayton Kershaw right now -- but he's easily the best, most exciting starting young pitcher to emerge since the beginning of the 2011 season.
And this week, the Mets had him undergo an MRI due to forearm soreness in his throwing arm and discovered a partial tear of his UCL. The Mets are being cautious with Harvey, shutting him down for a week or so and then seeing where he is after that, and it's not impossible to pitching on a partially torn UCL -- Adam Wainwright did it for almost five years before he finally had to get surgery on his throwing arm -- but that sort of success is the outlier, not the norm. Very likely Harvey will have to get Tommy John surgery at some point this offseason; that's hardly a career ender (though it's still not the guaranteed sure-thing it's occasionally portrayed as in the media), and Harvey should be back on the mound with full velocity and effectiveness within 18 months. That should be fine for the Mets' contention window. But the fact remains that while any player can get injured very badly, pitchers more than most are fragile, fickle creatures even at the very highest levels of talent unless you pick precisely the right one -- and that should be enough to bump them out of the top five of this fantasy draft exercise.
The thought exercise is just that: a thought exercise. While my choices after Trout would probably run Harper, Harvey, Machado, then Simmons, there's room for a whole lot of disagreement and debate (and for fans of Jason Kipnis, Jean Segura, Shelby Miller, Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt -- I didn't profile the last two because they're first basemen, and while both are very good at what they do it's relatively easier to find one of those than a franchise player somewhere farther up the defensive spectrum), but no one's going to be changing teams any time soon. The good news, though, is that prospects like Byron Buxton (Twins), Mark Appel (Astros), Oscar Taveras (Cardinals), and Taijuan Walker (Mariners) are well on their way up to the bigs; in a couple years, we'll be having the exact same sort of conversations about them.