Some articles are about the best baserunners in baseball, or the best catchers at calling a game, or the relievers with the fastest fastballs. Those are all fine topics about valuable skills, but for this piece, we're going to pick up our hammers, turn on our heavy metal, hop in our (mostly imaginary) muscle cars and dispense with subtlety. In this piece, we're going to pick the best possible baseball team by choosing the best players at each position.
Just to be clear, here's a list of things this article is not:
A list of the players with the best careers to date
A list of my favorite players
A list of the most valuable players (whatever that means)
A list of players with the silliest names
A list of players with the silliest names if you reverse the first letters in their first and last I think you get the point
I'll pick the best players at each position. Then I'll provide an explanation. Then, bowled over by my genius, you'll agree with me in the comments section. In fact, for ease of use, here is an easy customizable cut 'n paste comment:
"Hey Matt! Spectacularly fabulous job! I especially appreciated the part where you _____. Ha ha! That was so funny I spilled my ___ on my ____! Thanks for your excellent work, and I'll certainly follow you on Twitter @mattymatty2000 and purchase every product from every advertiser here at Sports on Earth. Keep up the great writing!"
Excellent. So hold on to your ___ because you don't want to spill it on your ___! Here, right now, today, are the best players in baseball.
Catcher: Yadier Molina
Buster Posey is incredible, and if you were to take the next five years of either guy's career, you'd have to take Posey's because of his youth. But right now, Molina is just sick. In a good way. He's a defensive force behind the plate in a way not seen since Pudge Rodriguez was in his prime. He's a danger to runners whether or not they try to steal, which they don't often do, because they are so afraid of him. He calls a great game, and he is one of the best pitch framers in baseball.
On top of all that, he somehow taught himself to hit. When Molina came up, he was a legitimately bad hitter. That lasted for four seasons, one of which was 2006, when he hit an abysmal .216/.274/.321. (The Cardinals won the World Series anyway.) Then, for two seasons, he was decent. Not great, just decent. Then for a season he went back to being not good again. Then he was outstanding, and he's done that for the last three seasons. He gets on base well, he hits .300 and he hits for power. He probably won't hit 22 homers again like he did two seasons ago, but if he's in the 10-15 range, hitting .300, getting on base at an above average rate, handling a pitching staff, calling a great game, framing pitches and scaring the bejeezus out of base-runners, that's a package nobody in the game can match.
First Base: Miguel Cabrera
First base isn't typically a haven for great defenders, which is good because the choice here has to be Cabrera. Cabrera isn't much for defense, baserunning or regular running, and were baseball to stop right there, Cabrera would be Yuniesky Betancourt. Fortunately for him and for us, there's a lot more to it than that, like hitting, and there is no better hitter in baseball than Cabrera. Were I running the Tigers, I wouldn't have sat down at the table -- much less seriously discussed or, ultimately, agreed upon -- the contract extension he just received, but for one year, there isn't anyone you'd rather have playing first base. I could show you more stats, his silly WAR over the last few years, his high batting averages, even higher on-base percentages, or cite his back-to-back MVPs, but he's Miguel Cabrera and for this season, that should be enough.
Second Base: Robinson Cano
You could make an argument for Matt Carpenter or Dustin Pedroia, but the best second baseman in baseball right now is Cano. Some of his offensive numbers might suffer in Seattle, given that he's moving to a pitcher's park and playing with teammates that aren't up the standard he's used to in New York. But that's mostly just window dressing. Cano hits for power and for average, and his on-base abilities have been trending upward as well. Like with Cabrera, you can argue about Cano's contract, but you can't argue about the player.
Third Base: Evan Longoria
The Rays have enjoyed success over the past six seasons for many reasons, but perhaps there is no more vital keystone to their success than Longoria. Their problem was how to keep a superstar when your team's payroll is the same as a superstar's salary. In Longoria, the Rays have not only a superstar who does all the superstar-y things that superstars do (hits, hits for power, gets on base, fields, etc.) but they have a superstar who signed for less money to stay in Tampa Bay, and then did it again! That's not a common occurrence in today's game, and as far as I'm concerned, Longoria gets extra credit for it. Third base is a tough field with Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, David Wright and, when he gets healthy, Manny Machado, but Longoria's power and on-base ability edge out the competition.
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
The thing about shortstop is most guys who can play it can't hit, and most guys who can hit can't play it. So when you find someone who can do both, that's the good stuff. Tulowitzki is the good stuff. He isn't Andrelton Simmons or Jose Iglesias defensively, but he's as good as anyone else. Also, he's twice the hitter Simmons is and probably three times that of Iglesias. The only other guy you could make an argument for is Hanley Ramirez, but Hanley has two problems. First off, he's not nearly as good a fielder. Secondly, his offense bounces around. There is a good chance he'll be an MVP-type hitter, but then he could lose interest and be an average shortstop. Tulowitzki is the best hitting, best fielding shortstop in the game. He's the total package.
Outfield: Mike Trout
Outfield: Andrew McCutchen
Coming off an MVP season, it's not hard to make a case for McCutchen as one of the best three outfielders in baseball. He's been worth over six wins each of the last two years. With Trout around, he won't have to play centerfield on this hypoethical team, but his bat can more than carry a corner spot. The prototypical great slash line is .300/.400/.500 -- that is hitting .300, getting on base 40 percent of the time and slugging .500 (i.e. averaging a base per two at-bats). McCutchen does that and a bit better. Throw in the fact that he'll be 27 this season, and it's possible we haven't seen the best from the reigning MVP yet.
Outfield: Giancarlo Stanton
Last season wasn't particularly kind to Stanton. He suffered a strained hamstring that shelved him for a month and a half, and he also had a poor April. The end result was the worst season of his career. That doesn't mean he isn't the third best outfielder in baseball though. He is. It isn't just the over-everything power either. The guy can hit, he can take a walk, he can throw and he's not a half-bad fielder either, though that's not his calling card.
Stanton stands as not only a player with accomplishments, but as a barely filled cup, one with the capacity to accomplish so much more. That's the tantalizing part about him. The power overshadows everything, but under that there is a great player waiting to get loose. But suppose you disagree. Would you take Ryan Braun over Stanton now? It's defensible, but after the suspension and injury woes, I wouldn't. Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday are older, Shin-Soo Choo and Jayson Werth are up and down, Ben Zobrist is really a second baseman and Josh Hamilton is terrible. That leaves Stanton, which is as it should be.
Designated Hitter: David Ortiz
This is as obvious as picking Mike Trout, partly because Ortiz is objectively awesome (as is Trout), but mostly because there are not any other full-time DHs worthy of discussion. About the only one who you could reasonably pick ahead of Ortiz is Edwin Encarnacion, and he plays first base. Also, you wouldn't pick him over Ortiz anyway. As for Ortiz himself, there's risk because being a 38-year-old ballplayer is always risky, but he was so good last year that it's hard to see him falling off completely. In other words, even a large drop-off in production will put him around the best DHs in baseball, and if you're counting things like leadership and stature within the game, then there's some portion of that value right back.
Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
What David Ortiz is to DHs, Kershaw is to starting pitchers. The amazing thing about Kershaw is his walk rate has dropped by almost 60 percent since 2009. The truly amazing thing that happened along with that amazing thing is his strikeout rate didn't fall that much and his home run rate remained crazy low as well. Often fewer walks means throwing more strikes which means giving up more balls in play and thus getting fewer strikeouts. More balls in play also means more home runs, but not for Kershaw. Even taking into account the injury that has him sidelined for the next few weeks, there isn't a pitcher in baseball I'd rather have on the mound.
Relief Pitcher: Koji Uehara
...though Uehara comes close. There is a very good case to be made that this is the wrong choice, and Craig Kimbrel is the right choice. That may be so, as Kimbrel throws super hard, gets crazy strikeouts and generally pitches like a closer should pitch. But Uehara's strikeout rate (12.23 K/9) was only just below Kimbrel's (13.16) while his walk rate was less than half what Kimbrel's was. What's more, Kimbrel's K rate is dropping while his walk rate has gone up. If you're picking one guy for this season, you can't go wrong with Kimbrel, but Uehara is just a bit better.
At issue here is whether Uehara can repeat his 2013 and the answer is no, of course not. At one point Uehara retired 37 straight hitters, which is a perfect game and then 10 more guys! Uehara might not be quite that good again, but his combination of pinpoint control and a devastating splitter makes him the best reliever in baseball right now.
So that's it. That's my team. Maybe at the end of the season we'll go back over this and see how they did and where I erred, because certainly I've erred. But for now, from where I'm sitting, this is the best collection of players in baseball.