If it were my job to rank the top 100 players in Major League Baseball for the 2020 season, it’d be all Chicago Cubs …. plus Jake Arrieta and Dexter Fowler (both in Cubs jerseys, because it’s my set of rankings and you don’t get a say). Fortunately for everyone here, that’s not something I do.
I will, however, discuss ESPN’s preseason set of player rankings with you, and how mad I am that Javy Baez isn’t in the top-20 … or that Kyle Hendricks isn’t in the top-100 at all.
Won’t you join me?
ESPN's MLB Rank, 100-1: Baseball's top players for 2020 https://t.co/qugM2P2ukG
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) March 10, 2020
I’m not going to spoil the entire list – you can catch it here (with write-ups) – but there were a few non-Cubs things I wanted to get to first, before I turn to the Cubs specifics. For example, the top-10.
Unsurprisingly, Mike Trout takes the top spot for the *seventh* straight season. But surprisingly, two pitchers follow immediately after: Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom. I suppose if these are 2020-only rankings, it’s a fair finish for the top-three overall, but let’s just say I’m curious to see what kind of performance Cole will deliver (1) away from the Astros, (2) on a historically large contract, (3) in a big, stressful market like New York, and (4) in the season he turns 30.
Accusations of Houston spin-rate malfeasance aside, it was just 2017 when Cole posted a 4.26 ERA with a 4.08 FIP and 3.4 WAR. Are we absolutely sure he’s going to be that 2019 guy again? So much so that we’re ready to call him the second best player in baseball behind Trout? Eh. I’d have gone with one of …
Christian Yelich, Mookie Betts, and Cody Bellinger gobble up the next three spots and I think it’s pretty fair to have those three in any order. After Trout, they’re the best position players in baseball and much safer bets to eventually earn their rankings than any pitcher.
Notably, Betts joins Nolan Arenado (9th) and Francisco Lindor (10th) as players ranked inside the top-10 who are otherwise expected to be free agents within the next two seasons. Moreover, Betts was just traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers, while Arenado and Lindor are big-time trade candidates this coming deadline/next offseason. Everybody else is pretty locked into place with their current team.
Okay, Cubs time.
#21. Javy Baez
Javy Baez is the Cubs top-ranked player, which is probably not a surprise (though you can probably make the argument for a *healthy* Kris Bryant), but it’s good to see nonetheless. I joked up top that I was upset he didn’t sneak into the top-20, but frankly it’s tough to make an argument against his placement. For one, it’s pretty high … so there’s nothing to really dislike. But for another, his offense took a pretty significant step back from his MVP-runner up 2018 season (131 wRC+) to last year (114 wRC+).
Fortunately, during that time, we also learned that he’s probably the single-best defender in MLB, so … top-25 is a great spot for him.
#24. Kris Bryant
It wasn’t long ago that Kris Bryant would rank near the very top of these sorts of lists with not a single eye batted. But after a down 2018 season, in which he still managed a 126 wRC+, due to a significant shoulder injury and a more modest bounce back in 2019 (135 wRC+, 4.8 WAR), Bryant has lost his elite status. But he’s healthy now, he’s still just barely 28-years-old, and after this offseason of madness, I wouldn’t be surprised if he absolutely went off as the Cubs’ new leadoff hitter this season.
This was a fair ranking for Bryant, BUT I don’t think anyone ahead of him on this list has a better shot of moving up significantly by the end of the year.
#56. Anthony Rizzo
A model of consistency, Anthony Rizzo actually had one of his best offensive season in 2019 (141 wRC+). It was the first year he posted an OBP above .400 and the highest batting average of his career (.296). He deals with minor back issues every season, he’s finally 30, and there are a number of FANTASTIC first baseman out there, but Anthony Rizzo is one of the best players in baseball and probably would’ve cracked the top-50 on someone else’s list. Still, not a bad spot.
#70. Willson Contreras
If Willson Contreras could stay healthy, there’s absolutely no way he’d be this far back on the list. The soon-to-be 28-year-old catcher is a two-time all-star and arguably the best hitting catcher in baseball. Unfortunately, injuries and questions about his pitch-framing knock him back behind J.T. Realmuto (23rd), Yasmani Grandal (45th), and Gary Sanchez (63rd). I get the argument for that relative ranking, but like Bryant, Contreras has the capacity to make this list look really silly … if he can just stay healthy for most of the season.
#80. Yu Darvish
The Cubs fifth and final placement on ESPN’s top-100 is Yu Darvish, who had an all-time bounce back season in 2019, particularly in the second half where his command was impeccable and everything else was nearly unhittable. If he is anything like that guy again this year, he’s going to have a case for the top-30 on the 2021 iteration of these rankings.
And in a lot of ways that describes all of the Chicago Cubs, right? There’s so much upside in so many players compared to their recent seasons – Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester, Jose Quintana, Kyle Hendricks, Craig Kimbrel, heck … Steven Souza, etc. – that a brilliant overall season is well within the realm of possibility. However, much like the relatively lower rankings we see for some of these players, it’s all far from a lock. It’s easy to focus only on the upside, but it won’t all happen.
In that way, the variability of this season reminds me of that 2015 squad: all the potential in the world to be great … and plenty of risk to fall short. Hopefully, like that team, it’s the former.
In conclusion, the Cubs had more top-100 players on ESPN’s list than any other team in the NL Central.
Total Top-100 Players/Team (NL Central):
- Chicago Cubs (5)
- Milwaukee Brewers (4)
- St. Louis Cardinals (3)
- Cincinnati Reds (3)
- Pirates (1)