Between its aging audience, slow pace of play, questions about “juiced” balls (though apparently that’s been rectified) and the ever-expanding philosophical gulf between players and owners, there are no shortage of issues plaguing MLB in its current iteration. But star power isn’t one of them. Even if you’re not swayed by the mild-mannered stylings of future Hall-of-Famer Mike Trout, MLB’s collection of young talent is as strong as it’s ever been, propped up by the bat-flipping likes of Fernando Tatis Jr. (face of the Padres’ “Slam Diego” rebrand), Nationals phenom Juan Soto (inventor of the Soto Shuffle) and Mookie Betts, a world-class bowler who moonlights as a Gold Glove right-fielder for the reigning World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers. With Opening Day less than a month away, let’s take roll call of the best players in MLB right now.
10. Nolan Arenado, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals
Already among the great defensive third basemen to ever play—his eight Gold Gloves rank third all-time at the position—a new challenge awaits Arenado this year as he sets sail on his maiden voyage as a St. Louis Cardinal. An offensive dynamo throughout his eight-year reign in Colorado (as evidenced by his 235 homers in that span, a figure good for fourth-most in club history), will Arenado soar once more in St. Louis, or will the change of scenery expose him as too good to be true, a mere byproduct of the hitter’s heaven known as Coors Field? Arenado’s career-worst 2020 (albeit in a shortened, 48-game sample size) will do little to quiet doubters, but remember, the same narrative followed DJ LeMahieu to New York two years ago. All he’s done since is win a batting title and consecutive Silver Sluggers. Even without a Mile-High safety net to catch him, Arenado, fueled by a city that lives and breathes baseball, should be poised for a bounce-back year.
9. Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Yelich slogged through a dismal 2020 (.205 average with 76 strikeouts in 200 at-bats), but let’s not forget the two seasons that preceded last year’s setback. The two-time NL batting champ cruised to career-highs in home runs (44), steals (30) and batting average (.329) in 2019 and surely would have captured his second straight MVP if not for a September knee injury. So where did it all go so horribly wrong for Yelich last season? For starters, his contact rate plummeted to 68.2 percent, well below his career mark of 78.0. That’s a hard disparity to overcome when you’re only offering at 34.6 percent of pitches, which made Yelich the second-choosiest hitter in baseball last season. An anemic opening month (he went just 1-for-27 in July) only added to the misery, dooming Yelich’s chances of a productive 2020 before his ship had even set sail. But don’t let that pesky devil we call “recency bias” cloud your judgment. One feckless season in an otherwise pristine career shouldn’t change our view of Yelich, a perennial triple-crown threat and one of the most versatile talents MLB has to offer.
8. Cody Bellinger, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger labored through his worst offensive season in 2020, but played a remarkably steady center field (he joined Ronald Acuna and Trent Grisham as one of three NL Gold Glove finalists at that position) and mashed the go-ahead homer in NLCS Game 7 (dislocating his shoulder in the process), helping the Dodgers erase a 3-1 series deficit en route to their first title in 32 years. Cody, the son of former Yankee Chase Bellinger, has accomplished more in four seasons than most players will in their career, winning Rookie of the Year, a Gold Glove, NL MVP, NLCS MVP and a World Series ring since debuting in 2017. Even if Bellinger whiffs a little too much for comfort (his lifetime 74.3-percent contact rate, though in line with today’s trends, isn’t an impressive number), his power can’t be denied. Bellinger’s 47 bombs in 2019 were the most by a Dodger since Adrian Beltre put 48 on his ledger in 2004. It’s hard to stand out on a team with as much talent as the Dodgers, who will boast the largest Opening Day payroll in MLB history, but Bellinger continues to do just that, wowing with his prodigious homers and spectacular defense.
7. Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets
The only pitcher to crack our top ten, deGrom has been a welcome source of consistency amid the Mets’ constant state of chaos, ruling the majors with an iron first over his last three seasons (2.10 ERA, 11.56 K/9, .200 BAA in that span). A two-time Cy Young winner whose potent four-seamer frequently clocks triple-digit readings on the Citi Field radar gun, deGrom at one time owned a streak of 26 consecutive quality starts, a string of dominance equaled only by Cardinals legend Bob Gibson. Already fifth in club history with 1,359 strikeouts, the 6’4” hurler ranks second among active starters in career ERA (2.61), trailing only Hall-of-Fame shoo-in Clayton Kershaw (2.43) in that respect. Sustaining that success can be a burden for some, yet deGrom makes it look second nature, not just maintaining his elite performance level but improving each year. With teams increasingly treating pitchers with kid gloves (the advent of “bullpenning” and a heightened focus on pitch counts are both to blame for this phenomenon), deGrom may be among the last of his kind, standing as one of MLB’s few remaining workhorses.
6. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres
Will Tatis ruffle the occasional feather? Sure. Turns out, there’s a price to be paid when you flout baseball’s “unwritten rules” as flagrantly as Tatis, connecting on 3-0 grand slams (that will rattle a cage or two) and flipping bats into the stratosphere. You can disagree with his methods, but you know what that got him? PAID. And quite handsomely, I might add. The Padres, who suddenly have more money than God and Jeff Bezos put together, made their prized 22-year-old a very wealthy individual this offseason, lavishing Tatis with a record 14-year, $340-million extension that will keep him in Ron Burgundy’s hometown through at least President Dwayne Johnson’s second term in office. The hope is San Diego will have a couple World Series trophies on the shelf by then. That’s a big ask considering the Padres, in over 50 years of existence, have never won a Fall Classic. Hell, last year was only their fifth playoff berth in club history. But the retooled Friars have the pieces, none more important than Tatis, who may already be the most exciting player in the sport.
5. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
A year after registering career-highs in homers (38) and RBI (121), Freeman somehow upped the ante in 2020, rallying from an offseason COVID bout to hit .341/.462/.640 across 262 plate appearances. The All-Star first baseman led the majors in both doubles (23) and runs scored (51) en route to National League MVP honors, becoming the first Brave to stand atop that mighty pedestal since Chipper Jones in 1999. Freeman is quietly climbing the Braves’ all-time ranks, submitting 342 career doubles (third in club history), 240 round-trippers (sixth) and 691 walks (seventh) for consideration. The 31-year-old has also achieved considerable postseason success (.358/.427/.540 in 99 playoff at-bats) and the Braves are hopeful his resume is still growing in that respect. Atlanta experienced an unusually painful brand of playoff heartbreak last fall, squandering a 3-1 series lead to the Dodgers in the NLCS. A collapse of that magnitude will leave a scar, though the Braves are well-equipped to run it back with Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna leading the charge, not to mention a refurbished starting rotation that ranks among the sport’s finest.
4. Ronald Acuna, OF, Atlanta Braves
Acuna’s average sunk to a concerning .250 during last year’s COVID-shortened installment but luckily his power stroke didn’t abandon him, resulting in a career-high .581 slugging percentage. That ranked eighth among National League sluggers, though remarkably only third on his own team behind Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna. The year prior, Acuna very nearly became the fifth member of MLB’s prestigious 40/40 club, contributing 41 homers (the most by a Brave since Andruw Jones swatted that many in 2006) to go with his NL-high 37 steals. Acuna’s bat fell silent in October—he limped to a tepid .217 average in the postseason—though perhaps that can be attributed to early-career growing pains. The Venezuelan outfield prodigy is only 23, after all. A prolific athlete with a penchant for mythic blasts—he authored the longest home run in baseball last year, clobbering a 495-foot cannon shot against Boston—Acuna embodies all the traits of a future MVP.
3. Juan Soto, OF, Washington Nationals
Last year’s National League leader in batting average (.351), OPS (1.185), slugging (.695) and on-base percentage (.490), Soto would have been the easy choice for MVP if not for the Nationals’ disappointing last place finish in the NL East. A false COVID positive also conspired against him, shelving Soto for much of the season’s first two weeks. What Soto accomplished during Washington’s World Series run in 2019 was nothing short of remarkable. His heroics that fall included a go-ahead, bases-clearing single off Brewers closer Josh Hader (with an assist from Trent Grisham in right field), taking Clayton Kershaw deep in NLDS Game 5 and a pair of hits, including one that wound up a souvenir for a lucky spectator in center field, against Astros ace Gerrit Cole in the Nats’ World Series opener. Still just 22, Soto has only scratched the surface of his mammoth potential, which must be a paralyzing thought for opposing pitchers.
2. Mookie Betts, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Betts, who many forget began his career as a middle infielder (he drew 14 rookie-year starts at second base, but has only logged two appearances since), has quickly established himself as the gold standard among MLB right-fielders. The five-time Gold Glove recipient has packed plenty into his last three seasons, racking up an MVP award, two World Series rings (one each for the Red Sox and Dodgers) and an American League batting title over that span. Within that hectic stretch, he also signed one of the richest deals in sports history, lending his John Hancock to a monster, 12-year, $365-million extension, keeping him in Los Angeles through his age-39 season. Known for his dangling gold chain and on-field homages to Turkish chef "Salt Bae," you could make the argument for Betts being the most complete player in baseball. From his memorable 13-pitch, battle of attrition with J.A. Happ in 2018, a moment heightened by Dennis Eckersley’s iconic analysis (“It’s time to party!”), to his clinching homer in the climactic Game 6 of last year’s Fall Classic, Mookie continues to be among the game’s toughest outs. Even if Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs prove productive in Boston, the Red Sox will surely live to regret trading a franchise icon in the prime of his career.
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Shame on us for not appreciating the full scope of Trout’s vast greatness. Already second among active players in WAR (trailing only teammate Albert Pujols in that metric), the 29-year-old from Millville, New Jersey boasts a lifetime OPS of 1.000, eighth-highest of all-time behind only Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby. Of those seven, only Bonds has played this century. Trout, whose 302 career home runs are a franchise-best (despite him ranking just sixth in plate appearances), has finished first or runner-up in AL MVP voting in seven of his nine full seasons. Detractors might hold Trout’s lack of playoff success against him (one hit in 12 postseason at-bats), but shouldn’t the onus instead be on Anaheim for squandering his prime? If anything, we should admire his loyalty, sticking with the perennially underachieving Halos through thick and thin. Of course, that’s an easier stunt to pull off when your employer is cutting you checks in the amount of $35.5 million a year. Regardless of how the rest of his career plays out, Trout should feel some comfort in the knowledge Cooperstown will have a plaque waiting for him whenever his MLB journey concludes.