25. B.J. Upton, SS, Tampa Bay Devil Rays (21) The Devil Rays are employing people such as Ty Wigginton, Nick Green and Damon Hollins in their everyday lineup, so it's fair to speculate about why they're leaving B.J. Upton in Durham. On the one hand, Upton's defense at shortstop really has been problematic, and he's already made several errors in the early going this year. On the other hand, he already has the most MLB-ready bat of any player in the minor leagues, and projects to hit like Derek Jeter within a couple of years. Managing Upton's arbitration clock might be the deciding factor. Upton had 0.35 years of MLB service time entering the season, and the Rays have strong incentives to make sure that number doesn't get beyond 1.00 by year's end. Expect a call-up in June.
24. Justin Upton, OF-SS, Arizona Diamondbacks (18) Only two recent high school products have been talked about with the same can't-miss praise as Justin Upton. Those players are Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Could Upton turn out to be baseball's version of Kwame Brown or Ryan Leaf? Perhaps. But the Diamondbacks, a canny organization, were willing to stake big bucks on Upton's pedigree, agreeing to a record $6.1 million signing bonus. And Upton did nothing but impress during his first professional at-bats in spring training, hitting .500/.563/.857 over parts of eight games. This ranking might seem awfully high for a player with such a limited track record -- but we could find a dozen major league personnel men who would tell you that we've ranked Upton too low.
23. Roy Oswalt, P, Houston Astros (28) Oswalt's career always has reminded me of Mike Mussina's. Appropriately, PECOTA identifies Mussina as Oswalt's No. 2 comparable (unheralded ex-Expo Steve Rogers is No. 1). In his six seasons between the ages of 28 and 33, Mussina averaged 15 wins, 195 strikeouts, and an ERA 30 percent better than the league average. You can expect similar production from Oswalt, but he's trailing well behind the Moose in the nickname department. Oswalt has always looked a bit weasely -- might we suggest the Opossum?
22. David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox (30) The case against David Ortiz boils down to scarcity -- it isn't that hard to find a competent designated hitter. But how many players in the majors at any given time can mash as much as the Cookie Monster? Perhaps only Albert Pujols gives his team a bigger head start on a 900-run season.
21. Derek Jeter, SS, New York Yankees (32) Thirty-two can be a dangerous number for a position player -- that is the age at which Dale Murphy fell completely off a cliff. But Jeter ought to age gracefully. Probably the two most favorable indicators against a slow decline are a clean bill of health and a well-rounded skills profile. Jeter has missed more than 15 games in a season only once in his 10-year career, and he practically defines the term well-rounded.
20. Andruw Jones, OF, Atlanta Braves (29) Despite his breakout season last year, Jones is not the spry young athlete he used to be. It's been five years since Andruw stole as many as 10 bases in a season, and he's added significant weight to his 6-foot-1 frame. In short, he now profiles more like Jim Rice or Juan Gonzalez than Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. He still should provide plenty of value to the Braves over the medium-term, especially since his fine center field defense always has been more the product of great instincts than blazing foot speed. But don't be surprised if his batting average settles into the .250 range before long.
19. Adam Dunn, 1B-OF, Cincinnati Reds (26) Even the most tradition-minded fans have come to accept the importance of a high on-base percentage and slugging average. However, in spite of his excellence in those departments, there remains something of a blind spot with respect to Mr. Dunn; I expect to receive more than a few choicely worded e-mails about how such a clumsy-looking player can rank two slots ahead of Mr. Intangibles. The math here is simple -- all of Dunn's strikeouts and base-running gaffes don't cost the Reds more than a handful of runs over the course of a season, whereas his bat projects to be worth about 50 runs per year for the foreseeable future. His awkward outfield defense is a more tangible problem, but it isn't his fault that the Reds put him back out to pasture while employing Rich Aurilia and Scott Hatteberg at first.
18. Eric Chavez, 3B, Oakland A's (28) Chavez entered 2006 in much the same way as Andruw Jones entered 2005 -- as a consistently good two-way player who has never quite had that breakout season to get him all the attention he deserves. In 2003, it was an inability to hit lefties than slowed Chavez down; in 2004, an injury; and in 2005, a horrible slump over the first six weeks of the season. At age 28, and with six home runs over his first 12 games, this might be the year that Chavez puts it all together.
17. Rich Harden, P, Oakland A's (24) Between the 2004 All-Star break and the end of the 2005 regular season, Rich Harden went 18-7 with a 2.95 ERA over 226 innings. There's no doubt that Harden has the stuff to replicate or perhaps even improve upon those numbers over the course of a full season, so the only question is his health. Although inertia is the rule of thumb with baseball injuries -- a player who has been injured tends to stay injured -- the A's are optimistic that Harden's successful offseason surgery on his non-pitching shoulder will improve his balance and keep him on the mound for 30 good starts per season.
16. Delmon Young, OF, Tampa Bay Devil Rays (20) Our PECOTA projection system is loathe to use major league comparables for minor league players. But sometimes, a player is so far ahead of the curve that PECOTA simply has no choice -- and so the top three names on Young's list are Ken Griffey Jr., Cesar Cedeno and Tony Conigliaro. Like Griffey (and unlike older brother Dmitri), Young is a multi-dimensional player; he stole 32 bases last year and was voted as having the Southern League's best outfield arm. Young's plate discipline will determine whether he winds up being a great player or merely a very good one.
15. Jhonny Peralta, SS, Cleveland Indians (24) We should recognize that career years don't always come at age 27 or 28; 23-year-olds are capable of outperforming their skill sets as well. PECOTA is a little suspicious that this might have been the case with Peralta last year, and from the early returns this season, it looks like it might be onto something. Still, Peralta's career should fall somewhere within the goalposts represented by Cal Ripken and Travis Fryman. Under most of those scenarios, he'll be tremendously valuable to the Tribe.
14. Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland Indians (23) We defer to Mark Shapiro in appointing the chief of the Three Little Indians -- and it's instructive that Sizemore received a more lucrative contract extension than either Peralta or Victor Martinez. Of the three, Sizemore also has the most room for growth, particularly if he can add more home run power to his frame. Think a left-handed version of Andre Dawson.
13. Derrek Lee, 1B, Chicago Cubs (30) The Cubs' self-image always has depended greatly on the presence of a superstar hitter -- first Ernie Banks, then Ryne Sandberg, then Sammy Sosa. And so it was appropriate that the very year that Sosa was run out of town was the year that Derrek Lee emerged. Lee, in fact, turned out to be a better representative of the City of Big Shoulders than Sosa ever was: confident but not flamboyant, well-rounded, never misses a day of work. Those same characteristics ought to ensure that Lee provides plenty of value to the Cubs over the course of his new $70 million deal.
12. Miguel Tejada, SS, Baltimore Orioles (30) Rafael Palmeiro's unfortunate attempt to scapegoat his teammate added a dark shadow to the doubts raised by Tejada's slump in the last two months of the 2005 season. So it's relieving that Tejada has gotten off to a good start in 2006, putting most of those guilt-by-association scenarios to rest. Although Tejada's best years are likely behind him, he remains ahead of Derek Jeter's pace at the same age, having accumulated 48.8 Wins Above Replacement (WARP) through age 29 to Jeter's 44.9.
11. Carlos Zambrano, P, Chicago Cubs (25) Three years ago, there was a consensus among everyone from scouts to analysts to blue-blooded Cubs fans that Zambrano was far more likely than Mark Prior to injure himself, on account of his bulky frame, heavy workloads and propensity to over-exert when tired. So much for the wisdom of crowds. Zambrano has made it through the injury nexus, and it might be that the better adjective for his 255-pound body is "sturdy" -- how often has Roger Clemens been on the DL? In any event, the focus can now be on Zambrano's pitching, which is some of the most entertaining in baseball as well as some of the best.
10. Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (30) Guerrero is an object lesson in how there's more than one way to skin a horsehide. Until relatively recently, statheads found room to criticize Guerrero for his trigger happiness, and lack of unintentional walks. Now, with one MVP-caliber season after another to Guerrero's credit, we better understand that the real objective of a plate approach is to leverage a hitter's strengths, which in Guerrero's case means using aggression to take advantage of his unparalleled combination of bat speed and plate coverage.
9. Jason Bay, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates (27) There's growing evidence that Canadian players, facing a weather-shortened season as amateurs, develop on a different schedule than their south-of-the-border counterparts. Matt Stairs didn't become a big-league regular until 29, Larry Walker peaked in his early 30s, and Eric Gagne looked like a quad-A player until he donned his closer goggles at 26. PECOTA thought that Bay's 2005 was a career year, but it has no variable to account for longitude; we think that it's the start of something big.
8. Felix Hernandez, P, Seattle Mariners (20) My first memory of Felix Hernandez is from a promotional event that Baseball Prospectus conducted at a Chicago pizzeria in the summer of 2004, which happened to coincide with the date of the Futures Game. About an hour into the event, we realized that our guests were looking right through us and toward the dusty, 16-inch TV in the corner of the restaurant. King Felix was pitching, and it wasn't long before we had given up on maintaining order, and were staring slack-jawed at the spectacle too. My immediate reaction was that I'd never seen pitches move like that without being scuffed. The only reason Hernandez isn't rated higher is that there's virtually no precedent for the way that he tore through the minor league hierarchy.
7. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Texas Rangers (26) T-E-I-X ... as a baseball writer, I have a vested interest in seeing that Big Tex becomes famous enough that his last name is added to the Microsoft Word spell-check dictionary, like Steven Spielberg ("i" before the "e") or Gerard Depardieu (French). If Teixeira can continue to combine an Eddie Murray-like bat with a Keith Hernandez-like glove, he should be well on his way.
6. Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins (23) Mauer suffers from the Felix Hernandez problem: He's such a special player that there's nobody to compare him to. Start with catchers who became big-league regulars before they turned 21. That alone is a pretty small group. How many of those guys could hit a little bit? Perhaps Ivan Rodriguez, Ted Simmons, Joe Torre ... that's about it. And how many of those guys were legitimate base-stealing threats? And stood 6-4 and weighed 220 pounds? And played Gold Glove-caliber defense? As Bill James has pointed out, the truly greatest players are often the most unusual. I look at Mauer and think of Rickey Henderson.
5. Johan Santana, P, Minnesota Twins (27) This was the year I expected Santana to go all Bob Gibson on the league. You know, 27-4, 1.56 ERA, 345 K's -- that kind of stuff. Santana is statistically and existentially comparable to Pedro Martinez. Like Pedro, there's something so wizardly, ephemeral, almost alien about how Johan pitches when he's getting it done that it's invariably disappointing to see that he's terrestrial after all, as he has been so far this April. The magic will be back soon enough. And perhaps in the meantime, Santana can learn to emulate Pedro's second gear, making up for those evenings when he doesn't have his best stuff.
4. Miguel Cabrera, 3B-OF, Florida Marlins (23) What Cabrera has done might have received more attention if Albert Pujols hadn't beaten him to the punch by a couple of seasons. But consider Cabrera's top 20 PECOTA comparables. Five of them (Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Orlando Cepeda) are already in the Hall of Fame. Another three (Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero and Ken Griffey Jr.) are well on their way. Two more (Jim Rice and Dick Allen) are more likely than not going to join the group someday. Cabrera has fewer than 1,600 big-league at bats to his name -- and yet we can say that he's an even-money shot to make the Hall of Fame. That doesn't happen every day.
3. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, New York Yankees (30) PECOTA predicts that, at the end of his age-34 season in 2010, Alex Rodriguez will have hit 614 big league home runs. That's approximately 100 home runs ahead of the pace of Babe Ruth (516) and Hank Aaron (510), and 169 ahead of Barry Bonds. I know that rooting for Alex Rodriguez is a bit like rooting for Wal-Mart, or the Brazilian soccer team, or ... well ... the New York Yankees. But if Bonds passes Henry Aaron, what is good for A-Rod might be good for the country.
2. David Wright, 3B, New York Mets (23) The only downside to being this good this young is that it isn't easy to get a whole heck of a lot better. Our WARP system says that Willie Mays' best year came at 24, as did Mickey Mantle's. Stan Musial's was at 22. Cal Ripken had four of his five best seasons by the age of 25. The characteristic of great players, rather, is that they sustain a very high level of performance for 10 or 15 or 20 years. But Wright's capacity for growth is so great that he must have some fruit-fly DNA. In 2004, Wright was expected to barely hold his own in the Eastern League -- and he had become one of the better third basemen in the National League by year's end. In 2005, he improved his OPS from.839 before the break to .991 afterward. And then this year, Wright has decided to stop striking out, correcting perhaps the biggest remaining weakness in his game. I don't know where this is going to lead, but George Brett's 1980 might be a good start.
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals (26) What I remember most about Albert Pujols' young career isn't that he hit a home run against Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the NLCS, allowing the Cardinals to cash in on what must have been a 500-to-1 comeback shot. It was how far he hit that home run. Carlton Fisk and Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter -- their home runs seemed to suspend themselves in the air for about 30 seconds, long enough for the requisite preening and posing and multiple camera angles and Bob Costas soliloquy.
But Pujols' home run was like the strobing cross-section of memories you get after a night of heavy drinking. Hanging slider ... ZIP! ... Cardinals dogpile ... ZIP! ... falling asleep on the couch watching QVC. Pujols has done to the Best Player in Baseball debate what he did to Lidge's slider. Eighteen months ago, there was a healthy argument going between A-Rod and Barry Bonds, with Pujols just hanging around taking his cuts in the on-deck circle. Now, Pujols has passed them both, and it isn't even close.
Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus.