It's a fantasy that would certainly appeal to Marlins and Astros fans, or Mariners and Cubs fans, and probably fans of several other franchises: If every player in baseball became a free agent and salaries didn't matter and there was gigantic expansion draft -- in other words, if we just gave this whole thing called Major League Baseball a reboot -- what would happen? Which player is drafted first? Who goes second, eighth or 19th?
Welcome to the third annual Franchise Player Draft. On Tuesday, ESPN's team of baseball writers and broadcasters will draft 30 players as if they were building a team from scratch. We ignore contracts; talent is all that matters.
The two primary questions to consider: Would you build for "now" and simply go for the best player regardless of age? Do you go for a position player or a pitcher?
In other words: Do you take Troy Tulowitzki's present or Jurickson Profar's future? Do you like Miguel Cabrera or Clayton Kershaw? Personally, as good as Profar may be for the next 10 to 15 years, I'd be looking at a five-year window. So even though a guy like Cabrera is 30, he's so good now that I'd be optimistic about owning him for the next five years. Of course, we said the same thing about Albert Pujols two years ago.
Pujols went eighth overall in the 2011 Franchise Player Draft, a seemingly logical pick at the time. Kudos to Eric Karabell for drafting Bryce Harper ninth in that draft, Jason Grey for taking Mike Trout at No. 12 and Tim Kurkjian for taking Kershaw with the 25th pick (how did he fall so far?). But looking at that list is a reminder of how quickly players can fall, whether through decline (Pujols, Tim Lincecum went fifth) or injury (Neftali Feliz, Michael Pineda).
In the 2012 Franchise Player Draft, Matt Kemp went No. 1 -- remember, he had gotten off to that red-hot start, following up on his awesome 2011. I wonder if he'll even go in the first round this time around. Oddly, Harper and Trout went lower in 2012 than in 2011. And, no, I'm not going to mention who I took with the 18th pick last year. OK, it was Eric Hosmer. And that's the risk with projecting a young player -- sometimes the projections are wrong.
Aside from wondering how high Harper and Trout go this year, it will be interesting to see where all these terrific young pitchers go. And what about Chris Davis? Will anybody buy his hot start and make him a franchise player?
One thing I was curious about: How many of baseball's best players at a given time remain among the very best for the next five years? I looked at the periods 2002-2003, 1992-1993 and 1982-1983 to see the 20 best position players and 10 best pitchers using Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement stat and then checked to see how many ranked in the top 20 and top 10 over the ensuing five years.
The answer may surprise you, but it also points out that making the "right" choice -- even in a mock draft -- can be difficult.
Top 20 players also in the top 20 from 2004-2008 (eight players, 2002-03 ranking followed by 2004-08): Albert Pujols (3/1), Alex Rodriguez (2/2), Carlos Beltran (20/4), Miguel Tejada (16/15), Vladimir Guerrero (19/16), Scott Rolen (12/17), Todd Helton (6/18).
Highest-ranked player not to make top 20: Barry Bonds (1).
Some of the young guys who made the 20 would have been on the radar in 2003 such as Cabrera, a rookie that year with the Marlins. But would Chase Utley, Adrian Beltre, David Wright, Grady Sizemore, Jimmy Rollins, David Ortiz and Brian Roberts have been drafted in the first round? Probably not. Wright didn't debut until 2004 and Utley didn't have his big breakout year until 2005, for example.
Highest-ranked pitcher not to make top 10: Curt Schilling (2).
Schilling was still good enough to make the top 20 from 2004-2008, but top-10 guys Pedro Martinez, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Bartolo Colon, Mark Mulder and Kerry Wood all suffered decline (Zito) or injury (the others).
Highest-ranked player not to make 20: Roberto Alomar (5).
Alomar ranked 37th in WAR from 1994-98, and then had his best seasons (according to WAR) in 1999 and 2001. The top four players all fared well over the next half-decade but some others just got old (Ryne Sandberg, Rickey Henderson) or fell off a cliff (Carlos Baerga). Most of the young players to emerge as top-20 guys were pretty good bets to do so -- Jeff Bagwell had ranked 21st in 1992-1993, for example, Mike Piazza had a big rookie season in 1993 and Bernie Williams was a top prospect. John Valentin or Jim Thome, on the other hand, would not have been top-30 picks.
Highest-ranked pitcher not to make top 10: Kevin Appier (1).
Appier ranked 14th over the next five years. Jose Rijo and Jack McDowell broke down, while Mark Langston, Frank Viola and Jimmy Key were already in their 30s.
Top 20 players also in the top 20 from 1984-1988 (nine): Wade Boggs (12/1), Rickey Henderson (5/2), Cal Ripken (8/3), Alan Trammell (16/6), Mike Schmidt (4/9), Dale Murphy (7/14), Eddie Murray (11/15), George Brett (14/18), Keith Hernandez (17/19).
Highest-ranked player not to make top 20: Robin Yount (1).
This period had a little better "success" rate. Yount had been a superstar shortstop but hurt his shoulder and moved to center field (he ranked 27th in WAR from 1984-1988). Among the unexpected best players in this period: Tony Gwynn (first full season came in '84), Ozzie Smith (would he have been drafted based on his glove alone?), Ryne Sandberg (broke out in '84) and Kirby Puckett (rookie in 1984).
Top 10 pitchers also in the top 10 from 1984-1988 (one): Dave Stieb (1/10).
Highest-ranked pitcher not to make top 10: Mario Soto (2).
This two-year period was a pretty undistinguished one for pitchers -- heck, Pete Vuckovich won the AL Cy Young Award in 1982 while walking 102 batters and striking out 105 -- so it's not a big surprise that only one of the 10 remained one of the baseball's preeminent pitchers. Young guns Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser and Bret Saberhagen were all rookies in 1984 and ranked in the top 10 from '84 to '88.
* * * *
If there is one main lesson to be gleaned from this quick study, it's that at least a few of the best players from 2014 to 2018 will not have appeared in the majors yet. This is complicated by the fact that we have so many talented young players already putting up big numbers, like Harper, Trout, Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez. But it could mean a guy like Oscar Taveras or Wil Myers is worthy of a top-30 pick. Or maybe a pitcher like Gerrit Cole.
Also, at least when using WAR, it's important to consider a player's all-around abilities. Cabrera is great with the bat, but offers little value on defense. If his bat declines a bit, what will his overall value be in 2017 or 2018? Andrelton Simmons, on the other hand, may not have the offensive upside of some other infielders, but if he plays defense like Ozzie Smith maybe that makes him a top-30 player over the next five years.
Bottom line: The best 30 players from 2012-2013 won't be the same best 30 players from 2014 to 2018. The fun part is trying to figuring which ones will remain at that level.