In a baseball winter defined by free-agency necrosis, it has been a rough run for franchise faces.
Despite the overall paucity of moves, two teams have lost their all-time WAR leaders. First, the Marlins gifted Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees. Later, the Rays traded Evan Longoria to the Giants. Both moves left the fan bases in Florida stewing. Just as much animosity was stirred up when Pittsburgh sent Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco. McCutchen ranks "only" 12th on the Pirates' all-time WAR leaderboard, but none of those ahead of him played for Pittsburgh this century.
Perhaps there is no way to quantify it, but there are ancillary effects in these kinds of transactions. You could look at the negative impact in the areas of marketing and branding when a franchise unloads a long-standing fan favorite, but it would be tough to pin down an exact number. All we know is that it sucks for those jilted fans.
Last week, a new class of Hall of Famers was announced. The identity of those newly immortalized legends will determine what Main Street in Cooperstown will look like on an upcoming summer weekend. The streets will be clogged with blue-clad Braves fans (Chipper Jones), yellow-wearing Padres fans (Trevor Hoffman) and dueling fan bases of Vladimir Guerrero admirers (Expos and Angels).
Once again we'll be reminded just how strong those affinities between great players and the communities most invested in their exploits are. One-franchise players such as George Brett, Robin Yount, Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter might be rare, but it doesn't take an entire career to win over a city.
With the transaction market still frozen, that Hall announcement gives us a great opportunity to look at baseball through its unparalleled historical lens. Let's focus on the concept of the "franchise face" -- the player whose very presence on a team serves as a rallying point for the cities in which they play, a presence that often lasts well beyond a player's on-field career.
Here's the question of the day: How many franchises currently have, or might have, their best-ever player in the organization right now?
First, let's acknowledge that the label of "best" is never as easy to define as you'd think.
The perfect example of this is Alex Rodriguez's time with the Texas Rangers. According to FanGraphs, A-Rod put up 27.0 WAR for Texas from 2001-03. Those account for three of the top four seasons in Rangers history. They also are the only three seasons in which Rodriguez played for Texas. No one has ever been better for the Rangers while they were with the Rangers.
Does that make A-Rod the best player in Rangers history? Well, he ranks just 10th in career WAR for that franchise. The feeling here is, no, as great as those three seasons were, there weren't enough of them for Rodriguez to be anointed as the best Texas Ranger of all time. Alex Rodriguez is not the historical face of the Rangers.
Therefore, in these assessments, cumulative production will matter as much as short-term brilliance, and context will matter as well when the metrics are close. WAR data from FanGraphs served as the basis for this piece.
This team has its best-ever player right now
Angels' face: Mike Trout
The brilliance of Trout cannot be overstated. He's only 26 years old, but already owns the four highest single-season WAR totals in Angels history. His career total of 54.4 is 8.6 more than second-place Chuck Finley. Trout can't become a free agent until after the 2020 season, so there's a strong possibility that he'll stand alone for a long time atop this franchise even if he departs. But even if Trout retired today, he'd still be worthy of being called the best Angel ever.
And by the time we run through all the teams, this much will be clear: Trout is the only star toiling in baseball right now who is clearly the best player the history of the franchise he will be playing for when the 2018 season begins.
These teams might have their best-ever player right now
Cubs' possible face: Kris Bryant
The all-time leader in Cubs WAR is Cap Anson (81.6). Let's not make him the face of anything. During the modern era, Ron Santo's 71.9 WAR just outdistanced Ernie Banks (63.3), Ryne Sandberg (61.0), Sammy Sosa (60.7) and Billy Williams (58.9). Few Cubs fans would accept Sosa as their franchise icon, but any of the others would garner a lot of supporters.
Anthony Rizzo already ranks 48th in Cubs history. Baseball can be a cruel sport for sentimental types, particularly in the 21st century, when players are too often referred to more as commodities than people. But it's really hard to imagine Rizzo playing for another team. Not saying it won't happen, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. If Rizzo remains a first-division player over the next seven or eight years, he can get into the Santo-Banks class.
But Bryant is the guy to watch. You have to remind yourself that he has played only three big league seasons. It feels like he has been around for a decade. According to Baseball-Reference.com, only four players have put up more WAR during the first three seasons of a career. Bryant already is at 21.6 career WAR. If he keeps putting up seven-win seasons for the next half-decade, he'll be in position to blow by every other Cub.
Bryant -- a Scott Boras client -- doesn't hit free agency until 2022, though the Cubs certainly could sign him to an extension that pushes past his arbitration years. You never know, but you'd have to think the Cubs will pony up enough of their expanding base of financial clout to keep Bryant around for the long haul.
Diamondbacks' possible face: Paul Goldschmidt
Arizona's top two players -- Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez -- both logged significant time with other franchises. Goldschmidt is the first player who might become Arizona's true icon -- a historical, one-franchise talent. He's at 31.6 WAR through last season, ranking third in franchise history behind Johnson (53.6) and Gonzalez (33.8). He'll move into second this season. The question is whether he'll stick around Arizona long enough to cement his best-Diamondback-ever status: Goldschmidt can become a free agent after the 2019 season, and Arizona is not a franchise with unlimited resources.
Dodgers' possible face: Clayton Kershaw
For all of their historical success and status as an iconic franchise, the Dodgers' career leader (Don Drysdale) has just 65.6 career WAR. (By the way, pitcher WAR totals mentioned in this piece include their contributions at the plate.) There are several others over or near 60 -- Duke Snider, Don Sutton, Zack Wheat, Pee Wee Reese -- who all reside in that group. However, the franchise face is almost certainly Jackie Robinson (57.2 WAR), for reasons that go well beyond the ballfield.
Robinson's No. 42 hangs in every ballpark, so no one will ever upstage his status as one of the most important players ever to don a uniform. But in terms of determining the best-ever Dodger, Kershaw can bring some clarity to what is as of now a murky argument. He's at 59.3 WAR for his first 10 big league seasons, a faster pace than all but 10 other big league pitchers throughout history. However, he has made just 48 starts over the past two years, so now durability may be a looming issue.
Still, if Kershaw is headed toward the "best pitcher ever" conversation, he certainly can earn best-Dodger status. We'll know a lot more a year from now, after we see if Kershaw has yet another elite season, stays healthy, and, especially, whether he opts out of his contract and re-ups with L.A. for the long term.
Indians' possible face: Francisco Lindor
Lindor is just 24 years old and could be positioned to reel off a string of six-win seasons. He's already at 16.5 WAR to rank 61st in Indians history. Give him an average of six wins through his age-30 season -- again, we're being optimists today -- then he's in Cleveland's all-time top five.
The four players who would remain ahead of Lindor all finished with 60 or more WAR for the franchise: Nap Lajoie (74.9), Tris Speaker (72.6), Lou Boudreau (63.1) and Bob Feller (61.7). There is more of a lingering presence for Boudreau and, especially, Feller in Cleveland as members of the last Indians World Series winner in 1948. However, Speaker probably would get the historical nod for his total production and, not for nothing, he was the leader of Cleveland's other championship club in 1920.
Harper ranks ninth in Expos-Nationals history with 27.7 WAR. Just ahead of him is Strasburg (29.1). Given the history of this franchise, you wouldn't expect either player to be around long enough to catch franchise leader Gary Carter (53.8). That's a cynical thought, especially since the Nationals operate in an entirely different economic stratosphere than the Expos ever did.
Still, the reason teams are drooling over Harper's coming free agency isn't because it's considered a cinch he will re-sign with Washington. As for Strasburg, he has never been better, but there is a lot of injury uncertainty in his wake.
Like the Marlins, the Expos tended to lose players before they could pile up big lifetime numbers. That's why Ryan Zimmerman (No. 5 in WAR with 36.7) started to move atop so many of the franchise's leaderboards last season in counting stats.
This likely all comes down to Harper's free agency. If he signs a decadelong deal with the Nats, he could become their Willie Mays.
Rangers' possible face: Adrian Beltre
The Rangers are Beltre's fourth team, yet he ranks third all time in WAR for the Texas franchise. He's 38 years old and while his pro rata performance was still excellent in 2017, he missed a lot of time as old players tend to do. The franchise leader is newly minted Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez (49.6), who is a worthy icon. The reason we put Beltre into the group with the potentially iconic is that, like the Rangers as a franchise, he's still hunting for a World Series title. The way things look now, it would be a Cinderella story for him to get it. But if it happened ...
Reds' possible face: Joey Votto
The Reds' WAR leaderboard is dominated by the linchpins of the Big Red Machine years of the 1970s. Pete Rose is No. 1 at 76.2, just ahead of Johnny Bench at 74.8. Most would likely give the edge to Bench. Barry Larkin is part of the conversation at 67.0 WAR. Still, despite Larkin's presence on Cincinnati's last World Series champ in 1990, that team doesn't approach the level of esteem of those '70s teams.
But let's not sleep on Votto, who seems intent on remaining a Red for the long haul. Votto's 53.2 WAR to date ranks seventh in Reds history and he could pass both Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson this season. At age 33, he still doesn't seem capable of having a bad season. With three more five-win seasons, Votto would move ahead of Larkin. From there, his on-base ability alone could eventually help him challenge Rose and Bench -- if he remains a Red.
Still, even if Votto gets there from a metrics standpoint, he'll need to be part of a Reds team that goes on an unexpected postseason run. If that were to happen, it would open a lot of eyes nationally to the accomplishments of one of the more overlooked players of this generation.
Rockies' possible face: Nolan Arenado
The Rockies' all-time leader is Todd Helton (54.8), who is 10.4 wins ahead of No. 2 Larry Walker. Arenado is already at No. 5 with 21.0 wins. Steamerprojections.com projects Arenado for 4.8 WAR this season, during which he'll turn 27. Arenado would need a long peak to reach Helton, but this is a young franchise and it's not hard to imagine Arenado becoming the franchise icon if the Rockies continue to have team success. In addition to his continually improving bat, there's the matter of his nightly highlight reel at third base. That stuff sticks in people's minds. Arenado has one more year of arbitration left, so the time for Colorado to cement his status in team history with an extension is now.
These teams do not have their best-ever player right now
Astros' face: Jeff Bagwell
Bagwell (80.2 WAR) has enough of a buffer over his buddy Craig Biggio (65.8) that we can safely declare him as the best-ever Astro without digging too deep. You certainly can't go wrong with either. The real debate with the Astros was whether to put them in the "might" category because of the trajectory of their current young stars.
Of the current Astros, the WAR leader is Jose Altuve (26.2), which ranks 15th in franchise history after his first seven big league seasons. As the reigning AL MVP, Altuve is clearly at his peak. Give him an average of, say, seven WAR for the next four years -- a very optimistic estimate -- then Altuve has leaped to third.
It's possible, to be sure. It's also possible that Carlos Correa, George Springer or some other young star from the defending champs gets into the mix. But there are two concerns. For Altuve, there is his size and his position -- second basemen tend to wear down faster than other positions. For the others, there is the question of whether they will remain Astros long enough to get into Bagwell-Biggio territory.
That's a lot of uncertainty, so we'll stick with Bagwell for now. This will be a topic worth revisiting in a few years.
Athletics' face: Rickey Henderson
Henderson is the all-time WAR leader in the history of the Philadelphia-Kansas City-Oakland Athletics, but his selection here was far from automatic. For one thing, he's only four WAR ahead of Jimmie Foxx, who was better on a pro rata basis. You could make arguments for the faces of each of the different great eras in the history of this vagabond franchise: Eddle Plank, Lefty Grove, even Reggie Jackson. You can't make an argument for any current or recent Athletic, because their best players tend to leave when their salaries start to soar.
Blue Jays' face: Dave Stieb
The late Roy Halladay is the Jays' WAR leader (48.6), but his edge over No. 2 Stieb (43.5) is narrow, and Stieb logged 800 more innings than Doc for Toronto. We'll go with Stieb for his longevity. As for current Jays, Josh Donaldson (21.4 WAR, 15th place) ranks highest. He may not be with Toronto by Opening Day, he may have signed an extension by then, or he may leave as a free agent after the coming season. Whatever happens, Donaldson is already 32, so it's not likely he'll log the career numbers in Toronto to catch Stieb. Maybe the best hope is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Braves' face: Hank Aaron
You didn't need to open a web browser to understand this selection. There are many reasons why Aaron is the face of the Braves. Heck, he's arguably the face of baseball in both Milwaukee and Atlanta. Soon-to-be Hall of Famer Chipper Jones ranks third in the history of the franchise. However, he's first since 1966 -- the Atlanta years -- and has a 20-WAR edge over No. 2 Andruw Jones during that span. We're using franchises as our criteria today rather than cities, but if the methodology were reversed, we might go with Chipper as the Atlanta face. But who knows? We're talking about Hank Aaron here. Current Brave Freddie Freeman ranks 34th in career WAR, and let's not forget about Ronald Acuna, the consensus top prospect in the game.
Brewers' face: Robin Yount
Another no-brainer. Yount has 10.5 more WAR than Paul Molitor for tops in Brewers history, and he played in Milwaukee forever. In fact, he played exactly 1,000 more games for the franchise than Molitor did. No. 3 on the WAR list is a current Brewer: Ryan Braun (40.3). It's hard to imagine Braun overtaking Yount though. He's 34 years old and five years removed from his last elite season.
Cardinals' face: Stan Musial
Musial wasn't just the face of the Cardinals, but he was the face of baseball in a large swath of the Midwest for generations. No one will probably ever approach Musial's reach in St. Louis, although before he left for the Angels, it once appeared that Albert Pujols might get there. No one on the current Cardinals has any hope of getting into this conversation. But Adam Wainwright does rank ninth in career WAR for the Redbirds, which is an amazing accomplishment when it comes to one of baseball's most hallowed franchises.
Giants' face: Willie Mays
Mays' 147.8 WAR is 31.8 more than Barry Bonds posted as a Giant, and for this discussion, Bonds doesn't get to bring along his production with the Pirates. The closest current Giant to Mays is Buster Posey -- at 37.2 WAR. Mays is as safe as safe gets.
Mariners' face: Ken Griffey Jr.
Tough call for Seattle, especially because the Mariners don't have a championship team to light up our memories of them. Griffey is the team's all-time WAR leader (67.6), but he's only a win ahead of Edgar Martinez, who might be about to join Griffey in the Hall of Fame. Martinez is also a one-team player, and there may be Seattle fans unhappy with the pick here. However, the bottom line is this: Griffey put the Mariners franchise on the map when he ascended to the majors in 1989. As for current Mariners, Felix Hernandez ranks fourth in team history with 51.6 WAR. That's not a huge gap to make up, but there hasn't been much in Hernandez's recent performance to suggest he will cover the difference.
Marlins' face: none
Nothing against him personally, but the guy known as "Mr. Marlin" is Jeff Conine, who had 16.7 WAR with the franchise. This is a faceless franchise because in every single instance the team has produced a star-level player, he has left via trade or free agency. (There's also the tragic case of Jose Fernandez.) Stanton is the team's all-time WAR leader, but we'll eventually remember him as a Yankee. Don't believe it? Well, which team do you associate Miguel Cabrera with? It's not the Marlins.
Mets' face: Tom Seaver
Seaver was the face of the Miracle Mets of 1969 and has a pretty good lead on the WAR leaderboard with a mark of 70.3. That is 14.1 ahead of second-place Dwight Gooden. This is the "what might have been" franchise. Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and David Wright all could have ended up as the franchise icon. Among the current Mets other than Wright, there's too much injury uncertainty around No. 35 Matt Harvey and No. 38 Noah Syndergaard.
Orioles' face: Cal Ripken Jr.
It's for players like Ripken that the concept of franchise face was born. Ripken and the Orioles will always go together like peas and carrots. His 92.5 WAR tops the Browns-Orioles leaderboard, 12.3 ahead of Brooks Robinson, who was a worthy franchise icon before Ripken came along. For you St. Louis Browns aficionados out there, George Sisler was the clear icon of the pre-Baltimore days, which produced exactly zero World Series titles.
Manny Machado, who everyone assumes is leaving the Orioles after this season, if he even gets that far, ranks 25th with 26.0 WAR. Even if he stayed, catching Ripken, or even Robinson, would be a tough ask.
Padres' face: Tony Gwynn
Gwynn's 65.0 WAR for the Padres is 2.1 times more than No. 2 Jake Peavy (30.8). No other franchise leader enjoys a larger percentage advantage over the runner-up. Obviously no one on the current Padres, in the midst of a rebuild, is an obvious challenger. Hopes lie in fast-moving prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. But even if someone like Tatis were to hit his ceiling, he would be hard-pressed to approach the status of the late Gwynn, a San Diego lifer from his college years and on.
Phillies' face: Mike Schmidt
The Phillies didn't win a World Series until 1980, so it's no surprise that the cornerstone of that team is the unchallenged franchise face. Schmidt's 106.5 WAR is 26.3 ahead of No. 2 Steve Carlton. The terrific recent Philly teams are well-represented in the team's top 10 -- Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are there, while Cole Hamels is at No. 11. But Schmidt stands alone.
Pirates' face: Honus Wagner
More than four decades after his passing, the presence of Roberto Clemente still looms large in Pittsburgh. Ask any decent sampling of Pirates fans who the all-time face of the franchise is, and chances are Clemente would win in a landslide. However, Wagner's 127.2 WAR is 46.6 more than Clemente compiled during his own Hall of Fame career. McCutchen had 46.3 at the time he was traded -- less than the gap between Wagner and Clemente.
Rays' face: Evan Longoria
Longoria's 49.6 WAR is 12.9 ahead of Carl Crawford. The current team leader is Chris Archer at 17.8, ranking seventh. Archer has been the subject of incessant trade rumors for a year now because this is the Rays we're talking about. Even after being traded, Longoria might hold this status for a long, long time.
Red Sox's face: Ted Williams
Williams' 130.5 WAR is far ahead of No. 2 Carl Yastrzemski (94.8), while Roger Clemens is third at 76.9. Boston has had 10 players finish with over 50 WAR while with the Sox, with Dustin Pedroia poised to join that group this season. But neither Pedroia nor anyone else will encroach on Williams' turf.
Royals' face: George Brett
Sorry, but the Royals can hang onto Eric Hosmer from now until the end of time, and he's still not getting into Brett's neighborhood. Brett's 84.6 WAR is more than twice that of K.C.'s No. 2 (Amos Otis, 42.0). Brett was the star of K.C.'s first championship team and the reason scores of Midwestern little leaguers in the 1970s and '80s argued about who would get to play third base.
Tigers' face: Ty Cobb
Cobb is 54.5 wins ahead of Al Kaline. Love him or not, Cobb is unchallenged as the best-ever Tiger. With Justin Verlander gone, the highest-ranked active Tiger is Miguel Cabrera, who is 95.4 wins shy of Cobb, turns 35 years old shortly after Opening Day, and is coming off his worst season.
Twins' face: Walter Johnson
Here we run into the limits of basing these arguments on franchise rather than city. Johnson's 126.6 WAR is 60.3 more than anyone else in franchise history. He's indisputably the best-ever player for the Senators-Twins. But he spent all 21 of his big league seasons in Washington, is buried in Washington and despite the presence of the Nationals, he's probably still the icon of Washington baseball. But the team he played for is now the Minnesota Twins, and no one who has played for that franchise has been better.
Harmon Killebrew, who started his career with the Senators but did the bulk of the damage after the team moved to Minnesota, is probably the most iconic of the Twins. He had 59.3 WAR after relocation, less than three wins better than Jim Kaat (57.7) and Rod Carew (56.9). Kirby Puckett (44.9 WAR) has to be in the conversation since he starred for both Twins title teams.
On the current Twins, the leader is Joe Mauer, whose 48.1 WAR ranks eighth in team history. He's not done putting up numbers, but he won't approach Johnson or Killebrew.
White Sox's face: Luke Appling
Appling (72.7 WAR, 1st) played in 2,422 games for the White Sox. None of them were in the postseason. During his career, from 1930-50, Chicago topped out at 86 wins. Yet this is almost apropos for a franchise that owns three World Series titles in 117 years, and just one since 1917. That last title team -- 2005 -- earned a ring for Frank Thomas, although he was aging and injured and didn't appear in the postseason that October. Thomas is second in team history with 68.1 WAR, and if you want to call him the franchise icon, it'd be tough to argue with you.
Yankees' face: Babe Ruth
All these years later, Ruth is not only the face of the Yankees, he's the face of baseball. This is a game with a history of big personalties who transcended the sports world, many of whom came to prominence with the Yankees. These are the one-name guys: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, DiMaggio. And, yes, Jeter. No one was a bigger personality or producer than Ruth. His 150.0 WAR for the Yankees (including 0.1 WAR for pitching) is 33.7 more than Gehrig, while Mantle is third at 112.3.
In case you're wondering: Ruth ranks 25th in Red Sox history with 30.6 WAR, 18.3 earned as a pitcher. Have fun with that as a two-way player, Shohei Ohtani. There's just never been anyone like The Babe.
As for the current Yankees, Aaron Judge (8.0 WAR, No. 151 in team history) is off to a great start. Now he just needs to do that about 19 more times.