The best player at every age, from 20 to 41

August 4th, 2021

Here’s a fun fact: The youngest player in baseball (that would be the Rays’ ) was born on March 1, 2001, one month before the oldest player in baseball (that would be ) made his Major League debut. That’s how long the arc of a baseball career can be: Someone born just before you started can play against you before you are done.

Thus, today, in honor of this tidbit, as well as the inexorable nature of time itself, we take a look at the best baseball player at each age in the sport. Now, for the sake of simplicity, we are going with their “baseball age,” which is the age they were on June 30 of this year, as opposed to their actual age at this exact second. This allows us to not sweat individual birthdays so much, giving us a universal figure to work from, and it also, if I’m being honest, makes it a lot easier to search on Baseball Reference.

We’re accounting for this year’s success in this tally, of course, but we’re really trying to pick the best overall pick. What you’ve done up to this point in your career, particularly recently, factors in as well. You can watch that whole arc of a baseball career in this list.

And if you’re curious, we’ve done this before, both last year and in 2019.

20: Wander Franco, SS, Rays
OK, so the No. 1 overall prospect hasn’t taken the league entirely by storm since being called up, but this is clearly a superstar-in-waiting. It might be as early as this October.

21: Ryan Weathers, LHP, Padres
Jarred Kelenic was another consideration for this pick, but for now, his barely-above-.100 batting average drops him below Weathers, who is already a key starter for a playoff team, just three years after being drafted out of high school. Runner-up: Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners

22: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B, Blue Jays
It remains truly shocking he is still this young -- it feels like we have all been talking about him forever. This is what we were waiting for, though: He’s nothing less than the best hitter in the game right now. Also, uh, if you were wondering if the game is in good hands: Fernando Tatís Jr. and Juan Soto are also 22, and are also defensible picks here. Runners-up: Fernando Tatís Jr., SS, Padres; Juan Soto, OF, Nationals

23: Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves
Even out for the rest of the year, he has to be the pick. But let’s see how quickly he can come back from this injury. Runner-up: Trevor Rogers, LHP, Marlins

24: Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox
Another guy who got his start before he was old enough to buy an alcoholic beverage, and who has matured into one of the best all-around hitters in baseball. It turns out, if you’re called up early … it’s a very good sign. Runner-up: Julio Urías, LHP, Dodgers

25: Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers
He’s having a down year, but Bellinger has done enough in his career to still hold the top spot. Runner-up: Franmil Reyes, DH, Indians

26: Shohei Ohtani, DH/SP, Angels
The easiest call on the board, though the question remains how much longer he can stay healthy and keep it up. There are many, many competitors, particularly from the pitching ranks. Runners-up: Walker Buehler, RHP, Dodgers; Corbin Burnes, RHP, Brewers; Shane Bieber, RHP, Indians

27: Josh Hader, LHP, Brewers
Hader remains just as good as he has ever been. It’d be nice to see Francisco Lindor get back to owning this spot, though. Runners-up: Matt Olson, 1B, A’s; Francisco Lindor, SS, Mets

28: Mookie Betts, OF, Dodgers
Sure, he’s had a down year for him, but he has a 141 OPS+, and he’s the face of what’s still probably the best team in baseball. (Though it’s never fun when he's dealing with nagging injuries.) Runners-up: Bryce Harper, OF, Phillies; José Ramírez, 3B, Indians; Trea Turner, SS, Dodgers; Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox; Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Brewers

29: Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees
Judge has had as tumultuous of a year as the Yankees have had, but he’s still, when healthy, as dangerous a hitter as anyone in the game. Runners-up: Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds; Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Giants

30: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees
No reason to doubt him anymore: He’s the same amazing pitcher he has been for several years now. Runner-up: Nolan Arenado, 3B, Cardinals

31: Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
Even his “down” year has been fantastic, though with the Braves struggling, fewer people have noticed. Runners-up: Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros; Zack Wheeler, RHP, Phillies

32: Liam Hendriks, RHP, White Sox
Slimmer pickings here, as, perhaps not surprisingly, some of the better players are starting to get injured around this age. Runners-up: Chris Bassitt, RHP, A’s; Whit Merrifield, 2B, Royals

33: Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets
His ERA remains at 1.08, by the way, in case you’ve forgotten since he last pitched. We’ll give him a slight edge here over Clayton Kershaw due to recent dominance, but you can’t go wrong with either one. Runners-up: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers; Craig Kimbrel, RHP, White Sox; J.D. Martinez, DH, Red Sox; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Cardinals

34: Lance Lynn, RHP, White Sox
Sorry, but have you seen what Lynn is doing? He’s got an under-2.00 ERA. And he’s been this good for a while! It’s breaking my heart not to have Buster Posey here, by the way. Runners-up: Yu Darvish, RHP, Padres; Buster Posey, C, Giants

35: Josh Donaldson, 3B, Twins
There’s one consistent fact about Josh Donaldson: When he’s healthy, boy, does he ever hit. Runners-up: Evan Longoria, 3B, Giants; Corey Kluber, RHP, Yankees

36: Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
How many years would you give him on his next contract? A lot, right? Runners-up: Justin Turner, 3B, Dodgers; Mark Melancon, RHP, Padres

37: Zack Greinke, RHP, Astros
He keeps putting together the numbers for his eventual Hall of Fame case. He’s probably a Game 1 starter too, yes? Runner-up: Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

38: Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals
That he is still doing this is absurd. That he wants to keep doing this past this year? Even more so. Runner-up: Darren O’Day, RHP, Yankees

39: Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
Wainwright has held the Cardinals rotation together the best he can this year: He’s basically the only starter they’ve trusted since Opening Day. Runner-up: Oliver Pérez, LHP, Indians (the only other 39-year-old in MLB this year, and he’s barely pitched)

40: Nelson Cruz, DH, Rays
He’s the only 40-year-old in baseball. He’ll be the only 50-year-old someday, probably. Runner-up: N/A

41: Albert Pujols, 1B, Dodgers
OK, Rich Hill is probably having a better year in aggregate. But Pujols’ OPS since joining the Dodgers is the highest it has been since 2016, and his career value puts him over the top. Runner-up: Rich Hill, LHP, Mets