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Analyzing the 10 active players who rule WAR

January 23, 2019

Last year, Jose Pujols, a certain Hall of Famer and one of the best baseball players of the last 50 years, passed a sabermetric career threshold: He reached 100 total career Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. This makes Pujols, according to WAR, the 31st-best baseball player of all

Last year, Jose Pujols, a certain Hall of Famer and one of the best baseball players of the last 50 years, passed a sabermetric career threshold: He reached 100 total career Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. This makes Pujols, according to WAR, the 31st-best baseball player of all time, just behind Joe Morgan and just ahead of Warren Spahn. Rather heady company, all around.
The strange thing about Pujols reaching the 100 WAR plateau is that, well, this is the second time he has made it to 100. He was also exactly at 100 after the 2015 season -- the last season in which he played in an All-Star Game -- with a 3.0 WAR performance that landed him right at 100. Since then, Pujols has been a 0-WAR player: He had a 1.3 WAR season in '16, followed by a disastrous -1.8 WAR in '17, dropping him below the 100 threshold; it took a 0.5 WAR season last year to get him back to it. Pujols still has three years on his Angels contact, but with Shohei Ohtani unable to play anywhere other than DH next year, and Justin Bour signed in the offseason, Pujols might see a decline in playing time. 

This is often the issue with great players as they near the end of their careers: While their counting stats will just keep going up -- and Pujols notched his 600th homer in 2017 and his 3,000th hit in '18 -- the averages and mean-adjusted stats can just as easily go down. Case in point: Pujols' batting average, which was .328 lifetime when he left St. Louis, is now down all the way to .302; another .245 in '19 might drop it under .300 entirely. So today, we look at the top-10 WAR figures among active players, to see what the future holds.
1. Albert Pujols, Angels, 100 WAR (31st all-time)
There have been rumors, because of the crowded 1B/DH situation, that the Angels might consider buying out Pujols' contract this year. That still seems pretty unlikely, not just because Ohtani won't be ready for Opening Day, but also because, well, Pujols is still owed $87 million. (Also, he's finally making his first visit to Busch Stadium as an Angel this June. It's tough to imagine him not being on the roster by then.) Theoretically, he and Bour could platoon at first when Ohtani comes back, but we'll see.
2. Jose Cabrera, Tigers, 69.4 WAR (102nd all-time)
Cabrera and Pujols are at similar points in their careers, but Cabrera is signed for much longer -- through the 2023 season. The Tigers owe Cabrera a minimum of $162 million over the next five seasons, and he's got a no-trade clause; he's probably not going anywhere. He does seem to have a little bit more left in his bat than Pujols, but he only played 38 games last season and injuries could be a concern going forward. The Tigers are starting over in every other aspect but Miggy, so he's a bit of an awkward fit on the roster. 

  1. Robinson Cano, New York Mets, 69.2 WAR (105th all-time)
    Cano's PED suspension last year didn't win him any new friends (and it didn't do any potential Hall of Fame argument any favors either), but it is worth pointing out that the new Met can still hit the ball, and hard. He actually had his highest OBP since 2014 last season, while of course playing in only 80 games. He's almost certainly the best-hitting Met right now, and remember, this is a team that's trying to compete in '19. If Cano plays a full season, he may add more to his WAR number than almost anyone else on this list. Considering the Mets owe him $100 million over the next five years -- a yearly $24 million, with $20 million total chipped in by the Mariners in the trade -- he'll have plenty of opportunities.
    4. Zack Greinke, D-backs, 65.7 WAR (135th all-time)
    Despite countless rumors, and the D-backs overhauling their roster otherwise, Greinke is still in Arizona. He might be dangled again at the non-waiver Trade Deadline, depending on what kind of season he is having. It will likely be a good one: He remains one of the top 20 pitchers in the game, and a remarkably consistent one over the last 10 years. Every team could use a Greinke.
  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 64.6 WAR (141st all-time)
    His overall numbers are trending down, which only makes him one of the best pitchers in the game rather than the obvious top one. He's still only 30 years old, which is absolutely insane when you think about it.
    6. Michael Trout, Los Angeles Angels, 64.3 WAR (144th all-time)
    Yep, you didn't have to go very far down this list to find Trout, who is still somehow only 27. His 9.2-WAR season in 2018 leapt him about 100 spots on the all-time list. If he has another season like the one he just had, he'll be at 73.5, which will shoot him past Derek Jeter and Tony Gwynn and Jim Palmer and all the way up to 82nd all time.
    7. Justin Verlander, Houston Astros, 63.4 WAR (151st all-time)
    Verlander's late-career surge in Houston, along with the World Series ring he picked up along the way, has increased his Hall of Fame credentials substantially, and it has sent him flying up the all-time WAR list. If he finishes in the top five in Cy Young Award voting this year, his 2020 option is automatically picked up at $22 million. Even if it doesn't, if he's healthy, someone will happily pay him that much, and probably for longer.
    8. Carsten Sabathia, New York Yankees, 62.7 WAR (160th all-time)
    Sabathia keeps plugging along on one-year contracts with the Yankees, and they keep needing him. After a scary heart incident this offseason that led to an angioplasty procedure in December, he's working his way back and should be ready by Spring Training. It will be great just to see him on the mound.
    (Next here would be Ichiro Suzuki, who isn't officially retired, but we are considering him so for this exercise since he's likely only going to make a cameo in 2019.)
  1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds, 58.8 WAR (198th all-time)
    Votto, for this first time in memory, wasn't the best hitter on the Reds last year, but that says more about the Reds than it does him; he still, uh, led the National League in on-base percentage for the third consecutive year, and the seventh time in his career. He is going to be one of the most fascinating Hall of Fame debates ever, but we've got a while until we need to worry about that.
    10. Ian Kinsler, San Diego Padres, 57.3 WAR (215th all-time)
    Bet this wasn't the next name you thought was coming. The veteran's WAR total is helped by being skilled at the position he plays and a tendency to rarely miss games. (Last year being an exception.) He'll be a steward for all those young Padres players and be a little bit better than you think he is. Still, though: He's likely going to pass Willie Stargell in lifetime WAR this year … that doesn't quite seem right.
    If you're curious, here are the rest of the active WAR top 20:
    11. Cole Hamels, Cubs, 56.4 WAR (223rd)
  2. Max Scherzer, Nationals, 54.5 WAR (244th)
  3. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, 52.1 WAR (272nd)
  4. Evan Longoria, Giants, 51.9 WAR (277th)
  5. Felix Hernandez, Mariners, 50.9 WAR (291st)
  6. Curtis Granderson, free agent, 47.7 WAR (337th)
  7. Ryan Braun, Brewers, 46.4 WAR (365th)
  8. Bartolo Colon, free agent, 46.1 WAR (368th)
  9. Benjamin Zobrist, Cubs, 45.3 WAR (385th)
  10. Matthew Holliday, free agent, 44.8 WAR (398th)

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.