Ranking depth of talent right now at each position
MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now!" series concludes this week, with starting pitchers airing at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday and catchers at 8 p.m. on Thursday. The annual countdown always makes for fun, dynamic debates about who makes or doesn't make the cut and how the players are graded, both by human analysts and by The Shredder, MLB Network's statistical algorithm.
But watching the Top 10 at each position got me thinking about the positions themselves:
Which spots in MLB are deepest in talent right now? And which could use a helping hand from an emerging prospect or two?
While MLB Network is ranking the players, let's use this space to rank the positions, from strongest to weakest.
Not even when Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Alex Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria and Rey Ordóñez appeared shirtless on the cover of Sports Illustrated was the shortstop segment of MLB this ripped. As shown in some sizable signings, we are not short on star shortstops (try reading that sentence three times fast). In the last 24 months, Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Corey Seager, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts all inked contracts worth $280 million or more (Tatis might not be a shortstop, post-suspension, but he was when he signed the deal). No other position has produced so many contracts of that size. And that doesn't even account for Carlos Correa's six-year, $200 million deal after a whirlwind free agency saga.
Last season, the Astros' Jeremy Peña emerged as the first rookie shortstop to win the Gold Glove and the first rookie position player to win World Series MVP, but he didn't even crack MLB Network's Top 10. Neither did Royals sensation Bobby Witt Jr. It's just too crowded, perhaps even more so this year if the Yankees' Anthony Volpe -- ranked No. 5 on MLB Pipeline's Top Prospects list -- lives up to the hype.
This ranking is not just about stars; it's about depth. Prior to 2018, there had never been a season in MLB history in which 10 shortstops put up a Wins Above Replacement mark (as calculated by Baseball Reference) of at least 4.0. It's now happened each of the last four full seasons. Last year, there were 12 such players, tying the high-water mark set in 2019.
2. Relief pitchers
If there weren't so much anonymity in the relief world, this would rank at No. 1. But the anonymity is kind of the point.
We are in an era in which pitchers we've never heard of materialize from the Minor Leagues, throw absolute gas and breaking balls with incredible movement and sometimes disappear as quickly as they arrived. Last year, a record 32 relievers had at least 40 innings and WHIP marks of 1.00 or lower. The number of relievers with at least 20 innings and an ERA+ of 150 or better last year was 62, tied for the third most all time. And with the five highest relief innings totals across MLB coming in the last five full seasons (with 2022 ranking third), the influence relievers have on the game is stronger than ever.
OK, so we do know some of the names by heart -- Edwin Díaz, Liam Hendriks (whom we wish godspeed in his cancer battle), Emmanuel Clase, Devin Williams, Ryan Pressly, etc.
But there's really no point in memorizing MLB Network's Top 10, because at least half the list will be different a year from now. The only thing that will remain constant is a bunch of mostly anonymous dudes collectively K'ing at least one batter per inning, because that's how the game is played now.
3. Third basemen
Austin Riley, José Ramírez and Rafael Devers all ranked in the top 10 in MLB in extra-base hits in 2022. Yet there wasn't even room for any of them on the All-MLB first or second teams. Those spots went instead, respectively, to Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado (and deservedly so).
So that just shows you how hot the hot corner is at the top right now. In Alex Bregman, Justin Turner and Matt Chapman (who was puzzlingly left off MLB Network's Top 10), there are other accomplished stars at this spot. And the Orioles have a potential star in the making in Gunnar Henderson, who debuted late last year and is the No. 1 prospect in MLB.
Last season, a bounceback for Eugenio Suárez and a breakthrough for Yandy Díaz added to the overall potency of this position.
4. Right fielders
In terms of star power, you could possibly put right field ahead of shortstop and third base -- especially after Aaron Judge's historic 2022 season (even though he wound up spending more time in center field). In Judge and Mookie Betts, you have two of MLB's brightest lights. Ronald Acuña Jr. -- further removed from major knee surgery -- and Kyle Tucker are both also capable of MVP years, and George Springer's move to right field from center (or, rather, centre) in Toronto deepens the position.
But with Bryce Harper potentially unable to play the field for a second straight year because of an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, right field could be short one of its biggest talents, which is why we'll rank it here.
Then there's the X-factor presented by the Friars. Juan Soto will start the season in right field for the Padres, per usual, but there's the possibility of him moving to left to make room for Tatis, whose performance after so much time away is a mystery.
Keep an eye on some fresh faces -- like the D-backs' Corbin Carroll (ranked the No. 2 prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline) or perhaps the Cardinals' Jordan Walker (No. 4) -- who could further augment right field in 2023.
5. Starting pitchers
As with relievers, the raw stuff has never been better. And of course, there is still nothing like the allure of the ace.
That's why four of the top five contracts, in terms of average annual value, have been given to Max Scherzer ($43.3 million), Justin Verlander ($43.3 million), Jacob deGrom ($37 million) and Gerrit Cole ($36 million).
It's also why we breathlessly anticipate and construct our viewing schedules around the arrival of prominent starting pitching prospects, such as the Reds' Hunter Greene last year or, perhaps, the Phillies' Andrew Painter and Orioles' Grayson Rodriguez this year.
That there is still tremendous talent among starters -- be it the unicorn that is Shohei Ohtani, a workhorse like reigning NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara, recent Cy winners like Corbin Burnes or Shane Bieber, or emerging mound masters like Alek Manoah, Dylan Cease and Spencer Strider -- is undeniable. But because of injuries and usage patterns, the overall role of the starter has frustratingly been reduced over time. Last year, for instance, there were fewer quality starts (1,776) in a full season than in the strike-shortened 144-game season of 1995 (1,868).
Hopefully, over time and as rules tweaks and other evolution take their course, we'll get back to a point where starting pitching is at or near the top of the heap, where it belongs. For now, we'll put it more toward the middle of this list.
6. Center fielders
Julio Rodríguez and Michael Harris II stormed the scene last year to win the Rookie of the Year honors and greatly improve the strength of center field. The position has long been fronted by Mike Trout, but J-Rod and Harris definitely deepened the center-field scene. It will be exciting to see what they can do as sophomores. And this year, “MLB The Show” cover athlete Jazz Chisholm is moving from second base to center.
Injuries, though, have limited the impact of Trout for the last two years and Byron Buxton for the bulk of his career. And teams have found this spot difficult to fill, of late. That's why the oft-injured Brandon Nimmo got such a massive contract to re-sign with the Mets and why the Pirates' Bryan Reynolds is such a coveted trade target.
The number of 4-WAR center fielders last season (seven) was the lowest since 2010. You won't find John Fogerty singing about that.
7. Second basemen
Houston's Jose Altuve has elevated the overall outlook at this position for a while, and last season a breakout for the Guardians' Andrés Giménez and a big offensive surge for the Mets' Jeff McNeil helped boost second base. When all was said and done, the combined 96 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) at second base in 2022 ranked in the top 20 all time.
That said, there aren't many near-term second-base solutions on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects list, and recent injuries or inconsistency from the likes of the D-backs' Ketel Marte, the Rays' Brandon Lowe and the Yankees' Gleyber Torres have prevented this position from realizing its full potential. Hopefully that will happen this year.
8. First basemen
First, the good: At first base, we have one of the most exciting young sluggers in MLB, in the form of the Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. We have the Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt, who defied time to win the NL MVP last year. We have the remarkably consistent Freddie Freeman of the Dodgers. We have the Mets' Pete Alonso, who seems good for at least 40 bombs and a memorable Home Run Derby performance. We have the Astros' José Abreu getting a three-year pact at age 36, the Phillies' Rhys Hoskins spiking bats in the postseason and Luis Arraez winning a batting title and becoming a centerpiece acquisition for the Marlins.
There's a lot of talent here, in other words.
It's strange, though. The cliché Slugging First Baseman is not as present in today's MLB. Last year, Goldschmidt, Freeman and Alonso were the only first basemen to slug .500 -- the fewest first basemen to achieve that mark since 1992. The combined .422 SLG at first base was also the lowest since '92. Part of that is attributable to the availability of the DH spot in both leagues now, but, overall, it's a much different looking position than it used to be.
9. Left fielders
Broadly speaking, there are a bunch of teams just trying to piece it together as best they can in left field.
The shortage of outright stars at this spot is evidenced by MLB Network's list having two of the top 10 left fielders coming from the same team -- the Astros' Yordan Alvarez (at No. 1) and Michael Brantley (No. 8). Both figure to bounce back and forth between left field and DH. (Soto, for the record, is also on the Network's list, under the assumption that he moves over to make room for Tatis.)
But anyway, left field gives us "Schwarbombs" from Kyle Schwarber, the electric play of the Guardians' Steven Kwan and, hopefully, a continuation of the Taylor Ward breakout we witnessed with the Angels last year.
There aren't many true, full-time catchers these days. Only four regular catchers qualified for the batting title last season (J.T. Realmuto, Will Smith, Sean Murphy and Salvador Perez). Buster Posey ranks in the top 10 in catcher WAR over the last two seasons … and he retired after 2021. Many teams use tandems at this position, to varying degrees of success.
The tide might be turning, though. In 2022, Adley Rutschman debuted with the O's and -- much like Posey with the Giants more than a decade earlier -- instantly proved himself a star and a leader. Alejandro Kirk had an All-Star breakout with the Blue Jays, who then traded top prospect Gabriel Moreno to Arizona, where Moreno may emerge this year. The No. 3 prospect in MLB is Mets catcher Francisco Álvarez, who could be a regular soon. So while the backstops, as a group, are a bit behind other positions for now, they might -- ahem -- catch up quickly.
11. Designated hitters
MLB Network's show doesn't have a DH list, for good reason: Teams generally rotate players in and out of the DH spot. Last year, only 10 guys accrued at least 300 at-bats as a DH. Also, with the NL only having adopted the DH on a permanent basis last year, the 2022 numbers were more watered down with some would-be bench bats.
We might as well include the position here, though, if only to point out that the .710 OPS from the DH spot last year was the lowest since 1981. The retirement of Albert Pujols and early season absence of Harper threatens to bring that number down in 2023.
But hey, look at the bright side: Ohtani. That's the bright side. And that's pretty good.