Obviously, the intensity of the next week of baseball -- so many hopes and dreams are going to be gone like that -- will focus on the teams and their results, but let’s not forget that, in many ways, this is still an individual sport, batter vs. pitcher, one on one, mano a mano. We are about to watch some of the very best baseball players on the planet, with everything on the line.
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Thus, as the postseason kicks off, here is one man’s ranking of the Top 50 players competing in this year's tournament. Some of these players have been great for years; some have emerged in recent weeks. But all of them are absolutely pivotal for their team's success. These guys are as good as it gets. While we factor in track record, this list does weigh recent performance a bit more heavily: If you were picking a team based on trying to win this October, these are the guys you'd pick.
And sorry, Mike Trout: Hopefully you’ll get to be on this list next year. Again.
1) Mookie Betts, OF, Dodgers: Mookie had a “down” year by his standards, which is to say he was still one of the Top 15 players in baseball. And he now has a chance to become a Dodgers legend by winning them a long-awaited World Series title. Mookie has already shown what he’s capable of on the biggest baseball stage. But now he can do it in Dodger Blue.
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2) Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves: Freeman’s 2020 season began with a nightmare, suffering from a bout with COVID-19 so powerful that he worried he was going to die. And yet, here he is, perhaps finally putting together the MVP season we all knew he was capable of having. In many ways, Freeman is the story of 2020.
3) Shane Bieber, SP, Indians: It is sort of hilarious to think that Bieber was once the fifth starter in Cleveland's rotation. He won the MLB Triple Crown, for goodness sakes, and he’s the single biggest reason this Indians team will be so terrifying to face this October.
4) Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves: Acuña is still a little bit inconsistent, but he might be the most purely talented player -- in every facet -- in all of baseball.
5) José Ramírez, 3B, Indians: His wretched, out-of-nowhere start to 2019 seems like, as with so much in '19, it happened 100 years ago. He might have won himself an American League MVP Award in this season’s final week, and for a team that has had so much turmoil and turnover, he has been a constant for several years now.
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6) Manny Machado, 3B, Padres: Remember when Machado had a merely above-average year in 2019 and people were questioning the wisdom of his massive, lengthy contract? Well, now he has put up the best numbers of his career and has been a clear guiding force for a team that has taken the huge leap forward its fans have been longing for. He’s the centerpiece of a team with its best days still ahead.
7) Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds: Why were so many teams hoping to avoid the Reds in the Wild Card Series? You can start with Bauer, who finally became the pitcher he has been telling the world he was for years. The Reds have perhaps their best ace in a decade.
8) Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres: The phenom dominated the league in the first month before slowing down a little down the stretch, but this is still perhaps the most thrilling player to watch. And he’s about to play on the largest stage he’s ever had. You want to know why baseball is so fun? Watch Tatis.
9) DJ LeMahieu, 2B, Yankees: Remember when the Yankees signed him and everyone wondered where the heck they’d play him? Turns out they found a space for a guy who leads the Majors in batting average and has had the best power season of his career. For all the Yankees' injuries this year and the big names on the shelf, is it possible LeMahieu is the most valuable?
10) Gerrit Cole, RHP, Yankees: Has he been the best pitcher in baseball? Probably not. But is he still the guy you want starting a Game 1, the potential shutdown ace the Yankees paid all that money for? Absolutely. The Indians aren’t going to be particularly comfortable facing him, that’s for sure.
11) Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs: We’ll see what happens if he ends up facing the Astros in the World Series again after 2017, but Darvish has given the Cubs something this year that they’ve lacked since Jake Arrieta was throwing no-hitters: a true dominating No. 1 starter. With the Cubs’ offense struggling as much as it has been lately, they may need Darvish to be at his best.
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12) Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers: How glorious was it, after some of his “struggles” last season, to see Kershaw in true vintage form this year (2.16 ERA)? And it would be even more glorious for him to put those postseason demons to rest once and for all over the next month. He’ll actually start Game 2 for the Dodgers, which speaks to how deep they are.
13) Marcell Ozuna, DH, Braves: The Braves didn’t know the National League would have the designated hitter this year when they signed Ozuna, and this signing turned out really well, as he almost won the NL Triple Crown, finishing first in homers (18), first in RBIs (56), and third in batting average (.338).
14) Chris Bassitt, RHP, A’s: Too high for a pitcher who didn’t even think he’d be in the rotation this year? A’s fans would very much say this is too low. Bassitt's September numbers were incredible, giving up just one run and going 3-0 in 26 2/3 innings. Admittedly, this is definitely a “what have you done for me lately” ranking, but people need to know just how good Bassitt has been.
15) Devin Williams, RHP, Brewers: This has been the best arm out of the Brewers' bullpen and, according to many metrics, the best relief arm in baseball. Look at these stats: 100 batters faced, eight hits, 53 strikeouts, one earned run. If there’s a tight game in that Dodgers series, the Brewers could shorten it fast. Is this a little high to put a reliever? Maybe. But we’ve see the kind of impact relievers can have in the postseason.
16) Josh Hader, LHP, Brewers: Speaking of relievers ... numbers-wise, Hader actually hasn’t been the best arm out of the Brewers' bullpen this year. But you know that in crunch time, he’ll be the one they trust more than anyone else. If you wanted to rank him ahead of Williams, I wouldn’t argue.
17) José Abreu, 1B, White Sox: The veteran Abreu was thought to be a guy the White Sox were keeping around as a shining example for all the younger players on the roster. He has been that, but he has also outdone all of them this year at the plate. There isn’t a player on this White Sox roster who has been through the lean times more than Abreu has. He has earned this.
18) Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers: With all the other Dodger players being fantastic over the last few years, you almost forgot about the former Rookie of the Year. Seager reminded everybody of how great he is when healthy this year: It was him -- not Mookie Betts, not Cody Bellinger -- who led the team in slugging this year.
19) Luke Voit, 1B, Yankees: All the power bats on this team, and it’s Luke Voit -- he who once couldn’t crack the roster in St. Louis Luke Voit -- who ended up leading the Majors in homers this year. Staying healthy is a skill, and he’s one of the few Yankees who has done it, but Voit has shown that his explosion two years ago was no fluke. Is he one of the most reliable players the Yankees have?
20) Brandon Lowe, 2B, Rays: The Rays are a team that overwhelms you from the top of its roster to the bottom rather than one that attacks you with top-tier superstars, but Lowe has slowly separated himself from the pack in recent years. Don’t be surprised if he cements his place in Rays lore this postseason.
21) Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers: All right, so he wasn’t as overwhelming as he was last season. He was still an above-average player, still a reigning MVP and still has all the talent in the world. He will have one huge moment this postseason, you can count on it.
22) Nelson Cruz, DH, Twins: The ageless wonder, Cruz just casually went out this year and hit homers at a pace that’s actually above his career pace. (Even if he slowed down toward the end of the season.) The Twins are desperate to finally get out of the first round of the playoffs, and, as always, they’ll be following their veteran slugger’s lead. And hey, if he doesn’t win the World Series this year, he’ll be playing until 2040, so he’ll have plenty of opportunities.
23) Blake Snell, LHP, Rays: At several moments, particularly over the last month, he looked more and more like his former Cy Young self. This is the best team he’s ever played on, and this could be the time to remind everyone of exactly who he is.
24) Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP, Blue Jays: The Jays clearly knew what they were doing this offseason. Bringing in Ryu was a masterstroke, solidifying their rotation and giving him the opportunity to stay healthy in an unexpectedly shortened season. Now he’s a scary Game 2 opponent for the No. 1 seed Rays, after Toronto surprised the baseball world with Matt Shoemaker for Game 1.
25) Byron Buxton, OF, Twins: With all the power stacked up for the Twins, it was Buxton’s health -- until he was hit in the head by a pitch in the final weekend, though he should be fine for the Wild Card Series -- that may have contributed most to their success. When he’s in the lineup, the Twins are so tough to beat.
26) Dinelson Lamet, RHP, Padres: Lamet left his last start with bicep tightness, which is potentially ominous for the Wild Card Series against the Cardinals. But if he is healthy, Lamet can blow away any lineup, let alone one as relatively punchless as the Cardinals’ has been this year.
27) Nick Anderson, RP, Rays: The revelation of last year’s Rays went out and pitched just as well in 2020 despite a brief injury battle. Anderson is back at full speed for the playoffs, and you can be certain you will be seeing a lot of him.
28) Trent Grisham, OF, Padres: Traded from the Brewers after a misplay in last year's NL Wild Card Game jumpstarted the Nationals' World Series run, Grisham put together a breakout year for the Padres. The center fielder finished with exactly 10 homers and 10 stolen bases, making him one of six members of the 10-10 club in this shortened season.
29) Jake Diekman, LHP, A’s. The A’s are a team that still sneaks up on you, even when they win the division, and Diekman has been key to everything they’ve been doing all year. He has given up just one earned run in 20 innings ... and he’ll be the guy Oakland relies on at every big moment.
30) Liam Hendriks, RHP, A’s: Unless of course it's Hendriks, who has been the A’s closer and essentially matched Diekman pitch for pitch and been arguably the best reliever in baseball over the last two seasons.
31) Tim Anderson, SS, White Sox: An emotional leader for the White Sox; as he goes, so does this offense. And you know Anderson is good for one truly epic bat flip at some point this postseason. He finished the season in a 3-for-34 slump, or he’d rank higher.
32) George Springer, OF, Astros: In a tumultuous season in Houston, it was Springer, in his last season before free agency, who was the Astros' most stabilizing and best player. They’ve needed him in every postseason so far, and they’ll need him even more this year.
33) Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees: It’s appears that injuries are never going to allow Judge to be a 156-game-a-year player, but he doesn’t have to play 156 games over the next month. He hasn’t looked like himself since coming off the injured list, but generally speaking, when Judge is healthy he makes an impact. This may look like an embarrassingly low ranking in a couple of weeks.
34) Teoscar Hernández, OF, Blue Jays: It was a wild year for the Toronto/Buffalo Blue Jays, and many of the players you thought would have superstar seasons for the Blue Jays either didn’t bust through or ended up getting hurt. But it was Hernández who stayed (mostly) healthy and became this team’s breakout star.
35) Eloy Jiménez, OF, White Sox: Luis Robert, who faded badly down the stretch, got all the hype, but Jiménez was the guy who came first and has even more titanic power. Of all the players on this incredibly talented team, it might be him who makes your jaw drop this October. Just need to hope he doesn’t have to make a tough defensive play in a key spot.
36) Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers: Yelich never really got it going this year, as he warned might be the case in the preseason. But he’s still Christian Yelich, and if he finds his stroke in time, the Dodgers will wonder how in the world they ever got stuck facing this guy in the Wild Card Series.
37) Max Fried, LHP, Braves. You’d rather have a pitcher dealing with an ankle injury than an arm one, and considering the Reds starters the Braves are coming up against, they’ll need Fried to be tip-top.
38) Lucas Giolito, RHP, White Sox: He might not be throwing any no-hitters this postseason, but he continues to show that all the hype leading to his debut was well-founded.
39) Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians: He wasn’t the offensive star of this team, but generally speaking, the Indians go as far as he takes them.
40) Kenta Maeda, RHP, Twins: The difference between this Twins team and those of recent vintage might be Maeda, the closest thing they’ve had to an ace in years. In a world where Shane Bieber doesn’t exist, Maeda (6-1, 2.70 ERA) has a Cy Young case this year.
41) Sixto Sánchez, SP, Marlins: The J.T. Realmuto trade keeps looking better and better for the Marlins, especially considering Sánchez is going to be piping fastballs in the postseason while Realmuto and the Phillies are sitting at home. Sánchez struggled in his last two outings of the season, but if the Marlins make a deep playoff run, decent chance Sánchez is the reason why.
42) Will Smith, C, Dodgers: There have been so many Dodgers having great years that you wonder if half this list should be of them. But it’s Smith who led them all in OPS (.980).
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43) Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Cardinals: Goldschmidt had a disappointing first season in St. Louis, but he was vintage Goldy in 2020 for a Cardinals offense that needed every hit it could get. Playing every game of the club's disjointed season, he ended up batting over .300 for the first time since 2015. His .417 OBP was the second highest of his career as well.
44) Luis Castillo, SP, Reds: Here is the second reason no one wanted to play the Reds in the first round. Sonny Gray, who just missed this list, is the third. Look out, Braves.
45) Wil Myers, OF, Padres: Myers has heard all your scoffing “overpaid” insults and stuffed them in your face this year. The Padres receive so much praise for their young players, and for good reason, but Myers returning to his old form -- surpassing it, actually -- had as much to do with San Diego’s success as anyone. It was actually Myers -- not Tatis or Machado -- who led the team in slugging (.606).
46) Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Brewers: With Corbin Burnes questionable for the postseason, Woodruff immediately becomes the best pitcher in the Brewers' rotation. The way he looked in his last start against the Cardinals (8 IP, 0 ER, 10 K's) has to scare the Dodgers a little.
47) Javier Báez, SS, Cubs: Of all the superstars who had wretched seasons, Báez’s is the most inexplicable. (Maybe he just needs to play in front of crowds?). With talent like this, though, take your eyes off him at your own peril, and he can impact games even when he’s not hitting (.599 OPS in 2020).
48) Dallas Keuchel, LHP, White Sox: Injuries are always a concern with Keuchel, and he doesn’t miss bats like most elite pitchers do these days. But you cannot argue with his results this year: His 1.99 ERA was the lowest of his career, by far.
49) Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Cubs: This is Keuchel’s right-handed counterpart on the North Side. He continues to be effective (2.88 ERA) without blowing anyone away.
50) Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros: This has been a down year for Bregman, but his 122 wRC+ is still comfortably above league average. Can he and the Astros salvage what has been a season of one headache after another?