- In the third installment of our Top 100 series, we find some of the game's biggest bats (Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton) and a host of other players who just missed the top 10.
SI's MLB writers are proud to present our Top 100 for the 2018 season. The exercise is intended to demonstrate the players most likely to have an impact on the 2018 season based on past performance (we created a weighted WAR average over the past three seasons), injury history and future predictors. And then we argued among ourselves, tinkered with the list and, over time, concluded our rankings.
The goal was to evaluate each player independently (as well as we could, at least). We know that stats can be skewed by a player's team (would Chris Taylor be ranked if he were playing in Tampa Bay? Would Steven Souza crack the list if he were a Yankee?), but we felt our weighting system was the best way to rank players along with one essential question: Which player would you rather have if you needed to compile a roster in 2018? The player that was universally agreed upon was the one who received the higher ranking. Salary was not considered, and 2018 rookies were not included. Many thanks to the essential online resources: Baseball Reference, Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball, among others, for their assistance in helping us create this list.
The rankings are inexact. They are controversial. They may exclude players that you think are essential. So let's get to it the third round.
20. Chris Sale, Red Sox
Jon Tayler: The pitcher equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” Sale’s herky-jerky motion is enough to induce whiplash and nausea in anyone watching. But there’s no doubting its results: The southpaw’s first season in Boston was an unqualified success, as he led the majors in innings pitched (214 ⅓) and strikeouts (308, just the 16th pitcher ever to crack the 300-barrier in a season) and finished second in the Cy Young voting to Corey Kluber.
That he was ultimately the runner-up in that contest is due to a late-season swoon in which he posted a 4.09 ERA from Aug. 1 through the end of the season, then got lit up in his ALDS Game 1 start against Houston (before coming back in relief, weirdly enough, in Game 4). New Red Sox manager Alex Cora will have to find a way to reduce the heavy workload on Sale so as to have him fresh for the postseason, if Boston can get that far. Rested or not, though, Sale is one of the most dominant pitchers in the game thanks to his patently unfair slider, which whips under bats and leaves hitters, particularly lefties, flummoxed. He may look like a bunch of glued together popsicle sticks being tossed around in a hurricane, but Sale is easily one of the game’s best at what he does.
19. Justin Verlander, Astros
Connor Grossman: It’s highly unlikely the soon-to-be 35 year old will mirror the end of his 2017 season in 2018. Regular season and postseason combined, Verlander posted a 1.66 ERA over 70 2/3 innings while Houston lost only one his 10 starts. What’s more, his fastball and changeup velocities were up more than a mile-per-hour each. If nothing else, Verlander’s sudden burst of dominance and sterling track record slots him as a top 20 player in the game right now.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Verlander's turnaround from fallen ace back into one of the game's most dominant starters is remarkable. It was only four seasons ago when he finished with a 4.54 ERA, a league-high 104 earned runs allowed and a career-low 159 strikeouts over a full season. The power looked long gone. Instead, he's back not only as one of the game's best starters (he should have won the AL Cy Young Award in 2016), he's the most feared postseason starter not named Madison Bumgarner. Who knows how much longer he can keep this up, but Verlander is the pitcher who most closely resembles Nolan Ryan.
18. Manny Machado, Orioles
Gabriel Baumgaertner: The grouping of Machado, Seager, Lindor and Donaldson could frankly go in any order, and that order would be correct. Machado's move from third base to shortstop is one of the most fascinating storylines in an offseason lacking significant news. It's an odd choice: Maybe this is one of the Orioles' ways of convincing him to stay for a lower cost? Perhaps Machado has been begging to make the switch since he arrived in Baltimore? Regardless, he should remain one of the game's top defenders with the switch. Few have range like Machado does, and that's before we get to his offensive skill set. Machado did struggle in 2017—he finished with career lows in batting average (.259) and on-base percentage (.310)—but he's still an extra-base hitting machine who has three consecutive seasons of 30-plus homers. He's also still just 25 years old. In terms of natural talent, there are few that compete with Machado, and he's still capable of becoming one of baseball's five best players.
17. Corey Seager, Dodgers
Jay Jaffe: From the moment he reached the majors in September 2015, Seager looked like a full-blown star, not just a star in the making. Even with that late debut and an elbow injury that limited him down the stretch last year, he's fourth among shortstops in 2015-17 WAR (13.5); the three players above him (Correa, Lindor and Simmons) have played anywhere from 32 to 100 more games in that span. Seager's 133 OPS+ is second among shortstops for that window, and last year, he was 10 runs above average defensively. Not too shabby for a player many prospect hounds figured might have to move to third base due to his size (6' 4", 220 lbs).
16. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
Jon Tayler: It’s fun to imagine the alternate universe where Donaldson, instead of ripping line drives and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base as an MVP contender, is instead the most amped up and in-your-face personal accountant or high school science teacher you’ve ever known. Hair braided like a Viking and shirt covered in coffee stains, here’s Earth-1610’s Josh Donaldson, star of his company’s Accounts Receivable division, going full bore into a cubicle wall as he types up spreadsheets. Luckily for us, our Josh Donaldson is one of the best third baseman in the game, both at the plate and in the field.
Despite a slow start last year that had some wondering if his magical run was finally over, he rebounded to hit .302/.410/.698 from Aug. 1 onward, looking every bit like the Donaldson of old. How long he can keep this up is a mystery: His enthusiastic playing style lends itself to persistent, nagging injuries, and time isn’t on his side (he turns 33 in December). But don’t expect him, aging or not, to stop playing like his hair is on fire, and like that fire is also on fire. That just wouldn’t be Josh Donaldson.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: I'm happy to put it in simpler, less artful terms. This guy absolutely rakes and is one of the game's smartest hitters. He's one of the most fun players to watch on an everyday basis.
15. Francisco Lindor, Indians
Jon Tayler: Why do we love baseball? Because it’s fun. To watch these grown men do borderline impossible things and express their boundless, incredible talent is a gift. To watch Francisco Lindor is to realize just how insanely, giddily, plain old fun this game can really be. He is the human incarnation of joy, who plays defense like he has the cheat codes and who is already one of the best hitters in baseball at the age of 24. But more than that, it’s the attitude he brings to the field, where every play is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. At the risk of sounding like a People profile, Lindor has a smile that could light up a room painted in Vantablack. His style was one of the things that made the World Baseball Classic such a treat: There’s Lindor, bat-flipping with abandon for Team Puerto Rico as he launched balls into the stratosphere and laughed his way around the bases. How could you hate him? By stats alone, Lindor is a top-20 player; by personality and swagger, he’s in a class all by himself.
14. Aaron Judge, Yankees
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Sure, it's only one season. Sure, he may not hit 52 home runs again. But judging off of Aaron Judge's performance last season in terms of plate discipline, raw power and hitting maturity, there's no reason to argue that he's anything less than one of the game's elite players. What Judge did last year was masterful. He took 127 walks to log a .422 on-base percentage, which trailed only Joey Votto and Mike Trout. He scored a league-high 128 runs. Over 50% of his hits went for extra bases. He finished with a higher OPS+ (171) than Giancarlo Stanton (165), who hit 59 home runs last year. If you were to read Judge's batting line from last season and asked to guess what player produced it, your first guess may have been Barry Bonds. He still strikes out a ton (he led the league with 208 whiffs last year), but what does it matter when you can produce the way he can?
Judge is very much for real and he's a pretty good defender too! Now, he'll alternate between DH and rightfield with Giancarlo Stanton, which will allow him even more focus on his hitting. He's a joy to watch and the kind of player capable of increasing baseball's popularity and visibility.
13. Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees
Jon Tayler: We can do this blurb one of two ways. I can either tell you, in great detail and with furious amounts of numbers, about the myriad ways in which Giancarlo Stanton takes baseballs and launches them to the furthest reaches of parks across the country. Or you can spend the next seven minutes watching this compilation of the 59 times in 2017 that Stanton made a pitcher wish he’d chosen another path in life. I know which one I’d prefer.
This is the version of Stanton we’ve all been waiting for: the human cannon who clobbers home runs with reckless abandon. But he’s more than those colossal dingers, as his career-high 7.6 WAR and first-ever MVP award last year suggest. He’s upped his walks, cut down on both his strikeouts and his swings and misses, and rates as a competent if unspectacular fielder in right. He isn’t quite the total package, but when he does one very valuable thing better than virtually anyone else alive, you can forgive his flaws and comfortably place him alongside the league’s greats. Pairing him with Aaron Judge, as the Yankees will do for close to the next decade, is a danger both to AL East pitchers and the fans in Yankee Stadium’s leftfield seats. That compilation video may be even longer next year.
12. Bryce Harper, Nationals
Jay Jaffe: Though he may take baseball salaries into a new stratosphere next winter, Harper is arguably ranked too high here given that injuries have limited him to 126 games a year in the five full seasons since his callup, and 258 games and a modest 6.3 WAR in the two seasons since a transcendent, MVP-winning campaign that ranks as the best by a 22-year-old since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Not that he would have won given Giancarlo Stanton’s home run heroics, but Harper was in the running for another MVP award when he hyperextended his left knee in a terrifying baserunning mishap last August 12 and played just five games thereafter. Now in his walk year, he's got something to prove again.
Jon Tayler: The numbers don’t agree with Harper being a top-20 player—at least, not those weighted career stats, with his remarkable MVP season weighed down by injury-filled 2016 and ’17 campaigns. But at the same time, Harper’s ceiling is so unfathomably high that, by pedigree and promise alone, he belongs near the game’s truly elite players. And for as limited as he was last year, he still hit .319/.413/.595 as a 24-year-old; had it not been for that terrifying knee injury and Giancarlo Stanton’s Ruthian second half, he almost certainly would’ve cruised to a second MVP award. With Harper, it’s not what he’s done, but that he’s demonstrated what he can do, that makes him a top-20 choice.
Gabriel Baumgaertner: This was one of the biggest arguments we had. You're telling me that eleven players will be chosen to start a franchise over Bryce Harper? Color me skeptical. He's still only 25 years old!
11. Corey Kluber, Indians
Gabriel Baumgaertner: Corey Kluber entered his June 1st start with an ERA of 5.06. This is how, despite an ugly beginning to his season, he won the 2017 AL Cy Young Award.
— He struck out 224 hitters and walked 23 in the 166.1 innings over those 23 starts.
— His opponents' extra-base hit rate was 5.9% (21 doubles, 14 home runs)
— He threw 32.2 consecutive scoreless innings in September and struck out 44 hitters in that span.
— He had 15 double-digit strikeout games and five complete games (three of which were shutouts).
Kluber always seems to fade in the background because of his refusal to showcase any kind of emotion (which inspired the "Klubot" nickname), but he's one of the most intimidating and dominant pitchers in baseball. He struggled in the postseason last year, but he's otherwise one of the game's best and most consistent hurlers.