As we get into the penultimate group of the BBTN 100, before we reveal the top 10, two guys in particular stand out as batters bound for even better things. Not just because they’re already here in the 11-20 group, but also because their career trajectories might soon take them into the top 10: third baseman Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles and shortstop Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros.
Given their youth, their talent, their performance so far and the extraordinary paths they are taking, if you had to pick, which one of them would you peg as most likely to crack the top tier before the end of 2016?
Correa won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday until September. Though his rookie year was his age-20 season -- the same as Mike Trout -- and he put up an OPS more than 100 points lower than Trout’s age-20 campaign (.857 to .963), don't forget that Trout is an improbable extreme as far as all-time awesome career kickoffs go. Based on OPS, Trout’s age-20 performance ranks sixth all-time, behind four guys in the Hall of Fame (Mel Ott, Al Kaline, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams) and Alex Rodriguez. Correa’s rookie season does put him into that conversation, though; his year would have ranked 10th all time in OPS for a 20-year-old, had he qualified for the batting title. Last year, Correa was the youngest regular position player in the major leagues, and he will probably repeat that feat in 2016, considering he is five months younger than Dodgers phenom Corey Seager, just to pick one example. Oh, and Correa plays shortstop. Really well. So yeah, the kid can play.
What about Machado? Well, four years into his career, he hasn't gotten off to nearly the same start as Trout or Correa, merely putting up a .746 OPS in his age-20 season in 2013 (his second spin in the majors) while ripping 51 doubles among 68 extra-base hits. But Machado is a half-year younger than Kris Bryant, last year’s National League Rookie of the Year. And Machado didn’t just bounce back nicely from a 2014 season marred by injuries to, and surgeries on, both knees. He rebounded in 2015 by powering up to convert 21 of those doubles into home runs, finishing with 35 jacks. That was on top of winning his second Gold Glove at third base. In his two full seasons, all he’s done at the hot corner is average 40 double plays per year, an extraordinarily high number. So yeah, the other kid can play, too.
Looking at what both have already done and recognizing that players usually hit their peak in their age-25 to age-29 seasons, we can anticipate that both Correa and Machado have pretty high ceilings. Who’s looking good on the forecasting front?
In Machado’s case, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS is pretty enthusiastic about his continued growth in the here and now, projecting him to be the sixth-most-valuable position player in baseball in 2016 based on WAR. Baseball Prospectus’ long-term PECOTA projections peg Machado as a guy who might average 20 homers a year for the next 11 seasons, which sounds conservative, but long-term projections usually are. That ZiPS projection might sound aggressive, but it automatically indicates Machado has the talent to be a top-10 guy right now.
In contrast, ZiPS has Correa ranked ninth among all position players in 2016 -- which is entirely awesome for the youngest regular in the league and should in no way be seen as a disappointment. But it does put a little bit of a dent in the proposition that he’ll be a top 10 guy over the course of the next seven months or so, even if his long-term projections via PECOTA are significantly better (averaging 23 home runs per season, for starters).
With that information in hand, who would I pick as the guy most likely to rate among MLB’s top 10 players by season’s end? In Machado’s case, his bounce-back from injuries in 2014 gave us a true read on what’s to come: He’s a premium defender blossoming into a league-leading slugging threat. Sure, he might not walk much, but we’re asking whether he will rate among the 10 best, not whether he will be No. 1. And Correa? With talent this extraordinary, it isn’t unreasonable to peg him even higher. The league adjusting to him in his sophomore season might make it more of a consolidation year, but why would you bet against him?
With two guys this good, why pick just one? I believe they both can get into the top 10 by season’s end, and that they both will.