With its unveiling of the top 500 players in baseball, ESPN.com is launching Triple Play, a weekday feature that will run throughout the season and include three ESPN contributors answering three topical questions. For now, the feature will focus on the top 500 rankings, but Triple Play's concentration will shift to the daily MLB buzz once the season begins.
The debut of Triple Play looks at the players ranked from No. 11 to 25. Feel free to chime in on Twitter with the hashtag #ESPN500.
1. Can a closer (Mariano Rivera) really be the 12th-best player in baseball?
Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick), ESPN.com:
I have the ultimate respect for Rivera. He's a class act and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But I wouldn't take him over any of the players behind him on the top 25. He's 42 years old, logged 61 1/3 innings last season and pitched back-to-back days a total of four times after mid-May last season. This is the baseball equivalent of the Irving Thalberg Lifetime Achievement Award.
Matt Meyers (@mtmeyers), ESPN.com
As good as Rivera is, it's impossible to be that valuable in such limited use. I would love to see what he (or any elite closer) could do in the classic Goose Gossage fireman role. If Rivera pitched 100 innings with multi-inning saves mixed in while maintaining an ERA around 2.00, I think you could make a case for him this high. But in the current "closers only pitch one inning and often with a two- or three-run lead," he's overrated at No. 12.
Bill Baer (@crashburnalley), Crashburn Alley/SweetSpot
No. Mariano Rivera won't even reach 70 innings pitched this season. Comparatively, Roy Halladay reached the 70-inning plateau after the first inning of his 10th start on May 20 last year. Yes, closers pitch in plenty of high-leverage situations, but that doesn't even begin to make up for the lack of innings. Per FanGraphs, Craig Kimbrel led all relievers with 3.2 wins above replacement last year; a position player equivalent was Carlos Lee of the Houston Astros.
2. Which player here deserved top-10 status?
Crasnick: Evan Longoria (No. 16) is tempting, but I'll go with Jose Bautista (No. 14). He leads the majors with 97 homers over the past two seasons. He's second to Miguel Cabrera in OPS, and his 13.9 WAR ties him with Longoria for second in the big leagues behind Cabrera. That 2010 coming-out party was no fluke. Just think how lethal Bautista might be if teams actually threw him a strike once in a while.
Meyers: Justin Upton (No. 21) finally started to reach his potential in 2011, posting a .289/.369/.529 line with 31 homers and 21 steals. And at age 24, you get the sense he's just getting warmed up. This list is supposed to be about the best players for 2012, and I can easily see Upton putting up a .950 OPS with 40 homers this year and making a case as the best player in the game.
Baer: Matt Kemp (No. 13). He does everything: he hits (.419 wOBA last year), he runs (40-for-51 stealing bases), and he plays decent defense at a premium position. There are still arguments to be made in favor of Kemp over Ryan Braun for the 2011 NL MVP Award, and Kemp projects to be the better player in 2012. In other words, he's the best outfielder in baseball.
3. Who do you think should be No. 1 when we release the top 10 on Tuesday?
Crasnick: Am I confident that Albert Pujols will be worth $20-something million annually 10 (or even five) years from now? Well, no. But he still provides the best mix of production, durability and Hall of Fame-caliber "presence" -- not to mention an attentiveness to defense, baserunning, plate discipline and the game's finer points. As a Cardinal or an Angel, he's No. 1 in my book, at least for 2012.
Meyers: The hardest thing to find in baseball is a shortstop who can field and hit competently. And when you have one who can do both at a superstar level, you have the game's most precious commodity. And if I were drafting a team to win in 2012, I'd start with Troy Tulowitzki, who I would put at No. 1 on this list.
Baer: Clayton Kershaw. He's rapidly become one of the best pitchers in baseball, and he is only 24 years old. The defending NL Cy Young Award winner finds himself mentioned in the same company as Halladay and Cliff Lee, but unlike those two, Kershaw hasn't reached his prime. The lefty expertly utilizes a fastball-slider repertoire to get plenty of whiffs, and look for him in the NL MVP discussion at the end of the season.