Ranking players at each position can be entertaining, but making an ultimate lineup for each division might just be better. If the five AL Central teams combined, this might be the unit they roll out.
Catcher: Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox
He may not have the sexy home run total of Salvador Perez, but Grandal continues to be one of the best catchers in baseball. Grandal might have some ugly stats including his career .240 batting average, but he is a power monster who walks at one of the highest rates in MLB. In 2021, Grandal slugged .520, posting an ISO of .280. He also walked more than he struck out, and his OPS+ of 157 is ridiculous. Grandal is also an excellent pitch framer, helping out the White Sox’s staff.
Grandal only played 93 games in 2021, but if he played more in 2022, he could reach 25 home runs and 100 walks. The only players to reach those marks in 2021 were Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, and Joey Gallo.
First Base: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
Staying in the Southside, the 2020 AL MVP is still the cream of the crop. He had another strong season in 2021. He mashed 30 home runs for the fifth time in his career, tacking on 117 RBI. He slashed .261/.351/.481 en route to an OPS+ of 125. Abreu is one of the most durable players in baseball, and he has not missed more than 25 games in any season. He is a reliable hitter, and the 35-year-old should remain as one of the better hitters in the league.
Abreu has finished in the top 20 of AL MVP voting in four of the last five seasons. He has also added two Silver Sluggers and two All-Star nods. In 2020, he was named to the All-MLB Team 2.
Second Base: Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals
Merrifield can play all over the diamond, but he settled into second base in 2021. He responded by leading the Majors with 42 doubles and leading the AL with 40 steals. Merrifield is not a perfect player, but he is a solid callback to the era of contact-hitting and small ball. 2021 was his worst full season as a batter, but he helped the Royals with his defense and base-running. He racked up 3.6 bWAR despite registering -10 batting runs in 2021. If Merrifield creeps back to a .300 average, he could be a 5-WAR player.
Jorge Polanco is an interesting case study, but he had a rough 2020 before going through a 2021 power surge. Polanco is presently a better hitter, but Merrifield should get the subtle nod with his all-around profile.
Third Base: Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians
Ramirez has finished in the top six of AL MVP voting in four of the last five seasons. He checks off all of the boxes at the hot corner. He has the power for 30 home runs, but he also has excellent strikeout and walk ratios. As a defender, Ramirez might not be Matt Chapman, but he is a reasonable option. Ramirez is even a good base-runner with +26 base runs in his career. He swiped 27 bags in 2021, and he is a 30-30 threat in 2022. Could this be the season Ramirez finally wins the MVP?
Ramirez has opted for more of a power approach in recent seasons. If he can combine the .310 batting average of his early days with the 5.7% home run rate from 2021, he will increase his lead as the best third baseman in baseball.
Shortstop: Carlos Correa, Minnesota Twins
Correa’s only problem is staying on the field. Excluding the 2020 season, Correa has missed fewer than 50 games just twice. In those seasons, Correa averaged 7.1 bWAR. He has every tool a modern shortstop could want. He is a ball vacuum at shortstop, and he has a rocket launcher of a right arm to gun down runners. Correa has immense power potential even if his career-high is just 26. The Twins will hope their signature acquisition will replicate a fifth-place finish in MVP voting.
In his five seasons, Correa has posted an OPS+ of at least 124 five times. He also is an exceptional playoff performer with 18 home runs and 16 doubles in 79 career playoff games. He even homered against the Twins in the 2020 playoffs.
Left Field: Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
Jimenez was poised to take a jump from a spectacular 2020 season, but he was derailed for most of the season with injuries in 2021. He played just 55 games, but he laced 10 doubles and 10 home runs. With a normal spring training, Jimenez should be back to the .276/.321/.527 he posted in his first two seasons. In a full season, Jimenez could be a threat for 40 home runs. He will play plenty at designated hitter, but Jimenez should play most of the season in left field.
In 2020, Jimenez ranked in the top 10 in the AL in slugging percentage, hits, total bases, home runs, RBI, and extra-base hits. He had a 56.1% hard-hit rate and an ISO of .263.
Center Field: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Buxton may have only played 61 games in 2021, but he had a monster season. He finished t-32nd in bWAR despite playing fewer than half of the games than 30 of 31 players ahead of him (Starling Marte). No player in the last 100 years had as many bWAR (4.5) in as few games. For context, only Mookie Betts accumulated 3.5 bWAR in the 60-game season in 2020. Buxton is an elite defensive player, and he has figured out a real approach at the plate.
Buxton’s 2021 Baseball Savant page is one of a kind. He was in the top 10 percentiles in max exit velocity, sprint speed, and outs above average. He barreled up pitches as often as Ronald Acuna Jr. and Shohei Ohtani.
Right Field: Max Kepler, Minnesota Twins
Kepler had a down year at the plate. He hit only 19 home runs, slugging .413. However, he has a healthy rate of walks and strikeouts. If his BABIP creeps back to average, Kepler will be an above-average hitter again. He is a good defensive player (95th-percentile OAA), and his peripherals paint a better picture of his potential in 2022. Heading into 2022, Kepler could hit 25 home runs, steal 15 bases, and be a Gold Glove candidate as a right fielder.
Kepler may not hit 36 home runs as he did in 2019, but his 63rd-percentile expected slugging percentage is likely more in line with what he will do.
Designated Hitter: Franmil Reyes, Cleveland Guardians
Reyes is a baseball masher. He blasted 30 home runs in 2021, his second season with 30-plus in his career. He also launched 18 doubles and a pair of triples to post a 127 OPS+. He slashed .254/.324/.522, but he could improve his strikeout and walk rates moving forward. Reyes ranked in the top 15 percent in both hard-hit rate and expected slugging percentage. He barrels the ball up as often as any hitter in baseball, and the “Franimal” will be unleashed again in 2022.
Reyes played 11 games in right field in 2021, but he is a designated hitter through and through. He was taken out of the game in eight of those 11 games.
Pitcher: Shane Bieber, Cleveland Guardians
Bieber had an otherworldly 2020 season before coming back to Earth in 2021. However, Bieber’s version of Earth was still elite. He posted an ERA+ of 139 across 16 starts. He struck out 12.5 batters per nine innings, the best of his career in a 162-game season. Bieber is a three true outcome stud, and he could easily be in the Cy Young race once again in 2021. He finished fourth in 2019 before winning the award in 2020 after securing the pitching triple crown.
Bieber was hit relatively hard in 2021, finishing in the 29th percentile in average exit velocity allowed. However, he generates strikeouts and whiffs at an elite level.
Main image credit:
Embed from Getty Images