Similar to franchise modes in games like MVP Baseball and MLB The Show we are assuming the league is starting from scratch and that you have the number one pick. Who ya got? The only difference here is we are taking current contracts out of the equation. In this hypothetical world every first round pick receives the same deal. So the only other factor to consider would be age. For example, while Miguel Cabrera should be awesome for the next couple of years it would probably make more sense to consider someone younger. The below list is not necessarily the order I would take them in but are the guys I believe deserve the strongest consideration.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies Age: 25
Baseball is a regional sport, which means fans aren't always caught up on story lines happening outside of their city. Because he has always played for subpar Rockies teams Arenado has never received the national attention he deserves. He has always been known for his glove though and since entering the league in 2013 leads all third baseman with 77 defensive runs saved. The next closest are Manny Machado with 57 and Josh Donaldson with 47. Safe to say nobody is catching him anytime soon. He has won a gold glove every year he has played in the league and it is widely expected that he captures a fourth this season.
But what has transformed Arenado from a defensive wizard to one of the best all around players in baseball is his bat. While playing half his games at Coors Field has its advantages Arenado was never expected to hit like this. After hitting a combined 28 homers between 2013-14 he exploded for a National League leading 42 last season to go along with 130 RBI. So far in 2016 he ranks fourth in the majors with 22 home runs and second with 66 RBI. Machado is the only other player that possesses Arenado's rare combination of power and defense, which makes him worthy of consideration as a top five pick.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox Age: 23
What we have here is a 23-year-old up the middle defender who in the American League currently ranks second in hits, third in batting average, fifth in OBP, fifth in runs, and seventh in doubles. After a disappointing rookie season in 2014 where he batted just .240 Bogaerts showed the ability to make an adjustment at the major league level and raised his batting average a whopping 80 points last year. The biggest concern with his game entering 2016 was if he would be able to hit for enough power after hitting just seven homers a season ago. He has once again made an adjustment and through the first half of the season has nine homers.
However the argument for Bogaerts is also an argument for the position he plays. There are simply not as many good offensive shortstops as there are outfielders or corner infielders. So locking up a player of Bogaerts' hitting ability at a position like shortstop makes it easier to build a team around him. If you believe the power progression he's made so far will continue you can reasonably argue for Bogaerts as a top five pick as well.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs Age: 24
Bryant just turned 24 in January, which is a little surprising since he has played just one full season in the big leagues. Regardless his 2015 rookie year was impressive and his 5.9 WAR were more than the 5.1 Bryce Harper accumulated during his rookie season. While Bryant led the league in strikeouts he showed he had the rare ability to both hit for power (26 home runs) and get on base (.369 OBP).
Thus far in his sophomore season Bryant has only gotten better and currently leads the National League with 23 home runs. He has maintained his impressive on base skills while lowering his strikeout rate (31% to 23%) and increasing his home run rate (4% to 6.5%). In today's pitching dominated game Bryant's right handed power is one of the most sought after commodities. As a perennial favorite for 40 plus homers Bryant should be considered as high as third on this list.
Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers Age: 28
It's important to note that Kershaw turned 28 in March, which makes him easily the oldest player on this list. However I still think anybody taking a pitcher first overall has to take Kershaw. He's won three of the past five NL Cy Young awards. He hasn't had an ERA below 2.53 since 2010. Over the past five years he's led the NL in strikeouts three times, ERA four times, wins twice, complete games twice, shutouts twice, and FIP twice.
In addition Kershaw's 2016 season has been a joke. Here is a list of categories he leads the majors in: ERA, complete games, shutouts, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, BB/9, and strikeout to walk ratio. Some of those stats are common ones that every fan can understand and some are more advanced, yet they are all equally impressive. But the most impressive? Kershaw's 16.11 strikeout to walk ratio would be the best ever for a single season. The current record? 11.63. In other words Kershaw is striking out more hitters while walking less at a rate we have never come close to seeing.
Now the concern with Kershaw is obviously his postseason performance. In 13 career playoff games (10 starts) he's 2-6 with a 4.59 ERA. However he was a lot better in 2015, going 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. The rest of his postseason numbers (WHIP, BB/9, K/9) are much closer to his career norms so not all hope is lost there. Plus there's no doubt he gives you the best chance of any pitcher at making the postseason over the next 3-4 years. While I personally wouldn't consider a pitcher within the top 10, Kershaw would be the first off my board if I did.
Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles Age: 23
Through the first half of 2016 Machado is having an MVP type season and in the American League ranks second in doubles, fourth in average, sixth in OBP, second in slugging, fifth in OPS, and fifth in hits. He has made a full recovery from two early career knee injuries and in 2015 played in all 162 games while leading baseball in plate appearances.
Originally a shortstop Machado converted to third base at the major league level and has won gold gloves there in each of his two full seasons. This season he added a potentially game changing element to his resume by showing the ability to move back to shortstop and play it at an elite level. In two and a half years both Machado and Harper are set to become free agents. While Harper is expected to receive the largest contract in the history of professional sports there are beginning to be rumors that teams may favor Machado instead. About to turn 24 he is one of just three players to seriously consider with the hypothetical number one pick.
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals Age: 23
2016 is Harper's fifth year in the majors. He's younger than the reigning NL Rookie of the Year Bryant. Since he came to the majors when he was just 19 years old it feels like he has been playing longer than he has. In 2015 in his age 22 season Harper became the youngest unanimous MVP in the history of baseball. Last season he led the entire league in OBP (.460), slugging percentage (.649), and WAR (9.9). He also batted .330 with an NL leading 42 homers.
What makes this question so great is that just a couple of months ago Harper likely would have been the consensus number one pick. From the start of this season through April 28th he batted .314/.425/.786 with nine home runs, 24 RBI, and five stolen bases in just 21 games. This hot stretch coincided with a slow start by Mike Trout, which combined with last season's MVP award led many to consider Harper as baseball's best player. While he has cooled down over the past two months and doesn't provide the consistency Trout does, he has the potential to absolutely carry a team during his hot stretches. It's frightening to think that Harper has yet to enter his prime. He doesn't turn 24 until October, which makes him the youngest player I've mentioned and gives him more upside than anyone on this list. Harper is a no brainer top three pick with a real argument to be made for choosing him over Trout.
Mike Trout, OF, Angels Age: 24
Every full season Mike Trout has played in the majors he has finished either first or second in the American League MVP voting. That's fucking incredible. He is the perfect combination of power, speed, defense, durability, and drive. The production through the first five years of his career compares similarly to all time talents such as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Alex Rodriguez. While WAR is not a perfect statistic it is worth pointing out that Trout has accumulated the most WAR through ages 20, 21, 22, and 23.
While Harper's 2015 season was as good, if not better, than any year Trout has produced so far the real separation between the two comes in their track records. Trout's 162 game average would be .306/.400/.560 with 34 home runs, 100 RBI, 28 stolen bases, and 118 runs scored. In separate years he has led the American League in categories such as runs, RBI, stolen bases, walks, slugging, and OPS. There isn't a facet of baseball in which he doesn't positively contribute. Mike Trout is a generational, once in a lifetime player and would be the first overall pick in an MLB re-draft.