Albert Pujols might be the best hitter in baseball today. It's an open argument. Maybe you're partial to Miguel Cabrera or Joey Votto or someone else. The exact name doesn't matter, but those are all the correct answer.
But when I watch Pujols, I'm rarely thinking about how much I want to see him on the Giants. I'm usually muttering something like, "There goes Albert Pujols, one of the baddest hitters ever to swing a baseball bat." There's an appreciation for him and his talents, but rarely is there an unabashed sense of envy.
That's a feeling reserved for the covetable players. The best players in baseball aren't necessarily the most covetable. Those adjectives aren't synonyms. Maybe this is just some weird semantical parsing that only I bother myself with, but I'm pretty sure I've seen a similar feeling expressed with baseball fans all over the Internet. Here's my attempt to explain it.
The best players in the game, the ones you expect to win the MVPs and make All-Star teams without doing anything all that differently than they have been, have already accumulated the bulk of their history with another team. Pujols gave the best years of his career to St. Louis. Votto will have done the same for the Reds. Any team would be thrilled to have them, but they're established. They probably aren't getting better, and the chances are that you didn't get to enjoy their best seasons with your favorite team.
The covetable players are those with delicate balance between past performance and future potential. They're already good. But they could get better. A lot better. Giancarlo Stanton is probably the best example of this kind of player. If he doesn't improve at all -- if he plays the next 15 years and has the exact same season every year -- he'll be a perennial All-Star, if not a Hall of Fame candidate. He's freakishly strong, and he's already a fantastic hitter at an age where most kids are getting drafted out of college.
But he could get better. So much better. Oh, man. If he's hitting 30+ homers as a 21-year-old, what can he do when he hones his craft, when he figures out a major-league strike zone? I've brought this up before, and I'll continue to harp on this point for the next couple of decades, but it hurts my very being to think that the Giants had a supplemental first-round pick in the 2007 draft for losing reliever Mike Stanton, and they didn't use the pick on a physical specimen of a prospect who was also named Mike Stanton. Where was the sense of irony? Fate? It's a small consolation that he now goes by Giancarlo. Small consolation.
Andrew McCutchen isn't the best center fielder in the game. But I like watching him play more than Matt Kemp or Jacoby Ellsbury, even if I can't explain it rationally. He moves like a waterbug in center field, and he generates surprising power from a small frame -- he's almost a throwback to the game that existed before the '90s, where immense, muscular power hitters were the exception and wiry-yet-strong hitters like McCutchen were the rule. And McCutchen reminds you that there's also a control aspect to the covetable -- you know that the best seasons of their careers are just in front of them, and that their current teams will enjoy every last bit of them.
It's not all on-field talent, either. There might be something about the personality or background that tips you. This is why Bryce Harper isn't covetable … well, no, I'd probably chew broken glass to watch him on my favorite team for the next six or seven years. But there's a pretty good chance that he might be something of a jackass, too. The early returns aren't promising, though it's always worth remembering that he's a teenager. I'd pay $50 to punch a 19-year-old version of myself in the throat, and I didn't have the entire baseball world focusing on everything I did. But there's a chance that Harper might have an abrasive personality, and that might mean that he isn't the Platonic ideal of the perfect young player.
If there's one prospect, then, who fits the potential/personality paradigm, it's Trevor Bauer. When asked how long his games of long toss were, as he throws from foul pole to foul pole to warm up, he told Jim Caple exactly how long:
"It's 330 feet down both lines, so it's 330 times root 2,'' he said, pulling out his smartphone. He called up the calculator accessory and punched in 330 times the square root of two. "That's 466.69 feet.''
Bauer might be the next great covetable player.
Before the rookie hopeful steps on the rubber for his warm-up pitches between innings, he channels Happy Gilmore by taking a step or two from behind the mound and firing the ball as hard as he can toward home plate. Sometimes the catcher catches the pitch. Sometimes he just gets out of the way and watches it fly to the backstop.
He seems like the perfect mix of character and talent. All he has to do is, you know, pitch well in the majors. The little things.
But if you've ever become enamored of a player, and you can't figure out why that player, who isn't even the best at his position -- who might not even be the best player in a team's rotation or lineup -- has captured your attention, remember that it's not always about the best players. It might have something to do with the covetable players, the players who are young and improving, but already leaking talent all over the place.