Over the coming weeks, Rob Neyer is predicting who will be the best players of this decade at each position. You can view all his previous selections here as he makes them.
Mike Moustakas is a brilliant prospect, but he hasn’t played an inning in the majors and he’s probably not going to spend a lot more years at third base, considering that he’s six feet tall and weighs around 230 pounds.
I bring up Moustakas because a) he’s a brilliant prospect, and b) he’s the only brilliant third-base prospect we’ve got right now. And I bring that up because I’m trying to figure out who’s going to be the best third baseman in this decade (2010-2019).
Moustakas is just too young. Adrian Beltre, Scott Rolen and (yes) even Alex Rodriguez are just too old.
Which leaves only two candidates worth wasting any more of your time on: Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria. Taking them in reverse-alphabetical order ...
Zimmerman’s better than you think. Well, maybe not better than you think. You’re really smart. But he’s better than a lot of people think. Depending on how you look at these things, Zimmerman might reasonably be rated as one of the 10 best players in the National League over the last two seasons. He hits for average and power, he draws walks, and he plays sterling defense. He turned 26 last season, and might well have his best years ahead of him. I believe Ryan Zimmerman’s got a pretty good shot at the Hall of Fame someday.
He's no Evan Longoria.
Looking just at those last two seasons, which favors Zimmerman because he wasn’t outstanding before 2009, here’s what we get ...
Zimmerman: 10.5 WAR
Longoria: 14.3 WAR
In fact, Longoria trails only Albert Pujols in Wins Above Replacement over the last two seasons.*
* I’ll bet if I give you 10 guesses, you won’t be able to guess who’s No. 3 on the list (at least according to Baseball-Reference.com). And I’m not going to tell you, because it’ll come up later when we look at outfielders.
Granted, Longoria plummets to fifth on the list if we look at the last three seasons ... but Zimmerman drops to 32nd ... and the kicker, of course, is that Longoria’s one year younger than Zimmerman.
That’s actually pretty important, because their performances – over the last two years, anyway – might be closer than it seems. Their lines are almost indentical: .288/.368/.516 for Longoria, .299/.375/.518 for Zimmerman. Sure, Longoria’s probably been facing slightly tougher pitching. Still.
No, the WAR difference here is due to defense, which seems odd because Zimmernan is a good fielder. Perhaps an outstanding fielder. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he’s just decent. But according to FanGraphs – whose defensive metrics I trust somewhat more – he’s been fantastic almost every year.
In fact, according to FanGraphs, Zimmerman’s defense actually made him a slightly better overall player than Longoria in 2010, and almost exactly equal in 2009-2010 combined.
If they were the same age, this would be really tough. Or if the leagues were switched. But Longoria’s been in the tougher league and he’s younger enough that it matters. In the end, there’s only real choice here and it’s the one you probably made when you saw the headline. Keep an eye on the other guy, though. Because if there's an opening at the top, he'll pounce.