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.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly …
According to FanGraphs, the best left fielders in 2010 were Josh Hamilton, Matt Holliday, Carl Crawford, Carlos Gonzalez, Aubrey Huff, Brett Gardner and Ryan Braun. But looking ahead, we can probably cross two of those guys off the list because Gonzalez is slated for right field and Huff for first base.
Which leaves only five outstanding left fielders: Hamilton, Holliday, Crawford, Gardner and Braun.
It’s really too bad about Gonzalez, because he would have been a fine candidate for *Left Fielder of the Decade* (Huff, not so much). Worse, none of those five are old, and none of them are particularly young. Age-wise, they’re just sort of there.
At 31, Holliday’s the oldest. He’s an outstanding player, obviously, but he hardly seems likely to be an outstanding player when he’s 37 or 38. Not an outstanding left fielder, anyway. So let’s cross him off the list.
It’s hard to believe that Josh Hamilton turns 30 this spring, but he does. That’s not an automatic disqualifier. His sort of talent, we must not discount.
Crawford is roughly a year younger than Hamilton, turns 29 in August. The Red Sox must figure he’s going to be pretty good through most of this decade, because they’ve committed to paying Crawford $142 million through 2017. And if Crawford’s actually worth $142 million (or more) over the next seven seasons, he will certainly have ranked as one of the decade’s top left fielders.
Brett Gardner is a year younger than Crawford, and was probably better in 2010 than you know, thanks to his speed (and judgment) on the bases and his speed in the outfield. But Gardner’s probably going to wind up in center field someday, right? Considering that he’s in left field now mostly because the Yankees didn’t want mess with Curtis Granderson and move him to left? Granderson’s locked up through 2012, but I’m willing to bet that Gardner ultimately spends more than half of this decade in center field, where he belongs. So I’m crossing him off the list.
And finally Ryan Braun, our youngest outstanding left fielder, just three months younger than Gardner. We know that Braun can hit with almost anyone – they don’t call him “the Hebrew Hammer” for nothing – but there is one little problem: He’s not much of a fielder. And considering that 1) Braun’s now been a gardener for three full seasons, and 2) players actually peak as fielders in their early- or mid-20s, it doesn’t seem likely that his defense will improve over the next few years.
Which leaves him and his employers in a bit of a quandary. Because if Braun gets much worse in left field, he’s unplayable out there. And he’s going to get worse. Which is why I’m crossing him off the list, too. For some goodly chunk of this decade, Braun will be either a left fielder with diminished value, or a first baseman (or a DH).
For the moment, I think we’re down to just two very talented men, Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford.
But youth must be considered, right? Is there room in our little contest for Travis Snider (23), Logan Morrison (23) and Jose Tabata (22)? Probably not. Morrison’s the only one of the trio who’s showed anything special as a hitter, and he’s got first base written all over him.
There are, of course, even younger candidates. One, in particular: Bryce Harper. Just one little problem. I mean, aside from the fact that he’s 18 years old, which means that by decade’s end he’ll just be hitting his peak seasons.
The little problem is that we don’t have any idea where he’s going to play. Before the Nationals drafted him, he was a catcher. Before the Nationals signed Jayson Werth, he was a right fielder. Now he’s apparently a center fielder. But what if management is still locked in their passionate love affair with Nyjer Morgan when Harper’s ready to make his grand entrance? Might Harper wind up in left field?
He might, but the odds seem better that Morgan’s been exposed as the somewhat marginal player that he is, especially considering that Harper, brilliant as he is, probably doesn’t take his presumed place in the lineup until 2012. So let’s save him for next time.
Which leaves us where we started. Hamilton v. Crawford.
As great as Hamilton was in 2010, Crawford still finishes ahead in two- and three-year Wins Above Replacement, largely (though not solely) because Hamilton missed a big chunk of the 2009 season. He missed a month-long chunk of 2010, too.
It’s obviously debatable, but Crawford’s got edges in birthdays and durability, which makes him our choice as the top left fielder of this decade.