The existential terror of late modernity is tempered slightly by the joy of being able to watch any baseball game we want, wherever we want. This wealth of choice is enough to be scary all on its own if you don’t go in with a plan—you could spend 20 minutes staring at a menu screen, weighing the benefits of Cubs-Brewers vs. Nats-Dodgers. So, with the 2018 season about to begin, here are two players at each position who will be worth watching all on their own.
First Team: Gary Sánchez, New York Yankees
In the six years I’ve been doing this list, the most common feedback I get comes from fans of a specific team (usually but not always the Red Sox) who are angry that their player didn’t make the cut. Most of the time, they’ve got a good case, because some positions go 20 deep with fun players—shortstop and center field in particular—so whether you or I prefer Carlos Correa or Francisco Lindor is really a matter of taste.
Not with catchers. I don’t know what happened, but there are maybe four interesting catchers in the league: Sánchez, Buster Posey, Philadelphia’s Jorge Alfaro, and San Diego’s Austin Hedges. After that you’re reaching for Tyler Flowers’s framing in Atlanta and Stephen Vogt’s Ham Porter impression in Milwaukee. Sánchez, however, is an absolute riot. He hits lots of home runs—33 of them last year, tops among catchers—and has a huge throwing arm. He does the big things so well that he’s turned into one of those players who gets concern-trolled about the little things, like his blocking: Sánchez tied for the league lead with 16 passed balls last year and allowed 53 wild pitches, second most in baseball. But you know what? Even that deficiency is fun, because when Sánchez gets five-holed, it sends runners scurrying around the bases. It feels dirty to call the Yankees “fun,” but there isn’t any other way to describe Sánchez.
Second Team: Jorge Alfaro, Philadelphia Phillies
My editor, Ryan O’Hanlon, who is a troll and a hater, likes to talk about Alfaro’s 2018 ZiPS projection: .219/.263/.362, which isn’t great. [Editor’s note: My projected WAR for the 2018 season is higher than Alfaro’s. I stopped playing baseball in third grade.] But that doesn’t mean Alfaro won’t be fun. He’s the Four Loko version of Sánchez—big power, big arm, but also uncommon speed for a catcher and a tenuous relationship with the strike zone. Alfaro will swing at just about anything because he knows he can put just about anything in orbit.
Alfaro already hit .318/.360/.514 in a 29-game call-up last year, showed a flair for the dramatic in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and is slugging .500 in the Grapefruit League. If he defies the projections, he’s going to be a blast.
First Team: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
We waste the phrase “good hitter” on people who aren’t Votto, who’s just on a different level than everyone else. The Reds first baseman was already an NL MVP and one of the best hitters in baseball, but in his 30s, Votto has dissected hitting on almost a Ted Williams level. He’s improved his conditioning and discovered slim-fit pants, and over the past three seasons he’s missed just eight games. In 2017, he cut his strikeout rate by a third without losing any of his power, and he has at least tied for the National League lead in OPS+ each of the past two seasons. Votto’s reputation as a savant is bolstered by his willingness to experiment in the batter’s box, and a habit of attracting weirdness on and off the diamond. There’s nobody in baseball quite like him.
Second Team: Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers
While Votto makes the process of hitting interesting, Gallo is all about the results. In addition to being roughly 9 feet tall, Gallo has the kind of bulging neck that tells you he could wrestle a bear if he had to. And while Gallo moves well for a guy his size (6-foot-5, 235 pounds)—he’s not a bad defender at third base when he plays there—he’s exactly the kind of hitter you’d expect someone that big to be. Last year he hit 41 home runs, most of which are reminiscent of those World War I artillery pieces that need to be cemented into the ground and shoot shells so far that you need to consider the curvature of the earth when aiming them.
First Team: José Altuve, Houston Astros
Altuve’s always been fun, because he has freakish bat-to-ball skills and he scoots around the diamond on his little Sonic the Hedgehog legs. But he might be the best position player in the game not named Mike Trout.
Altuve has everything you’d want from a fun ballplayer: He puts the ball in play, steals bases, hits home runs, and has a signature handshake with Correa, his double-play partner. And after years of his exploits outpacing his pay, Altuve’s finally cashing in with a $151 million contract extension that will keep him in Houston through 2024. Correa, the no. 1 draft pick in 2012, was billed as the future face of the Astros, if not all of baseball. But the 2017 title run revealed that it’s Altuve who makes the Astros tick.
Second Team: Javier Báez, Chicago Cubs
The Javy Báez hype machine is starting to slow down as we as a nation reckon with the fact we spent two years making a huge fuss about how a guy tags people, but Báez still rates as one of the most fun second basemen for three reasons. First, I don’t think anyone knows where Cleveland’s José Ramírez is going to spend most of his time. He split last year about evenly between third and second, and he’s also put in time at shortstop and left field, which makes him hard to pin down on a position-by-position team like this. Wherever Ramírez plays, he’s a switch hitter with freakish bat-to-ball skills, a winning smile, and a total inability to keep his helmet on his head.
But Báez is a legitimately fun defender, hype or no hype, and he gets his money’s worth when he swings.
He’s not a big dude, just 6-foot and 190 pounds, but he torques his body like he’s trying to drill a hole to China. Go get yours, Javy.
First Team: Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
This position’s gotten a lot less fun over the past couple of years. Baltimore’s Manny Machado and Texas’s Joey Gallo moved off the hot corner, Adrián Beltré’s getting old, David Wright can barely walk anymore, and Maikel Franco forgot how to hit. There are still a few fun players—Kris Bryant has nice eyes, and Boston’s Rafael Devers could be good—but the most fun among them is Donaldson. The 2015 AL MVP might be on the decline at age 32, but this man spends more time horizontal and airborne than any player in baseball.
Here’s his Human Torpedo act on defense, causing the announcers to invoke the Derek Jeter dive, which is high praise indeed—though you can make the case that Donaldson’s was better, because he didn’t break his face like Jeter did.
Donaldson is a free agent after the season, but in 2018, you can still find him at his usual home at—or, rather, above—the Rogers Centre.
Second Team: Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners
Seager is a very good all-around player without a spectacular carrying tool. He plays good defense, but not spectacular defense. He hits for power, but not Galloesque suborbital power. In other words, his steady competence wouldn’t ordinarily land him on this list.
But Seager is here because he is an incredible heel.
Everything’s perfect about that routine—the eye roll, the campy hand wave for timeout, the “I’m fucking ready”—is perfect. Seager’s willingness to mock baseball’s Unwritten Rules is so refreshing in a sport that fetishizes Respect.
First Team: Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels
This guy plays shortstop like nobody else in the business. You’re gonna tell your grandkids about him.
Second Team: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
As I said before, this position is loaded, so this spot could go to Lindor or legitimately any one of 20 other players, depending on whether you value defense, speed, power, or something else. I like Lindor because he does all of those things well, and he does it with unrivaled panache.
The only thing I’d change about Lindor is his haircut, because he chopped off a really awesome set of curls this spring and went with the Simon Phoenix look. Someone should’ve stopped him before it was too late.
First Team: Yoenis Céspedes, New York Mets
Left field has a lot of fun players who come with asterisks. Minnesota’s Eddie Rosario is exciting, but I don’t know if he’s change-the-channel-level exciting. Los Angeles’s Cody Bellinger and Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins are fun, but both spend a lot of time at first base. Bellinger, in particular, is more exciting at first than in left thanks to his defense. Eventually it became clear that I was looking for a reason not to pick Céspedes again, because I’ve already gone on about his bat flips and fun cars and rancher lifestyle. No need to overthink this.
Second Team: Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
Schwarber has displayed elite power and plate discipline since his days as a catcher at Indiana, but he’s struggled to find a defensive home with the Cubs. Nevertheless, they’ve stuck him out in left field to get his bat in the lineup, even though he’s a danger to himself and others. But this year, the normally cubical Schwarber reported to camp, at the risk of abusing a cliché, in the best shape of his life. Schwarber’s a very fun hitter, but I’m excited to see whether, by slimming down, he turns into a passable defensive left fielder as well.
First Team: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
He’s like Simmons, but faster and possibly with more power. Even if Buxton ends up being Kevin Kiermaier with better teammates, that’s still a really fun package.
Second Team: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
This is another position with a lot of fun players. Milwaukee’s Lorenzo Cain doesn’t get enough credit for his electrifying play, Houston’s George Springer just won the World Series MVP, and I’m still trying to figure out how Philadelphia’s Odúbel Herrera hits out of that stance. But come on, Trout’s the genuine article. He still does things nobody else in the game is capable of.
Six full seasons in, and we’re getting into “best player ever” territory for Trout. If you’re not tuning in for that, I don’t know what to tell you.
First Team: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
I usually don’t find three-true-outcome merchants like Judge that entertaining, but Judge isn’t just any player. Not only is he, at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, the biggest regular outfielder in MLB history, he also hits the ball harder than anyone else in the game. And Judge’s hits aren’t like Gallo’s, which vanish off the bat and reappear several minutes later in the seats. No—Judge hits lasers, the kind of line drives that makes it look genuinely dangerous to be around him while he’s hitting.
That’s just unnecessary. This isn’t jai alai.
Second Team: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Harper combines most of Gallo’s and Judge’s power, most of Donaldson’s reckless athleticism, and most of Seager’s natural comfort with playing the heel. He was the most hyped prospect of the 21st century, and after a decade in the spotlight, five All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and four division titles in six years in the big leagues, it still feels like the 25-year-old Harper has another level he can ascend to.
First Team: Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
Stroman’s a legitimate power pitcher whose mid-90s sinker comes off the bat like it’s filled with lead. Stroman’s led the league in ground-ball rate two years running, which makes him an interesting pitcher even before you get to the fact that he’s only 5-foot-8, employs a variety of Johnny Cueto–like hesitation windups, and buzzes around the mound like every pitch is a matter of life or death.
Stroman’s best known for his part in Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS—the José Bautista Bat Flip Game—and his no-hit bid against Puerto Rico in the 2017 World Baseball Classic final. Wherever he shows up, drama ensues.
Second Team: Carlos Martínez, St. Louis Cardinals
Martínez is a two-time All-Star who plays for a hugely popular franchise and can hit 100 miles an hour when he wants to, and if hitters sit on the heater, Martinez can come back with a nasty, biting slider. It’s almost-Syndergaardian stuff, but with a longer track record of health and success.
And yet it doesn’t feel like he’s that big of a name, which is bizarre. Certainly, his stuff and numbers merit stardom by this point, but maybe he’s competing with too many other big names on the Cardinals for him to dominate the discussion the way, say, Chris Archer does with the Rays. Either way, go watch him; he’s a bunch of fun.
First Team: Chris Devenski, Houston Astros
Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had a recurring character named Gowron, the chancellor of the Klingon High Council. The actor who played him, Robert O’Reilly, was smaller than most Klingon actors, but he gave Gowron this very strange, over-the-top manic intensity. He bugged his eyes out and stomped around, growled at people, and generally acted at a 10 when everyone else was at a five or a six.
That’s kind of how Devenski is. Last year, he appeared on The Ringer MLB Show, and the next time I was in the Astros’ clubhouse I made a point to introduce myself in person. Devenski was very polite, but he shook my hand and said “Hi, how are you?” in a way that felt like “If I eat your brain, how will the content of your soul influence my own?” It was very weird, and exactly in line with how he pitches. I can’t get enough of it.
Second Team: Josh Hader, Milwaukee Brewers
Hader, who came to Milwaukee from Houston in the Carlos Gomez trade in 2015, was very good last year: 12.8 K/9, 2.08 ERA in 47 2/3 innings. He’s going to blow up in 2018, particularly if the Brewers are a factor in the pennant race. A hard-throwing low-arm-slot lefty reliever who goes multiple innings is always going to draw comparisons to Cleveland’s Andrew Miller. But while Miller’s delivery is smooth and slingy, Hader’s is downright janky.
It’s jarring how fast the ball looks coming out of Hader’s hand because we’re used to seeing that motion on guys like Zach Duke or other lefty specialists who rely on deception and movement. You can see the momentum building up in Miller’s windup, but Hader’s is so herky-jerky that his fastball looks like a slightly unconvincing special effect. And between the stuff, the haircut, and the glasses, Hader’s going to turn into a cult hero if he shows up on TV in the postseason.