The best and worst thing about baseball is how much of it there is—30 teams playing six, sometimes even seven, times a week for six months means there’s always baseball to watch, either on TV or online, but it’s impossible to watch all of it. So you have to prioritize. For most people, that means watching their favorite team or choosing whichever game is close, but what if you wanted to build your viewing experience around the most exciting players in baseball?
In service of that goal, I present the seventh annual All-MLB.TV team, featuring the two players at each position whose on-field performance combines excellence, drama, and joie de vivre.
First Team: Willians Astudillo, Minnesota Twins
I can’t guarantee that Astudillo, who’s 5-foot-9 with a Beeftankian body type, will catch all that much. I can’t even guarantee that he’ll spend most of the year in the big leagues. Here’s what I will tell you: Last spring training, he picked Shane Robinson off first base without looking.
He also never strikes out, and whiffed just three times in 97 plate appearances during his first major league action last year, and four times in 236 plate appearances in winter ball. In nine professional seasons, spanning 848 games and 3,238 plate appearances, Astudillo has struck out just 99 times. Total. Last year, Miguel Sanó, whose entire professional worth is based on his offensive production, struck out 115 times in 299 big league plate appearances. There is simply nobody else in the game quite like Astudillo.
Second Team: Jorge Alfaro, Miami Marlins
This is sort of a down period for catchers; Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Jonathan Lucroy are all getting old, Gary Sánchez is coming off an extremely rough 2018, and the next generation of catchers, led by the Padres’ Francisco Mejía, is only just getting its feet wet at the big league level. So while Alfaro is a flawed player—he never walks and he strikes out a ton—he’s the best athlete in the majors at the position right now. When he does make contact, Alfaro has what can be described only as stupid power. He also has an incredible throwing arm, which he displays on stolen base attempts and when bursting out from behind the plate on bunts and slow rollers.
Alfaro, who was traded from the Phillies to the Marlins for J.T. Realmuto, will be one of the few bright spots for a moribund Marlins team this year.
First Team: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
This is the first year I’m including designated hitters in the All-MLB.TV team, and yes, it’s just so I can get Ohtani on the list. Sure, we won’t see Ohtani on the mound or in the field this year, but he would be an incredibly exciting player even if he didn’t own a glove. In 367 plate appearances in 2018—a little more than half a season’s worth—Ohtani hit .285/.361/.564 and would’ve finished fifth in the AL with a 152 OPS+ if he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify. He also quietly stole 10 bases and is blessed with a gorgeous, relaxed, loping left-handed power stroke that recalls Ken Griffey Jr. And he does it all with a smile on his face. He already is, and should be, one of baseball’s biggest stars.
Second Team: Jesús Aguilar, Milwaukee Brewers
My personal taste in position players is good athletes who put the ball in play a lot, and unfortunately relatively few first basemen fit the bill. The first basemen who have made these lists in years past—Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Eric Hosmer—have tended to be more line-drive hitters and/or base-stealing threats than pure power hitters.
This year, I’m going in the other direction and steering into the skid with a giant man who hits home runs and does little else. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Aguilar is a well-rounded hitter who can take a walk, and he puts the ball in play more than, say, Chris Davis. But he’s in Milwaukee’s lineup every day because he can rock back on his heels and hit the ball clear across Lake Michigan. And between his big celebrations and occasional struggles to keep his belt fastened during the course of play, Aguilar does it with style.
First Team: Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
Second base on the All-MLB.TV team has traditionally been the province of José Altuve and Javier Báez (this is the first time since 2013 that Altuve won’t make the list), and while both players are still among baseball’s best entertainers, they’re known quantities at this point. Albies, Atlanta’s switch-hitting second baseman, hails from Curacao, an island nation with about as many residents as Fort Collins, Colorado, but which has nevertheless produced 18 big leaguers, seven of them All-Stars, including Albies. Whereas Altuve is the apotheosis of the little guy, Albies is a little guy who plays like he thinks he’s a big guy.
One of my favorite things about watching Albies hit is his leg kick. Albies, 22, isn’t old enough to remember Rubén Sierra, the longtime big leaguer who swung like he was trying to kill a moth with a frying pan, but that leg kick looks like an homage to Sierra.
Second Team: Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals
Admittedly, you’re not going to want to watch a ton of Royals baseball this season, but if you do, make sure you don’t miss Merrifield. He plays all over the diamond and gets on base constantly, with an MLB-leading 192 hits and a .367 OBP in 2018. And once Merrifield gets on base, he treats the next vacant bag like I treat my wife’s French fries whenever we go out to eat: “Well, I’ll take that if nobody else will.” Merrifield has led the AL in stolen bases in each of the past two seasons and could do it again this year, even with Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore—maybe the two fastest big leaguers of the 21st century—also on the Royals roster this year.
First Team: Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels
Simmons has been on the All-MLB.TV team seven times in seven seasons. He’s the most exciting, creative, dynamic defender in the game and has developed into a formidable hitter as well. Like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, if you don’t know Andrelton Simmons by now, you will never never never know him.
Second Team: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Lindor is one of the 10 or so best position players in the game, and combines power, defense, and speed in a thrillingly entertaining package. More than that, Lindor plays like he embraces the fact that he’s getting rich and famous for playing a children’s game. He’s having fun doing it, and everyone else ought to have fun watching him.
First Team: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
On one hand, this might be a reach because Vladito has yet to make his debut and won’t until mid-April at the earliest. On the other hand, Vladito is by far the player I’m most interested in watching this season. He’s been so hyped up for so long that he’s generating Ohtanilike levels of curiosity, where you have to go see him just to see whether his reputation has any grounding in reality.
And curiosity aside, that reputation makes for a really exciting ballplayer: Vladito combines his father’s bat-to-ball skills with the power of … well, in MVP 2005 for GameCube, if you created a player named “Jacob Paterson,” the game would generate a guy who toted a bat of comical girth and homered every time he made contact.
Second Team: Matt Chapman, Oakland A’s
If Simmons is the most thrilling defender in the game, Chapman is no. 2.
If Chapman played in an era before television and instant replay, let alone GIFs and YouTube, he’d be underrated, because so many of his great plays involve line drives hit so hard down the third-base line that he’s made the catch and thrown the ball to first in the time it takes to turn your head. He looks like Brooks Robinson on fast-forward.
First Team: Ronald Acuña, Atlanta Braves
In a world without Mike Trout, a player with Acuña’s speed, power, and imposing physicality would be viewed as a once-in-a-generation player. In his rookie year, at age 20, Acuña hit .293/.366/.552, with 26 home runs and 16 stolen bases. But it’s not just that Acuña is good—his game is just so pretty. Acuña oozes athleticism, but at the same time his motions are incredibly fluid and relaxed, like a racehorse wearing sweatpants. In last year’s postseason, he practically yawned a grand slam off Walker Buehler.
Acuña has the potential to not only win an MVP award down the line, but to make it look effortless.
Second Team: Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox
After Acuña, there aren’t that many exciting left fielders. Joey Gallo is moving from first to left this year, and I like his power, but if he’s not making contact he gets tough to watch. Juan Soto is going to be excellent down the line, perhaps even better than Acuña, but he’s not as athletic or exciting to watch.
So, somewhat bizarrely, Benintendi lands here despite being my third-favorite Red Sox outfielder from an aesthetic standpoint. Nevertheless, Benintendi does a little bit of everything, from power to speed to defense; his diving catch to end Game 4 of the ALCS might have been the difference between Boston winning the pennant and not.
First Team: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Trout, like Simmons, is an automatic inclusion on this list, but not just because he’s the best player in the game. Albert Pujols was exciting mostly because he was such a good player, as opposed to a player who performed exciting actions. Trout, however, combines elite power, athleticism, and plate discipline with a palpably kinetic playing style. At every moment, there’s either action or a sense of calm that only makes the inevitable action stand out more by contrast.
Second Team: Ramón Laureano, Oakland Athletics
I will concede that this one is a little off the board. Maybe Lorenzo Cain or Kevin Kiermaier would be more popular choices. But Laureano flew under the radar in 2018, despite doing stuff like this for a 97-win team.
It’s not just about his arm or his speed, it’s the drama that comes with redlining the engine every play. So many of Laureano’s highlights are plays he made by the skin of his teeth, plays he made because he’s so aggressive and seems so unafraid of failure. Maybe Laureano’s bat will regress in 2019 and this pick will look foolish in a year’s time, but right now, Laureano is new, exciting, and well worth the price of admission.
First Team: Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds
This is Puig’s first appearance on one of these lists since 2015, and even as the person solely responsible for leaving him off, I have no idea what I was thinking. Puig is an impact hitter and not only a tremendous defender but a spectacular defender who is willing to take risks and capable of launching low-trajectory rockets toward home plate to nail base runners. But it’s not like Puig is all show and no go—he’s working on his defensive positioning this spring.
Puig was a big name when playing in Los Angeles, but his move to Cincinnati hasn’t caused him to hide his light under a bushel. Quite the opposite, in fact—Puig seems determined to be so charming you can feel his charisma clear across the country.
Second Team: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
If Mookie Betts were mic’d up during every game he’d make the list, but all internal monologues being equal, Judge’s unique power gives him a slight edge. Right field is a sneakily loaded category, as Betts, Bryce Harper, Mitch Haniger, Cody Bellinger, and Christian Yelich are all appointment viewing. But let me put it this way: All of those players can hit a ball over the outfield fence, but Judge is the only one who might be able to hit a ball through the outfield fence.
First Team: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
I’ve come to absolutely love Scherzer over the years. Not only is he better at his best than just about anyone in the game, his ability to make 30 starts a year—which he’s done 10 years running now—is even more exceptional than the quality of those starts. Scherzer has always had great stuff, but in his late 20s and early 30s he’s managed to harness and command those pitches like nobody else in the game. Great pitchers are consistently excellent, but special pitchers give you the feeling that they could do something magical in any given start. That’s what it was like to watch Pedro Martínez or Randy Johnson or Roy Halladay, and Scherzer embodies that more than anyone else in the game right now.
Second Team: German Márquez, Colorado Rockies
Márquez isn’t a household name, but he was very, very good nonetheless in a breakout 2018 season. Márquez was the NL Pitcher of the Month in September, when he struck out 57 in 38 ⅓ innings over six starts, and was a top-10 starting pitcher in the National League by both Baseball Reference’s WAR and Baseball Prospectus’s WARP. He also hit .300 and won the Silver Slugger Award for NL pitchers.
What makes Márquez interesting is the style in which he accomplished those things. His stuff is big: a fastball that averaged nearly 96 miles an hour, the exploding slider Crash Davis told the Durham Bulls about, and a change-up and curveball. But more than that, he demonstrates the peril of playing in Coors Field, even for a good pitcher. The rock climber Alex Honnold, in Free Solo, talks about how he considers his vocation to be low-risk, high-impact, in that the likelihood of him falling is very low but the consequences of him falling—certain death—are extreme. Pitching in Coors Field, where Márquez’s ERA is nearly two runs higher than it is on the road, is a little like climbing El Capitan without a rope, and there’s something exhilarating about watching a pitcher like Márquez take that task on again and again.
First Team: Edwin Díaz, New York Mets
Last year, Díaz pitched at the end of games for a third-place West Coast team, which means not that many people saw him strike out 44.3 percent of batters, second-best among MLB relievers, or save 57 games, which led the MLB by 14. This year, he’s on a good Mets team, which means he’ll get more exposure. Díaz is everything a modern closer is supposed to be—upper 90s fastball, hard slider, big celebrations after converting a save—only a little bit better at everything than his competitors. The blockbuster deal that sent Díaz to New York is known colloquially as “The Robinson Canó trade” because Canó was the biggest name to move, but Díaz was the best player in the deal.
Second Team: Adam Ottavino, New York Yankees
Ottavino is also switching leagues and coming to New York after seven years with the Rockies. He’s not the biggest name in the Yankees’ bullpen, but more than any other reliever in baseball, he makes me yell “What in the hell was that?”
A different view of that Adam Ottavino slider to Dansby Swanson from last weekend. pic.twitter.com/egzBYsyApM— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 22, 2018
Now, I should know better by now: It’s his slider, it’s almost always his slider, though he also throws a nasty mid-90s sinker. But we think of sliders as being hard, tight breaking pitches these days. Not Ottavino’s: It’s big and slow and messy, with mustard and sauerkraut dripping of the back of it. This slider hops around waving its wings like a small but noisy bird that’s trying to scare you away so you don’t eat it. Ottavino will throw the slider to any location, partially because the movement is that nasty and partially because he has only limited control over its ultimate destination. What a pitch.