Ranking the top 5 building blocks in the National League

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

For as much conversation centering on where MLB is failing, there’s rarely been a period with so much young talent. The league is plush with players under 25 years old excelling. From that respect, it’s a beautiful time to consume the baseball product.

That’s where we’re focusing today. Because our audience slants to the National League, I’m going to look at the best five building blocks in the senior circuit. I’ve seen all these players in person on multiple occasions, so that complicating factor of my stadium rankings won’t be an issue.

My criteria are simple: The player must be 25 or under and exhausted his rookie status. That gives us a sizable-enough sample while not picking a player who’s already approaching his physical prime.

I’m also excluding pitchers. There are some stunningly good young starters in the NL, including the Braves’ Mike Soroka and Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty, but I don’t like comparing position players with pitchers. So we’ll stick to everyday players.

Let’s get started:

Honorable mention: Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies

You could argue the Braves have two of the best five positional player building blocks in the NL. Last season, Albies wound up worth the same WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as Pete Alonso (5.2), who ranks above him here, in his second full campaign. Albies, 23, also offers speed and defense Alonso cannot. Like everyone else, I’m curious to see how much better Albies can be, starting with his plate discipline.

If Ronald Acuna was on a different team, Albies would receive more national publicity. He and Acuna are tight friends and signed long-term deals to play together for the foreseeable future. The Braves are in an enviable position with their two young pillars.

5. Mets first baseman Pete Alonso

Alonso made the cut as a 25-year-old who just completed his first season. And what a breakout it was. Alonso hit a rookie-record 53 home runs, setting the mark against the Braves in the final series of the regular season. Alonso is charismatic, flashy with the bat and helped the Mets to 86 wins. He’s quickly won hearts in New York. His homers, 103 runs scored and 120 RBIs earned him seventh place in MVP voting.

It’s fair to argue others in this spot, especially given Alonso is limited to first base. But Alonso is going to be a potent middle-of-the-order bat over the next decade. I’ll happily take that certainty and construct the offense around him.

4. Nationals outfielder Juan Soto

Soto has something on this list that nobody matches: a ring. He hit .277 across 17 playoff games last season, notching five homers with 14 RBIs. Soto hit .333/.438/.741 with three homers and seven RBIs in the seven-game World Series, helping his Nationals claim their first title after years of postseason dismay.

Perhaps last October launched Soto into superstardom. I believe in judging a player more off how he performs in the biggest spots. Soto checks every box as a franchise player, and while he might lack the overall game of those in front of him here, he’ll routinely rank among the league’s most potent offensive players. He had 32 doubles, 34 homers and 110 RBIs last season at age 20. It’s easy to envision an MVP season in his future.

3. Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

I’ll admit it’s bold to rank Tatis above Soto at this stage, especially given the postseason success I referenced, but this exercise is also a projection. There’s no doubt Soto has a stronger resume right now, but I’m convinced Tatis will be the face associated with the revived Padres.

Tatis was one of the three most exciting players in the league across his debut season, when he hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 homers, 53 RBIs and 16 steals at 20 years old. He achieved such in 84 games after being shut down with a back injury. Tatis would’ve had a shot at the 30-30 club, which included only Christian Yelich and Acuna in 2019.

If you’re looking for knocks, his defense needs to improve. The Padres even considered shifting him to center field if they’d acquired Francisco Lindor. Tatis has also had a series of injuries, though they haven’t been ailments that’d lead you to believe he’s injury prone. He also hasn’t logged 100 games yet, so we’ve yet to see the full picture.

2. Dodgers outfielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger

Bellinger is the reigning MVP. He’s the best player on the team that’s usually the best in the NL. He’s one of the game’s best power hitters and an incredibly versatile defender (a gold glove winner in 2019, in fact). His well-rounded skill set perfectly suits his franchise, which has made its name off versatility in recent seasons.

He’s performed in the playoffs, although not consistently. Bellinger was the 2018 NLCS MVP after a game-winning hit in the 13th inning of Game 4 and a two-run homer in Game 7. He’s made little impact in October beyond that, however, hitting .178/.234/.326 in 36 playoff games.

My guess: Bellinger has a big postseason in the coming years and his team finally gets over the hump.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

1.  Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna

There isn’t a more spectacular young talent than Acuna, who fell just shy of a 40-40 season in 2019 – that is, 40 homers and 40 steals. Acuna’s debut season placed him 12th in MVP consideration. His second season landed him a top-5 finish after he hit .280/.365/.518 with 22 doubles, 41 homers, 101 RBIs, 127 runs scored and 37 steals. The latter two led the league.

Acuna can play any spot in the outfield, but the assumption is he ultimately winds up in right field where he’ll show off his cannon arm. The Braves briefly shifted Acuna down in the order, but they realized he’s optimally a lead-off man at this stage and that’s where he’ll hit whenever baseball resumes.

Through nine postseason games, Acuna is hitting .324/.425/.676 with four doubles, two homers and six RBIs. He’s already had one signature playoff moment, hitting a grand slam off Walker Buehler in Game 3 of the 2018 NLDS.

If you’re nitpicking, Acuna strikes out A LOT. He finished with 188, one behind the league lead after Acuna was shut down for the final four games due to a groin strain. That’ll be the primary focus of his potential offensive improvement.

You can’t go wrong picking between Bellinger, 24, and Acuna, 22. It’s a debate that’ll likely rage on through the 2020s. Here I give the slight edge to Acuna, because again, this is a projection exercise too. His immense upside in every aspect of the game makes him the league’s best building block.

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