For every player in Major League Baseball, a hope exists somewhere -- in the GM who signed him, the fans who will cheer for him, or the player himself -- that this year he will play as well as he's ever played. Whatever the player has done in the past, there's a little hope somewhere that he can do it again. It's true of 26-year-old backup catchers and 35-year-old Hall of Fame-bound second basemen. It's true of Aaron Judge, it's true of Mike Trout, it's true of Tim Lincecum and it's true of Darwin Barney.
The hope is true. The reality, of course, is very few players will hit their peaks this year. But what if they did? What if in 2018, every player played as well as he's ever played? If every player in baseball were in the middle of his prime for this one year alone, which team do you think has the best shot of winning the World Series?
So we did it. We found the 25 best players in every team's organization, where "best" means "best season they ever had," using Baseball Prospectus' model for wins above replacement. If they've never had a season as good as they're projected to have this year, we gave them credit for this year's projection. Such that 2007 Curtis Granderson (6.9 WAR) is now teammates with 2017 Marcus Stroman (4.4 WAR) and 2018 Max Pentecost (0.2 WAR). We weren't sticklers for position, but we did make sure every position was covered, including two catchers. We gave each team 13 hitters -- after the top eight, we scaled down their career-best WARs to reflect the reduced playing time that a bench player gets -- and 12 pitchers, who (through some extra steps) typically included a near-even split of relievers and starters. Unsurprisingly, replacing 2018 Curtis Granderson with 2007 Curtis Granderson (and pairing him with 2007 Troy Tulowitzki, 2009 Kendrys Morales, 2015 Josh Donaldson, 2016 Aledmys Diaz and 2017 Justin Smoak) makes the Blue Jays really good! But who does this exercise make the best? Think about it. Get an answer in your head. Be ready to guess. Are you ready?
OK, but let's start with who it's not.
The worst team in its prime
Before they signed Jonathan Lucroy this past weekend, it was the A's, who, even under the most generous rules possible, managed to not have a single player who had earned even a 10th-place MVP vote in his "prime" season. Their best player, in this exercise, was 2013 Jed Lowrie, at just 3.7 WAR. Their second-best player was Matt Chapman's 2018 projection. Their best pitcher is 2014 Yusmeiro Petit, when he was a swingman with an ERA+ worse than the league average. Their 14th-best player was prospect A.J. Puk, who has thrown 64 innings in Double-A. This is an extraordinarily nondescript prime roster.
The 2014 version of Lucroy gives it some star power -- he finished fourth in MVP voting -- and gives the A's a late-spring push out of this exercise's cellar. They're replaced at the bottom by the White Sox, who manage just four above-average (2-plus WAR) position players. That is our floor.
The teams just above the ChiSox:
29. Padres, 48.8 WAR (2012 Chase Headley, 2015 Tyson Ross)
28. Marlins, 49.4 WAR (2017 J.T. Realmuto, 2010 Martin Prado)
27. Tigers, 50.9 WAR (2013 Miguel Cabrera, 2007 Victor Martinez at catcher)
26. Pirates, 53.0 WAR (2015 Francisco Cervelli, 2014 Josh Harrison)
25. A's, 53.1 WAR (2014 Jonathan Lucroy, 2013 Jed Lowrie)
The sneaky-prime league MVP candidates
When you start thinking this puzzle through, your mind probably goes in two directions: the massive superstars of yesteryear who are still hanging around (like Ichiro, Lincecum, David Wright, Albert Pujols), or the superstars of today. But building a spreadsheet of 750 players' best seasons reminds you of career years you've completely forgotten about, from players you've almost completely forgotten about. Remember the year Mike Aviles hit .325/.354/.480 as a shortstop? Remember when Aaron Hill had 36 homers and 108 RBIs as a second baseman? Remember when Mike Morse hit .303 with 31 homers?
Those guys are all unsigned free agents, assigned to none of our Prime rosters. But almost every team has at least one unexpected star in this game, perhaps none more unexpected than Cliff Pennington. Before he signed with the Reds this winter, before his years spent in Anaheim, Toronto and Arizona, Pennington was a pretty good Oakland A. In 2010 he stole a bunch of bags, played excellent defense and was a roughly league-average hitter, which was worth 4.8 wins above replacement. He has never topped 2 WAR since, and as a part-timer in his mid-30s he's unlikely to reach even one win this year. But the Prime Reds get to bank it: 2010 Cliff Pennington is their second-best position player.
Every team's sneaky MVP -- either a player you forget was good, you forget exists, or you forget was that good:
Angels: 2010 Chris Young (5.3 WAR)
Diamondbacks: 2012 Kris Medlen (4.2 WAR)
Braves: 2007 Scott Kazmir (5.6 WAR)
Orioles: 2013 Colby Rasmus (3.9 WAR)
Red Sox: 2008 Hanley Ramirez (8.3 WAR)
Cubs: 2011 Peter Bourjos (2.6 WAR)
White Sox: 2007 James Shields (6.9 WAR)
Reds: Pennington or 2004 Oliver Perez (5.8 WAR)
Indians: 2012 Ryan Hanigan (4.5 WAR)
Rockies: 2011 Gerardo Parra (4.4 WAR)
Tigers: 2010 Francisco Liriano (5.5 WAR)
Astros: 2014 Collin McHugh (3.6 WAR)
Royals: 2008 Ricky Nolasco (5.9 WAR)
Dodgers: 2007 Rich Hill (5.4 WAR)
Marlins: 2010 Martin Prado (4.9 WAR)
Brewers: 2009 Yovani Gallardo (5.4 WAR)
Twins: 2011 Erick Aybar (3.9 WAR)
Mets: 2009 Adrian Gonzalez (7.9 WAR)
Yankees: 2009 Adam Lind (3.6 WAR)
Phillies: 2014 Drew Hutchison (3.6 WAR)
Pirates: 2015 Francisco Cervelli (5.3 WAR)
Cardinals: 2011 Bud Norris (3.1 WAR)
Padres: 2012 Chase Headley (5.9 WAR)
Giants: 2012 Austin Jackson (5.5 WAR)
Mariners: 2013 Hisashi Iwakuma (6.0 WAR)
Rays: 2014 Denard Span (5.7 WAR)
Rangers: 2011 Doug Fister (5.1 WAR)
Blue Jays: 2008 Russell Martin (8.0 WAR)
Nationals: 2012 Miguel Montero (6.3 WAR)
Here are the next nine spots on our list:
24. Phillies, 57.4 WAR (2015 Jake Arrieta, 2016 Odubel Herrera)
23. Braves, 59.3 WAR (2016 Freddie Freeman, 2008 Nick Markakis)
22. Royals, 59.4 WAR (2011 Alex Gordon, 2008 Ricky Nolasco)
21. Reds, 60.8 WAR (2017 Joey Votto, 2004 Oliver Perez)
20. Rays, 61.4 WAR (2013 Carlos Gomez, 2015 Chris Archer)
19. Rockies, 61.9 WAR (2017 Charlie Blackmon, 2016 Nolan Arenado)
18. Orioles, 66.3 WAR (2015 Manny Machado, 2013 Chris Davis)
17. Twins, 68.4 WAR (2009 Joe Mauer, 2008 Ervin Santana)
16. Brewers, 69.1 WAR (2011 Ryan Braun, 2015 Lorenzo Cain)
The most interesting team in its prime
The Rangers are barely in the top half of our standings, but they're easily the nostalgist's favorite team. Consider the starting rotation alone:
1999 Bartolo Colon, 18-5 with Cleveland -- 6.3 WAR
2007 Cole Hamels, 15-5 with Philadelphia -- 6.3 WAR
2009 Tim Lincecum, 15-7 with San Francisco -- 8.3 WAR
2008 Edinson Volquez, 17-6 with Cincinnati -- 3.7 WAR
2011 Doug Fister, 11-13 (with a 2.83 ERA) with Seattle and Detroit -- 5.1 WAR
That pushes 2013 Mike Minor to the bullpen, which is so crowded that all sorts of once-pretty-good starters (Matt Moore, Martin Perez, A.J. Griffin) are left off the roster entirely. Colon's 1999 season is by far the most ancient "prime" season on our spreadsheet; the next oldest is also on the Rangers, Adrian Beltre's 2004.
One thing that stood out putting these rosters together is how few "old" seasons made it -- which is another way to say how quickly the young replace the old in this sport. Well more than half of our Prime seasons either came in the past two seasons or are anticipated this season. Fewer than 10 percent came in 2010 or earlier. Most major leaguers are either in their prime or were very, very recently. The Rangers' roster was a nice rebuttal to this rule. In addition to the pitchers named, there's 2011 Mike Napoli, 2012 Darwin Barney, 2013 Shin-Soo Choo and 2014 Trevor Plouffe and Kevin Jepsen. Those names used to mean something in our lives!
15. Diamondbacks, 71.7 WAR (2015 Paul Goldschmidt, 2009 Zack Greinke)
14. Cardinals, 74.5 WAR (2012 Yadier Molina, 2013 Matt Carpenter)
13. Blue Jays, 78.5 WAR (2008 Russell Martin, 2015 Josh Donaldson)
12. Red Sox, 78.7 WAR (2008 Hanley Ramirez, 2017 Chris Sale)
11. Rangers, 78.9 WAR (2004 Adrian Beltre, 2009 Tim Lincecum)
The most present prime team
You might notice that we're into the top 10 and most of the actual best teams in baseball are still unmentioned. There's quite a correlation between how good a team is and how good its Prime team would be, it turns out. The Astros and Cubs, especially, are teams who tore down, rebuilt from scratch, and thus have almost no history before their current rosters.
Twenty-two of the 25 Prime Astros seasons came in 2014 or later; 14 came in 2016 or later. The only exceptions: 2008 Brian McCann, 2011 Justin Verlander and 2012 Josh Reddick, and you could easily swap in recent Verlander and Reddick seasons without losing much. The Astros have the best pitching staff in this exercise, just edging the Rangers.
10. Cubs, 80.1 WAR (2016 Kris Bryant, 2016 Anthony Rizzo)
9. Mariners, 81.7 WAR (2010 Felix Hernandez, 2014 Kyle Seager)
8. Indians, 82.4 WAR (2017 Corey Kluber, 2017 Jose Ramirez)
7. Astros, 82.8 WAR (2008 Brian McCann, 2011 Justin Verlander)
The team everybody thinks the answer will be
But it isn't.
The Giants traded for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen this winter. Pablo Sandoval is still on the roster from last year; Austin Jackson is there, and was once upon a time better than we remember. Johnny Cueto, Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner: There's a lot of older star power there. But there's no depth, and almost nobody on the roster has reached Prime in the past few years. Only six Giants' prime seasons came in 2016, 2017 or are projected for 2018. Those six are all close to replacement level: Ty Blach is on this Prime roster. Chris Stratton is on this roster. So is Steven Duggar.
Still, the Giants do very well in this exercise. So do the Mets, whom you also might have thought to guess: They get credit for 2007 David Wright (fourth in MVP voting), 2008 Jose Reyes (24th), 2009 Adrian Gonzalez (12th) and 2010 Jay Bruce. So do the Angels, who have the best position players in this universe. Their lineup would look something like:
1. 2011 Ian Kinsler (.255/.355/.477, 32 HR) -- 6.0 WAR
2. 2015 Mike Trout (.299/.402/.590, 41 HR) -- 10.0 WAR
3. 2009 Albert Pujols (.327/.443/.658, 47 HR) -- 12.8 WAR
4. 2011 Justin Upton (.289/.369/.529, 31 HR) -- 5.6 WAR
5. 2017 Zack Cozart (.297/.385/.548, 24 HR) -- 5.3 WAR
6. 2010 Chris Young (.257/.341/.452, 27 HR) -- 5.3 WAR
7. 2014 Chris Carter (.227/.308/.491, 37 HR) -- 2.6 WAR
8. 2013 Andrelton Simmons (.248/.296/.396, 17 HR) -- 5.4 WAR
9. 2014 Rene Rivera (.252/.319/.432, 11 HR) -- 5.1 WAR
Their starting lineup alone would break the all-time team home run record, with excellent defense at almost every position.
Anyway, the best team is not any of these teams.
6. Giants, 83.6 WAR (2012 Buster Posey, 2014 Johnny Cueto)
5. Angels, 85.8 WAR (2009 Albert Pujols, 2015 Mike Trout)
4. Yankees, 86.7 WAR (2017 Giancarlo Stanton, 2008 CC Sabathia)
3. Mets, 89.4 WAR (2007 David Wright, 2009 Adrian Gonzalez)
2. Dodgers, 93.7 WAR (2011 Matt Kemp, 2015 Clayton Kershaw)
The best prime team
The Washington Nationals, if we're to believe that my playing-time adjustments and math are anywhere close to accurate, would produce about 98 wins above replacement, and win around 145 games against a typical league. This ... seems impossible. But let's consider this team. Here's the lineup:
1. 2016 Adam Eaton (.284/.362/.428, 19th in MVP voting) -- 7.5 WAR
2. 2015 Bryce Harper (.330/.460/.649, MVP) -- 11.2 WAR
3. 2009 Ryan Zimmerman (.292/.364/.525, 25th in MVP voting) -- 6.5 WAR
4. 2017 Anthony Rendon (.301/.403/.533, sixth in MVP voting) -- 6.2 WAR
5. 2016 Daniel Murphy (.347/.390/.595, second in MVP voting) -- 6.8 WAR
6. 2018 Trea Turner (.290/.340/.465, projected top-10 player this year) -- 5.3 WAR
7. 2012 Miguel Montero (.286/.391/.438, 32nd in MVP voting) -- 6.3 WAR
8. 2017 Michael Taylor (.271/.320/.486) -- 3.9 WAR
With a lot of career-best defensive ratings. Pretty good.
1. 2017 Max Scherzer, 16-6, Cy Young winner -- 7.4 WAR
2. 2012 Gio Gonzalez, 21-8, third in CY voting -- 6.1 WAR
3. 2014 Stephen Strasburg, 14-11, ninth in CY voting -- 6.0 WAR
4. 2009 Edwin Jackson, 13-9, All-Star -- 4.5 WAR
5. 2016 Tanner Roark, 16-10, 10th in CY voting -- 3.1 WAR
So all but one starting pitcher, and all but one starting position player, good enough to get named on an MVP or Cy Young ballot, and all of them stay almost totally healthy.
1. 2010 Joaquin Benoit, 1.34 ERA -- 2.0 WAR
2. 2014 Sean Doolittle, 2.72 ERA -- 1.8 WAR
3. 2016 Shawn Kelley, 2.64 ERA -- 1.5 WAR
4. 2009 Ryan Madson, 3.18 ERA -- 1.9 WAR
5. 2013 Brandon Kintzler, 2.69 ERA -- 2.0 WAR
6. 2016 Sammy Solis, 2.41 ERA -- 0.6 WAR
7. 2015 Joe Ross, 3.64 ERA mostly as a starter -- 1.6 WAR
And the bench includes Matt Wieters' best season, Howie Kendrick's best season, Alejandro De Aza's 17 HR/20 SB season, and 16 homers from Matt Adams. I don't think they'd win 145 games. But there's a little hope in me that someday, by chance or supernatural design, we'll see an exceptional roster of career years give it a good try.
Thanks to Craig for consultation, and Sam for the idea. Also a tip of the cap to Reddit poster Yurtuyurtu, who was simultaneously inspired by this question this week; he used a different method and different WAR model to get a different answer.