Baseball is a funny game sometimes. The two players who could shape the game for the next decade are ranked at this position…and neither was a full-timer last year. Yes, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper will be playing left field in 2013, and both were center fielders in 2012. Harper's move was justified by the trade of Denard Span to the Nationals, while Trout shifted to left after the Angels signed Josh Hamilton and traded Kendrys Morales, shifting Hamilton to right field, Mark Trumbo to DH, and the fleet-footed Peter Bourjos to center. So while yes, it is a bit of a cop out that these two are going to be ranked here after not spending a lot of time in left field in 2012, it's just how things go sometimes. Unfortunately, that squeezes some other deserving candidates out of the mix, but that happens in life sometimes.
Remember: this list (and all of the lists we'll be rolling out this week) reflect the order I'd prefer to have the players for the 2013 season. I don't care about 2016, I don't care about 2010, I care about 2013. Got it? Good.
10. Josh Willingham, Twins
Willingham's defense in left field could probably be best described as an adventure, and could turn into a nightmare in 2013 without Denard Span to bail him out. But the man had a career year offensively with Minnesota in 2012, and he's go a stereotypical skillset for a left fielder: extreme power, lots of walks, and lots of strikeouts to go along with that ugly defense. 2012 was the first year in his career that he received over 600 plate appearances, and Willingham rewarded the Twins with 35 homers, an .890 OPS, and very nearly a four win season. Willingham was essentially brought in to Minnesota last year to replace Michael Cuddyer, and he's done that in spades so far.
9. Melky Cabrera, Blue Jays
Cabrera's 2013 season is going to have the same cloud surrounding it as Ryan Braun's 2012. Braun responded to his doubters in resounding fashion, but how will Cabrera respond after he was actually suspended for PED usage? After a disastrous 2010 with the Braves, Cabrera has turned himself into a legitimate hitter over the last two years with the Royals and Giants, but his elevated testosterone level that led to his suspension last summer has thrown those two years into doubt. Is Cabrera really a changed player, or was it all because of that synthetic testosterone? Even if Cabrera just provides the Blue Jays with a three win season in 2013, they'll have gotten their money's worth on the bargain basement two year, $14 million contract they signed him to. If he approaches the levels that he did in 2011 or 2012, Toronto is going to be more than happy with their investment.
8. Yoenis Cespedes, Athletics
I think the debut season for Cespedes in America was a success, all things considered. Coming into the year, many thought he should start off in AAA. Well, Cespedes spent the whole season in the majors (aside from a three game rehab stint), and was a big part in Oakland winning the AL West. Cespedes hit 23 homers and stole 16 bases while OPSing .861 in 2012, and his stats improved across the board after returning from a hand injury that sidelined him for most of the month of May. With a more concrete role in left field in 2013 lined up, I'd expect his second year in America to build upon his first year and make his $36 million over four years really start looking like a bargain.
7. Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Dexter Fowler's emergence in 2012 pushed Gonzalez to left field full-time, which is definitely a good thing for his long-term value, even if his defensive numbers did look terrible in left this past season. Despite just three full years in the majors, Gonzalez has had some issues with durability, falling short of 600 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. But he's contributed three straight 20/20 seasons to the Rockies, even in that limited playing time over the last two years, and has 30/30 potential. Gonzalez is also a .300 hitter with solid plate discipline that is ever-improving. But like his teammate Troy Tulowitzki, health is the major concern for Gonzalez. If the pair both stay healthy for a full season, they have the potential to be the best middle of the order duo in the league. But that's something that has happened once over both of their careers, and something that the Rockies absolutely need to happen in 2013.
6. Martin Prado, Braves
Atlanta's Swiss army knife clocks in at the fifth spot in our rankings, but I'm really conflicted about this…mostly because he might not even be a left fielder on Opening Day. The Braves will likely use Prado in a sort of dual platoon role, rotating between left field and third base while Reed Johnson and Juan Francisco get the starts at the other positions based on the handedness of the starting pitcher. If the Braves sign Michael Bourn or trade for Justin Upton, then Prado will just play every day at third base. But Prado's time in left field for the Braves in 2012 was memorable, as the converted infielder provided Gold Glove caliber defense and had a typical Prado offensive season (aside from 2011), which is a .300 batting average with good plate discipline and moderate pop. He also added speed to his game for the first time ever, more than doubling his career output with 17 stolen bases. The Braves have a great player in Prado, and he'll contribute to the team immensely in 2013, be it in left, at third, or at both.
5. Alex Gordon, Royals
Gordon will be 29 next month, but has really just come into the collective consciousness of the league over the last two years, when he's been the Royals every day left fielder and has seen his bat finally start to come around at the major league level. But last year, Gordon's power took a bit of a nosedive after a solid 2011, which can largely be attributed to him hitting fewer flyballs. He still hit 51 doubles, so it's not as if Gordon was dribbling to the shortstop every time up, but it's worth keeping in mind. But a superb defender with Gordon's plate discipline is hard to come by in today's league, and even with his 14 homers last year, he was still worth 5.9 fWAR.
4. Bryce Harper, Nationals
The first of two phenoms to shift to left this offseason, Harper's rookie year came under scorn by people who called his early callup a publicity stunt. Well, after Harper finished the year with 22 homers, 18 stolen bases, an .817 OPS, and the NL Rookie of the Year award, those people have been strangely silent. Harper played center for the Nationals in 2012, and his defense was fantastic, leading many to believe that his shift to left will have a huge impact on Washington's 2013 defense, considering he'll be replacing the lead-footed Michael Morse in left field. The sky is the limit for Harper, and with a year of big league experience under his belt, he could make the leap to being one of the best players in baseball next season.
3. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
Did you know that Matt Holliday turned 33 on Tuesday? Doesn't seem like it, but he's been around for awhile. Holliday's production has been on a bit of a downswing over the last two years, first due to numerous injuries in 2011, and second due to a drop in power in 2012. That doesn't suddenly make Holliday a bad player, though. His last season that was worth less than five wins came way back in 2006 with the Rockies, and his last season under 20 homers came in 2005. But is he a seven win player still? I don't think so? Is he a six win player still? Maybe, maybe not. I'd take him over nearly anyone else, but not *everyone* else.
2. Ryan Braun, Brewers
After winning the NL MVP in 2011, Ryan Braun was embroiled in a PED scandal heading into Spring Training 2012. He was cleared of any suspension due to an improperly handled sample, and all eyes were on him to see how he'd respond during the 2012 season. All Braun did was hit a career-high 41 homers, steal 30 bases, post a .986 OPS, and finish as the runner-up to NL MVP Buster Posey. Braun also continued to improve his defense in left field to the point where he actually appears to be a capable defender out there. Heading into his age 29 season, expect more of the same from Braun, one of the five or ten best players in all of baseball.
1. Mike Trout, Angels
Really, you were expecting someone else? For as great as Braun, Holliday, and the others are, Trout's 2012 season was on another level. 30 homers, 49 stolen bases, a .963 OPS, and elite level defense (in center field, mind you)? Those are the makings of not just an All-Star, not just an MVP, but a Hall of Fame level player, and he just turned 21 in August. I for one welcome our new superhuman overlord, and would like to remind him that if he plays baseball too well for the next decade…well, nothing bad will really happen, unless the Angels don't get any effective starting pitching.