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Those approaching hoof beats? They belong to the 2021 MLB season, and in preparation for its arrival we are honor-bound to rank things and then shout those rankings at you over the internet. So we shall now do just that. 

As prelude to the forthcoming top 100 players (which will be released Thursday), in which 100 players are ranked according to the their topness, we present to you the top five players at each position/role. While you're without question not reading this intro, we're nonetheless going to explain these rankings in general terms. First, these aren't fantasy rankings. While there's plenty of overlap with fantasy rankings, these are rankings based on actual on-field value. Do not draft your fantasy team based on these rankings. Go here for that sort of thing. Also, these rankings are for 2021 only -- not 2022 or 2020 or 2030. 

As for what matters, with position players it's a mix of batting, defense, and baserunning. On offense, we're not concerned with things like RBI. Getting on base and hitting for power matter above all, as do playing time and context of the player's home ballpark. For pitchers -- and since this a backward-looking assessment of value provided -- run prevention and workload will be the drivers, but we'll also give some consideration to underlying fundamental indicators like strikeouts and walks. When it comes to relievers, leverage, or the relative importance of the innings a reliever works, are taken into account. In the rare case of two, we're making some assumptions about what exact position the player will man in 2021. 

Recent history necessarily informs these rankings, but this year we're paying a bit less heed to the season immediately prior. That's of course because the 2020 season was played in the middle of a pandemic and entailed a sample size of just 60 regular season games. We won't ignore it entirely, but we'll put much less emphasis on it than we would a standard season. 

As always, reach to the author at his personal email address -- hotmail@aol.jpg -- with all your complaints. Now for the position-by-position rankings for the 2021 season... 

Catcher

1
J.T. Realmuto Philadelphia Phillies C
Realmuto in 2021 should once again combine strong contributions behind the plate with excellent numbers at it.
2
Will Smith Los Angeles Dodgers C
While Smith has just 91 big-league games to his credit, he's done nothing but hit over that span. His expected level of production in 2021 is top of the scale by positional standards.
3
Yasmani Grandal Chicago White Sox C
Grandal remains one of the few catchers who blends defensive excellence with strong outputs at the plate. That should again be the case in 2021.
4
Willson Contreras Chicago Cubs C
Contreras has made nice strides in terms of pitch-framing, and at the plate he remains one of the top power threats among catchers.
5
Salvador Perez Kansas City Royals C
The veteran backstop is a solidly above average hitter by positional standards who blends pop with good contact rates. If the recent extension is any guide, then the Royals are still believers in Salvy.

First base

1
Freddie Freeman Atlanta Braves 1B
The reigning NL MVP is one of the steadiest performers at the plate in the game today. Over the last five seasons, Freeman has averaged 83 extra-base hits and 90 walks per 162 games played.
2
Jose Abreu Chicago White Sox 1B
The AL MVP hip-checked the aging curve last season in a major way. Sudden decline is possible at age 34 for first base/DH types, but Abreu's career to date has been nothing but consistent excellence at the plate.
3
Paul Goldschmidt St. Louis Cardinals 1B
Goldbird seemed to evolve as a hitter in 2020, as he shifted toward a more patient approach that focused on line drives and power to the gaps. The transition worked swimmingly for him, and he has the skills to make the gains last.
4
Matt Olson Oakland Athletics 1B
Olson's a slick defender at first base, and at the plate he's got a 129 OPS+ since the start of his rookie season in 2017.
5
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Luke Voit New York Yankees 1B
Since the Yankees acquired him from the Cardinals, Voit has been on another level: a .915 OPS and 57 home runs in 213 games.

Second base

1
DJ LeMahieu New York Yankees 2B
LeMahieu has been one of the game's best pure hitters since joining the Yankees prior to the 2019 season. As implied by LeMahieu's new contract in the Bronx, the Yanks expect that to continue.
2
Ozzie Albies Atlanta Braves 2B
Young Albies is a plus fielding second baseman, a quality baserunner, and a reliable purveyor of extra-base power at the plate.
3
Jose Altuve Houston Astros 2B
Obviously it would be unwise to give too much weight to Altuve's 2020 struggles. He's still the guy who played an All-Star and or MVP level from 2014 through 2019.
4
Brandon Lowe Tampa Bay Rays 2B
Lowe wasn't the most heralded of prospects when he arrived in 2018, but he's done nothing but hit at the highest level thus far. Last season, he garnered a deserved top-10 finish in the AL MVP balloting.
5
Marcus Semien Oakland Athletics SS
Semien has developed into a better hitter than he showed in 2020, and his plus glove at shortstop should play very well at second base for Toronto.

Third base

1
Jose Ramirez Cleveland Indians 3B
With good cause, Ramirez has finished in the top three of the AL MVP vote in three of the last four seasons. He's going into his age-28 campaign.
2
Nolan Arenado St. Louis Cardinals 3B
Arenado's batted ball numbers have taken a slight dive over the last two seasons, and that -- not moving out of Coors Field -- is the bat-related concern moving forward. That said, Areando is such a difference-maker with the glove that he can endure some decline with the bat and still be an elite performer.
3
Matt Chapman Oakland Athletics 3B
Assuming Chapman's recovery from hip surgery continues to go well, he should resume being the AL's premier combination of power and fielding value at third base.
4
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Anthony Rendon Los Angeles Angels 3B
Over the last four seasons, Rendon has authored an OPS+ of 145 while being a defensive plus at the hot corner.
5
Alex Bregman Houston Astros 3B
Bregman's numbers were down a bit in 2020, but we're talking about a sample of just 180 plate appearances. In 2021, he should get back to the MVP-caliber form he flashed in 2018 and 2019.

Shortstop

1
Fernando Tatis San Diego Padres SS
Fresh off a (deserved) $340 million contract extension, Tatis Jr. figures to carry on as one of the most valuable and watchable players in MLB.
2
Francisco Lindor New York Mets SS
The freshly minted Met remains perhaps the best combination of offensive production and defensive excellence among current shortstops. That's to say nothing of his star power.
3
Trevor Story Colorado Rockies SS
Somewhat quietly, Story is in the discussion for best all-around shortstop in baseball right now. If the Rockies' efforts to sign him to an extension come to grief, then he could be one of the biggest names leading up to the trade deadline.
4
Corey Seager Los Angeles Dodgers SS
Seager had a high-quality season in 2019 despite not being all that far removed from Tommy John surgery, and he was even better in 2020. Put him on the NL MVP watch list.
5
Trea Turner Washington Nationals SS
Turner has evolved into a complete package of hitting, base-running, and defensive value at the vital position of shortstop.

Left field

1
Juan Soto Washington Nationals LF
Soto's just 22 years of age, and he's already in the discussion for best pure hitter in the game today. His combination of power and patience belies that young age, and he's toe-deep into what should be a legendary career.
2
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Christian Yelich Milwaukee Brewers LF
Obviously, there's cause for concern about when it comes to Yelich's production in 2020. It wasn't a bad season by any means, but it was well shy of the high bar he set in 2018 and 2019. Chiefly, a declining launch angle was to blame for his loss of power. In anticipating how Yelich will fare in 2021, we'll lean more on 2018-19.
3
Marcell Ozuna Atlanta Braves DH
Ozuna put up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate in 2020, and what bodes well moving forward is his elite quality-of-contact indicators from the last two seasons. Ideally he'd be able to DH, but his bat is more than enough to make up for whatever he gives back in left field.
4
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Eloy Jimenez Chicago White Sox LF
Sure, he's not much in the field or on the bases, but the power is jaw-dropping. The 24-year-old Jimenez may contend for the AL home run crown this season.
5
Michael Brantley Houston Astros DH
Remember when it seemed like Brantley's career might be effectively over after the 2017 season because of injuries? He's now churned out three straight highly productive seasons and stayed mostly healthy.

Center field

1
Mike Trout Los Angeles Angels CF
Even in a season afflicted by small sample sizes and a global pandemic, Trout showed no signs of slippage. So we continue to declare him to be the best player until he comes down from his loftiest of performance peaks.
2
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Cody Bellinger Los Angeles Dodgers CF
Bellinger's got an OPS+ of 141 and 123 home runs after 506 big-league games. He's also developed into a defensive plus in center field. At age 25, he's got much more where that came from.
3
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George Springer Toronto Blue Jays CF
The Blue Jays' big winter addition owns a career OPS+ of 131, and last year that figure was an even more impressive 140.
4
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Luis Robert Chicago White Sox CF
Robert started off hot last season, but pitchers eventually adjusted to him. Now he'll adjust to those adjustments while continuing to add big value as an elite defensive center fielder.
5
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Byron Buxton Minnesota Twins CF
Injuries will always be a subplot with Buxton, but he remains an elite defensive center fielder and base-runner, and he's also tapping into his power potential.

Right field

1
Mookie Betts Los Angeles Dodgers RF
Betts' first season with the Dodgers occasioned a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and a second-place finish in the NL MVP balloting. At age 28, Betts should provide more of the same in 2021 (and well beyond).
2
Ronald Acuna Atlanta Braves CF
Acuna's blend of hitting, fielding, and base-running make him one of the most complete players around. Let's also not forget that he's just 23.
3
Aaron Judge New York Yankees RF
As has long been the case with Judge, it's a matter of balancing his exceptional rate-based production with his ongoing injury concerns.
4
Michael Conforto New York Mets RF
Since his breakout season of 2017, Conforto has an OPS+ of 134 while averaging 34 homers per 162 games played.
5
Bryce Harper Philadelphia Phillies RF
Harper last season managed more walks than strikeouts, which may be a promising sign moving forward. Even if that doesn't stick, he'll remain one of the top power hitters in MLB.

Designated hitter

1
Nelson Cruz Minnesota Twins DH
This scribe once wrote off Cruz the better part of a decade ago. Cruz responded by deciding to hit home runs until the mountains crumble into the sea. So it shall be in 2021.
2
Jorge Soler Kansas City Royals DH
Over the last three seasons -- a span that encompasses 266 games -- Soler has hit 65 home runs with an OPS+ of 130.
3
Yordan Alvarez Houston Astros DH
Major knee problems in such a young player are worrisome, but Alvarez has done nothing but display elite power and patience at the dish through his first 89 MLB games.
4
J.D. Martinez Boston Red Sox DH
It's hard to hold 2020 against Martinez for a number of obvious reasons. He's not far removed from an outstanding first two seasons in Boston from 2018-19.
5
Giancarlo Stanton New York Yankees DH
You can argue it's unwise to assume health and durability from Stanton, but we'll go with gut feeling on this one. Stanton in 2021 will be mostly healthy and put up something close to vintage power numbers at the plate.

Starting pitcher

1
Jacob deGrom New York Mets SP
Over the last three seasons, deGrom has put up a 2.10 ERA and a 5.81 K/BB ratio. That plus his elite-level stuff is why he tops the list of starters for 2021.
2
Gerrit Cole New York Yankees SP
Cole in his first season with the Yankees was just as dominant as he was during his two years in Houston, which is to say he was one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the game. That won't change in 2021.
3
Shane Bieber Cleveland Indians SP
Bieber was the unanimous choice for AL Cy Young last season, and his elite peripheral indicators and elite stuff bode well moving forward. Over the last two seasons, he boasts 381 strikeouts in 291 2/3 innings.
4
Aaron Nola Philadelphia Phillies SP
Over the last three seasons, the 27-year-old curveball-fastball specialist has an ERA+ of 138 with a K/BB ratio of 3.41.
5
Walker Buehler Los Angeles Dodgers SP
Buehler's 26 and owns a career ERA+ of 129 with a K/BB ratio of 4.52. He throws a 97-mph fastball, and he's in an organization that's shown a tremendous recent knack for developing pitching. He hasn't yet reached his ceiling.

Relief pitcher

1
Josh Hader Milwaukee Brewers RP
Hader wasn't quite his usual dominant self last season, but we're talking about 21 appearances in the middle of a pandemic. In the prior three normal seasons, Hader had an ERA of 2.42 with 349 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings.
2
Liam Hendriks Chicago White Sox RP
The White Sox's new closer over the last two seasons has a 1.79 ERA, and over that span of 110 1/3 innings he's struck out 161 against just 18 unintentional walks.
3
Devin Williams Milwaukee Brewers RP
The 2020 NL Rookie of the Year pairs a 97-mph fastball with a filthy changeup to devastating effect. Somehow, he managed to post an FIP of 0.33 (!) last season.
4
James Karinchak Cleveland Indians RP
The 25-year-old right-hander has one of the nastiest fastball-curveball combos you'll ever see. Last season, Karinchak fanned 53 of the 109 batters he faced. It says here he'll take the next step in terms of run prevention in 2021.
5
Aroldis Chapman New York Yankees RP
The ERA was a bit higher than he's accustomed to, but Chapman struck out almost half the batters he faced in 2020. Even as the legendary fastball begins to lose a tick or two, he remains an elite bat-misser.

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