For now. In the aftermath of the Manny Ramirez suspension we're left asking ourselves some questions: Who can I cheer for? Which t-shirt jersey do I buy my six-year old? That's what I'm here for folks, to let you know.
ROUND THE DIAMOND:
Brian McCann Catcher Atlanta Braves - Probably our favorite player on this list. I first noticed how good the 25-year old catcher was during the World Baseball Classic. Behind the plate for the Americans, McCann hit .333 and finished the classic fifth on his team in on-base percentage (.444) In McCann's first three full seasons with Atlanta he's already won two National League silver slugger awards. The Georgia native should be penciled in for 18-25 home runs and between 85-100 RBIs a season for the next several years. Expect McCann to grow into a leader as the Braves continue through their youth movement.
Justin Morneau First Baseman Minnesota Twins - Most likely the elder statesman of this group. Playing in Minnesota has kept Morneau's name from being household, but it sure deserves to be. The Canadian born first baseman broke out in 2006. Along with taking home an American League silver slugger, Morneau slammed 30+ homers for the first time in his career and drove in 130 en route to an American League MVP. Off to another fast start, through 32 games Justin Morneau is hitting .322 and leading his team in runs batted in, homers, on-base percentage, and batting average. If your looking for slugging first baseman who can rake, Justin Morneau will be your guy and you've just begun scratching the surface of this hitters ability.
Freddy Sanchez Second Baseman Pittsburgh Pirates - When Sanchez was dealt from the Boston Red Sox to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the summer of 2003, the Red Sox knew what they were giving up and that must have been tough. Sanchez is developing into the best second baseman this side of Dustin Pedroia, flat out. In 2006, the Pirate second baseman hit .344 and played every game but five that season. He's back at it in 2009 hitting .317 through the first month and a half of the season. Freddy Sanchez is giving the Pirates a good stable middle infield playing in 145+ games each of the last three seasons. Leading the Pirates in hits and average this season, both Sanchez and center fielder Nate McLouth give Pirates fans something to cheer for, which they haven't had in some time.
Hanley Ramirez Shortstop Florida Marlins - Not many players have lived up to the hype of their youth as Hanley Ramirez is. Arguably the pound-for-pound best player in the majors, and he's only 25. Ramirez has everything you could want in a ballplayer. Speed, Hanley's grabbed an average of 46 bases a season in each of his first three full. Plate discipline, .348 this season, .310 career including a season in 2007 where he hit .332 in 154 games. Power, the Dominican has increased his homer total every season from 17 in '06, 29 in '07, to 33 in '08. Ramirez has had 12 multi-hit games through 29 contests. Once his fielding improves it'll be hard to argue that there is a better player (other than Pujols), remaining in the major leagues. Hanley Ramirez should be all over your radar if your any type of baseball fan.
Evan Longoria Third Baseman Tampa Bay Rays - We've already talked about Hanley Ramirez and Justin Morneau, if you needed more than that to forget Manny, Barry, and Alex, than Rays third baseman Evan Longoria should fill your need. What Hanley Ramirez is to young and versatile in the National League, Evan Longoria is that in the American League. No one in the majors is hotter than the Rays third baseman. Right now, Longoria is tied for 4th in the American League in batting average (.358), second in the league in home runs (11), and first in the league in RBI (44). Furthermore, against inter-division rival Boston, Longoria is hitting an amazing .375, driven in nearly half of his runs (21), and gone yard five times. Evan Longoria is prepared to be a thorn in the sides of Boston and New York for many years to come.
Ryan Braun Right Fielder Milwaukee Brewers - Cecil's kid and C.C. weren't the only reason the Brewers snuck into the playoffs in 2008. Outfielder Ryan Braun is one of the most exciting players in the National League. An all-star in 2008, Braun knocked in over two hundred runs in his first two seasons. The Brewers have a corner outfielder who can hit 34+ home runs a season and drive in over 100 runs, that a huge piece to their success. Playing in 38 more games in 2008 than he did in 2007, Braun had 28 more hits, 13 more walks, and 13 more doubles, expect him to only get better at the plate. This season Braun has shown no signs of slowing down his rise, 8 homers, 28 RBI, and hitting .345 through 30 games. Like many more on this list, Braun leads his team in all those categories and also in on-base percentage.
Shane Victorino Center Fielder Philadelphia Phillies - If you watched the Phighting Phils bring a championship to the city of Philadelphia last season, then your aware of Shane Victorino. Victorino is a "balls to the wall" outfielder who plays with reckless abandon. His gritty play reminds me of guys like Aaron Rowland and Jim Edmonds. The player known as "The Flyin' Hawaiian" doesn't have some of the monster numbers as some players on this list. He isn't prepared to launch a hall of fame career, and probably will never have his number retired, but he's on this list because of the way he plays the game, tough. Victorino steals bags pretty well, 54 in 2006, 62 in '07, and 69 in '08. The Phillies center fielder doesn't make errors, five in the last 4 seasons. I'm taking the guy who can help my club manufacture runs, save runs by his play in the outfield, and can still get his bat on the ball, 10-15 homers a year.
Nick Markakis Left Fielder Baltimore Orioles - The guy is hitting .350 this season and he plays in the American League East, so he's getting on this list. He's a 25-year old with only three years under his belt and the Orioles have already extended him through 2014. Here's why: As of today, Markakis is among the top ten in the American League in batting average (7th), runs (1st), on-base percentage (5th), RBI (6th), and on-base plus slugging (8th). If you could lock up a guy for under $70 million who is producing at this clip, you would do it. Markakis is very consistent, hitting .303 for his career and averaging 185 hits a season, this is the perfect type of player to cheer for. A more exciting, easy to root for form of J.D. Drew. Baltimore will be hoping for Markakis and center fielder Adam Jones to anchor their lineup and their outfield for years to come.
Adam Lind Designated Hitter Toronto Blue Jays - Yep, I have an American League East bias. The Blue Jay is busting out this season, "on fire" may be underestimating it. Having never played in more than 90 games in his first two professional seasons, Lind has only managed to hit 20 home runs and 86 RBI in those years. Through 33 games this year, he's already hit 6 home runs and drove in 31 runs. I'm excited to see the Blue Jays through the next couple months and see if they can maintain, Adam Lind will take a huge role in doing so against the good American League East pitching. The Blue Jays left handed DH will have to continue his terric first month of the season if they hope to stay atop the division lead.
Johnny Cueto Starter Cincinnati Reds - I like to think that I get some things correct when I give you my predictions: In my 2008 MLB PREVIEW I predicted Johnny Cueto was the pitcher to watch in the National League. So I'll say it again for you, watch out for Johnny Cueto, he's god damn filthy. In six starts this season, Cueto has come out blazing hot. A 3-1 start in the win/loss column, a 1.59 era, and getting through nearly seven innings every start. His last two starts have been amazing. 15 innings combined against Pittsburgh and St. Louis, struck out 12 batters, and allowed just nine hits. If your looking for a starter that can develop into the Johan Santana type, look to a flame thrower like Johnny Cueto.
Ramon Ramirez Middle Reliever Boston Red Sox - Ramirez is everything the Red Sox thought they were getting when they dealt their fourth outfielder Coco Crisp to the Royals for his services. Ramirez has anchored the Red Sox bullpen this season and gives Papelbon that set-up man they were looking for. The 27-year old journeyman has a 0.55 era in 16 appearances for the Red Sox, he's allowed just one run to be scored off him, and struck out eight. While the Yankees have their set-up man starting games, and the Rays have a bullpen which has shown signs of weakness, the Red Sox with pitchers like Ramon Ramirez have been able to jump on those teams in the late innings, he's a big part of that.
Ryan Franklin Closer St. Louis Cardinals - The 36-year old Cardinal closer seems to have his stride in this role. In 14 innings this season, Franklin has recorded nine saves and struck out 13. The reason I put him on this list of young studs is because Franklin isn't young and he exemplifies every reason why the Cardinals never have a horrible season. LaRussa and company can put pitchers and position players in the right spots and it seems as if he has found that role for Ryan Franklin in 2009. Over the last two seasons Franklin has recored a total of 18 starts, this season he's already half way there and were only a month in, I want to see Franklin complete this year strong and the Cardinals go deep into the postseason.
I hope this gives you parents out there some new players to keep an eye on and tell your kids about, hey it's either that or you tell them to play outside till July 3rd when Manny gets back into the Dodger lineup, I'll take a pass on that.