In the run-up to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, there was a fair bit of talk about players deemed untouchable—the ones unavailable in a deal that even the most aggressive team would be prepared to make. Consider, for instance, what an executive told ESPN’s Jayson Stark that about what the White Sox were seeking in exchange for ace Chris Sale: "your five best prospects, and that might not be good enough."
No player is truly untouchable, of course, but such talk got us thinking: It a team had to rebuild its entire roster and could keep only one player in the organization, who would that be? In several cases, the answer is obvious, as the game is awash in a wave of brilliant young players who are already stars and have several years of club control ahead. But in some cases, that player might not yet be on the big league roster, and in others, it’s a tough call between an aging veteran who may be past his peak and a youngster who hasn't quite put it together.
What follows here is our best attempt to make those tough choices for the 15 American League teams, taking into account current performance, age and contract status, with an eye toward anticipating the future rather than clinging to the past. Admittedly, it’s a snapshot in time, and a couple months from now we might feel differently. With that in mind, here are the American League's Untouchables.
All stats are through Tuesday, Aug. 2; teams are listed alphabetically.
Manny Machado, 3B
Just past his 24th birthday, Machado is already in his fifth major league season, and so far, he's increased his OPS+ every year (137 this year), played elite defense at the hot corner and even showed he could handle shortstop in a pinch. On a per-162 game basis, he's averaged 26 homers, 23 Defensive Runs Saved and 6.6 Wins Above Replacement. He's under club control through 2018; Orioles owner Peter Angelos might as well just give him the keys to the vault.
Boston Red Sox
Mookie Betts, CF
After consecutive last-place finishes in the AL East, the Sox' plan is coming together, centered around a pair of 23-year-olds born six days apart: Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts. So why did we choose Betts? While Bogaerts is playing the more difficult position, the defensive metrics don't love him, and he's got one fewer year of club control remaining than does Betts, who is signed through 2020. In parts of three seasons, Betts has hit for a 123 OPS+ and averaged 24 homers, 24 steals, 15 Defensive Runs Saved and 7.3 WAR per 162 games.
Chicago White Sox
Chris Sale, SP
Even with his retro jersey snipping snit, it’s clear that Sale is still the man on the South Side. The 27-year-old southpaw is amid his fifth straight strong season and owed a mere $38 million for his next three years—not much more than what fellow aces Clayton Kershaw ($32 million), Zack Greinke ($31 million) or David Price ($30 million) are each making this year.
Francisco Lindor, SS
Even with the league's strongest rotation at the moment—one headed by 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber—the call here is for Lindor. Just over 200 games into his big league career, the 22-year-old has been everything the Indians hoped he would be, establishing himself as a high-average hitter (.309/.355/.465 for his career) and an elite defender (18 Defensive Runs Saved per 162 games). And he's under team control through 2021, to boot.
Michael Fulmer, SP
Miguel Cabrera may be Cooperstown-bound, but both he and staff ace Justin Verlander are now very expensive and past their MVP-caliber peaks. By contrast, 23-year-old righty Michael Fulmer, who was obtained from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes deal at last year's non-waiver trade deadline, has emerged as one of the AL's top young pitchers. That's mostly thanks to the sudden emergence of his changeup as a quality third pitch to go with his slider and a 96-mph fastball, and it's helped him to a 2.42 ERA and 4.1 WAR, the most by any American League pitcher this year. Fulmer is a good bet for AL Rookie of the Year honors, and that should just be the start of a long and productive career in Detroit.
Carlos Correa, SS
Correa is in only his first full season, and he's still more than a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Yet in just over 200 games at the big league level, he's shown why the Astros' decision to tab him as the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft as a 17-year-old was an inspired choice. So far, he's hit for a 130 OPS+ and averaged 6.5 WAR and 30 homers per 162 games, and he's under club control through 2021.
Kansas City Royals
Salvador Perez, C
With leftfielder Alex Gordon's performance having collapsed and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, pitchers Wade Davis and Danny Duffy, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas all set to hit free agency after the 2017 season, the reigning world champions are nearing a crossroads. The 26-year-old Perez is clearly the centerpiece of their future, signed through 2021 for $52.5 million. He’s been overworked and the framing metrics don't love him, but his defense is otherwise strong, and he's taken his power to a new level this year, elevating the ball with more consistency.
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout, CF
It's fun to debate the reasons why the Angels should consider trading the game's best player, but the reality is that they'd be crazy to do so. As his 25th birthday approaches, Trout is already beating a path toward Cooperstown. After leading the AL in WAR in each of his first four full seasons—averaging 9.3 WAR to go with 34 homers, 27 steals and a 173 OPS+—he's doing so again this year. His 44.8 career WAR already exceeds the seven-year peak of the average Hall of Fame centerfielder. He's starting to get expensive, but if he keeps this up, the $119 million he's owed from 2017 to '20 will seem like a bargain.
Max Kepler, RF
As disastrous as this season has been for the team with the AL's worst record, the Twins are loaded with young talent. But Byron Buxton—ranked the No. 1 or No. 2 prospect by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com each of the past three seasons—continues to flirt with the Mendoza Line, Miguel Sano has struggled to find a position where his defense doesn't offset his power and 22-year-old righthander Jose Berrios has yet to stick in the big club's rotation. Until that trio finds its footing, the pick here comes out of left—er, rightfield: Kepler, a 23-year-old rookie from Berlin who's hitting .283/.364/.624 with 15 homers, all in his last 45 games. Ranked as high as No. 30 on top prospect lists, he has scouts raving about his quick adjustments at the major league level.
New York Yankees
Clint Frazier, OF
At the outset of the season, 22-year-old Luis Severino would have been the choice here based on the poise and promise he showed in his 11-start late-2015 run, but he was pummeled so thoroughly at the start of the year that he was sent back to Triple A in May and just returned last week. Fresh off their first deadline as sellers in more than two decades, the Yankees’ big league roster is in sad shape, but general manager Brian Cashman did well to restock the minor league system with a mix of near-ready prospects and further-off ones. The prize is Frazier, a 21-year-old outfielder brought over from the Indians in the Andrew Miller trade. Frazier, the fifth pick of the 2013 draft, is a five-tool player with plus-plus power, otherworldly bat speed and a high-energy style. He was promoted to Triple A shortly after playing in the Futures Game and just before being traded, and he should arrive in the Bronx sometime in 2017..
Sean Manaea, SP
Oakland's past two seasons have been a hot mess, and with staff ace Sonny Gray getting lit up like a Christmas tree, a whole lot of the organization's hopes are on the shoulders of Manaea, a 24-year-old rookie acquired last summer from the Royals in the Ben Zobrist trade. Ranked as high as No. 45 on preseason prospect lists, the 6'5" lefty was pummeled in his first three starts but has pitched to a 3.62 ERA, a 3.75 FIP and a 7.8 strikeout-per-nine rate since.
Kyle Seager, 3B
The farm system is a consensus bottom-three, the resurgent Robinson Cano is already in his age-33 season, 30-year-old ace Felix Hernandez hasn’t had a very good year due to a calf strain and declining peripherals and 23-year-old righty Taijuan Walker has been dogged by injuries and inconsistency at the big league level. Meanwhile, 28-year-old third baseman Kyle Seager has been consistently worth four or five WAR a year, and he's having what might be his best season yet: a career-high 138 OPS+ along with his usual solid defense. He's signed for $85 million through 2021.
Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer, SP
In the midst of their worst season since exorcising the Devil from their name before their pennant-winning 2008 campaign, the Rays have to be scratching their heads over the struggles of Archer, their 27-year-old staff ace Archer. After three strong seasons has become incredibly homer-prone this year, contributing to a 93 ERA+ that is a career-low for a full season. Still, he leads the AL in strikeouts (161), is whiffing 10.5 per nine and is under club control through 2021, with $18 million due over the next three seasons before a pair of club options totaling $20 million kick in. As with Sale, his name was dangled before the trade deadline, but Tampa Bay is better off keeping him.
Nomar Mazara, RF
With Yu Darvish not fully back to ace form after last year's Tommy John surgery and signed only through 2017, Mazara should be the Rangers' centerpiece. Texas balked at including him in its attempt to pry Sale loose from the White Sox even amid a six-week slump because it loves the 21-year-old rightfielder's advanced approach at the plate and his light-tower power; his 425-foot average home run distance is the highest among any AL player with at least 10 longballs.
Toronto Blue Jays
Josh Donaldson, 3B
The late-blooming Donaldson's rapid emergence since shifting from catcher to third base in 2011 has been astounding. Over the past four seasons, his 29.7 WAR is second only to Trout's 33.4 thanks to his combination of power, patience and outstanding defense at the hot corner. Even at 30 years old, the reigning AL MVP has got two more years of club control remaining.