Who will be MLB's best in 2024: Acuna, Betts or another star?

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Ronald Acuña Jr. started 2024 as the best player in baseball, according to us. Who will end it as such?

The Atlanta Braves superstar was No. 1 on our preseason MLB Rank Top 100 after winning National League honors with his historic 40-home run/70-stolen base 2024 season -- but there are some questions about how much he'll run this season after a spring training knee injury.

Meanwhile, the sport's other reigning MVP, Shohei Ohtani, will be providing all of his 2024 value as a designated hitter after dominating as a two-way star in recent seasons.

That leaves the door open for a new superstar to take center stage as MLB's premier player this season.

We asked five of our MLB experts to select who could make a run at the title of baseball's best player and present the strongest case for that player earning the crown this season. We then enlisted our very own Judge Jeff Passan to weigh in on the cases with his own verdict on which superstar will rule the sport in 2024.

Juan Soto

Last 162 games: .285/.416/.526, .942 OPS, 35 HRs, 111 RBIs, 97 R, 11 SBs, 304 TB

The case for Soto: He doesn't possess the five-tool skill set Acuña and some other stars on this list have at their disposal. But his unparalleled presence in the batter's box -- a thorough, exhaustive approach heavy on plate discipline and swagger -- combined with his propensity to shine on the grandest stages and his megawatt smile have already lifted Soto to the status of superstar on a Hall of Fame path. Add playing in New York in a platform season, and the 25-year-old is poised to make 2024 his year. His defense (usually) won't amaze you. He won't steal bases. But he's going to torment opponents and impact games one shuffle at a time -- and maybe carry the Yankees to a place they haven't been in 15 years (the World Series) -- before hitting the jackpot next winter. -- Jorge Castillo

Judge Jeff says: Thank you, counselor Castillo, for listing all of the reasons Soto isn't the best player in baseball so I don't have to. Perhaps he can just settle for the best hitter? Or biggest contract (non-deferred money division)? Even if Soto isn't at the tippy-top of the sport -- and because of his relative deficiencies, he indeed doesn't match Acuña -- he is still mighty good.

Bobby Witt Jr.

Last 162 games: .286/.328/.518, .846 OPS, 32 HRs, 96 RBIs, 103 R, 50 SBs, 342 TB

The case for Witt: At 24, Witt's eye-popping raw skills have coalesced into stat-line-stuffing superstar production. Since late July, the point at which Witt's game really took off, he's been putting up Acuña-like numbers but with one difference: He's trending sharply upward. As it is, we're talking about 150-game paces of 38 homers, 55 steals, 205 hits to go with percentages that could put him in batting title contention and, especially, league-leading slug levels.

Somehow, Witt has started this season hitting the ball even harder. He's leading the majors in hard-hit balls and his MLB-leading average exit velo (101.5 mph, through Thursday) dwarfs Aaron Judge's leading figure from 2023 (97.6). You can't take your eyes off the guy. And unlike Acuña, who is the catalyst for a lineup packed with star power, Witt's numbers will tower above his teammates. If the Royals surprise in the AL Central race, which isn't impossible, late-season games at the K will be echoing with MVP chants every time Witt walks onto the field. -- Bradford Doolittle

Judge Jeff says: Everything lines up. He plays arguably the most important position on the field. He does almost everything well, from hitting the ball hard to running faster than anyone to manning shortstop with grace, style and intelligence. Witt's lack of walks may keep him from securing the top spot, but even those have spiked in the desired direction early this season. All that is standing in the way is a full season of this level of performance. Witt looks the part. He plays the part. What matters is whether he can translate it to the sort of consistent performance that the best exhibit.

Fernando Tatis Jr.

Last 162 games: .258/.321/.452, .773 OPS, 29 HRs, 86 RBIs, 99 R, 31 SBs, 294 TB

The case for Tatis: He made the full-time transition to right field in 2023 and wound up winning a Platinum Glove. He took zero major league plate appearances in 2022, came back the following year and hit 25 home runs, stole 29 bases and put up a 113 OPS+. All this talk about Ronald Acuña Jr.'s emergence, Juan Soto's prowess, Shohei Ohtani's uniqueness and Mookie Betts' awesomeness has made us forget that, of all of them, Tatis -- who was arguably the new face of baseball before a PED suspension tarnished his reputation -- might be the most talented.

He's still only 25 years old. He was so motivated to vault himself back to the top of his sport that he followed a grueling regular season with a prolonged stint in winter ball, training under his father just like Acuña did before capturing the MVP in 2023. Now, it's Tatis' turn.

Keep in mind that we've never seen a fully unlocked, uninterrupted version of Tatis. In 2020, when he finished fourth in NL MVP voting, the COVID-19 pandemic limited the season to 60 games. In 2021, when he led the league with 42 home runs, he spent all year battling a shoulder subluxation. The 2022 season began with a wrist injury caused by a motorcycle accidentbefore he servedan 80-game suspension after a positive test for an anabolic steroid. In 2023, Tatis admitted, he never quite felt right offensively. If Tatis stays healthy in 2024, he'll remind us that nobody is better. -- Alden Gonzalez

Judge Jeff says: Are we going to see the fully unlocked, uninterrupted version of him, though? That's the thing about this list: Availability wins the day. Ohtani would be the unquestioned No. 1 player on this list had his elbow stayed healthy. Acuña played 159 games last year. Never in Tatis' four previous big league seasons has he played more than 141 games. So while he's showing his prodigious power stroke, swiping bags and patrolling right field with Gold Glove range, Tatis needs to play more to turn potential and fleeting excellence into something more.

Mookie Betts

Last 162 games: .314/.417/.597, 1.014 OPS, 43 HRs, 117 RBIs, 140 R, 15 SBs, 371 TB

The case for Mookie Betts: Here's a quick Mookie Betts story. It's spring training 2019, with the Red Sox coming off their World Series title and Betts coming off his MVP season. It's a hot and steamy day in Fort Myers, Florida, and the Red Sox have cones set up outside their clubhouse, maybe 20 yards apart, to get in a little running. Most players go through the motions with some light jogging, emphasis on "light." Except Mookie. He takes it seriously and runs hard. This helps explain why Betts absolutely loves the challenge of moving to shortstop and will make it work -- and, based on early indications, have a season so good he'll even overshadow teammates Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman, two superstars who could easily be included in this discussion.

That's saying something because Betts is already one of just five position players with at least three 8-WAR seasons in the wild-card era (joining Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout). Through his first nine games, he hit .485/.595/1.091 with five home runs and 14 runs scored. Batting in front of Ohtani and Freeman, he might become the third player since World War II to score 150 runs (joining Jeff Bagwell in 2000 and Ted Williams in 1949) and matching Rickey Henderson at a run-per-game pace (Henderson scored 146 runs in 143 games in 1985).

Betts has made tweaks to his approach. After a down year for him in 2021, he was more aggressive in 2022, which helped his power but not his OBP. He got back to a more patient approach last season and hit .300 for the first time since 2018 while also hitting a career-high 39 home runs. That mindset has carried over to his hot start in 2024. Right now, he's at another level. Factor in the near-unprecedented move to the infield and we're talking about a potential season for the ages. The first non-Bonds 11-WAR season since Cal Ripken in 1991 is possible and as the Dodgers undoubtedly roll to another 100-win season, Betts will lead the way. -- David Schoenfield

Judge Jeff says: Yes, it's too early to get caught up in the hoopla of just a handful of games. But what a start it has been. Through 10 games, Betts led MLB in everything: all three triple-slash categories, home runs, runs, RBIs. You name it, Mookie does it. And now that he's playing a far more important position than Acuña's right field -- and doing it rather well -- the case for Betts overtaking Acuña, even at 31 years old, might be the strongest of all. Not ready to slam the gavel and adjourn the court quite yet, but it's primed to go.

Ronald Acuña Jr.

Last 162 games: .332/.410/.577, .987 OPS, 39 HRs, 106 RBIs, 153 R, 73 SBs, 380 TB

The case for Acuña: Do I really have to make a case for the reigning NL MVP? Perhaps he won't hit 41 home runs and steal 73 bases again -- of course, he might -- but even if he drops into the 30/60 club, he'll still be the only player ever to reach those heights. In other words, he has a cushion to maintain his status as best in the game and win a second consecutive MVP award. Remember, he's only 26. There's still room to grow -- though how much better can you get than last season? Even his strikeout-to-walk ratio improved in 2023, from 2.38 in 2022 to just 1.05 last year. Incredible.

So that's my case: Acuña can be about 75 percent of the player he was last year and still be the best. Who else can say that? -- Jesse Rogers

Judge Jeff says: Case closed. For now.

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