The answer to the question is somewhat tricky because first, a definition of this era is necessary to narrow the field. Do we start in 1993 with expansion, 2003 when the first steroid test was implemented, or perhaps the following year when testing actually resulted in suspensions? Without the steroid era, I would be inclined to go back to 1993. Going back to 1993, Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar and should-be Hall of Famer Craig Biggio are clearly ahead of Robinson Cano. Even Jeff Kent’s career accomplishments would place him ahead as well. However, it seems unfair to directly compare players who played in completely different environments. Isn’t one of the purposes of separating by eras so that you can compare the players within the era as equals? Clearly players who played from 1993-2003 were playing in a different environment than the one Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, and Dustin Pedroia have been playing in. Each of those players has been tested for performance enhancing drugs since they were in High-A ball.
(Note: I am in no way saying Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, and Jeff Kent used PEDs. I have no idea, and I believe the first two are clear Hall of Famers. I am saying that the era in which they played, steroids were prevalent. I am also not saying players are not using PEDs now. I am saying that there is testing in place. At worst, it is harder to cheat. At best, there are far fewer players using PEDs.)
As a result, I am considering the current era of ballplayers to have begun in 2004 (Making it 2003 made little difference for these purposes). I took a look at the top ten second base performers in WAR from both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference (minimum 75% of games at second base). The following names appeared on both lists: Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Orlando Hudson, Brian Roberts, Mark Ellis, and Howie Kendrick. First the pretenders:
Pretenders (2004-2013, with career numbers added if they played before 2004)
Mark Ellis (21.5 fWAR, 25.4 bWAR)
Mark Ellis has had a solid career, but is currently 36 years old and is well behind some much younger players who have already done much more.
Brian Roberts (25.3 fWAR, 25.8 bWAR, 27.6 career fWAR, 28.4 career bWAR)
Roberts has suffered more than his fair share of injuries that have derailed a promising career. He has still accomplished quite a bit, but at 35 he has too much ground to make up.
Orlando Hudson (19.8 fWAR, 26.7 bWAR, 22.3 career fWAR, 30.6 career bWAR)
Orlando Hudson is another player in the Ellis/Roberts tier who have had solid careers but their best days are behind them. In the case of Hudson, it appears all of his playing days are behind him.
Close, but not quite (2004-2013)
Brandon Phillips (26.6 fWAR, 24.2 bWAR)
At 32, Phillips is not done yet and he still produces at a high level, but it is hard to envision multiple All-Star seasons, let alone an MVP-type season in his future.
Howie Kendrick (19.7 fWAR, 21.5 bWar)
Kendrick, 29, is one of younger players on this list, losing to Dustin Pedroia by only a month. However, he also has the most work to do, finishing 10th in both versions of WAR. He is having an excellent season in 2013, hitting .335/.377/.483 with a .369 wOBA, but even with a few more matching seasons he has still only produced one season above 3.1 WAR in his career.
Ian Kinsler (27.4 fWAR, 32.0 bWAR)
Kinsler is the arguably toughest omission from the contenders list. His WAR totals are not that far removed from two of the players who made the contender cut, but a couple factors hurt him. One, he turns 31 in a week, which means he has less time to make up ground on the players ahead of him. Two, a position change may be in his future. With Elvis Andrus locked up at short, and uber-prospect Jurickson Profar now at the big league level, Kinsler is clearly the third best defender of the group. He still has time to put in a few more solid seasons, but it is likely those will not come at second base.
Dustin Pedroia (31.6 fWAR, 34.9 bWAR)
Pedroia is the youngest player on this list, and the only one with an MVP coming in 2008. He also had an MVP-caliber season in 2011 for the Red Sox. Pedroia has always been solid with the bat, posting a career .357 wOBA, but his defense has been consistently above average according to each of the metrics used by Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference. Since he began his career full-time in 2007, he hasn’t posted a season with a WAR under 3, proving to be a consistent performer. The only question for Pedroia is can he gain enough ground to catch the two men with better numbers than he currently possesses.
Robinson Cano (33.2 fWAR, 40.1 bWAR)
Cano, like Pedroia, has also put up two MVP-caliber years, Cano’s coming in 2010 and again last year. Cano has not been as consistent as Pedroia, putting up subpar numbers in his rookie year as well as 2008. He has made up the difference by posting overall better numbers in every other year. He is a year older than Pedroia, but has been very durable, only missing time in 2006 for a hamstring strain. Cano has been one of the lone bright spots for this year’s Yankees with 16 homers and a .364 wOBA, right in line with his career average of .366.
Chase Utley (52.6 fWAR, 55.8)
If we cut off the era today, Utley would be the unquestioned champ. He is currently about three All-Star caliber seasons above his nearest competitor. He has hit as well as Cano with a .377 wOBA, but has also been a consistently great fielder throughout his career. Injuries have curtailed Utley in recent years and may ultimately prevent his enshrinement in Cooperstown. Although Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins seemed to overshadow Utely in star-power and MVP voting, Utley had an incredible peak from 2005-2010, averaging 7.9 bWAR and 7.1 fWAR over that time. His statistics have undergone a steady decline and at age 34 with mounting time missed from injuries, it’s fair to question just how much he has left unless you are Ruben Amaro, Jr., who continues to ignore the signs of aging in all of his Phillies.
Both Pedroia and Cano have a chance to catch Chase Utley as the best second baseman of this era. It will not be easy, it will require good health, and a slow decline rather than a rapid one. Although Chase Utley has set the bar very high for today’s second basemen, I would not count out either Pedroia or Cano.
You’ll notice there were not a lot of young players considered. I looked at current major leaguers under 27 and the recently demoted Dustin Ackley and Jason Kipnis did not inspire enough confidence to put them on this list. It’s possible a player like Profar, if he’s stuck at second base, might crack this list, but to reach Utley’s standard might take until 2025. By that point we will likely be talking about a whole new era of players.