What a week for rookies. First, Clayton Kershaw debuted for the Dodgers, tossing a strong six innings on Sunday, striking out seven. Then, on Tuesday, Jay Bruce stepped into the Reds' lineup for the first time and promptly delivered a 3-for-3 performance. They both seemed as advertised, like instant All-Stars.
It's like we're getting a glimpse into the future, but right this very moment.
Not that I'm foolhardy enough to believe that either Kershaw or Bruce is any guarantee to become an instant All-Star -- and neither could at this point anyway, not with only seven weeks remaining until the Midsummer Classic -- but make no mistake, both should get there in the long haul. Flash-forward, let's say, four years, and there's little doubt each will be in contention for the top spot at his position, fantasy-wise.
But will either be in the top spot? That's a more curious question.
Back in 2004, I wrote a column entitled the "All-2007 team," predicting who might be fantasy's biggest studs three years down the road. It was a fun exercise, most helpful to keeper-league owners, obviously, but it was also designed to identify franchise-type players, guys with the most stability in the long haul. Some of the picks -- Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and David Wright, to name three -- were pretty on target. Others -- ugh, Rocco Baldelli, Marcus Giles and Mark Prior -- were out-and-out busts. I've provided the full lists (both first and second team) in the table to the right.
Well, today, it might be 2008, but that doesn't mean forecasting forward isn't still in vogue. After all, that's what fantasy baseball is all about, predicting the future, right? So, in the debut week for Bruce and Kershaw, I thought it only fitting to repeat that exercise and see how both prospects stack up looking ahead the next few seasons.
This time, though, I'm looking ahead four years, not three: The "All-2012 team." It's a little more challenging and presents more of a chance for interesting prospects to make the cut. But first, let's set a few ground rules for picking this team, shall we?
• A full 23-man fantasy roster must be selected, meaning two catchers, one apiece at first base, second base, third base and shortstop, one corner infielder and one middle infielder (though those will be listed at their primary positions), five outfielders, a designated hitter (which must be an actual DH), six starting pitchers and three closers.
• Players are only listed at the position I believe they'll be playing in 2012.
• Players are picked in order of how much value I believe they'll have in 2012 alone, though close calls are broken by overall long-term value. The top players make the first team, and the rest are listed in ranked order as "best of the rest."
• Fantasy potential only is considered. That means defense is irrelevant, outside of how it determines which position the player plays.
Now, presenting the "All-2012" team (with age in parentheses):
Catcher: Russell Martin (29) and Matt Wieters (25). We have yet to see the best of Martin, a .300-hitting capable backstop who might average 20/20 numbers between now and 2012. Wieters, meanwhile, is already tearing up high Class A ball, making it a near-certainty he'll be in Baltimore by a year from today. With .300-25-100 statistical potential, calling Wieters the next Victor Martinez is not at all an unrealistic estimation.
Best of the rest: Geovany Soto (29), Martinez (33) and Brian McCann (28).
The sleeper: J.R. Towles (28) possesses the hitting skills to be in 2012 very much what Joe Mauer has averaged from 2005-07.
Note: Mauer misses the cut, as by 2012, I find it highly unlikely he'll still be behind the plate.
First base: Albert Pujols (32). He's truly something special, an all-time great, and I can't help but look at his top six career-to-date comparables on baseball-reference.com and note that only Ken Griffey Jr. wasn't still performing at this level of production past his 32nd birthday. That says one thing to me: Health is the only worry here, and I don't call it a big worry, not for a first baseman.
Best of the rest: Mark Teixeira (31), Prince Fielder (27), Adrian Gonzalez (29) and Justin Morneau (30).
The sleeper: Lars Anderson (24) has some serious power, and could be a new Manny Ramirez for the Red Sox right around the time Manny's options run out (after 2010).
Second base: Chase Utley (33). He simply keeps getting better, doesn't he? Sure, he'll be 33 in 2012, but that'd represent only his eighth full season in the majors, which is too short a time frame before expecting a career decline. There's no reason Utley's prime can't extend that far, and I'll go a step further and say that by then, he's being talked up as potentially the greatest second baseman of all-time.
Best of the rest: Robinson Cano (29), Brandon Phillips (30), Ian Kinsler (29) and Matt Antonelli (26).
Third base: David Wright (29) and Evan Longoria (26). Howard Johnson managed three 30/30 campaigns for the Mets from 1987-91, but don't do Wright the disservice of comparing him to HoJo. He's HoJo with 75 points of batting average, plus consistency, plus longevity. Calling for three 30/30 campaigns for Wright between now and 2012 isn't unrealistic; heck, it might be underrating him. If not for that, at this very, very deep position, I could see Longoria, a .300-hitting, 40-homer capable batsman by 2010, giving him a real run for No. 1.
Best of the rest: Alex Rodriguez (36), Alex Gordon (28) and Ryan Zimmerman (27).
The sleeper: Third base is so deep that by 2012, Pedro Alvarez (25) should be an everyday third baseman, and a .300-30 man, for the big-league club that picks him this June. And he'd still fall short of top 5.
Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez (28) and Jose Reyes (29). Most people believe Ramirez will be a center fielder by 2012, and I don't deny that possibility, but for now, I'd actually say it's at least 50/50 he'll still be a shortstop by then. After all, they do have Cameron Maybin waiting in the wings for center field. But even if Ramirez does shift, he'd easily crack my starting outfield, as a guy who can absolutely average .300-30-100-40 numbers between now and 2012. As for Reyes, even if he pulls a Carl Crawford and doesn't completely explode as a hitter, a guy who can conceivably average 70 steals per year is quite the keeper.
Best of the rest: Jimmy Rollins (33), Stephen Drew (29) and Reid Brignac (26).
The sleeper: Tim Beckham (22) might yet be the next Alex Rodriguez. Then again, as a high-school prospect in this year's draft, he could just as easily become the next Matt Bush.
Note: I'm well aware I've excluded Troy Tulowitzki (27), but I'm still more impressed by his defense than his offense, as his home/road splits are troublesome. He's a real risk/reward play in my mind.
Outfield: Ryan Braun (28), Justin Upton (24), Grady Sizemore (29), Josh Hamilton (30) and Nick Markakis (28). Outfield is easily as deep as third base, with a multitude of sluggers and power/speed types, though Wright and perhaps also Longoria would top all five. Braun leads this stacked bunch; he's a Manny Ramirez-in-his-prime type slugger long-term. Upton, currently 20, might take until almost 2012 before he tops out statistically, but when he does, he's going to be an annual first-round fantasy pick, and a better player than his brother. I'll take the chance on Sizemore's 30/30 potential; he's already very good in all five fantasy categories, and if he can step it up to excellent in at least two of them, he'll become a perennial first-rounder himself. Hamilton might be my one reach, a late bloomer whom some fear is a health risk, but I'm constantly wowed by what I see in him the more he grows as a hitter each day. One thing in his favor: Having played so few games early in his pro career might help preserve him, extending his prime years well into his 30s. Finally, Markakis has already established himself as one of the best young hitters in the game, and he's no slouch as a baserunner, either. Besides, by 2012, perhaps either the Orioles will have better talent surrounding him, or, at least, his new team will.
Best of the rest: Jay Bruce (24), B.J. Upton (27), Matt Kemp (27), Delmon Young (26), Chris Young (28), Carl Crawford (30), Travis Snider (24), Jacoby Ellsbury (28), Alex Rios (31) and Jeremy Hermida (28).
Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera (28). No doubt at all in my mind that by 2012, Cabrera will be a DH. In fact, it could happen as early as next year! Cabrera takes some heat for his large build, but I'd say the only real negative is that it ensures a quick shift to an all-hitting role. And what a hitter he is (and could be): In the hitting-oriented American League, he should be a .300-40 type for another decade.
Best of the rest: Ryan Howard (32), Billy Butler (25), Lance Berkman (36) and David Ortiz (36).
The sleeper: Matt LaPorta (27) got blocked by Braun in left field this season, which could accelerate a trade to an AL team. He looks born to DH, and to hit like Braun himself.
Starting pitcher: Tim Lincecum (27), Brandon Webb (32), Scott Kazmir (28), Jake Peavy (30), Cole Hamels (28) and Justin Verlander (29). You'll note a similarity in my six pitchers picked; all but Webb and Verlander are strong bets to lead their respective leagues in strikeouts in each of the next four years, and note that Webb finished six K's short of 200 in 2007, Verlander 17 short. I build around strikeouts long-term, and see Cy Young -- heck, multiple Cy Young -- potential in all six. Also in Webb's favor: His sinkerballing ways make him a low-risk long-term investment. You might worry a bit about Lincecum or Kazmir in the WHIP department, noting they walk more than the other four, but each could have a 300-strikeout season in their not-too-distant future. But these probably aren't the guys you wanted to read about; it's this next group where the interesting long-term bets can be found.
Best of the rest: Rick Porcello (23), Clay Buchholz (27), Josh Beckett (31), Dan Haren (31), Johan Santana (33), Yovani Gallardo (26), Felix Hernandez (25), Clayton Kershaw (24), Jake McGee (25).
The sleeper: Yes, I'm still on the Justin Masterson (27) bandwagon. "Next Brandon Webb" labels are not unfounded.
Relief pitcher: Jonathan Papelbon (31), Joba Chamberlain (26) and Francisco Rodriguez (30). At the toughest position to forecast long-term, Papelbon brings the rare combination of raw talent, youthful upside and long-term team viability. Look at the Red Sox's farm system; do you see them dropping off the table by 2012? Note that I see Chamberlain's future as a closer, not a starter, in spite of the Yankees' current plans for him. He's far too good as a possible stopper not to bump back there if he can't establish himself as an elite starter by, say, 2010. As for K-Rod, he keeps proving those who doubt his long-term health wrong. I can't deny his making a run as one of the all-time great closers by career's end.
Best of the rest: Jonathan Broxton (27), Carlos Marmol (29), Bobby Jenks (31), Chris Perez (26) and Max Scherzer (27).
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.