- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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If there is anything that 2012 has taught us, it's that the future is now.
This is a season that has given us:
• A 20-year-old in the midst of one of the most extraordinary fantasy seasons in history, pacing at .341-20-66 numbers with 43 stolen bases, projecting his per-game statistics to remaining Los Angeles Angels games. (Mike Trout)
• A 19-year-old who became the youngest hitter in the history of baseball to make an All-Star team. (Bryce Harper)
• Another member of the 2010 amateur draft's first round -- Harper was the first pick in that class -- ranked among the top five pitchers in fantasy. (Chris Sale)
From a writer's standpoint, too, the future actually is now. One of the more fun projects in which I'm involved (now annually) is my midsummer "All-20XX Team," which predicts the fantasy leaderboard four seasons from the current year. The first one I published for ESPN was written in 2008, and as it projected four years ahead, I titled it the "All-2012 Team."
Well, folks, the future -- the year 2012 -- is now here.
How'd I do? You can read that column, originally published around Memorial Day of the 2008 season or the very same week that the National League's defending Cy Young award winner, Clayton Kershaw, reached the majors.
Sadly, four years later, there are no flying cars, colonies on Mars or all-you-can-eat-doughnut deals. Sigh. I was really counting on the last one.
And four years later, some of my choices for the "All-2012 Team" -- Scott Kazmir, I'm looking at you -- look terribly, terribly misguided. That's the fun of this, though. We engage in such exercises as a manner of exciting ourselves about what lies ahead. At the same time, as we do so, we need to understand that so many factors impact the future, and informed as we may be, there is no conceivable way we can predict the majority of it with pinpoint accuracy.
So, now, it's time to project ahead again, tabbing the "All-2016 Team," picking the fantasy studs four years from now. Use this list any way you wish; use it to make keeper-league decisions, to gain insights to players' expected career ceilings, or simply to debate the picks and point out how horribly, horribly wrong I'm going to be on many of them. It's all good.
Just as with past editions, the "All-2016 Team" follows these rules:
• A full, 23-man fantasy roster must be selected: That means two catchers; one apiece at first base, second base, third base and shortstop; one corner infielder and one middle infielder (these selections are listed at their primary positions); five outfielders; a designated hitter (must be an actual DH); and nine pitchers, broken down as six starters and three closers.
• Players are listed only at the position I believe they'll be playing in 2016. This pertains most to Miguel Cabrera, as I do not believe he'll still be a third baseman four years from now, therefore he was a candidate only at first base and DH.
• Players are picked based only upon how much fantasy value I believe they will have in the 2016 season and the 2016 season alone. The top players make the first team, and the rest are listed in ranked order as "best of the rest."
• Only fantasy potential is considered. That means defense is irrelevant, outside of its impact upon a player's position and amount of playing time.
Now, presenting the "All-2016 Team," with players' ages as of April 1, 2016, in parentheses:
Catcher: Matt Wieters (29) and Travis d'Arnaud (27). If you find it odd to see Wieters tops on the list, it'd be understandable. Through this stage of his career, he has been more of a "lesson" player: The lesson being that even the most promising of catcher prospects takes considerable time before realizing his full potential assuming he ever does realize said potential. But Wieters, despite falling short of most people's expectations through his first four big league campaigns, has exhibited steady growth in the power department, culminating in a 2012 season during which he has a realistic chance at 25 home runs, 90 RBIs and .200 isolated power. Those might not seem like a lot, but since 2004, only two catchers (Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez) achieved those benchmarks in a single year, and Wieters is currently 25 years old, with the bulk of his prime ahead of him. If you're going to pick a catcher who will hit at least 25 home runs in each of the five seasons from now through 2016, you're probably going to be picking one of two names: the second name on my "Best of the rest" list or Matt Wieters.
D'Arnaud's keeper-league owners might want to heed the Wieters lesson, that is, if they're investing any significant stock in his .333/.380/.595 triple-slash line or 16 home runs in 67 games for Triple-A Las Vegas this season. Those stats have come in one of the more hitting-friendly ballparks (Cashman Field) in the most hitting-friendly league (Pacific Coast League) in all of minor league baseball, plus, there's the matter of d'Arnaud's acclimation to the big leagues once he arrives. But projecting four years forward, considering how complete his game, might he not challenge for a .300 batting average and 25 homers? I wouldn't want d'Arnaud over any of the "Best of the rest" picks for 2013, and probably not 2014, either. By 2016, though, he might have surpassed them all.
The sleeper: Gary Sanchez (23). After struggling through a down 2011 during which he was suspended and had his year cut short by a broken finger, Sanchez has rebounded nicely in Class A ball this season. Most encouraging for fantasy owners: He has 12 stolen bases in 73 games.
Notable exclusion: Jesus Montero (26). I'm not sure he'll still be catching by 2016, and while he has the bat to help fantasy owners as a designated hitter, he has regressed noticeably in terms of plate discipline during the past month, not to mention Safeco Field might always cap his power upside.
First base: Joey Votto (32) and Eric Hosmer (26). By 2016, Votto should, at worst, be only at the beginning of a career downslope, and he's signed through 2023, meaning the Cincinnati Reds are confident in his ability to play until he's nearly 40. Why shouldn't they be? He is one of the most complete players in all of baseball, devoid of any lefty-righty platoon split and his statistics not remotely Great American Ball Park-inflated. Rotisserie leagues could safely shift to 6x6 scoring with on-base percentage and slugging percentage replacing batting average between now and 2016, yet Votto's stock would improve.
Today, Hosmer's inclusion on the team might feel awkward. He's hitting .231 and has hit fewer home runs than 30 other first base-eligible players. I say this is an ideal time to trade for him in a keeper league. For all the complaints about his lackluster production this year, he is a .289 hitter in his past 42 games, demonstrating his ability to make necessary adjustments, and underscoring him as a tremendous keeper-league target and probably one you'll want for the season's second half even in redraft leagues. A peak-level Hosmer year should have him batting over .300 with 30-plus homers. And he'll be a peak-age 26 in 2016.
The sleeper: Anthony Rizzo (26). His gaudy minor league numbers in the PCL might have fantasy owners overstating his future prospects, but by this stage of his career, he might yet have the kind of power potential capable of landing him within the top five at his position.
Notable exclusion: Albert Pujols (36). The aging process could conceivably shift him to DH by 2016, but his Similarity Scores, per Baseball-Reference.com, paint a somewhat ominous picture of the possible extent of his career-decline phase by then besides. Of the 10 most comparable hitters to Pujols, only four -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mel Ott and Manny Ramirez -- managed a .900 OPS or greater at the age of 36 or older, while three -- Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Juan Gonzalez -- were effectively done by then (and a fourth, Mickey Mantle, retired following his age-36 campaign). To make a comparison to an active player, Pujols' career might trend in similar fashion to that of Alex Rodriguez and Rodriguez, as a 36-year-old in 2012, doesn't even crack the top 50 hitters per our Player Rater.
Second base: Billy Hamilton (25). He'll surely be the most unexpected name on the team, primarily because of the position, but I'm not convinced he'll play shortstop, and second base (if not center field) seems like the most natural alternative. Here's a curious fact: Hamilton -- at least per records via MinorLeagueBaseball.com and Baseball America -- is only the third player in minor league history to have managed multiple 100-steal seasons (Vince Coleman, Donell Nixon). Guess who has the all-time record for 100-steal seasons in the major leagues, with four? That's right, it was Billy Hamilton -- the other Billy Hamilton -- who did it in 1889-91 and '94. This Billy Hamilton might not be the prolific walker that the Hall of Famer was, but with a 9.4 percent lifetime walk rate in the minors, he's certainly a more "complete" speedster than, say, Dee Gordon. Yet Gordon, thanks to his speed, finished the 2012 first half ranked 20th on the Player Rater among middle infielders. Those steals, they matter, and if Hamilton can reach 100 in the bigs, he'll revolutionize the game.
The sleeper: Jedd Gyorko (27). His power doesn't project as elite and he's in a poor ballpark for it besides, but Gyorko's 80.6 percent career contact rate in the minors -- 84.8 thus far at the Triple-A level -- makes him a realistic .280-15 player at the least, and he's getting in regular time now at second base, which isn't one of the more loaded positions in fantasy in the long term.
Notable exclusion: Ian Kinsler (33). The middle infield in Texas is nearing a period of uncertainty -- it's also discussed in the shortstops section -- and if Kinsler must change positions, perhaps to outfield, his appeal would take a bit of a hit. But this is as much a question about his age and injury history as anything; he has six career DL stints on his résumé in seven seasons. He's merely a little less "safe" of a long-range investment than the names above.
Third base: Evan Longoria (30). He's going to need much more luck in the health department between now and then to get here, but his track record of success when healthy stands out. Since his rookie year of 2008, Longoria ranks among the top five among third basemen in home runs, RBIs and on-base percentage, and his .516 slugging percentage paces the position. He's only now in his prime, and by 2016, he should be at the back end of it, and so long as he can stay on the field frequently enough, there's probably a .300-30-100 season in him.
The sleeper: Miguel Sano (22). He's one of the more underrated power-hitting prospects in the minors, and because he's in the Minnesota Twins' farm system, he might not be fully appreciated by the time he does arrive because of the perception that Target Field is murder on power. But that's not necessarily true for right-handers; Trevor Plouffe and Josh Willingham have helped show that this season. Sano, just 19 today, might be approaching his first 30-homer season in the big leagues by 2016.
Notable exclusion: Hanley Ramirez (32). Where will he be playing by 2016, and at what position? Better yet, what will he be hitting by then, and will he still be stealing bases? Ramirez is a .245 hitter who has 22 homers and 32 steals in 176 games since the beginning of last season, losing some of the luster he had earlier in his career. He might be an outfielder by 2016, and he might be a .250-hitting, 25-homer, but 10-steal, player by then.
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki (31) and Jurickson Profar (23). Tulowitzki has another eight years remaining on his deal, so don't go talking up his home/road splits (.309/.380/.541 lifetime at Coors, .275/.347/.467 on the road) as reason to fear a change in uniforms by 2016. Trades are never completely out of the question, but the prospects that a scarcely-removed-from-his-prime Tulowitzki will still be playing 81 games a year at Coors by then are excellent, and that makes him as strong a .300-hitting, 30-homer candidate as there is at shortstop. I'll grant you that he might no longer be stealing double-digit bases by 2016, but considering his offensive potential and his position, would you really complain?
The Texas Rangers face an interesting dilemma, one that will require a decision approximately one calendar year from now: What do they do with the two outstanding, young shortstops in their organization, Profar and Elvis Andrus (27)? Andrus might be the No. 3 fantasy shortstop on our Player Rater after a No. 5 rank at the position in 2011, but Profar's skills are advertised as even better than Andrus', necessitating a move probably for the incumbent. Profar is a lifetime .279 hitter with a 11.4 percent walk rate and per-162-game averages of 16 homers and 25 steals in the minors, and he won't even turn 20 years old until next Feb. 20. He has only scraped the surface of his potential; he walks more and should hit for more power than Andrus. And Andrus is pretty darned good already.
The sleeper: Dee Gordon (27). Again, steals are steals, and if Gordon can annually provide his owners with 59 of them -- that was his full-season pace at the time he tore a ligament in his thumb -- that alone will propel him into the top 10 fantasy players at his position in any season. I'm not positive that Gordon is going to substantially improve the other facets of his game, specifically his patience at the plate and inability to drive the ball, but what if he does do either, even by the slightest margins? A .270-hitting, 60-steal shortstop would be plenty valuable.
Notable exclusion: Andrus (27). This is completely about Profar, and it's more about either a position or team change for Andrus than a knock on his skills. He could be a .300-hitting, 50-steal player in 2016 or he could be a .280-hitting, 35-steal second baseman, which is good, but not quite tops-at-his-position good.
Outfield: Mike Trout (24), Andrew McCutchen (29), Justin Upton (28), Bryce Harper (23) and Jason Heyward (26). Outfield was the toughest position to decide; you could swap any of these five names with one of the five names in the "Best of the rest" list below and I'd scarcely argue it was that close. Closest call: Heyward versus Braun.
Heyward made the team primarily because of their age differentials; a 26-year-old is simply more likely to retain his current value -- not to mention he's probably going to improve between the ages of 22 and 26 -- than a 32-year-old. And if you're looking at this year's Player Rater, consider that Heyward ranks only 33 spots behind Braun among hitters. Even in a terribly streaky season, Heyward is on pace for 27 homers, 21 steals, 78 RBIs and 86 runs scored. Is it that much of a stretch to say he might be a 30-homer, 100-RBI, 20-steal player by 2016?
Trout and McCutchen are the most obvious choices on the team. They're third and first, respectively, on the Player Rater this season, and Trout will only be approaching his prime, while McCutchen will be on the latter end of it, in 2016. To think that both might be 20/20 -- or possibly 30/30 -- candidates every year between now and then
When might this "future MVP potential" finally arrive for Upton? For as disappointing as Upton's career might be so far, let's remember that's comparative to what were overwhelmingly great expectations at the time he was tabbed the No. 1 pick overall in the 2005 draft. The guy is still 24 years old, and with 98 career homers and 74 career stolen bases, he has an excellent chance, by season's end, of becoming only the 10th player in history to manage at least 80 homers and 80 steals through his age-24 campaign. Maybe Upton's career trajectory has slid slightly, from "Hall of Fame candidate" to more like "MVP contender his best year," but as he'll still be 28 years old come 2016, that's a good season to bet on being one of his best.
Incredibly, Harper will be only 23 years old come 2016, and we're talking a solid 23 -- as in he won't turn 24 until October of that year. Four years from now, we might be talking MVPs with him as well; this season, it's remarkable that we're talking All-Star status with him. There might not be a better bet for .300-30 potential (among hitters who have yet to reach both benchmarks in a single year).
The sleeper: Christian Yelich (24). He has a .316 batting average, 10.5 percent walk rate and nearly twice as many steals (47) as homers (25) so far during his minor league career, and his .560 slugging percentage in 58 games for Class A Jupiter this season has been a pleasant surprise. But is Yelich destined for first base, due to a poor arm? We shall see
Notable exclusion: Josh Hamilton (34). During his Texas Rangers career, he has batted .311 and averaged 35 homers and 127 RBIs per 162 games played; he has also missed 156 contests, or 21 percent, during that time. Hamilton has always been a great-when-he-plays, doesn't-play-162 kind of player, and at age 34, the "doesn't-play-162" is likely to be a greater concern than it is today.
Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera (32). If there was this much debate about his position this season, what chance do you really give him of remaining at third base this far beyond his 30th birthday? The Detroit Tigers will be free of the Victor Martinez contract by 2016 -- Martinez would be 37 by then, besides -- and should have Nick Castellanos a good two to three years into his career at the hot corner by then, meaning DH is a no-brainer future destination for the sizable Cabrera. You shouldn't doubt his bat, either, as comparable all-time greats remained nearly as, if not as, productive in their age-32 seasons as they did at 30, and Cabrera has looked every bit as good at 29 as he did at 23 besides.
Best of the rest: Billy Butler (29), Joe Mauer (32).
The sleeper: Logan Morrison (28). He's a butcher of a left fielder and average at best at first base, and a trade might not be far off if he continues to fall short of expectations in Miami. Morrison might fit as a DH for an American League team, and let's not forget that he was a top-25 prospect overall at the time of his debut.
Starting pitcher: Stephen Strasburg (27), Madison Bumgarner (26), Clayton Kershaw (28), Dylan Bundy (23), Felix Hernandez (29) and Matt Moore (26). Projecting four seasons forward, to a degree, is an exercise in guesswork, and Strasburg himself serves a prime example. Having surrendered to Tommy John surgery in his rookie year of 2010, he's the No. 6 starting pitcher on the Player Rater this season, and just as in 2010, his workload (read: innings cap) again has been called into question. Strasburg, health willing, probably has a No. 1-starting-pitcher-in-fantasy season in his right arm. It might come in 2013, just as it might in 2016. He also might not have experienced his final season lost to injury; it might happen in 2013, just as it might in 2016. But his combination of age and skill set is at least as good as anyone's in baseball, and that makes the keeper-league risk/reward a dice roll worth taking.
Bumgarner and Kershaw represent two of the National League West's most dominating southpaws and two of the game's best long-range starters, and as neither will have turned 30 by 2016, both should be top-10-starter contenders then, just as they are now. From a health front -- a factor that always warrants discussion with a pitcher -- Bumgarner is the one with slightly greater risk, if only because he's the one who has thrown a slider, a taxing pitch, 34 percent of the time since the beginning of last season. It's his slider, though, that has made him so successful, responsible for 135 of his 290 strikeouts during that span while limiting opponents to a .224 batting average. Kershaw, meanwhile, has the lowest ERA (2.88) of any pitcher through his age-24 season since Dwight Gooden posted a 2.64 mark through that age in the 1980s, not to mention a Cy Young Award to his credit. They should feast upon Cy Young votes between now and 2016 and, by all rights, should be prime contenders for the honor in that season.
The Baltimore Orioles are taking a patient approach to Bundy's development, restricting his number of innings pitched each outing, and fantasy owners should too. By 2016, though, he'll be 23 and probably two or more seasons into his big league career, meaning perhaps finally free of workload restriction. Bundy made headlines earlier this year with his performance for Class A Delmarva; he held opponents hitless for 39 consecutive at-bats and scoreless for 19 consecutive innings to begin the season, had 30 total innings of a 0.00 ERA (the two runs he surrendered there were unearned) and struck out 40 percent of the hitters he faced in his first seven starts. Many scouts believe that he could be major league ready by early next season. There's little doubt, though, that he's on a projected path that would have him a top-10 starter contender by 2016.
Can you believe that Felix Hernandez, in 2016, will turn merely 30 years old? (That'll happen on April 8 of that season.) The guy has pitched -- and been a dominant fantasy starter -- for what seems like forever, has shown little ill effects of hefty workloads early in his career and is an annual contender for a sub-3.00 ERA, 200-plus K's and a sub-1.20 WHIP. Even better: By 2016, he might be pitching for a team more likely to provide him with the run support necessary to win 20 games heck, maybe by then the Mariners will. If not, maybe fantasy baseball will have adopted a better measure of pitching skill than wins by then.
Moore falls somewhat into the same class as the aforementioned Hosmer; both players make excellent buy-low targets in keeper leagues currently. We say it on these pages countless times: Every pitcher endures an adjustment period in the majors, and Moore's hasn't really been that terrible. He has a 4.42 ERA in 17 starts for the season, averaging 8.67 K's per nine. He also has a 3.78 ERA and 8.64 K's per nine in his past eight starts, perhaps hinting at his having begun to turn his season around. No matter; by his age-26 season of 2016, he should be accruing the Cy Young votes predicted of him.
Best of the rest: David Price (30), Taijuan Walker (23), Gerrit Cole (25), Chris Sale (27), Justin Verlander (33), Aroldis Chapman (28), Matt Cain (31), Trevor Bauer (25), Julio Teheran (25), Jered Weaver (33).
The sleeper: Brett Anderson (28). His is a name fantasy owners might have forgotten, as he's still on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery, but assuming a full recovery, he shouldn't be any less of a pitcher after his return than he was before he went under the knife. He has a 3.66 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in his three-year career, all of that accrued at the age of 23 or younger, and he'll still be well within his prime years by 2016.
Notable exclusion: Cole Hamels (32). The lack of clarity involving his future team -- he's a free agent this winter -- as well as the prospect that he'll be a 32-year-old with a career ERA north of 3.00 and seven seasons of 200-plus innings are just enough to cast questions about his distant future. I have little doubt Hamels will still be a top-25 starter come 2016. But will he be top 10?
Relief pitcher: Craig Kimbrel (27), Addison Reed (27) and Andrew Cashner (29). If projecting starting pitching four years down the line involves guesswork, then what's involved in projecting relief pitching? How about a good set of darts? Such was the chatter around the ESPN office; in discussing relief-pitcher picks for the All-2016 team, colleagues Pierre Becquey and James Quintong helped me demonstrate why the spectrum of long-range relief choices can be rather wide. Becquey suggested Heath Hembree, Mark Appel (stressing that he expected one of the Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching prospects to make the move to relief) and a yet-to-be-named Milwaukee Brewers scrap-heap option, while Quintong nominated Kimbrel, Reed and Drew Storen. Neither of their answers is any more "right" or "wrong" than the other. After all, Francisco Rodriguez set a single-season record with 62 saves just four years ago, but today he's not even a closer. Meanwhile, today's No. 1 fantasy closer, Fernando Rodney, was just beginning a tumultuous run as one of the game's more unpredictable, frustrating fantasy closers. Today, he's rock solid.
Kimbrel and Reed are the choices based upon their combinations of youth and strikeout ability; the smartest long-range prospects are younger relievers who miss bats. After all, even Jonathan Broxton and Carlos Marmol, two of the shakier examples of the past half-decade, still find themselves closing today, after ranking as two of the more up-and-coming finishers just four years ago. Kimbrel (2011) and Reed (2012) were considered two of the better prospects in the game at the dawn of their rookie seasons, and as they'll both be in the midst of their primes by 2016, they're as smart keeper-league investments as a closer can be.
Cashner is the curious choice, but it's difficult to argue with a 100 mph fastball and a slider that has limited opponents to a .145 batting average in his career. I think his future is clearly in the bullpen; injury questions alone point to that path. But Cashner's skills, if he can keep the walks in check, look much like the kind that could skyrocket to a couple top-five Player Rater (among relievers) seasonal rankings.
The sleeper: Chris Archer (27). This is as much projecting his skill set as it is recognizing that, with their depth in starting pitching depth, the Tampa Bay Rays might have more of a need for Archer at the back end of their bullpen. He throws in the mid-90s with his fastball with a good slider but has a changeup that could use some work; this looks a lot like the kind of starting pitching prospect who might make a future closer.
Notable exclusion: Chapman. You'll find him in the "Best of the rest" sections among starting pitchers, and it's because the Cincinnati Reds would be foolish to let a pitcher with his ability remain locked into a 70-inning, rather than 200-inning, role for the course of his career. Chapman's advances in terms of control this season make him a prime rotation candidate and I mean in 2013.
Tristan H. Cockcroft forecasts the top players in fantasy baseball four years from now.