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Everyone loves a prediction.
Consider: A few short years back, you couldn't flip through the cable TV listings and not find some sort of TV show, movie or biography on Nostradamus. A quick search on IMDb, in fact, reveals nearly three dozen titles about, or related to, Nostradamus. These days, we've got predictions of earthquakes and raptures -- how'd that one work out for you? -- and then, of course, there's that 2012 Mayan end times prophecy. (Boy, that one might sure put a wrinkle in all those fantasy football league championship matchups.)
Fantasy baseball is no different; we might lean on past statistics and trends, but all we're ever really doing is making educated guesses about the baseball that has yet to be played. The majority of advice is more short-term based; most predictions center on the events of today, tomorrow or mid-August.
But I find it a fun exercise to, once a year, attempt to project into the distant future. Keeper-league owners might love things like my top 250, or our recent dynasty-league draft, but what they often want to hear is, "So-and-so player that you own is going to be baseball's biggest megastud four years from now."
I'm not afraid to take such long-term, educated guesses. Predicting the future -- even four years from now -- can be a challenging exercise, and one that spawns plenty of debate. So, just as I did last summer with my "All-2014 Team," and a few seasons before that with my "All-2012 Team," today, I'm making my predictions as to who will be the best players in fantasy baseball four years from now, in 2015.
Just as with past editions, the "All-2015 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 2015. This pertains most to Jesus Montero, as I do not believe he'll still be a catcher four years from now, he was only a candidate at first base and DH.
• Players are picked based only upon how much fantasy value I believe they will have in the 2015 season and the 2015 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-2015 Team," with players' ages as of April 1, 2015, in parentheses:
Catcher: Carlos Santana (28) and Matt Wieters (28). Success with lists like these often requires one of two things: getting in on the ground floor with a player, or hopping onto a bandwagon at a time when many might be tempted to hop off. In Santana's case, there's this perception that he has been a disappointment, probably a product of either his .230 batting average or his No. 197 standing on the Player Rater, significantly beneath his No. 92 rank in terms of average draft position (ADP: 90.2). But then there's this fact: He's actually the No. 5 catcher on that Player Rater, after being drafted the No. 5 catcher in the preseason. And this one, thanks to a little help from Baseball-Reference.com: Only 12 catchers in baseball history had more home runs through their first 130 big-league games than Santana's 19. And finally this, which I regard most astonishing: Only one player -- not catcher, player, as in those at every position -- since 1919 (the "Retrosheet era") has walked more often than Santana (99) in his first 130 games (Frank Thomas had 108). Four years is a lot of time for more power growth, and a lot more time for his batting average to rise; remember that he had a .312 lifetime BABIP in the minors, but in the big leagues that number is .251.
As for Wieters, what can I say? I'm a sucker for two specific young players (and you can expect to hear the other's name shortly). Yes, so far I've been wrong about him, but at the same time, he's on pace to set several career bests: contact rate (82.6%), isolated power (.141), line drive rate (21.0%), home run/fly ball percentage (9.3) and well-hit average (.257, which by the way ranks 32nd among qualified hitters), and in every one of those five his year-to-year performance has been trending upward (albeit only slightly). It's somewhat a leap of faith at this point, but again, four years is a lot of time and Wieters will only be 28 to begin 2015.
Best of the rest: Brian McCann (31), Buster Posey (28) and Devin Mesoraco (26).
The sleeper: Gary Sanchez (22). Half a bad season should hardly condemn an 18-year-old's future, even when some of the questions surrounding him center upon his attitude. I choose instead to focus upon this: A .183 isolated power isn't a devastating drop from the .214 he registered in 2010.
First base: Joey Votto (31) and Eric Hosmer (25). This is the "safest" position of the long-term investments, as four of the top five first basemen on our Player Rater will begin the 2015 still aged 32 or younger. It's difficult to say that you could go wrong with Adrian Gonzalez (32 come April 1, 2015), Miguel Cabrera (31) or even Albert Pujols (35) here, but I'll go with the youngest and the one with the least mileage of the bunch in Votto. The ballpark factor -- he's eligible for free agency after 2013 -- is a factor, but did you know Votto has actually been a better road (.331/.423/.561) hitter than home (.300/.390/.536) hitter throughout his career? This is about as safe and stable a commodity as there is in the game, and the smartest choice of the bunch.
Hosmer, meanwhile, has already shown at 21 years old that he can hit at the big-league level, and in the minors he showed he can hit for power, belting 20 homers with a .233 isolated power between Class A and Double-A in 2010. He'll be 25 years old come 2015, an age at which many youngsters experience a noticeable power boost. Could he be a .300-30 man by then? Sure. In fact, it might be sooner.
Best of the rest: Cabrera, Gonzalez, Freddie Freeman (25) and Joe Mauer (31). (Note: I'm not entirely convinced that this will be Mauer's position come 2015, but I'm convinced that he won't be a catcher by then.)
The sleeper: Yonder Alonso (27). There's always the chance that he'll remain in Cincinnati and wind up in left field, but I still see his future at first base and in another organization. Alonso often gets overlooked because he's stuck behind Joey Votto, but he's a .297/.363/.479 hitter in 181 career games in Triple-A and has no discernable platoon splits. He should not be forgotten.
Second base: Dustin Ackley (27). I've said in many spaces on our pages this season that I'm not an Ackley fan, but to be clear about the context, I'm referring only to the immediate future (which is where we direct the vast majority of our fantasy advice). Long term, Ackley has All-Star potential, though at the same time such a statement shouldn't confused with "All-Star potential at first base," which is a vastly different thing. An All-Star at second base might mean a .300 batting average, 15 home runs and 20 stolen bases, but that's still an extremely valuable asset for a player only 23 years old today. I might not even buy in fully in 2012; but come 2013, perhaps we can talk about the Ackley breakthrough.
Best of the rest: Robinson Cano (32), Dustin Pedroia (31), Jason Kipnis (27) and Neil Walker (29).
The sleeper: Anthony Rendon (24). You know him as a third baseman, but I wanted him on this list somewhere, and if you look at his current standing as a member of the Washington Nationals, who already have Ryan Zimmerman locking down the hot corner for another decade, Rendon seems to fit as a potential second baseman -- that is, if he doesn't slide over to first. If not for ankle and shoulder problems, Rendon very likely would've been regarded the No. 1 prospect in this June's draft, and four years is a lot of time to answer the questions about his injury issues in college. Heck, considering how much talent the Nationals have, it's not unthinkable that they could enter 2015 as World Series favorites.
Third base: Evan Longoria (29). He was the No. 1 third baseman on my recent keeper top 250 update and he won't turn 30 until Oct. 7, 2015, so this is about as obvious a pick as anyone on the team. Longoria might be in the midst of the worst year of his young career, but if a pace of 24 homers and 92 RBIs -- those scaled to remaining Tampa Bay Rays games -- is a "bad" year for a 25-year-old, imagine a good one from a 29-year-old? This is a .300-30-100 capable hitter for years, and fantasy owners are now well aware of how thin the third base position is, even projecting a half-decade forward.
Best of the rest: Ryan Zimmerman (30), Mike Moustakas (26), Brett Lawrie (25), Pedro Alvarez (28) and David Wright (32).
The sleeper: Nolan Arenado (23). When in doubt, go with the Colorado Rockies prospect, particularly one who, through parts of three professional seasons, has struck out in only 11.3 percent of his at-bats while managing a .175 isolated power. Only 20, Arenado might be two-plus years away from the big leagues, but he's also a prospect who could advance quickly.
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki (30) and Starlin Castro (25). I'd be tempted to pick Tulowitzki first overall in any dynasty league, being that he's 26 years old and smack dab in his prime. As obvious as this pick might be, it's the correct one. Go ahead and call him a Coors Field product; I'll remind you that he's signed through 2020, so it's not like he's going anywhere, not to mention he's a .276/.351/.499 hitter on the road since 2009. Tulowitzki's power potential is special for a shortstop: His 109 home runs are the sixth-most by any shortstop in history before his 27th birthday, and considering he won't turn 27 until October 10, he has a reasonable shot at moving up to fourth (current No. 4 Hanley Ramirez had 124). Remember, Tulowitzki hit 18 home runs from this day forward in 2010.
Castro is another shortstop on a historical pace: He's batting .307 after having hit .300 in 2010 as a 20-year-old, and if he finishes at .300 or better while qualifying for the batting title, he'd become only the third shortstop in history to have turned in .300-plus seasons in both his age-20 and age-21 seasons, per Baseball-Reference.com, joining Arky Vaughan, a Hall of Famer, and Alex Rodriguez, a near-certain future Hall of Famer. Like the aforementioned Wieters, Castro has also trended upward as a sophomore in a few key categories: Contact rate (84.7% as a rookie, 87.7% as a sophomore), isolated power (.108 to .121), line-drive rate (18.8% to 19.6%), well-hit average (.210 to .249). Castro will be only 25 come Opening Day 2015, meaning he might only then be entering his power-prime years. He's on pace for 42 doubles and 14 triples this year and he calls a homer-friendly environment his home, meaning the prospects of a 20-homer campaign by then are good.
Best of the rest: Elvis Andrus (26), Jose Reyes (31) and Asdrubal Cabrera (26). (Note: Hanley Ramirez has not been mistakenly omitted. And this isn't the final time his name will be mentioned in the column.)
The sleeper: Jurickson Profar (22). He's 18 years old today, so this is probably the greatest reach of anyone mentioned in the column. But when you hear "future five-tool talent" as a description for a player that young, you can't help but take notice. Profar has walked (40) more than he has struck out (35) in Class A ball, that resulting in a 13.0 percent walk rate. This kid knows the strike zone.
Outfield: Bryce Harper (22), Justin Upton (27), Mike Stanton (25), Mike Trout (23) and Hanley Ramirez (31). There's a lot to talk about here, but let's begin with Harper. Sure, today he's only 18 years old, but this kid simply pummeled Sally League pitching to the tune of .318/.423/.554 rates and a one-homer-per-18.4-at-bats ratio, earning himself a call-up to Double-A ball last week. You read that right, he's now only two steps from the big leagues despite being three months shy of his 19th birthday, and the scarier part is that he's completely deserving of it. I think it's less of a question whether Harper will realize his MVP potential in the big leagues than how quickly he'll do it; this is the kind of prospect that single-handedly can reverse the fortunes of a bad dynasty league team. At the pace he's on, I'd probably put him on an All-2013 Team, let alone my All-2015 Team.
Upton is the other "sucker" player of mine, but his selection is another matter of putting his feats into historical perspective. Yes, he has been a career disappointment so far, at least comparative to the future-MVP buzz that has surrounded him ever since his selection at No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft. But his 60 homers before his 23rd birthday place him in the top 25 all time, he's one of only six players to have a 20/20 season at the age of 21 (or younger), and his .899 OPS of 2009 was the 30th-best by any player in his age-21 season (or younger), per Baseball-Reference.com. These seeds also appear to be sprouting in 2011, as Upton is on pace for career bests in homers (26) and steals (25), and his strikeout rate has dropped to a career-low 20.7 percent.
Stanton and Trout really shouldn't surprise anyone to be included; they were both unquestioned top-5 prospects entering 2010 and 2011, respectively. Stanton isn't far off from being an annual 40-homer candidate, and he's perhaps the best bet as things stand to lead the decade in the category. Trout, recalled by the Los Angeles Angels this past Friday, is a player I liken as a hitter to a right-handed Jacoby Ellsbury -- the 2011 version, of course -- except with a bit more power and a few less steals. (Ellsbury, incidentally, is on pace for 20 homers and 50 steals.)
It's Ramirez who might surprise you in this spot, but I'll say it again: Four years is a lot of time, and in this case it's a lot of time for the Florida Marlins to finally sicken of his mediocre defense at shortstop. Third base could be a destination for him by 2015, but left field is another possibility, and frankly, at this point I'd welcome the move if it'd help slow his statistical decline at the plate. Ask yourself this: Do you really want to risk the possibility that his career trends the way that Nomar Garciaparra's did around his 30th birthday?
Best of the rest: Jason Heyward (25), Matt Kemp (30), Andrew McCutchen (28), Jay Bruce (27), Carlos Gonzalez (29), Domonic Brown (27), Colby Rasmus (28) and Adam Jones (29).
The sleeper: Wil Myers (24). Fantasy owners would probably prefer that he had remained behind the plate, because it's tougher to find a quality catcher than it is an outfielder, but Myers' future was always seemingly in the outfield, so why chance that he'd have been a lesser hitter behind the plate than he could be here? His .271/.359/.385 rates in Double-A might put him in danger of slipping on many prospect lists heading into 2012, but that's still a healthy on-base percentage and he deserves a mulligan nevertheless for his having to adapt to an entirely new position (not to mention the occasional fluke injury).
Designated hitter: Prince Fielder (30). Like his "Big Daddy," Cecil, Prince is a prototypical DH, a point also made in last summer's "All-2012 Team." He's also a free agent after the season; there's a very good possibility that he'll be an American League DH as early as 2012, a move that could allow him to hold up longer over the course of his career. But the point here is that 30 years old isn't old for a slugger; just ask Ryan Howard. And it's especially true for a player who is in the midst of arguably the best all-around season of his entire career.
Best of the rest: Ryan Braun (31), Jesus Montero (24) and Billy Butler (28).
Starting pitcher: Felix Hernandez (28), Stephen Strasburg (26), Julio Teheran (24), Clayton Kershaw (27), Tommy Hanson (28), Matt Moore (25). Hernandez was my No. 1 starting pitcher and No. 8 player overall in my updated keeper top 250, so I'd be amiss if I didn't also make him my top pick here. Fret over his career workload before his 25th birthday -- that passed on April 8 -- if you wish, but sometimes, a truly special pitcher comes along who is a physical dynamo and a freakish workhorse -- like what CC Sabathia has been the past decade (top-5 in baseball in innings, starts, complete games, shutouts and pitches thrown since his debut in 2011). I'm beginning to believe that King Felix is such a specimen.
The presence of Kershaw and Hanson, two current greats under the age of 25, shouldn't be unexpected, but the inclusion of Strasburg, Teheran and Moore might be. Strasburg is a boom-or-bust pick, but the more time you can afford him coming off Tommy John surgery, the safer a pick he'll become. Point to Kerry Wood as an example of what can go wrong with young phenoms who have that specific surgery. I'll remind you that Wood's best season came, of all years, during his age-26 season (Strasburg's age in 2015). If this was an "All-2012 Team," Strasburg doesn't belong in the top six. But even today, before he has ever thrown a competitive pitch since his operation, I'd call the chances better than 50/50 that he'll crack the top 10 starting pitchers in 2013. He's that talented.
Teheran, who is among the least-experienced on the team, is also one of the ones I'm most excited about. If your lasting memory of him is either of his mediocre spot-starts for the Atlanta Braves in May, you're being unduly harsh. He has been practically untouchable in Triple-A as a 20-year-old, including a 5-0 record, 1.17 ERA and 0.83 WHIP, and 4.44 strikeouts per walk and .179 batting average allowed in seven starts since being returned there. He's a bona fide ace in the making, and this is probably your final season to land him remotely cheap in a keeper league.
Moore's stock has soared the past calendar year, primarily because he only improved with the move to Double-A this season, but the reason he cracked the team is his strikeout potential. His K rates look like one of two things: either video-game numbers, or stats you'd typically expect from a closer, not a starter. He has averaged -- get this -- 11.64 whiffs per nine this season, and 12.61 in his minor league career. Throw in the fact that he's a member of the Rays, a team that in spite of its conservative approach to promoting prospects does a fantastic job developing them, and there's definite fantasy-ace potential here.
Best of the rest: Justin Verlander (32), David Price (29), Jordan Zimmermann (28), Michael Pineda (26), Tim Lincecum (30), Shelby Miller (24), Danny Hultzen (25), Madison Bumgarner (25) and Jeremy Hellickson (27).
The sleeper: Jarrod Parker (26). This is more of a "don't forget him" pick than any true belief that he might top the 2015 Player Rater, though it's important to note that he has actually cracked Baseball America's top 50 overall prospects every year since 2008, despite the fact that he succumbed to Tommy John surgery in October 2009. That surgery explains his forgettable 4.38 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 16 starts for Double-A Mobile thus far, but be aware that since May 1, his numbers in those categories are 3.05 and 1.22 in 12 turns. By one year from this date, Parker could be making his big-league debut, and two years from today he might be a top-25 potential fantasy starter. He has that kind of upside.
Relief pitcher: Mariano Rivera (45) kidding, kidding! I don't genuinely believe Rivera will still be pitching at 45, but if he really wanted to, he probably still could. He'd be at around 700 saves by then!
In all seriousness, here are my three picks: Neftali Feliz (26), Craig Kimbrel (26) and Aroldis Chapman (27). The point about Rivera is designed to illustrate the crapshoot that is forecasting long-term closer potential, so naturally, if I'm to make a 2015 prediction, I'm going to pick three young relievers who throw about the hardest. In Chapman's case, he does throw the hardest; he has averaged 96.1 mph with all of his pitches this season, tops in the majors, and 97.9 with his fastball, second only to the Nationals' Henry Rodriguez. Most people see Chapman's future in the Cincinnati Reds' rotation, but I've got my doubts. I look at him and see another Billy Wagner, who at the same stage of his career could hit 100 mph on the radar gun, but had spotty command and seemed to lack the secondary pitches to needed to be a top starter. I'm not saying Chapman can't or shouldn't get a chance to start. What I'm saying is that I think his future is in the bullpen, and it's smarter if you plan accordingly.
Best of the rest: Jordan Walden (27), Drew Storen (27), Daniel Bard (29) and Chris Sale (26).
The sleeper: Joba Chamberlain (29). It's a guess, because there's no telling whether he'll have the same stuff following Tommy John surgery as he had before it. After all, there were also whispers of shoulder issues in the recent past, and that might explain why his velocity has never been what it was during his 2007 debut. But Rivera can't pitch forever and while there's a buzz building around red-hot David Robertson, Chamberlain's future, in the New York Yankees' eyes, has always been as Rivera's successor. Chamberlain wasn't a bad reliever before having surgery; I still think he can be a closer contender after it.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.