It is 2009 and the start of a new MLB season. The sun is shining and the diamond is ready to be marched on by the baseball team armies. Opening Day is fast approaching and soon the numbers will reveal who are the top-level players of 2009.
They will dominate the league, and have the opposing pitchers or hitters quaking with fear.
In baseball, a sport where a mere 20 hits over 165 games can separate a good hitter from a great hitter, these elite level players will seem to be on-base every time they bat, and if they are not on-base it might as well be because they blasted the ball out of the park.
Looking down the road, I pose this question: In five years from now, when many of today's stars are out of their prime, who will be the elite stars of both the American and National Leagues?
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American League: Infielders
Entering the 2009 at just 25 years of age, Cabrera has as much upside as any player in the game.
More was expected of him in his first AL season with Detroit, but it is likely his production will greatly pickup in 2009. In five years, Cabrera could dominate the league as a 30-year-old, and a change to a more hitter-friendly park will aid in his mastery.
Yet to have a completely healthy season, Kinsler is only 26 years of age and possesses the tools to dominate the league for years to come. Kinsler has the power and speed combination to hit 30 home runs and steal 40 bases, and have some brilliant seasons at second base.
If he remains on Texas, Kinsler's power numbers will not fluster, as the park is a hitter's paradise.
In part-time 2008 duty, Longoria showed why he was chosen third overall in the 2006 draft. Longoria is only 23 years old and already could have people talking MVP in his first full season.
Five years from now, Longoria will be 28 years old and in his prime. Will the Rays be able to hold onto the young star when he asks for a large contract, or will he fall into the hands of the big dogs and finish off his career as a Yankee?
Wherever Longoria ends up, he will produce like an unstoppable force.
American League: Outfielders
After a very strong first full season (.300 BA, 24 HR), all of Upton's numbers outside of his walks and stolen bases dropped off in 2008.
In 2009 and in future seasons, I would expect Upton to combine both his speed and power. If he continues to improve and refine his skills, Upton could be a 40-40 candidate.
Like Longoria, Upton may not remain a Ray for too long, and like his teammate, he will remain successful no matter what team he ends up on.
Markakis heads a supreme group of young Orioles outfielders. Last year, his power and runs batted in dipped a little bit, but the power numbers should resurface as well as up to 25 stolen bases, and the lineup is stronger this year, meaning more chances for Markakis to drive in runs.
Markakis is only 25 years old, and with guys like Matt Wieters, Brian Roberts, and Adam Jones by his side for the next years, Markakis could turn around the success of the Baltimore franchise while putting up MVP type numbers himself.
While he is a little older than these other two outfielders (28 in May), Hamilton had arguably the finest season of any of them in 2008, and just by looking at him (6'4", left-handed power hitter) and seeing the way he approaches every at-bat, you can tell that Hamilton is the real deal.
For Hamilton, the key is staying healthy and avoiding off-the-field distractions, which are the reason he is emerging as a star at such a late age.
As long as the Texas offense remains strong, Hamilton's numbers should remain strong. As he adjusts to the league he will learn to shorten up his swing and strikeout less while taking more walks.
American League: Starting Pitchers
Stuck on an awful team his entire career, Hernandez has not had a chance to show what he is fully capable of. Seattle will have hold of Hernandez for the next few years, but once he is out he should be on cruise control.
We have seen both his ERA and BAA go down the past three years, and that trend should continue into 2009 and beyond.
King Felix is only 22 years old and has a chance to dominate not only for the next five years but for the next 10 to 15. It will be interesting to see what Hernandez can do with a superior offense behind him.
"Dice K," as he is widely known, showed why he was worth the generous deal that Boston gave him, by performing to their standards in 2008.
It cannot be denied that his 2007 was dreadful, but aside from the 94 walks issued and only 167 innings pitched in 2008, the season was magnificent.
If Matsuzaka can put together a 200-inning season while still holding onto his low ERA and BAA he will be almost untouchable.
It is key for Matsuzaka that he cut down on his walks total, and at 28 years of age he has many years to bring down this number. Boston is lucky that they have the Japanese stud locked up for the next few years; he looks to be certainly worth their investment.
At 25 years of age, Kazmir has the chance to lead any major league rotation, and the Mets are sure unhappy that they let him go.
Kazmir showed what he could do in 2007, pitching over 200 innings and striking out almost 240, but it was not a strong season for his team, so the wins did not accumulate as they would have if he had been pitching for any above average rotation.
Unfortunately for Kazmir, last year the Rays were a strong team, and he pitched only 150 innings due to injury. If he has a full season with a strong lineup and bullpen to help him out, Kazmir could win 20 games as soon as the 2009 season.
Down the road he will continually lead his league in strikeouts, and as he learns to control his pitches, he should be among the league leaders in almost every pitching category.
American League: Relief Pitchers
Soria is only 24 years old, so take a second to think about that. At 24, he saved over 40 games and had an ERA of 1.60.
Will Soria remain a closer throughout the rest of his career? That seems likely.
But will he continue his dominance as he did in 2008? That is a question to be answered.
Soria will most likely find himself out of Kansas City as soon as he gets the chance, and as a power-throwing reliever, he could be offered a sizable contract wherever he plans to go.
His success in coming years will depend much on the success of KC as a team, but as they continue to mount a weak offense, even if the wins are not there, the victories will be by a small margin, and his save chances will keep piling up.
At only 28 years of age, "Paps" has already established himself as one of the top closers in the game. He should only continue to improve and get save chances as he backs a strong Boston team.
The big question will be: How long will Papelbon remain a reliever?
Boston makes no indication that they plan on moving him into the starters role any time soon, but if the rotation falters, this could definitely emerge as a possibility.
Saves aside, Papelbon had a weak 2008 season, but his numbers should return to their '06 and '07 form. This is a guy who, as starting so early in the closer role, could really rack up one of the highest save counts in major league history.
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