It's never too early to start thinking about next season or the season after that.
Let's take a brief hiatus from the 2013 season and venture forward to 2015 to figure out who will be the faces of baseball two years from now.
Fair warning: If you think the Braves are good today, you might want to get used to seeing them win NL East pennant after NL East pennant. Four of these 25 guys currently play for Atlanta, and history has a way of repeating itself.
Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols:
Everyone poops and everyone ages. By the start of the 2015 season, three of these four guys will be at least 34 years old, and there's no way to know how much the other guy's body was ravaged by years of drug and alcohol abuse. They'll all still be playing at a pretty high level, but each guy has at least an 80 percent chance of regressing out of the top 25 by April 2015.
Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia and Jose Reyes:
Middle infielders seem to age more rapidly than any other players. Remember how quickly Roberto Alomar, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada deteriorated once they hit the age of 30? Derek Jeter has been the exception to the rule, and even that's debatable. All four of these guys will be at least 32 by the end of the 2015 season.
Evan Longoria and David Wright:
They've been too inconsistent in recent seasons to bank on in the future. Longoria can't seem to decide whether he's a power hitter, someone who hits for average or neither of the above. Wright has only had a WAR of 3.0 or better in one of the last four seasons.
Too much of an injury history. Tulowitzki has missed at least 40 games in three of the past five seasons.
2012 Stats: N/A
This is 100 percent speculation. I've never actually watched Myers swing a bat, but there are two very good reasons for assuming he'll be an elite talent within the next two seasons:
No. 1: Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld
The trade to acquire Myers yielded quite the return for a patented salary dump, as the Rays were able to clear $13.8 million off of their books for the 2013 season while acquiring four minor leaguers.
Whether they bring him up in the coming weeks or wait as long as mid-June for the chance to hang on to him for an extra season seven years from now, Myers will be in the majors before the All-Star break, and he will be playing every day. Both Fuld and Joyce had their fifteen minutes of fame, but they aren't the future.
No. 2: Kansas City was actually excited about Wil Myers
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Even though I live nowhere near the city, I'm able to share in their annual misery. God bless fantasy football, because there's no other reason for people in Kansas City to get excited about the NFL.
Over the past decade or so, the same could be said about MLB in KC.
However, I was in Kansas City for the All-Star FanFest last season, and the autograph line for Wil Myers was longer than any other wait during the five days in that convention center. Everyone was thrilled to meet the new face of the franchise.
To be fair, there was a similarly lengthy line in St. Louis in 2009 for Colby Rasmus, and we're still waiting on him to pan out.
2012 Stats: 1.01 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 16.7 K/9, 3.2 WAR
I see two possible career arcs for Craig Kimbrel.
The first one—which we'll call a bit overly optimistic—is that the filthiest closer of the past two seasons continues to be one of the only guys in the league that can actually be trusted in the ninth inning.
Against all odds, he keeps throwing 97-plus MPH fastballs and breaking balls that break 18 inches for another three seasons, drawing more "Is he better than Mariano Rivera?" comparisons than LeBron James ever had to hear about Michael Jordan.
In the opposite career arc, he follows up an insanely productive three seasons by blowing out his elbow and struggling to even find the strike zone for a Boston Red Sox team that overpays for him because of the guy he used to be.
We'll call that one the Eric Gagne path.
Obviously, we're assuming the former of those career arcs if he's going to be the 24th most valuable player in the 2015 season.
2012 Stats: .303/.367/.538, 23 HR, 9 SB, 3.2 WAR
I will admit to a negative bias on this one.
I've owned Matt Kemp in my fantasy league for three of the past four seasons. Naturally, the only season I didn't have him was the one in which he batted .324 and came one home run away from becoming just the fifth member of the 40 HR / 40 SB club—and only the second one that hasn't been connected to steroids.
However, his start to the 2013 is fairly alarming. Yes, the season is still young, but at what point do we stop reiterating that axiom and start allowing ourselves to panic? Is the threshold 20 games? Is it 50 games? Even after the All-Star break last season, people were still holding out hope that Eric Hosmer would turn his season around and live up to his lofty pre-season projections.
What's particularly troublesome for Kemp is that he's typically a hot starter and that outfielders typically hit their prime at the age of 28. Neither of those tried and true beliefs have been working through the first two weeks of Kemp's season. And if it's looking like he won't be a top 20 guy in 2013, there's little reason to believe he'll get there two years from now.
2012 Stats: 2.79 ERA, 1.04 ERA, 7.9 K/9, 3.5 WAR
Over the last seven seasons, Matt Cain has established himself as one of the most reliable starting pitchers in the league.
His record certainly won't indicate it, though.
The 2012 season was the first time in Cain's career that he wasn't one of the bottom 33 pitchers in the league in run support. In fact, he received the least run support of any pitcher in 2007 and the second-least run support in 2008. Giants fans love Matt Cain, but the bats in his lineup do not.
As such, Cain has become something of a poster boy for the transition from wins to quality starts in fantasy baseball. Despite recording a quality start in 137 of his 200 starts, his record from 2007-13 is just 70-66.
Even with all of those quality innings logged, Cain is still just 28 years old and has the stuff to be an All-Star pitcher for at least another five seasons.
One of these years he's going to get a better-than-league-average level of run support and run up a 20-win, 200-strikeout season en route to Cy Young considerations. Perhaps 2015 will be that year.
2012 Stats: 2.73 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 1.5 WAR
Straight from old reliable to a young wild card.
Unlike Matt Cain, who relies on his 92 MPH fastball roughly 55 percent of the time, Matt Harvey is a 95 MPH fireballer who rears back to blow you away on two out of every three pitches.
If he lives up to the potential he's displayed in less than a full year at the big league level, he'll be a Top Five starting pitcher within two years' time.
It'll help if he gets to keep playing home games at pitcher-friendly Citi Field.
2012 Stats: 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.75 K/9, 6.4 WAR
According to ESPN, David Price was second to only Justin Verlander in wins above replacement among starting pitchers in 2012.
At the spry age of 27, that's good enough for me to assume he'll still be a top-tiered guy two years from now.
2012 Stats: .303/.371/.510, 22 HR, 20 SB, 2.6 WAR
Assuming the seven-year contract he signed in 2011 keeps him in Coors Field for at least another two seasons, you have to love CarGo's potential.
If he leaves Colorado, though, his expectations plummet considerably, because his home/road splits are quite ridiculous.
From 2010-12, Gonzalez had 757 at-bats on the road, during which he hit .260 with 27 home runs and 199 strikeouts. You wouldn't say those are horrible numbers, but on a full-season basis, it's pretty close to what Nelson Cruz did in 2012. Cruz batted .260 with 24 home runs and 140 strikeouts. His WAR for the season was 0.1.
At home, however, Gonzalez batted .361 in 829 at-bats with 55 home runs and 156 strikeouts. Imagine Giancarlo Stanton raising his batting average 70 points and cutting his strikeout rate in half and, voila, you have Carlos Gonzalez's stats in the Rocky Mountains.
2012 Stats: .313/.412/.528, 30 HR, 1 SB, 4.9 WAR
How a vegetarian can weigh 275 pounds is beyond comprehension, but the Prince takes care of his big body. There's no fear of him breaking down and needing to become a full-time DH at any point before the age of 34, which he won't hit until midway through the 2018 season.
It's doubtful he'll ever again approach the 50 home runs he put up in 2007, but he could conceivably hit 40 of them with a .400 on-base percentage for several years to come.
2012 Stats: 2.64 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 7.6 WAR
It hurts to rank Verlander this low, especially after the absurd contract he signed last month.
However, he's thrown more than 11,000 fastballs in the past six seasons and will likely toss another 3,000 before the start of the 2015 season. It's a small sample size, but already in 2013 his fastball velocity is down 2.2 MPH from where it's been over the past four seasons. He's also relying on his change-up much more frequently than at any point in his career.
Maybe he's just taking it easy to start the season—it certainly hasn't hurt his ERA (1.96)—or maybe he's realizing that fireballers flame out quicker than pitchers and is changing his approach before it's too late.
Either way, slotting a then-32-years-old Verlander at No. 17 overall is hardly sounding the death knell. There are just four other (younger) pitchers who are more likely to start the 2015 MLB All-Star Game.
2012 Stats: .337/.474/.567, 14 HR, 5 SB, 5.6 WAR
When you can miss 51 games and still bless your team with 5.6 wins above replacement, there's something pretty special going on.
That .474 on-base percentage is hardly sustainable (though, he was sitting at .556 on Tuesday morning), but as long as he can maintain the .420 clip he's played at for the past four seasons, he'll remain one of the most valuable position players in the game.
2012 Stats: 3.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.6 WAR
No pitcher has been more dominant nor developed a more cultic following in the past half decade than King Felix.
Why Hernandez over Verlander?
For one, Felix is three years younger than Verlander. He's made six more regular season starts in his career by virtue of making it to the majors at the age of 19, but he's still only 27 years old.
In addition to the age difference, Hernandez hasn't put nearly as much strain on his arm. He throws a wide variety of pitches at a slightly lower velocity than Verlander, leading me to believe he can both pitch later into his thirties and more effectively when his fastball velocity inevitably starts to drop.
Also, throwing in Seattle is about as friendly as it gets for a pitcher.
2012 Stats: .259/.340/.456, 23 HR, 2 SB, 1.8 WAR
This is where people will say the article loses all credibility, but I believe in Freddie Freeman.
Freeman started off hot in 2012, finishing play on May 6 with a .298 batting average, six home runs and 26 RBI. That's when the bizarre injuries started. Vision problems, damaged fingers and shattered confidence caused him to limp to below-average triple slash numbers by the end of the year.
He got off to a similarly hot start in 2013, though this one lasted, not five weeks, but five days before he landed on the disabled list.
The skills are there, and he's still just 23 years old. It'll be interesting to see what he can do two years from now if he's able to stay out of the hospital for the whole season.
2012 Stats: 3.37 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 1.8 WAR
We live in a day and age where people are constantly cooing over the next big thing. Case in point: how many articles have you seen written about the Tampa Bay Rays' promised Messiah Wil Myers in the past 48 hours?
That said, it's bizarre what little national respect Madison Bumgarner gets, isn't it?
Apparently there are just more interesting story lines on the Giants' pitching staff between Tim Lincecum's continued struggles, Cain's continued dominance and the resurgence of Barry Zito (prior to Tuesday night's brutal regression).
At just 23 years of age, Bumgarner has already started 87 games, compiling an ERA of 3.15 and a K/9 just north of 8.0.
The scary thing (for non-Giants fans) is he's only going to get better over the next few years.
2012 Stats: .336/.408/.549, 24 HR, 1 SB, 7.6 WAR
Perhaps it's also guys like Posey and Pablo Sandoval who are stealing some of the spotlight from Bumgarner.
Posey is a bona fide perennial MVP candidate. In his brief career, he's batting .311 with a home run in every 28 plate appearances while gunning down one out of every three stolen base attempts.
If he keeps up those paces over the next few seasons, not only will he be one of the top players in the game in 2015, but he'll go down as the third-best catcher of the past 25 years behind Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez.
2012 Stats: .287/.334/.505, 32 HR, 16 SB, 4.4 WAR
We're officially creeping into the range of position players who could either:
A) Hit 55 home runs
B) Hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases
C) Hit .350 for an entire season
or D) All of the above
Personally, I think 2012 was about as good as it's going to get for Jones. He's not going to bat .300, he's not going to hit 40 home runs and he's not going to steal 25 bases, though he's capable of coming very close to those numbers over the course of the next several seasons.
Sometimes it's better to be above average in all aspects of the game than just really good at one or two things.
2012 Stats: .269/.335/.479, 27 HR, 21 RBI, 6.3 WAR
Unless Ken Griffey Jr. came out of retirement without my knowledge, Jason Heyward has the prettiest swing in the game today.
Unfortunately, he beautifully swings at 28.6 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone. For sake of comparison, Ryan Howard swings at 28.8 percent of such pitches, and I don't think there's anyone who has watched a Ryan Howard at bat that would argue he even swings with his eyes open all of the time.
The glove and the arm keep him as a very valuable player despite a career batting average of .257. If and when he learns a little plate discipline, he is going to be a force of nature.
2012 Stats: .290/.361/.608, 37 HR, 6 SB, 5.7 WAR
2013 has not been kind to him, but it would take more than two rough weeks to scare me away from the best pure power hitter of the next several years.
If someone in the next six years is going to hit 60 home runs in a season, that someone is Giancarlo Stanton. If he's still with Miami at the time, they would probably all be solo home runs, but there's a pretty good chance he'll be elsewhere by 2015.
2012 Stats: .280/.355/.430, 17 HR, 18 SB, 2.0 WAR
This one might be a slight overreaction to an absolutely torrid start to the 2013 season. Then again, maybe it's not enough of an overreaction.
It's hard to believe Justin Upton is only 25 years old, as it feels like we spent 22 of those years debating where Arizona was going to inevitably trade him.
He's always been good, but he hasn't quite been great—yet. Over the past four seasons, Upton averaged 22.8 home runs and 19.3 stolen bases while batting .286. Those are solid fantasy baseball numbers on par with what we've come to expect from someone like Dustin Pedroia, but they're hardly the middle-of-the-order, All-Star worthy numbers we've been promised for years.
Perhaps he's finally turned that corner, as he's merely on pace to hit 100 home runs this season. And he's not done maturing.
Kershaw's 2012 Stats: 2.53 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 6.2 WAR
Strasburg's 2012 Stats: 3.16 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 11.1 K/9, 2.7 WAR
Despite a degree in mathematics and a lifetime of watching baseball, I'm man enough to admit that I have no idea how WAR is calculated. I do know that it varies depending on the website you reference, so I presume it's similar to strength of schedule in that it's heavily based on personal pre-conceived notions about the relative potency of other teams and players.
That said, there's no way Clayton Kershaw is worth 3.5 more wins than Stephen Strasburg.
It has to be entirely based on that stupid innings limit, right?
Strasburg had an xFIP of 2.81 last season—a full quarter of a run better than anyone else in the league and 0.44 better than Kershaw. The strikeout numbers speak for themselves, though there's something to be said for the fact that Kershaw can make 94 pitches last for 9.0 IP whereas Strasburg has never gone more than 7.0 IP.
They're very close. It'll be interesting to see who starts more All-Star Games for the National League over the next five seasons. For 2015, though, I'm giving the slightest of edges to Strasburg, as it might be the first full season that neither he nor the Nationals are concerned about that Tommy John surgery any longer.
2012 Stats: .319/.391/.595, 41 HR, 30 SB, 7.7 WAR
For the sake of providing some semblance of lineup protection for both guys, can we please make sure Ryan Braun and Giancarlo Stanton are on the same team by 2015?
Here's a fun game: Aside from those two guys, see how many of the 48 active members of the Brewers' and Marlins' rosters you can correctly name from memory. Or better yet, set the over/under at 5.5 and bet a buddy that he can't do six.
Despite the fact that he'll be turning 32 shortly after the 2015 World Series, it would be tempting to rank Braun even higher than this if he were on a different team. Perhaps the Phillies will trade for him, just to avoid enduring another season in which he bats .519 with six home runs and an OPS of 1.877 against them.
Also, these career numbers that Braun put up last year while 28 years old are Exhibit A in the case that there's something wrong with 28-year-old Matt Kemp.
2012 Stats: .330/.393/.606, 44 HR, 4 SB, 6.9 WAR
You eventually start to worry about age with everyone.
Miguel Cabrera celebrates his 30th birthday this Thursday.
Even so, he's been the best hitter not named Albert Pujols over the past decade. Cabrera is one of those guys who has been consistently performing as such a high level for a long enough time that you have to just let him decide when he's too old to bat .320 and hit 30 home runs every season.
Can he still put up those numbers in a season in which he turns 32 years old in mid-April?
I don't see any reason to doubt it.
2012 Stats: .326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 49 SB, 10.0 WAR
The inherent problem for Mike Trout over the next couple of seasons will be having to live up to what he did in 2012.
No matter how good he is, it's going to be pretty difficult to duplicate 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases at any point again in his career. And if those numbers didn't win him an MVP in 2012, how could anything less than that win him an MVP in 2013 or beyond?
Will that frustrate him or will it motivate him? Has the bar been set so high that we won't even be able to be impressed by him in 2015?
Barring an injury or a huge regression, he's going to be a Top 10 guy for many years to come. I just think it's going to be tough for him to ever get to No. 1.
2012 Stats: .270/.340/.477, 22 HR, 18 SB, 4.5 WAR
The scary thing about Bryce Harper is that he's just now learning how to be a big league hitter.
When he first came up last May, he was a dead-pull fastball hitter. Throw him anything under 85 MPH out of the strike zone and he'd swing and miss by a foot or more.
Good luck pitching to this kid after another two years of experience.
2012 Stats: .327/.400/.553, 31 HR, 20 SB, 6.8 WAR
Guess how old Andrew McCutchen is going to be for the duration of the 2015 season?
If you guessed the magical age of 28, you're exactly right.
As long as teams continue pitching to him, he's going to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in 2015.
Plan your fantasy keeper leagues accordingly.