Predicting the Faces of Major League Baseball 5 Years from Now
While every MLB team has a handful of star players and fan favorites, there are only a few players league-wide that can be considered the faces of Major League Baseball.
There has been a bumper crop of fantastic young talent that has entered the league over the past two or three years, and the game should be as star-powered as ever looking to the future.
Projecting five years into the future is always a risky proposition, because so much can change between now and then. That said, here is a look at 15 players who could be the faces of the MLB five years from today.
3B Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
2013 Stats (Rookie League, Low-A and High-A)
The inclusion of Kris Bryant may be the biggest stretch of anyone included on this list, but he has done nothing but produce since the Chicago Cubs selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2013 draft.
The big 6'5" third baseman hit .329/.493/.820 with 31 home runs and 62 RBI as a junior at the University of San Diego, then reached the High-A level after tearing up the rookie league and Low-A levels.
He followed that regular season success up by winning Arizona Fall League MVP, going 28-for-77 with eight doubles, six home runs and 17 RBI in 20 games against some of the best young talent in the game. He'll likely open the season at the Double-A level, but he could find himself in Chicago at some point in 2014.
Javier Baez is the more highly-regarded prospect at this point, but Bryant has a higher floor and is a more disciplined hitter. He should be a .300 BA, 30 HR, 100 RBI player on a regular basis, with the raw power for even bigger numbers.
SP Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks
2013 Stats (High-A and Double-A)
The No. 7 pick in the 2011 draft and the second high school pitcher off the board after Baltimore Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley has quickly moved through the Arizona Diamondbacks system and is arguably the top pitching prospect in the game entering 2014.
After a full season at the Single-A level in 2012, the 21-year-old opened last year with five dominant starts at High-A before being promoted to Double-A, where he continued to put up fantastic numbers.
He should get every chance to win a rotation spot this coming spring, and for a Diamondbacks team in need of a front-line starter to anchor their staff, he could very well wind up being their best pitcher by the end of 2014.
With a big 6'4" and 225-pound frame and a plus three-pitch repertoire, he has all the makings of a workhorse ace. Once he reaches his prime, he has the potential to be one of the best pitchers in the game if he stays healthy.
SS Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox
2013 Stats (Double-A and Triple-A)
Xander Bogaerts was the top Boston Red Sox prospect and the No. 8 prospect in all of baseball entering last season, according to Baseball America. After suiting up for Team Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, he opened the season in Double-A and made the jump to Triple-A midway through the year.
He made his big league debut as a 20-year-old on Aug. 20, and he showed enough in 18 games down the stretch to earn a spot on the team's postseason roster.
After displaying terrific plate discipline in limited ALCS action, he took over for a struggling Will Middlebrooks as the starting third baseman in the World Series. That exposure on the game's biggest stage should only help him moving forward, and he is expected to take over as the everyday shortstop in 2014.
He could wind up battling recent New York Yankees signing Masahiro Tanaka for AL Rookie of the Year honors, and big things are expected from the 21-year-old long term. He still has some maturing to do offensively, but he has the tools to hit for both power and average.
SP Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
2013 Stats (Triple-A)
Despite focusing more on basketball than baseball in high school, the natural talent Taijuan Walker possessed on the mound was enough for the Seattle Mariners to take him with the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft.
The big right-hander has moved quickly, reaching the Double-A level in 2012 as a 19-year-old and making his big league debut last year. He joined the Mariners' rotation down the stretch for three starts and went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 15 innings of work.
All signs point to him filling the No. 3 rotation spot behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma this coming season, and he has the pure stuff to immediately be a front-line starter.
At the same time, the 21-year-old still has plenty of room to improve, and as he further hones his craft, there is no reason he can't emerge as one of the best overall pitchers in the game down the road. He's as important as anyone to the Mariners' hopes of returning to contention.
1B Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves turned the everyday first base job over to Freddie Freeman back in 2011 when he was just 21 years old, and he has steadily improved each season.
He's arbitration eligible for the first time this season, requesting $5.75 million with the team countering with an offer of $4.5 million. He'll still be a steal at either price after finishing fifth in NL MVP voting last season, as he was the Braves' most consistent hitter all year.
He may never have elite power, but he should consistently be good for something in the neighborhood of a .300/.400/.500 line and 100 RBI.
The Braves have put together an impressive young core of homegrown talent that should allow them to contend for years to come, and Freeman has all the tools to be the face of the franchise.
SP Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Selected with the No. 13 pick in the 2010 draft out of Florida Gulf Coast University, left-hander Chris Sale was fast-tracked from the moment he signed.
He made just 11 minor league appearances before joining the White Sox roughly two months after he was drafted, and he immediately became their top setup man. He spent another year in the bullpen before joining the rotation in 2012, where he quickly became the ace of the staff.
After posting a 17-8 record with a 3.05 ERA in 2012, the White Sox signed him to a five-year, $32.5 million deal that also includes two option years worth a total of $26 million. That looks like an absolute steal now, given the current going rate for starting pitching.
Still only 24, Sale should anchor the White Sox staff for the next decade, and he is already one of the best pitchers in the game. As long as he holds up from a health standpoint—and that is a question given his funky mechanics—he should be one of the elite-level pitchers five years from now.
CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
2013 Stats (Single A and High-A)
Byron Buxton was ranked by most as the best all-around talent in the 2012 draft, and the Minnesota Twins were happy to scoop him up with the No. 2 pick after the Houston Astros opted to go with the less-expensive Carlos Correa first overall.
He signed in time to play 48 rookie league games in 2012, and the Twins saw enough out of him there to start him at full-season Single-A Cedar Rapids to open the 2013 season. It took him just 68 games to get another promotion from there, and he more than held his own at the High-A level as well.
The Twins won't rush the 20-year-old, but he could very well play his way into a September audition this coming season, setting him up to take over as the everyday center fielder in 2015. That may be ambitious, but he has the talent to pull it off.
All five tools grade out as at least above average, with speed being his best weapon at this point. Still, he should be a perennial .300 hitter with 20-home run power and Gold Glove caliber defense in center field. All the pieces are there for him to be a bona fide superstar and one of the faces of the league.
SP Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates
Selected by the New York Yankees with the No. 28 pick in the 2008 draft out of high school, Gerrit Cole opted to honor his commitment to UCLA, and it wound up being a terrific decision by him. Three years later, the Pittsburgh Pirates made him with the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.
With the build of a workhorse starter and a fastball that can hit triple digits, the pieces were certainly there for him to be a star. He was still something of a raw talent when he was drafted, though, and there were questions as to how quickly he would move through the system.
Those questions were answered last season, when the right-hander was called up to make his major league debut on June 11. He picked up the win in that game, allowing two runs in 6.1 innings of work, and that would be the start of a terrific rookie season.
He was pitching well enough by the end of the year to earn two starts in the NLDS, and he should emerge as the ace of the Pirates staff by the end of 2014. He still has room to improve as his secondary pitches round into form, and with a higher strikeout rate, he could be absolutely dominant.
RF Wil Myers, Tampa Bay Rays
The minor league player of the year in 2012, Wil Myers was shipped from Kansas City to Tampa Bay last offseason in a blockbuster deal that sent right-hander James Shields to the Royals.
The 23-year-old Myers opened the season in the minors, but he was in the Rays lineup by the middle of June, and he gave the team the offensive boost they were hoping for right out of the gate.
He finished the season well, hitting .308/.362/.542 with 13 doubles and four home runs in September, and ended the year with 13 home runs in just 335 at-bats. He spent most of the season hitting in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, but he'll likely move to the middle of the order this year.
The raw power is there for him to be among the game's most prolific power threats, and he should anchor the Rays' lineup alongside Evan Longoria for the foreseeable future.
SP Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
Dubbed as a once-in-a-generation talent when the Washington Nationals took him with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft, Stephen Strasburg started his career off with a bang. He struck out 14 while allowing two runs in seven innings of work in his big league debut, and he continued to impress as a rookie before being sidelined with an arm injury.
He wound up needing Tommy John surgery, and questions immediately arose as to whether or not he would ever live up to the tremendous hype he entered the league with. He made an incredibly quick recovery, though, returning to make five starts down the stretch in 2011.
The Nationals were careful with him the following season, shutting him down after 159.1 innings of work despite the fact that the team was heading for the postseason. The leash was off this past season, though, and while his record didn't reflect it, he was one of the better pitchers in the NL.
The hard-throwing right-hander could be in for a huge 2014 season, and as long as he can avoid future injuries to his arm, there's no reason to think he can't be pushing Clayton Kershaw for NL Cy Young honors five years from now.
SP Matt Harvey, New York Mets
Like Stephen Strasburg, New York Mets right-hander Matt Harvey went down with an arm injury early in his career that required Tommy John surgery.
The jury is still out on how quickly and how well he'll recover, though, as he is expected to miss most, if not all, of the 2014 season rehabbing.
The injury was an unfortunate end to what had been an incredible first full season in the majors for Harvey, as he earned the All-Star Game start at his home ballpark and was right in the thick of things alongside Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young race at the time of the injury.
The Mets are a team on the rise with a good crop of young talent in place, and while David Wright is the face of the franchise right now, a healthy Harvey atop the rotation could be the face of the Mets team that returns to legitimate contention down the road.
LF Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Dubbed as a baseball prodigy dating back to his high school days, Bryce Harper has put together a phenomenal first two seasons of his career when you consider the fact that he played all of 2013 as a 20-year-old.
Injuries limited him to just 118 games last season, as he was hitting .287/.386/.587 with 12 home runs through May 26, and looked to be on his way to an MVP-caliber season before a left knee injury shelved him.
His game is still a work in progress at this point, but once he reaches his full potential, he is expected to contend for home run titles while still hitting .300 with plus plate discipline. His biggest issue will be avoiding injuries, as the same all-out style of play that makes him such a spark plug also makes him an injury risk.
He set out this offseason to get "as big as a house," according to ESPN.com's Anna McDonald looking to add bulk to what was already a 230-pound frame in hopes of avoiding injury and adding some more power. "Let the body heal a little bit and get as big as a house," Harper said. "That's the biggest thing I try to do. I want to go into spring training about 240, 245," he added.
Five years from now, Harper will still be just 25 years old, and he could be entering the prime of his career at that point.
SP Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
Were it not for injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, chances are Jose Fernandez would have opened the 2013 season in Double-A. After all, he had not pitched above the High-A level heading into the season.
Instead, he found himself penciled in as part of the Opening Day rotation, and he ran with the opportunity. When the dust settled, he had finished third in NL Cy Young voting and won NL Rookie of the Year honors as one of the few bright spots on a bad Miami Marlins team.
With a big 6'2" and 240-pound frame, he has the prototypical power pitcher's body, and his stuff is already among the best in baseball at the age of 21.
The Marlins have quietly put together a terrific core of young talent, and five years from now they could be right in the thick of things in the National League. Like all pitchers, it will be about avoiding injuries, but Fernandez is already among the best pitchers in baseball and should be even better five years from now.
SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers shelled out a record seven-year, $215 million deal this offseason to lock up Clayton Kershaw long term. That's an outrageous amount of money, but it's hard to argue with the left-hander being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.
He entered the season squarely in the argument for the title of best pitcher in the game alongside Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, and by the end of 2013, there was little question he was the game's top starter.
He's won three straight NL ERA titles and won the NL Cy Young two of the past three years, and he had the best season of his career this past year. He's already made 182 career starts, going 77-46 with a 2.60 ERA, and he turns 26 a few weeks before the start of the upcoming season.
At this point, there is no reason to think Kershaw won't continue dominating the league moving forward. His stuff is as good as anyone in the game, and he has been durable to this point. On top of that, the Dodgers appear ready to contend long-term, so he'll get plenty of chances to make his mark in October.
CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has won AL MVP honors each of the past two seasons, and it's hard to argue against him deserving the award, but most would agree that Mike Trout has been the best all-around player in the game both of those seasons.
There may be no player in baseball history to put together a better first two seasons to his career than Trout, and the fact that he actually improved on his historic rookie season is a scary proposition for the rest of the league moving forward.
While most of the numbers were similar, he improved his on-base percentage from .399 to .432 and led the American League with 110 walks.
He's a legitimate five-tool talent and the best position player in the game today. Five years from now, he'll be 27, and it's hard to imagine just how good he could be at that point in his career.