MLB 2022: Who Will Be the Superstars of Baseball in 5 Years?
The world will be a different place in 2022. Perhaps that's not a comforting thought, so here's one that is:
At least Major League Baseball's pantheon of superstars shouldn't look too different.
This wouldn't be the case if MLB's biggest stars were getting long in the tooth. But in the last few years, the league's star power has shifted in favor of the youthful. Many stars who are in their prime in 2017 should still be in their prime in 2022.
Ah, but which of them will be the biggest stars at their respective positions?
The aim here is to dive into that question by imagining what a team (a catcher, four infielders, three outfielders, five starting pitchers and one closer) of MLB's brightest superstars will look like five years from now. This will involve weighing present talent, as-yet-untapped upside and potential regression risk of established major leaguers—sorry, no prospects who haven't yet debuted.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Wait just a second. A guy plays in 55 games and already he's being anointed as the next big thing?
Well, these aren't just any 55 games we're talking about. Of the bunch, Gary Sanchez needed only 53 last season to post a 1.032 OPS, launch 20 home runs and finish second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
That's a statement-making performance if there ever was one, and the talent behind it is for real. The 24-year-old backstop hit balls on the barrel more frequently than anyone. He also gunned down 41 percent of would-be base stealers. And was even a solid framer, to boot.
It all portends a future that's as bright as Sanchez's present. And come 2022, he'll only be 29, while ol' standbys like Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy and Yadier Molina will be well past 30.
Honorable Mentions: Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs), J.T. Realmuto (Miami Marlins)
First Base: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
By Baseball-Reference.com WAR, the two best first basemen in baseball last year were two 26-year-olds: Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo.
Both should still be standouts at the not-so-hot corner when they're in their age-32 seasons five years from now. But between the two, it's hard to bet against Rizzo being the brighter star.
It's remarkable how consistent his offense has become, as he's kept his OPS right around .900 in each of the last three years. This has involved eliminating weaknesses such as his platoon split against left-handers.
Rizzo has also accumulated more defensive runs saved than any other first baseman in this span. He already has one Gold Glove. More should be on the way.
And hey, worse comes to worst, he should keep his status as one of baseball's chief beanball magnets.
Honorable Mentions: Freddie Freeman (Atlanta Braves), Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona Diamondbacks), Greg Bird (New York Yankees)
Second Base: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
There are some legit up-and-comers at second base, headlined by Javier Baez, Rougned Odor and, before long, Yoan Moncada.
Bummer for them that the biggest—figuratively, anyway—star at the position now will still be around in 2022.
Jose Altuve will be in his age-32 season that year. And since he currently has good speed that doesn't figure to age well, being that old is potentially a bigger deal-breaker for him than for a guy like Rizzo.
Altuve's bat has become a heck of a safety net, however. He's a two-time batting champion in part because he's turned himself into one of baseball's elite contact hitters. And now his power is on the upswing.
Regardless of what happens to his other talents, these are goods that'll keep the hits coming for Altuve.
Honorable Mentions: Javier Baez (Chicago Cubs), Rougned Odor (Texas Rangers), Yoan Moncada (Chicago White Sox)
Third Base: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
The easiest solution here is to combine Kris Bryant, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado into a single person and claim that guy as the best third baseman for 2020. He can be called Krolan Brychado.
But, that would be difficult. And more than a little weird. So...Bryant, anyone?
He isn't in the same class as Machado and Arenado on defense. But his athleticism and instincts make him a good defender at multiple positions, not to mention a quietly elite baserunner. These abilities shouldn't be too far gone by the time he hits 30 in 2022.
In short: Dude's good, and he's going to stay good.
Honorable Mentions: Manny Machado (Baltimore Orioles), Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies)
Shortstop: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
Complicating matters here is how many good shortstops there are out there. Complicating matters even further is how young most of them are.
However, Corey Seager clearly has the best offensive profile. The 22-year-old has a .312 average and .892 OPS in 184 career games. The last shortstop to be this good this early was a fella named Rogers Hornsby.
The big question is whether Seager, who'll be 28 in 2022, will stick at short. There's more optimism there now than before. As Kyle Glaser wrote at Baseball America: "Seager's style of play—play deep, let his above-average arm make the throws—is reminiscent of fellow 6-foot-4 former shortstop Cal Ripken Jr."
Carlos Correa deserves a shoutout based on his own offensive potential. But since he may not be able to avoid a move to third base, Seager should loom as large among shortstops in 2022 as he does now.
Honorable Mentions: Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), Francisco Lindor (Cleveland Indians), Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox), Trea Turner (Washington Nationals), Dansby Swanson (Atlanta Braves)
Outfield: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout will be playing in his age-30 season come 2022, but here's a wild guess that he'll still be really, really good.
Trout has finished either first or second in the AL MVP voting every year since 2012 and has accumulated more WAR through his age-24 season than any hitter in history. The recommended way to read into that is...[drum roll]...that he's on pace to be the best player ever.
One thing Trout likely won't have anymore in 2022 is his trademark speed. But he won't be slow by any means, and his bat will still pack a wallop. He's been baseball's best hitter since 2012 by way of his excellent eye and ever-improving feel for hard contact.
As great? No. But still great.
Outfield: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
Mookie Betts was the only outfielder within range of Trout in WAR last season, and he has the distinction of being a year younger.
So, it's a safe guess that he'll still be pushing Trout five years from now.
Betts is also likely to see his speed diminish, but he may be even better equipped than Trout to keep his value afloat despite that. He'll still be quicker than most right fielders. And as the best baserunner in baseball now, he should still be one of the great ones even after losing a step.
Outfield: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Hoo boy. This last outfield spot is a tough one. And to be perfectly honest, safer picks are guys like Christian Yelich, George Springer, Starling Marte and Andrew Benintendi.
The thing about Bryce Harper, though, is how much better he can be than all of them.
Harper, 24, showed his upside when he led MLB in OBP (.460), slugging percentage (.649) and WAR (9.9) in 2015. And remember, this is the same guy who had maybe the best age-19 season ever back in 2012. When he's right, his potential is enormous.
Nowadays, Harper is having a red-hot spring that's re-awakening awareness of his potential. And since his potential stems from his excellent eye and immense power, it should still be there at the age of 29 in 2022.
Honorable Mentions: Christian Yelich (Miami Marlins), George Springer (Houston Astros), Starling Marte (Pittsburgh Pirates), Andrew Benintendi (Boston Red Sox)
No. 1 Starter: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
But will he still be himself in his age-34 season in 2022?
That question somehow isn't as ominous as it should be. Kershaw's back has been bothersome in two of the last three seasons, but his arm and shoulder have remained in ship shape. Thus, he's already defying normal aging curves by keeping his velocity uncannily steady.
Kershaw has other abilities to fall back on if he does lose some zip. The late movement on his pitches is unparalleled, and his command of the ball is getting better every year. These are marks of a pitcher who's not going to go quietly into his twilight.
No. 2 Starter: Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard might have had the best season of any pitcher last year.
It sounds suspicious only until you consider what he did. He averaged 98 mph on his fastball, blowing away all other qualified starters. That and an array of filthy secondaries helped him whiff 10.7 batters per nine innings, and he only walked 2.1 batters per nine innings. That's dominance, Jack.
Syndergaard is 24 now. By the time he reaches his age-29 season in 2022, he likely won't still be pushing triple digits with his fastball. And there is some risk of an injury between now and then.
And yet it's hard to imagine the present version of Syndergaard completely wasting away. At 6'6" and 240 pounds, he's big and strong enough to last as a power pitcher. And since he already has more than just his fastball now, he should have more than just his fastball later.
No. 3 Starter: Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
Quick, name the only pitcher to top 200 innings with an ERA under 3.00 in each of the last four years.
Hint: It's this guy.
Madison Bumgarner's durability is no accident. He's a sturdy 6'5" and 250 pounds. And as Doug Thorburn outlined at Baseball Prospectus, the lefty also has flawless mechanics.
Bumgarner's dominance is also no accident. None of his individual pitches are the nastiest of their kind, but they're all good and he knows how to use them. He's nearly on Jon Lester's level at disguising his pitches, rendering hitters uncertain of what's coming when they must decide whether to swing.
Perhaps even more so than Kershaw's and Syndergaard's, Bumgarner's recipe for dominance should age well. And he'll only be 32 in 2022.
No. 4 Starter: Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
To hear the headlines say it, Kyle Hendricks led MLB with a 2.13 ERA in 2016 because he was basically Greg Maddux.
Although Kendricks only averaged 87.8 mph on his fastball, he was still a league-average strikeout pitcher and the best in the business at inducing soft contact. And he walked only 2.1 batters per nine innings.
It all speaks to Hendricks' craftiness. He's another guy who's good at disguising his pitches, and he further complicates life for opposing hitters by changing up his movements and locations.
He's not exactly Greg Maddux, of course. But since Hendricks has shown he can dominate in Maddux-like ways, it's easy to have faith in him to age like Maddux and still be doing his thing at the age of 32 in 2022.
No. 5 Starter: Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers
Julio Urias is a couple years away from being a true ace. But after his breakthrough in 2016, there's little doubt he's headed in that direction.
Urias debuted as a 19-year-old last year and was handled with kid gloves by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not to be overlooked, however, is the stride he hit after a rude welcome. He had a 2.73 ERA over 16 appearances.
In those, Urias whiffed 10 batters per nine innings and permitted only two home runs. He has a better idea of what he's doing than most pitchers his age. To boot, he knows what he's doing with stuff that has exceptional spin and, thus, pretty good late movement.
If that was just Urias' appetizer, then his main course should be special. And at 25, he'll still be in the thick of his prime come 2022.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Sale (Boston Red Sox), Jose Quintana (Chicago White Sox), Carlos Martinez (St. Louis Cardinals), Aaron Sanchez (Toronto Blue Jays), Marcus Stroman (Toronto Blue Jays), Alex Reyes (St. Louis Cardinals)
Closer: Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers
It's not easy to project what the future holds for elite relievers. New members are always joining the ranks, and the breed as a whole has a high burnout rate.
The best example of an elite reliever with lasting power is Mariano Rivera. So, why not put faith in the guy who's basically a modern-day Mariano Rivera?
Like Rivera, Kenley Jansen throws one pitch: a cutter. His has accounted for nearly 90 percent of his career pitches. But although hitters know it's coming, they can't hit it. They've mustered only a .172 average and .272 slugging percentage against it.
To boot, this has happened despite Jansen's wildly inconsistent velocity. That goes to show his cutter is nasty at any speed. It should still be serving him well when he's 34 in 2022.
Honorable Mentions: Zach Britton (Baltimore Orioles), Dellin Betances (New York Yankees), Edwin Diaz (Seattle Mariners), Roberto Osuna (Toronto Blue Jays)