Predicting MLB's Top 10 Players over the Next 5 Seasons

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 13, 2021

Predicting MLB's Top 10 Players over the Next 5 Seasons

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    Ronald Acuna Jr.? Juan Soto? Someone else?
    Ronald Acuna Jr.? Juan Soto? Someone else?Associated Press

    Take a look back at the 2017 Major League Baseball season, and you'll notice that Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, Corey Kluber and Max Scherzer were among the game's top superstars.

    Because they've tailed off and opened the door for other stars since then, we can't help but wonder how MLB's superstar ranks might change over the next five seasons.

    So, we've thrown inhibitions to the wind and taken a crack at predicting which 10 players will be the best in baseball between 2021 and 2025. This involved applying some imagination to major leaguers who are good and young right now, as well as to which top-100 prospects could soon hit the ground running.

    Ultimately, six established stars are good bets to stay the course through 2025. Otherwise, we see four young up-and-comers who should be earmarked for superstardom.

    Let's begin with some honorable mentions and then count down the top 10 in order from lowest potential to highest potential.

Honorable Mentions

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    Cody Bellinger
    Cody BellingerMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Hitters

    • 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
    • CF Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • SS Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays
    • 3B Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
    • CF Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
    • 3B Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
    • RF Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
    • SS Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
    • 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
    • 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland
    • 3B Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels
    • SS Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies
    • SS Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
    • LF Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

          

    Pitchers

    • RHP Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
    • RHP Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
    • RHP Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
    • RHP Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
    • RHP Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox

         

    Hitter/Pitcher

    • DH/RHP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

         

    Prospects

    • OF Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
    • CF Dylan Carlson, St. Louis Cardinals
    • LHP MacKenzie Gore, San Diego Padres
    • RHP Casey Mize, Detroit Tigers
    • CF Cristian Pache, Atlanta
    • C Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles
    • RHP Sixto Sanchez, Miami Marlins
    • 3B/1B Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers

10. 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 22-26

    Career Stats: 193 G, 800 PA, 26 HR, 2 SB, .273 AVG, .345 OBP, .448 SLG, 114 OPS+, 3.4 rWAR

    Because he's struggled to live up to the hype since he debuted for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019, casting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as one of baseball's future superstars is a hard sell.

    Yet the recent history of No. 1 prospects bodes well for the Hall of Famer's son. To wit, he held that honor just two years ago for Baseball America, who've had only a handful of misfires with their No. 1 prospect since their rankings began back in 1990.

    What's more, Guerrero is getting better.

    He ended last season with a sturdy .286/.351/.507 line over his last 39 games, and he's been scorching with a .364/.512/.576 line thus far in 2021. His exit velocity and strikeout rates were already solid, and now he's making advancements with his zone discipline and launch angle.

    Of course, Guerrero is never going to be much of a contributor on defense or on the basepaths. But neither was Miguel Cabrera in his heyday, and he was nonetheless one of baseball's greats because he was a batting champion with 40-homer power. Guerrero has that kind of upside.

9. OF Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 21-25

    Career MiLB Stats: 173 G, 751 PA, 29 HR, 35 SB, .290 AVG, .366 OBP, .516 SLG

    B/R Top 100 Rank: No. 3

    Though the Seattle Mariners have reigning American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis penciled into center field for the foreseeable future, their most exciting long-term outfielder is still waiting for his debut.

    Jarred Kelenic was already a well-regarded prospect when the Mariners acquired him from the New York Mets in December 2018. Then he dominated the minors in 2019, finishing with a .904 OPS, 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases.

    Kelenic is now regarded as an elite talent on account of how his hitting, power, speed, arm and defense all rate as plus tools. He was recently seen putting his power on display during spring training, yet just as encouraging was how many times he struck out in 25 plate appearances: just once.

    As for why Kelenic isn't already with the Mariners, his relative shortage experience is one reason. But to hear him say it, his refusal to sign a preemptive contract is the big one.

    Regardless, he should be roaming Seattle's outfield sometime in the near future. From there, he could quickly cement himself as a 30/30 threat who also hits .300 annually.

8. 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Paul Beaty/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 24-28

    Career Stats: 26 G, 102 PA, 6 HR, 1 SB, .367 AVG, .441 OBP, .689 SLG, 201 OPS+, 2.0 rWAR

    B/R Top 100 Rank: 2

    From Nolan Arenado to Alex Bregman to Matt Chapman to Manny Machado to Jose Ramirez, third base has been home to an awful lot of stars in recent years.

    It is that tradition that Ke'Bryan Hayes is looking to continue.

    If nothing else, he should play a stellar third base for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Between his range, his hands and his arm strength, Hayes might just be a rare 80-grade defender. If Arenado's legendary glovework starts declining after he turns 30 on April 16, there will be Gold Gloves aplenty for Hayes in coming years.

    At least until he landed on the injured list with wrist inflammation, Hayes has also teased his potential as one of the top hitters at the hot corner. The small sample size obviously clouds that picture, yet there's no ignoring that Hayes has topped 95 mph on 39 of 69 (56.5 percent) batted balls in the majors.

    So even if Hayes' offensive brilliance is a relatively new development, it's believable enough that he'll come to fit the Arenado/Chapman mold of a Gold Glove-winning third baseman with next-level power.

7. SS Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 20-24

    Career MiLB Stats: 175 G, 768 PA, 20 HR, 22 SB, .336 AVG, .405 OBP, .523 SLG

    B/R Top 100 Rank: 1

    If anything is better than getting singled out as baseball's No. 1 prospect once, it's getting singled out as baseball's No. 1 prospect twice.

    Wander Franco was indeed our No. 1 prospect for 2020 in addition to 2021. He's likewise one of only four players to twice get that distinction for Baseball America, with the other three being Andruw Jones, Joe Mauer and Bryce Harper.

    Such things naturally create high expectations for the Tampa Bay Rays wunderkind, but his hitting tool alone is worthy of the hype. It's not just that he's a .336 career hitter in the minors. It's also that he owns 29 more walks than strikeouts even though he's typically been far younger than the competition.

    As anyone who bothered to watch him in spring training will know, Franco also has impressive power. And while he's probably not a future Gold Glover at shortstop, he has the goods to at least stay there.

    In all likelihood, Franco will make his debut for the Rays later this summer. Once he arrives, he can make a run at the AL Rookie of the Year before pursuing MVPs in future seasons.

6. SP Shane Bieber, Cleveland

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 26-30

    Career Stats: 68 G, 66 GS, 418.2 IP, 370 H (53 HR), 523 K, 91 BB, 139 ERA+, 9.0 rWAR

    There's only a handful of elite pitchers in MLB right now, and some of them—namely Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer—are on the wrong side of 30 and thus probably not far from their post-prime years.

    And then there's Shane Bieber, who won't even turn 26 until May 31.

    When Bieber debuted for Cleveland back in 2018, he was more so seen as a control artist than any kind of overpowering pitcher with No. 1 upside. Yet he whiffed more than a batter per inning as a rookie, and his strikeout artistry has been trending nowhere but up since then.

    Though Bieber sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, pure heat isn't as big a part of his excellence as, say, deGrom or Cole. Bieber's game is more about befuddlement, in that he masterfully sequences, disguises and locates a four-seamer, slider, curveball and changeup that are bound by their effective spin.

    There's thus little reason to believe that Bieber will deviate from a path that's already led him to an All-Star nod in 2019 and the AL Cy Young Award in 2020. 

5. CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 29-33

    Career Stats: 1,262 G, 5,558 PA, 306 HR, 201 SB, .305 AVG, .419 OBP, .584 SLG, 176 OPS+, 75.0 rWAR

    No, your eyes don't deceive you. Mike Trout doesn't hold the top spot on this list.

    Considering that he's a three-time MVP who already rates as a Hall of Fame-caliber center fielder, this might come off as heresy. But the elephant in the room here is that Trout turns 30 on August 7, so it's not beyond the pale to wonder if the Los Angeles Angels star's prime is running out.

    As it is, Trout isn't much for stolen bases anymore—he has just one since the start of last season—and his defense is all too easy to nitpick. His metrics have been all over the map, in part because he tends to undercut his athleticism with slow reactions.

    What should allow Trout to age gracefully, however, is his bat. His results speak well enough for themselves in that regard, but it's nonetheless worth pointing out that he also has the best expected results of any hitter who's taken 1,000 plate appearances in the 2015-2021 Statcast era.

    In other words, it'll be hard to dethrone Trout as the "Best Hitter in Baseball" even if he loses his grip as the "Best Player in Baseball."

4. RF Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 28-32

    Career Stats: 854 G, 3,903 PA, 156 HR, 138 SB, .301 AVG, .374 OBP, .522 SLG, 135 OPS+, 46.3 rWAR

    Why Mookie Betts over Mike Trout?

    Well, he's a year younger than Trout, for one thing. For another, Betts has actually been the better overall producer of the two since his AL MVP turn with the Boston Red Sox in 2018.

    That's reflective of how Betts is the ultimate do-it-all player in MLB right now. Defensively, he leads everyone in defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating since 2016. He likewise leads in baserunning value in this span, and he's a .315/.407/.575 hitter with a 157 OPS+ over the last four seasons.

    Like with Trout, there should be some concern that Betts' prime will start wasting away after he turns 30 on October 7, 2022. But on the plus side, the Los Angeles Dodgers star still has two full seasons between now and then.

    It should also work in Betts' favor that his stardom flows just as much from his intellect and instincts as it does from his athleticism. He therefore might not need a Trout-ian bat to sustain himself as one of baseball's best players after he crosses the age-30 plateau.

3. SS Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 22-26

    Career Stats: 148 G, 650 PA, 40 HR, 27 SB, .297 AVG, .371 OBP, .575 SLG, 153 OPS+, 6.9 rWAR

    In the span of just a few weeks, Fernando Tatis Jr. has gone from a surefire long-term star to, well, less of a surefire long-term star.

    With his signature on a 14-year, $340 million contract with the San Diego Padres barely dry, Tatis had an incident with his left shoulder during spring training and then another, much more alarming one on April 5. Even though the Padres aren't going there yet, season-ending surgery is a possibility for Tatis.

    As he previously spent time on the IL with back and hamstring injuries in 2019, this isn't Tatis' first tussle with the injury bug. It's therefore distressingly tempting to label him as injury-prone.

    There's nonetheless little question that Tatis is one of the most purely talented players in baseball today. Last year, specifically, was a window into his awesome upside as a two-way threat as he landed in the 100th percentile with his exit velocity on offense and his outs above average on defense.

    Were it not for his swing-and-miss habit, Tatis would basically be the perfect position player. So, health permitting, he's only getting started on a prime as an MVP-caliber shortstop.

2. RF Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 22-26

    Career Stats: 320 G, 1,379 PA, 71 HR, 24 SB, .297 AVG, .417 OBP, .558 SLG, 154 OPS+, 10.9 rWAR

    There have been some great young hitters throughout Major League Baseball history, but perhaps none greater than Juan Soto.

    Soto was an immediate sensation when he debuted for the Washington Nationals as a mere 19-year-old in 2018, and he didn't let up in 2019 or 2020. As a result, he's the only hitter in history to top a 140 OPS+ in his age-19, -20 and -21 seasons.

    These days, Soto isn't so much "good" as "scary good." Courtesy of 13 more walks than strikeouts and elite batted ball metrics, he led the National League in batting average and all of MLB in on-base and slugging percentage in 2020. And so far in 2021, he's 9-for-24 with two home runs and six OBP-padding walks.

    If there's any question about Soto's future stardom, it concerns what he's going to give the Nats with his defense or baserunning. Though he isn't altogether useless in either department, it's hard to count him as one of the game's more gifted athletes.

    Yet that won't really matter if he keeps hitting like, well, this. If he isn't already, he's poised to challenge Mike Trout for the "Best Hitter in Baseball" mantle in coming seasons.

1. RF Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2021-2025 Age: 23-27

    Career Stats: 323 G, 1,448 PA, 85 HR, 64 SB, .286 AVG, .375 OBP, .551 SLG, 135 OPS+, 12.1 rWAR

    As of right now, it's not hard to make an argument that Juan Soto is a better player than fellow NL East superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. In fact, here's one.

    The next five years, however, could be a different story for one simple reason: Acuna hasn't broken all the way out yet.

    This might seem like an odd thing to say about a guy who made a run at a 40-40 season just two years ago, and Acuna indeed has nothing to prove in the power or speed departments. He's only getting better at generating hard contact, and he's maintaining an elite average sprint speed north of 29 feet per second.

    It's the finer points of the Atlanta star's game that have needed refinement, but perhaps not for much longer. His zone discipline has never been better, as he's gone off for 17 hits (including 10 for extra bases) early in 2021. There are also early signs that he's ready to turn a corner defensively.

    Assuming Acuna can keep himself on this trajectory, he stands to take over as baseball's top star if age humbles Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.

            

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.