Forecasting the Long-Term Outlook of MLB's Most Popular Young PlayersMay 25, 2021
Forecasting the Long-Term Outlook of MLB's Most Popular Young Players
Some of baseball's best players are also some of the youngest right now.
There are MVP candidates in the American and National Leagues this season who are barely old enough to buy alcohol, and it's a good thing they're riding the team buses because they're definitely not old enough to rent a car.
But 20,000 players have now played in a Major League Baseball game, and for every sensation, there are several more players who never quite lived up to their potential. It can sometimes be difficult to determine which players are just flash-in-the-pan talents who have a couple months, or even one good season, and then fade out of the game.
However, some of these young players dominating baseball right now are so good that it's become easy to project career longevity.
Here are seven players aged 26 or younger, and what the outlook is for their futures.
Toronto Blue Jays 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should consider himself lucky he plays in the American League because he won't have to compete annually for the MVP Award with Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr.
However, unluckily for him, he has to compete with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels for the foreseeable future.
The 22-year-old sure is doing his best to separate himself from the competition, though. He has the highest fWAR in baseball right now, the highest OPS, and compared to Trout and Ohtani, he stacks up well: He's striking out less than Trout (15.3 percent vs. 28.1 percent) and he seems to be going homer-for-homer with Ohtani, hitting two of them Monday to give him 15 on the season, tying him with Ronald Acuna Jr. for the lead in baseball and taking sole ownership of the American League lead.
One of those home runs went 461 feet and came off his bat at 117.4 MPH, which tied for the hardest-hit home run by a member of the Toronto Blue Jays since Statcast began tracking these metrics.
He'll win an MVP award like his dad, Vladimir Sr., did in 2004. He might even win it this year. As for longevity, his career arc looks to mirror one of his home runs.
Given his age, his strength and the fact that he's already conscious of taking care of his body, Guerrero projects to be one of the best players in baseball throughout the next 15 years. If he continues to get better, he'll also make it to Cooperstown, just like his dad.
Washington Nationals LF Juan Soto
In March, FanGraphs ran some career projections for the Washington Nationals outfielder. Juan Soto, who will be 23 in October, could be joining a few others on this list in the hall of fame in Cooperstown one day.
For all of these players, a lot has to go right. Injuries are obviously a concern and they could reach their peak earlier than predicted. But the thing is, if this is their peak, then that's already pretty good.
But these ZiPS projections suggest Soto has not yet reached his peak, and this is based on historical precedence. According to these projections, he is going to be good, like scary good, starting around his age-25 season. He's projected to have a WAR over 7.0 for six straight seasons.
Maybe the scariest part of these projections isn't the 180 OPS+ or the potential for more than 40 home runs in a season, but the fact that he still doesn't have a long-term contract.
It's not going to be cheap for the Nationals to sign him, but it's necessary if they want to be able to capitalize on his prime years. When you have a player this good, you don't let him leave and risk alienating your entire fanbase. He's due a raise in arbitration after this season and will likely set a record, and he'll be a free agent in 2025.
The Nationals should extend him as long as they can so they can utilize his Hall of Fame–worthy talents.
Atlanta Braves RF Ronald Acuna Jr.
The best comparison for Ronald Acuna Jr. might be Ken Griffey Jr. If you want a more modern comparison, look no further than Trout.
Only five players have hit 50 home runs and stolen 50 bases through the age-21 season: Griffey, Andruw Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Trout and Acuna.
Where Acuna profiles similarly to Griffey and Trout is his five-tool profile. The speed and base-running abilities set him apart from some of his peers on this list, as well as the elite defense. He has played center field and right field and is primarily manning right field for the Atlanta Braves this season, while the other two were primarily centerfielders.
But Griffey hit 35 home runs at age 35. If the two really are comparable, then it might not be so far-fetched to think Acuna could be doing the same. There is a greater risk of injury in today's game, especially with all of the pitches he gets plunked by, but if he stays healthy we could see him playing into his late 30s.
Acuna is signed through his age-28 season with options that could keep him in Atlanta through age 30. Let's just hope the Braves do a better job of helping him get a World Series win than the Angels are doing with Mike Trout and than the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds did with Griffey.
San Diego Padres SS Fernando Tatis Jr.
The San Diego Padres have 22-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. locked up for the next 14 seasons. He won't be a free agent until his age-36 season; the team that drafted him will presumably have him through his prime.
So, what will he look like in his prime?
Like the aforementioned three players on this list, it's difficult to imagine a player who is already this good getting better. But if ZiPS projections hold true, over the next three seasons, he'll be a 30-homer player who regularly scores about 90 runs and drives in 100. He'll strike out in about 27 percent of his plate appearances and walk in about 11 percent of them.
He should enter his peak soon after that. Prior to the start of the season, FanGraphs ran long-term ZiPS projections that showed nine straight years with an fWAR over 5.0. His best seasons should come in his mid-to-late 20s when he's projected to hit 35 home runs, have an OPS+ in the range of 160-170 or more and a WAR of 6.0 or higher.
Tatis also could be one of baseball's most recognizable stars throughout the next decade or more. He's gregarious, plays the game with an infectious enthusiasm and he's marketable.
Baseball has been lacking a true crossover star in the style of someone like LeBron James or Tom Brady. Tatis could be key in helping the sport garner a younger audience.
Los Angeles Dodgers RHP Dustin May
The Los Angeles Dodgers' 23-year-old fireballer is out for the season and through much of next after undergoing Tommy John surgery. It's a devastating blow to the rotation, but it likely won't be for Dustin May's career.
Tommy John surgery saves more careers than it ends these days, and some of the best pitchers in baseball have undergone the surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligaments on their pitching elbows. Fellow Dodgers starter Walker Buehler had the procedure in 2015, two years before he was called up to the major leagues. He's been productive ever since.
Another lanky right-hander had Tommy John early in his career as well: Jacob deGrom. He compares similarly with his frame, delivery and fastball velocity.
Am I saying May is going to win two Cy Young Awards and throw harder and harder into his 30s like deGrom is doing? No, because deGrom seems to be a sort of cheat code. His ability to get better as he gets older is nothing short of remarkable, but not everyone ages in reverse.
But should May be able to maintain a fastball in the mid-90s and command his secondary offerings, then he should enjoy another 10-12 years in baseball.
New York Mets 1B Pete Alonso
Here's a different kind of career projection: I predict Pete Alonso will be in a New York Mets uniform for life and will eventually be the next captain.
Alonso is a joy to be around and a joy to watch. He is fiercely passionate and cares deeply about the team, the atmosphere in the clubhouse, the fans and the city of New York.
His Homers for Heroes foundation supports frontline workers of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has been active in 9-11 charities, the Wounded Warrior Project, and an active champion of racial equality, unafraid to voice his opinions on why Black lives matter while also balancing his support for the New York City Police Department when it was seemingly at odds with BLM protests.
Alonso is also reportedly responsible for creating fictional hitting coach Donnie Stevenson. The New York Post reported that the 26-year-old first baseman dressed in a hat and sunglasses before a hitters meeting and pretended to be the fictional coach to lighten the mood and fire up the scuffling team.
Playing in New York City allows for some major marketing. MLB should look to market his personality to a new generation of fans.
Los Angeles Angels RHP/DH/OF Shohei Ohtani
So, here's the thing about Shohei Ohtani: I'm not going to try to guess what he's going to do next because the two-way star keeps doing things on a baseball field that we have not seen in a generation.
It's tough to predict his career trajectory because of the injuries. He missed time after Tommy John surgery, and though he's been as dominant as ever in his return, is there a chance the Angels or another team end up converting him to an outfielder to save his arm and maximize his offense? Or do they let him pitch and limit his at-bats? Do they let him do both and just watch as his legend grows larger than Babe Ruth's?
I still just don't know what he'll be in the future, so I'll just leave it at this: Cooperstown.