Magic baseball

The Baltimore Sun

Predicting the future is one of the most fun and most difficult aspects of analyzing baseball.

We tend to look at players who are going strong now and assume they'll be going strong in five years. But that's rarely the case. Some young stars, especially pitchers, are struck by injury. Some have fluke seasons in their mid-20s that prove unrepeatable. The reasons are beside the point.

What's really important is this overarching theme: It's awfully hard to play baseball at an elite level for any sustained period. That's why almost every page of a baseball encyclopedia contains a player who's had a good season, but there have been only 199 Hall of Famers among the 17,000 or so who've played in the majors.

Don't believe me? Look at 2002. Sure, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero were among the most dominant hitters then and remained great last year. But among the other leading lights of 2002 were Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Brian Giles, Jason Giambi, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Jim Edmonds and Rafael Palmeiro.

Those guys had noticeably declined or left the game by last season. And forget pitchers. The 2002 top 10 in ERA had no one in common with the 2007 list (Roy Oswalt was close).

Every winter, in my quest for fantasy dominance, I try to figure out which few players are likely to be superstars in five years. That eliminates prospects, because even the best rarely achieve big league greatness. It rules out most players who are 30 or older, because that's when decline sets in for even the greatest of the great. It weeds out pitchers, because almost all of them get hurt.

I'm looking only for guys who have established a level of excellence and are likely to be near that level in 2013. Why five years? Well, that period encompasses six seasons, the longest period you can wrap up a player in many fantasy leagues.

The no-brainers:

There's no player I'd bet on more readily for 2013 than David Wright. He just had his best year at age 24 and has mastered every important skill. He might be the only guy on this list who would shock me if he falls off track in the next five years. His teammate, Jose Reyes, is also an easy choice, given his youth, speed and improved ability to reach base.

Hanley Ramirez will probably lose some value when poor defense forces him out of the middle infield. But guys who contend for batting titles, slug .562 and steal 51 bases at age 23 come a few times a generation. Similarly, very few guys pop 50 homers at that age. Prince Fielder just did and also looks like a perennial .300 hitter. No one seems likely to hit more homers over the next 10 years.

That said, Ryan Howard might hit more over the next five. He's quite simply the most awesome home run hitter in the game, and the late 20s and early 30s are peak years for power. Severna Park native Mark Teixeira also deserves a nod. He'll turn 28 just after Opening Day and an improved batting eye has made him an excellent all-around hitter.

I know some people think Miguel Cabrera will eat himself off this list. But guys who are MVP hitters when they're 24 usually remain MVP hitters when they're 29. The same logic applies to Ryan Braun, though he's less proven than Cabrera and less corpulent.

Grady Sizemore is like the American League David Wright. His 2006 power numbers might be a little over his head, but he reached a career-high walk rate last year and, at age 25, does everything well.

Robinson Cano is also only 25 and has established himself as a .300 hitter with enough pop to drive in many runs in a loaded Yankees lineup.

Troy Tulowitzki's best feature is his defense at shortstop, but he just signed a contract that will keep him in hitter-friendly Colorado into his late 20s. That means his power numbers will remain strong for the position.

B.J. Upton was lucky to hit .300 at age 23, but he combines power, speed and enough plate discipline that superstardom is possible and stardom is likely. His Tampa Bay teammate, Carl Crawford, might sacrifice speed for power over the next five years but should remain a force in 2013.

Jeff Francoeur improved his walk rate enough last year and has sustained good enough performance through his early 20s that he now looks like a sound long-term bet.

Ryan Zimmerman hasn't reached Wright's level but has hit well at ages when most players remain in the minors. That's exactly the pattern you look for in a coming star.

Finally, an Oriole slips onto the list. Nick Markakis did everything well at age 23 and all-around guys age better than one-dimensional performers. He might never hit 40 homers, but he won't need them.

Just misses:

Albert Pujols finally saw nagging injuries chip away at his numbers in 2007 and no longer seems a long-term certainty. Alex Rodriguez would be a rare player indeed if he can sustain his MVP level into his late 30s. Matt Holliday is a free-agent deal away from seeing his numbers dive in a more neutral hitter's park.

Chase Utley is already 29, and second basemen age poorly. His double-play partner, Jimmy Rollins, doesn't have a great batting eye to protect him from a slip in physical skills.

Joe Mauer certainly has the ability to make this list but as his 2007 showed, health will always be a problem for catchers. Russell Martin and Brian McCann miss for the same reason.

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