So I was watching "Back to the Future Part II" recently -- probably for the 347th time -- and it dawned upon me: We're only five years away from the "future" forecasted in that movie.
Considering we're talking about a movie made 21 years ago, the fact that some of the things predicted in the fictional 2015 have actually since come true is somewhat surprising. Videoconferencing, multi-channel ("mosaic") TV watching, hands-free video games, our obsession with '80s retro (the "Cafe '80s")
And, as baseball fans, who can ignore the most significant of them all: Miami getting a baseball team. Sure, they got the league wrong -- though if three teams from the same division (the American League East in this case) do win 100-plus games this year, there's always the prospect of radical realignment by 2015 -- but don't claim they whiffed on the city. After all, once they move into their new digs two years from now, they'll be known as the Miami Marlins.
But I digress.
The point is that, as the movie demonstrated, it's fun to predict the future, and more fun still to look back many years later on the accuracy of your predictions. For instance, if you were born before 1990, as I was -- by one year, I promise -- surely you participated in the ever-popular "time-capsule" ritual (and were perhaps disappointed come 2000, when upon its opening you discovered nothing but a puddle of mucky water thanks to improper sealing of the canister). Still, the anticipation was fun, wondering what kind of flying contraption you might have dreamed up as an 8-year-old a couple of decades earlier, or hoping you might have stashed a Mark McGwire rookie card in there (oh wait ), right?
In the fantasy baseball world, predicting the future is what we're all about. We might typically be predicting the events of today, tomorrow or next Thursday, but a large part of success in this game is the ability to accurately predict events before they happen, even measured by years. That's most true in keeper leagues, but even in redraft formats it's important to familiarize yourself with the long term.
So let's do that today. Let's turn the clock forward four years, to the 2014 season, and dream about how things might be then in our grand game. It's hardly a new exercise; in previous seasons I've offered windows into the future with "All-2007" (published in 2004) and "All-2012" (2008) teams. Four years seems like a good measure of time for the prediction game, so let's pick 2014.
Picking an "All-2014 Team" requires a set of rules, of course, just like my previous edition. Here's a rundown:
• A full 23-man fantasy roster must be selected, meaning two catchers; one apiece at first base, second base, third base and shortstop; one corner infielder and one middle infielder (though the latter two will be listed at their primary positions); five outfielders; a designated hitter (who must be an actual DH); six starting pitchers; and three closers.
• Players are only listed at the position I believe they'll be playing in 2014. In other words, if I see Albert Pujols shifting to shortstop next year, that's where he'll be listed on this team. (Um, no, not happening, it's just an example. Sorry if I got his keeper-league owners' hopes up.)
• Players are picked in order of how much value I believe they'll have in 2014 alone, though close calls are broken by overall long-term value. The top players make the first team, and the rest are listed in ranked order as "best of the rest."
• Only fantasy potential is considered. That means defense is irrelevant, outside of how it determines which position the player plays.
Now, presenting the "All-2014 Team," with players' ages in parentheses:
CATCHER: Joe Mauer (30) and Matt Wieters (27). This is one of the tougher positions to predict, in that it's surprisingly rich in young talent. My advice to keeper-league owners is that if you're a believer in any of the three rookies/minor league prospects in the "Best of the rest" bunch below more than one of these two, feel free to go with your gut. After all, breaking into the top competitive level in baseball can be quite challenging for a young catcher -- just ask Wieters -- and it's almost impossible to tell which one of the bunch might be the next Mauer, and which one might be an out-and-out bust (and we probably will have one of each from this group).
Back to Mauer: Why sweat a position shift at this point? He has appeared in 199 of the Minnesota Twins' past 209 games, an amazing workload for a catcher, and even if the team chooses to ease off his catching chores in the future, they could catch him 81 times and DH him the other 81 yet scarcely affect his performance. Mauer has a legitimate chance of going down as the greatest catcher of all time, so he's a natural pick. As for Wieters, at the time of his debut he was advertised a future .300-30-100 candidate, and one calendar year of .263-14-64 numbers shouldn't condemn him. If you're in a keeper league, now is the perfect time to pounce, because if you wait until he turns the corner, by then it'll be too late.
Best of the rest: Carlos Santana (27), Buster Posey (27), Brian McCann (30) and Jesus Montero (24).
The sleeper: Derek Norris (25). Everyone surely expected I'd put 2010 No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper on the All-2014 Team, right? He's a candidate, sure, but the kid will still be only 21 years old by then, and the Washington Nationals seem set on shifting him to the outfield. Instead, by 2014 they might have Norris installed as their everyday catcher. His walk (one per 5.50 plate appearances) and home run (one per 22.4 at-bats) rates in the minors are quite promising.
FIRST BASE: Miguel Cabrera (30) and Adrian Gonzalez (31). Another toughie, but these are two MVP-caliber sluggers who by 2014 will still be in the prime of their careers. Cabrera is about as obvious a pick as it gets, outside of the risk he might be a DH by then. As for Gonzalez, what do you think are the chances he'll still be with the San Diego Padres by then? Probably not good. By the way, in his past 162 road games, he's a .310 hitter with 50 homers and 135 RBIs. His keeper-league owners must be salivating over his chances of a trade to, say, the Boston Red Sox.
Best of the rest: Joey Votto (30), Albert Pujols (34), Mark Teixeira (33), Justin Smoak (27) and Logan Morrison (26).
The sleepers: James Loney (29) and Ike Davis (27). With Loney, we already know he can hit and that he's durable; now it's just a question of how many of those 52 doubles (his current year-end pace) might turn into homers in future years. As for Davis, he still has a few holes in his swing, but four years is a lot of time to patch some of them. The early returns have his future looking a heck of a lot like what Carlos Delgado was to this team from 2006 to '08.
SECOND BASE: Robinson Cano (31). He has already shown he's a potential batting-title contender and his swing is perfectly suited to Yankee Stadium, making 25-plus homers a fairly safe bet for the next half-decade (or longer). The Yankees have no plans to move him, and you know that with their payroll, they'll always strive to surround Cano with the talent to pad his runs/RBI totals. Why bet against him?
Best of the rest: Howard Kendrick (30), Ian Kinsler (29), Aaron Hill (32) and Brandon Phillips (31).
The sleeper: The Gordon Beckham (27) haters are out in droves this year, after he has slumped to .205/.277/.259 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers in what has been one of the most disappointing sophomore years I've ever seen. Why the Chicago White Sox won't consider even a brief demotion with him is inexplicable, but he's still only 23 years old, and that means he has a lot of time to get his career back on track. Remember, six months ago most people would probably have picked him as the A-number-one second baseman on a list like this.
THIRD BASE: Evan Longoria (28). As obvious a pick on the list, Longoria is on pace for .304-28-123-24 numbers this season, and that's at only 24 years of age. Imagine what he might be doing when he's 28. The stolen bases are really the primary question with Longoria long-term, but in his defense: Joe Maddon likes to run, run, run, and considering his managerial skills, as well as the considerable amount of talent he'll have at his disposal, the chances of him remaining skipper until 2014, freeing Longoria up on the base paths, are good.
Best of the rest: David Wright (31), Pedro Alvarez (27), Ryan Zimmerman (29) and Alex Rodriguez (38). (A note on A-Rod: Even Hank Aaron was still plenty productive, though not a top MVP candidate, in his age-38 season.)
The sleeper: Mike Moustakas (25), the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft, suffered through three disappointing pro campaigns in the low minors before finally settling in at Double-A Northwest Arkansas this season (.348-17-63 numbers in 51 games). Maybe the Kansas City Royals, who shifted him from shortstop midway through the 2008 season, are onto something?
SHORTSTOP: Hanley Ramirez (30) and Elvis Andrus (25). Ramirez has done enough to upgrade his defense that a position shift is no longer a serious threat, and even if you consider this a "down" year by his standards, he's on pace for .286-26-96-29 numbers, which are exceptional for a shortstop. He'll be a perennial 30/30 contender for at least another half-decade, especially since he'll be on the right side of his 30th birthday for most of it. As for Andrus, he's a tremendous athlete with incredible speed, and even if you're concerned about his nine times caught stealing, four more years' experience can do a lot to cure that. There's more pop in his bat than he has shown, he plays in the right ballpark for a young hitter, and he might not be far off from a string of .300-hitting, 60-steal campaigns. From a shortstop, that's hard to imagine.
Best of the rest: Troy Tulowitzki (29), Stephen Drew (31), Jose Reyes (30) and Starlin Castro (24).
The sleeper: Dee Gordon (25). This kid, currently in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, can sure run. He swiped 73 bases in Class A ball a year ago, and while it'd be nice to see a player this speedy draw a few more walks, a .355 career on-base percentage in the minors isn't anything to criticize. At the pace he's on, Gordon might be a perennial contender for the stolen-base crown by 2014; Andrus might have himself some competition!
OUTFIELD: Justin Upton (26), Ryan Braun (30), Jason Heyward (24), Andrew McCutchen (27) and Carl Crawford (32). If Upton isn't a top MVP candidate at the time of your 2014 draft, then something went terribly wrong. Catastrophic injury struck, a paradox unraveled the very fabric of the space-time continuum (completely freaking out Doc Brown, of course), or perhaps the Mayans were right. Like Pujols and A-Rod during the 20-aughts, Longoria and Upton should be their respective leagues' top MVP contenders during the '10s. There's too much talent here to sweat even Upton's K-prone ways earlier this year.
The rest of the bunch are fairly obvious selections as well: Braun should still be a .300-30-100 caliber hitter with double-digit speed as he heads deep into his prime years, though the speed might slow every year thereafter. Heyward has shown us nothing so far this year to believe he'll be anything short of a top-5 outfielder, perhaps as quickly as 2011. McCutchen is as strong a 30/30 candidate -- or 20/40, which is no less valuable -- as there is in the game. And Crawford, despite potentially losing a tiny bit of speed by the time he's age 32, still looks very much like a player capable of continuing a string of .300-plus, double digit-homer, 50-steal campaigns deep into the decade. Besides, if you believe the rumors that he'll be a New York Yankee next season, his runs-scored total would be even safer, and he might even experience a slight boost in power numbers beginning in 2011.
Best of the rest: Matt Kemp (29), Jay Bruce (26), Mike Stanton (24), Desmond Jennings (27), Colby Rasmus (27), Jacoby Ellsbury (30), Carlos Gonzalez (28) and Dustin Ackley (26).
The sleepers: Delmon Young (28) and Domonic Brown (26). Yes, I am still a believer in Young, and a lot of it has to do with that age in parentheses. That's right, he'll still be only 28 in 2014, and that's a lot of time yet before he reaches the theoretical prime of his career. Something you might like to know: He's on pace for his best walk (6.1 percent of his PAs) and contact rates (88.5 percent) of his career. Hmmm. As for Brown, he's the kind of prospect who today looks like he might need a little time to fully grow into his frame. A good way to describe his talent: One year from today, I could put together an "All-2015 Team" that would be foolish to exclude his name. His upside is that great.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Prince Fielder (29). As good a DH prototype as you'll find around the majors, and it's convenient that he'll be eligible for free agency before we reach 2014. Put the chances of him signing with an AL team set to make him its everyday DH at better than 50-50. As for his power, few sluggers can match it; like Ryan Howard in the past half-decade, Fielder should have quite a few 40-homer campaigns, and perhaps 50-homer, in his future.
STARTING PITCHER: Stephen Strasburg (25), Tim Lincecum (29), Felix Hernandez (27), Tommy Hanson (27), David Price (28) and Clayton Kershaw (26). The same things said for Upton could apply to Strasburg, though with starting pitchers, all bets are off. Strasburg has 100-mph heat, a knee-buckling curve, a quality changeup the list goes on and on. If he can stay healthy for this long -- and in his defense, Lincecum has now made it through three full years in the majors without issue despite somewhat generous workloads -- Strasburg easily has the most talent of the bunch. To debate whether he has a Cy Young in his future is foolish; the debate should be how soon it's coming.
You'll also notice a common bond among these six starting pitchers: In addition to ace-of-the-staff talent, each one has league-leading potential in the strikeout department, one of the most critical aspects in determining future fantasy success. If you're going to build long-term around pitching, it's the K category you should trust the most, and even accounting for the health risk of pitchers, I'd be surprised if this group couldn't amass at least 12 200-K campaigns combined between now and 2013. It'd also be somewhat surprising if the group didn't claim half of the Cy Young awards handed out between now and then.
Best of the rest: Jon Lester (30), Yovani Gallardo (28), Ubaldo Jimenez (30), Clay Buchholz (29), Zack Greinke (30), Mat Latos (26), Phil Hughes (27), Matt Cain (29), Brett Anderson (26) and Brian Matusz (27).
The sleeper: Aroldis Chapman (26). I admire the talent but question the walk rate, as he has offered 40 free passes in 65 2/3 innings over 13 starts for Triple-A Louisville. Chapman has what it takes to be a perennial contender for the K crown, like the six pitchers picked to the team, but his future is somewhat clouded; a Scott Kazmir-like path is always possible.
RELIEF PITCHER: Jonathan Broxton (29) Drew Storen (26) and Daniel Bard (28). If it's not catcher, then closer is the most difficult of the positions to forecast, though for different reasons. At catcher it's a matter of depth; at closer it's a matter of turnover and predicting future roles. Still, the common bond among these three is that, as with the starters, they're as sound as closers come in the strikeout category, and each of their futures seems officially ticketed for the bullpen. Broxton's greatest risk has always been that manager Joe Torre would overuse him, but Torre's potential retirement might help ease that worry. Storen was one of the better closer prospects drafted out of college in the past decade, and was immediately ticketed for the Washington Nationals' ninth-inning role upon his selection at No. 10 overall last summer. Heck, he has almost grabbed that role already. Bard, meanwhile, brings 100-mph heat and has already tempted the Boston Red Sox to consider dealing the incumbent, Jonathan Papelbon, at season's end.
Best of the rest: Neftali Feliz (25), Joakim Soria (29), Joba Chamberlain (28), Craig Kimbrel (25) and Carlos Marmol (31).
The sleeper: Tanner Scheppers (27). Yes, the Texas Rangers are already dabbling with him as a starter, but with his skill set a career as a dominant stopper seems logical. One challenge with picking the relievers for the team: Scheppers and Feliz, who was in the "best of the rest" group, play for the same franchise, and it's unclear today which one might be ticketed for the rotation and which one for the closer role in the long term. Had it been clear that Feliz's future was in the bullpen, he'd probably have topped everyone at this position.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.