Welcome to 2015, the year of hover boards, flying cars, hydrators and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
Wait, what's that you say? None of that has actually happened?
Huh. Well, go figure, more proof that the future is difficult to predict. Twenty-six years ago, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale crafted their effective vision of 2015, within the screenplay for "Back to the Future Part II." They got many of their predictions right: Flat-screen TVs, video conferencing, biometric technology and, yes, Miami with a Major League Baseball franchise (OK, OK, wrong nickname and league, and a misread on the team's competitive state).
They also got many wrong, which is entirely understandable given the projection range. But I've got to hand it to "The Bobs" -- they're even bolder than my annual midsummer project of predicting baseball's future, using a 26-year window compared to my four-years-in-advance task. That they predicted as many things right as they did is nothing short of remarkable.
Even in that four-year time frame, it's remarkable how much the future can shift, causing predictions to go horribly, horribly wrong. Four years ago, I published my All-2015 Team, which included Dustin Ackley and Tommy Hanson, so I'll be forgiving and not complain about my car's current gravitational limitations.
That said, as with the movie, that same All-2015 Team had got some things very, very right: It had Bryce Harper as its No. 1 outfielder (he's the current No. 2 outfielder and No. 4 player overall on the Player Rater), Hanley Ramirez in the outfield (he'll be outfield-only in 2016 and is 19th at that position to date) and Aroldis Chapman as one of the closers.
On Oct. 21, 2015, the events from "Back to the Future Part II" are supposed to take place, so there's still time yet for my car to fly. And on Oct. 4, 2015 -- barring any required makeup or tiebreaker games -- we'll have a final season Player Rater to more adequately gauge my four-year-old predictions. (Rah-rah Dustin Ackley second-half hot streak!) After that point, however, we're on our own to guess future events.
Wait, no, we're not! That's where this column comes in.
Welcome to the place where predictions never stop, where the aim is to predict the highest ceilings of baseball's (somewhat) distant future. For those of you in dynasty leagues, this annual exercise -- predicting fantasy baseball's best four years ahead of time -- can help you identify the greatest-reward pickups in advance. Presenting: my All-2019 Team.
Just as with past editions, the All-2019 Team follows these guidelines:
• A full, 23-man, old-school Rotisserie roster must be selected: That means two catchers; one apiece at first base, second base, third base and shortstop; one corner infielder and one middle infielder (these selections are listed at their primary positions); five outfielders; a designated hitter (except that for this team, the DH must be an actual DH); and nine pitchers, broken down as seven starters and two closers. The volatility of the closer position dictates more emphasis upon starters, hence the 7/2 pitcher split.
• Players are listed only at the position I believe they'll be playing in 2019. For example, the Chicago Cubs have as many as four natural shortstops in their organization who are viable candidates for this team, but as they've shown with Javier Baez in 2014 and Addison Russell in 2015, they recognize that they cannot play all four at that position simultaneously. By 2019 they'll presumably need to decide where to slot all four, so all four players have been considered only for the team at the positions I currently project they'll play. That could be at shortstop, at another position or for another team.
• Players are picked based only upon how much fantasy value I believe they will have in the 2019 season and the 2019 season alone. In other words, this team projects the positional leaders on the 2019 ESPN Player Rater. This is by design, as it distinguishes players with the highest long-term ceilings. For those seeking players projected to have the greatest overall value for the next four seasons combined, see my midseason Keeper Top 250 rankings, published Tuesday.
Use this list whatever way you wish: structuring your dynasty squad's long-range goals, engaging in bar-room debates or, if you wish, to point out in four years how terribly, terribly wrong I was on many of the picks. It's all good.
Picks are in ranked order at each individual position, meaning that the two catchers are Nos. 1 and 2, and the "Best of the rest" picks begin with No. 3 and so on. "Sleeper" picks, however, do not necessarily follow this order.
Now, presenting the All-2019 Team, with players' ages as of June 30, 2019, listed in parentheses.
Catchers: Kyle Schwarber (26) and Blake Swihart (27)
Schwarber is the most difficult read on the team. His bat looks major league-ready and he'd still be under team control at affordable cost in year No. 3 or 4, so there was little doubt he'd appear somewhere on this team. At the same time, he has the look of a future left fielder. But let's think: The Cubs haven't granted him a single inning in left field in the minors this year, they actually let him catch a frame during his major league debut, they could have Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler locking down the corner outfield spots and Anthony Rizzo first base by 2019, and the Miguel Montero and David Ross contracts expire after 2017 and 2016, respectively. There's at least a decent chance the Cubs will experiment with Schwarber behind the plate for a few years, and if he sticks, there isn't a catcher in the professional ranks who can rival his raw power. Consider that the last catcher-eligible player to exceed 30 home runs in a season was Javy Lopez, in 2003 (43); Mike Napoli managed exactly 30 in 2011. If we were to place odds on which is the next catcher-eligible player to do so, Schwarber's would have to rank among the five best.
The No. 2 catcher spot is one of the closest calls on the team, with Swihart getting the narrow edge thanks to his age, contact ability and potential to fill all five primary Rotisserie categories -- that's right, he's quick enough to even chip in a few steals. From a fantasy standpoint, he's got a .280-20-and-5 look over a half-decade-plus' time, and while those numbers might not be eye-popping, consider that only 13 catchers in history have reached all three plateaus in a season even once; only three ever did it in multiple seasons (Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodriguez).
Sleeper: Jacob Nottingham (24). He has .238 isolated power combined between low Class A Quad Cities and high Class A Lancaster, which places him in the 95th percentile among all minor league qualifiers. We'll see whether his power continues to develop this quickly, but there are few better parks for righty power bats than Houston's Minute Maid Park.
First baseman: Joey Gallo (25)
Like Schwarber, Gallo's long-term position is in question, but his raw power trumps even Schwarber's. (That said, I prefer Schwarber's overall hitting approach.) Consider Gallo's paths to a regular role with the Texas Rangers: At third base, Adrian Beltre is signed through 2016, and he won't necessarily be ready to retire (nor "done" in productivity terms) at age 37; in the corner outfield spots, the Rangers have Josh Hamilton signed through 2017 and Shin-Soo Choo through 2020; and at first base and DH, Prince Fielder is signed through 2020 and Mitch Moreland will be eligible for free agency after 2016. With Fielder -- and perhaps Hamilton, sooner -- destined for DH, left field and first base are the most logical spots for Gallo. But even if he's a first baseman, Gallo's fantasy potential won't suffer. By 2019, third base might actually be a richer position than first base. After all, the prospects ranks are mighty thin at first.
Best of the rest: Anthony Rizzo (29) and Paul Goldschmidt (31)
Sleeper: Jon Singleton (27). Though I've been openly anti-Singleton in fantasy terms in recent years, one of the primary reasons is my belief that his three-true-outcomes style is one that requires an adjustment period at the big league level. There's little doubt that Singleton possesses elite power plus patience, and looking at the remarkably thin crop of first-base prospects, his ceiling could well make him a candidate by 2019.
Second baseman: Yoan Moncada (24)
It might be the weakest position in fantasy baseball by 2019, as the recent history of rapidly aging second basemen makes this the most difficult position to project. Consider that only four second base-eligible players managed at least 4 offensive WAR at the age of 31 or older in the past 10 seasons, Robinson Cano (2014, age 31), Placido Polanco (2007, 31), Marco Scutaro (2009, 33) and Ben Zobrist (2012, 31; and 2014, 33). Looking at the second-base landscape today, by 2019, Dee Gordon will be 31, Brian Dozier and Jason Kipnis 32, Howie Kendrick and Dustin Pedroia 35 and Cano 36. That's why Moncada stands out as the potential class of the position in the distant future, a 24-year-old who should be ready to move Pedroia to another position by 2019. Moncada's first professional season in the States might be disappointing -- he's hitting .263/.354/.388 in 41 games for Class A Greenville -- but it's still too small a sample to suggest he shouldn't be a 20/20 candidate who hits for a decent average.
Sleeper: Hector Olivera (34). I'm not entirely sure what to do with him, both from a positional and aging perspective. It's clear that Olivera can hit, and second base should be freed up in L.A. once Howie Kendrick's contract expires at season's end, but how long will his "prime years" phase last?
Third basemen: Kris Bryant (27) and Manny Machado (26)
Bryant is on pace for 23 home runs this season, should exceed 30 in 2016 and by 2019, is probably the safest bet in baseball to finish among the majors' top five performers in the category. Few players make better dynasty building blocks, with Bryant's prime expected to encompass the next eight-plus seasons, during which time he might well hit 300 total homers. He'll also be at his physical peak at a time coinciding with the arrival and/or maturation of many of the Chicago Cubs' offensive prospects, which means we might be looking at a .280-plus average, 40-homer, 120-RBI campaign from the young slugger.
As for Machado, this represents the third consecutive team he has made -- he was on the All-2016 and All-2017 Teams -- but he's back at third base this season after being listed at shortstop on the All-2017 squad. Surgeries on both knees have probably diminished the prospects that Machado will shift to shortstop once J.J. Hardy's contract expires following the 2017 season, but at least they haven't hampered him on the basepaths, which increases the odds he'll be one of the top names on the 2019 Player Rater. Though I'd be hard-pressed to project more than 10-12 stolen bases from Machado in any of the next five seasons, he continues to develop as a power hitter: He's on pace for 35 homers and 328 total bases, which would make him only the 16th player in history to manage at least 30 and 300 in either category by his age-22 season.
Sleeper: Rafael Devers (22). He's at least two years away from the majors as he is completely untested at the higher minor league levels, but there's considerable growth potential in his bat, both from the batting average and power perspectives. I'd have put Devers on the team if not for the rich, rising crop of young third-base talent currently present.
Shortstops: Carlos Correa (24) and Dansby Swanson (25)
There might not be a more obvious call on this list. Correa won't turn 25 until Sept. 22, 2019, and he has the prospect pedigree, having been tabbed the No. 1 pick overall in the 2012 amateur draft and earned Keith Law's No. 1 prospect ranking this preseason. Now think about this: At the age of 20, Correa is on pace for 4.4 offensive WAR -- that's scaling to remaining Houston Astros games -- a number matched or exceeded by a 20-year-old on only 14 occasions in the past century. The 12 of those 14 who played an age-25 season -- Ted Williams missed his due to military service during World War II and Mike Trout's age-25 season arrives in 2016 -- averaged a 0.3 offensive WAR increase at 25, six had 6 WAR or more and the only two who declined by any significant amount were Claudell Washington and Jason Heyward. Come 2019, Correa might give us only the second .300-30-100, 20-steal campaign by a shortstop in history; Alex Rodriguez is the only one who has done it (1998).
Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in the June amateur draft, is one of the safer long-term -- or should that read longer-term? -- middle-infield prospects, possessing five-category fantasy appeal and a likelihood of several 20/20 seasons during his prime. He'll call a hitter-friendly Chase Field his home, at least at the onset of his big league career, and even if he needs to shift off shortstop, second base seems like his most logical landing spot.
Best of the rest: Xander Bogaerts (26), Addison Russell (25), Trea Turner (26) and J.P. Crawford (24)
Sleeper: Brendan Rodgers (22). Ah, but will he remain at shortstop? Remember that both Troy Tulowitzki and Trevor Story stand in his path at the higher competitive levels, but if Rodgers sticks with the Colorado Rockies and at shortstop, he could quickly leap ahead of any of the above names besides Correa.
Outfielders: Bryce Harper (26), Mike Trout (27), Byron Buxton (25), Mookie Betts (26) and Jorge Soler (27)
If Correa isn't obvious, Harper and Trout are. Let's let the numbers do the talking: Harper is on pace for 48 homers to go along with his .339 batting average, which would make him only the second player in history to manage at least a .330 average and 40 homers at the age of 22 or younger (Joe DiMaggio, .346 and 46 as a 22-year-old in 1937). Trout, meanwhile, is on pace for 48 home runs, which would be the third-most by any player aged 23 or younger in history, and 17 stolen bases to go along with a .312 batting average. That would give Trout four career seasons of at least a .287 average, 27 homers and 16 steals, all of them at the age of 23 or younger; only four other players in history have at least that many such seasons at any age (Willie Mays, nine; Barry Bonds, eight; Hank Aaron, six; and Alex Rodriguez, six).
Though Buxton's injuries are an increasing concern, let's not forget that he's still 21 years old, with some of those ailments the "bad-luck" type. He's as speedy as any prospect in the game with good contact ability today, and any scout you ask will tell you that Buxton should eventually hit for average and power, perhaps .275-20 on the low end of those scales. If there's to be a "next Mike Trout," Buxton remains that man, and while his level of risk has risen slightly, he remains one of the 10 best candidates to top the 2019 Player Rater.
Betts might have a batting title or three in his bat, possessing elite contact-hitting skills, speed and perhaps a hint more power than he has shown thus far. In fact, with a little luck in the batting-average department this year, he could become the ninth player in the past quarter-century to manage a .290-hitting, 20/20 campaign at age 22 or younger. This is the kind of player who locks into a top-of-the-order spot for a decade-plus, giving him legitimate five-category fantasy stud potential, and his candidacy for this team is only helped by the chance, however slim, that he could someday return to second base.
Surely Soler ranks among the boldest choices on the team, but I don't want to overreact to an 81-game major league sample size. He's too free-swinging today -- his career major league strikeout rate is 12 percent higher and his walk rate more than 4 percent lower than his minor league rates -- but he remains a tremendous athlete with potentially elite power and batting-average skills. Players like this sometimes require a year or two to fully adapt to big league pitching, and two seasons from now, we might find ourselves laughing about ever having had doubts about a then-.290-hitting, 30-homer Soler.
Best of the rest:
Joc Pederson (27), George Springer (29), Christian Yelich (27), Yasiel Puig (28), Andrew McCutchen (32), Billy Hamilton (28), Nomar Mazara (24), Justin Upton (31), Aaron Judge (27) and Jason Heyward (29)
Sleeper: Austin Meadows (24). He's quick, he makes contact and he can defend. Now, will Meadows' power blossom in the next few years? It's his path to fantasy superstardom, but even if he tops out in the teens in terms of home runs, he could provide value within range of Starling Marte's today.
Designated hitter: Giancarlo Stanton (29)
Let's get controversial.
Stanton was the DH on last season's All-2018 Team, and he's the pick this season as well. A significant thing has changed since then, however: Stanton signed a 13-year, $325-million contract, greatly increasing the chances that, come 2019, he'd remain a member of the Miami Marlins, who play in the DH-free National League. Here's where the controversy comes in: By 2019, the NL could indeed have a DH; the debate already has been increasing in intensity, with its proponents using the "preserving baseball's aging stars" argument for decades. Stanton will hardly qualify as "aging" by 2019, but with the number of injuries he already has had, you can be sure that there'll be talk about diminishing the amount of future risk he'll face, especially in light of his new deal. Remember: The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after 2016.
Best of the rest: Hanley Ramirez (35)
Starting pitcher: Jose Fernandez (26), Gerrit Cole (28), Julio Urias (22), Clayton Kershaw (31), Carlos Rodon (26), Lucas Giolito (24) and Matt Harvey (30)
Read that number again: Exactly four years from today, Fernandez will be only 26 years old (he won't turn 27 until July 31). Twenty-six! And since the beginning of his rookie season in 2013, among pitchers who have made at least 20 starts during that time, Fernandez ranks second in ERA (2.24), FIP (2.56) and ERA+ (172), third in WHIP (0.97) and fourth in strikeout rate (29.1 percent). He has one of the filthiest curveballs in baseball and, health willing, should have built up enough stamina to easily be an annual 33-start, 220-inning dynamo by 2019, if not a good season or two before then.
Speaking of filthy breaking pitches, Cole's slider, coupled with his mid-90s fastball and developing curveball and changeup, puts him right up there in the discussion of perennial Cy Young candidates. He's already looking like one now, and there might be more strikeouts in his future; think perennial 200-plus totals with sub-3.00 ERAs. Rodon could be tossed into that same discussion, as his slider is even better than Cole's. Should Rodon's command come around as expected, he'll be in the Cy Young conversation as well.
Urias and Giolito are widely regarded as the game's top two pitching prospects, and it's remarkable to think that Urias, only 18 years old, has made more starts at the Double-A level (seven) than Giolito (zero). Still, both are on late-2016/early-2017 trajectories, and both profile as front-of-rotation arms. In fantasy terms, no one can argue with 31.5 (Urias) and 28.8 (Giolito) percent strikeout rates, as both should be 200-plus-K arms soon. I wouldn't be at all surprised if both emerge as the top fantasy pitchers on their respective staffs in 2019; and remember, those are Kershaw and Zack Greinke's (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg's (Washington Nationals) teams.
Speaking of Kershaw, even at age 31, he stands good odds of remaining one of the best pitchers in the game by 2019. He's the first player in history to lead the majors in ERA in four consecutive seasons, he was a top-10 finisher on our Player Rater in each of those years (the only player to accomplish that), and yet he did it despite an entirely reasonable workload: Only 49 starts of 110-plus pitches and six of 120-plus, or 34 and 4 percent of his total starts; those made him look Greg Maddux-ian (24 and 11 percent, using those same measures) from the Hall of Famer's 1992-96 run that included three major league ERA titles.
Finally, Harvey might have fallen short of expectations in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but that merely illustrates how unrealistic those expectations were in the first place. He has a 3.07 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 24.3 percent strikeout rate; only eight qualifiers have better numbers in all three categories. By 2017, any possible workload restrictions should be gone and he'll be ready to carry his fantasy teams for a good half-decade-plus.
Best of the rest: Noah Syndergaard (26), Carlos Martinez (27), Alex Reyes (24), Taijuan Walker (26), Michael Wacha (27), Marcus Stroman (28), Felix Hernandez (32), Chris Sale (30), Dylan Bundy (27), Sonny Gray (29), Tyler Glasnow (25), Aaron Nola (26), Chris Archer (30) and Jacob deGrom (31).
Sleeper: Marco Gonzales (27). His was the most difficult selection from the sleeper class, as both Kevin Gausman (28) and Kyle Gibson (31) were candidates for what was going to be a clear "already-big-league-battle-tested" pick. Gonzales' 2015 season has been marred by injuries, but he was still showing enough progress both improving his command, as well as adding both a two-seamer and cutter to his arsenal, this spring to keep his long-term ceiling high.
Relief pitcher: Ken Giles (28) and Carson Fulmer (25)
This is annually the most difficult position to forecast, primarily due to the significant rate of turnover among big league closers. To illustrate, let's flash back four years to 2011: Only four of the 19 relievers to save 30 or more games are current closers today, and only two of those four (Craig Kimbrel and Jonathan Papelbon) have held closer jobs consistently since. My record of projecting closers four years into the future has been somewhat spotty, unsurprisingly, with Joba Chamberlain (2012), Jonathan Broxton (2014), Daniel Bard (2014) and Neftali Feliz (2015) ranking among the worst such selections.
That's why, when forecasting the closers of the distant future, I'm mostly looking for pitchers with the best stuff regardless of current role. Giles and Fulmer both qualify: Both can dial up their fastballs to 95-plus mph regularly, and both have power breaking pitches; Giles a slider and Fullmer a curveball. Giles could be closing by Aug. 1 of this year, Fulmer by the end of next, but in the latter's case, his Chicago White Sox might well want to try him first as a starter. Either way, merely getting him on the team underscores his dynasty appeal.
Sleeper: Frankie Montas (26). If it's not Fulmer, Montas could fit as a future White Sox closer, despite his being groomed as a starter thus far during his professional career. Montas' strikeout rate isn't eye-popping -- 20.3 percent in Double-A thus far -- but he possesses the mid-90s fastball and slider combo that might help him thrive in a short-relief role.