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June 14, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Picks for the 2015 World Champs

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Texas Rangers
Top-flight talent, depth, and ownership that is willing to spend top dollar to acquire and retain talent is what makes the Texas Rangers a safe pick to contend for World Series titles now and in the near future. Since 2015 qualifies as the "near future," they seem like a wise choice for 2015 World Series champs. It all starts at the top, and according to Cot's, the architect of the Rangers juggernaut, general manager Jon Daniels, is under contract through 2015. On the diamond, the club has talented position players Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler locked up long-term and Elvis Andrus under team control until after the 2015 season; on the bump, they have Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, and Alexi Ogando under contract or team control through 2015 as well. That's a ton of big-league talent locked up.

Digging a bit deeper, you'll find a host of young prospects that figure to make an impact by 2015. While I'm no prospect expert, it is clear that resident talent evaluators Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks are fans of this farm system, or at least pieces of it. The Rangers have a good mix of talent in the field and on the mound. That talent is dispersed through the upper and lower minors, giving them an enviable combination of youngsters that should either graduate to the major-league level or become assets that can be used as trade chips. Plenty of prospects have failed to live up to expectations, something Goldstein and Parks can speak to better than I, but the depth of the system should allow for the failure of a few prospects without an accompanying face plant of the system as a whole.

The final piece of the puzzle for the Rangers’ sustainable success, and their ultimate coronation as 2015 World Series champs, is their ability to finance this powerhouse squad. The team came into this season ranking seventh in Major League Baseball in payroll and were one of 11 teams to spend nine figures on contracts to their players in 2012. Spending on players shouldn't change for the Rangers with a new 20-year, $3 billion television contract beginning in 2015. The team will have important decisions to make on players such as Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Napoli, amongst others, but regardless of which players they choose to retain or part ways with, the team will boast a nucleus capable of winning a truckload of games. —Josh Shepardson

2. Arizona Diamondbacks
The 2010 Giants proved that a great starting rotation and some crazy-fluky hitting can be enough to win it all. That should be the blueprint for the D-Backs, who will (theoretically) have a rotation anchored by Trevor Cahill (under contract through 2015, with team options for the next two years) and some of the best pitching prospects in the game. Patrick Corbin is already up, Trevor Bauer is waiting in the wings, and Tyler Skaggs, Archie Bradley, and Andrew Chafin all have legitimate shots at into breaking the Arizona rotation. Couple that with Justin Upton, Paul Goldschmidt, and Gerardo Parra all entering their age-27 seasons, and you’ve got more than enough core to build around. The Diamondbacks are pretty thin on position-player prospects, but if they hit on someone like Matt Davidson, GM Kevin Towers should be able to assemble enough talent to win one of the weaker divisions in baseball. And once you’re in the postseason, we all know that anything can happen. —Ian Miller

3. Seattle Mariners
It can’t be easy to watch the current iteration of the Seattle Mariners for their fans. Ichiro is a shell of his elite self, Felix Hernandez has been “just” very good as opposed to his overpowering and elite self, Brandon League lost his role as closer due to ineffectiveness, and the offense have been downright putrid with a collective .233/.296/.375 line.

Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley haven’t played up to expectations, but Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have been very good, though those four performances essentially cancel out. Jason Vargas remains a solid asset, and Kevin Millwood has emerged seemingly out of thin air, but Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi are both toting ERAs near 6.00 leading to another wash.

Fear not, Mariners fans; there is light at the end of the tunnel. This team should be poised for a 2015 title run if things go according to plan. Ichiro won’t be around and Hernandez isn’t guaranteed to be, either, but Seattle should have a rotation headlined by Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen, who are both dominating the minor leagues.

James Paxton is yet another top pitching prospect. History tells us that all three of these guys won’t reach their peaks as big-time starting pitchers. At least one of this group will likely find his way into the bullpen, if not a pair. However, if they can get two front-end guys, the crop is a success. The odds are highest on Walker and Hultzen becoming that big-time 1-2 duo.

On the offensive side of things, Ackley, Montero, Seager, and Saunders are all 25 and under, as are Justin Smoak and Alex Liddi, both of whom have shown some potential. Mike Zunino was Seattle’s top pick in last week’s draft and gives them a future backstop with much better defense than Montero. Nick Franklin is the top hitting prospect in the system as a middle infielder with power. He is currently raking at Double-A as a 21-year-old.

The core of this 2015 World Series team would be: Zunino at catcher, Smoak at first, Ackley at second, Franklin at short, and Seager at third. Saunders is the lone outfielder right now, though Liddi could be transitioned out there. Montero will play his best position: designated hitter. I have the Mariners re-upping with Felix to lead their rotation—he will still be on the right side of 30—giving Seattle a Felix-Walker-Hultzen top three with Paxton dominating at the back end of the bullpen. Texas isn’t going anywhere, so the Mariners will have their work cut out for them, but they have a championship core in the making. —Paul Sporer

4. Houston Astros
It's a fun question, but we all ultimately know that we're shooting in the dark, right? I mean, it's hard enough to predict what's going to happen in the season we're currently in (the Orioles in contention, really?), but to guess where we're going to be three-and-a-half seasons from now is pretty much a fool's errand.

But the Astros must have almost as good a chance as anyone, right? Despite being relative doormats for the last two years, the Astros have a strong management team in place in Jeff Lunhow and company (yes, that includes you, Mike Fast). They have a newish stadium and the 10th-largest media market in America according to Nielsen, and a new owner looking to make a name for himself, presumably. At the plate and in the field, they have Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve, one of the funnest double-play combinations going right now. On the farm, they have Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart. They just drafted Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr. On the mound, they've got Wandy Rodriguez and... um... Wandy Rodriguez sure is a good pitcher, huh?

A free-agent signing here, another trade like Melancon for Lowrie there (especially with Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon sure to be on the trading block this July), and couldn't the Astros get the drop on the rest of the NL Central? It's not like the Reds or Brewers are looking like long-term competitors, and the Cardinals have to run out of able bodies some day. And maybe the Pirates and Cubs spend extra time getting their acts together. Come on, why not the Astros? Who's with me? —Michael Bates

5. Pittsburgh Pirates
There was The Curse of The Bambino in Boston that was eradicated eight years ago, and there is The Curse of the Billy Goat in Chicago. People in Cleveland will tell you the Indians haven't won a World Series since 1948 because of the Curse of Rocky Colavito. There are no official curses in Pittsburgh to explain why the Pirates haven't been to a World Series since 1979 or even had a winning season in 20 years, though former MVP and batting champion Dave Parker posits it is because he was not re-signed as a free agent following the 1983 season, thus spawning The Curse of The Cobra.

Curse or not, there are signs that the Pirates might finally be ready to start winning again, including their current 32-28 record that puts them only one game behind the Reds in the National League Central. While the Pirates will have to improve their anemic offense to contend over the long haul this season, there are three reasons to believe there might be a championship or two in the not-too-distant future—pitching, pitching and more pitching. The Pirates have drafted three ace-caliber starters in the first round of each of the last three drafts in right-handers Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole and Mark Appel and have another number-one type, righty James McDonald, blossoming in their major-league rotation. While the Pirates need to find someone to help center fielder Andrew McCutchen in the lineup both now and into the future, they have laid the foundation with great arms. If the Pirates can fill in the rest over the next three years, there is no reason why they can't be hoisting their first World Series trophy in 36 years in 2015. —John Perrotto

6. Kansas City Royals
Sure, this is a homer pick, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. No, really. We all know that last year the Royals were lauded for having the best group of prospects since the 1987 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Given more than a fair bit of wishcasting, by 2015, the lineup could look like this: 1. Alex Gordon (LF, age-31 season); 2. Johnny Giavotella (2B, 27); 3. Eric Hosmer (1B, 25); 4. Billy Butler (DH, 29); 5. Mike Moustakas (3B, 26); 6. Wil Myers (RF, 24); 7. Salvador Perez (C, 25); 8. Bubba Starling (CF, 22); 9. Alcides Escobar (SS, 28). That’s awesome. Also, by then you hope that Danny Duffy and John Lamb are fully recovered from their respective elbow surgeries, Mike Montgomery has conquered his command issues, and the rotation is filled out by power righties Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Zimmer. You also have Aaron Crow and Chris Dwyer in reserve to provide rotation depth and/or relief help. Given recent history—recent on a geologic scale, anyway—Royals fans have to feel like every player I’ve mentioned is either going to be horribly mangled in a Bump Bailey-type incident or inexplicably traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. But, seriously, the Process could pay off big time in three years. Or two. Heck, the 2015 World Series could be a much anticipated Royals-Nationals return match. Too much? —Bradford Doolittle

7. New York Yankees
To determine which team is likeliest to win the World Series n seasons in the future, you don’t need to do any fancy-pants analysis of current contract structures, farm system strength, PECOTA aging curves, or the random alignment of celestial bodies during the year in question. All you need to do is bet with the house, and in the case of Major League Baseball, the Yankees are the house.

To win it all, you need to make the playoffs—something the Yankees have done 17 of the last 18 seasons. They’ve managed this nearly unfathomable achievement through an unrivaled combination of front-office smarts and filthy lucre that makes them unique among baseball franchises. Yes, unique. It often makes me chuckle when the Yankees are included in a list of “big-market” teams, as if they are somehow in the same payroll neighborhood as, say, the Red Sox or Phillies when the Bombers maintain a payroll 20 percent higher than their neighbors to the north and west. The Yankees are in a class by themselves, with enough money to paper over the inevitable bad contracts they sign. The best team doesn’t always win the World Series, and the Yankees aren’t always the best team, but they’re usually good enough to get their dance ticket punched every single year, and that’s what matters. It may be more fun to pick the Rangers or the Nationals or the Rays, but if you were betting your mortgage money, is there really any other choice? —Ken Funck

8. Los Angeles Angels
Albert Pujols will be 35, and we can reasonably hope he's still doing something like what he's done this May through the present (.290/.345/.523 with strong defense), but this, as much as anything in baseball can ever be, is about one guy.

We've been fooled by 200 or so great PA before, but Mike Trout sure looks, for all the world, like the kind of guy you build a championship team around. He's hitting .345/.406/.552, and if you project his 41 games out to 155 (which is silly, but fun), you get 38 doubles, 11 triples, 23 homers, and 57 steals (at a 83 percent success rate). In 2015, he'll be 23 and still might not be as good as he's going to get, but it seems likely he'll be really, really good.

So Trout is your foundation, and hopefully Pujols is still sort of your 1-A. C.J. Wilson (age 34) and Jered Weaver (age 31) are still under contract and are still both good enough to be number-one starters on most teams. Howie Kendrick (age 31) is entering a contract year, and is something between average and awesome at second base. Hank Conger figures it out and becomes a better-than-average catcher, Jean Segura develops into an excellent shortstop (taking over for the still-under-contract utility infielder Erick Aybar), Garrett Richards and John Hellweg give them a better-than-average third and fourth starter. That still leaves a number of holes, but this is a team that is finally free of Vernon Wells' contract (and Torii Hunter's ended after 2012), and it's a team owned by a man who has always been willing to spend money on his product. They spend the 2013-2015 offseasons acquiring young (in free agency terms) players to more than adequately fill most of those holes, and top to bottom, by the start of 2015, are the trendy "best team in the AL" pick.

But this is, fundamentally, Mike Trout's team, and it's Trout who carries them past the Seattle Mariners in late September and goes absolutely insane through the playoffs, Carlos Beltran in 2004 style, and the Anaheim Angels (they dropped the ridiculous double name back in 2014) are your 2015 world champs. —Bill Parker

9. Washington Nationals
If we were to poll people on which position player and pitcher they expect to be the best in baseball in 2015, the names mentioned most frequently might both belong to Washington Nationals. Not long ago, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg were perhaps the most-hyped prospects in history. Now, they’re major leaguers who’ve made good. Those two generational talents—as Scott Boras, who just happens to represent both players, would likely refer to them—give the Nats a foundation that most other teams would envy, but that isn’t all the franchise has in its favor.

It doesn’t take much imagination to put the Nationals on top in 2015: The team isn’t a bad pick to win the World Series this season, let alone three years from now. The Nats’ success has been predicated on pitching, and four of their five starters are under team control through 2015. (Edwin Jackson, who’s due to become a free agent after this season, is the lone exception.) Between that quartet of young, under-contract arms, and the duo of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard at the back end of the bullpen, the Nationals appear to have the pitching side of the equation solved.

Washington could use more help at the plate, where only Harper and Ryan Zimmerman seem certain to be impact players a few seasons from now. Fortunately, it looks like they’ll have the payroll room it’ll take to attract that assistance. The Nats are in the midst of protracted negotiations with MASN to determine their future rights fees. If those negotiations go their way, they’ll have more money at their disposal even if they don’t dig into the Lerners’ deep pockets. Young talent and a projectable payroll are an encouraging combination. The Nationals’ present is bright, but their future is brighter. —Ben Lindbergh

10. Tampa Bay Rays
Since the mid-2000s, sabermetricians have predicted big things for the Tampa Bay Rays, but it wasn't until 2008 that the club had its coming-out party. Since then, the Rays have formed a formidable third team in the AL East beast, thanks to a combination of smart free-agent signings, solid drafting (beyond having high picks in the first round), and signing young players to long-term contract extensions while they're still cheap.

Though the Rays' farm system isn't quite what it used to be, they still have a plethora of talent in their system. However, what will be more important are the players currently on Tampa's roster who will be rounding into form with a few years of major-league experience under their belt, like Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Desmond Jennings. The Rays will doubtlessly pick up the options on Evan Longoria's ridiculously team-friendly contract, keeping their hot corner secure with an equally hot bat.

The team will likely extend David Price, giving them perhaps the most dominant front three in the majors when you add Hellickson and Moore to the mix. And given the lack of major contract burdens on the roster, the team should have money to spend plugging any holes with role players like this year's crop of Hideki Matsui, Carlos Pena, and Luke Scott. Tampa Bay is already a fantastic ballclub; when the roster matures and players start hitting their primes in 2015... let's just say I'm thrilled I'm not the one that has to face that team. —Stephani Bee

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