To suggest that any player in any sport after just a few seasons is a lock to make the Hall of Fame is ridiculous. But it is always fun to look at athletes who have had instant success and try to extrapolate long-term potential. Limiting the scope to the last three rookie classes, here are the most likely future MLB Hall of Famers:
Class of 2012:
Mike Trout, OF, LA Angels
What else is there to be said of Trout's rookie season in the majors? He was an All-Star, he won the AL Rookie of the Year award, led the league in runs (129) and stolen bases (49), earned a Silver Slugger honor and finished second in MVP voting behind the first Triple Crown winner in more than 50 years. He finished with a .326 average, .963 OPS, hit 30 home runs and drove in 83. With a 10.0 WAR, it was the greatest rookie season in the history of the sport — right ahead of Joe Jackson's 9.7 WAR in 1911. And, oh by the way, he did all of this at age 20? Yeah, his ticket might already be punched for Cooperstown.
Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
The only reason Harper's own rookie season gets marginalized is Mr. Trout's performance in the American League. Harper, who played all of the season at the age of 19, posted one of the best inaugural seasons in recent memory as well. He was an All-Star and earned NL Rookie of Year honors. He finished with 22 home runs, 18 stolen bases, 98 runs scored, 59 RBIs and a .270/.817 split at the plate. And to start his second season, Harper went deep twice on Opening Day. It's Hall of Fame or bust for a player who made his Sports Illustrated cover debut at 16 and made his second appearance before turning 21.
Class of 2011:
Aroldis Chapman, P, Cincinnati
The Cuban defector debuted in 2010 but pitched only 13 1/3 innings, so his 50.0-inning, 71-strikeout middle relief effort of '11 was his rookie season. The Reds have toyed with moving him to the rotation the last two springs, but his other-worldly strikeout rate last season kept him in the closer's role. He tossed 71 2/3 innings with a 1.51 ERA and 122 strikeouts (15.3 per nine) while saving 38 games for the Reds last season. He was eighth in the Cy Young voting and 12th in the MVP balloting. Look for the (supposedly) 25-year-old's effortless 100-mph fastball to dominate hitters for the next decade — be it from the rotation or the bullpen.
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
There is a large group of 2011 rookie first baseman that could make the case for being on this list, namely Eric Hosmer and Anthony Rizzo. Freeman, however, at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds is a monster from the left side of the plate. He finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting to only his teammate (more on him in a second) and has hit 44 bombs and driven in 170 in two full seasons. He plays a terrific first base on defense and should develop even more power as he gets more comfortable at the plate. He enters his third full season as just a 23-year-old with loads of big-time potential — and will likely never leave the Braves right side of the infield.
Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta
The only player to finish ahead of Freeman in the NL ROY voting in 2011 was the flame-throwing closer from the Braves. He turns 25 in May and is arguably the most dominant relief pitcher on the planet. He is the only player in the majors to post at least 40 saves in each of the last two seasons, as he finished tied for second in 2011 (46) and tied for third last season (42). He has allowed just 26 career earned runs in 161.1 career innings and has struck out 284 batters (for a sick 15.8 per nine rate). He is a two-time All-Star who finished ninth and fifth respectively in the Cy Young voting the last two seasons and was eighth in the MVP race a year ago.
Class of 2010:
Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington
Ever since Bob Costas called his memorable, nationally hyped debut with 14 strikeouts over seven innings against Pittsburgh, Strasburg has been a star. Despite missing all but five starts of his second season due to Tommy John surgery, Strasburg has been virtually perfect. He has a career 2.86 ERA and 316 strikeouts over 258 1/3 innings. He finished 15-6 in 28 starts last year in what was his first full season (159 1/3 IP) and even earned a Silver Slugger award in the process. The flame-thrower has done nothing but live up to his extremely lofty expectations as the No. 1 overall pick out of San Diego State in 2009.
Buster Posey, C, San Francisco
There are few players who have ever had a better start to a career than Mr. Posey. He claimed NL Rookie of Year honors in 2010 and led the Giants to their first World Series championship since 1954. Then, after missing all but 162 at-bats of his second year with an injury, he led the Giants to a second World Series title and claimed the NL MVP trophy in 2012. He is a career .313 hitter with an .880 OPS and just 187 career strikeouts in 1,122 at-bats. He is the consummate professional and the face of a franchise that is positioned to make another run at the World Series and he was recently rewarded with a 9-year, $164 million contract.
Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
The Dominican shortstop debuted as just a 20-year-old on the North Side and sustained a .300 average over 125 games. He was fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. He has made back-to-back All-Star teams at age 21 and 22 and has a career .297 average. He led the NL in at-bats in each of the last two years and led the league in hits (207) in 2011. He was one of just five players to play in all 162 games last season. He has improved his defense and power in each of the last two seasons and is a integral part of the rebuilding project with the Cubs.
Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Few players have as much raw power as the slugger formerly known as Mike Stanton. After 91 homers in 328 career minor league games, Stanton already has 93 career homers in just three seasons, improving his power numbers in each of his professional seasons. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound outfielder hit .290 last season and made his first All-Star game appearance. Stanton has a sterling career OPS of .902. There is no doubt he will be among the league leaders in home runs each season, so the only question is how long will he be doing it for the Marlins?
Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The 2007 first-round pick finished second only to Posey in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. He played 142 games in his first season and slugged 18 home runs. After a disappointing 2011 campaign, Heyward bounced back impressively last season by posting the following: 158 G, 93 R, 27 HR, 82 RBI, 21 SB, .269/.814. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder is still just 23 years old and has all the physical talent to be an elite player for years to come.
The Top Prospects to Watch:
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Vlad Guerrero-type of hitter has uncanny plate approach and natural hitting ability.
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Smooth middle infielder could stick at either second or short. An elite all-around prospect.
Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh
No. 1 overall pick with a huge power arm who excelled at UCLA.
Mike Zunino, C, Seattle
Former Florida Gators slugger crushed the ball (.360) in his first season in the minors.