Now that Alex Rodriguez has become the 29th player to reach the vaunted 3,000-hit plateau, it's only natural to wonder who's next. The good news is a few veteran players are on a proper, realistic path to this noteworthy number. The bad news is an enormous gap between members of the 3,000-hit club might be on the horizon.
Here are the five players I think are most likely to get there:
Ichiro Suzuki, Marlins Hits: 2,886 | ETA: 2016 | Confidence Rating: 9 out of 10
A year or so ago, I would have predicted Ichiro would finish his career agonizingly short of 3,000. But I think that mark and Pete Rose's 4,256 mark (adding his Japanese Pacific League totals to his MLB ones) mean too much to him. More importantly, they mean something to a Marlins team that has shown interest in extending Ichiro for 2016.
That Ichiro has been a model of preparation here in his age-41 season is no surprise. That he's seen gains in all three segments of his slash line might qualify as a mild one. But Ichiro has shown he can still leg out his share of infield hits, and Marlins Park is a good place for him to slash his way to singles. The guy doesn't get hurt, he can still run and his baseball IQ is second to none.
As of this writing, Ichiro is on pace for exactly 100 hits this season. That would leave him just 34 shy of Rose's mark and 56 short of 3,000 for his big-league career going into '16.
Adrian Beltre, Rangers
Hits: 2,657 | ETA: 2017 | Confidence Rating: 7.5 out of 10
What Beltre is going through currently helps illustrate just how difficult reaching 3,000 can be. He's only 343 hits shy of the mark, and I do think he'll get there. But it's not at all a lock.
Beltre had at least 194 hits in 2012 and '13. But a 2014 quad injury limited his playing time early in the season (and, in turn, limited him to 178 hits), and a thumb injury this season has his push toward 3,000 on pause. It should also be pointed out that, prior to this injury, his batting average had regressed from .324 to .257, thanks to a rising rate of popups and soft contact and a decline in line drives.
Beltre is 36, and, although he's still widely recognized as one of the game's great third basemen, any time missed at this stage of his career adversely affects the likelihood of him reaching a milestone that might be seen, by some, as a prerequisite for his Cooperstown inclusion.
Albert Pujols, Angels
Hits: 2,587 | ETA: Late 2017/early 2018 | Confidence Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Pujols might not be the MVP-worthy dynamo he was before making the move to the Angels, but come on. He's had at least 172 hits in three of the last four completed seasons, and he's on pace to finish roughly in that area again this year.
Injuries, of course, are a factor, even for a man once commonly known as "The Machine," and the path to the next 400-plus hits will likely be littered with occasional potholes. But unlike with Beltre, for instance, there's no concern here about potential age discrimination in free agency or anything of that nature. Pujols has said he might not play out the remainder of his contract (which runs through 2021) if, at any point, he feels he can no longer produce. But it's a reasonably safe bet that he'll get to 3,000 before it comes to that.
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Hits: 2,268 | ETA: 2019 | Confidence Rating: 9.9 out of 10
Hey, Carlos Correa, take note. Miggy debuted at age 20, just like you, and ripped his 1,000th hit near the end of his age-25 season. That's a pretty good starting point.
Cabrera is truly old school when it comes to pain tolerance and what he's willing to grind through. So while injuries have hampered him in the latter stages of recent seasons and will continue to be a part of his story as he progresses deeper into his 30s, his threshold is so high and the hit tool is so freakish that 3,000 is basically a foregone conclusion.
Miggy has made it his mission to play and be productive at 40, and he took some steps this winter to put himself in a better physical position to reach that goal. Even if he doesn't, though, he's in line to eclipse 3,000 well before then.
Mike Trout, Angels
Hits: 648 | ETA: 2029 | Confidence Rating: 6 out of 10
Yeah, you've got to skip over basically an entire generation of players before you get to the guy I believe has the next-best chance of reaching 3,000 after the four listed above. Consider that a product of various aligning factors, primarily the more natural aging curves we're seeing in today's game and the sheer fact that -- between matchup bullpens and advanced data infiltrating scouting reports and defensive shifts -- it's harder than ever to simply record a hit.
There are multiple guys sitting north of 2,200 hits who have zero shot at reaching 3,000 (Torii Hunter, Carlos Beltran, Jimmy Rollins, Aramis Ramirez and David Ortiz). Robinson Cano (1,900) and Jose Reyes (1,818) are both 32 years old and can't be totally written off, but, even with Cano's lengthy contract taken into account, it's hard to bank on either of those two middle infielders, especially given Cano's extreme statistical regression this season and Reyes' lengthy injury history.
As far as the next generation of players is concerned, consider this: Every guy on my list to this point has at least one 200-hit season in his career. You know how many active players under the age of 30 have a 200-hit season so far?
Three. That's it. Michael Brantley, who blossomed too late to be a 3,000-hit candidate; Jose Altuve, whose 2014 batting title so far reads as exception rather than rule (he's been a .285 hitter the rest of his career); and Starlin Castro, who had 529 hits before he turned 23 but has hit just .265 over the last three seasons.
So I'm landing on Trout, and only because of his age. Even here, though, I'm not all-in. Having debuted at 19, reached 500 before turning 23 and thus far avoided injury, Trout is on the right track. He's also reduced his strikeout rate after last year's dramatic rise and league-leading K total. But injuries will inevitably affect Trout's path at some point, and, again, he's playing in an era in which batting average has been substantially suppressed.
Congrats to A-Rod, then, for reaching a hallowed milestone that might be increasing in rarity.