Friday, June 18, 2010
Call it one significant youth movement
By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine
The recall of third baseman Pedro Alvarez by the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday completes a team full of really good, really young players who (with two exceptions) have made their major league debut this season. Most have had more than limited success, and most may be here to stay.
It is difficult to find a season in recent history in which so many players of this caliber have come to the big leagues in such a short period of time and done so well.
"It has been a different kind of year,'' Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "There have been a lot of very good players come up this year.''
Here is a team of players 24 years old and under who are thriving or could soon thrive in the big leagues:
C: Carlos Santana, 24, Indians
|Pedro Alvarez, 23, was the Pirates' first round pick in the 2008 draft.|
1B: Ike Davis, 23, Mets
2B: Neil Walker, 24, Pirates*
SS: Starlin Castro, 20, Cubs
3B: Pedro Alvarez, 23, Pirates
OF: Mike Stanton, 20, Marlins
OF: Austin Jackson, 23, Tigers
OF: Jason Heyward, 20, Braves
RHP: Stephen Strasburg, 21, Nationals
RHP: Mike Leake, 22, Reds
LHP: Jaime Garcia, 23, Cardinals**
RP: Drew Storen, 22, Nationals
* Walker played in 17 games last year
** Garcia pitched 16 innings in 2008
The best of the positions might be pitcher. Leake is 5-1 with a 3.02 ERA. He was the first pitcher in the history of the Reds to go unbeaten in his first 12 starts. Leake never pitched in the minor leagues, going straight from Arizona State to the Reds.
"He is my new favorite young pitcher,'' one scout said of Leake. "You can fill a ballpark with guys who throw 95, but you can't find young pitchers with a feel for pitching. He has it.''
Garcia is 6-3 with a 1.59 ERA. He had the third-lowest ERA (1.49) by a rookie starting pitcher through 12 starts in the expansion era (since 1969). He is the first rookie since earned runs became an official statistic in both the American and National Leagues to allow two or fewer earned runs in his first 12 major league starts. Like Leake, Garcia has a great feel for pitching.
So does Strasburg, and he has incredible stuff.
"I've never seen anything like it. Never,'' Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said of Strasburg.
The 21-year-old right-hander became the only pitcher in history to walk none and strike out 11 in his major league debut -- he actually struck out 14 -- and his 22 strikeouts (in only 12 1/3 innings) are the second most in history in the first two starts of a career by any pitcher. (Karl Spooner had 27 in his first two career starts in 1954.)
Strasburg will make his third start Friday against the White Sox. It is the rare pitcher who can throw 98 to 100 mph, yet Strasburg's best pitch might be his devastating curveball or his changeup.
The Nationals' closer someday will be Storen, who was the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft, nine spots behind Strasburg. He pitched with Strasburg in the Arizona Fall League and in Double- and Triple-A this year, then beat him to the major leagues by a few weeks. Storen is no Strasburg, but he is already very good. He's 2-0 with a 1.46 ERA in 13 appearances, all in relief.
"He's a rock star,'' Storen said of Strasburg, smiling. "The rest of us are the backup guitarists and drummers.''
First base is also loaded with good young players. The Mets were 4-8 when Davis made his debut April 19. Since then, they have gone 34-20. That is not a coincidence. He has added another bat to the middle of the Mets' lineup -- he has hit eight home runs already, including a 444-foot walk-off shot to beat the Padres, 2-1, on June 8. He has also solidified their defense at first and provided an injection of youthful enthusiasm to the Mets and their fans.
The Rangers' first baseman of the future, Justin Smoak, hasn't done as well as Davis, but he has shown power potential from both sides of the plate. The Giants' Buster Posey, who appeared in seven major league games last season, was recalled May 29 to be the everyday first baseman. He is a catcher but played some first base in spring training and the minor leagues this season in case the Giants needed his bat in the majors this year, which they have. He's hitting .344 in 17 games. The Marlins have gotten a boost from rookie first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who's hitting .282 with seven homers and 28 RBIs in 63 games. Sanchez soon will be pushed by another first baseman in the Marlins' system, Logan Morrison, who is one of the top prospects in the game.
There are also plenty of good rookie outfielders. Jackson got 37 hits in his first 100 major league at-bats, the first Tigers player ever to get that many hits in his first 100 at-bats. (Ty Cobb had 28 in his first 100 at-bats.) Jackson is hitting .308 in 60 games, filling the leadoff spot for Detroit. But his biggest contribution has been his defense. Teammates have raved about his ability to run down balls in the outfield, which speaks to his tremendous athleticism. When pushed this spring about his ability as a basketball player, Jackson said, after some hesitation, "If I had concentrated on basketball, I could have played in the NBA.''
Heyward didn't play basketball in high school, but when asked, he said, "I can dunk. I just chose not to play.''
Heyward hit a three-run home run in his first major league at-bat. In 63 games, he has 11 home runs and 44 RBIs. The Braves kept him on their roster this spring because they thought he was ready to help them win, which he was. Keep in mind, the last NL rookie outfielder to make the All-Star team was Tim Raines in 1981.
Stanton, who is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, reminds scouts of a young Dave Winfield because of his power -- he hit 21 homers in 52 games at Double-A this season before being called up to the majors by the Marlins -- and his speed. He hasn't hit a home run yet in the big leagues but has found other ways to help the Marlins.
The Cubs won their first game with Castro at shortstop, and he became the first player since 1900 to drive in six runs in his major league debut. (Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin, who debuted in 2009, is also getting more at-bats these days.) They haven't taken off with Castro, but he has impressed everyone in many ways.
"I said it in spring training and I still believe it. He will be a National League All-Star in 2012,'' one scout said of Castro. "He is terrific.''
Nationals rookie shortstop Ian Desmond isn't far behind. He weighs 210 pounds, has some pop in his bat and, despite 15 errors, he has great range defensively, especially going to his left.
"He's going to be special,'' Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Now it's Alvarez's turn as the newest of the young players to be recalled. He has tremendous power. In his first spring training with the major league club, several times he interrupted batting practice on one field with one of his home runs he hit from another field. Alvarez has had issues against left-handed pitching in the minor leagues (so do many young left-handed hitters), and he is improving defensively at third base. The Pirates, however, are in need of power, so they couldn't wait any longer to call up their top prospect.
Cardinals rookie third baseman David Freese, meanwhile, is having a solid season. He made his big league debut with St. Louis last season, playing in 17 games. He became the Cardinals' regular third baseman to begin this season, and he's lived up to the assignment by hitting .318 with a .380 on-base percentage in 61 games.
So why have so many good young players emerged this year, and really, the last few years?
According to most baseball executives, the pressure to win today is greater than it has ever been, and the amount of money given to young players in the draft is greater than ever. So, to justify signing bonuses and to win as soon as possible, teams are recalling players sooner rather than later, perhaps before they're ready. It's difficult to develop a player on the major league level, but the need to sell tickets and invigorate fans is now crucial.
"Teams that are calling up these young players are competitive teams. They want to surround these young guys with veteran players who can help bring them along rather than bring them up in a pennant race or bring them up when they're the sole focus of a rebuilding process,'' Melvin said. "When Mike Stanton came up, he was not the sole focus; they deflected the focus away from him. That gives him a better chance to succeed."
He added that the development methods usually used to bring a prospect along aren't doing as well either.
"The minor leagues aren't as strong as they used to be," he said. "There are short windows to compete in the big leagues. So when a team looks at its 12-man pitching staff at the end of spring training, Mike Leake is on the list. They look at him as being better than a journeyman pitcher. Teams aren't afraid to do that."
Melvin said teams are willing to invest $4 million to $5 million into a marginal player, preferring to go with a younger talent.
"That's why Jermaine Dye doesn't have a job," he said. "They are giving young guys a chance before they spend on an older player. It used to be the other way around. And I think that will continue.''
At least for position players, college programs are also doing a better job of preparing players for pro ball.
"There is more exposure now in college; it's more competitive,'' Melvin said. "They're playing on TV; they're playing in high-pressure situations. We get them and put them up quickly. Colleges today are giving players a lot more of an opportunity to play now than before.''
One NL manager said the influx of young players has a lot to do with end of the steroid era.
"It's a young man's game now,'' the manager said. "With steroids and greenies out of the game and with so many star players -- Barry Bonds -- having retired in the last few years, the emphasis is on the young guys now. They are getting their chance. They are making the most of it.''
It has been an amazing year for young talent. And more is on the way. The Reds are expected to recall Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman sometime this year. He throws close to 100 mph with stuff "that is borderline Randy Johnson," teammate Jonny Gomes said.
The Rangers are loaded with pitching talent throughout the minor leagues, led by Tanner Scheppers, who one pitching evaluator said "isn't too far behind Stephen Strasburg.''
It is a great time for young players, a youth movement not seen in many years. Someday, perhaps we'll remember 2010 as the year that a few Hall of Famers made their major league debuts.
He is my new favorite young pitcher. You can fill a ballpark with guys who throw 95, but you can't find young pitchers with a feel for pitching. He has it.
-- A scout on Reds rookie Mike Leake
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.