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Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Youth being served in today's game

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

A new wave of perennial All-Stars has arrived in today's game, guys so good, someday we will be telling our children and grandchildren that we saw them hit their first home run, or win their first game.

Buster Posey
Posey

Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg

"They are everywhere,'' said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "Wherever you look, there are young guys that can really play.'' And they're not just gifted and athletic, they are wildly competitive, as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Brett Lawrie, Buster Posey and Clayton Kershaw can attest.

"I've been scouting 40 years,'' said one scout, "and I've never seen young talent like this.''

So without further ado, here is my All-25-And-Under Team. It is so good, I included four outfielders:

C: Buster Posey, 25, Giants
1B: Eric Hosmer, 22, Royals
2B: Dustin Ackley, 24, Mariners
3B: Brett Lawrie, 22, Blue Jays
SS: Starlin Castro, 22, Cubs
OF: Bryce Harper, 19, Nationals
OF: Andrew McCutchen, 25, Pirates
OF: Justin Upton, 24, Diamondbacks
OF: Mike Trout, 20, Angels
DH: Giancarlo Stanton, 22, Marlins
RHP: Stephen Strasburg, 23, Nationals
LHP: Clayton Kershaw, 24, Dodgers
SU: Aroldis Chapman, 24, Reds
CL: Craig Kimbrel, 24, Braves

This team is so good, two great young left-handed pitchers, Chris Sale (23) and Matt Moore (22), didn't make the first team because of Kershaw, who won the 2011 National League Cy Young, and his numbers -- wins, ERA and strikeouts -- have never been matched by anyone in history at his age. Moore throws "the easiest 95 [mph] you'll see,'' said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "His makeup is off the charts.'' White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, meanwhile, said Sale "understands the competition of the game better than any young pitcher I've seen.''

Just go around the infield. Posey won the Rookie of the Year and World Series at the age of 23. "I don't like to hit in the same group as him, he's too good," said Giants infielder Ryan Theriot. "His move to the ball is so perfect … the whip in his swing. It's just not fair.'' Hosmer is off to a slow start this year, but he was so good last year as a rookie, his teammates nicknamed him "The Freak,'' because of his ability to make adjustments at the plate, his throwing arm and his refusal to be awed by the big leagues from the second he arrived.

Ackley is off to a slow start this season, but last year, Mariners manager Eric Wedge said Ackley "barrels the ball about as often as any young hitter I've ever had.'' Lawrie plays third base like a linebacker, he has tremendous power to right-center, he has a great arm and he can really run. "If he wasn't on our team, I don't know if I'd like him,'' said one Blue Jay. "But I love him because he brings an energy and an edge to our team every day.''

Castro's career batting average (.304) ranks fourth in baseball history among shortstops his age (22), surpassed by only Arky Vaughn, Alex Rodriguez and Rogers Hornsby. Last year, Castro became the youngest player in National League history to lead the league in hits.

Mike Trout
Trout

Bryce Harper
Harper

The outfield is even more impressive. Trout is an amazing combination of power and speed. "By the end of the season,'' one scout told Buster Olney, "Mike Trout will be the best player in the game.'' It's hard to believe McCutchen is only 25 years old, considering how long he's been around, but it's no surprise that he's this good: He won a batting title in high school when he was in the eighth grade. "I worked with him when he was about 13 years old and I was in pro ball,'' said Braves outfielder Matt Diaz. "After three sessions, I told him that I couldn't help him anymore -- his swing was already better than mine.''

At 18, Harper "was the best baseball player I've ever seen at that age,'' said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. Harper is a better runner than expected, and he can really throw, but his hard-nosed play is what is separating him. Trout and Harper each scored 20 runs in May, marking the first time that two players 20 or younger each scored 20 runs in the same month. And Stanton is still only 22 as he puts on power shows across the big leagues. In May, he hit 12 home runs and had 30 RBIs. The only players under age 23 since the expansion of 1961 to have those numbers in one month are Johnny Bench, Adam Dunn and Bob Horner. Upton, an MVP candidate last season, has 96 home runs, and is only 24 years old.

There are so many good outfielders in the 25-and-under set that I had to leave off Jason Heyward (22) and Jay Bruce (25). And Bruce has the most home runs (112) of any active players 25 or younger.

The pitching staff is even more impressive than the outfield. Strasburg's stuff is so sensational, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said this spring, "I don't know how anyone gets a hit off Stephen Strasburg.'' Kershaw wanted the ball in a big game from the day he got to the big leagues as a 20-year-old, and remains that way today. "His bullpens are like art,'' said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "Our young pitchers go to the 'pen to watch him throw.''

Chapman, now the Reds' closer, had been a setup man most of the year, and he's on his way to having a season that no reliever has had in baseball history. In his first 21 games this year, Chapman pitched 26 innings, allowed seven hits and no earned runs and struck out 44. He recorded a strikeout in each of his first 21 games this year; the only pitcher since 1918 to start a season with more consecutive games with at least one strikeout was Billy McCool in 1965. When asked about Chapman, Reds manager Dusty Baker simply said, "Wow!''

Craig Kimbrel
Kimbrel

Aroldis Chapman
Chapman

Kimbrel, the Braves' closer, won the NL Rookie of the Year last year; in 114 2/3 career innings in the major leagues, he has allowed 67 hits and struck out 193. Kimbrel's fastball rises when it gets close to the plate. "I won't even play catch with him anymore,'' said Braves reliever Jonny Venters. "He throws 100 when he's playing catch, with that airplane take-off action at the end.'' New teammate Chad Durbin plays catch with Kimbrel, saying, "I have 20-12 vision, and I need every bit of it just to be able to catch the ball.''

We have left out so many players 25 and younger, and we couldn't include some of the players who recently turned 26, including Matt Wieters and Felix Hernandez. And more great young players are on the way, including perhaps the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues, the Orioles' Dylan Bundy, who has three walks and 53 strikeouts in 40 innings pitched in Class A ball. Former pitcher Curt Schilling said he has never seen a pitcher -- not even Strasburg -- throw the ball with such velocity and force and with such ease as Bundy.

It is a great time to be a baseball fan. Look around. There are future stars everywhere, right in front of your eyes. Someday, you'll tell friends and family that you saw them play.