Commentary

Mike Trout, Bryce Harper spur debate

Could the talented rookies someday compare to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle?

Originally Published: June 29, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

They're the two youngest players in the major leagues. They arrived on the grand big league stage on the very same day. And we've spent the past two months buzzing nearly as much about them as about the Kardashians.

But now it's time to toss one more riveting topic into the never-ending conversation about America's favorite phenoms, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper:

Are they the two greatest rookie position players to come roaring into this sport in the same season?

Fascinating question, isn't it? So we'll let you think about it …

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
Kelvin Kuo/US PresswireMike Trout, 20, is batting .345, tops in the American League.

For about 11 seconds …

And now we'll answer it:

No. No. Nooooo. Noooooooooo. Of course they're not.

Well, not yet, anyway.

Not unless they turn out to be greater than Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, they aren't.

Yes, once upon a time -- before there was any such thing as "Baseball Tonight," wins above replacement or Twitter -- there really was a season (1951) in which two of the 20 greatest players who ever lived, Mays and Mantle, were rookies in the same year. And they top our list of the Four Greatest Rookie Position Player Tandems of Modern Times, which we reverently compiled this week with the help of the Elias Sports Bureau's ever-astute Steve Hirdt.

We present this list -- which we arbitrarily opted to confine to the 65 seasons in which the rookie of the year award actually existed -- as a guidepost, just so Trout and Harper understand the lofty territory they're aspiring to:

1. Mays and Mantle (1951)
2. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Al Kaline (1954)
3. Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki (2001)
4. Cal Ripken Jr., Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg (1982)

Recognize anybody on that list? Right. Thought so. But eyeball-popping as those names may be, we could easily keep going. We could toss Alex Rodriguez and Chipper Jones (1995) out there, for instance. Or Eddie Murray-Andre Dawson (1977). Or how 'bout Frank Robinson-Luis Aparicio (1956)? Or Barry Bonds-Barry Larkin (1986)?

Or we could have ventured way back in time, before baseball even had a definition for what constituted a "rookie," and thrown Jimmie Foxx-Mel Ott (1927) or Joe DiMaggio-Johnny Mize (1936) into this mix.

Or we could have looked back just a few years and reminded you that Evan Longoria and Joey Votto came in together (2008), as did Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki (2007).

But whatever. You get the idea. As fabulous as Trout and Harper have been, to look at them a mere two months into their rookie seasons and ask whether they're the two greatest rookie position players in history may be fun to contemplate -- but it's also crazy.

"How do we answer that question in the present?" Hirdt wondered. "How do we know what Trout and Harper are going to become? In 1951, we might not have known how Mays and Mantle were going to develop, either, or what their careers would be like."

And the truth is, you never know. You can't possibly know. You can't have any idea what health issues lie ahead for these men, how good their surrounding casts will be, or how money or fame will shape them.

So let's all breathe in, breathe out and dial back our handy-dandy Trout/Harper hype-o-meters just a tad, OK? Everybody on board? Cool.

Ahhhh, but now that we've got that out of the way, let's recraft this entire conversation. Maybe we actually should be asking a slightly different question:

Have there ever been two rookie position players who were this good AT THIS AGE?

And the answer to that is: No. Never. Ever.

We'll document that in a moment. But first, a couple of testimonials:

"You just don't see young players come along like this who can beat you on both sides of the ball the way these two guys can," said Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, whose team has faced both Trout and Harper. "These are guys who can do it all. They can beat you on the basepaths. They impact the game defensively. They can beat you with key hits or the long ball. They're both very special."

"What separates them is all the things they can do on a baseball field," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has had to deal with both of these phenoms just in the past week. "What separates them is their defensive skills, and the speed factor. They can do more than just hit the ball out of the ballpark. They impact the game in all phases. … Physically, they can overwhelm the game. And there are not many players you can say that about."

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
AP Photo/John BazemoreBryce Harper, 19, has 24 extra-base hits in 54 games this season.

Right. Especially at 19 and 20 years old.

At 19, Harper has put himself in position to become the first teenage position player to win a rookie of the year award. (Dwight Gooden, in 1984, is the only teenager who has won that award, period.) And if Harper keeps hitting at this rate, he'd be just the third player in history to slug .490 or better, with an .800-plus OPS, before age 20. The others: Ott in 1928 and Tony Conigliaro in 1964.

Then there's Trout. He's leading the league in hitting, for one thing. And how rare is that? Well, the only two players in modern history to win a batting title in their 20-year-old season are two Hall of Famers: Kaline and (gulp) Ty Cobb. So there's that.

Then we invite you to check out this list of the only 20-year-olds who have ever had a full-season OPS as high as Trout has right now (.944) Ready? Here goes: Ott, Ted Williams, A-Rod, Kaline, Foxx and Frank Robinson. Pretty cool group.

But now let's connect these dots. To have two players like this, doing what they're doing, at the same time? That's just about unheard of.

In the history of baseball, we've had only one other year in which two different hitters 20 or younger batted at least 400 times and had an OPS of .800 or better. That was 1928, when Ott (.921) did it at 19 and Foxx was even better (.964) at 20. But neither of them was a "rookie," if we use the modern definition.

So if you're sniffing the aroma of something special in the air, there's no need to go visit your friendly neighborhood ENT. What you're smelling, in the rarefied cases of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, is the real deal.

"If they're this good right now," Towers said, "I can only imagine what they'll be five, six, seven years from now, as they start to mature and learn the league. If they stay healthy, we're talking about guys who can be in the same category as an Albert or a Chipper. We're talking about guys who can be your premier players in the game."

And that's a big part of what all this hubbub is about. Obviously, Trout and Harper don't deserve to be compared with Albert and Chipper -- YET (let alone deities like Mays and Mantle). But if you love sports, one of the elements you should love most is that feeling you get when you sense that something magical is about to unfold.

And that's the feeling that Trout and Harper convey every time you watch them play. It's a thrill just to imagine what's possible, if what we're seeing now is any sort of predictor of where they're heading. And the names we dropped a few paragraphs ago tell us that's a definite possibility.

Of course, you'll also find Conigliaro's name on those lists. He's a reminder that great young players DO get hurt. And frankly, people in baseball worry about that possibility with both of these guys, especially Harper, because of their fearless and occasionally reckless styles.

"We talk about this all the time, about which guy you'd take -- Trout versus Harper," said a member of one team's coaching staff. "And I always go with Trout. And one reason is, I think Harper is going to be hurt a lot. He does a lot of things off-balance, and that's when most injuries occur -- when guys are off-balance. He plays more recklessly, and I worry about that."

But there's another reason it's difficult to use anything that happened in, say, 1928 as an indicator of what might lie ahead in the 21st century:

It's a whole different universe out there now.

"There are so many trappings in today's game," Showalter said. "I'm talking about off the field. You never know who's going to be able to handle all the adulation, all the people hanging around who want a piece of you."

Not that Mays and Mantle were exactly playing in obscurity. But they also didn't have to live in a world where every strikeout, every baserunning mistake, every bad decision they made in the outfield was broadcast to all the households, laptops and smartphones in America. And they certainly didn't do interviews in a world where every "That's a clown question, bro" quote had a chance to go viral within 15 minutes.

But that's the world Trout and Harper live and play in. And even their minor league careers were about as high-profile as any minor league careers ever get. That, however, just makes the seasons they've had even more remarkable.

"I really thought all the pressure that's been on Harper to be, basically, the LeBron of baseball might do him in," one scout said. "And that's one reason I'm surprised he's played so well as a rookie. … When [Ken] Griffey [Jr.] and A-Rod came up, I think everybody knew they were going to be good. But it wasn't like this. It was never like what LeBron went through, where it seems like whatever you do, you can never do enough. This guy [Harper] has kind of gone through that. And the fact that he's now proven he's great, I think, puts him in a tremendous position, because he's already shown he can handle that heat."

Well, the heat wave sure isn't over. In fact, it's just starting to cook. But what we have here still has the look and feel of something special and historical. Now we get to spend the next, oh, 20 years deciding whether this is the second coming of Mays/Mantle -- or possibly (hey, you never know) of Bob Hamelin/Marty Cordova. But we can get back to you with the verdict on that some other time -- preferably in 2032.

Ready to Rumble

•  We'd still wager heavily that Matt Garza will get traded in the next month. But if it happens, it'll definitely be a heavy-duty kind of deal. One AL executive's description of the Cubs' current model for a potential Garza trade is "the Ubaldo Jimenez deal." Translation: It's going to take two young, controllable players with big upside.

•  Teams that have talked with the Orioles say they're right in the thick of the Garza discussions, but they continue to make clear to the Cubs -- and to the rest of civilization -- that Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy aren't going to be part of any trade conversation, with anybody.

•  There's no more speculated-about trade chip in the Blue Jays' fold than DH/first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who could also fit for teams shopping for an option at third base, his original position. Encarnacion is an impending free agent, doesn't fit in the Jays' long-term plans and has put them "in a great position to sell high on him," said one NL exec. On the other hand, he's fourth in the league in homers, and the Blue Jays haven't given up on the season. So you very rarely see players like that get traded by teams that are still hoping to contend. Scouts are saying they've been told Encarnacion is gettable for the "right" pitcher. But an exec of one team that has talked to the Blue Jays told Rumblings, flatly: "He's not available, as far as I know."

•  The Braves continue their hunt for what one exec categorized as "an impact starting pitcher" -- but not necessarily the usual suspects. Their customary M.O. is not to shop for rent-a-players. So it makes sense that one starter they've scouted extensively is Seattle's Jason Vargas, who can't be a free agent until after next season.

•  Two clubs that have spoken with the Angels report they're "desperate to get a bullpen piece, if it's a really good bullpen piece." And those clubs say the Angels are willing to dangle Peter Bourjos in the right deal.

•  But the bullpen market isn't quite booming at the moment. One team's list of available, or potentially available, relief arms looks like this:

Closers: Huston Street, Brett Myers, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Capps (if healthy).

Set-up arms: Brian Fuentes, Grant Balfour, Brandon League, Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon, Josh Roenicke.

Situational left-handers: Tim Collins, Wesley Wright.

"I can't see San Diego making Luke Gregerson available," said the same exec. "But I know one thing: If they did, there'd be a long line."

•  With Kevin Youkilis gone, who's the next Red Sox player who could depart? One NL exec nominates Kelly Shoppach, whose exit would pave the way for the call-up of Ryan Lavarnway (.320/.405/.489 in Triple-A). "I wouldn't be surprised if they move [Shoppach]," the exec said. "I'm not saying it'll be in the next week, but sometime."

•  The Twins are still telling other teams they're not inclined to trade Josh Willingham, because they think they can build a lineup around a left-right-left Joe Mauer/Willingham/Justin Morneau middle of the order. But an executive of one team that has targeted the Twins says they need to re-evaluate how far they are away from contending: "Realistically, they're a few years away from really competing. So here you've got a guy who's 33, he's had some injuries, he's one of the few right-handed power bats around, and he's as valuable now as he'll ever be. If they trade him now, they could get some really good pieces to help get them back on the right track. But we all know they're just not a club that tends to do a lot at the deadline."

•  Despite the Marlins' ugly June, clubs that have checked in report the Fish have no interest in pulling the plug on a season this important. They expect to have Emilio Bonifacio and the reliever formerly known as Leo Nunez (Juan Oviedo) back by mid-July. So they're still expressing optimism, at least publicly, about their ability to bounce back and contend. According to an exec of one club, the Marlins are telling everybody that they "haven't had any talk at all about being sellers. None."

•  Meanwhile, the Phillies aren't firing up any FOR SALE signs, either -- not with Chase Utley back in action and the return of Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay just over the horizon. In fact, other teams report the Phillies are still looking to add, not subtract. They've kicked the tires on a long list of bullpen arms. And according to an executive of one team the Phillies spoke to, they've talked to the Padres about Chase Headley, as part of their hunt for a third baseman who would replace impending free agent Placido Polanco.

But all that could change, because Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is essentially giving his team another few weeks to define itself: "The players will decide what we do," Amaro told Rumblings. "How we play over the next several weeks will dictate what direction we go in. As far as I'm concerned, we're a contending team. We're not playing like a contending team consistently, but I still think we are."

•  Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers sounds a lot like Amaro. His team didn't even pull itself above .500 until this week. But Towers told Rumblings: "I actually like our club this year better than last year, when we won the division. I think the [NL] West is a very winnable division, and I like our chances. These injuries to our pitchers [i.e., Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders] have hurt us a little bit. But we're ranked No. 1 in defense. Our offense is in the top two or three in runs scored. We have a solid 'pen. And we've got some young, dynamite arms. … So despite our injuries, I think we've got enough starting pitching to compete."

Arizona has mostly window-shopped for bullpen depth. But this is another potential fit for Headley, if the Padres are willing to trade him within their division.

•  An AL exec said this week he didn't understand how the scheduling gurus could line up the Orioles and Angels to play nine times this season -- but have just two of those games take place in Baltimore. Good question … with no good answer. But fortunately, that's another one of those scheduling glitches that is about to disappear when the leagues realign next year.

The 2013 schedule isn't final yet. But tentatively, this is supposed to be the last season in which AL teams will make two trips per year to any visiting cities outside their division. Starting next year, all clubs are expected to play three road series per season against each of their division rivals but make just one visit to the 10 remaining cities in their league, for either a three-game or four-game series. That would account for 71 of the 81 road games. The other 10 would be interleague games.

•  Finally, given the news that the strongest human in baseball, Giancarlo Stanton, is heading for the Home Run Derby in Kansas City, there's nobody happier than his admiring Marlins teammates.

"I'm not going to guarantee he's going to win," said Logan Morrison. "But you'll see some stuff that's never been seen before. … He might break a fountain."

"It'll be awesome," said John Buck. "He's unbelievable, man. I remember taking BP with him one time at [the Marlins' former home in] Sun Life Stadium. I'll admit it was a windy day. But I want you to think about what that [football] stadium looked like. And he hit a ball that hit the second seat before it would have gone OUT of the stadium. I was speechless. But he just walked out of the cage, like, 'What? What did I do? Just taking my BP round.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, right.' The guy's a freak."

Tweets of the Week

Apparently, there's Twitter in the afterlife, because our two featured guest stars this week are still tweeting even though, amazingly, they're no longer breathing.

• From the late, great George Steinbrenner (aka, @Ghost_of_Stein):


• Meanwhile, inexhaustible 19th century iron man @OldHossRadbourn couldn't help but weigh in after learning that Jamie Moyer had signed with the Blue Jays last week:


Late Nighter of the Week

Finally, here's Conan O'Brien, on how he killed time during his recent visit to Chicago:

"I did everything you could do. I ate well. I drank a lot. And early this afternoon, I beat the Cubs, 11 to 2."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com