We are sitting in a historic bubble of young talent. About a year ago a reporter (John Tomase) asked me an extremely interesting question: Why do you think that there are so many great young players around right now? I replied in my usual annoyingly cautious fashion that I didn't know whether there was or was not an unusual amount of young talent around at the moment, but then later I decided to study the issue.
Conclusion: There is no doubt that there is an unusual amount of great young talent around right now. Arguably, there is more outstanding young talent around right now than at any other moment in baseball history -- not more per team, but there are more teams. The moment at which there had been the most young talent in baseball, before 2007, was 1964. Among the players in 1964 who were 25 years old or younger and already doing some good work in The Show: Dick Allen, Ken Berry, Jim Bouton, Lou Brock, Gates Brown, Wally Bunker, Johnny Callison, Rico Carty, Dean Chance, Tony Conigliaro, Willie Davis, Larry Dierker, Al Downing, Sammy Ellis, Dick Ellsworth, Ron Fairly, Bill Freehan, Jim Fregosi, Dave Giusti, Dick Green, Jim Ray Hart, Alex Johnson, Deron Johnson, Jim Kaat, Mickey Lolich, Jim Maloney, Dick McAuliffe, Tim McCarver, Sam McDowell, Dave McNally, Tony Oliva, Claude Osteen, Milt Pappas, Gaylord Perry, Vada Pinson, Boog Powell, Pete Rose, Ray Sadecki, Ron Santo, Willie Stargell, Mel Stottlemyre, Luis Tiant, Joe Torre, Pete Ward, Don Wert, Zoilo Versalles and Carl Yastrzemski. That was greatest explosion of young talent in baseball history -- until now.
Who is the best young player in baseball? A deceptively tricky question, in that it requires us to combine two unlike factors -- youth and talent -- into one measurement. C. C. Sabathia is certainly a better pitcher right now than Felix Hernandez, but Sabathia was 26 in 2007; Hernandez was 21. Does Hernandez' youth outweigh Sabathia's production? Alex Rios is probably a better player right now than Jeff Francoeur, but Francoeur is three years younger. Both players are 1) clearly still young, and 2) clearly very good. How do you balance Francoeur's additional youth against Rios' additional accomplishments?
You just have to pick a method and roll with it. We're not talking here about prospects or minor league players. We're discussing proven major league players who are still young. This was my method, in short. First, I eliminated from my study all players who were 29 years old in 2007 or older, since 29-year-olds in 2007 are now 30, and 30-year-old baseball players are not young. A 28- year-old player can be considered to have a little bit of youth left; a 30-year-old, no way. Second, I figured the runs created by each player -- for Rios, 105. Third, I made a "speed adjustment", since speed correlates strongly with defensive value, and defensive value is more difficult to measure. Fourth, I divided that total by the runs scored/runs allowed per game by the player's team, thus building in context adjustments. Fifth, I multiplied that by the number of years the player had left before he was 33 years old. For Alex Rios, this creates an output of 216, which ranks ... well, I'll get to that in a moment. For the pitchers, I developed a similar method based on runs allowed.
Why 33 years old, rather than 30? I tried it the other way and it doesn't work. Suppose that you have a 27-year-old player and a 24-year-old player of the same accomplishment...Jose Reyes and Albert Pujols, or Justin Verlander and Josh Beckett, or Edwin Encarnacion and Felipe Lopez. The 24-year-old is more valuable, and we want him to rank higher, but he's not twice as valuable. If we subtract his age from 30, that's 3 "years left" for the 27-year-olds, 6 years left for the 24-year-olds. It causes moderately good 22-year-olds to vault ahead of MVP-level 27-year-olds. Subtracting from 33 flattens the slope, creating better balance.
Combining youth and performance, Felix Hernandez ranks well ahead of Sabathia, Francoeur a little ahead of Rios, which is just my ranking ... feel free to second guess, bitch and moan, or do your own ranking. Without further ado, here is my post-2007 Young Talent Inventory, starting with the 25 best young players in baseball today:
1.Prince Fielder, Milwaukee first baseman.I don't think Fielder should be the NL MVP, although he will get some votes, and, let's face it, he is not exactly a Prince of a Fielder. But 23-year-olds who hit 50 home runs don't come around every year.
Fielder has a "score" in our system of 323, but since the numbers are only relevant one to another, I'll skip those from now on. But I will list their ages, so that I don't have to comment on that ... ages are as of June 30, 2007.
2.Hanley Ramirez, Florida shortstop (23).Ramirez followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign with one of the greatest seasons ever by a young shortstop -- .332 with 29 homers, 51 stolen bases, 48 doubles. Ramirez is lean, extremely strong and extremely fast, and, as a shortstop, he seems to be headed to third base.
3.Fausto Carmona, Cleveland starting pitcher (23).The third young groundball pitcher to have a breakthrough season in the last three years, following Brandon Webb and Chien-Ming Wang -- and he was the best of the three in 2007.
4.David Wright, New York Mets third baseman (24).Wright vs. Reyes is too close to call. Can I keep them both for a couple of years and then decide?
5.Felix Hernandez, Seattle starting pitcher (21).The ace of the Seattle staff fired a one-hitter in his second start of the season, then struggled for two months. But he was 8-1 after July 27.
6.Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay lefty (23).Sort of a shorter Steve Carlton, he battled the league's strictest pitch counts and missed leading the major leagues in strikeouts by one. He now has three straight winning seasons, which isn't that easy to do starting about five times a year against Toronto, Boston and the Yankees with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays behind you.
7.Jose Reyes, Mets shortstop (24).Probably baseball's best baserunner, he has three straight seasons of 60+ stolen bases, has hit 46 triples in the last three years -- and has nearly tripled his walks over the last two years, from 27 to 77.
8.Matt Cain, San Francisco starting pitcher (22).His 7-16 record disguises one of the league's best pitchers; his slider is probably his best pitch. He had the same number of quality starts last year as Brandon Webb (22), but whereas Webb was 17-2 with three no-decisions in those games, Cain was 6-8 with eight no-decisions.
9.Grady Sizemore, Cleveland center fielder (24).Might have ranked first a year or two ago, although the competition was stiff. I've been trying to use comparable players to suggest an idea of where these guys might fit into history, but I keep coming up empty. Jose Reyes is sort of like Garry Templeton, but almost certainly better. Sizemore is along the lines of Vada Pinson or Enos Slaughter, but probably better than either one if he stays healthy. David Wright is kind of like Mike Schmidt, but not really ... he out-hits Schmidt by 50 points, and probably won't quite match his power or defense. He's like Ron Santo, but faster. All of these guys are originals.
The Indians had Hall of Fame center fielders for most of their first 55 years, in Tris Speaker, Earl Averill and Larry Doby. It's been awhile. Kenny Lofton has had a fantastic career, and I wouldn't dismiss the notion that he deserves Hall of Fame consideration, but he's bounced in and out of Cleveland like a bad penny, chopping up his career into little parts until he wound up as the premise of a moving company commercial. Let's hope that doesn't happen to Grady.
10.Cole Hamels, Philadelphia starting pitcher (23).Uses the changeup more often than a high school cheerleader. His health is the only thing that will keep him from being great -- but remember, arm injuries don't strike down some great young pitchers, they strike down most great young pitchers.
11.Ryan Zimmerman, Washington third baseman (22).A Ken Boyer, Scott Rolen-type third baseman. You'll know if the Washington press corps ever starts going to baseball games, because if they do, Zimmerman will be more famous than Britney Spears.
12.Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado shortstop (22).The complete package, apart from so-so speed. Coming out of college I thought he would be too muscular to play short, but he's a fantastic shortstop, also scored 100 runs as a rookie and drove in 99. You might compare him to Ripken, but he's much more athletic at short than Ripken was, although Ripken was an outstanding shortstop in his best years.
13.Miguel Cabrera, Florida third baseman (24).He's fat and he looks lazy, but he hits .320 and drives in 115 runs every year. As a hitter, he's in a class with Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle, just crushes the ball about 200 times a year. As a third baseman he's in a class with guys who really need to work on playing third base.
14.Ryan Braun, Milwaukee third baseman (23).Harmon Killebrew-type power, a little like a right-handed Jim Thome. He probably won't make it as a third baseman, either, which kind of sets up an interesting quandary for the Brewers, as to where they're going to hide his glove with Fielder over at first. But this guy may be a better hitter than Fielder, and it might be the smart thing for the Brewers to do to say screw the defense, we can give you seven runs and beat you with a football score. They could be the first team ever to have 50 home runs at each corner of the infield.
15.Justin Verlander, Detroit starting pitcher (24).As a rookie I was a little skeptical of him because, despite the 100-MPH fastball and the 17 wins, he struck out only 124 batters. But last year he was much more confident with his curve ball and his change, and his strikeouts were way up. There are Cy Young Awards in his future.
16.Nick Markakis, Baltimore right fielder (23).A beautiful left-handed stroke, sort of in the mold of Paul O'Neill, Mike Greenwell or Garret Anderson as a hitter, possibly even Billy Williams. Decent right fielder.
17.Jake Peavy, San Diego starting pitcher (26).Often cited as the best starting pitcher in baseball, which probably has quite a bit to do with park effects. Padre fans at this moment are bellowing that Peavy was 10-1 with a 2.57 ERA on the road, as if this should preclude us from taking park effects into account.
18.Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego first baseman (25).Graceful but slow, he is somewhere between Rafael Palmeiro, Kent Hrbek and the Crime Dog. He hit .295 on the road with 33 doubles, 21 homers, 68 RBI -- more than twice as many doubles, homers and RBI on the road as he had at home.
19.Tom Gorzelanny, Pittsburgh lefty (24).The heir to the mantle of Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers and Jimmy Key, which actually I think belongs to Ed Lopat and was stolen from Lopat by Johnny Podres or Claude Osteen or somebody, and lent to Randy Jones and then John Tudor.
20.James Shields, Tampa Bay (25).He plays Drysdale to Kazmir's Koufax, had an outstanding season despite allowing 28 home runs and working against hard pitch counts. Never wastes a pitch, with a strikeout/walk ratio of 184-36. He had 48 innings of 10 pitches or less, only 32 innings of 20 pitches or more -- a better ratio of quick innings to long innings than any of the big three Cy Young candidates (Beckett, Sabathia and Lackey. Beckett's ratio was 44-45, Sabathia's 58-55, Lackey's 57-40. Carmona actually was better than Shields, at 56-36.)
21.C. C. Sabathia, Cleveland lefty (26).I have to tell you, as a baseball fan, I absolutely adore C. C. Sabathia. I always have. I've compared all these players to somebody else. It is sacrilege to compare C. C. Sabathia to any other pitcher. He is totally unique. For one thing, although listed weights of baseball players are so bogus that it's hard to see the point of listing them, C. C. has to be the heaviest player in major league history. He's huge -- 6'7"and has an aircraft carrier frame supporting large piles of necessary and unnecessary flesh, all of this adorned with comic little ears that stick out from his face as if the Lord couldn't find a flat place to put them. He has a unique delivery, hanging his massive leg in the air in seeming defiance of both gravity and nature, yet he is balanced and graceful. He projects a sort of genial warrior calm on the mound. He was an outstanding pitcher when he reached the majors in 2001 and has gotten steadily better, cutting his walks from 95 in 180 innings to 37 in 241 innings. He's 26 now, like Peavy, and his age is pushing him downward on this list; he is less of a young talent, and more of a mature product. But I don't think I've ever missed a C. C. Sabathia start in Kansas City when I was near KC or in Boston since I've been in Boston, and I hope he pitches forever.
22.Curtis Granderson, Detroit center fielder (26). Came out of nowhere to be a sensational center fielder for Detroit these last two years, 26/27 as a base stealer with an unheard-of 23 triples, brilliant defense. Engaging personality. Somewhere between Kenny Lofton and Andy Van Slyke, but could be better than either of them.
23.Brandon Webb, Arizona starting pitcher (26). Followed up a Cy Young season (2006) by increasing his innings pitched, strikeouts and wins, and cutting his ERA. I would bet that nobody has ever done that before.
24.Chad Billingsley, Dodger starter (22). A starter in 2006, he was in the bullpen until late June 2007, moved back to the rotation for 20 starts and was much better than he was as a rookie. Not that he was bad as a rookie ... he was 7- 4, 3.80 ERA. 2007 he was 12-5, 3.31. Uses a five-pitch mix with a cutter as the featured pitch. Fly ball pitcher, tough to run on ... may not have the conditioning to endure as a front-line starter.
25.Chris Young, Arizona center fielder (23). Not your typical leadoff man, with 32 homers and a .237 average, but I guess it worked. Trim right-handed hitter with 40/40 potential, doesn't get cheated when he swings.
26-30: Jeff Francoeur, B. J. Upton, Russell Martin, Francisco Rodriguez, Alex Rios
31-35: Ian Snell, Dustin Pedroia, Chad Cordero, Matt Holliday, Dan Haren
41-45:Delmon Young, Joe Blanton, Carl Crawford, Jeremy Accardo, Jeff Francis
46-50: Bobby Jenks, Chad Gaudin, Manny Corpas, Kelly Johnson, Kyle Kendrick
• CLICK HERE FOR BILL JAMES' TEAM-BY-TEAM TALENT RANKINGS