At the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, homage was paid to a frail Ted Williams by a generation of power hitters, who otherwise were rendering archaic the elite hitting standards that had been defined by the Splendid Splinter and other Hall of Famers. Among those who crowded around Williams, seated in a golf cart on the infield grass at Fenway Park, were Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa--all of whom have since pushed Williams and his 521 homers further down the alltime list. ¬∂ But in the plate tectonics of baseball, even as those sluggers surrounded an icon, the summer of '99 marked the beginning of a shift in the game that wouldn't fully register until the last few seasons.
Eleven days before that All-Star Game, on July 2, the Florida Marlins, then the worst team in baseball, gave a $1.8 million signing bonus to a powerful 16-year-old infielder from Maracay, Venezuela, who was being likened to a young Alex Rodriguez. At the time it was the most money ever paid to sign a ballplayer from that country. His name was Miguel Cabrera.
One month later the St. Louis Cardinals signed their 13th-round selection in the draft that June, a stalky, less-heralded 19-year-old Dominican infielder at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., for $60,000. That represented a significant raise from the club's initial offer of $10,000. His name was Albert Pujols.
Cabrera and Pujols reported to Florida that summer to play in the same instructional league and struck up a friendship built largely on their ability to hit a baseball. Six years later they not only hit like nobody else of their generation but are also friendlier than ever. "We talk a lot," Cabrera says, "and people always ask me what we talk about. Hitting. That's the only thing we talk about. Hitting, hitting, hitting and hitting."
The seismic shift is obvious now as baseball moves into a new era and distances itself, however awkwardly, from a period that literally defies belief. The next time McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa assembled would be on March 17, 2005, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to answer questions from Congress about steroids.
That hearing, combined with season-ending injuries this season to Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome and possibly Juan Gonzalez, signaled the end of the sluggers' hegemony. The game belongs to a new generation. Above all, it belongs to Cabrera and Pujols, two righthanded batters who hit for power and high average. They are the most dominant among SI's picks for the best 25-and-under player at each position, the players who will define the new era.
By performing at an elite level under a drug policy that mandates multiple random tests and suspension upon a first offense, these players could restore credibility where suspicion has raged for more than a decade. "I wish I could hit 70 home runs," says Pujols, who had a career-high 46 last year and 33 at week's end. "I just thank the Lord I don't need [steroids]. I'm a young star in this game. It will be interesting to see where I end up in 10, 15 years--as long as God lets me play."
At 22 Cabrera already has a portfolio of major league superlatives: youngest player to hit a walk-off homer in his first game; one of only eight players to have 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs in a season before his 22nd birthday (his buddy Pujols is another); the only player to hit home runs off Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens in the 2003 postseason (the last a World Series opposite-field dinger that came one pitch after Clemens had sailed a fastball past Cabrera's nearly hairless chin); and, with a .341 average through Sunday, a shot at becoming the National League's youngest batting champion since Hank Aaron, in 1956.
"Cabrera is like Vlad Guerrero," says San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, invoking the free-swinging rightfielder of the Los Angeles Angels and last year's American League MVP. "When he's hot, forget it. You're just not going to get him out. He hits the ball so hard so often, and it doesn't matter what you throw him."
Says Marlins senior vice president Fred Ferreira, "There's a very small group of guys who you can tell are hitting by the sound of the ball hitting the bat. Vlad is one. Miguel is another. There could be 10 guys hitting in a cage, and if I turn my back to the cage I can tell by the sound when Cabrera is hitting. It's that loud. He's the kind of hitter who could hit 50 home runs and win a batting title."
At 25, Pujols is even more accomplished than Cabrera and is on a career track that no one else has traveled. The five-year veteran is well on his way to a fifth straight season with at least a .300 average, 30 homers, 100 runs and 100 RBIs. No other player has ever started his career with even two such seasons. Pujols is a virtual lock to finish no worse than fourth in the NL MVP voting for the fifth time--and he's a front-runner to win his first award. With his huge, strong hands, he has uncommon power to the opposite field and rarely strikes out (45 times in 441 at bats this season).
As exceptional as Cabrera and Pujols are, however, their generation figures to produce more pitching stars than hitting stars. "It's a down time for position players," says Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who has revitalized his franchise with a youth movement. "At the trading deadline it seemed everybody was looking for a hitter, and there was a reason they couldn't find one: They're not there. It's a cyclical thing--and now it's a down cycle for position players."
The pool of talented young arms is so deep that 25-year-old Cleveland lefthander C.C. Sabathia, the youngest active pitcher to reach 50 wins, didn't make the SI team. Florida righty Josh Beckett, a World Series MVP at 23? Missed the cut. Chicago White Sox righthander Jon Garland, 25, whose 16 wins this year lead all 25-and-under pitchers and are second most among all hurlers? Not good enough. Righties Brett Myers, 25, of the Philadelphia Phillies; Jeremy Bonderman, 22, of the Detroit Tigers; Gustavo Chacin, 24, of the Toronto Blue Jays; and Danny Haren, 24, of the Oakland A's, who were a combined 44-28 this year? Sorry, no room.
Perhaps 19-year-old whiz kid righthander Felix Hernandez (INSIDE BASEBALL, page 72) of the Seattle Mariners (0.69 ERA after his first two major league starts); rookie lefthander Zach Duke, 22, of the Pittsburgh Pirates (5-0, 2.13 ERA); or even heralded Minnesota Twins lefty prospect Francisco Liriano, 21, will wind up dominating the next 10 seasons more than those who did make this team. But there is a saying among scouts: You're a prospect until you've done it in the big leagues--twice. The following selections for the 25-and-under team were based more on what we know about them as big league players than on potential.
CATCHER: Joe Mauer, 22, Twins (2005 statistics through Sunday: .294 batting average, 14 home runs, 45 RBIs) Born the day after Cabrera, Mauer has the smooth swing to join the elite hitters, though he has yet to show big-time power. "I try not to [project] any big numbers for him," says Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "Let him be, and he'll be just fine. That's too good of a swing to start messing with it."
FIRST BASE: Pujols (.336, 33, 93) The Texas Rangers' 25-year-old Mark Teixeira (.277, 31, 94), who has 95 homers and 290 RBIs in fewer than three full seasons, deserves honorable mention. As his hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, says, "Tex is going to be, pretty much, a consistent 35-to-40-home-run guy with 100 RBIs. He's already proven that at this young age."
SECOND BASE: Rickie Weeks, 22, Milwaukee Brewers (.265, 9, 26) With no young star established at the position, Weeks and his potent bat (he has put up his numbers in only 219 at-bats since being called up from the minors on June 11) rate the edge over Jorge Cantu, 23, of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Robinson Cano, 22, of the New York Yankees.
SHORTSTOP: Bobby Crosby, 25, A's (.284, 5, 29) The position is loaded with growth stocks. Jose Reyes, 22, of the New York Mets is a dynamic offensive player because of his speed. Cleveland's quiet Jhonny Peralta, 23, had the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS)--.890--among shortstops this side of the Baltimore Orioles' Miguel Tejada. Russ Adams, 24, of Toronto; Khalil Greene, 25, of San Diego; and Felipe Lopez, 25, of the Cincinnati Reds may have locks on their jobs for years to come. But none of them possess the complete package that the 6'3", 195-pound Crosby does: size, athleticism, middle-of-the-order power (22 homers as the AL Rookie of the Year in 2004), often-spectacular defense and leadership skills. To wit: Oakland is 48-18 when Crosby--who missed the first two months of the season with a stress fracture to his upper rib cage--is in the lineup.
THIRD BASE: David Wright, 22, Mets (.305, 17, 73) "You'd probably say Hank Blalock is the better player right now," says one American League scout of the Rangers' 24-year-old third baseman, "but ask most people which one they would take, and they'd take Wright. This may be the best Blalock gets to be, which is very good. But Wright looks like something special." Wright has power to all fields, a discerning batting eye, a fierce work ethic and the kind of athleticism that will turn him into a Gold Glove winner. "It's like having a shortstop play third base," Towers says. "He made a play against us, a bare-handed grab, that may have been the greatest play I've ever seen." The Padres' G.M. was referring to a Brian Giles blooper to leftfield at Petco Park on Aug. 9, on which Wright, in full sprint, made a diving, over-the-shoulder catch.
UTILITY INFIELDER: Reyes (.274, 72 runs, 41 stolen bases) An adept second baseman who hit .255 last season, he boasts one of the game's strongest arms and has excelled since returning to his natural position of shortstop.
OUTFIELD: Cabrera (.341, 26, 83) Signed as a shortstop, promoted to the bigs as a third baseman, switched between rightfield and leftfield, he has never looked out of place.
Grady Sizemore, 23, Indians (.291, 14, 62) One AL scout likens him to "Jim Edmonds, once he adds the power." Three years ago the Indians heisted the energetic, five-tool Sizemore from the Montreal Expos in exchange for righthander Bartolo Colon. Says Shapiro, "He only knows one speed--all-out, from the first pitch to the last out. He sets the tone for our team in every facet: defensively, on the bases [15 steals at week's end] and at the plate."
Carl Crawford, 24, Devil Rays (.289, 12, 64) One of the fastest players in baseball, he swiped 59 bases last year, legged out 19 triples and scored 104 runs. (He had 34, 12 and 72, respectively, this year.) With those numbers, no wonder Tampa Bay wisely bought out his three remaining arbitration years with a four-year, $15.25 million contract in April.
STARTING PITCHERS: Rich Harden, 23, A's (9-5, 2.78 ERA) The righthander has been known to throw his fastball 99 mph--in the late innings of games; last season he was clocked higher than 96 mph more often than any pitcher in the majors. This season he has held the opposition to one hit twice, to two hits twice and without an earned run five times.
Jake Peavy, 24, Padres (10-5, 3.14) The 2004 major league ERA leader (2.27) is a rare young power pitcher with mound intellect. Says Towers of his All-Star righthander, "His intelligence, makeup and confidence are off the charts. Even at 19, topping out at 90 [mph] in the minors, he was a pitcher, not just a thrower. Now he has extra velocity, and he'll get it up there at 94."
Mark Prior, 24, Cubs (8-4, 3.70) An archetypal ace, the 6'5", 230-pound righty throws hard and has a wicked breaking ball and exceptional command. His 38-20 career record would be better if not for an assortment of injuries that have sent him to the disabled list five times in three seasons.
Dontrelle Willis, 23, Marlins (15-8, 2.79) The southpaw's corkscrew, slingshot delivery makes him a nightmare for hitters and a joy for fans. Among 25-and-under pitchers, only he and Sabathia have been named to two All-Star teams. "When he's on and gets in a groove with his arm slot, he's as unhittable as it gets," one AL scout says.
Carlos Zambrano, 24, Cubs (9-5, 3.17) To less fanfare, Zambrano, a 6'5", 255-pound workhorse, has won more games (43 to 38) and pitched more innings (695 to 566) than teammate Prior while being just as tough to hit (opponents' career average against Zambrano and Prior: .231 and .230, respectively).
CLOSER: Francisco Rodriguez, 23, Angels (2-2, 2.41, 27 saves in 31 chances) Groomed as closers since college, righthanders Chad Cordero, 23, of the Washington Nationals and Huston Street, 22, of Oakland have put up impressive numbers, but K-Rod, who was mostly a setup man prior to this year, is responsible for some of the most uncomfortable at bats in baseball. Opponents have hit .169 against the righty in his four-year career. His long-term durability, however, could be jeopardized by the violent arm action of his forceful, across-the-body delivery.
This next generation of stars has already asserted itself. Of the top 50 ERA qualifiers at week's end, the 25-and-under set outnumbered the 35-and-over crowd 11-4. Among the top 50 OPS marks, the young hitters edged the veterans 7-5. While no player beyond his 35th birthday ranked among the top 16 in OPS, Pujols and Cabrera placed second and fourth, respectively.
Pujols and Cabrera are almost certain to be linked by friendship and talent for years to come. "What impresses me most is the way he works," Cabrera says of Pujols, "the seriousness with which he takes batting practice and his presence at home plate. He has a confidence not all hitters have."
Says Pujols of Cabrera, "He's a guy who's going to put up big numbers. Hopefully, he can stay healthy. He plays the game the right way. He loves this game, and I just told him I hope we could play on the same team one day. I hope he could be a Cardinal."
That won't happen soon. Pujols has a seven-year, $100 million contract that will keep him in St. Louis through 2010. Cabrera, whose contract was renewed at $370,000 this year, will not be eligible for free agency until after the 2009 season. Still, the notion of the duo on the same team is scary. "Those two in the same lineup?" Prior says. "That's not something I want to see."
When asked about the prospect of facing Pujols and Cabrera year after year as they help carry the game forward, Prior says, "You measure yourself as a pitcher against guys like them. I look at Greg Maddux, who's faced Barry Bonds something like a hundred times over his career, and I think what it might be like facing Pujols and Cabrera that many times. It's cool to think about all those battles and how you did against guys who might be in the Hall of Fame some day."
The Last Generation
SI last picked its All-25-and-Under team in 1994. Which players would go on to justify the hype? Which future stars, including a three-time Cy Young Award winner and two-time home run king, were left off? To find out, go to SI.com/baseball.
Signed at 16, a month before Pujols, he hopes to match his good friend's 2003 National League batting title this year.
First baseman, Cardinals
He was an immediate hit in the majors, finishing among the top four in the NL MVP vote in each of his four seasons.
Outfielder, Devil Rays
The speedster could become the youngest player since Tim Raines (1983--85) to steal 50 bases in three straight seasons.
Hitters have been unable to catch up with the D-Train's funky deliveries. Result: two All-Star appearances.
Third baseman, Mets
The budding power hitter (left) has shown the athleticism at the hot corner that could make him a Gold Glove winner.
Utility Infielder, Mets
With his excellent hands, great speed and versatility, he only needs patience at the plate to complete the package.
Dominant since he assumed the last-inning role, K-Rod has averaged 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings in four years.