Angels outfielder Mike Trout is a five-tool prospect the way Babe Ruth was a two-way player: It's true, but it understates the case. Trout has more tools than a Jersey Shore marathon hosted by Jason Sudeikis. He's the future in Anaheim, a future top-tier defensive center fielder; contender for on-base titles; hitter of 15-20 home runs at his peak; and 50-steal threat on the bases.
All that drool-inducing talent allowed Trout to reach MLB at age 19, and though his part-time showing in a limited big-league audition was not a runaway hit, he should be great by his age-21 season. He is rare for each of his skills, but first and foremost, for his position.
A sudden and stark dearth of young talent at premium positions has begun to attract the attention of some in baseball. Fewer teams have young, controllable assets at their most important spots than at any time in the past several years. The huge majority of the league's best young hitters play first base or a corner outfield spot.
Of course, those guys have value, too. Offense-only talents are still talents, and deserve recognition. First and foremost, every team should treasure under-25 studs whose salary they can control as they develop. Here are the 25 best players under 25 years of age in the game right now. To qualify, a player must have MLB plate appearances under his belt.
Read last year's list here.
A converted shortstop, Chisenhall now calls third base home in Cleveland, but shows the smoothness and athleticism one expects at the position given his positional history. He's a slick left-handed hitter, and though his ceiling is not sky-high, his floor is that of a second-division regular or really good defensive sub at third and platoon hitter. He could be an occasional All-Star, if he makes consistent contact.
If you scoff at the notion of what baseball people call "a good problem," treat yourself to some tape of Bourjos and Trout sharing an outfield for the Angels. As good as Trout is defensively, Bourjos might be better, and it would be heart-breaking to move either from center field.
However that resolves, though, Bourjos has a big-league future. No one expected his offensive semi-breakout in 2011, and in fairness, he's not terribly likely to repeat it. He is, however, a player who can wreak havoc on the bases and hit enough to support a gleaming glove-first center-field profile.
Promoting Rizzo to the San Diego Padres last season was probably premature, and it showed. Rizzo struggled, so badly in fact that a new regime in San Diego decided his pull-conscious, power-centric swing would never work at PETCO Park.
Happily, the old Padres regime—two major cogs of which have now migrated to Chicago to work with Theo Epstein and the Cubs—kept the faith. They traded for Rizzo in January, and now the sturdy left-handed slugger will get a chance to tee off in a park much more congenial to men of his ilk. Wrigley Field could make Rizzo a 35-homer monster, though it's unlikely to happen this year, since Bryan LaHair will be the Opening Day first baseman for the Cubs.
Few are the catching prospects who can both hit and stick at the position, let alone play it well. Mesoraco can do it. He should have the starting backstop job by the time the season starts, and don't be surprised if he takes to it right away. He's a polished player, but still has room to improve. He will make All-Star teams.
Big, fast athletes like Cameron Maybin should not be traded twice before they turn 24, but so it goes. The Marlins were especially foolish, because they gave up Maybin for a pair of relief pitchers.
Now he's property of the Padres, and in his first year out West, all he did was post an above-average OPS+ and steal 40 bases. There's much more polishing up to do—he fanned 125 times and walked only 44—but the progress he made at 24 suggests a whole lot of upside for him at 25.
Jennings is like Maybin, only instead of struggling and being held back with cause by his long-time organization, he's played really well and been held back because the Rays are impoverished. He's a speed-first prospect who, by the way, has 20-homer upside, the defensive instincts to play left or center field and a slashing line-drive bat. He should be one of the top two batters in the Rays' order in 2012, and that should make Rays fans happy.
Ramos reiterates what Maybin demonstrated a few slides back: Trade solid prospects for relief arms, live to regret it.
Still just 24, Ramos seems ready to swat 20 homers and battle the Establishment Trio of the NL catching corps for All-Star consideration. He's a better defensive catcher than any of Brian McCann, Buster Posey and (at this point) Yadier Molina. That says a lot.
Morrison is the second corner-only guy to work his way onto the bottom part of the list, and should probably be the second first baseman. He's not good in left field with the glove, and he certainly has more offensive upside than incumbent first baseman Gaby Sanchez. A move wouldn't hurt his value that much, and might save his legs.
For now, though, he's a left fielder. A left fielder with 25- or 30-homer power, and the potential to reach base at a .380 or better clip as he matures. That's a heck of a player. "Matures," though, was not an accident of vocabulary. Growth is necessary here, both on and off the field.
Kipnis played outfield in college, but the Indians challenged him with a move to second base. It's worked out nicely.
He will never be elite defensively there, but Kipnis should remain a second baseman for a while. He's a solid left-handed hitter, one with more upside at bat than has teammate Chisenhall. He slugged .507 and stole five bases without being caught in 150 plate appearances as a rookie.
Pure but raw at the plate, Moustakas could hit lots of home runs but likely will not hit for a terrific average. His power will give him plenty of value, though, especially as he and Eric Hosmer sandwich Billy Butler in the Royals' increasingly potent batting order.
Moustakas's sexiest tool may be his arm, which is so good as to make a viewer sick when he throws at full speed across the diamond to first base. He hit .379/.412/.564 from August 17 onward last season.
If one removes Pablo Sandoval's 2010 season from consideration of him as a young hitter, he looks like a Hall of Famer on the come. He might not be that.
Then again, it's not impossible. He absolutely slashes the ball at his best, ergo the sobriquet "Fat Ichiro." He should mature into a .300 hitter and 30-homer slugger, though in this case, "mature" is less apropos. He's practically there already.
A few years ago, most talent evaluators saw Brett Lawrie as a corner outfielder, and that alone. They also saw him as immature, sometimes to the point of major detriment. One season into his tenure as a Blue Jays prospect, not a Brewers prospect, those criticisms are fading in a hurry.
He should still end up in right field, to be honest. The focus that sharpened the edge of his confidence in 2011, though, might allow him to improve as a defender. He's certainly athletic enough to handle third, in theory. Lawrie also has the violent swing, plate savvy and (ahem) "screw you" attitude that have made Evan Longoria great. He's not quite Longorious, but he's very good.
Ackley had an arm injury in college that limited him to first base, and he's only serviceable—not great—now that the Mariners have returned him to his natural spot at second. He's more than enough of an offensive threat to offset any defensive deficiency, though.
Ackley has speed, and though little power, the pure batting and pitch-recognition skills to vie for (or even win) on-base titles. He's a bit like Dustin Pedroia, but bigger, left-handed and not that great a fielder.
Defense has never been a problem for Avila. He's the son of a front-office executive, and thinks the game well enough to more than make up for lacking athleticism. He only ever needed to prove he was a good enough contact hitter to actualize his power and plate discipline, and he more than proved himself in 2011. He might not be good for long, given his lack of agility and general physical prowess, but he has all the smarts and baseball skills to be a top-shelf catcher.
Andrus gets too much flak for his lack of power. He hit no home runs in 2010, which drew the stigma, but in 2011, he set a career high with 35 extra-base hits, including five homers. That was at age 22, and it came with a substantial (14.2 to 11.1 percent) cut in his strikeout rate. Andrus also is an elite fielder, at the most important defensive position on the diamond.
The 2011 season was not the tremendous breakout for which so many hoped, but no statistic (other than batting average on balls in play) really explains the stall. As likely as not, Bruce simply needed to adjust to not getting hurt, playing the full season and seeing more left-handed pitchers. With solid skill indicators yet intact, Bruce remains a candidate to suddenly break out and club 40 homers, and he's also a great defensive right fielder.
Giving up Michael Pineda must have been like cutting off one's own foot, but the Mariners were pinned so far down a chasm, an offensive abyss, that they had little choice.
In return for the sacrifice of King Felix Hernandez's right-hand man, Seattle got a right-handed batter with a royal pedigree in the game. Jesus Montero's career as a catcher seems over, but his career mashing MLB pitching is now to begin.
Humans are prone to a number of distortions when it comes to processing information and drawing conclusions therefrom. They weigh memorable events more heavily than subtle ones. They find patterns where they do not exist. Most of all, they remember as most true the data they received most recently.
Jason Heyward has the pedigree of an elite prospect. He has 35-homer upside, should compete for OBP titles and plays good defense in right field. Unfortunately, because he had a poor sophomore season in 2011, many seem to think he will never live up to the potential he showed in 2010. Count me among those who believe that first group is dead wrong. Heyward has a very long, very fruitful career in front of him.
Hosmer could hit 40 home runs in a season one day, and that's despite his not having the prototypical home-run swing. He's more of a murderer of baseballs, slamming them on low line-drive trajectories all over the diamond.
Though limited to first base, Hosmer is not unathletic. He could be the next Joey Votto. In the meantime, he's a good defender, a good base-runner and a brilliant developing hitter.
Despite the collision that wrecked Posey's ankle in 2011 and ended his season, it seems the Giants intend to keep him at catcher. That's obviously a good thing for his positional and defensive value.
On the other hand, it also exposes his body to even more wear and tear. It could stunt Posey's development as a hitter, and if the experiment doesn't work, by 2013 he could be just another left fielder. The reward, though, is worth the risk. Posey is a sensational talent, and a full healthy season from him might make the Giants NL West favorites.
Power is tough to pin down. Some value the ability to hit many balls 375 feet; others think an elite power hitter has to be able to occasionally hit one into the third deck. It's about both those things, and more, and that makes it almost impossible to definitively say which player has the best power tool in baseball at a given time.
Not right now.
Bryce Harper might challenge Mike Stanton for the title of best raw power when he reaches the big leagues, but for the moment, Stanton stands alone. He hit 34 home runs in 2011, giving him 56 career bombs in fewer than 1,000 plate appearances in MLB. Incidentally, he's only 22.
Trout seems too big to be so fast. He seems too agile to be so big, and he seems too strong to be so agile. Yet, it's all real. Hes not just an athlete, either; he has baseball skills. He draws walks, run the bases wisely and has the defensive instincts to optimize the value of his speed in center field. If power never comes, so be it: Trout can be an elite lead-off hitter without it. He did crack five homers in the big leagues last season, though, and 16 overall.
Trout has dreamy upside, but Castro is a proven star at age 21. He's growing defensively, though likely to end up at second base. He's finding his power stroke, as evidenced by the 38-double, 15-homer pace he found after June 9 last season. He's going to blossom into one of the league's three or four best hitters in his prime years, and getting that from either side of second base is a huge plus.
There may be no more exciting player in baseball. McCutchen needs to take one more step offensively in order to really max out his talent, but at age 25 in 2012, the breakout is very close. McCutchen has 35/35 upside, though he's more likely a 25-homer hitter.
Fewer strikeouts would mean many more hits for the young outfielder, and that in turn could mean Matt Kemp-level production. McCutchen, though, is a far better defensive center fielder than Kemp. He's just one step away.
A September swoon made Justin Upton look more human than he really was in 2011. He had a .300/.381/.553 batting line as of September 10, with 30 home runs. He hit .167/.241/.250 over the last two and a half weeks to fall out of MVP consideration.
His true skill level, though, might be in that .950 range for OPS. Upton has massive power and good speed. When he makes contact, the ball moves very fast, and Upton ends up with many hits. A .206 BABIP contributed heavily to his late-season struggles, and he still had a solid .319 figure for the year. He also struck out 26 fewer times in 2011 than he had the year before—in 103 fewer times at bat. He's going to win more than one MVP award in his career. Not even Trout is likely to top that.