Picking the Next Generation of Young MLB Superstars
There is a youth movement going on in Major League Baseball, and it took a huge step forward in 2012.
Super-prospects Mike Trout and Bryce Harper became superstar players seemingly overnight, while fellow youngsters Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton further established themselves as young stars.
On the mound, Stephen Strasburg pitched his first (sort of) full season in the majors in 2012. While he dazzled with his right arm, Chris Sale quietly dazzled with his left.
With a fresh season on the horizon, there's a simple question begging to be asked: Who's next?
I've put together my picks for baseball's best young players at each position. The ground rules: only players younger than 25, and no established superstars (i.e. all the guys mentioned above).
Let's take it away.
Note: Stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Catcher: Mike Zunino, Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners have a farm system loaded with potential stars, among them being 21-year-old catcher Mike Zunino.
The Mariners took Zunino third overall in the 2012 draft, meaning he's only been a professional ballplayer for a handful of months. Ordinarily, it takes years for a player to make his way to the majors.
Zunino's situation, however, is anything but ordinary. He destroyed the competition in his first foray into professional ball, posting a 1.210 OPS and hitting 10 home runs in only 29 games at Single-A. He continued to rake in Double-A, posting a .974 OPS and hitting three home runs in 15 games.
Zunino made such rapid progress down the stretch in 2012 that there's an outside chance he could open the 2013 season with the big club. Even if he doesn't, it likely won't be long before he's Seattle's everyday catcher for the foreseeable future. With John Jaso gone and Jesus Montero better suited to be a DH, there will be nothing too solid standing in Zunino's way when he proves himself ready for The Show.
Hitting is what will get Zunino to the majors quickly, but he'll definitely have staying power at catcher. He may not pan out to be the next Yadier Molina, but Zunino is generally well-regarded both as a defender and a game-caller.
He'll be in Seattle soon, and then it will be only a matter of time before he finds himself at his first All-Star Game.
First Base: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
There are two great young first basemen in MLB at the moment: Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs and Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves. They're both roughly the same age, too, as Freeman was born about a month after Rizzo in 1989.
Freeman has more experience, as he's now played in two full major-league seasons. But between the two of them, Rizzo made it clear in 2012 that he has more upside.
In 87 games with the Cubs, Rizzo posted a rock-solid .285/.342/.463 slash line with 15 home runs. Average his production out over a full 162-game season, and he would have hit about 30 home runs.
Such a projection is perfectly rational in Rizzo's case, as his minor-league track record suggests very strongly that his production in the majors in 2012 was no fluke. He slugged 87 home runs in parts of six minor-league seasons, including 49 at the Triple-A level.
Rizzo generally isn't known for his defense, but Doug Padilla of ESPNChicago.com is convinced that Rizzo plays "well beyond his years" in the field. The numbers say that Rizzo is an above-average fielder, as he owns a 10.7 UZR/150 for his career (see FanGraphs).
First basemen with good gloves and 30-homer power aren't exactly plentiful. That's what Rizzo is.
Second Base: Nick Franklin, Seattle Mariners
As far as Baseball-Reference.com is concerned, the best second baseman under the age of 25 in 2012 was Seattle's Dustin Ackley.
Nick Franklin, however, looks like the organization's best second baseman.
Franklin is billed as a shortstop, but it would seem that he's in the middle of a transformation. He played second more often than he played short at Triple-A in 2012, and he found himself at second base again during Arizona Fall League play.
This is not accidental, as Jeff Moore of The Hardball Times wrote in October that scouts aren't sold on the 21-year-old Franklin as a shortstop. Long-term, he's a second baseman.
There are fewer question marks where Franklin's bat is concerned. He has an .809 OPS for his minor-league career, and he projects as a solid power/speed combo player with 42 homers and 56 steals in four seasons.
Franklin is going to be ready for the major leagues very soon. He could crack Seattle's roster at shortstop in place of the offensively challenged (to put it lightly) Brendan Ryan, but he should find himself at second on a full-time basis one way or another. Ackley could be moved to first base, or just plain moved.
If he doesn't improve on his .622 OPS, the Mariners surely won't be too desperate to accommodate Ackley, especially if it means limiting Franklin's potential. Between the two, he looks like the surer future star.
Third Base: Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
Manny Machado is not an established superstar...yet. But he's certainly very close after what he did down the stretch in 2012.
Machado got a surprise call-up from Double-A in early August and proceeded to make himself right at home in the middle of a pennant race. Not an easy thing to do for a 20-year-old with no prior big-league experience.
Machado posted a solid .262/.294/.445 slash line in 51 games with the Orioles. He hit seven home runs and then one more in the postseason, a surprising amount of power for a guy who hit only 11 home runs in 109 games at Double-A.
Even more surprising was Machado's defense at third base. A shortstop by trade, Machado barely played third in the minors. Yet, he arose to post a 13.2 UZR/150 and a DRS of plus-seven in the majors (see FanGraphs). He looked like he had been playing at the hot corner for years.
Machado will stay at third base as long as J.J. Hardy is in town (at least two more years). Going forward, the Orioles can expect more excellent defense out of him, and they can also expect him to continue making strides at the plate. He should be an All-Star-caliber hitter, maybe as soon as this year.
For that matter, Machado may be playing in his first All-Star Game come July.
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta Braves
The minor leagues are loaded with elite shortstop prospects, including Texas Rangers uber-prospect Jurickson Profar (No. 1 in MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo's new prospect rankings).
But there is also a handful of talented young shortstops already at the major-league level. The one who hasn't even come close to peaking yet is 23-year-old Andrelton Simmons.
Atlanta's young shortstop was limited to 49 games in 2012 thanks to a June call-up and a broken pinkie, but he proved in those 49 games that he's among the league's very best defenders at short.
Per FanGraphs, Simmons compiled a 31.6 UZR/150 and a plus-19 DRS in his rookie year. Those are insane numbers for a 49-game sample size, as is the 2.4 Defensive WAR he accumulated. Over a full season's worth of games, Simmons could be worth three or four wins with his glove alone.
That, my friends, is Ozzie Smith territory.
Better yet, Simmons can also hit a bit. He had a .299 batting average and a .749 OPS in three minor-league seasons, and he proceeded to hit .289 with a .751 OPS in the majors. He effectively picked up exactly where he left off once he made it to The Show.
If he can pick up where he left off again in 2013, Simmons will have everyone's attention in no time.
Left Field: Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
Mike Trout is going to be baseball's best young left fielder in 2013, but the best up-and-coming left fielder in the league resides in Pittsburgh.
Starling Marte began the 2012 campaign as one of the Pirates' best prospects, and ended it as the club's everyday left fielder. That's where he'll find himself again in 2013, right next to MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen.
Asking Marte to be as good as McCutchen is asking a lot, but he certainly has the potential to be the Robin to McCutchen's Batman. Marte showed he has the goods to be a solid offensive producer in 2012, posting a .257/.300/.437 slash line, hitting five home runs and stealing 12 bases in 47 games.
Those numbers fit with what the 24-year-old Marte did in the minors, where he compiled an .823 OPS, hit 39 home runs and stole 131 bases in parts of six seasons. He may never be a 30/30 guy, but 20/30 is certainly within reach.
Defensively, Marte should be one of the better left fielders in the league. He proved as much by compiling a 33.0 UZR/150 and a plus-six DRS in 2012 (see FanGraphs). There could be a Gold Glove in his near future, as the National League isn't home to an abundance of elite defensive left fielders.
Marte probably won't be stealing any of McCutchen's MVP thunder in the future, but he should establish himself as a very solid all-around player.
Center Field: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
Billy Hamilton hasn't played in the majors yet, but he's already equal parts ballplayer and legend.
Hamilton has a growing reputation as the fastest baseball player ever—yes, ever—and it's hard to argue with the notion once you glance at the numbers. In parts of four minor-league seasons, Hamilton has stolen 320 bases.
He stole 155 in 2012 alone, an all-time record for minor-league baseball. The all-time major-league record is a mere 138 steals.
Though his speed is obviously his primary selling point, there's more to Hamilton than that. The 22-year-old is a switch-hitter, for one, and his on-base prowess is developing. After posting a .340 OBP in 2011, Hamilton managed a .410 OBP in 2012.
Hamilton is in the middle of a transition from shortstop to center field that needs more time, which is one of the reasons why the Reds have already decided that Hamilton will be starting the 2013 season at Triple-A.
Come 2014, however, Hamilton should be Cincinnati's starting center fielder. Shin-Soo Choo will be a free agent at the end of the 2013 season, and odds are, he'll leave for greener pastures.
Choo's job will pass to Hamilton, and he'll be off and running.
Right Field: Wil Myers, Tampa Bay Rays
Wil Myers is the long-term answer in right field for the Tampa Bay Rays, and he should be along very early on in the 2013 season.
It was reported in December that Myers—acquired in a trade from the Kansas City Royals—is very likely to begin the season at Triple-A. The Rays don't want to rush him, in no small part because they don't want to start his arbitration clock any earlier than they have to.
It's certainly hard to envision a scenario in which Myers' stay in Triple-A lasts any longer than it has to. The 22-year-old has little left to prove in the minors, as he compiled a .987 OPS and hit 37 homers in his time between Double-A and Triple-A in 2012.
Myers projects as a typical power-hitting right fielder. The Rays will gladly take his power no matter what else he can and can't do for them—which is good, because Myers is a converted catcher with limited experience in the outfield.
Regardless of how he develops in the field, Myers should arrive before May hits and then establish himself as a Rookie of the Year candidate.
Starting Pitcher: Matt Harvey, New York Mets
This is something of a golden age for young pitchers. There's a fair amount of talented hurlers already in the majors who haven't hit the age of 25, and the minors are brimming with elite pitching prospects like Dylan Bundy, Gerrit Cole and Zack Wheeler.
But if there's a young hurler who's going to establish himself as a star in the near future, it's 23-year-old Matt Harvey.
Harvey got his feet wet in the majors in 2012, making 10 starts down the stretch while few people outside of New York were focused on the Mets. His results in those 10 starts, however, were very encouraging.
Harvey compiled a 2.73 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP, and he struck out over 10 batters per nine innings. That was thanks in large part to his hard fastball, which averaged roughly 95 miles per hour and brushed up against 100 on occasion (see FanGraphs).
Control is something Harvey will have to work on, as he walked roughly four batters per nine innings. However, he did show that he can pitch effectively even when he doesn't have his best control. In a start against the Braves in early August, Harvey went six innings and allowed only two earned runs despite walking five batters.
In all, Harvey compiled a 1.6 bWAR in 2012, which was nearly as good as the bWAR compiled by San Francisco Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner.
Not bad, seeing as how Mad-Bum made 32 starts to Harvey's 10.
Closer: Bruce Rondon, Detroit Tigers
Predicting which young pitcher is going to be baseball's next great closer is a shot in the dark, but the Tigers are hinting pretty strongly that they know the answer to this great mystery.
All signs point to 22-year-old Bruce Rondon being Detroit's closer in the relatively near future, whether he breaks camp with the big club or not. It's either him or other internal options, and none of them throw as hard as Rondon does.
For that matter, no right-hander at any level of MLB may throw as hard as Rondon does. His fastball hits triple digits with consistency, and the word from George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press is that Rondon has even thrown as hard as 103 mph.
The catch is that Rondon is lacking in the control department. He walked 4.4 batters per nine innings in 2012, including 7.9 per nine innings in nine appearances at the Triple-A level.
Rondon's control will have to get better in order for him to cut it as Detroit's closer, but only to a degree. If he hones his control to the point where he can manage a BB/9 in the 3.0-to-4.0 range, he'll be able to make a nice living as a closer.
Sure, there will be a fair amount of runners on base with a BB/9 that high, but making contact against Rondon will be no easy task so long as 100-mph fastballs are the norm. If it worked for Jonathan Broxton in 2009 and 2010, it can work for Rondon.
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