25 Under 25

Baseball has seen an explosion of young talent in recent years, and I thought it might be fun to put some of those names into a fictional roster list of players under the age of 25. I want to put together a full, 25 man roster including bench spots and a bullpen (though some starters may wind up in that bullpen). The ages listed will be the age of the player during the majority of the 2006 season.
C: Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins, 23
There can’t be much disagreement on this one; Mauer, who will turn 23 in April, has already enjoyed tremendous success as an MLB catcher, enough to rank fairly high league-wide. His defensive skills are roundly considered excellent, and his hitting has developed quite nicely, though his power numbers took a fall in 2005.
Mauer broke into the bigs in 2004, breaking camp with the Twins as their everyday catcher after the Twins let free agent AJ Pierzynski walk to San Francisco. In his first stint in the majors, Mauer hit .308/.360/.570 in 107 AB’s surrounding an ugly knee injury; playing a full season in 2005, the catcher improved his OBP to .372 while hitting .294. His SLG fell to .411, and he hit 9 homers in 489 AB’s for the Twins.
Backup C: Dioner Navarro, Los Angeles Dodgers, 22
One of the prospects that left the Yankees in the three-way deal that netted them Randy Johnson, Navarro is remarkably young for an MLB backstop, especially considering he wasn’t a particularly highly-touted prospect. Nevertheless, in 179 AB’s for the Dodgers in 2005, Navarro put up respectable numbers, especially for a catcher in one of the NL’s biggest pitcher parks, hitting .273/.354/.375. His power should develop more, though not to the point Mauer’s will. Still, given the difficulty of finding such a young catcher with MLB experience, Navarro stands out.
1B: Casey Kotchman, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 23
Kotchman never seemed to get the full trust of Mike Scoscia in 2005, despite putting up some impressive numbers (especially in that woeful lineup). Kotchman, who had broken into the majors in 2004 but struggled somewhat, responded in 2005 with a .278/.352/.484 line, hitting 7 homers in 126 AB’s. Though the numbers don’t sparkle, there aren’t a large number of impact young 1B’s – first base tends to be a somewhat older position on average, much like catcher but for different reasons. Given that, Kotchman barely gets the nod over Dan Johnson of the A’s or Prince Fielder of the Brewers.
2B: Jorge Cantu, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 24
Cantu made his mark in 2004, in 173 AB’s towards the end of the season in which he hit .301/.341/.462 with 2 homers and an impressive 20 doubles. In 2005, he built on that success, forcing his way into a starting position after the surprise retirement of Roberto Alomar and coming up with a .286/.311/.497 season. His power developed tremendously, and he smacked 28 homers to go along with 40 doubles; despite his lack of patience – his biggest hole – Cantu was the third most productive AL 2B this past season, and at 24 looks to continue to improve at a position not known for power threats.
Backup 2B: Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers, 24
One of the most highly touted rookies in the majors last year, Weeks didn’t quite live up to his promise, putting up a .239/.333/.394 campaign after a hot start. One reason to be optimistic with Weeks is his patience; he walks an impressive amount for a younger player, and that reason alone probably kept him in the bigs in 2005. Still, he’ll need to improve his hit rate and bump up his power somewhat to be the star many think he’ll be.
SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cleveland Indians, 24
Quick quiz: what AL SS led all MLB shortstops in OPS in 2005? Wrong, it was Michael Young. But who was second? The dyslexically-named Jhonny Peralta, one of the coven of impressive young players on a Cleveland team that’s well poised for a long run of dominance in the AL Central (and a team with three more players on this list). Peralta hit the league like a Mac truck in 2005, to the tune of .292/.366/.520 (leading all MLB shortstops in SLG). His defensive reputation is strong as well, making him one of the best all-around players on this list. He could perhaps benefit from being more selective, but he’s not exactly a free swinger; beyond that, it’s tough to find any fault whatsoever in his offensive skills. He should man the 6 hole for the Tribe for a long time to come.
Backup: Jose Reyes, New York Mets, 23
Reyes has been a star “prospect” for long enough that he can no longer be considered a prospect (and so far, he can’t be considered a star, either). His tremendous physical tools have not translated into any real baseball success so far; after 2.5 years in the majors and well over 1000 MLB AB’s, Reyes is the owner of a career .698 OPS and a mere 14 homers. His speed, considered the most dynamic part of his game, was impressive last year, as he swiped 60 bases while being caught 15 times, an even 80% success rate, which is quite good. Still, he’ll need to learn to do more than run to hold down a starting position for his career; if not power, then at least enough patience to improve upon his woeful .303 career OBP.
3B: David Wright, New York Mets, 23
Was there really any doubt? Actually, yes, there was, because of a guy who will show up later on this list at another position. I had to gerrymander a little bit to fit them both on, and David Wright certainly deserves to start on this imaginary team. At age 22, in his first full season in the majors, all Wright did was notch an OPS over .900, hit 27 homers, slug .523, and knock in just over 100 runs, not to mention play occasionally brilliant defense and become a sparkling clubhouse personality. The cons: he didn’t publicly save anyone’s life, like Nomar or A-Rod. That’s about it. Future MVP.
Backup 3B: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals, 21
Zimmerman isn’t the only 2005 draftee who will appear on this list, but he’s the only position player who will. Jim Bowden made waves with his defiantly aggressive promotion of Zimmerman, and the young 3B proved everyone wrong in a cup of coffee in September, hitting .397/.419/.569 with 10 doubles in 58 AB’s… in possibly the biggest pitchers’ park in the majors. Given the small sample size and the potentially low patience quotient, it’s entirely possible that Zimmerman’s 2005 numbers were a mirage; however, it certainly seems as though he will be able to handle a major league job at some point in the near future. Possibly even in 2006, where one can imagine he’ll get every chance to lock down the job in spring training.
LF: Miguel Cabrera, Florida Marlins, 23
Cabrera will likely open the 2006 season as the Marlins’ everyday third baseman, but the majority of his experience to this point is in the outfield (and placing him there allows me to give David Wright his deserved spot). Cabrera, who will turn 23 at the start of the 2006 season, has already drawn comparisons to the only MLB LF who put up a higher SLG than he did in 2005: our own Manny Ramirez. The comparison is well earned: in 3 season with Florida, Cabrera already owns a .889 OPS, and his seasonal totals have risen each year by over 50 points. Last year, he had an MVP caliber season, hitting .323/.385/.561 with 33 homers in a pitchers’ park; on the road, his numbers were even gaudier, at .341/.391/.625 and 2/3 of his home runs. Cabrera could well cement himself as the single best hitter in the major leagues in the next two seasons, and his value as a third baseman will be astronomical.
CF: Grady Sizemore, Cleveland Indians, 23
Sizemore will turn 24 a little more than halfway through the 2006 season, but he has already made his mark on the American League: no AL CF had a better offensive season than Sizemore, who put up a .289/.348/.484 season with an AL best .832 OPS to go along with 22 homers, 37 doubles, and 22 steals in his first full big league season. Sizemore could well be the best all around player on the Indians, along with youngsters like Victor Martinez and the aforementioned Jhonny Peralta; he is a big big reason why the Indians still have to be considered the 2006 AL Central favorites, despite the trophy that currently lives on Chicago’s South Side.
Backup CF: Willy Tavares, Houston Astros, 24
Holder of the worst OPS on this list, Tavares is nevertheless a fairly strong CF candidate. A former Rule 5 draft pick by the Astros, Tavares stepped into a CF left vacant by Carlos Beltran in the offseason, and proceeded to hit .295/.325/.341 while swiping 34 bases in just under 600 AB’s. Both his power and patience leave much to be desired, bu if he’s able to push his OPS over .700, considering his defensive position and his speed, he could be a fairly useful NL ballplayer.
RF: Jeremy Hermida, Florida Marlins, 22
Hermida gained instant notoriety in 2005, becoming the first player in some large number of years to hit a grand slam in his first MLB at bat. He could also have gained notoriety for being arguably the single best positional prospect in the game who was not named Delmon Young; Hermida’s 2005 AA season saw him hit .293/.457/.518 with 18 homers for Carolina. After being called up in September, Hermida hit .293/.383/.634, and likely cemented for himself a starting spot in Florida’s vacant right field for 2006.
Backup RF: Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta Braves, 22
One of the surprising rookies that helped save Atlanta’s 2005 season, Francoeur was the center of a media blitz in his first few months in the majors. Numbers folks were fascinated with him for a different reason: he took nearly two months to collect his first base on balls. Francoeur will need to learn to lay off… anything to be a truly talented MLB starter – pitchers can adjust to someone that unselective. Providing he can hold off to the level of, say, Alfonso Soriano, he could become a very good ballplayer in the future.
Starting Pitchers:
Rich Harden, Oakland Athletics, 24
Harden has already become an elite pitcher in the American League, and had he not been injured might well be holding a Cy Young award today. In 19 starts (22 games) in 2005, Harden went 10-5 with a 2.53 ERA and 121 K’s in 128 innings; he also came remarkably close to a perfect game halfway through the year. Of all the great young pitchers to come through the Oakland system in recent years, Harden may very well become the best.
Dontrelle Willis, Florida Marlins, 24
There are many – myself included – who feel that Dontrelle Willis made a more attractive NL Cy Young candidate in 2005 than the eventual winner, Chris Carpenter. Willis, who by now has to be considered a veteran, was a media darling in 2003 with his bizarre delivery, engaging personality, and impressive pitching results. 2005 was his coming of age party; he threw a team high 236 innings, including 7 complete games (5 shutouts). He struck out 170 while walking only 55, both career bests. His 1.13 WHIP led Marlins starters. While I refused to believe he was the real deal in his first two seasons, he has since proven that he belongs towards the top of any list.
Jeremy Bonderman, Detroit Tigers, 23
It’s hard to believe that Bonderman – now entering his 4th full season as a major league pitcher – can still fit on this list with a year to spare, but that’s what happens when you were a 19 year old rookie. Bonderman has had a long introduction to MLB hitting, and it has been a tough one; from his 2003 season that saw him nearly become the second 20 game loser on his own team, he became known as one of the brighter young starters in the game in 2005. Though his final numbers weren’t exactly earth shattering – 14-13, 4.57 ERA and 145 K’s in 189 innings – Bonderman showed signs of his potential early in the season, before an August and September than could only be described as disastrous. Still, he should continue to hone his ability over the next couple of years; it remains necessary to remind oneself that he is still quite young.
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners, 20
The youngest player on this list, Hernandez – known to followers of the minor leagues as ‘King Felix’ – burst onto the scene in 2005, with the Mariners no longer able to justify keeping him on the farm. He responded by going 4-4 with an astounding 2.67 ERA and 77 K’s in 84 innings, with flashes of promise for something even better. The biggest worry with Hernandez is keeping the wear on his arm at a manageable level; at 20 and already essentially the ace on a lousy Mariners club, there’s plenty of pressure for Seattle to overuse him.
Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 22
Kazmir, the centerpiece of one of the single worst trades in recent memory, had a breakout 2005 with the D-Rays, and is one of the brightest young stars on a bright young team. Kazmir very quietly ranked 16th in the AL in ERA at 3.77, while going 10-9 with 174 K’s in 186 innings. The ace of a mediocre staff, it remains to be seen how new manager Joe Girardi will do limiting the wear on his arm; if Kazmir can avoid injury and improve his command (100 walks, the highest of any AL starter), he should become an excellent SP.
The Bullpen:
Huston Street, Oakland A’s, 22
The reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Street stepped into Oakland’s closer role after Octavio Dotel went down with a season-ending elbow injury and became arguably the major’s best closer over the next 4 months. Striking out just under a batter per inning and collecting 23 saves with a 1.72 ERA, Street solidified himself as the best bet for the next great closer.
Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 24
Of course, K-Rod might have something to say about that title too. Another guy who is amazingly still eligible for this list, Rodriguez solidified himself as a top closer with last year’s campaign, after finally emerging from Troy Percival’s shadow. Rodriguez, who features possibly the single nastiest slider in the history of nasty sliders, compiled a 2.67 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP while saving 45 games for the Angels; he also struck out an inhuman 91 batters in a mere 67 innings. Plus, the goggles are badass.
Craig Hansen, Boston Red Sox, 22
Hey, we have a guy on here! Hansen, a 2005 draftee, made his way to the majors incredibly fast, throwing only 15 innings of minor league ball before his debut in Tampa in September. He worked only sparingly after that, with some rough patches; still, he promises to become a highly effective MLB reliever, presuming the Sox don’t attempt to convert him into a starter.
Fernando Cabrera, Cleveland Indians, 24
The oldest player on this list, Cabrera will turn 25 just after the 2006 season ends. The heir apparent to Bob Wickman in Cleveland, Cabrera did extremely well in a September call-up, striking out 29 in 31 innings while walking 11 and compiling a 1.47 ERA. Chances are he’ll have a permanent home in Cleveland’s bullpen in 2006.
Brandon League, Toronto Blue Jays, 23
Toronto’s own Closer of the Future had a rough debut in 2005, putting up a 6.56 ERA in 35 innings while supporting Toronto’s depleted year-end pitching staff. He walked more than he struck out, and didn’t strike out that many anyway; still, he’s an exceptional talent, and it will be interesting to see how those numbers translate to a better situation and a fuller season.
Joey Devine, Atlanta Braves, 22
Like Jeremy Hermida, Devine made a name for himself in connection with a grand slam during his first appearance; only problem was, unlike Hermida, Devine served it up instead of hitting it. He also became the first 2005 draftee to reach the majors, before both Craig Hansen and Ryan Zimmerman. Devine became an unlikely contributor to Atlanta’s bullpen in 2005, even making the postseason roster, a move more reflective of Atlanta’s relief woes than Devine’s success. Nevertheless, and even if the Braves opt (as they should) to start him in AAA or even AA, he likely has a bright future ahead of him in the pen.
So, there it is: your all under-25 team. A bit weak at a few spots, notably in the pen, but nevertheless a world-beater. Did I miss anyone?