Baseball BeatFebruary 11, 2008
Best Young Players in Baseball by Age: Part One (25- and 24-Year Olds)
By Rich Lederer

In a three-part series, Baseball Analysts is unveiling its Best Young Players in Baseball. In contrast to prospect lists, we are categorizing the players by age and basing our rankings on minor and major leaguers.

The rankings are heavily weighted toward stats, age vs. level of play, and position. Tools and upside also played a part, as did opinions by Baseball America, Keith Law, and Kevin Goldstein, especially among younger prospects. Ultimately, the rankings are based on a discounted present value of the future returns (like they do in the financial world) of each player's career. The closer the expected returns, the higher the value.

In order to come up with a total of 75 players, we have also added an unusual twist by ranking 15 25-year-olds, 14 24-year-olds, 13 23-year-olds, 12 22-year-olds, 11 21-year-olds, and 10 20-year-olds. The reasoning for this methodology is to give "older" players their due because they are more of a sure thing, whereas the younger prospects are a bit more speculative by nature.

A player's age is based on June 30th. MLB stats are shown for those players with at least 150 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched. Minor League combined totals are listed for all others.

We begin the series by focusing on the 25-year-old and 24-year-old players. We will rank the 23- and 22-year-olds on Tuesday, and the 21- and 20-year olds on Wednesday.

AGE 25

1. David Wright | NYM | 3B

MLB | 711 PA | .325/.416/.546 | OPS+ 150

Wright should have been the NL MVP in 2007 but was overlooked by voters because the Mets faltered down the stretch. Nonetheless, he did his part, hitting .352/.432/.602 during the final month of the season. Get this, Wright hit .364/.465/.596 in the second half with 53 BB and 42 SO, a huge improvement over his 41-73 clip in the first half.

2. Miguel Cabrera | DET | 3B

MLB | 680 PA | .320/.401/.565 | OPS+ 150

Cabrera won't turn 25 until after the season opens, yet already has more than 4 1/2 years of major league service under his belt. Now that he is entering his prime, Cabrera may well be the best hitter in the game over the next five seasons. He has hit .320 or better and slugged in the .560s in each of the last three campaigns. The sky is the limit if he can keep his weight down.

3. Jose Reyes | NYM | SS

MLB | 765 PA | .280/.354/.421 | OPS+ 103

Like Cabrera, Reyes has been playing in the majors since he turned 20 in 2003. He can be a game changer at the plate, on the bases, or in the field. Reyes and Wright form the best young left side of the infield in baseball and may challenge their New York counterparts for that title over the next season or two.

4. Grady Sizemore | CLE | CF

MLB | 748 PA | .277/.390/.462 | OPS+ 122

Young or old, Sizemore is one of the best players in the game. He has averaged 41 doubles, 9 triples, and 25 home runs over the past three seasons. Furthermore, the Gold Glove center fielder has improved his walk rate and on-base percentage every year, drawing more than 100 BB and lifting his OBP to .390 in 2007.

5. Joe Mauer | MIN | C

MLB | 471 PA | .293/.382/.426 | OPS+ 117

Mauer could have been the MVP in 2006 when he led the AL with a .347 batting average and slugged over .500 while giving his club strong defense at the most demanding position on the field. More than anything, Mauer just needs to stay healthy to earn his place as one of the best two-way players in either league.

6. Russell Martin | LAD | C

MLB | 620 PA | .293/.374/.469 | OPS+ 113

Martin caught 145 games last season and earned a Gold Glove for his sterling play behind the plate and a Silver Slugger as the best-hitting catcher in the league. He hit 32 doubles, 3 triples, and 19 home runs, while drawing 67 walks and stealing 21 bases.

7. Justin Verlander | DET | RHP

MLB | 201.7 IP | 1.23 WHIP | 8.17 K/9 | ERA+ 125

As the second overall pick of the 2004 draft, Verlander has held up his end of the bargain in his first two full seasons in the big leagues. He improved his strikeout rate per batter faced from 16.0% to 21.1% last year and seems poised to add a Cy Young to his trophy case one of these years.

8. Robinson Cano | NYY | 2B

MLB | 669 PA | .306/.353/.488 | OPS+ 120

Cano has put back-to-back 120 or better OPS+ seasons at the age of 23 and 24. His walk rate (5.8%), while low, improved in 2006 and 2007. Cano could rate as one of the top players in baseball if he can get his walk rate up to 10%.

9. Rickie Weeks | MIL | 2B

MLB | 506 PA | .235/.374/.433 | OPS+ 108

In stark contrast to Cano, Weeks walked in 15.4% of his plate appearances. Rickie thrived in the lead-off spot (.252/.385/.477 vs. .139/.279/.222 when batting 8th) and showed remarkable power during the final month of the season when he slugged 9 HR.

10. Jeremy Bonderman | DET | RHP

MLB | 174.3 IP | 1.38 WHIP | 7.49 K/9 | ERA+ 91

A five-year veteran, Bonderman's win-loss record (56-62) and ERA (4.78) have disappointed his most ardent supporters, yet his stuff and strikeout/groundball rates lead scouts and statheads to believe he can still become a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. His results last season may have been hampered by an elbow injury that wasn't disclosed until late last year.

11. Jered Weaver | LAA | RHP

MLB | 161 IP | 1.38 WHIP | 6.43 K/9 | ERA+ 117

After a terrific rookie season, Weaver's 2007 start was delayed by shoulder tendinitis. He regressed as expected but still had a productive season, going 13-7 with an ERA of 3.91. Keep an eye on his K/9 as it dipped 1.25 last year. As an extreme flyball pitcher, Weaver needs to maintain an above-average strikeout rate to succeed in the big leagues.

12. Hunter Pence | HOU | RF

MLB | 484 PA | .322/.360/.539 | OPS+ 130

Pence exploded onto the major league scene last season, hitting .342/.367/.589 during the first half. He suffered a mid-season injury but ended the year on a high note, going .333/.372/.590 over his final 10 games. His BABIP of .377 is unlikely to be sustained so look for what many will term a "sophomore slump" in 2008. His walk rate (5.4%) leaves a lot to be desired and will be the key to his longer-term productivity.

13. Casey Kotchman | LAA | 1B

MLB | 508 PA | .296/.372/.467 | OPS+ 119

Kotchman was enjoying a breakout season (.333/.411/.556) when he suffered a concussion on a thrown ball against the Dodgers on June 16. He returned to the lineup nine days later but was never the same, hitting .263/.338/.390 the rest of the way.

14. J.J. Hardy | MIL | SS

MLB | 638 PA | .277/.323/.463 | OPS+ 100

Hardy, not teammate Prince Fielder, was leading the NL in homers early last season. He slugged 15 HR in April and May, then slumped to 0 in July, before rebounding with 8 in the final two months. He is more solid than spectacular.

15. Stephen Drew | ARI | SS

MLB | 619 PA | .238/.313/.370 | OPS+ 72

Drew isn't as good as he showed during his rookie season in 2006 (.316/.357/.517) or as bad as he appeared to be in 2007. He should put up numbers this year that are equal to or better than his career totals (.259/.325/.411) with more upside potential than downside risk at this point.

Honorable Mention: Manuel Corpas, Edwin Encarnacion, Yunel Escobar, Josh Fields, Tom Gorzelanny, Yadier Molina, Micah Owings, Ervin Santana, Andy Sonnanstine, and Geovany Soto.

AGE 24

1. Hanley Ramirez | FLA | SS

MLB | 706 PA | .332/.386/.562 | OPS+ 145

Supremely gifted, Ramirez made a big splash in 2006 when he hit .292/.353/.480 with 46 doubles, 11 triples, 17 home runs, and 51 stolen bases en route to NL ROY honors. He then turned it up a couple of notches by improving his rate stats across the board and slugging 29 HR. While his bat can play anywhere, his defense will determine if he can remain at shortstop.

2. Prince Fielder | MIL | 1B

MLB | 681 PA | .288/.395/.618 | OPS+ 156

Fielder led the NL in HR last season with 50. Not bad for a 23-year-old. He could be one of the rare .300/.400/.600 type hitters for the next several seasons.

3. Ryan Braun | MIL | LF

MLB | 492 PA | .324/.370/.634 | OPS+ 153

Braun had a rookie season for the ages when he put up an OPS over 1.000. He was named NL ROY despite giving away a lot of runs at third base. He will move to left field this year and should be able to concentrate even more on his hitting. Braun and Fielder form one of the top 1-2 punches in all of baseball.

4. Cole Hamels | PHI | LHP

MLB | 183.3 IP | 1.12 WHIP | 8.69 K/9 | ERA+ 136

Possessing power and polish, Hamels ranks among the elite starting pitchers in baseball. He has a solid-to-plus fastball and curve, and a plus-plus changeup. Hamels spent time on the DL with an elbow injury during the second half but should begin the upcoming season in tip-top health.

5. Scott Kazmir | TB | LHP

MLB | 206.7 IP | 1.38 WHIP | 10.41 K/9 | ERA+ 130

Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts with 239 and ranked second in K/9 (behind Erik Bedard). The southpaw has K'd 617 batters in 570 2/3 innings over three-plus seasons.

6. Fausto Carmona | CLE | RHP

MLB | 215 IP | 1.21 WHIP | 5.73 K/9 | ERA+ 151

Carmona finished second in the AL in wins (19) and ERA (3.06). He and C.C. Sabathia, who won the Cy Young Award, were clearly the best righthanded and lefthanded tandem in the majors last season. A groundball pitcher, Carmona improved his strikeout rate from 5.10 K/9 in the first half to 6.37 in the second half.

7. Francisco Liriano | MIN | LHP


Hard to evaluate coming off a major arm injury. Could be as high as #1 if he returns to his former self.

8. Tim Lincecum | SF | RHP

MLB | 146.3 IP | 1.28 WHIP | 9.23 K/9 | ERA+ 111

Lincecum earned a promotion to the majors in May after going 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 31 innings over five starts at Triple-A Fresno. The smallish righthander possesses a blazing fastball and a hammer curve. Endurance and command will determine his ceiling.

9. Nick Markakis | BAL | RF

MLB | 710 PA | .300/.362/.485 | OPS+ 121

One of the least-talked-about young stars in the game, Markakis improved his AVG, OBP, and SLG from already lofty levels during his sophomore season. He hit .325/.389/.550 during the second half, including 14 HR in 73 games.

10. Brian McCann | ATL | C

MLB | 552 PA | .270/.320/.452 | OPS+ 100

McCann had a fine season for a 23-year-old catcher by any measure other than his previous campaign when he hit .333/.388/.572 with an OPS+ of 143. His production may be range bound between his last two seasons, which means he should be anywhere from good to great in 2008.

11. Alex Gordon | KC | 3B

MLB | 600 PA | .247/.314/.411 | OPS+ 87

Favored to be the AL Rookie of the Year when the season began, Gordon failed to live up to expectations despite accumulating 36 doubles, 4 triples, and 15 home runs. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts (137) to reach his full potential. His power numbers improved during the second half but his walk rate plummeted to 5.2%, raising concerns about his patience and plate discipline.

12. Jeff Francoeur | ATL | RF

MLB | 696 PA | .293/.338/.444 | OPS+ 103

Francoeur doubled his walk rate while holding his strikeout rate steady. He could be on the verge of a big season this year or next.

13. Dustin Pedroia | BOS | 2B

MLB | 581 PA | .317/.380/.442 | OPS+ 112

Upside is limited but is already plenty high based on his outstanding rookie season in 2007. More steady and solid than anything else. His approach at the plate and in the field are superb.

14. James Loney | LAD | 1B

MLB | 375 PA | .331/.381/.538 | OPS+ 131

Over the course of Loney's first two seasons, he has hit .321/.372/.543 (OPS+ 130) with 24 doubles, 9 triples, and 19 home runs in 144 games, 446 at-bats, and 486 plate appearances.

Honorable Mention: Jonathan Broxton, Travis Buck, Jeff Clement, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Zack Greinke, Chase Headley, Jeremy Hermida, Luke Hochevar, Chin Lung Hu, Ubaldo Jimenez, Howie Kendrick, Andy LaRoche, Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Olsen, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Reynolds, Kevin Slowey, Joakim Soria, Houston Street, Kurt Suzuki, J.R. Towles, Joey Votto, and Chris Young.


Awesome preview; it's incredible how even among the 25 year olds the range goes from entrenched superstars all the way to Kotchman and Drew, players who are still a long way from their full upsides.

Why is the AVG for Stephen Drew (.238) so low?

Thanks, Evan. After hitting .364 at home in 2006, Drew only hit .218 at Chase Field in 2007. His line drive rate declined from 23.8% to 16.5% while his overall BABIP went from .394 to .267. All of these numbers look too high and too low. For 2008, look for them to fall somewhere closer to his career averages with perhaps more of a bias to the upside than the downside.

JJ Hardy plays for the Brewers, who are in the National, not the American League. I know, it's hard to get used to.

Thanks, John. I fixed that one. I hedged my bet by saying that Fielder led the *NL* in HR. Just one of those things typing all of those names, numbers, teams, and leagues.

I notice that you have Sonnanstine and Garza as honorable mentions but not Navarro or Niemann. Has Niemann fallen back that much in your estimation? And are you pessimistic that Navarro can build on his good second half of 2007?

Nice piece guys. One question (and I'm sure you'll get a lot of these), why Dustin Pedroia over Chris Young (the CF)? Young is a good defender and Pedroia is adequate, so edge to Young there...especially at a tougher position. Young also has shown more power and speeed. The only thing Pedroia has on him at this point is plate discipline, but Young had great numbers there in the minors as well. Can you shed some more light?

Navarro and Niemann just missed. I think Clement and Towles have more upside but Navarro should settle in as a solid everyday catcher. I like Garza more than Niemann. He has pitched in parts of two seasons already and his minor league numbers are superior to Niemann's. With respect to Sonnanstine, I included him because he has a lot of polish and has already shown that he can pitch at the back of a major league rotation. That said, I think Niemann's ceiling is higher than Sonnanstine's.

How high are you on Bonderman? I know he's still young -- as a Tigers fan, it's still weird to me (insamuch as somebody's age can be "weird") that he's only a few years older than Verlander -- but how big of a concern is his poor performance last year, and his pedestrian career overall?

I go back and forth on him. His slider is wicked, but when he misses with it, it gets crushed. When he settles in, he's fine, but he gives up a TON of runs in the first inning.


I meant to say Bonderman is a few months older than Verlander. I am a moron.

As big a fan as I am of Loney, I'd put Hermida somewhere on the list, so Loney or Pedroia would need to be bumped.

I haven't given up on Bonderman. I thought Jeremy pitched well in 2006 and was of the belief that he was going to improve upon that season in 2007. I was wrong. Whether it was due to a sore elbow or not, I can't say. If healthy, I don't see any reason why Bonderman wouldn't pitch 200 innings this season and put up a sub-4.00 ERA.

Where is Matt Cain? Or is he still 23?

Sorry, you'll have to check back tomorrow to see where Matt Cain ranks. He didn't turn 23 until October 1.

In response to jmoultz:

You acknowleged the "edge" in OBP for Pedroia over Young, but I think you downplay the difference there. You can't just factor in who has the edge, but how big the edge is. In that regard, Young was a liability (given his other magnificent tools, he could probably be a solid major leaguer even if that never changes), while Pedroia is pretty much elite among second basemen there. That's a BIG difference (especially when you consider that Pedroia is highly likely to repeat those numbers throughout his career).

Also, did you call Pedroia an "adequate defender" because you don't know about him, or because you were trying to elevate Young above him? Pedroia is, at the very least, a very good second baseman; he had six totals errors over almost a full season, he is almost perfect at turing the DP, and his range actually ended up being quite good as well. Considering that he won a defensive player of the year award in college, I think that makes him better than "adequate".

The bottom line here is that, while Pedroia's ceiling may be the lowest among all the players on this list, he's pretty much reached that ceiling. I can't even say if Young has a ceiling, but he has a way to go to pass Pedroia in actual value.

Interesting, Rich. I confess I was surprised to hear that Dioner Navarro rated as high as "just missed". I figured after his last two years he had fallen into the category of "young catcher syndrome" and was on his way to an undistinguished and brief career.

How do you see Hanley's numbers being affected by the loss of Miggy in the lineup? And how much will the Nats hitters power numbers improve in the new ball park? See Zimmerman as a potential 30 HR player now?

I'm shocked to see a list of 24yr. olds without Howie Kendrick.

I agree with Peter re Pedroia and Young. Although the latter has more power and speed as jmoultz noted, I believe the difference in plate discipline is not only huge but a very important consideration. Pedroia walked at a slightly higher rate (8.1% to 6.9%) and, by putting the ball in play more often, had a much higher batting average -- both of which led to an OBP that was .085 higher than Young's. That gap is worth 50 additional times on base for Pedroia over the course of 600 plate appearances.

Don't get me wrong, I like Young and think he has more upside than Pedroia, especially from their current levels of production. If one of the two was going to be a mega-star, I would guess it to be Young. However, he has a long ways to go to get to that level. In the meantime, Pedroia is producing at a higher clip now and is a better bet, in my judgment, to perform at a consistently high level than Young.

I guess one could say it is a bit of a "bird in the hand vs. two in the bush" type of reasoning.

In response to Rob's comment about Navarro, saying he "just missed" was in reference to honorable mention, not the top 14. Given that there were 26 players in the honorable mention category, that means he wasn't in the top 40 among 24-year-olds. Navarro had an excellent second half (.285/.340/.475) and figures to be an "solid everyday catcher" as I mentioned in one of my comments above.

Re JK's comment, Howie Kendrick *was* listed among the honorable mentions. I looked at him long and hard and determined he just didn't belong among the top 14. I truly don't see how anyone could rank him in the top 10. Therefore, his only shot at the top 14 would be as replacement for Alex Gordon, Jeff Francoeur, Dustin Pedroia, or James Loney. Pedroia over Kendrick was a pretty easy decision for me given that they play the same position. Loney has sufficiently outhit Kendrick in a similar number of games and plate appearances in the majors as to more than negate the latter's position advantage. That leaves Gordon and Francoeur. Their biggest weakness -- plate discipline -- is also Kendrick's and Howie is even worse (9 BB/61 SO in 2007 and 18 BB/105 SO career) than them (Gordon 41/137, Francoeur 42/129 in 2007 and 76/319 career). That said, being ranked among the honorable mentions in this age group is an achievement itself. Other position players in this category include Travis Buck, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeremy Hermida, Andy LaRoche, Mark Reynolds, and Chris Young.

CJ: Other than runs scored, I wouldn't think Ramirez's numbers would change very much based on the loss of Miguel Cabrera only. His stats might regress a bit if for no other reason than they are already at such lofty levels but the changes should have little or nothing to do with Cabrera's presence or lack thereof.

As far as the Nats new stadium, this is what GM Jim Bowden had to say about it: "I know it's going be more hitter-friendly than RFK. I also know it's going to be pitcher's park. It's certainly not a Philadelphia, Cincinnati or Wrigley Field bandbox. We're not going into that, and we're not going into [another] RFK. So it's going to be balanced, and I think it's probably going to lean towards pitching."

Zimmerman has the size, strength, and ability to hit 30 HR. He slugged 20 in 2006 and 24 in 2007 with more than 40 doubles in each of those seasons. As such, it is just a matter of time before he reaches the 30 mark.