Baseball BeatFebruary 12, 2008
Best Young Players in Baseball by Age: Part Two (23- and 22-Year Olds)
By Rich Lederer

We continue our three-part series on the Best Young Players in Baseball. Unlike most prospect lists, players are categorized by age and major leaguers are also eligible for inclusion.

As pointed out in Part One, "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."

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.

Yesterday, we covered 15 25-year-olds and 14 24-year-olds. Today, we will focus on ranking 13 23-year-olds and 12 22-year-olds. Tomorrow, we will conclude the series with 11 21-year-olds and 10 20-year olds.

AGE 23

1. Troy Tulowitzki | COL | SS

MLB | 682 PA | .291/.359/.479 | OPS+ 108

Tulowitzki earned the starting job in spring training and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He surpassed all expectations, cranking 33 doubles, 5 triples, and 24 home runs while scoring 104 runs and driving in 99. Moreover, Tulo led all shortstops in most fielding categories and was the plus/minus leader, earning a Fielding Bible Award. He was rewarded with a six-year, $31 million contract, the most money ever given to a player with less than two years of experience.

2. Ryan Zimmerman | WAS | 3B

MLB | 722 PA | .266/.330/.458 | OPS+ 107

Zimmerman is quickly becoming the face of the Washington franchise. He didn't miss a game last season and accumulated impressive counting stats, including 43 doubles, 5 triples, and 24 homers with more than 90 runs and RBI. His numbers may get a boost by playing home games this season at Nationals Park rather than pitcher-friendly RFK Stadium. He can pick it with the best at the hot corner.

3. Matt Cain | SF | RHP

MLB | 200 IP | 1.26 WHIP | 7.33 K/9 | ERA+ 122

How did Cain go 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA? Easy. He had the worst bullpen support and the second-worst run support of any qualified pitcher last season. One would think that the law of averages would be on his side this year except for one small thing: the bullpen and offense should be the same or worse in 2008. Last April, Cain gave up 12 hits and 6 runs in 35 innings and had a record of 1-1 in five starts. 'Nuff said.

4. Chad Billingsley | LAD | RHP

MLB | 147 IP | 1.33 WHIP | 8.63 K/9 | ERA+ 138

Billingsley didn't join the starting rotation until June. He had an ERA of 3.22 in July, 3.19 in August, and 2.59 in September. Unbeknown to most, Dodger Stadium hasn't played as a pitcher's park the past two seasons. Case in point: Billingsley had an ERA of 4.24 at home and 2.59 on the road. The righthander will do well by improving his command and keeping his pitch counts down.

5. Clay Buchholz | BOS | RHP

AA/AAA | 125.1 IP | 0.97 WHIP | 12.28 K/9 | ERA 2.44

After dominating Double-A and Triple-A batters, Buchholz was promoted to the majors and threw a no-hitter against the Orioles on September 1 in just his second start. In an interview a year ago, Assistant GM Jed Hoyer told us that Buchholz possessed the best slider and changeup in the system. You can call his breaking ball a slider or a curve. Either way, it is flat out wicked, especially when combined with his low-90s fastball and plus-plus change.

6. B.J. Upton | TB | CF

MLB | 548 PA | .300/.386/.508 | OPS+ 136

The second pick in the 2002 draft, Upton flew through the minors and made his MLB debut in 2004 at the age of 19. His defense at shortstop and third base was horrific and he didn't make it back to the bigs until 2006. Switched to second base and then center field in 2007, Upton finally broke out on the offensive side, hitting .300 and slugging 24 home runs. His BABIP was .447 during the first half, regressing to .356 during the second half when he hit .285/.379/.482.

7. Matt Kemp | LAD | RF

MLB | 311 PA | .342/.373/.521 | OPS+ 125

Kemp put up consistently strong numbers vs. LHP and RHP, at home and away, and in both halves. However, a cynic would point to his 17.5% line drive rate and suggest that an overall BABIP of .411 isn't sustainable. A more normal BABIP, in fact, would have reduced Kemp's rate line to .257/.293/.435. He will do well by splitting the difference between his actual and theoretical stats.

8. Lastings Milledge | WAS | CF

MLB | 206 PA | .272/.341/.446 | OPS+ 105

Blocked by Carlos Beltran in New York, Milledge was traded to Washington during the off-season and will be the everyday center fielder for the Nationals. Milledge has been highly regarded in baseball circles since being drafted in the first round in 2003. His bat is as quick as his temper and should win out as Milledge matures.

9. Jarrod Saltalamacchia | TEX | C-1B

MLB | 329 PA | .266/.310/.422 | OPS+ 91

Traded for Mark Teixeira right before the deadline, Saltalamacchia split time between Atlanta and Texas as well as catcher and first base. A switch-hitter, Salty has plenty of bat for a catcher but still needs to improve his defensive skills behind the plate. His value will drop if he winds up at first base.

10. Brandon Wood | LAA | 3B

AAA | 488 PA | .272/.338/.497 | OPS .835

Wood was one of the top five prospects in baseball after clubbing 58 HR in the minors, AFL, and Team USA as a 20-year-old in 2005. However, his star potential has waned a bit the past two seasons, primarily owing to the fact that he is no longer playing shortstop and is whiffing nearly once every four plate appearances. The raw power is still there and will play at third base if Brandon can show that he can handle breaking balls and lay off pitches outside the strike zone.

11. Andrew Miller | FLA | LHP

MLB | 64 IP | 1.75 WHIP | 7.88 K/9 | ERA+ 81

Detroit was pleased when Miller fell to them in the sixth spot in the 2006 draft. The former Tar Heel was brought up in late August that year and pitched eight games out of the bullpen during the stretch drive. The tall southpaw started 13 times last season but got rocked, allowing 73 hits and 39 walks in 64 innings. Traded to the Marlins during the off-season as part of the Miguel Cabrera package, Miller figures to land a spot in Florida's starting rotation this spring.

12. Felix Pie | CHC | CF

MLB | 194 PA | .215/.271/.333 | OPS+ 53

Pie had a forgettable rookie season with the Cubs but hit .362/.410/.563 in Triple-A Iowa. He should break camp as the team's everyday center fielder and has the potential of hitting .280 with 15-20 HR and a dozen or more triples.

13. Matt LaPorta | MIL | LF

R/A | 130 PA | .304/.369/.696 | OPS 1.065

A former NCAA home run champ at the University of Florida, LaPorta jacked 10 four baggers in 102 plate appearances in the South Atlantic League. He is expected to start the season at Double-A Huntsville and would probably see action in the big leagues as early as the second half of 2008 if not for one thing: LaPorta is blocked in left field by Ryan Braun, in right field by Corey Hart, and at first base by Prince Fielder. Absent an injury or a trade and with no DH in the NL, there may be little or no opportunity for LaPorta in Milwaukee this season.

Honorable Mention: Tony Abreu, Matt Antonelli, Melky Cabrera, John Danks, Ian Kennedy, Justin Masterson, James McDonald, Adam Miller, Brandon Morrow, and Max Scherzer.

AGE 22

1. Felix Hernandez | SEA | RHP

MLB | 190.3 IP | 1.38 WHIP | 7.80 K/9 | ERA+ 110

Hard to believe but Hernandez doesn't even turn 22 until April. The three-year veteran has already tossed 465 innings in the majors. Call him a disappointment if you must but King Felix was the youngest player in the big leagues in 2005 and 2006 and the sixth-youngest in 2007.

2. Yovani Gallardo | MIL | RHP

MLB | 110.3 IP | 1.27 WHIP | 8.24 K/9 | ERA+ 122

In 17 starts with Milwaukee, Gallardo pitched six innings or more and allowed ZERO runs five times, including three in a row in September. Subtract a start at Colorado in August (2 2/3 IP and 11 ER) and Yovani's ERA would fall to 2.84. Gallardo has the pitches and the pitchability to rank among the best starters in either league as long as he stays healthy.

3. Phil Hughes | NYY | RHP

MLB | 72.7 IP | 1.28 WHIP | 7.18 K/9 | ERA+ 100

Hughes almost pulled a Clay Buchholz last year, tossing a no-hitter in his second start in the big leagues. Almost. The big righthander threw a no-no for 6 1/3 innings before injuring his hamstring and exiting stage left. Phil sat out three months when he also suffered a severe ankle sprain during his rehab. Hughes was 3-0 with a 2.66 ERA in his final four starts and hurled 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief to earn a win over Cleveland in Game 3 of the ALDS.

4. Joba Chamberlain | NYY | RHP

A+/AA/AAA | 88.3 IP | 1.01 WHIP | 13.76 K/9 | ERA 2.45

Chamberlain blew away minor and major league hitters last season as a starting pitcher in the former and as a late-season set-up man with the Yankees. He struck out 169 batters in 112 1/3 combined innings, ranging from High-A to MLB. His future could be as a #1 starter or as a dominant closer. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and his slider is a devastating out pitch. He also throws a curve and a change, both of which could develop into plus pitches as a starter.

5. Evan Longoria | TB | 3B

AA/AAA | 575 PA | .299/.402/.520 | OPS .922

Despite what many prospect analysts have claimed, Longoria was a third baseman in college, not a shortstop. He played SS in junior college and filled in at that position for a stretch during his junior season at Long Beach State when Troy Tulowitzki was injured. Otherwise, he was a third baseman – and an excellent one at that. The MVP of the Southern League, Longoria should be Tampa Bay's starting 3B on Opening Day.

6. Delmon Young | MIN | RF

MLB | 681 PA | .288/.316/.408 | OPS+ 91

The #1 overall draft pick in 2003, Young was the favorite among almost all prospect analysts for the next few years. His plate discipline is notoriously bad and his power hasn't developed as expected. However, it's easy to forget that he played last season as a 21-year-old. He will get a fresh start in Minnesota. Delmon is the brother of Dmitri Young.

7. Adam Jones | BAL | CF

AAA | 469 PA | .314/.382/.586 | OPS .968

Jones was the centerpiece of the Erik Bedard trade. A supplemental first round draft pick in 2003, Jones played 73 games for Seattle in 2006 and 2007. The production hasn't been there as yet but there is no disputing the raw talent and power. A former high school pitcher who dialed it up to the mid-90s and a minor league shortstop for three seasons, Jones has the arm and the speed to become a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder in the majors.

8. Billy Butler | KC | DH

MLB | 360 PA | .292/.347/.447 | OPS+ 105

Reminds me of Greg Luzinski. The Royals will be happy if he hits as well as the Bull.

9. Homer Bailey | CIN | RHP

A+/AAA | 75.1 IP | 1.34 WHIP | 7.89 K/9 | ERA 3.82

Two years after Bailey was named Baseball America's High School Player of the Year and drafted with the seventh overall pick by the Reds, the young Texan did little to hurt his national standing when he lit up radar guns and everyone's eyes at the Futures Game in 2006. Homer didn't progress as expected last season but still has the potential to become a legitimate ace in the big leagues once he adds a bit of polish to his outstanding repertoire of stuff.

10. Franklin Morales | COL | LHP

AA/AAA | 112.2 IP | 1.38 WHIP | 7.43 K/9 | ERA 3.51

Morales earned a promotion to Colorado in August and his team won six of his eight starts, including three straight in September when he threw 17 innings and allowed 7 hits and 0 runs. He also made two starts in the postseason and two relief appearances in the World Series at the tender age of 21. His minor league totals say everything you need to know about Morales: 428 IP, 462 SO, and 234 BB. His command and control will dictate his ceiling.

11. Matt Wieters | BAL | C


The fifth pick overall in the draft last June, Wieters received a $6 million signing bonus with the Orioles. A switch-hitter, he batted .358 with 10 homers during his junior season at Georgia Tech. At 6-foot-5, the only question is whether Wieters, who has plus arm strength, is too tall to stay behind the plate longer term.

12. David Price | TB | LHP


The first pick of the 2007 draft out of Vanderbilt, Price signed a major league contract with the Devil Rays last August for $8.5 million. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound lefty went 11-0 with a 2.59 ERA in 133 innings at Vandy during his junior season. With a plus fastball and slider, he projects as a future ace in the big leagues.

Honorable Mention: Daric Barton, Reid Brignac, Asdrubal Cabrera, Johnny Cueto, Chris Davis, Wade Davis, Fautino de los Santos, Ross Detwiler, Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Eric Hurley, Jair Jurrjens, Chuck Lofgren, Troy Patton, and Neil Walker.


Guys who were just drafted? Really?

Why not? Is there a rule that prohibits players drafted seven months ago from being ranked? When does it become OK?

Wieters and Price were the most advanced players taken in the 2007 draft. The fact that they didn't sign quickly and play for a month or two means little or nothing to me.

Let's go back and take a look at the three previous drafts to see how such players turned out:

2006: Longoria was the most advanced offensive player and was also the first non-pitcher chosen. That one hasn't worked out too badly. Miller and Lincecum were the most advanced pitchers. Both made my lists. Hochevar was selected #1, partly owing to KC cutting a deal with him for less than #1 money. Be that as it may, he made honorable mention.

2005: Gordon was the most advanced offensive player and the #1 college player chosen. The next four non-pitchers selected were Clement, Zimmerman, Braun, and Tulowitzki. The latter trio were all ranked in the top three in their age group, four of the five were ranked in the top ten, and the fifth was an honorable mention. No pitcher was even taken until the sixth spot in one of the worst drafts in a long time for college pitchers. I saw Romero pitched in college live at least twice and on TV a couple of times and would not have ranked him on this type of list the following February.

2004: Stephen Drew was the most advanced offensive player and the #1 college player chosen. Jered Weaver was the most advanced college pitcher and Justin Verlander was the #1 collegiate pitcher taken. All three made my lists.

That's a pretty impressive track record, no? I'm totally comfortable with Wieters and Price and will be surprised if both aren't even more highly ranked next year.

Lastings Milledge wasn't blocked by Carlos Beltran; that's sensible. He was blocked by Shawn Green; that isn't.


Have Price or Wieters played in professional ball yet? Has Wieters used wooden bats yet?

I'm not saying these guys suck. I'm questioning whether they are really in the top-12 of 22-23 yr old baseball players. Some of the guys in the "honorable mention" list strike me as pretty good in comparison to prospects who haven't played yet...

Rob, I only included the best of the best. Yes, Wieters has used wood bats many times and, in fact, was voted the "Outstanding Pro Prospect" in the Cape Cod League by major league scouts in 2006 when he was second in AVG (.307), OBP (.417), and HR (8) while drawing more BB (23) than SO (20).

As I stated in my previous comment, Wieters is as highly-thought-of as Longoria, Gordon, Zimmerman, Braun, and Tulowitzki were at the same age and stage of development. Like these players, I don't see why Wieters won't fly through the minors and make a big impact in the majors once he arrives.

Out of your four lists, who do you see making the biggest jump by season's end?

Good question. If Francisco Liriano comes all the way back to his pre-injury form, then he would deserve to be ranked #1 in his age group. The 24-year-olds are deep in talent and one or two honorable mentions like Jeremy Hermida and Andy LaRoche could make a big leap next year.

Among 23-year-olds, Clay Buchholz could well be the best pitcher of 'em all, which is saying a lot given that Matt Cain and Chad Billingsley are in that class. I think Ian Kennedy and Brandon Morrow could also rank higher next year.

With respect to 22-year-olds, I believe Matt Wieters has upside and would not be surprised if Wade Davis and Carlos Gonzalez jumped into the ranked players next year.

Ok, fair enough about Wieters - I didn't know much about him. Proving he can handle wood bats is a pretty big deal. I stand corrected.

did i miss jesus flores? why didn't he make the cut?

Hughes almost pulled a Clay Buchholz last year, tossing a no-hitter in his second start in the big leagues.

Um, what? Hughes' 6 innings of no-hit ball came almost two months before Buchholz' no hitter. How is that "almost pulling a Clay Buchholz"?

Very interesting series, well done. What stands out to me most is the amount of talented young CFs. Some won't stick in CF, of course, and others won't pan out, but considering B.J. Upton and Sizemore are already in the bigs, if half of these guys reach their potential the amount of CF talent in MLB could be historic.

To answer Bobby's question, "Hughes almost pulled a Clay Buchholz last year, tossing a no-hitter in his second start in the big leagues." The operative words were "in his second start in the big leagues." That is a true statement, irrespective of whether his effort was before or after Buchholz's.

As it relates to the question about Flores, I considered him as an honorable mention candidate but decided against it. That said, he was close. Flores needs to improve his BB/SO ratio to become a good hitter in the big leagues. I realize Flores was rushed to WAS in 2007, but his minor league BB/SO rates concern me, too. He may be the Nats' starting catcher down the road, but he probably won't see much, if any, time in the majors this year. The bottom line is that I would rate him as an above-average prospect but nothing more than that at this time.

It feels weird to say that I've given up on Brandon Wood, but his profile is just so godawful and his whiff rate so bad, I wonder that he'll ever be anything more than a Roger Repoz sort of player -- not positionally, of course, but more in terms of dashed expectations.

The Angels need to find some better-balanced parks for their minor leaguers to play in.