Baseball players have often been referred to as the “boys of summer,” and as far as MLB goes, the use of the word “boy” may have never been more appropriate. Look around the majors and there is no lack of young impact players all over the diamond, a group that’s led by arguably the best player in the game.
Take last year’s All-Star Game, for example. The National League’s 38-man roster alone featured 12 players who were 25 years old or younger at the start of the 2013 season. The AL team had eight such players representing them at Citi Field in New York. And while some of these have since graduated from the ranks of the 25-and-under crowd, there are still plenty of candidates remaining when it comes to indentifying the cream of this crop.
Here’s Athlon Sports’ list of the top 25 players who will be 25 years or younger as of Opening Day (March 31).
1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Not only is Trout the best of the 25-and-under crop, he’s arguably the best player in the entire game – and he’s just 22 years old. The 2012 AL Rookie of the Year could already have two MVP awards to his credit if not the for the Triple Crown exploits of one Miguel Cabrera.
As it is, all Trout has done is average a .324-29-90 line along with 41 stolen bases, while making a number of highlight-reel plays in the outfield in his first two full seasons. Trout figures to have a lock on a starting All-Star spot for years to come, and there’s no telling where the ceiling is for this unique, one-of-a-kind talent. No wonder there is already speculation that Trout could up being baseball’s first $30 million (per season) man.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington
Harper (above, right) and Trout will forever be linked, as they were the 2012 Rookies of the Year and are similar in that they are five-tool players. A two-time All-Star in his own right, Harper’s true potential won’t be known until he’s able to stay on the field consistently.
Injuries limited Harper to just 118 games last season, although his numbers were pretty much in line across the board with what he did in 139 games in his 2012 ROY campaign. Still just 21 years old, Harper is probably the closest thing there is to a Trout-like talent in the senior circuit. Now it’s just a matter of the Nationals’ outfielder producing Trout-like numbers.
3. Craig Kimbrel, P, Atlanta
Kimbrel and the Braves made news recently when he signed a four-year, $42 million contract. While that’s a lot of money for a pitcher who rarely goes more than an inning, it could end up being a bargain if the 25-year-old can maintain his level of performance.
Kimbrel leads the majors with 138 saves since 2011, while posting ridiculous numbers across the board. Among pitchers with 200 innings, Kimbrel is No. 1 in ERA (1.48), WHIP (0.87), opponents’ batting average (.158) and strikeouts per nine innings (14.9) over the last three seasons. For his career, Kimbrel has struck out 381 batters in 227 1/3 innings or more than three times as many hits (123) as he’s allowed.
4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta
The Braves’ future seems incredibly bright as the team is well represented on this list. Prior to Kimbrel’s new contract, Freeman inked his own new deal, an eight-year, $135 million pact that is the richest in franchise history. That’s what happens when you make your first All-Star team and finish fifth in the NL MVP voting after batting .319 with 23 home runs and 109 RBIs.
Whether he’s able to match or even surpass those numbers on a consistent basis remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the 24-year-old will be manning first base for the Braves for many years to come.
5. Madison Bumgarner, P, San Francisco
In a rotation that included two Cy Young winners that helped win two World Series in a four-year span, it would have been easy for Bumgarner to get lost in the shuffle. Instead, all the 24-year-old lefty has done is establish himself as one of the best southpaws in the game.
He has won 13 or more games three seasons in a row and last season posted a career-best 2.77 ERA with 199 strikeouts in 201 1/3 innings while earning his first All-Star game invitation. If the Giants are going to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 76-86 showing, don’t be surprised to see Bumgarner leading the way on the mound.
6. Stephen Strasburg, P, Washington
There’s no denying Strasburg’s immense talent, but this season is a critical one for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick who will turn 26 in late July. After going 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in his innings-capped 2012 season, his first back after Tommy John surgery, Strasburg slipped to just 8-9 last season. On top of that, he went under the knife yet again to have bone chips removed from his elbow this past October.
The upside with Strasburg comes in the form of his 3.00 ERA in 2013 along with more strikeouts (191) than innings pitched (183). Still, if the Nationals are to take that next step and become a legitimate NL pennant contender, Strasburg needs to develop into that 20-win, 200-innings workhorse ace everyone thought he would be when he made his debut back in 2010.
7. Yasiel Puig, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
The newest Cuban sensation, Puig made quite the splash last season when he debuted in early June. The epitome of a first-pitch swinger, Puig capitalized on the element of surprise, as he batted .436 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games. While his plate discipline (36 BB, 97 SO in 382 AB) is a work in progress, there’s no disputing the 23-year-old’s all-around talent or the impact he can have on a team.
Puig was one of the catalysts behind the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, as his .319-19-42 line with 11 stolen bases in just 104 games resulted in a runner-up finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting for the NL West champs. The key for Puig moving forward is to continue to get better at the plate, with his defense and on the base paths and applying this acquired wisdom and maturity to the decisions he makes off of the field as well.
8. Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore
As last season wound down, no one seemed to be primed for a breakout 2014 campaign than Machado. Not only did he make his first All-Star team, he was putting up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate (.284-14-71) and providing Gold Glove-winning defense at third base.
Unfortunately, Machado suffered a serious knee injury running the bases in Tampa Bay in the last week of the season, resulting in reconstructive surgery and plenty of uncertainty regarding when he will able to return to the field this season. The hope is that Machado will fully recover and pick up right where he left off, but either way the future still seems incredibly bright for this 21-year-old.
9. Jose Fernandez, P, Miami
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year, in just one season Fernandez has inserted himself into the conversation of best pitchers in the game, while also replacing slugging teammate Giancarlo Stanton (see below), as the gem of the Martins’ franchise. After finishing third in the NL Cy Young voting with a 12-6 record, 2.19 ERA (2nd in NL) and 0.98 WHIP (3rd), it appears the only things that could hold back this 21-year-old this season are a potential innings cap and the lack of run support from a lackluster Marlins offense.
10. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
The unorthodox delivery combined with his lanky (6-6, 180) build are reason for concern, but Sale’s results on the mound speak for themselves. Although he went just 11-14 last season, the White Sox’ left-handed ace made his second straight All-Star team as he posted a 3.07 ERA with 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings and led the AL with four complete games. And durability questions aside, what hitters should really be concerned about is the fact that Sale, who will turn 25 just prior to Opening Day, cut down on his walks (46) last season even though both his innings and strikeouts went up compared to 2012.
11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
Considering Stanton has averaged nearly 30 home runs per season over his first four, the first thought may be why isn’t he higher on this list? The simple answer to that query is that the jury is still very much out on the 24-year-old slugger, who has had a hard time staying on the field over the last two seasons. This also has led to a slip in his production.
The sky was seemingly the limit after Stanton bashed 34 home runs in 150 games as a raw 21-year-old in 2011. And while he has knocked a total of 61 more balls out of the park over the last two seasons, he’s played in just 239 total games during that same span and saw his batting average tumble to just .249 last season with only 62 RBIs. Still any player that hits a home run every 15 at-bats is someone who needs to be feared every time they step up to the plate.
12. Elvis Andrus, SS, Texas
Entering his sixth full season, Andrus finally turned 25 last August. So while this will be his last time mentioned in this vein, it shouldn’t overshadow the All-Star-caliber player he has been since making his debut for the Rangers in 2009. At the plate, Andrus has consistently been a .270 hitter good for more than 80 runs and more than 30 steals each season. He’s also driven in more than 60 in each of his last three campaigns and has become a reliable, and at times slick-fielding, shortstop.
13. Michael Wacha, P, St. Louis
Wacha pitched in just 15 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but it was his five appearances in the postseason that have Redbird Nation and the rest of baseball buzzing. The 22-year-old went 4-1 in five postseason starts, posting a 2.64 ERA and claimed NLCS MVP honors after beating the Dodgers in two scoreless starts.
Wacha then went on to beat the Red Sox in Boston in Game 2 of the World Series before getting knocked around a little in the decisive Game 6. Still, in less than a span of two months, Wacha went from being just one of the Cardinals’ impressive crop of young pitchers to one of the most-talked about hurlers in the entire game. All eyes will be on this tall (6-6) Texan whenever he takes the mound this season.
14. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Believed to be one of the top prospects in the majors a few seasons ago, Hosmer’s star dulled somewhat following a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he batted just .232. After another slow start last season, Hosmer caught fire in June, as he batted .318 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs over the last four months. Disciplined enough to take a walk (51 compared to 100 SO in 623 AB) and athletic enough to steal a base (11 with 4 CS), while providing Gold Glove defense at first base, the 24-year-old finally appears ready to become the Royals’ next superstar.
15. Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay
Myers was the centerpiece of the December 2012 trade that sent James Shields and others from the Rays to the Royals, and it looks like a deal that Tampa Bay will be glad they ended up making. All Myers did after getting called up on June 18 last season was win AL Rookie of the Year honors even though he played roughly half a season. In just 88 games, Myers posted an impressive .293-13-53 line, so there’s no telling what this 23-year-old will do with a full season’s worth of at-bats.
16. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee
A first-time All-Star last season, Segura finished second in the NL in both stolen bases (44) and triples (10), while hitting .294 with 74 runs scored for the Brewers. Fairly reliable at shortstop (15 errors), Segura is the ideal table-setter for Carlos Gomez, Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez. If there’s any weak spot to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s game, it’s getting on base consistently. His .329 on-base percentage (25 BB in 588 AB) is something the Brewers would like to see improve in 2014, especially with last season’s leadoff hitter (Norichika Aoki) now in Kansas City.
17. Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh
The strikeouts (138 in 510 AB) are certainly concerning, but there’s nothing wrong with the 83 runs and 41 stolen bases Marte contributed last season in helping the Pirates break their record streak of 20 consecutive losing campaigns. Add in the assortment of extra-base hits (26 2B, 10 3B, 12 HR) and a good glove in left field and the 25-year-old from the Dominican teams with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen to give the Pirates a formidable one-two punch in their outfield.
18. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta
The NL Gold Glove winner at shortstop last season and the league leader in defensive WAR, there’s no debate regarding Simmons’ value in the field. The next step for the 24-year-old is to continue his development at the plate. While his batting averaged dropped from .289 in 2012 (49 games played) to .248 last season, Simmons displayed an increased ability to drive the ball (17 HR, 27 2B) while posting a respectable 40:55 walk-to-strikeout ratio. And just like teammates Kimbrel and Freeman, Simmons signed his own long-term contract (seven years, $58 million) this month, cementing his status as one of the Braves' key building blocks for the future.
19. Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta
The fourth Brave on this list, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Heyward eclipse his teammates when it comes to eventual stardom. The 24-year-old has already displayed his immense all-around talent and potential, as evidenced by a 2012 season in which he batted .269 with 27 home runs, 82 RBIs, 93 runs scored and 21 stolen bases.
Unfortunately, that breakthrough season has been sandwiched by two disappointing, injury-plagued campaigns, including last season’s 104-game showing in which he hit just .254 with 14 home runs, 38 RBIs and only four steals. Heyward did seem to find a home as the Braves’ leadoff hitter late last season, and there’s still plenty of time for the Georgia native to emerge as a legitimate superstar for his hometown team.
20. Trevor Rosenthal, P, St. Louis
Rosenthal saved more games in the postseason (four) than he did in the regular season (three) and did so in dominating fashion. The 23-year-old didn’t allow a run in 11 2/3 October innings last season and has yet to allow one in 20 1/3 career playoff frames.
Rosenthal has expressed a desire to join the starting rotation, but the Adam Wainwright-esque transition will more than likely wait at least one more season as manager Mike Matheny understandably doesn’t want to remove Rosenthal’s ability to miss bats (126 strikeouts in 87 total innings last season) from the closer role.
21. Matt Moore, P, Tampa Bay
Moore led the Rays with 17 wins last season, which is pretty impressive considering Tampa’s rotation also features a former Cy Young (David Price) and AL Rookie of the Year (Jeremy Hellickson) winner. Moore went 17-4 in his second full season in the majors, lowering his ERA from 3.81 to 3.29 in the process.
A power arm, the strikeouts (143 in 150 1/3 innnings) should always be there, but the real key to Moore’s development and maturation on the mound will be harnessing his control (76 BB). If he can figure that out, the Rays may end up with yet another award winner in their rotation.
22. Shelby Miller, P, St. Louis
After winning a spot in the starting rotation out of spring training last season, all Miller did was win 19 games with a 3.06 ERA for the eventual NL champs. The problem for Miller is that this was mostly forgotten come October, as he pitched a grand total of one inning in the postseason and watched his teammate, Michael Wacha, claim the mantle of the Cardinals’ best young pitcher in the process.
However, don’t count out Miller this season as the 23-year-old Texan is no doubt just waiting for the opportunity to not only silence any would-be critics, but show just how well-armed the Cardinals are as they seek to defend their NL Central and league titles.
23. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
Altuve didn’t repeat his All-Star selection last season, but he still provided quite a bit of production, especially considering he stands just 5-5. Don’t let his diminutive size fool you, however, as he’s hit more than 30 doubles and stolen more than 30 bases in each of his last two seasons. He’s also managed to bat a combined .286 during the same span. A good glove at second, the 23-year-old Venezuelan still has plenty of room for growth, especially when it comes to drawing a walk (32 in 626 AB in 2013).
24. Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado
No catcher has more home runs in the past two seasons than Rosario, who has slugged 49 in 238 games. While playing his home games in Coors Field probably helps, Rosario’s career home-away splits in the power department (29:23) aren’t that different. A .292 hitter last season, the just-turned 25-year-old backstop needs to improve his plate discipline (career 42:228 BB:SO ratio) if he wants to fully realize his potential.
25. Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs
This could potentially be a make-or-break season for Castro, which is hard to fathom considering he’ll turn 24 years old a week before Opening Day. But that’s where the two-time All-Star finds himself following an all-around disappointing 2013 campaign and with top prospect Javier Baez breathing down his neck.
The good news for Castro is that he gets a clean slate with new manager Rick Renteria now running the club and he also has financial security (signed through 2019). Now it’s just a matter of the talented Dominican rediscovering the form that made him such a productive hitter earlier in his career and continuing his development on the field as it relates to both his glove (22 errors last season) and on the base paths (just 9 SB in 2013).
Matt Harvey, P, New York Mets
Harvey is most likely going to miss the entire 2014 season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, but he still deserves to be recognized for this exercise. The NL All-Star Game starter at just 24 years old, Harvey finished tied for fourth in the Cy Young voting even though he made his last appearance on the mound in late August.
A nine-game winner in 2013, Harvey’s value went well beyond the win-loss column, as he posted a 2.27 ERA and struck out 191 batters with just 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. The Mets will clearly miss Harvey this season, as will baseball in general, but the hope is that he will be able to pick up where he left off when he does finally return to the mound.
Best of the rest(alphabetical order)
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco
Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston
Gerrit Cole, P, Pittsburgh
Patrick Corbin, P, Arizona
Sonny Gray, P, Oakland
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego
Brett Lawrie, 2B/3B, Toronto
Sal Perez, C, Kansas City
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Texas
Addison Reed, P, Arizona
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Julio Teheran, P, Atlanta
Chris Tillman, P, Baltimore
On deck? (alphabetical order)
Chris Archer, P, Tampa Bay
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado
Jackie Bradley, Jr., OF, Boston
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit
Tony Cingrani, P, Cincinnati
Avisail Garcia, OF, Chicago White Sox
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington
Danny Salazar, P, Cleveland
George Springer, OF, Houston
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis
Taijuan Walker, P, Seattle
Zack Wheeler, P, New York Mets
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins