With Spring Training upon us, I thought it would be a good time to look at some of the best young players in baseball. Last year's #1 ranked player, Felix Hernandez, along with Matt Weiters, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Gonzalez, and others have exceeded the age limit and are no longer listed. The list sees many of the same names from last year, along with some new names. I was a little bullish on Madison Bumgarner, Dustin Ackley, and Eric Hosmer, but last year's list doesn't look bad a year later. On to the list.......
1. Mike Trout (21)- I might have been trying too hard to find a reason, but this ranking wasn't the slam dunk that it appears. In fact, I'm quite torn over this pick. For starters, Trout will likely play in LF, not CF, in 2013. Smallish sample size alert, but Trout's UZR/150 in LF is 5.3, much lower than the 12.2 rating he receives in CF. With the excellent defense of Bourjos roaming CF, Trout could very well see his OOZ plays dwindle, which would negatively affect his defensive value. Another knock on Trout is that he had the 3rd worst OF arm in all of baseball last year. We can't really say he does it all if he has a lame arm, can we? Lastly for Trout, it is highly unlikely he sees a 383 BABIP in 2013 like he did in 2012. If you regress his BABIP by 25 points, a 30 point drop in wOBA is likely to correspond. Even with these negatives I have grasped for, I can't ignore his 2012 season.
2. Bryce Harper (20)- With age and level so important for developing players, I can't say I'm 100% behind taking the best MLB season for a 20 year old position player ever over the best season for a 19 year old ever, but I'll roll with it. Did you know Harper had a better UZR/150 in CF than Trout did in 2012? How about Harper having the 5th highest rated arm in all of baseball instead of 3rd worst? While Trout was the better player in 2012, Harper showed enough secondary skills outside of hitting to make me believe his overall potential is higher than Trout. The only negative I could find with Harper in 2012 was his swinging strike rate. Among 143 qualified hitters, Harper had the 27th highest percentage of swing and misses. A pretty minor worry considering his BB and K rates overall.
3. Stephen Strasburg (24)- Yet another player with a strong case for #1 overall on this list. Getting a full season from Strasburg will be good for the Nationals and baseball fans everywhere. Of pitching seasons from SP 25 and under since 1970, Strasburg recorded the third best K% in 2012 for that grouping. The grouping has 809 seasons, so being third on that list places him in Dwight Gooden and Mark Prior territory. Hopefully the career of Strasburg works out better than those other wunderkind. The only stat wise hang up I can find is that he only throws 45% of his pitches in the zone. I see this as a result of Strasburg having faith in his stuff/movement causing batters to chase out of the zone instead of a control problem though.
4. Clayton Kershaw (25)- Much like the Harper/Trout debate, a good debate can be had between Kershaw and Strasburg. While it is true that Strasburg has the 3rd highest K% among SP 25 and under since 1970, it is also true that Kershaw recorded the 10th, 15th, 23rd and 28th highest totals on that same list. Kershaw has four seasons of All Star level production under his belt, and you could argue that his sustained success should push him to the top of the list. But, I feel that his overall ceiling is lower than the three above him, so I went with ceiling over length of production.
5. Jason Heyward (23)- After a not as disastrous as reported 2011, Heyward bounced back to record his second All Star level season in 2012. The power and baserunning skills have developed at the MLB level, but Heyward's regressions in plate discipline is somewhat alarming. Since posting a 14.6% BB rate as a rookie in 2010, that same rate has tumbled to 11.2% in 2011 and 8.9% in 2012. Heyward has also seen his swining strike and out of the zone swing % increase significantly, while his contact and zone contact % have dropped significantly. I think this is a case of a young hitter becoming more aggressive, but it is something to keep and eye on.
6. Giancarlo Stanton (23)- When a 23 year old with 93 career home runs to his name ranks sixth on a 25 and under list, young talent must be pretty ripe around the league. His career ISO of 282 puts him 6th all time among players through age 23 of their careers, and the home runs rank 24th among the same grouping. For some bad news, Stanton's K rate of 28.8% ranks 5th worst out of 230 players with at least 1000 ABs since 2010, but you can live with that from a power hitter. If Stanton is to truly reach his ceiling, it'd be wise to leave the batters box more than 71% of the time.
7. Madison Bumgarner (23)- Feels like this guy is older than 23, doesn't it? Alas, he is just 23, and has already accumulated 10.3 fWAR in his young career. 2012 got a little shaky for Bumgarner down the stretch, but he still posted a 3.4 fWAR season with solid peripherals. The biggest thing to like about Bumgarner is his above average K rate coupled with a below average BB rate. For his career, Bumgarner sports a 3.88 K:BB ratio. Something interesting to watch is that while Bumgarner is throwing less pitches in the zone, he is getting more swings on these pitches off the plate. Already possessing great control, if Bumgarner can continue improving his ability to get batters to chase, he should see great long term success.
8. Chris Sale (24)- Part of me says Sale's arm will fall off soon, part of me says he's the next Randy Johnson. Remember Johnson's slider? Well, Sale possesses a slider that should bring back memories of the Big Unit. Of 1298 sliders thrown in his career, Sale has seen batters swing and miss at the pitch 17.6% of the time. On sliders thrown out of the zone, Sale has gotten hitters to swing 38.5% of the time. Not bad for a guy who just began starting at the MLB level last season. With only one season of starting data on Sale it is hard to predict what might happen, but the potential for Cy Young seasons are there.
9. Elvis Andrus (24)- While some will knock this ranking due to Andrus at the plate, he was 7% above average among shortstops at the plate in 2012. Besides being above average at the plate for a SS, Andrus is also above average in the field and on the bases. It is hard to see where Andrus improves outside of hitting even more groundballs and making even more contact than he already does, but he's already a 4.2 fWAR SS, so improvement isn't neccessary.
10. Justin Upton (25)- This feels low for probably the most accomplished player on the list, but the up-down-up-down history of Upton's four year career makes him a tough read (and may have played a part in his leaving Arizona). When he's been very good, his ISO has been 232 and 240. When he's been merely good, his ISO has been 170 and 150. This trend could portend problems ahead for Upton in Atlanta as his ISO rate is his biggest varying statistic affecting his value. In Arizona, Upton played half his games in a stadium with a park factor of 112. In Atlanta, he'll be playing half his games in a stadium with a park factor of 97. Upton's career ISO at Arizona was 241, his career ISO everywhere else is 157. Don't be shocked if Upton is merely good in Atlanta.
11. Matt Moore (23)- The 10.7% BB rate is a little scary, but it can be somewhat ignored for a season. Moore's 23.1% K rate, and 11.8% swinging strike rate will do that. Tiny sample size alert, but Moore's BB rate went down from 11.5% in the first half of 2012 to 9.5% in the second half. It might not mean anything, but it is encouraging to see the improvement.
12. Mat Latos (25)- My main concern with Latos is that his K rate has dropped from 25.3% in 2010 to 23.2% in 2011 to 21.6% in 2012. Another interesting thing with Latos is how he seems to have settled in as a guy who can routinely produce a BABIP 285 and below. I think Latos has probably peaked around a 3 fWAR pitcher, but that isn't the end of the world.
13. Starlin Castro (23)- While his defense appears to have settled in at below average levels, Castro has hit 20-25% better than the average SS since his rookie year in 2010. Unfortunately, Castro's offensive value is largely dependent on sustaining a well above average BABIP, which is unlikely to consistently happen year in and year out. With his defense and baserunning for his position lacking, Castro might not move the needle much higher than his 3.5 and 3.3 fWAR the past two seasons, but once again for another player, that isn't the end of the world.
14. Aroldis Chapman (25)- Should the Reds even bother moving Chapman to the rotation? Only seven times in sixty eight appearances last season did the Reds let Chapman pitch more than one inning. Considering Chapman was worth 3.3 fWAR in relief, maybe the Reds should consider letting Chapman go two to three innings once a week. This plan would allow the Reds to keep Chapman in the bullpen, while stretching him to 120-140 IP in preparation for a move to the rotation in 2014. Oh yeah, Chapman's 44.2% K rate was the second highest of all time among pitchers to throw at least 70 innings in a season.
15. Paul Goldschmidt (25)- I'm fully on board the Goldschmidt bandwagon. Yes, his BABIP has been quite high during his time at the MLB level, but he does manage a lot of groundballs, so it might not regress too much. Goldschmidt walks 10.2% of the time, he hits for power, he steals bases and runs the bases well, plays good defense, and plays half his games in Arizona, what is there not to like about him? He wasn't on any Top 100 lists, but I expect him to continue to look like a guy all the scouts missed.
PART TWO IN THE WORKS