Today’s baseball landscape has perhaps a larger group of young superstars than any other time in the game’s history. Shortly after the Hall of Fame voting results were released in January, I took a look at the 25 active major leaguers who stand the best chance of eventually reaching the Hall of Fame. What I found was that there were very few who could be put into the category of “shoo-ins”. The only active players you could really say have a near 100% chance if they retired today are Pujols, Beltre, Cabrera, Ichiro, and possibly Kershaw. A large part of that is because the star power is shifting more towards younger players who have burst onto the scene the last few years. In fact, of the last six MVP awards winners (three AL and three NL), only Josh Donaldson was over the age of 25.
Because of all the incredible new talent entering the game, I went position by position to determine an all-star team of players who are 25 years of age or younger. Some choices were extremely tough, as you can imagine. For each position, I asked myself which player I would want to have for the next ten to fifteen years if I were building a team today.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez, Age 24 (Yankees)
This was a rather obvious choice, unless you count Kyle Schwarber as a catcher. Few rookies make as grand of an entrance as Sanchez did last season. He bashed 20 home runs in just 201 big league at bats, and with the dearth of good hitting catchers around the game, Sanchez already has a claim as one of the game’s top five backstops, regardless of age or experience. Keep in mind that only five catchers in all of baseball hit more home runs than Sanchez in 2016, and he only played 53 games. The Yankees are undergoing a youth movement and the 24-year old is front and center.
First Base: Greg Bird, 24 (Yankees)
First base happens to be one of the least represented positions when it comes to players under 25, so Bird gets the nod here over Ryon Healy of the Athletics. Unfortunately, Bird missed the entire 2016 season due to a shoulder injury, but he demolished opposing pitchers in Spring Training and now has a firm grasp on the Yankees’ first base job. Hitting left-handed pitching is still an area he needs to improve in, but it’s not unrealistic to envision Bird hitting 30 home runs this year, especially given the luxury of Yankee Stadium’s right field porch.
Second Base: Jonathan Villar, 25 (Brewers)
Honorable Mention: Rougned Odor, 23 (Rangers)
Many people probably would have gone with Rougned Odor here, but Villar was also one of baseball’s true breakout stars last year. Odor is still just 23 and coming off a 30-homer season, but Villar was the superior player in 2016. After struggling to establish himself in parts of three seasons with the Astros, Villar came out of nowhere to score 92 runs for Milwaukee and led the NL with 62 stolen bases. He also displayed good power for a middle infielder by hitting 19 home runs. The biggest disparity between Odor and Villar is their ability to get on base. Villar walked 79 times in 2016 to the tune of a .369 on-base percentage, while Odor walked only 19 times. The one flaw in Villar’s game is his high strikeout rate; he was second in the NL with 174 strikeouts and has always struck out frequently, even in the minors. Regardless, he is among the game’s most underrated players and is young enough that he can continue to develop as a player. He’ll make the move from shortstop to second base this year.
Third Base: Nolan Arenado, 25 (Rockies)
HM: Manny Machado, 24 (Orioles); Kris Bryant, 25 (Cubs)
This was another toss-up. There are four third baseman, three of them 25 or younger, who have a legitimate claim as a top ten player in all of baseball. How can you choose between, reigning MVP Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado? I ultimately went with Arenado, who has led the NL in home runs, RBI, and total bases each of the last two seasons. Some of that is attributed to Coors Field, but when you out-RBI the rest of the league by 20 in consecutive years, that should leave no doubt about your offensive prowess. Arenado has also gained a reputation as one of the premier defensive third baseman in the game; four Gold Gloves in four years back it up. Bryant, Machado, and Arenado are all extremely close in value, making way for some good debates. But as of now, Machado doesn’t walk nearly as much as the other two and Bryant is the most strikeout-prone, so Arenado gets the very slight edge. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise if any one of them took home an MVP in 2017.
Shortstop: Carlos Correa, 22 (Astros)
HM: Francisco Lindor, 23 (Indians); Corey Seager, 23 (Dodgers)
Shortstop was easily the toughest position to choose. There are at least half a dozen shortstops under 25 who have the look of perennial All-Stars, but three especially stand out. Among those three, Corey Seager may currently be the best pure hitter, but I’m going with the all-around upside of Correa and Francisco Lindor, with Correa getting the edge. Lindor already does everything his team could ask for and is the type of player who can have a Derek Jeter-like impact on a franchise. However, I’m going with Correa because I think he’ll develop more power, improve defensively and on the basepaths, and become one of baseball’s top five players for a long time. Regardless, Seager, Lindor, and Correa all have monumental potential and perform well in nearly every aspect of the game, meaning any one of them could emerge as the best. Correa is the only shortstop in baseball history to hit 20 home runs in each of his first two seasons. Only nine other have done it in either of their first two years, including Seager. The talent level of young shortstops in today’s game in reminiscent of the mid-to-late 1990s, when Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra all entered the league around the same time.
Left Field: Christian Yelich, 25 (Marlins)
HM: Andrew Benintendi, 22 (Red Sox)
Yelich hasn’t gotten the publicity he deserves, maybe due to the presence of his outfield partner Giancarlo Stanton, but all he’s done in his four seasons is hit and get on base. He’s always been known for his high batting averages, but Yelich greatly increased his power output in 2016. He also drove in 98 runs, and has a chance to score and drive in 100 annually now that he’s added more power. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Yelich named to his first of many All-Star teams in 2017.
Center Field: Mike Trout, 25 (Angels)
HM: Odubel Herrera, 25 (Phillies)
There are a number of good young center fielders, but Trout towers above them all. Although he won’t celebrate his 26th birthday until August, he has already built a compelling Hall of Fame case. What Trout’s been able to do so far has been nothing short of incredible. Since 1942, only Alex Rodriguez and Mickey Mantle scored more runs through their age-24 season than Trout. The five-time All-Star has finished first or second in AL MVP voting in every season of his career and could wind up as one of the greatest players of all-time.
Right Field: Bryce Harper, 24 (Nationals)
HM: Mookie Betts, 24 (Red Sox)
It was nearly impossible to choose between Harper and Mookie Betts for right field. Both are among the best players in baseball and Betts vastly outplayed Harper in 2016, nearly winning the AL MVP. But Harper has already won an MVP in 2015, a season which was historic for a player at his age on so many levels. For whatever reason, Harper doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he’s already accomplished. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t quite been on Mike Trout’s level (yet) or because people don’t like his personality, but neither argument makes a whole lot of sense. Critics tend to forget that Harper is still only 24, an age when most players are just getting started. Here’s some perspective on how good Harper has been since his debut; only six players have had at least 2,500 plate appearances prior to their age-24 season and had an on-base percentage over .380 and slugging percentage over .500 – Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Trout, and Harper.
Starting Pitcher #1: Noah Syndergaard, 24 (Mets)
There were so many great pitchers who could have been picked here, but Syndergaard is the one I believe has the highest ceiling of the bunch. It’s hard to believe 2017 is only the second time that Thor has made an Opening Day roster, but the big right-hander is already one of baseball’s most marketable stars, blessed with a breathtaking arsenal of pitches and a persona that fits perfectly in the Big Apple. Syndergaard is nearly untouchable when he’s on top of his game, with his triple-digit fastball and wicked slider that routinely reaches speeds in the low 90’s. Very rarely does a pitcher possess his strikeout ability and pinpoint control this early in a career, which makes Syndergaard one of the early frontrunners for the NL Cy Young award. With less than two full seasons of big league experience, there’s every chance Syndergaard continues to get even better, and that’s frightening to think about, especially if you’re a hitter in the NL East.
Starting Pitcher #2: Aaron Sanchez, 24 (Blue Jays)
The Southern California native burst onto the scene as a reliever in 2014, but has quickly emerged as one of the AL’s best starters. It’s no wonder the Blue Jays were so resistant to include him in trade talks while he was moving through their system. Sanchez led the league in ERA in his first full year as a starter in 2016 and may have had a shot at the Cy Young Award had Toronto not limited his innings down the stretch.
Starting Pitcher #3: Carlos Martinez, 25 (Cardinals)
HM: Michael Fulmer, 24 (Tigers); Marcus Stroman, 25 (Blue Jays); Steven Matz, 25 (Mets); Lance McCullers, 23 (Astros)
While the Cardinals enter 2017 amidst much uncertainty with their pitching, Martinez has become the team’s new ace and most reliable starter. The 2015 All-Star has turned in a 3.02 ERA the past two years. Martinez’s electric fastball and off-speed pitches have even drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez.
Relief Pitcher: Roberto Osuna, 22 (Blue Jays)
HM: Edwin Diaz, 22 (Mariners); Cam Bedrosian, 25 (Angels)
One of the strengths the Blue Jays have is some great young starting pitching, but Osuna has been just as outstanding in the early part of his career as the team’s closer. What Osuna has done in his first two seasons is nothing short of historic. It’s rare enough for a pitcher this young to be a team’s undisputed closer; Osuna has already compiled 56 career saves, making him the youngest player ever to reach that total. In fact, among all pitchers who compiled 50 or more innings before turning 22, Osuna and Jose Fernandez are the only two to post an ERA under 2.75, WHIP under 1.00 and allow a batting average under .200.