The boys of summer

Leaving the minors early, young baseball players are making a major contribution

25-and-under Club

April 25, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

New York Mets third baseman David Wright thinks about all of the young guys like himself who are playing - and succeeding - at baseball's highest level. He recalls what it was like when he was a kid, when it seemed as if inexperienced players waited years for their big breaks. He considers being in an era when teams invite young players to continue developing in the majors. Then Wright, 23, smiles ever so slightly and shrugs his shoulders.

"Is it different than it was when I was growing up being a fan? Absolutely. But am I surprised by it? Absolutely not," Wright said. "As much as it is a game and we treat it like a game, there is a business side to it. And the business side is younger players are cheaper and if they can put up similar production [as high-priced veterans], it is a no-brainer."

The economics of the sport, along with the improvement at the collegiate level, huge investments for draft choices, international development and increased opportunities have made today's major leagues fertile ground for players who, years ago, might still be beating the bushes.

"I just think it is the changing of time and more organizations are willing to give their young players some opportunity," said Washington Nationals manager and Hall of Fame player Frank Robinson.

This year, Robinson's team features third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, 21, and All-Star closer Chad Cordero, 24, both of whom debuted in the big leagues the same season in which they were drafted out of college.

"The feeling was [years ago] that you had to put a certain amount of time in the minor leagues before you were ready for the major leagues ... " Robinson said. "You've got younger players getting to the big leagues much quicker today for whatever reason."

Actually, pockets of early-20-somethings have been making an impact on Major League Baseball as far back as the record books will go.

In 1956, when Robinson debuted at age 20 and won the Rookie of the Year Award, at 21, he was the ninth-youngest player in a game that season. Three of the others, Don Drysdale, Bill Mazeroski and Sandy Koufax, also are Hall of Famers.

Ten years ago, Baseball America published an article on stars under age 25, and the list included Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon. Last year, nine players 25 or under were All-Stars; in 1995, there were five; in 1985, there were 13.

"It goes in cycles," said Mets general manager Omar Minaya. "You have the new class of guys coming up, young guys like Zimmerman, David [Wright] and [Miguel] Cabrera. Not only are they young, but they are ready to play at the major league level without a lot of minor league experience. And I think it is great for baseball."

Young and good

What this current era has - perhaps like no other - is a combination of quantity and quality. Twenty percent of current major leaguers are 25 or younger. Seven percent - or just more than 50 of the 750 players on 25-man rosters - are 23 or younger.

Every team in the majors with the exception of the New York Yankees (one, Robinson Cano) had three or more 25-and-under players on its active roster through Sunday's games. The Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Colorado Rockies have no 23-and-under players in the big leagues.

The rebuilding Florida Marlins have 12 players 25-and-under and six 23-and-under. They had a major-league record six rookies in their Opening Day starting lineup.

"It has been occurring over the last few years, no question about it," said Washington Nationals assistant general manager Tony Siegle, a four-decade MLB veteran. "Even your higher-priced clubs will play those kids in order to keep the money down. Some clubs are completely shaped with younger players."

Working in concert with the numbers are impressive names. In the National League, there is a trio of 24-year-old aces: the Marlins' Dontrelle Willis, Chicago Cubs' Carlos Zambrano and Padres' Jake Peavy. The American League includes budding phenoms such as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Carl Crawford, Oakland Athletics' Huston Street and Cleveland Indians' Grady Sizemore.

The 25-and-under list is eye-popping, and it no longer includes the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols, Texas Rangers' Mark Teixeira, Red Sox's Josh Beckett and Indians' C.C. Sabathia, who have either turned 26 this year or will before season's end.

"I think it seems like there are more guys [starring at young ages]," Orioles assistant general manager Jim Duquette said. "There's also a willingness for teams to bring them up quicker and earlier in their careers and maybe skip a couple levels in their minor league development and have them develop at the major league level than maybe there was a few years ago, probably even five years ago."

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