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September 4, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Most Depressing Age-27 Seasons of 2013

by Sam Miller


Another year, another bunch of players who were 27 and will never be 27 again. As Ben Lindbergh once wrote, the idea of Age 27 as a time when players break out is mostly a myth. But as I once wrote (twice wrote, actually), the idea of Age 27 as the last year that broken-down prospects get taken semi-seriously as post-hype sleepers is maybe not. So, in what has become an annual thing, here’s a look at the Age 27 Sadness that 10 Age 27s felt this year.

10. Daric Barton
Type of Age 27 Disappointment: Stagnation
Top line of his resume: Thrice a top-50 prospect, platonic ideal of a Billy Beane prospect, led the majors in TAv in as a small-sample 21-year-old.
2013: .183/.256/.263 in 43 big-league plate appearances.
If you spend a lot of time feeling nostalgic for sabermetrics’ low-hanging-fruit days, Daric Barton is your baseball equivalent of the last song played at prom. Back then, “draft whoever Billy Beane picks up” was a valid fantasy strategy, and oh boy after the Mark Mulder trade you wanted to hold some seriously sweaty hands with Daric Barton, who had just hit .313/.445/.511, as the youngest player in the Midwest League, as a catcher. He did have one fantastic season, and through age 24 he had a better OPS+ than Derrek Lee, Justin Morneau, Anthony Rizzo, Paul Konerko, Richie Sexson, Eric Hosmer, a whole grip of guys. In three seasons since, he has two big-league home runs, and a .274 slugging percentage in more than 450 plate appearances. To his credit, 2013 was (narrowly) the best season he has had in Triple-A (where he has spent parts of six years), but it wasn’t the league domination you expect from 27-year-olds in the PCL: he led the River Cats in OBP but was, true to his history, just seventh in slugging.

9. C.J. Henry
Type of Age 27 Melancholy: Off-road comeback attempt
Top line of his resume: The highest draft pick the Yankees have had since 1993, Henry was ranked at the time as the second-best high school athlete of his class, behind Justin Upton. “I'm a five-tool player with a high ceiling and unlimited potential,” he said.
2013: .330/.410/.517 in 56 games for Evansville, of the independent Frontier League.
Henry turned down a scholarship to play basketball with Kansas to sign with the Yankees, but the error-prone shortstop stalled in Single-A, hitting .184/.238/.322 and striking out in 37 percent of his plate appearances as a 21-year-old. That sent him back to college basketball, where he went from Memphis to Kansas to Southern Nazarene University. He returned to baseball this year and has hit well in an environment that doesn’t produce many futures. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the raw tools,” his manager said recently. “There’s a lot of upside there. But, baseball is littered with a lot of guys that have fallen short of their ceiling. As far as tools go, there probably isn’t another guy in the league that can match his.”

8. Reid Brignac
Type of Age 27 Dislocation: Abrupt unmooring
Top line of his resume: As a power-hitting shortstop he was the 11th-best prospect in the game, a spot ahead of Ryan Braun and a spot behind Evan Longoria.
2013: .228/.321/.315 at Triple-A Colorado Springs; .185/.219/.261 in 98 big-league at-bats; 10th-worst WARP in majors.
There was only one concern about Brignac: the glove. He wanted to stay at shortstop, but he was below average there and might have ended up at third or right field if a) the Rays weren’t crowded there and b) God hadn’t reverse-imaged him in Photoshop around 2008, turning him into a no-bat, great-glove shortstop. He’s been baseball’s worst hitter over the past three years (a generous handful of pitchers have even hit better), and he has reached that point where the first result in a Google Images search of his name is his wife. Also, that point where the transactions start to accelerate, as three teams let him go this year.

7. Eric Hurley
Type of Age 27 Eviction: Quiet retirement?
Top line of his resume: “The Rangers inquired about Carlos Gonzalez but wouldn't consider parting with Eric Hurley for him.”
2013: Does not appear in the literature.
MLB Trade Rumors’ last notice of him was last summer, when the Twins released him. (He had a 6.85 ERA in Triple-A that year, split between the Angels and Twins orgs.) Rotoworld’s last mention was when the Twins picked him up for Triple-A depth. Google News doesn’t turn up a single reference to him since the end of last season. So that’s how it ends for a guy who everybody cared a great deal about not that long ago: he just vanishes, and is memorialized forever onward in an Angels hat, for shame.

6. Mat Gamel
Type of Age 27 Insult: Injury-ruined last chance
Top line of his resume: Top-40 prospect; compared to Ryan Braun by a baseball card; “He should hit .300 in the big leagues with over 25 home runs annually.”
2013: Has not played.
Gamel was already approaching Age 27 oblivion, as he has been so bad at the big-league level (.229/.305/.367 career), and so often injured, that he has managed to collect just a half-season’s worth of at-bats over the course of five seasons since his debut. The Brewers this year have given 57 starts at first base to Yuni Betancourt—Yuniesky Betancourt!—and their .260 OBP at the position is lower than any NL team's at any position. So this was Gamel’s big chance to get 600 plate appearances, but instead he spent it recovering from surgery on his ACL. Now he may never get to hit that third career sacrifice fly.

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