I have a vivid memory from my little league days of sitting in the dugout after practice and listening intently as a teammate read Baseball America’s rankings of the best players in the country by age. The best player on our team, who later went on to play Division I ball, was annoyed by the notion of a 13-year-old somewhere else getting so much attention for what couldn’t possibly be (he figured) superior talent. The sixth-best player on our team, who later went on to write this article, found it fascinating that there was a 13-year-old so good at baseball that they were being written about in magazines.
Certain things about the aging (and development) process are so ingrained in the way we experience the sport that we don’t even think about them because they just sort of … are. For instance, we know to view the early season struggles of a 20-year-old rookie and a 40-year-old veteran through much different lenses and adjust our internal freak-out meters accordingly. We also just know, for example, that players generally peak in their mid-20s, signing a 30-something player to a massive long-term contract usually works out badly, and great numbers in the minors can be misleading if not placed within the context of age and level of competition.
Age is extremely important in projecting future performance. It plays a huge part in our PECOTA projections, the 2017 version of which were released today. Because I can’t seem to shake that little league memory, I thought it would be interesting to use PECOTA as our guide to baseball’s best players by age. I’ll leave the teenagers to Baseball America, so let’s start with 20-year-olds and use projected WARP for 2017 as our main guide, leaving a little room for subjectivity when it seems necessary.
Best 20-year-old: Julio Urias, Dodgers
We’ll start with an easy one. Urias was the only teenager to play in the majors last year and he thrived, throwing 77 innings with a 3.39 ERA/3.97 DRA for the Dodgers. Despite what PECOTA figures will be another modest workload, he leads all 20-year-olds in projected WARP (1.4) for 2017 and is the only 20-year-old pitcher projected better than replacement level. He’s already really good and has a chance to be truly special, with Madison Bumgarner and Jose Fernandez among his top three comparable players.
Honorable mention: BP’s prospect crew tells me that the top 20-year-old prospects are Victor Robles (Nationals), Eloy Jimenez (Cubs), Brendan Rodgers (Rockies), Rafael Devers (Red Sox), Gleyber Torres (Yankees), and Ozhaino Albies (Braves). Albies and Robles join Urias as the only 20-year-olds projected to crack 1.0 WARP, but neither has debuted in the majors yet.
Best 21-year-old: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Royals infielder Raul Mondesi was the lone 20-year-old to appear in the majors last season. He hit .185 in 47 games and PECOTA predicts he’ll be similarly overmatched in 2017, so let’s turn to the prospects to find the best 21-year-old. Amed Rosario (Mets), Willy Adames (Rays), Yadier Alvarez (Dodgers), Cody Bellinger (Dodgers), Mitch Keller (Pirates), and Francis Martes (Astros) are the top names, but only Bellinger is projected with at least 1.0 WARP.
He’s not the highest-rated 21-year-old prospect, but PECOTA sees him as the best MLB-ready 21-year-old prospect. And that makes sense, because Bellinger is a slugging first baseman/corner outfielder who posted the fourth-best OPS in the Double-A Texas League last year and even had a brief cameo at Triple-A. It’s unclear when he’ll reach the majors, but PECOTA thinks his power will be an asset right away.
Honorable mention: I debated giving the nod to Rosario over Bellinger. He’s regarded as the better prospect and was fantastic at Double-A in the second half last season, but he seems to be about a half-season behind Bellinger on the call-up timeline and PECOTA sees Rosario as being just barely above replacement level if he reaches the majors 2017. If we were drafting 21-year-olds for long-term value Rosario might be the pick, but for 2017 alone—or within the context of who’s the best right now—Bellinger gets a slight edge.
Best 22-year-old: Carlos Correa, Astros
Most of this season’s elite prospects—Alex Reyes (Cardinals), Andrew Benintendi (Red Sox), J.P. Crawford (Phillies), Yoan Moncada (White Sox), Austin Meadows (Pirates), Lucas Giolito (White Sox)—are 22 years old, but this is still a relatively easy pick because Correa is already an established star for the Astros at the same age. Correa totaled 2.7 WARP in 99 games as a rookie in 2015 and then ranked 10th among AL hitters with 5.1 WARP in 2016. His projected 4.6 WARP for 2017 is 11th among AL hitters. Correa is a Hall of Fame talent who has lived up to every bit of the hype so far.
Honorable mention: Among prospects, Benintendi (4.3 WARP) and Reyes (1.5) have the best projections for hitters and pitchers, respectively. Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia (2.2) and Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara (2.2) also project well for 2017. Roberto Osuna is somewhat like Correa in that he’s already established as an impact major leaguer, saving 56 games with a 2.63 ERA/3.62 DRA in 144 innings for the Blue Jays, but the 70-inning role limits his WARP.
Best 23-year-old: Corey Seager, Dodgers
There are still some good prospects in this age group, but 23 is the point at which established big leaguers take over. Each league has a stud 23-year-old shortstop coming off an MVP-caliber 2016 season and deciding between Seager or Francisco Lindor is nearly impossible. Lindor is a vastly superior defender and that might make him my choice in a long-term draft, but for right now Seager’s bat is tough to beat. Seager edged Lindor slightly in WARP last season (6.7 vs. 6.2) and PECOTA sees him having a 0.2-WARP edge in 2017. That’s obviously splitting hairs, and if you ask me tomorrow the answer might be different, so I’ll lean on PECOTA to act as the tiebreaker and go with Seager.
Honorable mention: Lindor is an amazing 23-year-old. I just want to say that, clearly, so Indians fans and his fan club president Emma Baccellieri don’t come after me. (Please.) Alex Bregman, Dansby Swanson, Rougned Odor, Byron Buxton, and Addison Russell also project for at least 2.4 WARP apiece. And you can tell I don’t have that much pull around here because I sent out a strongly worded memo insisting that Buxton’s projection be inflated by 150 percent and no one listened (his actual projected 2.9 WARP, with .245/.298/.436 hitting and elite-level defense is fine, too). Astros starter Lance McCullers leads 23-year-old pitchers in projected WARP with 2.1, but my pick for the best 23-year-old pitcher is Mariners closer/strikeout machine Edwin Diaz.
Best 24-year-old: Manny Machado, Orioles
This age group is even more stacked. Bryce Harper won MVP two years ago. Last year Mookie Betts was runner-up for MVP and Manny Machado placed fifth after being fourth the prior year. And yet PECOTA gives the highest projected WARP to Trea Turner, who finished runner-up to Seager for Rookie of the Year in 2016. Turner hit .342 with 33 steals in 73 games after being a top prospect, so PECOTA’s love is natural. However, after debuting in center field he’s shifting back to shortstop full time and … who knows? PECOTA thinks he’ll be fantastic defensively, but he’s yet to start a game there in the majors. If Turner proves to be “only” average at shortstop, his WARP projection would drop into the Harper/Betts/Machado range. I’m not doubting Turner, but given this incredible competition I’ll wait to see a bit more before diving in fully.
Of course, that still leaves the crazy Harper/Betts/Machado three-way battle. Betts graces the cover of the new Baseball Prospectus 2017 Annual, so we’re obviously believers. Harper is one season removed from hitting .330/.460/.649. Neither is a wrong choice—they’re amazing!—but I kept coming back to Machado’s slightly longer track record of excellence and power/defense combo at a more premium defensive position. He’s been an MVP-caliber player since 2013, racking up 5.7 WARP per 150 games during that four-year span, and playing 319 of a possible 324 games since 2015 has put his knee injuries firmly in the past. Machado also filled in capably at shortstop last season, which could unlock even more all-around value, although Betts also deserves credit for being able to play center field if the Red Sox needed him more there.
Honorable mention: Noah Syndergaard is the best age-24 pitcher and I’d listen to an argument for including him in the Machado/Betts/Harper/Turner battle if my head hadn’t already exploded from the position player debate. And then there’s Gary Sanchez, Kyle Schwarber, Miguel Sano, Xander Bogaerts, and Trevor Story, around each of whom any team would be thrilled to build.
Best 25-year-old: Mike Trout, Angels
Both reigning MVPs are 25 years old and, if picking teams from scratch, it wouldn’t surprise me if Trout and Kris Bryant were 1-2 on most people’s draft boards. Bryant is on an inner-circle Hall of Fame track, but Trout is on track to be one of the greatest handful of players in the history of the sport. I’m hoping it’s possible to both avoid knocking Bryant and make it clear that Trout is simply unbeatable in terms of past, present, and future performance.
I’m of the belief that Trout should have won at least four and possibly five MVPs in his first five full seasons and no player has ever totaled as many WARP through age 24. PECOTA projects Trout to lead the majors in WARP again this season and his top seven comparable players are Mickey Mantle, Giancarlo Stanton, Frank Thomas, Willie Mays, Rocky Colavito, Ken Griffey Jr., and Albert Pujols. I’m willing to give Bryant a slight boost for his massive lead in dreaminess, but he’ll have to settle for ranking second here.
Honorable mention: The dropoff after Trout and Bryant is substantial, with Christian Yelich, Joc Pederson, and Odubel Herrera looking like the best choices among mortal hitters and Carlos Martinez and Jameson Taillon stand out among age-25 pitchers.
Best 26-year-old: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
One of the easier choices. Arenado is a Glove Glove third baseman with the defensive metrics to match who led the NL in homers and RBIs in each of the past two years. Coors Field inflates his raw numbers just like it does everyone else, but Arenado posted an .835 OPS on the road in 2015-2016 and PECOTA is designed to put everyone on an even playing field contextually. He’s great regardless of the ballpark, projecting as a top 10 NL player in 2017.
Best 27-year-old: Madison Bumgarner, Giants
This is the first age group after 20 in which a pitcher has a legitimate claim to the title. PECOTA prefers Giancarlo Stanton slightly for 2017, but Bumgarner has been a Cy Young-caliber ace each year since 2011 and his consistency really stands out in contrast to Stanton’s injury history. I’d take 150 games of peak-level Stanton over almost everyone, but we’ve really only seen that twice in seven seasons and he’s coming off the worst year of his career. Slugging right fielder or ace starter is a timeless debate that will never be settled, but in this case I’ll go with the pitcher.
Honorable mention: Jose Altuve was great enough in 2016 to be in the mix with Bumgarner and Stanton, and his Astros teammate George Springer actually has the highest projected WARP for a 27-year-old. Anthony Rizzo also deserves consideration, his Cubs teammate Kyle Hendricks is coming off an ERA title and several hundred BP articles about him, and PECOTA loves Kevin Kiermaier.
Best 28-year-old: Chris Sale, Red Sox
Another pitcher! Sale has the second-highest projected WARP of any pitcher in 2017, leading a an age group that’s heavy on arms and light on bats.
Honorable mention: I’m not willing to take him over Sale, but BP’s pitch-framing numbers and PECOTA show Yasmani Grandal as one of the most underrated position players in baseball. I’d like to see him steal strikes for a Sale-led age-28 staff that also features Stephen Strasburg, Chris Archer, Michael Pineda, Jose Quintana, Masahiro Tanaka, and Rick Porcello.
Best 29-year-old: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
The best pitcher on the planet is projected to be … the best pitcher on the planet. Kershaw is projected to lead the majors in pitching WARP and only Sale is within 20 percent of his total. He has a higher projected WARP (5.1) than the second- (Jacob deGrom, 2.6) and third-best (Dallas Keuchel, 2.4) age-29 pitchers combined.
Best 30-year-old: Buster Posey, Giants
Another no-brainer, as PECOTA projects Posey to have the second-best WARP (6.9) this year behind Trout.
(Now that we’re on the wrong side of 30, let’s go into lightning-round mode.)
Best 31-year-old: Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
Best 32-year-old: Max Scherzer, Nationals
Best 33-year-old: Joey Votto, Reds
Best 34-year-old: Miguel Cabrera
Best 35-year-old: Ian Kinsler, Tigers
Best 36-year-old: Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Best 37-year-old: Rich Hill, Dodgers
Best 38-year-old: Adrian Beltre, Rangers
Best 39-and-over: Carlos Beltran, Astros
I could keep going for another half-dozen years, but at this point the pickings are very slim. The best 39-and-over hitter is the 40-year-old Beltran (unless someone can talk 41-year-old David Ortiz out of retirement) and the best 39-and-over pitcher is 44-year-old Bartolo Colon.
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