WARR baseball writer Kevin Luchansky writes about the Cubs and the White Sox
Also, check out Kevin’s daily baseball betting picks on NorthSideWire.
I never thought the process of constructing one single, eight-man lineup of guys under the age of 25 would be so challenging and fun all at once. Before I started putting together the puzzle pieces of this nine-headed monster, I imagined what it would have been like putting together this list, say, five to seven years ago.
Certainly much easier. And certainly devoid of the amount of collective talent this lineup stacks below. We haven’t had a talented crop of under-25 talent like we do in the game in 2015 in quite some time.
It’s exciting. The game needed it and the fans have been waiting on it. In my lifetime, I can’t remember a time quite like 2013 and 2014 where there was national attention on these guys as they climbed the minor league ranks.
Honestly, I think the attention had as much to do with the talents and superstar potential of the prospects as it had to do with the game’s current crop of stars reaching their inevitable declines. We’ve lost 90’s and 00’s stars to retirement, like Chipper Jones, Derek Jeter, and Barry Bonds, just to name a few. While others, like David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are still around and producing, but won’t be for much longer.
The outfield and third base were the hardest positions to narrow down to three and one, respectively. The outfield position is always littered with hitting prospects and in the past few seasons, it has been that and then some. The somewhat unique thing about the guys I landed on is that not only are they (near) complete hitters, they range from having above-average to stellar defensive abilities.
In other words, they’re going to put some runs on the board without costing you any in the field. They might even save a few, too.
Mike Trout — Angels (23 years young)
I hesitate to anoint anyone as a potential all-time great at such a young age, but all signs point towards Cooperstown for the kid from Millville, New Jersey. Trout briefly came onto the scene in 2011, but it was in 2012 where he began to make his impact felt, winning the Rookie of the Year award with a .326 batting average, 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases. Even as I type out that stat line, double and triple check it on FanGraphs, BaseballRef, ESPN, etc, I still have a hard time believing a 20-year-old could rake like that.
Through 565 games at the MLB level, Trout owns a .305 batting average, .553 slugging percentage, 116 home runs and 110 stolen bases. It’s rare you find that combination of power and speed, especially one with all the tools to be an exceptional player in the field. To put things in perspective of how great he has been and what’s to come, Trout’s MVP season last year was his worst statistical season in the league.
Bryce Harper — Nationals (22 years young)
A complete throwback style player with a game reminiscent of his idol, Mickey Mantle, Harper is the complete package in right field. Since being taken number one overall in the 2010 draft, the kid from Las Vegas has matured at the plate, improved his strength (and thus the ability to drive the ball to all fields) and shown relative durability for a guy that often plays with reckless abandon tracking down baseballs in the outfield grass.
This season, Harper has silenced critics that grew particularly loud last Summer, during which time he was in a “slump,” relative to past performance numbers. Bryce finished 2014 with *just* a .273 batting average, 13 home runs and 32 RBI in 100 games. Scouts and analysts worried about his drop in power production and hike in strikeout rate.
Not to worry, though. In 2015, he’s already hit a career high 24 home runs – while reducing his strikeout rate – and we’re only 68 games into the season. One can only guess how high that total ends up this season and how far he climbs the all-time list before he hangs up his cleats for good.
Joc Pederson — Dodgers (23 years young)
Young Joc has made quite the opening statement in his first season at the MLB level, already launching 19 home runs. (mainly from the leadoff spot in the order, no less.) A year ago, Pederson was the first player in the Pacific Coast League (AAA) to go 30-30 (33 home runs, 30 stolen bases) in the last 80 years!
Right now he’s striking out a little more than what manager Don Mattingly would like to see, but it’s hard to argue that he should tweak his approach when you look at his power numbers. While he’s not an elite defender, he is very athletic and being an above-average outfielder certainly factored into my consideration in grabbing the third outfield spot on my roster.
Salvador Perez — C — Royals (25 years young)
Catcher was the only position where I felt I had to do some digging to make my selection, whereas the abundance of prospects at every other position seemed to find me. (Not really, but you get my point.)
Part of that reason was due to my lineup being strictly limited to players 25 and younger, and the rest having to do with the current group of major league backstops not being the most offensively gifted group. Buster Posey and Jonathon Lucroy would be fine selections thanks to their offensive and defensive prowess, but they’re in their late 20’s. This is not to say Perez isn’t a great catcher — especially for his age — because he is.
One of the biggest areas of study, though, in the era of advanced metrics focuses on catchers’ defense – specifically pitch framing, calling games, and preventing runs. I think part of that movement has led general managers and front office staffs to focus their efforts on finding run prevent-ers and not losing too much sleep when they find one of those guys with sub-par offensive abilities.
Back to Perez, who has been one of the greatest offense producers at the position since he arrived at the MLB level in 2011 at the ripe age of 21. His 2014 production wasn’t up to par with his prior seasons, but he’s doing a fine job of making everyone a believer in 2015. Through 65 games this season, his isolated power numbers are up and he’s hitting .276 with 11 home runs and a .457 slugging percentage.
Anthony Rizzo — 1B — Cubs (25 years young)
Among the players on this list, none have improved in leaps and bounds the way Rizzo has. You could argue that Rizzo has had the most room for improvement, but even so, his growth is apparent even to the most casual of baseball fans. He was a major prospect in the Red Sox organization years ago, and scouts fell out of love with him when he struggled to cover the plate and the strikeouts started piling up. Rizzo then had a few changes of scenery, moving from Boston’s organization to San Diego’s before eventually being dealt to Chicago and playing Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs in 2012.
He got a taste of major league ball in 2012 – performed pretty well, too – and then in 2013 faltered in the way scouts eventually projected him to, hitting only .233 with an ugly strikeout rate. Those numbers feel like history now that Rizzo has changed his approach and his swing. He’s shortened up his stroke, gets his hands through the zone faster and as a result, covers more of the plate, strikes out less and is hitting more line drives. Over the next few years, It’s really going to be fun watching him in a Cubs uniform in what should be his peak performance seasons.
Joe Panik — 2B — Giants (24 years young)
Panik could be a relative unknown in the Midwest, but that will likely change when he runs off a string of 3-4 straight All-Star appearances. So maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m a big believer in Panik.
He’s tallied a little more than 500 at-bats with the Giants, and his career average is over .300 with just an 11 percent strikeout rate. Aside from the low strikeout rate, I like him to stay above .300 and keep improving thanks to his pop (six home runs this season already, compared to just one in 2014) and his above-average line drive rate. He’s a sound defender, has a high baseball IQ and I value his offensive production at a position that isn’t exactly overflowing with it.
Manny Machado — 3B — Orioles (22 years young)
As I mentioned earlier, choosing just one third baseman was difficult. It was, in fact, painful. Even though I feel pretty confident Machado would be the right under 25 guy to build a team around at third base, leaving Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon and Joey Gallo (though he’s not quite at the level the others are) off the list just feels wrong.
Machado is a complete package, though. He’s a five-tool guy still maturing at the plate but already producing like an All-Star. He’s clubbed 47 home runs in only 360 MLB games while hitting .283. He’s a high-contact, high-power guy who just so happens to be reducing the rate at which he strikes out. That’s scary, and he’s the real kicker – he’s only 22. Machado can be a key piece in the Orioles lineup and top overall third baseman in the league for the next 10-12 seasons, if not more.
Addison Russell — SS — Cubs (21 years young)
I’m not going to throw any Russell major league stats at you. It’s not that there are none to speak of, it’s just that they didn’t factor into my consideration whatsoever. Russell is one of the most talented, all-around shortstop prospects the game has seen in a decade. (Carlos Correa of the Astros is right there with him.) He’s an incredible athlete, shows unbelievable range at shortstop and second base, and has the quick hands and level swing that should produce line drives and gap doubles until he’s roughly 38 years old.
It can’t be overstated how valuable having Russell at shortstop is for the Cubs. For as incredible of a hitter Kris Bryant or even Anthony Rizzo is, if the Cubs are to be successful – like, World Series type successful – they’ll need Russell to be their MVP. He’s more than capable of being one no matter where he hits in the order or what middle infield position he lands at. (But it should definitely be SS.)
How would I construct a batting order with these nine guys? Glad you asked. Honestly, it would be challenging to screw up an order with this much talent. That said, if anyone could misconstrue it, it would be folks from the Mets front office.
1. Joc Pederson
2. Mike Trout
3. Anthony Rizzo
4. Bryce Harper
5. Manny Machado
6. Salvador Perez
7. Addison Russell
8. Joe Panik