By SEAN RAPOSA
June 30, 2008
There I stood on the edge of the pool; drink in hand, sun gleaming off my Gucci shades, a wide smile stretching across my face as I pondered this week’s topic. I glanced to my left and there was Hef extending an arm onto my shoulder. Talking through a puff of cigar smoke and gesturing out to the beauty that lay before us he said with a wink and a wry smile, “There’s no end to the fun when you keep ‘em young.” Okay, that was a dream. But I’m taking the legend’s advice and devoting another column to the youthful talent scattered abundantly throughout the majors. I’ll be following up last week’s young pitchers breakdown with a much-deserved shout-out to the rising studs at the dish.
When it comes time for the Olympics this summer, plenty of attention and print will be devoted to the “kids” representing our great country in basketball - and rightfully so - but let’s also recognize that the same blessing currently exists in baseball. In an attempt to wrangle in Bruce Willis as a fan - and to make life easier - I will again set the maximum age at 24. This excludes a pair of top-notch backstops in the Twins’ Joe Mauer and the Dodgers’ Russell Martin, both of whom could start for their respective All-Star squads in a few weeks. Other 25-year-olds who will most likely join them at the Midsummer Classic but fail to qualify for My Five this week are the Mets’ Jose Reyes and David Wright, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera, the Indians’ Grady Sizemore and the White Sox’ most recent sensation, Carlos Quentin. I’ve also excluded Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Hanley Ramirez, who are the requisite 24 but have been detailed in previous columns.
No. 5: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
We like what’s new. It’s in our DNA. It’s why couples get divorced, why Michael Jordan has 25 different sneakers and the PS17 is already being conceptualized. I mean seriously, how else could “American Idol” be popular? I’m no different. The Rays 6‘2”, 210 pound power-hitting third baseman beat out some stiff competition to make today’s list. But what can I say? New is cool.
The highly-touted prospect, drafted with the third overall pick in 2006, got his first call to the big club early in April and hasn’t disappointed. Longoria has shown great defensive ability for such a young player, covering the hot corner and committing only five errors thus far while displaying good range and reaction. On offense, he fits nicely into the No. 5 hole in Tampa’s lineup and has played a major role in the team’s rise to respectability. The raw power Longoria displayed by hitting 44 home runs in only 733 minor league at-bats coming into the year has so far translated better than the Rays could have hoped. In only 259 at-bats with the Rays entering the week, he had already blasted 15 homers to go along with a .529 slugging percentage. His 20 doubles indicate he could be a contender for the home run title sometime soon. Some might have Longoria higher on this list, but as with Eva, I need to see a little more before you get to the top of My Five. To his credit, he’s the only rookie in My Five, and at 22 he’s also the youngest player mentioned, so the upside is there.
No. 4: Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox
Pedroia is a manager’s dream. He gets everything out of his generously listed 5’ 9”, 180 pound frame and brings an enthusiastic bravado to the park on a daily basis. It is his slight frame that serves to both bring him adulation and lead to his often being overlooked. Not by me, however: I have a soft spot for the little guys and Pedroia in particular, as I spent my playing days manning the middle infield as well. Whatever he may lack in size or athleticism, he makes up for in toughness. Pedroia was the second hardest batter to strike out per at bat last season, and his mental toughness was evident after he ended April with a .182 batting average and scraped his average all the way up to .317. His all-out defense at second base was also instrumental in his winning the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year Award, beating out higher profile first-timers Delmon Young and teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka.
So far in 2008, the little engine that could is back at it. He’s been on a tear lately and has his average back over .300. Pedroia is on track to set career highs in every other category and is on pace for 200 hits and 100 runs. More surprising from a little white guy is that he’s also on pace for 15 dongs and 17 thefts. His 23 doubles rank him in the A.L.’s top 10, which also probably comes as a shocker. Along with Red Sox front man Ellsbury, the two 24-year olds should be setting the table for the big dogs in Boston for a long time to come.
No. 3: B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays
Upton got his first taste of the bright lights back in 2004 at the age of 19, and he was understandably overwhelmed. Another ho-hum performance followed the second go-round in 2006, but B.J. really took off last year. After being moved all around the infield and proving to be a defensive liability at each spot, the Rays finally moved the elite athletic talent to the outfield in 2007. It seems to have worked, as Upton’s speed and strong arm have allowed him to realize his five-tool potential while roaming the wide-open spaces.
Serving as the No. 3 or No. 4 hitter for the Rays this season, Upton has continued to develop as a player. Detractors will point to his mere five homers - well off pace from his 24 from a year ago - but he’s drastically improved his patience at the plate, which counts as a much more vital advancement. Approaching the halfway point of ‘08, he’s only nine walks shy of his 2007 total, and his .399 on-base percentage has him in the company of guys like Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi. Upton’s 18 doubles and two triples show the power will come. Another great sign of B.J.’s development is his 23 steals, which show his ability - and will - to dominate games however he can.
No. 2: Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
I used to buy Bounty paper towels, but now I’m a Brawny man. I don’t know if the Brewers right fielder has an endorsement to grow a moustache and don the flannel (how could he not?) but after what he did for my fantasy teams last year I figure the least I can do is put it out there. The fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft mashed his way through the minors and burst onto the scene last year in Milwaukee. Braun rocketed 34 home runs, batted a robust .324 and, had he had enough at bats to qualify, would have led the majors in slugging at .634. This all culminated with him edging out the the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
Braun appears to be the Real Deal Holyfield as his sophomore campaign has produced a similar offensive onslaught. His 20 longballs are good for fifth in the majors, and he’s batting .287 and slugging .552. He even has eight steals for good measure. The best move the Brewers could have made was to put Braun in the outfield. Much like Upton, he was a liability in the infield, committing 26 errors at third last year. Now feeling cozy out in left field, he’s yet to commit his first miscue of 2008. Even though his clean-up hitter and partner in crime took the top honors today, Braun is already an MVP-caliber player in my book.
No. 1: Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers
It’s a very proud day for the Brew Crew indeed. You can’t deny the weight his name carries, although you can measure it … with a tractor-trailer scale. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Just like his old man, Cecil, that “is he wearing an umpire’s chest protector under his jersey?” visual leaves quite the impression. Standing 5’ 11” and packing 270 pounds, Fielder II is a powerful package. Like every My Fiver not named Dustin today, Prince was selected in the first round of the amateur draft, going seventh overall in 2002. With each player picked so high, there is a hope and a dream attached to each of them, but very rarely can transcendent opportunity and talent be pinpointed. That’s where the name factor comes into play. Sorry Tony Pena Jr. - you fell just short. Twice in the nineties we were treated to second-generation superstars in Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds, letting us know right away to pay attention when the Fielder sequel came along. Maybe it’s the royal name, but I feel this could be a special guy to watch over the next 10 years.
Don’t be misled, however, for beyond the name recognition and my gratitude for successful fat guys, this ranking is all about skill and potential. Prince already displayed both last season, finishing third in the N.L. MVP voting and second in slugging percentage and OPS. He won the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the best overall offensive performer, and his 50 home runs were enough to take the crown. He also won the Silver Slugger Award at first base. It was quite a year, and the bar is set high. A relatively slow first half leads me to think big “Fielder-size” things are on the way. If he can produce inside-the-park homers in back-to-back years - which probably has the same prop odds as Colin Farrell winning consecutive Oscars - to quote Kevin Garnett screaming uncontrollably, “Anything is possible!”
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys, MLB’s Best Bullpens, The Table Setters, Young Guns.