Cody Bellinger is latest star in baseball's ever growing 25-and-under revolution
Mike Trout is 25. Kris Bryant is 25. Bryce Harper is 24. Manny Machado is 24. Francisco Lindor is 23. There’s a good argument to be made that they are the five best position players in baseball, and that none of them is more than a quarter-century old explains that grin commissioner Rob Manfred wears when he talks about the future of Major League Baseball.
It’s so many more than those five, too. It’s Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, Aaron Judge and Miguel Sano, Trea Turner and Addison Russell, Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber and dozens more whose names deserve the kilobytes but might cause a few too many tl;dr notations.
So just understand: Either the game is graduating an unprecedented wave of young, everyday talent to the major leagues, or a player’s prime is getting younger and younger, with the late 20s and early 30s replaced by the early-to-mid-20s. And either case behooves baseball, because the sport has no excuses in selling itself now with this plethora of fresh faces or shouldn’t have any of the same issues going forward if this is the new norm. The two may not be mutually exclusive, either, with this group portending a great wave.
Still, to see it keep growing is harrowing. Nearly a quarter of players who qualify for the batting average this season are 25 or younger, and with nearly every summons from Triple-A here comes another pup endeavoring to land himself on the list like Judge and Sano and Conforto did with their seeming maturation into something worth watching for a good long time.
For Sano and Conforto it took two seasons to manifest itself, and Judge went from overmatched to overwhelming over the course of one winter. Even Trout and Machado weren’t anything close to their fully realized selves until a little deeper into their careers. There are only so many Bryants and Harpers and Lindors and Seagers, and it seems as though baseball may have stumbled upon another this week, because damn if …
1. Cody Bellinger didn’t look like he belonged, not just with the Los Angeles Dodgers but in the National League All-Star Game. Yes, it’s probably best to pump those brakes, sample size being what it is, adjustments being what they are, but first Bellinger popped off Friday night for his third and fourth home runs in his first 41 plate appearances, and then – well, then he did this.
Still trying to figure out how Cody Bellinger hit this for a grand slam. Look at catcher’s glove, ump’s facemask, Bellinger’s bat. Amazing. pic.twitter.com/3Wq9m30I6H
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 7, 2017
The pitch from Miguel Diaz, by the way, was 95 mph. Which is to say Bellinger, who doesn’t even turn 22 until the week of the All-Star Game, coincidentally enough, turned on sternum-high petrol and launched it into the Petco Park seats. Statcast said the pitch was 4.24 feet off the ground, the most of any home run since Evan Gattis did this. Bellinger’s home run wasn’t the tomahawk chop of Gattis but rather something impressive in that it resembled his standard swing. If his nitro zone really is nipples to knees, Bellinger may be even better than the Dodgers thought, and considering they refused to even entertain trading him despite the fact he was a minor league first baseman – notoriously a commodity without great return – that says something.
For now, his bat is doing the National League version of what …
2. Aaron Judge keeps doing to American League pitchers. After Saturday’s games, actually, it was quite amusing how similar their slash lines were: Judge’s .320/.416/.773 vs. Bellinger’s .357/.413/.786.
Judge, of course, has more than twice the plate appearances of Bellinger, leads the major league with 13 home runs and today earned the rare distinction of appearing in 10 Degrees a week after leading it off. It’s just getting harder to ignore the Yankees, what with a +51 run differential validating their AL-best record. They’ve scored the most runs in the league and given up the second fewest. That will play.
And with Gary Sanchez back, Clint Frazier OPSing almost .900 at Triple-A and Gleyber Torres walking more than he has struck out at Double-A, the Yankees don’t exactly lack for guys expected to find themselves onto future 25-and-under lists. What makes them and the Dodgers the two scariest teams in baseball aren’t just their payrolls. It’s the money and the player-development systems finally beginning to churn out players. Had the Boston Red Sox paired …
3. Andrew Benintendi and Betts and Bogaerts with the half-dozen or so tip-top prospects they have surrendered in pursuit of shorter-term gains, they’d be shoo-ins for that group. As it stands, Benintendi as Fred Lynn 2.0, Betts as Andrew McCutchen 2.0 and Bogaerts as Nomar 2.0 offers them a pretty good start, and even after general manager Dave Dombrowski practically emptied the cupboard, the fruits of old Red Sox drafts remain.
It’s still just a month into the season. Everyone has a bad month. The Boston Red Sox’s third basemen happened to have a really bad month. Combined, they hit .229/.261/.352. And even though it would be mighty aggressive for Boston to push Rafael Devers to the big leagues at any point this season, seeing as he’ll be 20 years old for the remainder of the year, well, this is Dombrowski, and shy he ain’t.
Scouts have thought for years that Devers and Bogaerts are eventually going to battle for batting titles, and that Devers is slashing .325/.364/.602 as the second-youngest player in the Double-A Eastern League makes the thought that much more tempting. It’s the same feeling …
4. Rhys Hoskins creates in Philadelphia, where fans see Tommy Joseph doing his best impression of someone who doesn’t belong in the major leagues and swoons upon one glance at Triple-A. There, Hoskins is hitting .326/.419/.629 with seven HRs and just 16 strikeouts in 102 plate appearances.
For nearly three years, all Hoskins has done is hit. He did it in short-season ball and, both levels of A ball 2015. He conquered Double-A in 2016 and is doing the same now. The calculus for the Phillies is obvious. They have zero intentions of contending this year, and if they’re not going to contend, how in any way does it behoove them to call up Hoskins, or any young player of value or substance for that matter, when the detriments so obviously outweigh the benefits.
Hoskins is 24, which is to say he’s older than Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo and Alex Bregman and Orlando Arcia and Manny Margot and all other sorts of delightful talents, so there is a little catching up to do. It’s unlikely to be anytime soon, either, because a team like the Phillies need not run the risk of a player like Hoskins qualifying as a Super 2 and getting an extra year of arbitration. So if that means keeping him down until mid-June or so, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Even a team with its window open, the Mets, considered the benefits of manipulating Conforto’s service time and now face whether to subject …
5. Amed Rosario to the same. Remember how bad the Red Sox’s third basemen have been this season? The Mets’ second and third basemen have been worse, their shortstops nearly as bad and their 20-year-old shortstop wunderkind hitting .381/.432/.495 at Triple-A.
Granted, that’s in Las Vegas and the Pacific Coast League, where balls have a tendency to take advantage of gravity’s tenuous hold, but the prospect of Rosario in Flushing and Torres in the Bronx for the next half-decade is enough to make any baseball fan, and particularly the sort that inhabits the five boroughs, giggle in anticipation.
Considering the Mets’ disabled list currently includes Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Travis d’Arnaud, Lucas Duda, Seth Lugo, Steven Matz, Mr. Met, Cleon Jones and the guy who smashes the burgers at Shake Shack (wrist), contention may be difficult. Just how soon Rosario is summoned – the Mets would love to keep him in Vegas past the project Super 2 cutoff – may be the most honest indicator of how the Mets feel about their playoff chances this season.
It’s also worth remembering that simply because a hitter is shelling minor league pitching, that guarantees nothing. Just look at …
6. Dansby Swanson and his .151/.222/.217 line and remember five words:
There. Is. No. Sure. Thing.
Not even the most pedigreed player, a No. 1 overall draft pick who gets traded to his hometown team and helps it opens up a new ballpark, is immune to the game’s vagaries.
And that’s what they are. Swanson is 23 years old. He knows how to hit. He hit at Vanderbilt. He hit in A ball and Double-A last season. Even in his 38-game cameo with Atlanta last year, Swanson’s .302/.361/.442 line left the Braves giddy at the notion of what Swanson might be with a little more seasoning.
His 2017 is like what happens when the chef mistakes sugar for salt. Swanson has been enough of a mess that the Braves have talked about demoting him, though their 20-year-old shortstop at Triple-A, Ozzie Albies, isn’t exactly setting the world on fire, either. He’s barely striking a match. And player-development people across the game always remind not to underestimate the difference between Triple-A and the major leagues, because it’s real and can burrow its way into a player’s body and head. How else, they say, to explain the difference between …
7. Jose Berrios at Triple-A and the major leagues? After nearly 200 Triple-A innings of 2.55 ERA ball, Berrios came to the major leagues and threw up an 8.02 ERA. It was projectile awfulness, and it was particularly striking because Berrios’ stuff was no different in the big leagues, just the result.
It’s almost like Minnesota Twins prospects are cursed with this disease – lookin’ at you, Byron Buxton, and even Sano often looked overmatched for a good, long time – and Berrios need simply ride it out. Baseball, actually, could use more like him, because for the plethora of great 25-and-under position players, the crop of pitchers … yeesh.
Syndergaard is a star. No doubt. Aaron Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Carlos Martinez – they’ve got the chance to be, too. Michael Fulmer, Robbie Ray, Lance McCullers and a few others are well capable of making the leap. Dylan Bundy has been the best 25-and-under starter in 2017, which is a great story, considering where his arm once was, but doesn’t exactly stack up to Trout-Harper-Bryant-Machado-Lindor. In fact, it’s worth at least considering the possibility that the seeming talent imbalance between hitting and pitching will help address MLB’s fear that not enough runs are being scored.
When the second- and third-best pitchers in the 25-and-under group, at least by Baseball-Reference’s measure, are …
8. Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela, it’s not exactly a vote of confidence for the pitching ledger. Household names they ain’t.
Cliff’s Notes version of their stories: Freeland was a top-10 pick out of Evansville three years ago. He never struck anyone out in the minor leagues, and that doomed him off the radars of most scouts. The Rockies loved him, though, because his 92-mph sinker induces all kinds of weak contact and his 64 percent groundball rate is music to Rockies fielders’ ears. Senzatela strikes out even fewer hitters and doesn’t have a particularly great groundball rate, either, so the idea of him carrying a sub-3.00 ERA for a full year is quite unlikely. Only here’s the thing: This is what Senzatela does. He doesn’t punch guys out. He does get guys out. Did it in A ball three years ago, High A two and Double-A for not even 35 innings last year before an injury ended his season.
The Rockies are in first place in the NL West because of their hitting, sure, but the possibility that they’ll add even one true homegrown starter makes the reality of dealing with …
9. Julio Urias and the Dodgers so much more tolerable. If there’s a pitching equivalent to Cody Bellinger right now, it’s Urias, that wily veteran of 20 years old. He almost certainly was good enough to play in the big leagues at 17, needed to be held back at 18, debuted at 19 and should soon be ready to unleash something close to the Julio Urias Experience within the next couple years.
That’s how carefully the Dodgers monitor him. If a story were to come out saying between starts, the Dodgers mummify Urias in bubble wrap, what percentage of people would believe it? A far greater one than something that ridiculous deserves but one the Dodgers bring upon themselves for the limits that Urias faces.
The Dodgers’ rationale is they want to do as little as they can to screw up a good thing. And with Clayton Kershaw not going anywhere, Urias an excellent No. 2 and a pair of recent draft picks, Walker Buehler and Mitch White, looking to scouts like front-of-the-rotation sorts, the idea of the Dodgers advancing a completely homegrown rotation with the fifth spot going to any number of pitchers from the Dodgers’ deep system.
That plus a lineup with Corey Seager and …
10. Cody Bellinger in the middle is some sort of post-apocalyptic nightmare for other teams. It doesn’t really matter if Bellinger plays first base, his natural position, or outfield. He is here. He is staying. He made that happen.
When Bellinger arrived not even two weeks ago, he was looked upon as a temp, someone who might make his way back eventually this season. A dozen games does not a career make, of course, but it goes a long way in buying some rope to let it continue. And it helped, in a way, that Adrian Gonzalez hit the disabled list and allowed Bellinger to shift to first from outfield, but once he comes back, the choice is clear: Bellinger plays and the Dodgers decide who sits between Gonzalez and left fielder Andrew Toles.
It’s baseball’s equivalent of a first-world problem, and the Dodgers aren’t exactly evoking sympathy from onlookers and peers anyway. This is the rich getting richer, sure, but not by hook or crook. Every other team could’ve had Bellinger three times over. The Dodgers spent a fourth-round pick and $700,000 on him and helped develop what they see now.
Another star who won’t be 25 for three more years. The skill, the talent, the success – it’s all there in Bellinger, all there for him. The baseball world is his for the taking. And seeing all those who’ve conquered it at his age, it may not be long before he does.