Youth is something of a holy grail when it comes to roster construction. Young players are (for the most part) under team control at low prices for many years, and have the potential to improve until they're 25 or 26. If a general manager can pencil in 3 or 4 players at basement prices and league-average performance (or greater) for the next 4-6 seasons, it makes building a team around them seem trivial.
With that in mind, I looked at how teams are using their young players thus far, and specifically, what teams are on either extreme end of the spectrum when it comes to playing time for their youths. I'm defining "young" as 23 or less, which is just short of entirely arbitrary. I wanted to capture almost any player making their debut (I'm not too worried about Jung-Ho Kang), while ensuring that they still feel young. You might think 24 qualifies as young, or that 23 doesn't, but you would be wrong. Let's look at some totals, and I'll talk about some teams I find interesting.
|Teams||Under-23 PAs||Under-23 WAR|
This table excludes PAs from pitchers.
The A's are one of four teams that, thus far, have received no PAs from any players 23 or younger. Depending on your perspective on life and opinion of Billy Beane, this could be evidence that the Donaldson trade was desperately needed to increase the quantity of youth in their system, or evidence that the Donaldson trade was foolish and did nothing to improve this team's short- or long-term outlook. Either way, it's evidence that the A's face significant challenges in the years ahead.
Like their Floridian low-budget counterpart, the Rays, the A's have seemed able in the last decade to buck the cycle of winning and losing that most other teams seem to take for granted. To do so, however, frequently required trading their young, near-majors prospects for established talent, and the results of that strategy are visible in the above table. Both teams have been able to stave off terribleness for a long string of seasons, but both look more vulnerable for this year and the future than they have in a long time.
The Yankees are almost a parody of themselves, and that seems more true than ever in 2015. Somehow, they're competing for the AL East title, led by the resurgent pair of Mark Teixeira (35) and Alex Rodriguez (39, turning 40 in less than a month). They, like the A's and Rays, also place a very high priority on their major league roster, to the detriment of their minor league system. Unlike the A's and Rays, the Yankees are really frigging rich, and so it's certainly less of a concern for them. Things might be changing, with the Yankees AA and AAA rosters looking a little deeper than in years past, but at the big club, things are the same as they've always been, with extremely limited production from their young players.
The Cubs are the team with the most under-23 PAs (Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Jorge Soler), followed closely by the Red Sox, the only other team to feature three full-time young players (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Blake Swihart). Much was made over the last year or so of the Cubs impending surge of young talent, and so far, it's been as advertised. There are still more youths waiting in the high minors, but with between four and six positions filled by young, pre-arbitration players for the next several years, the Cubs should find it easy to justify large expenditures on the other positions in the years to come.
All that means the Cubs will likely be a significant force in the NL Central for the next few years, but I don't want to undersell what it means for 2015. They have 10.5 total position-player WAR thus far, and almost half of that has come from under-23 players. Their young players are one of the main reasons the Cubs are battling for a Wild Card berth.
I'm going to move onto the pitchers, but first, for emphasis, here's a chart of the WAR totals by team.
I didn't talk about WAR totals too much above, since I think it's more worthwhile to focus on the playing time given to young players, assuming that they'll develop in the next few years. But as this chart makes clear, there are six teams getting a substantial contribution now from their young position players. For some, the value is focused mostly in one or two players (Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Manny Machado are doing a lot of lifting for their respective teams), while the Cubs and Red Sox have several league-average or better young performers, but all six of those teams owe a lot to youth, and have to be feeling pretty good about the next few years.
|Teams||Under-23 IP||Under-23 WAR|
Dominic Leone, having pitched for both the Mariners and Diamondbacks, was excluded.
I'll spend much less time on this table, since under-23 pitchers in the majors are both a) rarer than young position players in the majors, and b) way more difficult to project. The Blue Jays sit at the top of this chart, which is certainly better than being at the bottom. But while they've given a lot of innings to four young pitchers, and are the only team with four, those innings haven't exactly gone as they would've liked, and it's entirely plausible that none of them turn into valuable long-term assets.
Still, many of the teams at the top of this chart certainly have a lot more to be optimistic about than those in the bottom. The Blue Jays might have what amounts to four lottery tickets, but they're a lot more likely to win the lottery than a team with one or none. The Astros seem to have conjured another very good starter in Lance McCullers, and while ZiPS projects him as replacement-level for the rest of the season, he's already been worth between 1 and 2 WAR. Doing that at pre-arb and arb prices for six years makes for a very valuable asset.
That said, one of the major advantages of youth is the stability and continuity it provides to a team. Or, more precisely, that's one of the major advantages of young position players. There is nothing stable about a young pitcher. I would posit that teams have good reasons to be somewhat risk averse, and the declining value of young pitchers with electric arms could be seen as a manifestation of that.
Finally, this analysis obviously doesn't capture everything. Plenty of teams have hordes of excellent minor leaguers waiting to make their debut, or several 24-year-olds who are under team control for many years. Hopefully, however, this was a good snapshot of the teams that have youth to plan around, and those that are having to build on the fly.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.