In some ways, it’s not a good thing for a team to be young. Players don’t hit free agency until they’ve accumulated six years of service time, which usually doesn’t happen until they’re in their late twenties or early thirties. If a team has all young players, it means they didn’t sign any free agents, which (probably) means they aren’t trying very hard to win.
On the other hand, not every team that is “focusing on the future” or “rebuilding” (to use the modern euphemisms) has the luck to be young. Lots of bad teams nonetheless have filled out their roster with cast-off veterans, as they have too much major-league playing time and not enough prospects to give it to. Once you accept that a team is going to be bad, youth at least offers some hope for the near-ish future, and a reason to watch every day. A 22-year-old trying to make it in the majors is exciting in the way an established 33-year-old isn’t, even if the team they play on is bad.
In that way, youth functions as a sort of rough proxy for team watchability. So what teams will be at least somewhat interesting, no matter how bad they are? There are a couple of ways to answer that question.
First, I calculated the average age of each team, weighted by playing time (as projected over at the FanGraphs depth charts). I combined position players and pitchers, putting innings and plate appearances on the same scale, via the roughly 1:4 ratio of the former to the latter that they tend to have in a given season.
Projected team youth, 2017
This method communicates what team is collectively youngest, but it doesn’t necessarily show what team has the youngest players; a team with all 27-year-olds would look younger than a team with three 22-year-olds and a bunch of 34-year-olds. So I also calculated the total playing time projected for players 25 or younger on each team. Two different ways of measuring the same thing, mostly.
Projected under-25 players
|Rank||Team||≤ 25 PAs||≤ 25 IP||≤ 25 PAs+TBF|
|Rank||Team||≤ 25 PAs||≤ 25 IP||≤ 25 PAs+TBF|
There are a few teams worth mentioning that sit near the top of both lists. (It might also be worth mentioning some of the teams near the bottom of both — somehow the Giants are projected to give only 46 PAs to players under 26 — but that’s for another article.)
The Phillies are not-so-slowly inching toward competitiveness, and with their deep pockets, it seems like they’ll turn the corner quickly when the time comes. For now, fans will have to content themselves with the bevy of young potential talent the roster is filled with. In the starting rotation, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, and Jake Thompson are all in their early 20s, and Jerad Eickhoff is only 26. On the other side of the ball, J.P. Crawford is 22, Maikel Franco is 24, and both Tommy Joseph and Odubel Herrera are 25. Howie Kendrick is the only projected starter over the age of 30.
Not all of those Phillies youngsters are currently good, and not all of them will develop into good players. But all of them have the potential to do so, which is why despite being projected to lose 90 games, Philadelphia will be worth watching this year, especially when one of its young stud starters takes the hill.
It is easy to dismiss Arizona as a joke of an organization, and with good reason; it doesn’t take many “Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte, and Aaron Blair for Shelby Miller and Gabe Speier” trades for a team to develop a bad reputation. But there is a lot to like about the Diamondbacks, and that’s true even if you set aside Paul Goldschmidt. Ketel Marte had a seriously disappointing sophomore year in 2016, but he’s only 23, and while he’s the only truly young position player starter in Arizona, none of his peers are over 30, making this a more interesting lineup than most.
Zack Greinke is about as veteran as a player can get, of course, but the squad behind him of Robbie Ray (25), Archie Bradley (24), Taijuan Walker (24), and Shelby Miller (26) is fascinating and chock full of potential. FanGraphs projects the Diamondbacks to go 77–85, and there’s good reason to think their long-term outlook is bleak. With as much youth as they have, though, there’s always the possibility of things going better than expected, even if that just means one or two players taking big steps forward.
The Cubs aren’t particularly high on either list, but they’re worth highlighting as the team with the single-most projected plate appearances for players under 26, and by a large enough margin that they slip into eighth place on the combined rankings despite having the fourth-fewest innings projected for pitchers under 26. Their reputation as a precocious, über-young team is deserved, at least on the offensive side. Albert Almora is 22; Addison Russell is 23; Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, and Javy Baez are 24; and Kris Bryant is 25.
Like the other teams at the top of these lists, the Cubs have serious upside, thanks to the possibility that some number of these young players takes a big step forward. Unlike most of the other teams at the top of these lists, Chicago’s upside is coming on top of a roster that is already outstanding, good enough to have been the best team in baseball in 2016 and win a World Series. That should scare roughly 29 other teams a lot, particularly if they have the misfortune of sharing the NL Central with a team that looks like it’ll be a juggernaut for the better part of the next decade.
Youth isn’t everything, and it’s certainly not a guarantee of anything. Lots of young players will never break out, or even take a modest step forward. Still, there’s always the possibility, in a way that there isn’t for older players. It’s mid-March; I’d watch a hundred Padres-Phillies games if given the opportunity. But once the season gets started, we’ll have to find something of value beyond just novelty in those ultra-mundane matchups. The young players scattered throughout the league, and their unknown futures, do us all the great favor of making almost every game into a watchable one.