Teenagers in AA

It is a vanishingly rare feat for a player to get promoted to the major leagues before he turns 20.  Baseball fans were treated to such a rarity this year, when Mike Trout was called up July 8th, one month shy of his 20th birthday.  Almost without exception, players who reach the majors while still in their teenage years enjoy long and productive major league careers.

Trout’s call-up got me thinking of a different, slightly less rare occurrence: the teenager in double-A ball.  I wanted to know a couple of things:

  1. How often do teenagers play in AA?
  2. Does playing in this advanced league at such a young age portend future success?

I decided to answer these questions in a fun and interesting way.  I created a 25-man roster, complete with all the necessary positions, populated with players who played in AA as a teenager between 2000 and 2006.  There were 36 players in that time frame that fit those criteria, 18 hitters and 18 pitchers.  Here are the 11 that didn’t make the cut:

Hitters: Alex Fernandez, Sean Borroughs, Jorge Cantu, Joel Guzman, Ramiro Pena.

Pitchers: Pat Strange, Jeremy Johnson, Jesus Silva, Greg Miller, Yusemiero Petit, Hayden Penn.

That’s a lot of replacement-level goodness right there.  Also, Hayden Penn.  Anyways, here’s your All-Teenagers-In-Double-A Team:

Catcher: Dioner Navarro.  Career WAR: 2.4.  Best Season: 2008, 2.2 WAR.

The only catcher in the sample, Navarro got 233 plate appearances as a 19-year-old for the Yankees’ double-A affiliate in 2003.  Over the course of his career, Navarro has been best suited for backup duties, but considering he’s the only option here it could have been worse.  Navarro boasts a career .660 OPS and a 76 OPS+, but has been solid defensively.  Put this one under the “just don’t screw up” category.

First Base: Billy Butler.  Career WAR: 6.7.  Best Season: 2010, 3.7 WAR.

It was a fierce battle in spring training between Butler and back-up Daric Barton, but Butler gets the nod due to a vastly superior bat.  He’s a doubles-hitting machine that could turn into a fearsome power hitter as he gets older.  Right now, think of him as a guy with the offensive profile of Keith Hernandez or John Olerud, without the superior glove work.  He got 119 plate appearances in 2005 with the Royals’ double-A affiliate in Wichita.

Second Base: J.J. Hardy.  Career WAR: 13.3.  Best Season: 2008, 4.7 WAR.

I know, I know, I’m cheating by moving Hardy over to second when he’s only ever played shortstop, but I couldn’t keep Hardy’s bat out of the lineup and this team has got a pretty solid player locked into shortstop already.  As an above average shortstop, Hardy should have no problem sliding over to the keystone.  He’s an above average hitter for a second baseman, and can be counted on to put up an OPS+ around 110 and have solid defense.  Hardy got 160 plate appearances in 2003 with the Huntsville Stars.

Shortstop: Jose Reyes.  Career WAR: 28.5.  Best Season: 2006, 5.9 WAR.

And here’s the reason why I moved Hardy to second base.  Reyes is one of the premiere shortstops in the National League.  He boasts a career line of .292/.341/.441, and he’s a threat for 35 doubles, 15 triples, and 15 home runs every year.  He’s above average defensively, and can be counted on for about 45 steals per year as well.  He’s coming off his best offensive season ever in 2011 (142 OPS+).  Reyes got 295 plate appearances with double-A Binghamton in 2003.

Third Base: Omar Infante.  Career WAR: 12.6.  Best Season: 2011, 3.3 WAR.

A journeyman throughout his career, Infante plays third base for this team because he’s the only option.  In limited time at the position throughout his career (101 career games at 3B) he’s fielded adequately, although admittedly in a small sample.  Infante’s the kind of player that good to have on any team.  He’s slightly below average offensively (career 90 OPS+), above average defensively, and he’s played every position on defense except first base and catcher.  He’s coming of the best season in his career according to rWAR.  Infante got 599 plate appearances in 2001 with the Erie SeaWolves.

Left Field: Carl Crawford.  Career WAR: 27.4.  Best Season: 2010, 6.1 WAR.

This year’s troubles notwithstanding, Crawford has been one of the better left fielders in the majors over the last five years.  He’s got 1600 hits and he’s not even 30, and seems like as good of a bet as any to reach 3000 one day.  He’s hit .293/.333/.440 in his career, and has been superb defensively.  He’s been on the All-Star team four times, and won a Gold Glove last season.  He recently signed a 7-year, $142 million contract with Boston, only to back that up with a 0.0 WAR season in 2011.  I expect him to bounce back next year, and while he probably won’t be worth the $20 million a year Boston is paying him, he should still be a very useful player.  Crawford got 585 plate appearances in 2001 with the Rays’ double-A affiliate.

Center Field: B.J. Upton.  Career WAR: 16.9.  Best Season: 2007, 4.7 WAR.

Upton has played center field for the Rays since 2007, when he was moved from second base.  He’s a guy who will hit 30 doubles, 20 home runs, and steal 40 bases for the team pretty consistently.  He’s got a career 105 OPS+, and could really make the jump offensively if he stopped striking out so much, averaging 153 Ks a season since 2007.  He’s the only player in the sample to appear in AA twice as a teenager, getting 127 plate appearances as an 18-year-old in 2003 and 120 appearances as a 19-year-old in 2004.

Right Field: Andrew McCutchen.  Career WAR: 12.6.  Best Season: 2011, 5.3 WAR.

McCutchen plays center field for the Pirates, but Upton appears to be a superior fielder so I didn’t have a problem moving McCutchen over to right.  McCutchen is one of baseball’s brightest young stars.  He made his debut in 2009 and since then has hit .276/.365/.458, good for a 123 OPS+.  He’s good for 20 homers and 30 steals a year, and would undoubtedly be an above-average right fielder.  He’s consistent and durable, having appeared in 158 games this year and 154 last year.

Bench:  Daric Barton, Wilson Betemit, Jose Lopez, Adam Jones, Delmon Young.

The bench is very deep, with utility man Wilson Betemit able to play any position in the infield and the big bats of Young and Jones.  Jones would also be used as a spot starter in the outfield and as a defensive replacement, if necessary.  It’s obviously lacking a backup catcher, but my sample size wasn’t very big here.  Who knows?  My Betemit can spot start.

Number One starter: CC Sabathia.  Career WAR: 49.2.  Best Season: 2011, 6.9 WAR.

Sabathia is everything you want in a number-one starter.  He’s durable, having made fewer than 30 starts only once in his career.  He averages 226 innings a year, and has never in his career had arm issues of any kind.  He’s also a pretty good pitcher, with a career 125 ERA+, and a 143 ERA+ since 2006.  You couldn’t ask for much more.  Sabathia threw 90 1/3 innings for Cleveland’s AA affiliate in 2000.

Number Two Starter: Felix Hernandez.  Career WAR: 29.1.  Best Season: 2010, 6.2 WAR.

Did you know King Felix is 25 and already has almost 1,400 innings pitched in the major leagues?  He’s thrown at least 190 innings every single year since he was 20.  He’s the proud owner of a career ERA+ of 129 and a career K/BB ratio of 2.98, both outstanding figures.  If he stays healthy, he has a very good shot at the hallowed mark of 300 wins (currently at 85).  So far, there’s nothing to indicate any arm troubles, so he’s our number two starter.  Hernandez threw 57 1/3 innings as an 18 year old for the double-A affiliate of the Mariners in 2004.

Number Three Starter: Zack Greinke.  Career WAR: 24.3.  Best Season: 2009, 9.0 WAR.

Greinke has been pretty inconsistent in his career.  His 2009 season was one of the best a pitcher has ever had, but he’s followed that up with a 2.3 WAR season in 2010 and a 1.6 WAR season in 2011, so it’s unclear where his true talent level lies.  While no one would say that he’s a true-talent 205 ERA+ kind of pitcher, he’s better than the 101 ERA+ he’s put up in the last two seasons.  Greinke threw 53 innings with the Wichita Wranglers in 2003.

Number Four Starter: Matt Cain.  Career WAR: 25.0.  Best Season: 2009, 5.1 WAR.

Matt Cain, paragon of consistency.  Matt Cain, destroyer of DIPS.  Matt Cain, losing pitcher?  That’s right; Cain has a career record of 69-73, despite a career 125 ERA+.  Oh, to play for the Giants, circa 2006-2011.  Yes, the World Series was great, but man, were those teams offensively challenged.  He’s been better throughout his career than Zack Greinke, but almost no one would say that he’s the better pitcher.  Cain’s pitched at least 190 innings in every season since 2006 (his age-21 season), including throwing over 220 innings the past two seasons.  It’s hard to believe he’s only 18 months older than Felix Hernandez.  Cain threw 86 innings for the double-A Norwich Navigators in 2004.

Number Five Starter: Carlos Zambrano.  Career WAR: 31.8.  Best Season: 2005, 5.5 WAR.

Recent struggles aside, Zambrano has been a consistently good pitcher since his first full season in 2003.  He’s got a career ERA+ of 122, which is quite good, and the 2011 season was the first full season of his career in which he measured below average.  Zambrano has three 5th place finishes in the Cy Young, and he’s also the proud owner of three Silver Slugger awards.  In fact, he’s one of the best hitting pitchers ever, amassing 5.3 oWAR over his career. He’s also got 23 career home runs.  Zambrano pitched 60 1/3 innings for the Cubs’ double-A affiliate in 2000.

Bullpen:  Chad Billingsley, Edwin Jackson, Jerome Williams, Joel Zumaya, Nick Neugebauer, Oscar Villarreal, Sergio Santos (closer).

The bullpen is a real source of weakness for this hypothetical team.  Billingsley, Jackson, and Williams would presumably eat up the majority of the innings, since they’re all starters who couldn’t make the cut on this team.  Neugebauer and Villarreal both are out of the majors, but I selected them because they had good numbers while in the show.  Sergio Santos is an interesting story; he was a shortstop in the minors before making the big leagues last year as a reliever.  He recorded 30 saves and a 13.1 K/9 ratio this season as the White Sox closer.

All in all, this is a pretty solid team.  The lineup is solid both offensively and defensively, and the starting rotation is flat-out incredible.  The bullpen is a bit shaky, but with the inclusion of three starters who couldn’t make the top 5 they can eat up innings pretty effectively.

What’s the moral of the story here?  If you can make it to double-A as a teenager, you’ve got a pretty good shot of having a long and successful major league career.  Anyone who’s watched Mike Trout or followed his progression has known this for a while.  Angels fans can look forward to at least five more years of number 27 running down fly balls in center and knocking doubles in the gap.

-NM

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