The discussion going on in the Quote of the Day thread got me thinking about this this article, written by Mark Newman, which was posted on Fangraphs on Dec. 16th. It focuses on the youth movement currently taking place in Atlanta, and establishes how rare it is for a team to give everyday jobs to three players under the age of 23. If Tyler Pastornicky is our shortstop next season, and the Braves claim that he probably will be, the Braves will have three 22 year old players in their everyday lineup (Heyward and Freeman being the other two). Here's a little from the article.
First, what the Braves are considering is unprecedented. No team since 1950 has given 400 or more plate appearance to three players under age 23. If we move the cutoff to 100 plate appearances we find 21 examples. As the table below demonstrates, these 21 teams are not exactly models of success as they combined to average 67 wins, a .422 winning percentage, and produced only three winning seasons.
The 2012 Braves will definitely be unique. They are likely to give more playing time to guys who can’t rent a car than any team in recent history. In addition to the three regulars under age 23 the Braves also return 2010 Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel (23) as closer and someone out of the highly touted trio of Mike Minor (24), Julio Teheran (20), and Arodys Vizcaino (21) will likely be the fifth starter going into the season. Young players are certainly risky, but I am not sure this is necessarily what Braves fans should be worried about going into the season, as all these players either have a good track record or are very highly regarded.
First baseman Freddie Freeman is projected to follow up his respectable .345 wOBA rookie campaign with a .350. Most observers expect Jason Heyward to bounce back from a disappointing second season (.314 wOBA) in the big leagues and produce more like he did as a rookie (.376 wOBA). As for Pastornicky, he does not have to be great to improve upon the 1.1 WAR that his predecessor, Alex Gonzalez, provided in 2010 or what is available in the free-agent market (Yuniesky Betancourt?). The bigger risks for the Braves going into 2012 likely involve the health of their veterans such as Chipper Jones (39, and increasingly fragile), Tim Hudson (36, and recovering from back surgery), and Tommy Hanson (25, and recovering from shoulder tendinitis). The Braves should be a highly competitive for a postseason berth in 2012 in large part because of the quality of their young players, not in spite of them.
Don't get the wrong idea, there's no evidence to say that the Braves can't or won't contend next year simply because they're going to give so many plate appearances to three different 22 year old position players.
The only thing to really take from this is that Frank Wren is basically doing something that's never been done before. The Braves truly are going into uncharted waters. Not only do we have a trio of 22 year old players projected to be in our everday lineup, we'll also have at least three, possibly four, starting pitchers that are 25 or younger (Hanson, Beachy and Minor or Teheran). Jurrjens is only 26. Our bullpen is anchored by Craig Kimbrel, who will be 23 next year and is among the best relievers in baseball.
We've also got a host of talented players currently in their prime years: Venters, O'Flaherty, McCann, Prado and Bourn.
Then there's Kris Medlen (26), Randall Delgado (23) and Arodys Vizcaino (22) who do not currently have set roles with our team but are all young and talented players.
The reason this is sort of astonishing is not just that we have young players on our team. It's that we have this many young players and our team is a legitimate contender in the National League. We've been a 90ish win team for the past three years despite the fact that we are in the middle of a rebuilding phase.
For a team to rebuild, they usually have to suffer through multiple losing seasons. Young players are typically volatile by nature. They need to adjust to the rigors of the major leagues, as we all know. The Braves, however, are rebuilding and contending. It's an ambitious goal, one which every general manager would obviously like to accomplish, but it seems that Frank Wren might be doing a better job of it than anyone we've ever seen before.
The conversation I eluded to in the Quote of the Day thread is currently focusing on this team's payroll. Some fans are frustrated by the fact that the Braves seem to be on the cusp of being one of the best teams in baseball, and how even a modest increase in payroll could put us over the top right now.
I think we should all just stay patient. We're a mid-market team. Things could be worse, and it's certainly true that Wren has messed up a couple of times. Kenshin Kawakami was a gross example of wasted funds in 2011. Still, Wren is making more good decisions than bad ones, and his focus on building a talented core of players that will carry this team for many years seems to be yielding positive results.
The Braves have a bright future, I think this much is obvious, but they also have an impressive team in the here-and-now. That second part is really just icing on the cake. Remain patient, fellow Braves fans. Even if it's not in 2012, the Braves time is coming soon enough.