Years ago, as a beat writer covering the Yankees, I'd play a game with other writers as the All-Star Game approached. We'd check out the ballot and ask each other, "Who would you build a franchise around?" There were no rules or qualifications. You just picked the young player you thought would carry a team.
Looking back on that time, the picks weren't sure things. In 1985, for instance, Dwight Gooden was a 20-year-old phenom for the New York Mets coming off one of the most fabulous seasons ever by a pitcher his age: 24-4 with league-leading ERA (1.53), strikeouts (268), and innings pitched (276.2). Who could have anticipated the torrent of drug-related problems that would keep him from fulfilling his breathtaking potential?
And if I had been covering the Mets in 2003, I would have jumped on 20-year-old shortstop Jose Reyes. Many of us believed he'd be the next Derek Jeter (and in some ways, he has been). A terrific defensive shortstop with better-than-average switch hitting power, Reyes had it all—except durability.
There's no such thing as a sure bet when it comes to finding a young player to build a team around. But there's no question as to who's the best bet among today's players. It's Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who fits more wish lists of baseball front offices than any current player in the major leagues.
First, Trout is just 21—he'll turn 22 this August. And thus far in his young career—having played 40 games in his rookie season in 2011, 139 last season despite a brief trip back to the minors, and every game his team has played this year, except one—he seems quite durable.
Second, he already has a spectacular (if short) track record. Not only was he named AL Rookie of the Year last season, but he also had, by consensus among baseball analysts and historians, the best season of any rookie player in the game's history, batting .326 with 30 home runs, 83 RBIs, and a league-leading 129 runs scored. He also led the league in stolen bases (with 49) and was thrown out just five times.
The most hotly debated topic at the end of 2012 was who most deserved the AL's Most Valuable Player award—Trout or the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera won, but it wasn't because he'd had a better season. Anyone who wins baseball's Triple Crown can count on getting the majority of votes from old-guard sportswriters resistant to any new way (meaning, introduced in the last 30 years) of looking at baseball statistics—and Cabrera, sure enough, led the league in batting (.330), home runs (44) and RBIs (139).
Trout, despite playing his home games in a ballpark less favorable for hitters, had just about the same season at-bat as Cabrera, with a combined On-Base Percentage and Slugging Average of .963 to Cabrera's .999. He positively swamped Cabrera in other contributions, stealing 45 more bases, grounding into 21 fewer double plays, and posting much better fielding stats. So far this year, Cabrera, at age 30, is having the best season of his career, and Trout seems to be improving slightly on his last year's numbers, batting .322 at the All-Star break with a .399 OBP and .565 Slg. Also, he seems to have mastered the key defensive position in the outfield, center field, and has started there for many of the 92 games he's played this season.
And third, Trout has versatility. Branch Rickey was the first analyst to define the "Five Tools" for measuring a player's all-around value as the ability to hit with consistency, hit for power, run, field, and throw. It was a rare player, Rickey thought, who was possessed of all five talents. In his 1965 book, The American Diamond, Rickey could find only two players in all of baseball who could do it all: Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. In the long run, he felt, a team would get the most value from such a multi-skilled player because when he went through a long batting slump or injured his throwing arm, he could still make other contributions to his team.
Trout is not the only "Five Tool" player in baseball today—the Yankees' Robinson Cano and the Mets' David Wright, to name just two players on this year's All-Star squads, can do it all, too. But Trout, crucially, is the only one under the age of 25 and the only player in the game who is ranked at the top by analysts in each offensive and defensive category.
There are some young players who are regarded as having similar potential, such as the Nationals' 20 year old leftfielder, Bryce Harper. But Harper hasn't shown the ability to hit for a high average (he's just .269 in just under 200 career games) or steal many bases (he's stolen just 24), plus his durability may be in question, having missed 31 games this season with left knee bursitis.
There isn't much doubt, then, that if most major-league teams could pick one player to build their team around, it would be Trout. Some would opt for a starting pitcher like the Mets' 24-year-old fireballer Matt Harvey, but pitchers are subject to so many ailments and injuries from year to year that an everyday player who has shown no weaknesses after two seasons in the majors seems like a surer thing.
The real question, though, is this: Is it worth the money that it would take to tie one player to a team during his prime years? I think the best answer came from the late Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame manager, Earl Weaver. I interviewed Weaver in 2002 on the publication of his book, Weaver on Strategy, and asked him about the wisdom of giving a long-term contract to a team's best young player. "Well," he told me, "Yes, I'd have to say that it is a very good idea if you're fairly certain that the player doesn't seem injury-prone and if he plays a key defensive position. And even if he is injury-prone, would you take a chance on a young player like a 19- or 20-year-old Mickey Mantle? I think I would."
But, he continued,
there's no point in giving that kid the long-term contract unless you intend to build a good team around him. In baseball, you don't have salary caps like you do in other sports, so, assuming you spend your money wisely, there's no limit to what you can pay for other good young prospects. Of course, there's no guarantee that any kid, no matter how talented, is going to pan out. But if you make the deal at the right time, the return can be outstanding. You sign a guy for six years or eight years or whatever, and he's as good as you hope he's going to be, you can practically pencil in his numbers every season. That's the kind of guy you can build your team around.
Weaver's Orioles did just that with Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Eddie Murray, who spent 34 of their combined 42 major-league seasons with the Orioles.
Trout won't become a free agent until after the 2017 season, but which time he'll be 25 and just heading into what should be his prime years. At a mere $510,000 salary this season, he is the biggest bargain in baseball, and the Angels would be wise to tie him to a long-term deal well before 2017, when the competition gets hot. Mike Trout is the closest thing baseball offers to a lock on the future.