Tuesday night’s All-Star Game was a showcase of the young, with the annual collection of the game’s best and brightest predominantly composed of minor statesmen aged 26 or younger. It was a chance for the game to flex some generational muscle, at once celebrating the departure of the old guard (David Ortiz in his final ASG) while showing, through pomp and circumstance, that the game is in fine hands for the next decade-plus (Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, on and on).
The game and its rosters serve as a microcosm of the State of the Game, a sport whose central figures all teeter on the brink of superstardom and lacked only a proper introduction to a national audience. Harper and Trout have crossed that threshold, and you can argue Bryant and Manny Machado are closing in on becoming household names in their own right, but the likes of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Marcell Ozuna, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and, of course, Odubel Herrera all got their first test of the Midsummer Classic and the exposure that comes with it. For every Ortiz on the distant side of 30 and beyond, there seems to be two of every kind of player in the last group: Spry, barely-seasoned hunters in the early stages of questing for greatness of their own.
It’s the way the game is now, and many of 2016’s most successful teams feature a backbone of these younger players. The Cubs,’ entire infield was elected to start the All-Star Game, and three of them are aged just 22 (Addison Russell), 24 (Bryant) and 26 (Anthony Rizzo); The American League’s starter, Chris Sale, feels "old" in this group at 27; Ortiz, at 40, had more than a decade on anyone else in the A.L.’s starting lineup. And, in most cases, you can’t beat ‘em if you don’t join ‘em.
Which brings us to the Phillies and their state of youth. Across 2015 and the initial stage of 2016, the Phillies already have nine individual seasons of 300-plus plate appearances from hitters in their age-26 season or younger. From 2006-14, they had eight of those seasons in total, including a stretch of zero such seasons from 2008-12, although that’s forgivable, given how those teams performed. And that’s just on the offensive side. The club has turned its sights toward youthful orientation just in time to keep pace in principle with everybody else.
And principle is good! But practice is something else, and now that Matt Klentak’s Phillies have aligned their philosophy with like-minded clubs and given up the ghost of going patchwork through free agency year after year, it’s time to consider the quality of the youth they’ve put forth, contemplating beyond its mere existence.
This discussion must, obviously, start with Odubel Herrera, All-Star, because he is the best the club currently has to offer. He turns 25 in late December and should be paid good money by this team to stay around for lots of years. This is barely questionable. Beyond Herrera, things begin to look a little less sure. Aaron Nola was once the 1b to Herrera’s 1a in this conversation, and though he just turned 23, his last month’s worth of starts have people worrying the gamut of worries from mechanical issues to nascent injury. Vincent Velasquez, for his positively electric arsenal, is already causing a spike in gnawed fingernails and cuticles with injury scares and inefficient outings. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis, the 26-year-olds often piloting the middle infield’s ship, have considerable offensive drawbacks and, particularly in Hernandez’s case, some defensive uncertainty. Even Galvis, who came up as a prodigious glove man, has seemed a bit more ordinary at times since his back injury.
With that relative unpleasantness out of the way, there’s quite a bit to use for the converse, as well. Consider Maikel Franco, who, after a frustrating slump that saw him hack-and-slash his way down to an OPS below .700, surged forward with a .378/.452/.757 line in his last 19 games before the break. Jerad Eickhoff, before being subjected to the rigors of Coors Field in his final pre-ASG start, had a 3.30 ERA and just two starts with more than three ER allowed (post-Coors, the ERA is 3.80). Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp, Hector Neris and Zach Eflin - all 27 or younger - have each contributed curiosity and excitement of their own, in turn. The 2016 Phillies are certainly not a club without youth worth getting excited over.
If you’ve followed the team to a certain extent, little of the above is likely new. The youth movement’s arrival has been hailed across the Delaware Valley and beyond, even if it’s asterisked as being just a little too late. The fact of the matter is that the youth is present and it’s real. The true exercise undertaken in outlining the above is consideration of just how good that youth is. In terms of rWAR (Baseball-Reference’s variety), the Phillies have just one hitter 26-or-younger worth 1-plus WAR on offense (Herrera) and two pitchers worth the same (Eickhoff and Velasquez). They lag behind drastically on offense - the Cubs and Marlins each have five hitters in the aforementioned category - and are merely middle-of-the-pack with pitching. Even softening the requirement to 0.5 rWAR, the Phillies still have just the two pitchers, while the Braves sport five and the Rockies and Mets each present four of their own.
Now, one thing WAR does not cover that is important to this discussion is "potential." What the Phils have produced at the Major League level in terms of youth is, to be sure, leaps and bounds ahead of recent years, even if they currently lag behind leaders of one particular metric. What has not been taken into account - and what, consequently, feels more important as the months pass - is what remains stashed in the minor leagues.
Baseball America’s midseason top 100 featured six Phillies and Baseball Prospectus’s own top 50 update had four. Three of the common threads between the two lists - J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams and Jake Thompson - are all in Triple-A and closing in on promotions. Their impact has yet to be seen, but the anticipation is certainly something that has been felt for some time; it’s already been a year since Cole Hamels was traded for the return that included Williams and Thompson, and Crawford’s first-round selection in the June draft is already three years past. What all three could bring to the table, collectively, is potentially enough to vault the Phillies into the tier of competitive teams.
And that performance is important, because while the Phillies’ current Major League youth is good, little of it is irreplaceable. For the club to truly improve its standing, they need cornerstones. The Cubs have it with Bryant and Rizzo; the Orioles have it with Machado; the Indians have it with Lindor, the Nationals with Harper and the Giants with Madison Bumgarner. First-place teams all, those clubs identified, groomed and installed each of those players as fixtures around which to build. The Phillies may have that in Nola or Franco or Crawford or Williams, and within that implicit uncertainty lies the difference.
Being a harbinger of a new era for a new baseball club brings a ton of pressure, and there’s no denying that placing this sort of expectation on players barely of legal drinking age can almost feel undue, but the importance is of a crucial degree all the same. The Phillies have begun traveling the forested path taken by the forebears that currently lead their respective divisions, and all that remains to be seen is just how sharp their machete can be.