Spring training is here. Camps are in full swing across Arizona and Florida this week, and the not-so-quiet offseason will be replaced with real live baseball this weekend. To celebrate baseball's return, we wanted to look at the best baseball player at each age from 18-41.
To be more specific, we're going to highlight the best 18-year-old, the best 19-year-old, the best 20-year-old, all the way up to the best 41-year-old. Each player's age on June 30, the approximate midpoint of the season, is used as his season age. Come with me, won't you?
Age 18: SS Marco Luciano, Giants
Trivia time: who was the last 18-year-old to appear in an MLB game?
It was Alex Rodriguez. He played 13 games as an 18-year-old with the 1994 Mariners. The last 18-year-old big leaguer prior to A-Rod was Jose Rijo, who made four starts for the 1984 Yankees before his 19th birthday. There have been several 19-year-old big leaguers in recent years (Bryce Harper, Felix Hernandez, Juan Soto, etc.) but it's been a while since the last 18-year-old.
Luciano turned 18 in September and the Giants gave him a $2.6 million signing bonus on the first day of the 2018-19 international signing period. He's since developed into a top prospect -- Dodgers catching prospect Diego Cartaya and Blue Jays infield prospect Orelvis Martinez.-- and the best 18-year-old baseball player in the world. Other notable 18-year-olds include
In the under-18 age group, keep an eye on Yankees outfield prospect Jasson Dominguez. New York gave the 17-year-old a signing bonus north of $5 million last summer andDominguez has been "nicknamed 'The Martian' for his absurd physical tools and enormous, superstar-level upside."
Age 19: SS Wander Franco, Rays
Age 20: OF Jarred Kelenic, Mariners
Tough call for the age 20 group. Kelenic went from No. 6 pick in the 2018 draft to traded for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to ranking among the game's best prospects, so he gets the nod here. Reaching the big leagues before his 21st birthday in July won't be easy, but it's not impossible. Royals infield prospect Bobby Witt Jr., the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, is Kelenic's primary competition in this age group. Cardinals slugger Nolan Gorman and Padres righty Luis Patino are other age 20 notables.
Age 21: LF Juan Soto, Nationals
Now we're getting to the big leaguers. Soto debuted as a 19-year-old in 2018 and he's since turned in two All-Star caliber seasons -- weirdly, Soto has never been an All-Star -- and won a World Series, which earns him the nod over Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. I'd bet on Tatis being the age group's best all-around player long-term, but, going into 2020, Soto is the pick. On the prospect front, Angels outfielder Jo Adell and Padres lefty MacKenzie Gore are the top 21-year-olds.
Age 22: OF Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves
Acuna and Soto will inevitably be compared throughout their careers. They're both outfielders, they're both bona fide superstars, they debuted the same year, and they play for division rivals. Fortunately, Acuna is slightly older, and we don't have to pick between the two in this exercise. Soto is the top 21-year-old and Acuna the top 22-year-old. Acuna's teammate Mike Soroka is also part of this age group, ditto Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette, Dodgers top prospect Gavin Lux, and Orioles prospect (and 2019 No. 1 pick) Adley Rutschman.
Age 23: SS Gleyber Torres, Yankees
Goodness, the age 23 group is stacked. There's Ozzie Albies, Yordan Alvarez, Rafael Devers, Keston Hiura, Eloy Jimenez, and Victor Robles, all of whom could credibly headline an age group. We're going with Torres here because he has the most positional value -- Gleyber is a full-time shortstop now -- and is a legitimate 30-homer guy with advanced plate discipline. Not really sure you could go wrong in this group. I won't argue if you think it should be Albies or Alvarez or Devers or someone else here.
Age 24: 1B/OF Cody Bellinger, Dodgers
Bellinger barely qualifies for the age 24 group. He makes the cutoff by less than two weeks. The reigning NL MVP is an all-around force who impressively cut his strikeout rate from 26.6 percent as a rookie in 2017 to 16.4 percent in 2019. That is tremendous improvement in a relatively short period of time. Bellinger is a superstar and there's still room to grow, which is scary. Two pitchers are Bellinger's top competition in this age group: Cardinals righty Jack Flaherty and Padres righty Chris Paddack.
Age 25: RHP Walker Buehler, Dodgers
The breakout star age group. Most of baseball's best 25-years-olds have a short track record. Pete Alonso has played one year. Austin Meadows has had one great year. White Sox teammates Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito have each had one great year. The extremely fun Shohei Ohtani has been slowed by Tommy John surgery. Carlos Correa is the veteran of his age group and he's battled injuries the last two years, so Buehler gets the nod. The Dodgers right-hander has strung together back-to-back ace-like seasons and scouts and statheads alike love him. Who doesn't?
Age 26: SS Francisco Lindor, Indians
The most difficult decision of any age group. Alex Bregman or Francisco Lindor, Francisco Lindor or Alex Bregman? With all due respect to Jose Berrios, Tyler Glasnow, Josh Hader, Ketel Marte, Corey Seager, and others, this age group belongs to Bregman and Lindor. The side-by-side comparison:
|Career WAR||2019 WAR||Projected 2020 WAR (via FanGraphs)|
Bregman had the better 2019, Lindor has had the more productive career to date, and, for all intents and purposes, FanGraphs projections have them being equals in 2020. They are two of the game's best.
Even though he was better last year and projects to be (slightly) better this year, I am comfortable dinging Bregman for the sign-stealing scandal and giving Lindor the nod here. It's not like Lindor is some slouch, you know? He's one of the game's best and most lovable players, and baseball could use a few more players like him right now.
Age 27: OF Mookie Betts, Dodgers
Generally speaking, players peak around age 27, and this age group includes many established superstars. Betts, the recently traded former AL MVP, is arguably the second-best player in baseball and he will inarguably be the most sought after free agent next offseason. Mookie headlines an age 27 group that includes his former Red Sox teammate Xander Bogaerts, as well as others like Javier Baez, Matt Chapman, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez, Blake Snell, Trevor Story, Noah Syndergaard, and Trea Turner.
Age 28: CF Mike Trout, Angels
The age 28 group is baseball's titan group. Trout is the game's best player and he is the obvious headliner here. I mean, duh. There is no arguing that. Former NL MVP Christian Yelich also fits into this age group though. So does fellow former NL MVP Kris Bryant and former AL MVP runner-up Aaron Judge. Can't forget 49-homer man Eugenio Suarez either. The age 28 group is light on arms (Mike Foltynewicz and Jon Gray are the best here) but loaded with megastar position players, starting with Trout.
Age 29: RHP Gerrit Cole, Yankees
Nolan Arenado is worthy of headlining an age group and wouldn't look out of place in bold print above. The age 29 group has to go to Cole though, right? He just set a new single season strikeout rate record and his 326 strikeouts were the most by a right-handed pitcher since Nolan Ryan struck out 341 in 1977. There is every reason to believe Cole will be that good again in 2020, and he just signed a record $324 million contract, which doesn't hurt. Arenado has the longer track record of elite play but Cole has reached greater heights. Shoutout to Mike Clevinger, Max Muncy, J.T. Realmuto, and Marcus Semien for being in this age group.
Age 30: 3B Anthony Rendon, Angels
Rendon spent the last few years as baseball's most underrated superstar. Safe to say the underrated label no longer applies after his monster postseason, the World Series win, and the massive $245 million contract. Rendon's a brilliant all-around player who is just now starting to get the attention he deserves. This age group includes a former NL MVP (Giancarlo Stanton), a postseason legend (Madison Bumgarner), and two Astros stars (Jose Altuve and George Springer), among others.
Age 31: RHP Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
The age 31 group includes many above-average players but only one bona fide star: Strasburg. Even before his excellent 2019 and dominant postseason run, Strasburg was one of the best pitchers in the game, and he consistently performed at an ace level when healthy. I'm glad he's finally getting the credit he deserves rather than having some circles say he hasn't lived up to the hype. Strasburg is the lone member of Tier 1 in this age group. Tier 2 includes Yasmani Grandal, DJ LeMahieu, and Whit Merrifield.
Age 32: RHP Jacob deGrom, Mets
For my money, deGrom is the best pitcher going right now. Back-to-back Cy Young awards and no signs of slowing down, even as he enters his age 32 season. deGrom does not even have the most Cy Youngs in this age group, however. Clayton Kershaw holds that distinction with three. Kershaw remains excellent but has slowed the last few years, and is no longer clearly the game's best moundsman. Other age 32 notables include Aroldis Chapman, Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez, and Tommy Pham.
Age 33: LF Michael Brantley, Astros
The age 33 group lacks a true superstar and instead features many very good players, several of whom were once truly great, including Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey. Going into 2020, Brantley is the best 33-year-old player in the game and it is thanks entirely to his bat. Few players swing and miss as infrequently as Dr. Smooth in this high-strikeout era. Along with McCutchen and Posey, the best of the rest of this age group includes Jose Abreu, Charlie Blackmon, Yu Darvish, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. I'd have gone Ryu over Brantley if I were confident in Ryu's ability to stay healthy.
Age 34: 3B Josh Donaldson, Twins
Players typically begin to decline in their mid-30s and that is certainly evident in the age 34 group. Matt Carpenter and Lorenzo Cain saw their production slip last year and the age group's four former Cy Young winners either started their decline years ago (Jake Arrieta and Felix Hernandez) or battled injuries in 2019 (David Price and Corey Kluber). Donaldson stands out as the age group's elite (or close to elite) player, though bounce-back potential exists throughout. Carlos Santana deserves a mention here.
Age 35: RHP Max Scherzer, Nationals
Pretty soon we need to start talking about where Scherzer falls in the "best free agent pitcher signing of all-time" conversation. He is right up there with Randy Johnson to the Diamondbacks (four years and four Cy Youngs!) and Greg Maddux to the Braves, right? Has to be. Injuries slowed Scherzer last season but he still finished third in the Cy Young voting and turned in a gutsy World Series Game 7 performance two days after a neck issue forced him to miss Game 5. Andrew Miller and Justin Turner are the other notables in this age group.
Age 36: RHP Zack Greinke, Astros
Is Greinke a Hall of Famer? Eventually voters will have to adjust their standards for starting pitchers because 300 wins just doesn't happen anymore. Greinke is within shouting distance of 250 wins (currently 205) and 3,000 strikeouts (currently 2,622), and he has a Cy Young award. I think he's short of the Hall of Fame at the moment, personally, but he has a chance to get there these next few seasons. Anyway, Greinke headlines a surprisingly stacked age 36 group that includes Ryan Braun, Yuli Gurriel, Cole Hamels, Howie Kendrick, Jon Lester, Charlie Morton, and Joey Votto.
Age 37: RHP Justin Verlander, Astros
Players are not supposed to get better as they approach 40, but Verlander has, and he's the obvious choice to lead the age 37 group. He just won his second Cy Young award and set a new career high with 300 strikeouts, and there are no indications he is about to start slowing down. Yadier Molina is as steady as ever and Miguel Cabrera is a future Hall of Famer on the downswing. Robinson Cano is in this age group as well.
Age 38: RHP Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Pickings are slim in the age 38 group. In fact, there are only two 38-year-olds currently on 40-man rosters: Wainwright and Indians lefty Oliver Perez. Wainwright had a fine 2019 season and gets the nod here almost by default. Ian Kinsler recently retired and both Adrian Gonzalez and James Shields last played in 2018. They also belong to this age group. I can't imagine Gonzalez, Kinsler, or Shields could come out of retirement and outproduce Wainwright in 2020.
Age 39: DH Nelson Cruz, Twins
One day. Cruz qualifies for this age group by one stinkin' day. Had he been born a day earlier, Cruz would've qualified for the age 40 group, and the age 39 group would've been left to Ben Zobrist, who is unofficially retired, and CC Sabathia, who is retired. Jose Bautista is reportedly talking about wanting to play in 2020 (he didn't play in 2019) so maybe he would've been the pick here. Fortunately, Cruz was born on July 1, not June 30, making the pick for the age 39 group an easy one.
Age 40: 1B/DH Albert Pujols, Angels
Believe it or not, there are currently more 40-year-olds (2) than 39-year-olds (1) on 40-man rosters. The two: Pujols and Twins lefty Rich Hill. . The Twins bet $3 million that Hill will return and be a productive player, but gosh, the injury combined with his age makes it risky. Pujols is a shell of what he once was, but he is healthy and still ridiculously great with runners in scoring position, so I'll hitch my wagon to him in 2020 rather than Hill.
Age 41: 3B Adrian Beltre, Retired
There is no 41-year-old player we could reasonably expect to play in an MLB game in 2020. No journeyman reliever or backup catcher who might popup somewhere. In that case, the best 41-year-old player in the world is Beltre, who retired following the 2018 season. He was still productive in his final season -- Beltre hit .273/.328/.434 with 15 homers with the Rangers -- and I bet he could come back in 2020 and not embarrass himself. John Lackey, Victor Martinez, Chase Utley, and Jayson Werth are also in this age group.