The general consensus among baseball pundits is that a player's prime covers his age 25-29 seasons, even if the steroid era has tricked people into believing that it extends into his early thirties. Joe Posnanski proved it here. There will always be exceptions such as Vada Pinson (blossomed early) and Dwight Evans (late bloomer), but for the most part this trend holds true. Players are too young, raw, and inexperienced in their early 20s, and many still haven't filled out yet. On the flip side, players start o break down in their thirties, when their bodies fall apart and essential skills like reflexes, hand-eye coordination and speed begin to diminish. Their waistlines expand, their bats slow down, and before you know it they're just too old. They say baseball is a young man's game, and they're right. Few 35 year-olds can withstand the rigors and daily grind of a 162 game season.
But a 27 year-old can. There's something special, something promising about a 27 year-old baseball player on the cusp of stardom. Maybe it's been blown out of proportion, especially in fantasy circles, but on the surface the infatuation with such players make sense. 27 is smack dab in the middle of his prime, and many believe a player is likely to take his game to new heights. It's the perfect storm for a baseball player, the brief window when he's still at his athletic peak and has enough experience to complement his natural ability. Good players become great, and great players evolve into superstars. For some, watching a player celebrate his 27th birthday has the same effect as seeing him put on ten pounds of muscle or add three miles per hour to his heater.
With baseball season right around the corner, I decided to take a look at this special group of players entering their age 27 seasons. As the cutoff points I will use the All-Star breaks in 2011 and 2012; i.e. anyone who turned/turns 27 in the 365 days between those two dates will qualify. So some of these guys will turn 28 in July, and others will still be 26 for a few more months, but 2012 will still count as their age 27 season. Kind of confusing, I know.
In order from oldest to youngest:
Brandon Morrow-His stuff is electric and he led the AL in K/9 last year. He still walks too many batters and lacks consistency, but he's maturing and his numbers are trending in the right direction. The AL Beast is a tough place to grow up, but this could be the season he breaks out and harnesses his potential.
Max Scherzer-Struggled at times last year and didn't pan out as the strong number two starter behind Justin Verlander that many projected for him after the way he dominated hitters in the second half of 2010. His K/9 rate dipped for the third straight year and and he served up too many gopher balls (29). On the bright side he trimmed his walk rate and made at least 30 starts for the third year in a row. If he can keep the ball in the park next year I think he has good bounceback potential.
Chad Billingsley-Looked like he was on the path to stardom when he won 16 games and fanned a batter per inning in 2008, but after making the All-Star team on a strong first half in 2009 he's regressed into an average pitcher at best. His strikeout rate and innings pitched have dropped three consecutive years, and he needs to get his walks under control as well. It's possible we may have already seen the best of Billingsley, who has everything going for him; he pitches in a terrible park for hitters in a weak offensive division in the National League during a time when hitting has fallen off a cliff.
Melky Cabrera-I figured the Melk Man to be a couple years older, but that's usually the case when a player debuts as a 20 year old like he did. His career year came out of nowhere for the Royals last season, and I expect him to fall back to earth playing in San Francisco this year. Remember that before 2011 he owned a career .267/.328/.379 line. He has Gary Matthews Jr. written all over him.
Clay Buchholz-Was enjoying another solid season before a stress fracture in his lower back ended his season in the middle of June. Boston desperately needs him to be a strong number three starter behind Jon Lester and John Lackey, or else they won't have enough pitching to keep up with the Yankees and Rays.
B.J. Upton-Such a tease. A lot like Billingsley in that he peaked early but couldn't sustain his success. 2012 is his walk year, so the time is now for the elder Upton to prove why he was selected second overall in the 2002 draft. If he gets off to a good start Tampa Bay would be wise to trade him midseason, since his value may never be higher and I doubt they will push to resign him in the offseason. A change of scenery would probably be great for him, too, since the Trop is a tough place to hit and he needs a fresh start in a city that hasn't branded him with the unshakable "bust" label. He probably will never be as good as his younger brother, MVP candidate Justin Upton.
Matt Kemp-Did I mention he deserved to win the 2011 National League MVP award over Ryan Braun? That sounds vaguely familiar...
Ryan Zimmerman-Underrated and likely to bounce back, the two-way third baseman is the Senior Circuit's answer to Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre. I really like the Nationals this year, and a healthy Zimmerman is a big reason why.
Matt Cain-A perfect number two starter, Cain is the definition of durable and consistency. San Francisco's workhorse pitches in the shadow of Tim Lincecum and probably won't win a Cy Young award, but is a superb starter in his own right. He's terribly underappreciated and I think I know why; he's too normal on a team of characters. Think about it. 1) He doesn't have crazy hair like Lincecum or Brian Wilson. 2) He lacks a great nickname like Lincecum's "The Freak," Wilson's "The Beard" or Pablo Sandoval's "Kung Fu Panda." 3) Buster Posey is benefitting from the Joe Mauer effect, when everybody falls in love with young, talented, sweet-swinging catcher. Cain just seems to get lost in the shuffle, even though he would be an ace almost anywhere else.
Drew Stubbs-Looking like the NL version of B.J. Upton. Both provide plenty of pop, speed, and defense, but they strike out way too much and lack polish as hitters. Stubbs was miscast as a leadoff man last year; Dusty Baker should bat Brandon Phillips first and slide Stubbs down to sixth or seventh, where there's a lot less pressure to produce. If he makes significant strides next year, teamming him up with Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Scott Rolen (the same age as Alex Rodriguez) will give Cincinatti the best lineup in the NL Central.
Troy Tulowitzki-The best shortstop in baseball is not just a product of Coors Field, but it doesn't hurt to spend half your games in the thin Rocky Mountain air.
Ricky Romero-The southpaw quietly took the leap from good pitcher to great one last year. Even more impressively, he did it while pitching in the AL East. One of the more underrated hurlers in the game, he's the unquestioned ace of Toronto's staff.
Ian Kennedy-Proved why the Yankees regarded him so highly five years ago when he busted out in 2011, finishing fourth in the Cy Young race while leading the Diamondbacks to the top of the NL West. Unlikely to win more than 20 games with a sub-three ERA again, but 16 wins and a 3.50 ERA sound about right.
Tyler Clippard-One of the best relievers in baseball, but gets almost no publicity because he's not a closer. Hopefully he will get more attention if the Nats contend this year.
Jonny Venters-Formed an unstoppable tandem with Craig Kimbrel at the back of Atlanta's bullpen. The first time All-Star led the majors with 85 appearances last season, so Fredi Gonzalez might want to consider scaling back his workload a bit to prevent him from flaming out, as so many stud relievers tend to do.
John Danks-Spent time on the DL last year and struggled throught his worst season since he broke in as a rookie in 2007. Looking at the three seasons in between, Danks averaged 203 innings per year with a 3.61 ERA and 125 ERA+. Many White Sox (Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham, Juan Pierre) underachieved last year, so Danks was not alone. His peripherals remained intact, so I expect him and some of his teammates to rebound.
Daniel Bard-Flamethrowing setup man to Jonathan Papelbon will move to the starting rotation in 2012.