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 July 1st, 2012 and June 30th, 2013; 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 2013 will still count as their age 27 season. Kind of confusing, I know.
In order from oldest to youngest:
Chris Perez-Has already made back-to-back All-Star teams and racked up 75 saves over the past two seasons. Trimmed his walk rate and improved his strikeout rate last season to compiled a 3.69 K/BB ratio, easily the best mark of his career so far.
Ernesto Frieri-Stepped up as the Angels closer last year after coming over from San Diego in early May. There's no denying his ability, but his bloated walk rate (4.5 free passes per nine innings) is a cause for concern.
Wei-Yin Chen-Coming off a solid rookie campaign in which he finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Mike Trout, Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish. Proved to be a nice pickup for the Orioles, stabilizing the rotation and serving as the de facto ace after knee surgery derailed Jason Hammel's career year. The Taiwanese southpaw made 32 starts and led the team in wins (12), strikeouts (154) and innings pitched (192.2).
Mat Gamel-Has already spent parts of five seasons with Milwukee but simply hasn't hit at the major league level. The Brewers hoped he would help fill the gaping void left by Prince Fielder, but I just don't see it happening.
Adam Jones-The toolsy center fielder broke through in 2012 by setting career highs in numerous categories and placing sixth in the MVP race A poor man's Matt Kemp, Jones blends speed and power while hitting for solid averages.
Zack Cozart-Didn't set the world on fire as a rookie last year but showed promise. His 52 extra base hits were impressive for a shortstop and he played Gold Glove caliber defense. Dusty Baker let him bat leadoff most of the year in spite of his .288 OBP and four steals.
David Price-Amazingly, the reigning Cy Young winner had nearly identical peripherals in back-to-back years but wound up with vastly different results. In 2011 he went 12-13 with a 3.49 ERA, but in 2012 he went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA and paced the AL in wins, ERA, and winning percentage. Seeing as how he can't get much better than that, I expect Price to split the difference in 2013.
Tyler Colvin-Flourished in Colorado, batting .290/.327/.531 with 18 home runs and 72 RBI in just 420 at-bats, very similar to the season he had with the Cubs two years ago. Loved hitting at Coors Field (1.032 OPS there, just .687 everywhere else) but then again, who doesn't?
Neil Walker-A herniated disc spoiled what was shaping up to be a promising season for Pittsburgh's keystone defender. He's underrated.
Delmon Young-Posted the lowest batting average and OBP of his career last year and has showed no signs of maturing into the superstar everyone expected him to be when Tampa Bay took him with the first pick in the 2003 draft. His pedestrian power numbers and unwillingness to draw walks have torpedoed what once looked like a promising career.
Matt Harrison-Has evolved into a plus starter for Texas, winning 32 games over the last two years with a 3.34 ERA (134 ERA+). Made his first All-Star team last season and earned Cy Young consideration as well.
Gio Gonzalez-Can't imagine him getting any better than he was last year, when he won 21 games and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting behind R.A. Dickey and Clayton Kershaw.
Ian Desmond-Emerged as an elite shortstop last year by leading the position in home runs (25) and slugging percentage (.511) to go along with 33 doubles and 21 steals.
Kris Medlen-Began last season coming out of Atlanta's bullpen but dominated during his brief stint in the starting rotation. Medlen made a dozen starts in 2012 and the Braves won them all. The converted reliever averaged seven innings per start, compiled a microscopic 0.97 ERA and posted an unreal 84/10 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to .191/.218/.265 figures. Obviously those numbers are unsustainable and represent a small sample size, but I don't think he's a flash in the pan.
Evan Longoria-Injuries have hampered Longoria over the past two seasons, but that hasn't stopped him from being one of baseball's most valuable players when healthy. He's going to be an MVP one of these years, and 2013 might be it.
Carlos Gonzalez-Like many Rockies before him, CarGo doesn't get the respect his numbers deserve because of their context: they are inflated by the Coors Field effect and were produced under the cover of mediocre teams. Nevertheless, the All-Star outfielder has reeled off three straight 20/20 seasons and netted two Gold Glove awards. While he's yet to approach the Matt Holliday-esque figures that placed him third in the 2010 NL MVP voting behind Joey Votto and Albert Pujols, the .300-30-100-100-30 potential is still there.
Yoenis Cespedes-The AL Rookie of the Year runner-up anchored Oakland's lineup, teaming with Josh Reddick to provide what little punch the A's offered. Adjusted to big league pitching over the course of the season by cutting down on his strikeouts and walking more. He's already one of baseball's most exciting players and seems poised for several big seasons.
Asdrubal Cabrera-Has been one of the best offensive shortstops in the American League over the past two seasons. Proved his 2011 was no fluke, but I'm not sure he can perform much better than he did that year.
Greg Holland-Saved 16 games last year with a 1.98 ERA after inheriting the closer's job from Jonathan Broxton. He misses lots of bats and could be due for a Joakim Soria kind of year with Kansas City.
Carlos Gomez-Enjoyed a B.J. Upton type of season with 19 home runs, 37 steals and a .260 batting average last year. Was streaky in the first half but settled down after the All-Star Break: from July 23rd onward, he batted .281. slugged .506, popped 14 homers and swiped 22 bases. Those kinds of numbers can help any fantasy team, and he'll do enough in the power/speed categories without hurting your batting average.
J.P. Arencibia-Cemented himself as one of the better power-hitting backstops with 41 home runs and a .212 ISO in his first two full seasons. Seems to have Mike Napoli potential, but his high strikeout totals and disdain for drawing walks may prevent him from reaching it.
Mark Trumbo-Second half slide marred an impressive start to the season. Still finished the year with good numbers and improved upon his rookie season, so a 40 homer season could be in the cards.
Tyler Flowers-The slugging backstop is set to inherit A.J. Pierzynski's job for the South Siders and should be a safe bet for 20 home runs in his first full season.
Jair Jurrjens-Jurrjens will get a fresh start in Baltimore, where he hopes to put last season's disaster behind him and rediscover the form that made him an All-Star in 2011.
Todd Frazier-Displayed good power during his rookie season last year with 51 extra base hits, a .498 SLG and .225 ISO, finishing third behind Bryce Harper and Wade Miley in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He's the third baseman of the future in Cincy, especially now that free agent Scott Rolen is over the hill and unlikely to return.
Johnny Cueto-Since Opening Day, 2011, Cueto has a 2.58 ERA (159 ERA+) in 57 starts. He's been one of baseball's best pitchers, and yet nobody seems to talk about him.
Yovani Gallardo-YoGa has been a model of consistency the past four years, making at least 30 starts every season, winning between 13 and 17 games, striking out at least 200 hitters and keeping his ERA in the mid-threes. With Zack Greinke gone, Milwaukee needs him to step up and lead the rotation.
Chris Davis-Finally broke through in 2012 with 33 home runs. Could threaten 40 in 2013.
Dexter Fowler-Colorado's center fielder took a big step forward in 2012 when he batted a career best .300/.389/.474 with double digit totals in doubles, triples, homers, and stolen bases.
Carlos Santana-Cleveland's catcher has been a steady source of walks and power but has yet to realize his potential.
Felix Hernandez-Over the past four years, King Felix rates with Justin Verlander as the best pitcher in the American League. The 2010 AL Cy Young winner has tossed nearly 1,000 innings during that span with a 2.81 ERA and almost 900 strikeouts. Expect more of the same in 2013, his ninth season in the majors.
Lorenzo Cain-The Royal center fielder lashed a bit of power and speed last year, making 15 homers and 20 steals a real possibility in his first full season.
Billy Butler-After years of supplying Nick Markakis-type numbers, Butler set personal bests across the board and made significant leaps in the power department. He averaged 15 home runs, 75 RBI and a .458 SLG in his first five years but belted 29 dingers with 107 ribbies and a .510 SLG in 2012. Expect him to threaten or surpass .300-30-100 again next year.
Homer Bailey-Eight years after the Cincinatti Reds selected him with their first round draft pick in 2004 (ahead of Jered Weaver), Bailey finally started to put it all together last year. He made maintained a 3.68 ERA and 3.23 K/BB ratio over 33 starts in 2012 and should be trusted as a solid mid-rotation starter from this point forward.
Matt Wieters-Is this the year he finally puts it all together and surpasses Joe Mauer as the best hitting backstop in the American League? He's improved his home run, RBI and walk totals every year since debuting in 2009, so if those trends continue he's going to have a big year.
Jordan Zimmermann-Has been quietly awesome over the past two years, posting a 3.05 ERA, 1.16 WHIP and 3.74 K/BB ratio, much better than his 20-19 record suggests. He needs to start pitching deeper into ballgames, as he's averaging under six innings per start for his career.
Jonathan Lucroy-The Brewers backstop batted .320/.368/.513 last year despite missing 50 games with a broken hand. No way he reproduces those rate states over the course of a full season, but his power looks legit and I could see him having a Brian McCann kind of year.
Trevor Plouffe-Powered up in the first half of 2012 by blasting 18 home runs in a 39 game stretch from May 16th to July 3rd, but hit just five home runs in his other 80 games. Was the power burst for real, or was it merely a mirage? I could see him topping 20 dingers again but don't think he'll approach the 32 homer pace he displayed last season.
Phil Hughes-Bounced back from an ineffective, injury-plagued 2011 to win 16 games, approach 200 innings and post a career best 3.59 K/BB ratio. Since it's very possible that CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Michael Pineda all miss time in 2013, Joe Girardi is counting on Hughes to be a workhorse.