The start of the playoffs this week signals the intense pressure of high-stakes baseball, a time when battle-scarred veterans – think Derek Jeter and Curt Schilling – put their wiles to the test.
Or does it?
As more and more teams have demonstrated this season, a combination of expensive contracts and an ever-faster track for prospects has convinced general managers and team executives to use younger players more often – and in more demanding situations.
Evidence abounds. Start with the American League's dominant, cash-rich rivals, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Both teams reached the playoffs with significant late-season heroics from rookies and other fresh-faced youngsters.
"There are a lot of issues at play," says Charley Steiner, an XM Satellite Radio baseball host and broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "It is so expensive to bring in [veteran players]. General managers and owners are looking at how much bang they can get for their buck. Young talent makes sense."
The Yankees got a jolt from 22-year-old relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain, who surrendered just one earned run in 24 innings by baffling hitters with a 100-mile-an-hour heater and a devastating slider. New York veterans such as Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens basked in Chamberlain's infectious enthusiasm late in the season. Other home-grown Yankees include pitcher Phil Hughes, second baseman Robinson Cano, and outfielder Melky Cabrera, all of whom played key roles during 2007.
"It's great when you hear the Yankees talk about Joba Chamberlain," says Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., who is an analyst on TBS during the playoffs. "That's a breath of fresh air to an older team."
Boston boasts its own generation next. Several key pitchers are big-league babies, including second-year reliever Jonathan Papelbon, who, at 26, already ranks among the most dominant closers in the game. In 2007, he posted 37 saves and snagged an All-Star roster spot.
Papelbon hardly ranks as the Red Sox's biggest success story when it comes to young players. In fact, he's not even the biggest name among the team's young pitchers. That distinction belongs to Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka, who won 15 games as a 26-year-old rookie. Starters Jon Lester, who returned after a cancer scare, and Clay Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter on Sept. 1, also made key contributions.
The Red Sox have developed talent beyond the pitcher's mound, as well. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury started the season in the minors, but later advanced to the big leagues and stepped in for injured star Manny Ramirez. In all, Ellsbury batted .353 in 116 at-bats. As good as all of these players are, 24-year-old Dustin Pedroia is the best Boston rookie. He stepped in as the regular second baseman and posted the highest batting average for any rookie at that position in 94 years, hitting .317.
"Guys have stepped right in and had productive seasons," says Tony Gwynn, who, like Ripken, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame this year after a distinguished career. Ticking off the names of Pedroia, Colorado Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki, and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, he adds, "I can't remember a year where this many [young] guys have had a huge impact on their clubs. It's about the game evolving."
While Braun's Brewers failed to reach the postseason, they were in the playoff hunt until the final weekend of the season. Braun, a 23-year-old third baseman, slugged 34 homers and drove in 97 runs in just 113 games. Milwaukee's power lineup seems assured for the next few years with Braun and teammate Prince Fielder, whose 50 home runs in 2007 made him the youngest player to hit that many homers. Fielder is 23.
"Last year, the story was about all the great young pitchers," says Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general manager who now serves as an ESPN baseball analyst. "Now you see young position players, too."
Experts point to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the National League West champions, as Exhibit A. Arizona's lineup features more no-names than an online-dating service. The aptly named Chris Young offers a typical example. At 24, the outfielder remains anonymous beyond the desert despite hitting 32 homers with 68 RBIs this season.
But it's the Rockies' Tulowitzki, who led their late-season surge, who seems all but assured of NL Rookie of the Year honors. When the Rockies battled San Diego for the last playoff spot Monday, it was fitting that the Padres sent Jake Peavy to the mound. The 26-year-old righty is favored to win the NL Cy Young award, providing further proof that, in 2007, youth must be served.