"So many players are forced up here that shouldn't be here," Kaline says. "You look around and you'll see two, three, four players on every team that don't belong in the big leagues."
The shortage of quality pitchers is particularly acute. No young pitchers dominate the game the way that positional players such as Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez do. It's true that pitchers historically take longer to develop (Bob Gibson, Lefty Grove. Gaylord Perry, Red Ruffing, Nolan Ryan and Early Wynn all had losing career records through their last full season before turning 26). Even so, Klein says, "It's baffling to me that pitchers aren't coming through the way the young hitters are. Despite all the advances in sports medicine and training programs, the attrition rate for pitchers has gone up."
When Oriole assistant general manager Doug Melvin comes home from work, his seven-year-old son, Cory, is waiting for him to play their daily game of home run derby. Cory always pretends to be the same three hitters: Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez. "He pulls his sleeves up like Gonzalez, backs off the plate like Thomas and stands upright like Griffey," Melvin says. "Those three are the ones to watch. They could rank with the alltime greats."
Oakland A's special-assignment scout Bill Rigney, a former player and manager, likes the chances of Olerud to be the kind of player he calls "a repeater," someone who puts up one good year after another over a lengthy career. "His swing is so smooth, and he doesn't play a high-risk position so he should just hit and hit and hit," Rigney says.
Olerud, though, did not have his breakthrough season until last year, during which he turned 25. Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez have each put up three seasons already of at least 20 home runs and 100 RBIs. They finished 1-2-3 (in varying order) last season in home runs, slugging and total bases. No set of 25-and-younger sluggers has so dominated a league since 1955, when Aaron, Mathews, Mays and Ernie Banks all reached at least 300 total bases in the National League. Starting that season, the NL lost only four of the next 19 All-Star Games. Now it is the AL—riding a six-year All-Star win streak—that is stocked with most of the best young players in the game.
"There's no comparison," says Cub executive vice president Larry Himes. "Go to the home run hitting contest at the All-Star Game, and you look at all these guys 6'5", 230 pounds the American League is running out there. We've got a ways to go to catch up to that level."
From 1953 through '67, Aaron, Banks, Mathews and Mays won or shared 12 of the 15 NL home run titles. Griffey, Thomas and Gonzalez—born 18 months apart—may stage their own home run derby for just as long. Gonzalez won his second straight title last year, with 46 home runs, one more than Griffey and five more than Thomas, who bruised his right arm on Sept. 19.
"Last year we had a great home run race going on, and I could smell it," Thomas says. "I thought I had a chance to win until I got hurt. It was fun. I'd check every day to see what Junior and Juan did. That's what baseball's all about. We've got a friendly rivalry going, and I hope we keep it up."
Who's the best? SI put this question to a cross section of 15 managers and front-office executives: If you could have the next 10 years of any player no older than 25, whom would you choose? Everyone said Griffey.
"Nobody else can do all the things Griffey does," Melvin says. "Not only does he give you so much production at the plate, playing centerfield the way he does, he takes runs away too."