At 25, Pujols is even more accomplished than Cabrera and is on a career track that no one else has traveled. The five-year veteran is well on his way to a fifth straight season with at least a .300 average, 30 homers, 100 runs and 100 RBIs. No other player has ever started his career with even two such seasons. Pujols is a virtual lock to finish no worse than fourth in the NL MVP voting for the fifth time--and he's a front-runner to win his first award. With his huge, strong hands, he has uncommon power to the opposite field and rarely strikes out (45 times in 441 at bats this season).
As exceptional as Cabrera and Pujols are, however, their generation figures to produce more pitching stars than hitting stars. "It's a down time for position players," says Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, who has revitalized his franchise with a youth movement. "At the trading deadline it seemed everybody was looking for a hitter, and there was a reason they couldn't find one: They're not there. It's a cyclical thing--and now it's a down cycle for position players."
The pool of talented young arms is so deep that 25-year-old Cleveland lefthander C.C. Sabathia, the youngest active pitcher to reach 50 wins, didn't make the SI team. Florida righty Josh Beckett, a World Series MVP at 23? Missed the cut. Chicago White Sox righthander Jon Garland, 25, whose 16 wins this year lead all 25-and-under pitchers and are second most among all hurlers? Not good enough. Righties Brett Myers, 25, of the Philadelphia Phillies; Jeremy Bonderman, 22, of the Detroit Tigers; Gustavo Chacin, 24, of the Toronto Blue Jays; and Danny Haren, 24, of the Oakland A's, who were a combined 44-28 this year? Sorry, no room.
Perhaps 19-year-old whiz kid righthander Felix Hernandez (INSIDE BASEBALL, page 72) of the Seattle Mariners (0.69 ERA after his first two major league starts); rookie lefthander Zach Duke, 22, of the Pittsburgh Pirates (5-0, 2.13 ERA); or even heralded Minnesota Twins lefty prospect Francisco Liriano, 21, will wind up dominating the next 10 seasons more than those who did make this team. But there is a saying among scouts: You're a prospect until you've done it in the big leagues--twice. The following selections for the 25-and-under team were based more on what we know about them as big league players than on potential.
CATCHER: Joe Mauer, 22, Twins (2005 statistics through Sunday: .294 batting average, 14 home runs, 45 RBIs) Born the day after Cabrera, Mauer has the smooth swing to join the elite hitters, though he has yet to show big-time power. "I try not to [project] any big numbers for him," says Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "Let him be, and he'll be just fine. That's too good of a swing to start messing with it."
FIRST BASE: Pujols (.336, 33, 93) The Texas Rangers' 25-year-old Mark Teixeira (.277, 31, 94), who has 95 homers and 290 RBIs in fewer than three full seasons, deserves honorable mention. As his hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, says, "Tex is going to be, pretty much, a consistent 35-to-40-home-run guy with 100 RBIs. He's already proven that at this young age."
SECOND BASE: Rickie Weeks, 22, Milwaukee Brewers (.265, 9, 26) With no young star established at the position, Weeks and his potent bat (he has put up his numbers in only 219 at-bats since being called up from the minors on June 11) rate the edge over Jorge Cantu, 23, of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Robinson Cano, 22, of the New York Yankees.
SHORTSTOP: Bobby Crosby, 25, A's (.284, 5, 29) The position is loaded with growth stocks. Jose Reyes, 22, of the New York Mets is a dynamic offensive player because of his speed. Cleveland's quiet Jhonny Peralta, 23, had the highest on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS)--.890--among shortstops this side of the Baltimore Orioles' Miguel Tejada. Russ Adams, 24, of Toronto; Khalil Greene, 25, of San Diego; and Felipe Lopez, 25, of the Cincinnati Reds may have locks on their jobs for years to come. But none of them possess the complete package that the 6'3", 195-pound Crosby does: size, athleticism, middle-of-the-order power (22 homers as the AL Rookie of the Year in 2004), often-spectacular defense and leadership skills. To wit: Oakland is 48-18 when Crosby--who missed the first two months of the season with a stress fracture to his upper rib cage--is in the lineup.
THIRD BASE: David Wright, 22, Mets (.305, 17, 73) "You'd probably say Hank Blalock is the better player right now," says one American League scout of the Rangers' 24-year-old third baseman, "but ask most people which one they would take, and they'd take Wright. This may be the best Blalock gets to be, which is very good. But Wright looks like something special." Wright has power to all fields, a discerning batting eye, a fierce work ethic and the kind of athleticism that will turn him into a Gold Glove winner. "It's like having a shortstop play third base," Towers says. "He made a play against us, a bare-handed grab, that may have been the greatest play I've ever seen." The Padres' G.M. was referring to a Brian Giles blooper to leftfield at Petco Park on Aug. 9, on which Wright, in full sprint, made a diving, over-the-shoulder catch.
UTILITY INFIELDER: Reyes (.274, 72 runs, 41 stolen bases) An adept second baseman who hit .255 last season, he boasts one of the game's strongest arms and has excelled since returning to his natural position of shortstop.