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They were teenagers in a foreign country, and when they weren't on a baseball field beating up on their hapless opponents, they were holed up in a hotel doing what teenagers do: playing video games, watching Will Ferrell movies, Skyping with girlfriends back home. Someday—a late summer Cooperstown night around, say, 2035—they may tell a story or two about the preposterously talented Team USA under-18 team that included five future first-round picks, the one that won the United States's first gold at the Pan American junior championships, in 2009.
Roommates during their nine-day, undefeated romp in Barqusimeto, Venezuela, Team USA's top two players, centerfielder Bryce Harper of the College of Southern Nevada and shortstop Manny Machado of Brito Miami Private School, bonded over long talks about movies, girls and their plans to conquer the baseball world. Less than a year later they would be taken first and third in the 2010 draft—Harper by the Nationals with the top pick, Machado two spots later by the Orioles. (Jameson Taillon, who struck out a record 16 in Team USA's gold medal game win over Cuba, would go second to Pirates.) In April '12 Harper would make the most anticipated major league debut in a generation. Machado got the call later last summer, in August. He was on a team bus, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, when his Double A manager, Gary Kendall, told him he was headed to the majors. Machado called his mother, and as Rosa Nuñez wept over the phone from Miami, Machado saw he had another incoming call.
The voice on the other line was familiar. "Welcome to the Show, bro," said Harper. "Battle for D.C./Baltimore supremacy: It's on."
Machado didn't set the world on fire like Harper. He didn't ignite a new school--old school holy war like 21-year-old Mike Trout did with his American League MVP candidacy. He did nothing, however, to dampen his high expectations, or the comparisons with another Miami-bred infielder from a generation ago: Alex Rodriguez. One of 35 players in MLB history to make at least 200 plate appearances in his age-19 season, Machado more than held his own at the plate—only three other third basemen who were 20 or younger since the Dead Ball era (Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Mathews, and Bob Horner) had a higher slugging percentage than Machado's .445. But his glovework was the real eye-opener; despite having played just two games at third base in the minors ("a total of three in my life if you're counting Little League," he says), he was called on to play the hot corner for a team in the throes of its first pennant race in well over a decade (page 48). He did so "beautifully," says Baltimore G.M. Dan Duquette, whose team reached the postseason for the first time since 1997. "We took a leap of faith [calling him up], and what this young man has done for us? Huge."
The Manny Machado story is about a young talent, a franchise's return to glory and magical moments in Baltimore like last Saturday, when Machado ripped a three-run home run to lead the Orioles to a win over the Dodgers on Earl Weaver Night at Camden Yards. It also provides a lesson for the many contending teams now grappling with the difficult decision of when to call up a prized prospect: Sometimes you just have to take that leap.
Baseball's youth movement is in full throttle: In 2012 the average age of position players was 28.5, the lowest since 1993. Young pitching continues to dazzle: the Mets' Matt Harvey, 24, has been the most dominant pitcher in the game so far this year. Not far behind have been Florida's José Fernandez (20 years old), Cincinnati's Tony Cingrani (23) and the Dodgers' Hyun-jin Ryu (26). Fernandez is one of several prospects who began the season in the majors despite having never played above the Double A level: Joining Florida's righthander were Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (who was returned to the minors last Saturday) and Minnesota outfielder Aaron Hicks. Still, many teams choose to remain cautious when it comes to their top prospects. Baseball's top three position player prospects—Texas's Jurickson Profar, Tampa's Wil Myers and St. Louis's Oscar Taveras—remain in the minors, bubble-wrapped like Ming vases, even though any scout will tell you that none of them have anything left to prove at that level. As baseball's best talent gets younger, teams are facing tougher choices over when to fast-track prodigies.
Young players, and youth, seem to be undervalued by teams. In a comprehensive 2011 study at Baseball Prospectus, writer Rany Jazayerli found that players who were younger than average on draft day tended to return more value than expected, even though college players are usually drafted higher. Small differences in age can make significant differences in player projections: In his 1987 Baseball Abstract, Bill James compared a 20-year-old and a 21-year-old who had the same ability as hitters, and found that there was a dramatic difference in expected career home run totals; a 20-year-old could be expected to hit 61% more home runs than the 21-year-old.
Teams also underestimate the impact their prospects can make at the major league level. What's forgotten now in the Mike Trout story—except perhaps to Angels fans still stung by the four wins that separated L.A. from last year's postseason—is that the Angels kept Trout in the minors for nearly a month before his call-up in late April. Of course, there are other factors to consider—in St. Louis, for example, Taveras, Baseball America's No. 3 prospect, a talent who's been compared with Vladimir Guerrero, would not get regular at bats with the Cardinals, who have a crowded (and expensive) outfield of established veterans. In many cases, as with the low-budget Rays and Myers, the decision is about money. Tampa Bay has stumbled to a 8--10 start through Sunday because of an incompetent offense that ranked 10th in the league in runs. Even though Myers would be a clear offensive upgrade, the Rays probably won't call up their prized outfielder before June, in order to delay his service clock. If they call up Myers later in the summer, they'll keep him from attaining "Super Two" status (four years of arbitration eligibility instead of three).
"In the Rays' case," says an AL executive, "I'm not going to question what they're doing because they've proven they're the smartest organization out there. But for any team, you just don't know where you're going to be at as a franchise six, seven years from now. Maybe your window to win is now. 2019, who knows? People criticized the Braves when they started Jason Heyward [in 2010], but no one said that was a bad move when they went on to make the playoffs by a game."
One explanation the Rays offer for their caution with Myers is his inexperience at the position they want him to play—a former catcher, he's logged just 225 games in the outfield. Machado had far less experience at the position they hoped he would fill, but, as Duquette says, "We had faith in Manny's talent."