In 1999, a flannel-bedecked baseball writer at ESPN asked which players were going to be the best at each position over the next decade. He picked Fernando Tatis as the third baseman likeliest to dominate the '00s. Tatis was 24, and he had just finished a 34-homer, 21-steal season with a 139 OPS+. The pick made sense.
Tatis vanished shortly after. The logical choice for the third baseman of the '00s wasn't a starter after 2001. There were whispers he popped back up in the majors at the end of the decade, but that was almost certainly an urban legend.
Long anecdote short: Young players will make you look stupid. Time and time and time again. Spin through the list of previous Rookie of the Year winners. The AL winners from 2002-2004 were Eric Hinske, Angel Berroa, and Bobby Crosby, none of whom made it to 30 as a starter. Young players take pride in making you look stupid.
Which brings us to the Rookie of the Year awards this year. Jose Fernandez and Wil Myers are going to win, but it's an especially strong class, at least in the National League. Yasiel Puig, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Shelby Miller all could have won the award in different years. That applies to Juilo Teheran, for that matter, and even Gerrit Cole. If all 30 teams cleared their rosters and started over, drafting from a pool of current players, at least a couple of those rookies would go in the first round.
Your job is to pick one. Pick the one rookie from the 2013 class who will have the best career. There are three obvious options and the rest of the field.
You're probably not going to pick the pitcher.
It would be silly to pick the pitcher.
Fernandez did enjoy one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history, putting up the lowest qualified ERA from someone 20 or younger since Smoky Joe Wood. But what do you notice about this list of lowest ERAs from qualified rookie starters? That most of them are dead, okay. One of them was named Hippo? Okay, sure. And another one was named Wheezer Dell? That's kind of cool, actually. At least, until you realize they were probably making fun of his asthma.
No, what you're supposed to notice about that list is how few of those pitchers had major-league careers that were dominant for very long. The last five Rookies of the Year with an ERA within spitting distance of Fernandez's: Dave Righetti, Mark Fidrych, Jon Matlack, Gary Peters, and, Stan Bahnsen. Righetti turned into a very nice reliever, and Matlack made a few All-Star teams, but none of them were anything close to franchise cornerstones.
Never pick the pitcher.
But if you're going to pick one pitcher … goodness, look at that guy. He's incredible, a mix of power and command that you rarely find in 25-year-old prospects, much less 20-year-old rookies. That age is important for an exercise like this, too. Even if you assume that, like most pitchers, he's going to flame out before he's 30, that would still give a team almost a decade of superlative pitching.
Still, never pick the pitcher. Although it's really, really tempting in this case.
Before the season started, Fernandez was an A-ball pitcher, and Puig was a curiosity. But Myers was the hotter prospect and an easy preseason pick for Rookie of the Year. He would have certainly won this poll in March or April.
He started slowly -- through May 24, he was hitting only .242/.333/.388 in Triple-A, with two strikeouts for every walk -- but he was tremendous in the majors once he was called up. Considering that he had to deal with the tough hitting environment of Tropicana Field, it was beyond impressive for him to put up stats that would be pretty anywhere. Wil Myers has arrived.
So now that we're used to the idea of Myers as a legitimate, majors-proven slugger, he has to be the easy pick, right? If he was the preseason wunderkind, and all he did was win the Rookie of the Year with exciting, productive play, there shouldn't even be a debate. Case closed. Article over.
But it's almost like everyone got used to Myers too easily. Part of that is probably Tropicana Field obscuring just how good he was last year, but there's more to it than that, something I can't put my finger on. Bryce Harper had the churlishness and chutzpah, Mike Trout had the otherworldly season. Puig will go through a scoreboard like the Kool-Aid Man at some point, and he's dripping with obvious physical talent like almost no player I've ever seen.
Myers is right-handed, and he hits baseballs real hard, even if he doesn't run or field that well. Seems kind of boring in comparison.
Completely bizarre, right? Guy gets hype, guy lives up to hype, guy suddenly isn't as burdened with hype. Myers still might be the safest pick of the bunch.
Like nothing you've ever seen. The odds are great that you've watched a lot of baseball. You've never seen anyone play quite like Puig.
That doesn't qualify for an argument on its own, of course. I'd never seen anyone stand at the plate quite like Santiago Casilla, but that didn't mean he was a good hitter.
But Puig did his never-before-seen stuff while laying waste to the National League. It wasn't just that he was rounding first and looking for the extra bag on infield hits to second. It was that he was clearly better at just about every baseball-related activity he tried.
He slumped in July, and everyone figured the adjustments monster dragged him below the surface. Except Puig took off again in August. He started walking, too. He had a much rougher September, but walked enough and hit for enough power to make a .214 average palatable. By the end of the season, he was a different kind of good player. He had become self-aware and shown the ability to evolve, like a computer from a science-fiction movie.
Don't know about you, but I still rub my Jeff Francoeur Sports Illustrated cover as a good-luck talisman. Can't hurt.
The only thing that would worry me about Puig is that he's destined to do something from the Naked Gun blooper reel at some point. He'll fight a tiger, be decapitated going for a homer over the fence, or get hit by a car. Or maybe he'll just run into a wall. He plays so hard, so fearlessly, that it's hard not to see it backfiring horribly at least once. Mike Bates wrote about Bryce Harper and Pete Reiser earlier this year. Everything in there goes double for Puig.
That and the plate discipline scare me the most about Puig. But considering he had shown progress with the latter by the end of the season, it's just the recklessness that gives me pause.
Pick from the field. Cole is my favorite from the runners-up, and I could just copy and paste most of what I wrote about Fernandez. Maybe you're a Shelby Miller man, even if it's more than a little odd that something physical or personal kept him almost completely out of the playoffs. Hyun-jin Ryu is already 26, but maybe you're bullish on how his repertoire will age.
Still, it's pretty much a Puig/Fernandez/Myers race right now, at least for the purposes of this article. The real answer is probably Jurickson Profar, but we're all short-sighted orangutans who can't think past the last three months. Gimme Puig and a full suit of armor. I wanted to take Fernandez because I love watching him pitch, and I wanted to take Myers to prove a point about him being relatively underrated, considering.
But, nope, it's Puig. If he's able to control the tire fire in his brain and the bees in his pants, he'll be transcendent. And even if he doesn't, he'll still be really, really good. Of all the rookies this year, he's the one I'd pick first to start a franchise, even if he's at least partially insane.