Nurturing young stars is MLB’s most important post-lockout struggle

The fight — the real fight — will begin once MLB owners and the Players Association complete the groundwork to finalize a new collective bargaining agreement.

Naturally, the ongoing negotiations are important. The CBA serves as the backbone for the game’s day-to-day operations. Niceties could be worth millions of dollars one way or another, possibly billions. So I never fall into the just get it done category as much as I wish owners and players could just get it done.

But I think the big picture is what comes next after a signed document. Because what comes next will determine whether they fight for many more newly added billions of dollars in future CBA negotiations. Because what comes next is improving the product and fan experience.

There seems to be almost universal agreement that we need to work together in these areas. The greatest athletes to ever play Major League Baseball are populating the game right now. But that was hard to sell because the ball isn’t in play enough and a lot of strategy kills the action in the game.

It has made it particularly difficult to sell the game nationally. Baseball still works well locally. And perhaps the 162 game inventory makes it hard to attend to a game that doesn’t involve one of your favorite teams.

Juan Soto

But I think part of the problem is that the players don’t resonate enough. Again, part of this is an institutional baseball problem. In the NFL and NBA, Josh Allen and Ja Morant have the ball in the hands of every offensive game their teams play. But Juan Soto bats and then waits for the next eight racquets to take their turn before batting again.

However, some of it revolves around partnerships and the need for MLB and the union to come together in a more concerted way to best advance players. And part of it revolves around that inactivity. Because when the ball gets in play more often, I see Byron Buxton running and fielding Nolan Arenado and the ballet of a well-conducted relay game trying to beat a runner. MLB has no shortage of talent. Full national recognition of the talent is lacking.

To that end, I wanted to do an exercise where I would look at the top under-25 talent in MLB, the NBA, and the NFL to compare and contrast them. I asked colleagues Ian O’Connor (NBA) and Ryan Dunleavy (NFL) to come up with top 20 lists to put alongside mine for MLB. Please be careful with Ian and Ryan because not only have I not given them much time to formulate lists, I have offered nebulous criteria for talent and attractiveness and no clear roadmap.

However, you should know that they both worked up a sweat – Ian had particular problems finding where to place the mega-talented but often-absent Zion Williamson, and Ryan kept trying to figure out whether or not Saquon Barkley belonged on his list. And both guys worked on it and I’m so grateful and I hope you dear readers look at the lists and make your own and debate and do all that stuff that goes into making sports so much fun.

Fountain of Youth: The best talent under 25 in MLB, NBA, NFL

1. Juan Soto 1. Yes Morant 1.Josh Allen
2. Fernando Tatis Jr. 2. Lukas Doncic 2. Joe Burrow
3. Vlad Guerrero Jr. 3. Donovan Mitchell 3. Lamar Jackson
4.Ronald Acuna 4. Devin Booker 4. Quenton Nelson
5. Bo Bichette 5.Trae Young 5. Nick Bosa
6. Austin Riley 6.Jayson Tatum 6. Micah Parsons
7. Kyle Tucker 7. Bam Adebayo 7. Tristan Wirfs
8. Sandy Alcantara 8. Domantas Sabonis 8.JustinHerbert
9. Wander Franco 9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 9.Justin Jefferson
10. Rafael Devers 10. De’Aaron Fox 10. Rashawn Slater
11 Julio Urias 11. LaMelo Ball 11.JonathanTaylor
12. Ian Anderson 12. Deandre Ayton 12. Budda Baker
13. Logan Webb 13. Jaylen Brown 13. Fred Warner
14. Ke’Bryan Hayes 14.Brandon Ingram 14. Deebo Samuel
15. Luis Robert 15. Dejount Murray 15.Marlon Humphrey
16.Jordan Alvarez 16.RJBarrett 16. Hunt for Ja’Marr
17. Gleyber Torres 17.Zion Williamson 17. Kyler Murray
18.Eloy Jimenez 18. Darius garland 18. Chase Young
19.Jonathan India 19. Tyler Herro 19. Devin White
20. Ozzie Albies 20.Anthony Edwards 20. M. Fitzpatrick
– Joel Sherman – Ian O’Connor – Ryan Dunleavy

But for my purposes, I’ve looked at the list and I don’t think MLB needs to take the backseat when it comes to youngsters. There are already champions and all-stars on these lists, and those will be Hall of Famers.

Of the 20 players on the MLB roster, only Sandy Alcantara (who turned 26 in September) and Julio Urias played at 25 last year, meaning the other 18 would be eligible for a 25-and-under list again . The top three — Soto, Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Fenrando Tatis Jr. — were all in their 22-year seasons last year.

The list didn’t include Dylan Carlson, Alek Manoah and Freddy Peralta, but it definitely could have. The list didn’t predict burgeoning prospects likely to play this year — if there is one this year — like Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez, Baltimore’s Adleyrutschman and Kansas City’s Bobby Witt Jr.

Fernando Tatis Jr.

The list also did not include anyone who played in their season last year at the age of 26, including Shohei Ohtani, who is arguably the most unique athlete in any sport right now. The disqualifying 26-year-olds also knocked out Pete Alonso, Randy Arozarena, Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Corbin Burnes, Carlos Corrrea, Lucas Giolito, Jonathan Loaisiga, Cedric Mullins, Bryan Reynolds and catcher Will Smith.

Again, the problem isn’t the young talent in MLB, the problem is highlighting it better.

In the NFL, for example, the rules feel backwards. The league begins with “What do we need to do to improve the health and performance of our best players.” Is there an initial backlash: “What would Dick Butkus say?” Yes. But that dies when Allen and Patrick Mahomes duel. Let’s just say I don’t miss a defensive player using a hand check to maneuver Morant and Trae Young around. I’d rather watch them traverse the square and capture my attention.

MLB needs a similar fan-friendly philosophy: How do you get less downtime for the stars? Because there are stars. Young stars. Stars worth your time.

So the preliminary rounds have to end (important as they are) and we have to get to the most important fight for the sport. The main event for MLB is to ensure that their young stars are better showcased and promoted. Nurturing young stars is MLB’s most important post-lockout struggle


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