Fantasy's All-Age-27 Team unveiled
Montero, Bourn among up-and-comers ready to shine
If you've spent any time poring over preseason fantasy analysis during the past few years (I'd wager that you wouldn't be reading this if you hadn't), chances are that you've heard it mentioned that players, on average, reach the height of their athletic prowess at the age of 27.
Of course, this is not a hard and absolute truth. But while many players compile their best seasons well before -- and sometimes even after -- the magical age-27 zone, it's still a helpful rule to apply when making preseason projections, and can aid in identifying players on the cusp of greatness.
Speaking of greatness, although some of the game's best players are set to enter what should be their peak year in 2010, the All-Age-27 Team isn't really about them. Established fantasy studs like Joe Mauer, Justin Verlander and David Wright are all really, really good, and everyone knows it. Instead, we'll take a look at some of the game's more unheralded young stars who look poised for a 2010 coming-out party.
Miguel Montero, Diamondbacks: After claiming the starting job from an injured Chris Snyder last summer, the hard-hitting backstop busted out with a dynamite .316/.366/.534 line in the second half, topping all big league catchers with 18 doubles in that span. As Arizona's No. 1 catcher, Montero has a clear path to 500 at-bats and a great chance to be a Top 5 fantasy catcher.
Jeff Clement, Pirates: Once tabbed as a future star behind the dish, Clement traded in his catcher's mask for a first baseman's mitt last year in an effort to preserve his knees. The former first-round Draft pick hit .274 with 21 homers and 90 RBIs for two Triple-A teams before succumbing to a strained oblique late in '09, and he owns a career .865 OPS on the farm. If he can hold his own on the defensive side, Clement could turn some heads with his bat in the Steel City.
Howard Kendrick, Angels: Kendrick returned from last June's Triple-A demotion with a vengeance, stroking a .351 average with 21 extra-base hits and 39 RBIs in 188 at-bats. Now firmly re-entrenched as the Angels starting second baseman, the career .360 Minor League hitter seems ready to showcase his considerable talents at the big league level. Don't be surprised to find Kendrick challenging for the American League batting crown this year.
Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks: Drew's upward trajectory came to a screeching halt in an '09 campaign that resulted in across-the-board drops in nearly every meaningful offensive category. Still, the former phenom's walk and strikeout rates were both improved from his '08 marks, and a slightly subpar .288 BABIP suggests that an influx of improved luck could help. If nothing else, Drew's penchant for following a down year with a strong one also bodes well for his age-27 season and a return to mixed-league prominence.
David Freese, Cardinals: Despite missing two months with an ankle injury, Freese impressed at three Minor League stops last year, and he's the favorite to break camp as the Cardinals' everyday third baseman. Although he piles up strikeouts in bunches, the powerful cornerman has never hit below .300 in any of his professional seasons and has posted a sub-.900 OPS just once. If he can hang onto the job, Freese could make a run at 20 homers and 80 RBIs in his first full season of Major League action.
Michael Bourn, Astros: While more established than most of his fellow Age-27 contemporaries, Bourn significantly improved his line-drive and on-base percentages last season, suggesting that we have yet to see the developing catalyst's ceiling. Bourn already has a National League stolen base title to his name, but if he continues to improve his approach at the plate, he'll give Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford a real race for the ML lead. Another step forward could result in 70 steals and well over 100 runs scored for the speedy center fielder.
Franklin Gutierrez, Mariners: Gutierrez may not wow you in any single category, but his multi-faceted attack gives him true five-category appeal. In his first season as a bona fide starter, the slick-fielding center fielder missed a 20/20 campaign by just two home runs and four swipes. With a slight increase in power and a more aggressive approach on the basepaths (he was successful on nearly 80 percent of his tries in '09), Gutierrez could take a major step forward in '10.
Brett Gardner, Yankees: In just 284 at-bats last season, Gardner crossed home 48 times and swiped 26 bags in 31 attempts. His combination of blazing speed and above-average defensive ability gives him the edge for the left-field job in the Bronx, which could translate into a 50-steal, 90-run season if he suits up on a near-daily basis. The diminutive outfielder is easy to lose in the Yankees' All-Star shuffle, but make sure not to overlook him when draft time rolls around.
Jonathan Sanchez, Giants: Sanchez used his filthy repertoire to rack up an overpowering 9.75 K/9 rate -- fifth best among NL starters -- and turn out the Senior Circuit's lone no-hitter last season. The only thing keeping the electric southpaw from elite status is his inability to consistently locate his pitches, as evidenced by a career 4.66 BB/9 rate, but that should come with more experience. Even moderate improvement in the control department could enable Sanchez to make a big leap forward.
Gavin Floyd, White Sox: Wins and ERA aside, Floyd's '09 season was, in many key statistical measures, better than his '08 campaign. The young righty's WHIP dropped from 1.26 to 1.23 thanks to an improved walk rate, and he whiffed 18 more batters in 13 fewer frames. If he keeps up this learning curve, Floyd could be in line for his first All-Star selection this season.
Ervin Santana, Angels: Elbow problems made a mess out of Santana's '09 season, but a second-half surge that concluded with a 5-2 mark, a 3.18 ERA and a pair of shutouts over his final 11 starts have things looking up for the two-time 16-game winner. Santana mowed down 214 batters in his All-Star '08 campaign, a number well within reach in '10 if his repaired elbow holds up.
Jeff Niemann, Rays: It took some time for Niemann to crack the Rays rotation, but last year he showed why he was selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2004 Draft. The 6-foot-9 right-hander cranked out 13 wins -- tied for second among rookie hurlers -- to go with a solid 3.94 ERA and two shutouts. Niemann has yet to develop a serviceable complement to his 91-mph heater, but he displayed notably improved command as the '09 campaign progressed. With a full year of big league experience to cull from, he's capable of upping his game for his sophomore campaign.
Ryan Rowland-Smith, Mariners: If you're looking to rack up strikeouts by the bushel load, then Rowland-Smith isn't the best option. But if you're eyeing a serviceable mid-rotation type, then keep the soft-tossing Aussie in mind. Rowland-Smith has stitched together a 3.64 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP in 27 career starts, and he's aided by a cavernous home ballpark and perhaps the top defensive unit in the Majors. All in all, the left-hander is in a prime position to turn in a breakout year.
Carlos Marmol, Cubs: Marmol spent much of '09 as an erratic setup man in the Cubs 'pen, offsetting a lofty strikeout rate by walking nearly a batter per inning. But after displacing ex-closer Kevin Gregg in mid-August, Chicago's newly minted fireman went a perfect 11-for-11 in save opportunities with a 2.84 ERA and an improved 26/13 K/BB ratio over his final 16 2/3 innings. As skipper Lou Piniella's clear-cut choice for ninth-inning duties, Marmol could wind up with numbers worthy of a Top 10 closer.
Chris Stryshak is a fantasy writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.