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2016 MLB Preview: An Expression of youth

Bryce Harper, the reigning National League MVP, caused a major stir last month when he called baseball a “tired sport” and said today’s players were being stifled by the sport’s outdated codes of behavior.

“You can’t express yourself,” Harper told ESPN The Magazine. “You can’t do what people in other sports do.”

Baseball has suffered for some time from the notion that it’s a boring exercise, a captive of its plodding pace and stodgy traditions. What’s so wrong about showing your emotions in a grueling sport that requires you to play virtually every day for six months?

Harper said he likes the fact that Jose Fernandez stares down opponents after striking them out. And really, was it so disgraceful for Jose Bautista to flip his bat after hitting a dramatic postseason home run last fall, as that mustachioed grump, Goose Gossage, declared?

Sports are entertainment, a show. Baseball needs to celebrate itself to compete with the exuberant genius and wide fan appeal of such young superstars as Cam Newton and Steph Curry. As Harper suggests, baseball is becoming increasingly a young man’s game.

Boy, is it.

It’s hard to remember a time when there were more exciting young players in the game. When the Yankees’ saintly Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season, people wondered who would emerge as the new faces of the game.

They got swift answers, with a horde of gifted, fuzzy-cheeked kids who burst on the scene last season. Think back to last October. What are some of the most vivid memories? OK, other than Terry Collins allowing Matt Harvey to pitch the ninth and Eric Hosmer dashing home with the tying run in the deciding game of the World Series?

How about Kyle Schwarber hitting five home runs for the Cubs to set the franchise postseason record (which tells you something about the Cubs’ postseason history)? Or the Astros’ Carlos Correa going 4 for 4 with two homers against KC in the ALDS? And don’t forget Lance McCullers pitching lights-out for Houston in that same game.

Noah Syndergaard won games in the NLDS, NLCS and World Series for the Mets. Teammate Steven Matz started the NLCS clincher for New York. The Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager made their playoff debuts.

Do you know what all of those players have in common? Not one of them was in the major leagues on Opening Day a year ago. And they’re all 24 years old or younger.

There were 20 players on last year’s two All-Star rosters who were 25 years old or younger. That was the largest representation of 25-under players in the history of the Mid-Season Classic.

Last April, roughly 40 percent more rookies played in major league games than a year earlier. And keep in mind all the young stars (Bryant, Correa, Syndergaard, et al) who spent all or part of April in the minors.

“There’s been a changing of the guard,” said Eric Wedge, the former Bisons, Indians and Mariners manager and now player development advisor for the Blue Jays. “You’ve got some exciting, very, very talented players in the game, whether they’re young or in the middle of their careers.”

Wedge found it ironic that a surge of fresh stars would come directly after Jeter’s retirement, as if on order from the baseball gods. But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

The National Pastime keeps trending younger. According to FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s statistical site, the weighted average age of big-league players has been dropping steadily since the start of the 2000s.

There are various theories for the youth phenomenon. These things tend to be cyclical, though the data suggest this is as gifted a crop of young-arriving stars – especially the hitters – as the game has ever seen.

Some of it is driven by economics. The average MLB salary is now above $4 million, so teams are eager to find younger stars and bring them to the big leagues sooner and at cheaper, entry-level salaries to offset the pricey veterans.

The international market is growing, which develops an increasing number of young prospects who aren’t subject to the entry draft. If normalized relations prod the Cubans into loosening restrictions on their players, the market for foreign players will be even richer.

Perhaps the biggest reason is baseball’s crackdown on steroid use, which has made it harder for sluggers to play late into their 30s and minimized the importance of home runs. Speed and defense, more readily available in the young, have been restored as valued commodities.

“It’s getting back to more of a traditional baseball game,” Wedge said. “Defense and speed and athleticism. I think that’s good for the game. You look at what Kansas City did last year – moving runners, putting the ball in play, stealing bags, bunting, and catch the ball defensively.

“Limit your mistakes and capitalize on opportunities. It’s not about just waiting for the home run anymore.”

Many of today’s prodigies hit for power, but they can also run and wield the leather. That explains why, when I was putting together an all-star team of 24-and-under players, the thinnest position was first base, which doesn’t tend to produce athletic young talent.

Power pitching is dominating the game nowadays. Strikeouts are at an all-time high and scoring is down. So teams need to be more creative offensively. As the Royals proved, that can make for exciting baseball.

A young superstar can help turn a franchise around. Harper, who was a big name when he was 14, was the first pick of the 2010 entry draft. O’s third baseman Manny Machado went third that year. Pirates ace Gerrit Cole went third in 2011. Correa was the No. 1 pick in 2012, Bryant No. 2 in 2013.

The lust for young stars has the lords of baseball worried about an issue that has plagued the other major sports: Tanking. At their January meetings, the owners had informal meetings about teams losing on purpose so they could position themselves for future drafts.

The Astros are exhibit A for suffering through hard times for the reward of high picks. Houston lost at least 106 games in three straight years from 2011-13. That’s how they got Correa. Their other No. 1 picks haven’t worked out so well, but Correa is being compared with Alex Rodriguez at age 21.

There’s concern that the Braves, Phillies and Reds might be using the Houston model and sacrificing the short term for the chance to draft the next Correa, Cole or Bryant in coming years. Tanking might be addressed in the next collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the union.

Yes, it’s a young man’s game. Harper and the Angels’ Mike Trout, who won the AL MVP two years ago, were two of the five youngest position players ever to win the award. Correa is a chic pick to win the MVP this year, in his first full season. If so, he would be the youngest position player ever to win it.

“Correa is probably the best shortstop talent-wise to come up since A-Rod,” Wedge said. “Who knows what he can do? His maturity level is incredible, too, at the big-league level.”

We’re entering a golden age of young shortstops. Correa, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, the Indians’ Francisco Lindor and the Cubs’ Addison Russell are all 22 years or younger. Boston’s Xander Bogaerts is an old man of 23. Third base isn’t too shabby, either. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Manny Machado are all 24 or younger, and already three of the top five players at the position.

Luckily, I didn’t have to cut my 24-and-under all-star team to 25 players. I picked 34, which was the roster size for the actual All-Star game last year. I put Maikel Franco, who is playing third, at first base so I could fill the position. He played some first in the past.