Baseball For The Ages

Two years ago, Baseball America embarked on a project called Baseball For The Ages, which recognized the best baseball players in America from 12 to 60.

It was an ambitious undertaking that we expected to be a one-shot deal, but it proved so popular that it has become an annual fixture. Our third edition, like the second, identifies only the game’s up-an-coming players, from 12 to 25.

The criteria for choosing a winner depend on the age. Older players are judged on professional performance and what they have achieved, while the winners from 12 to 18 are based more on potential and outstanding performances at national or international competitions.

In each case, the universal youth baseball birthdate cutoff of Aug. 1 was used to establish a player’s age. As usual, our choices were based on contact with scouts, coaches, media and event organizers.

12 Sean O’Sullivan

The San Diego Stars didn’t lose a game all year to teams in their own age group, sweeping to their third straight AAU 12-year-old title in August and winning the prestigious Cooperstown (N.Y.) Dreams Park Tournament of Champions in 12 straight games a month later. No player was more important to the team’s success than O’Sullivan, a lefthander/first baseman who earned all-tournament honors in AAU by hitting .533 with two wins. He hit .690-11-22 with four wins, including three on the final day, against some of the nation’s top 12-year-old teams in Cooperstown. On the season, O’Sullivan hit .534-22-62 for the Stars, including 15 games against 14-year-old competition. “He’s the most polished player we’ve ever had in our program,” said Lyle Gabriel, who has coached numerous national championship teams and has several players in the big leagues, including Angels third baseman Troy Glaus . . . First baseman/righthander Donald Gunn led West Palm Beach, Fla., to Babe Ruth Baseball’s inaugural Cal Ripken World Series title by beating Korea 3-0 on a four-hitter with 14 strikeouts. It was his fourth win of the tournament. He also won the event’s home run contest. His Palm Beach Dream Team has won 131 straight games and 21 consecutive tournaments. The 6-foot Gunn throws a high-70s fastball, slider, curve and knuckle change . . . Righthander Ross Haggard led Bellaire, Texas, to the U.S. title at the Little League World Series by pitching two shutouts and saving a third game. In 13 innings, he allowed five hits and two walks while striking out 27. Haggard also pitched a no-hitter in the South regional championship game . . . Shortstop/righthander Hank Conger hit 33 homers in 38 games as his Ocean View Little League team from Huntington Beach, Calif., finished second to Vancouver, Wash., in the Little League West regional. His So Cal Mama’s Boyz travel team finished second to the San Diego Stars in Cooperstown.

13 Jordan Schafer

Schafer led the Tampa Tigers to a national championship at the AAU 13-year-old level (90-foot basepaths) and a second-place finish at the national USSSA tournament. The lefthander pitched the pivotal game for the Tigers in both tournaments. In AAU, he beat the Central Florida Red Raiders, whose players had won the AAU national title at each age group from 10 to 12, on a one-hitter in the semifinals. He also no-hit the Texas Reds, the ’99 USSSA 12-year-old champions, at the USSSA championship. He won three games and batted more than .500 at both events. On the summer he went 13-1, 0.25 with 116 strikeouts in 78 innings while hitting .515 and leading the Tigers to a 66-10 record. Schafer also was the regular first baseman last spring as a seventh-grader for his high school team, All Saint’s Academy of Lakeland, Fla., which reached the Florida 1A championship game. “He’s beyond his years as a pitcher,” Tigers coach Roger Overby said. “He has exceptional command of three pitches, including a fastball that has touched 83 mph.” . . . Shortstop Jonathan Alarcon served notice that he might be the next premium player for San Diego’s powerful Rancho Bernardo High by earning MVP honors for the champion San Diego Sting at the AAU 13-year-old tournament (with 80-foot basepaths and a 54-foot pitcher’s mound). He hit .595 as the leadoff hitter and didn’t commit an error in 10 games. “We have seen most of the best teams in the country in our age group,” said Sting coach Mark Laws, “and I have not seen a player that comes close to his ability. It’s pretty unique at this level for a player to win MVP honors and not pitch.”

14 Delmon Young

Much like his older brother Dmitri, a high school legend over a six-year career in Alabama and California, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Young is a man among boys. Scouts say there’s not a player at a comparable age—or even at 15 or possibly 16—who comes close to matching Young’s physical skills. He excelled last spring in a two-way role at Camarillo, Calif., High, hitting .440-4-36 as an outfielder and winning three games as a righthander to earn freshman of the year honors in California. He split his summer between American Legion (18-and-under), where he hit more than .500 and went unbeaten in six decisions, and Team USA’s national youth squad, which won the gold medal at the Pan American youth championship in Mexico. He was the youngest player on the U.S. team, yet went 2-0 and led the team in RBIs. His fastball was clocked at 93 mph.

15 Ryan Sweeney

Because Iowa is the only state to play a summer high school schedule, Sweeney hasn’t made it onto the national stage yet. But the 6-foot-4, 175-pound lefthander/first baseman is well-known among scouts who have seen him dominate older players in the Upper Midwest in spring, summer and fall competition. As the No. 1 pitcher and cleanup hitter for Jefferson High in Cedar Rapids, he earned second-team all state recognition in the summers after both his eighth-grade and ninth-grade years. He has also excelled in Perfect Game wood bat leagues that attract the top high school players from Iowa and surrounding states, compiling an 8-1, 1.51 record with 123 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 69 innings over the last two years. Scouts say he has a 90-mph fastball and excellent command of three pitches . . . Outfielder Lastings Milledge was a hitting machine last spring as a freshman at Northside Christian High in St. Petersburg, Fla., hitting .667 with six homers. He was a finalist for state 2-A player of the year honors—unheard of for a freshman. He did not make the final cut for the U.S. youth team but hit .429-1-9 in qualifying competition . . . Shortstop B.J. Upton displayed his considerable skills at showcase events this summer instead of playing in league competition—to his advantage. Scouts raved about his speed, defensive skills and hitting ability and have already stamped him as one of the top prospects in the draft Class of 2002. As a sophomore at Hickory High in Chesapeake, Va., where he teamed with 3B David Wright, one of the top prospects in the Class of ’01, Upton hit .468-7-25 and went 7-1 as a pitcher . . . SS Justin McClure played on the junior varsity last spring as a freshman at Anaheim’s Canyon High. He showed he’s ready to be a force on the varsity next spring by leading the CABA 15-year-old World Series in all three triple crown categories (.636-4-18) in leading his Orange County team to 10 straight wins.

16 Paul Oseguera

Even at 16, lefthander Oseguera, a rising junior at La Costa Canyon High in Encinitas, Calif., excelled at the Connie Mack World Series. He led the Encinitas Reds to victory in a tournament normally dominated by 17- and 18-year-olds and earned MVP honors by shutting out the defending champion East Cobb, Ga., Astros, in an opening-round game and stopping the South Troy, N.Y., Dodgers in the championship game, striking out 15. On the summer, Oseguera won 12 games for the Reds, who have won numerous national championships in different age groups. “He’s as good as we saw all summer,” said James Beavers, coach of the powerful East Cobb team . . . Kyle Davies, a senior at Stockbridge (Ga.) High, was the nation’s top 14-year-old in 1998 and top 15-year-old in 1999, and was equally impressive this summer. For the 16-year-old East Cobb team that went 90-11 overall and finished second at the AAU 16-year-old Junior Olympics tournament after winning the previous four championships, the righthander went 15-1, 1.30 on the summer while hitting .534 as a first baseman with an East Cobb program-record 127 RBIs . . . Righthander Mark Rosen led Team USA to a gold medal in Mexico by going 2-0, 0.75 with 21 strikeouts in 12 innings as the staff ace. Rosen pitched three scoreless innings in relief and drove in the game-winning run in a 2-1 win over Cuba in the gold-medal game.

17 Joe Mauer

Mauer would be a candidate for this list not just in baseball, but football. In addition to being a potential first-rounder in next year’s baseball draft, he’s one of the nation’s leading high school quarterbacks (see story). Mauer was named the outstanding hitter at this summer’s World Junior Championship in Edmonton, leading Team USA to a silver medal by hitting .559-1-15. He has been primarily a catcher in high school and exclusively a first baseman for Team USA . . . Righthander Mike Jones was an unknown commodity outside Arizona until he burst on the scene in June at the Team One National Showcase, with a fastball that registered an attention-getting 96 mph. He earned acclaim six weeks later at the Area Code Games, where he was judged the No. 1 prospect. In between, Jones spent the summer going 15-2, 1.87 for the Arizona Baseball Academy, a team featuring the state’s top high school juniors. The team finished ninth at the AAU 17-year-old national tournament. Jones went 1-1 and was named to the all-tournament team. Jones is an accomplished center fielder and slugged 13 homers at Thunderbird High in Phoenix last spring . . . Righthander Jeremy Bonderman is a junior at Pasco (Wash.) High, but his relative lack of pitching experience did not deter Team USA junior national coach Bill Krejci from making the 6-foot righthander his ace. Bonderman responded by going 2-0, 3.07 at the World Junior Championship, earning the nod as the tournament’s top righthander . . . Lefthander Joe Torres, our 16-year-old winner from 1999, was the 10th pick overall in June’s draft. He went on to post a 4-1, 2.54 record with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings for the Angels’ Boise affiliate in the Northwest League, which features mostly college players.

18 Jerome Williams

Williams became the highest-drafted high school player ever from Hawaii in 1999, going 39th overall to the Giants.  The righthander excelled in his first full professional season, going 7-2, 2.94 with 115 strikeouts in 126 innings at Class A San Jose. That earned him a promotion to Double-A Shreveport for the Texas League playoffs . . . Since becoming the Devil Rays’ second-round pick in 1999, outfielder Carl Crawford has played in the shadows of No. 1 overall pick Josh Hamilton, a teammate this year at Class A Charleston. But Crawford matched Hamilton’s .301 average and stole 55 bases . . . Righthander Adam Wainwright hardly skipped a beat after high school. After compiling a 6-3, 0.89 record with 101 strikeouts in 55 innings at Glynn Academy in St. Simons, Ga., Wainwright dominated the Rookie-level Gulf Coast and Appalachian leagues in his pro debut, going a combined 6-2, 2.36 with 81 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 61 innings.

19 Rafael Furcal

With a plethora of hot prospects to choose from, Furcal settled the debate with his success in the big leagues. He established himself as a premium prospect last year, but his jump from Class A to the big leagues this season was still a surprise. What’s more, he has more than held his own playing shortstop in Atlanta, hitting .294 with 34 steals. While some sources assert that Furcal may be 22, Furcal steadfastly maintains that he’s 19, so we’re taking his word for it . . . The top minor leaguer among this group is probably Devil Rays outfield prospect Josh Hamilton, who had a strong first full professional season that ended early because of injury . . . Last year’s winner, Padres third-base prospect Sean Burroughs, will spend September in Sydney with the U.S. Olympic team as its youngest member.

20 Jon Garland

Garland rockets to the top of the list after rocketing into the White Sox rotation this summer. His emergence as a premium prospect began last year, when he went from Class A to the Triple-A World Series by the end of the year. The righthander was dominant in Triple-A this year, going 9-2, 2.26 in 16 starts before his promotion. He has been erratic in the big leagues, with a 3-6, 6.49 record in 51 innings . . . Corey Patterson remains the best position prospect in his age group. After a solid Double-A season when he hit .261-22-82 with 27 steals, every Cubs fan in the world hopes to see him in the Chicago outfield next year . . . Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira established himself as the best amateur player in the land this year, and he should be a high first-rounder next June . . . Cardinals lefthander Bud Smith put himself on the map this year by winning 15 straight decisions, pitching two no-hitters and jetting all the way to Triple-A with a combined 2.26 ERA for the season.

21 Rick Ankiel

Ankiel keeps on proving himself. Following up his Minor League Player of the Year season in 1999, the lefthander has held down a rotation spot with the division-leading Cardinals all season, going 8-7, 3.71 with 167 strikeouts in 155 innings. He has also been one of the best-hitting pitchers in baseball, with a .254 average and two home runs . . . Third baseman Adrian Beltre repeats as the runner-up among 21-year-olds, after evidence came out last spring that he was a year younger than originally believed. The Dodgers signed him a year too early but were able to keep him, and he signed a long-term deal with the club . . . Minor League Player of the Year Jon Rauch could make his way to the big leagues next year in his second full professional season . . . Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells couldn’t match his 1999 season, but he’s still expected to be in the Toronto outfield next season.

22 Barry Zito

Zito wrapped up a brief minor league career this season with an excellent showing in Triple-A, where he went 8-5, 3.19 in 18 starts before getting called up to Oakland. The lefthander shows no signs of going back to the minors, and his 3-3, 2.70 big league record was a big reason the Athletics were still in the playoff hunt . . . With lefthander Mark Mulder and third baseman Eric Chavez also in this age group, it’s clear why the A’s are optimistic about their future. Mulder made it to the big leagues sooner than Zito, but he has not been as successful. And Chavez, who won in his age group last year, remains one of the most promising young position players in the majors . . . Rangers outfielder Ruben Mateo might have been a candidate to lead this group, but he broke his leg in June and missed the rest of the season.

23 Andruw Jones

Jones continues to improve and has become such a fixture in Atlanta that it’s easy to forget he’s just 23. At .305-31-89 with a few weeks left in the season, he was on track for career bests in each of those offensive categories. And he has established himself as one of the best defensive players in the game. On top of the skills is his maturing approach to the game, which is a significant improvement over the lackadaisical approach that drew Bobby Cox’ ire earlier in his career . . . Angels third baseman Troy Glaus makes a strong case this year with 41 home runs, putting himself among the American League leaders . . . Kerry Wood, the first winner in this group, made progress in his comeback from Tommy John surgery this year . . . The best pitcher at this age now is righthander Ryan Dempster, who was among the National League ERA leaders with the Marlins.

24 Vladimir Guerrero

This is the year the rest of the world found out about Vladimir Guerrero, as he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was featured in numerous other media outlets. By batting .348-35-107, Guerrero has drawn comparisons to some of the all-time greats, but because he plays in Montreal, many fans still know him only through highlights and statistics . . . Astros righthander Scott Elarton gave Astros fans something to watch at Enron Field besides a train. At 16-5, 4.69 he established himself as the best arm in this age group, passing such promising young pitchers as the Expos’ Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez . . . A’s shortstop Miguel Tejada has experts putting him the same class as the AL’s big three shortstops (see Page 6), and Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo is among the National League batting leaders.

25 Alex Rodriguez

This is the year Rodriguez ages out of the “young player” designation. As a parting gift someone will give him $100 million or so. He has emerged from Ken Griffey’s shadow in Seattle this season, hitting .333-36-116 and keeping the Mariners in playoff contention. Seattle fans should enjoy it while they can, though, as he’s likely to head elsewhere as a free agent this winter . . . With Kevin Millwood slipping a bit with the Braves this season, A’s righthander Tim Hudson has established himself as the best pitcher. His 16 wins led the A’s staff . . . Expos second baseman Jose Vidro had a breakout year and has been among the NL’s batting leaders.