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Harperite or Troutist?

May 12, 2012
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Rivalry! Rivalry! Please?

The injury to Ryan Zimmerman and the general uselessness of a disgruntled, aging, and underperforming Bobby Abreu led to a seismic development in MLB fandom last week, with the promotions of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

Though Trout enjoyed his still-qualifies-for-rookie-status 120 at-bats last summer, these two outfielders, both born in the early ‘90s, both ambitious, focused, and sporting hyper-natural talent, could have their promotions become a bellwether turning point for the league. Not because of Harper’s “once in a generation” power, or Trout’s omni-likable talents, but because of their extreme youth combined with their projections over their careers, as well as the era they blossomed out of.

The two are the youngest – and already two of the most talented – players in their respective leagues, Harper at 19 and Trout at 20. In 2005, Matt Cain started seven games at the age of 20 and Felix Hernandez started 12 games at the age of 19. But for the combined star power and future potential of the two youngest in the leagues? Maybe 1984, with Dwight Gooden and Jose Rijo (yes, he broke in with the Yanks). But really, you may have to go back to 1926, when teenagers Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx were patrolling the field, but neither of them became everyday players until two years later.Though Harper and Trout grew up learning the game just as the mid-90s Rangers were injecting beef hormones into each other’s rumps, they were in middle school when the 2005 steroid hearings were held. Harper had just turned 15 when the Mitchell Report, two years later, was released. These guys are the first potential superstars to play high school baseball after the steroid revelations came out. And though their careers may not culminate in a crosstown Who’s Better rivalry like Willie, Mickey, and the Duke (or even the Bonds-Griffey debate of the 1990s), but the excitement of these outfielders could be a competition in and of itself for years to come.

Harper, of course, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 years old, and has created a polarizing figure before he even took a major-league at-bat. Full eyeblack like he’s William Wallace’s bootlackey; the fauxhawk; the preening; the dog named Swag; his superagent Scott Boras; the proclaimed preferences of the Lakers, Cowboys, Yankees, Duke basketball, and Texas football. Because of his advanced talent and grade (he took the GED when he was a high school sophomore to graduate early), it’s easy for a fanbase to start relating to him as if he were a fully-formed adult making decisions to be a fucking jackoff.

He’s not, of course. Despite his physical maturity, Harper’s still only 19 years old; and probably an emotionally-stunted 19 at that — he’s been flying around the country with his dad playing for teams in the Southwest since he was 12 years old. Lest we forget SI’s cover article about Ben Roethlisberger, which damningly portrayed what can happen when an athlete grows up in a bubble.

But Harper’s personality is set, as evidenced by the fact that during his first major-league at-bat, with his parents in the stands, the normally laconic Los Angeles Dodger fanbase booed him. This is the product of a plugged-in audience (his famous blown kiss to a pitcher after he hit a homer in the low minors got a ton of play), but it’s crazy that a prospect — let alone a teenaged prospect — got such a terrible welcome on what should be one of the best days of his life.

Trout’s reputation, on the other hand, is not firmly set, but enough puff pieces have been written about his work ethic, gamerism, and gritty gritness to form some sort of “that’s an old-school ballplayer there” aura around him. (Which usually means that he’s white and clearly hustles.) As opposed to Harper’s individualism and his ‘me and Dad against the world thing,’ Trout seems to be a bit more socialized — or, at least, has high school friends that he goes fishing with. His agent, Craig Landis, impressed Trout’s father, former minor-leaguer Jeff, by paying attention to Trout during high school and checking up on him. Landis is no small potato — he represents Ryan Dempster and Paul Konerko, and got Aaron Rowand that ridiculous contract — but Boras has commanded more than five times the player salaries (in dollars) than he.

The two are also paired with well-appointed managers for their game-changing abilities. Davey Johnson, who oversaw the precocious and wild mid-80s Mets, is a big fan of unpolished, youthful diamonds. “(Davey) really loves molding a young career, that’s probably the biggest reason he took this job,” said GM Mike Rizzo. “He saw the talent base, the youth, the excitement, the athleticism. And he wanted some of his fingerprints on it.” Harper’s powerful swing carries much more force and effort, but is just as devastating as Darryl Strawberry’s, the last young, brash, and heralded outfielder Johnson helped shepherd through the majors (though Straw joined the Mets a season before Johnson did). Harper also carries as much excitement in his game as the last ‘Hall of Fame lock‘ teenager Johnson managed — Dwight Gooden.

Across the nation, Trout – with his aforementioned “grit” and hustle and all – is Mike Scioscia’s kind of player. (See: Darin Erstad, David Eckstein, Chone Figgins.)

These guys’ games aren’t so severely opposite that you’re either in the vampire camp or the werewolf camp, but there are differences that already have been showcased in the first week of their 2012 campaigns. Harper’s been hitting doubles that have terrified the outfield walls and uncorked this throw from his 80 arm on May 1st. On May 5th, Trout showed off, well, four of his five tools, stretching a dumped single to leftfield into a double, making a diving catch in the outfield, and hitting (to straightaway center, no less) his first homer of the season. Harper has 80 power and could legitimately hit 50 a year; Trout could be a consistent 30-30 guy.

Their personalities were certainly in a bit of a contrast on the evening of May 11th, when Trout, riding a hot streak, stole second in a blowout loss to the Rangers in the seventh inning. When he didn’t draw a throw, he assumed there was a foul ball, and began to trot back to first, only to whip around and get back to second. Where he began giggling at himself. Over in DC, Harper went 0-for-5, and swung a bat at the dugout wall, clocking himself in the face, causing a bit of a blood gush that Davey Johnson had to address in the postgame press conference. Oh, the Nationals were cruising from the top of the 1st inning and never let up, winning the game easily, 7-3.

Trout and Harper won’t face each other much in the first few years of their careers — though they were teammates in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn. But they could end up in the same league eventually. The Angels — who have the money, clearly — may buck their trend of making awful contractual obligations — Albert Pujols, Vernon Wells — and wisely lock Trout up to a multi-year deal before he reaches 24. If Harper (and his super-agent, Scott Boras) jumps ship in 2018 and signs a tremendous deal with the Yankees, the number of people that would be surprised by that rhymes with blero. With Trout representing LA and Harper — I mean, come on — representing NYC, their international star power could be tremendous.

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From → History, Prospects

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