The Braves Are Loaded

Every Major League team wants to win, but at the same time, each organization has to constantly balance maximizing wins in the present with maintaining a stockpile of talent and financial flexibility for the future. Loading up on expensive veterans might have a short term payoff, but in time, those old players aren’t going to be enough to sustain a competitive team, and if those players are making big money in their decline years, things can get ugly in a hurry; just ask the Phillies.

However, some organizations have figured out how to both contend and build for the future at the same time. In order to look at which teams have done the best job of getting value from young talent that they can build around in the future, I’ve broken down every team’s total FanGraphs WAR into three age groups: young players (25 and under), in their primes (26-31), and aging veterans (32 and up). Today, we’re going to focus on the teams that have gotten the most value from players no older than 25, giving them a core nucleus to build around both now and in the future.

Atlanta Braves, +24 WAR

The Braves are destroying every other team in baseball in production from young talent this season, and they boast perhaps the best crop of young Major Leaguers in the entire game. On the position player side, they are led by three 23-year-olds in Andrelton Simmons, Jason Heyward, and Freddie Freeman. The “old guy” in the middle of their order is Justin Upton, who played most of the year at 25 before turning 26 a few weeks ago. Their rotation boasts both Mike Minor (25) and Julio Teheran (22), while Alex Wood (22) has provided value both as a starter and a reliever. Oh, and they have some guy named Craig Kimbrel (25) who is okay at closing out games.

The Braves have the best record in baseball, and they’re doing it with one of the youngest group of core players in the sport. Other teams that have similar aged players in key positions are focused solely on rebuilding and accumulating experience, while the Braves are riding their host of young kids to a potential World Series title.

The Braves have long been known as a player development machine, but the group they’ve put together might just be their most impressive collection yet. 60% of their total team WAR has come from the young player group. For comparison, the Braves have gotten more production from players 25-and-under than the Mariners, Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies, Blue Jays, Cubs, Padres, Astros, Yankees, and Twins combined. 10 big league franchises, several of them in full on rebuilding mode with a primary focus on acquiring and developing young talent, and even if you put them all together, they don’t have enough good young players to match what the 2013 Braves have amassed.

The Cardinals, Rays, and others deserve the praise that is regularly heaped upon them, but let’s not overlook what Frank Wren and his staff have done in Atlanta. This is a great team built around players who aren’t likely to get worse any time soon.

Anaheim Angels, +14 WAR

This is almost entirely Mike Trout. In fact, Trout’s +10 WAR would rate as the 6th best mark of any team’s under-25 total all by himself. Having the very best young player in baseball — and maybe the best young player anyone has ever seen — is obviously a huge advantage, but Trout isn’t the only young talent the Angels have, even if it feels that way sometimes. Garrett Richards has developed into a pretty interesting pitcher this year, while Kole Calhoun is establishing himself as a nice option in the outfield for the future.

But, at the end of the day, this is basically Mike Trout’s team. If they can keep him and build around him, then there’s hope for the Angels, because he is the single most valuable asset in the game. There’s plenty wrong in Anaheim, but Mike Trout covers a multitude of sins.

Colorado Rockies, +13 WAR

This one might be a bit surprising, because the marquee players for the Rockies are in-their-prime guys like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. We don’t necessarily always think of the Rockies as a team stocked with young talent, but they’ve gotten some really good seasons from Jhoulys Chacin (3.09 FIP while pitching half his games in Coors Field), Tyler Chatwood (3.57 FIP), Nolen Arenado (elite defense at third base), and Wilin Rosario (105 wRC+ while “catching”, even if he probably belongs at first base).

This is basically the opposite case of Anaheim, where they have one superstar young player and then a huge cliff. Beyond even those four, the Rockies have gotten value from guys like Corey Dickerson and Rex Brothers, so there’s a base of talent in Colorado that extends farther than Tulo and CarGo. It didn’t lead to a winning season this year, but it looks like there are some better days ahead for the Rockies.

Los Angeles Dodgers, +12 WAR

Yasiel Puig has been the Dodgers best under-25 hitter, producing +4 WAR in less than a full season’s worth of playing time. Their second best under-25 hitter? Clayton Kershaw, edging out backup catcher Tim Fedoriwicz in performance relative to his peers. On the offensive side, this is an old team with one phenomenal young talent.

The pitching is similar, as Kershaw is not only the best under-25 pitcher in baseball, he’s probably the best pitcher in baseball period. And he’s the only young starter to provide value in LA this year, but the young bullpen — led by Kenley Jansen — has been excellent. Almost all of the team’s performance from young players has come from those three players, but those are three pretty nifty pieces to build around.

Arizona Diamondbacks, +12 WAR

Like with LA, this is primarily driven by one star hitter (Paul Goldschmidt, +5 WAR) and one star pitcher (Pat Corbin, +4 WAR). They’ve gotten some production from the likes of A.J. Pollock, Didi Gregorius, Trevor Cahill, and Randall Delgado, but Goldschmidt and Corbin have really carried the brunt of the load.

The good news for the Diamondbacks is that there is reason for optimism for players beyond just those two. Adam Eaton had a disappointing rookie season, but his minor league track record is very strong, and if he’s completely healthy next spring, he could take a big step forward. Likewise, young arms like Tyler Skaggs might be more ready to contribute in 2014 than they did in 2013. The Diamondbacks have a solid young nucleus, and with Goldschmidt, they’ve got a franchise player to build around.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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