The 16-Year-Old Baseball Player Debate – Age Is a State of Mind

June 25, 2009

Read the debate intro and Bleacher Fan’s opinions.

Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough. – Groucho Marx

Sports Geek loves these types of debates because Sports Geek loves history and research. The fact that Bryce Harper has made the decision to enter the MLB draft in 2010 is no surprise. Baseball players, regardless of era, get signed or drafted very early and develop, as Mr. Doots suggested in the comments. Let’s review the history (are you as excited as I am?).

The youngest player to ever make their major league debut is a matter of some dispute. Some believe that it is pitcher Fred Chapman who was born November 24, 1872, and made his professional baseball debut with the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association League on July 22, 1887 – at the tender age of 14. Now THAT’s young. Not only was it young, it was the only game he pitched, and probably why some do not recognize him as the youngest professional baseball player ever.

Others give that distinction to southpaw pitcher Joe Nuxhall. Nuxhall, born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1928, made his professional debut with the local club, the 1944 Cincinnati Reds, where he pitched 2/3 of an inning, walked five batters and allowed five earned runs on just two hits. He was 15-years-old. Apparently the experience was so devastating he gave up baseball for eight year, returning to the Reds in 1952 as a more mature pitcher where he went 1-4, but had a much improved ERA of 3.22. He played 14 more seasons after that, earning an All-Star appearance twice, once in 1955 (though he only won 17 games in 55 appearances that year) and again in 1956.

Now, you may be saying, “Sports Geek, don’t be dense – I’m sure they would’ve let a 5-year-old play back in the day if they could swing a bat.” That may be true. Those examples prove precedent for early major league debuts. However Loyal Homer has only questioned a young player being signed. So, let’s fast-forward an era or two.

For modern era players, I can give two quick examples. Former Chicago Cubs hot center field prospect Felix Pie was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 when was, yep, you guessed it – 16! After a few highly anticipated turns in the minor league system and a gruesome injury (guys, don’t click… don’t do it, you’ll cringe) he was finally traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

The second example is current Chicago Cub, and former Pittsburgh Pirate prospect, third baseman Aramis Ramirez. He signed with the Pirates at 16. Of course, what 16-year-old would turn down $170,000? Ramierz wasn’t even drafted, he was signed as an amateur free agent.

This brings us to young Mr. Harper. If scouts and coaches are telling him he has a legitimate shot to be a fairly high draft pick, why not do what he can to put himself in a position to make some money and maximize his years of earning potential? If I am a MLB general manager, I absolutely take a chance on a kid with this much raw talent. Drafting or signing players in MLB is all about raw talent and potential. Harper likely has the most raw talent and potential in the draft, so he’s perfect high draft choice. It’s a no-brainer.

There is enormous precedent for this move. Young players get signed every day. In fact, I don’t understand why this story has received so much media attention. Harper is one in a long, long line of promising youngsters that are making their run at playing big league baseball. But, buyer beware. Just because a kid has raw talent, doesn’t mean it’s a limitless potential. In the end, I hope things work out for Harper. It’s a gutsy move. I respect gutsy moves.


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