Commentary

Youthful rosters could spell bright futures for Rockies, D-backs

Originally Published: October 12, 2007
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- I'm watching baby-faced 26-year-old Jeff Francis pitch for Colorado in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, and he's looking like some sort of grizzled Curt Schilling as he and 24-year-old Arizona choirboy Stephen Drew go head-to-head with two outs and two on in the fifth inning of Thursday night's 5-1 Colorado win (their 18th in 19 games), and I'm wondering: Are there analogues for these clubs, the Rockies and Diamondbacks of 2007 ... so good, so young, so brashly stomping on center stage in the postseason?

Stephen Drew
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesStephen Drew, 24, could be a potential star for the Diamondbacks for years to come.
About 15 minutes later, trolling the Worldwide Leader.com, I come to realize that my esteemed colleague, Buster Olney (who, it must be said, gets up unreasonably early in the morning to go worm hunting), has already posed the question Insider, and suggested the 1991 National League champion Atlanta Braves as a historical parallel.

He's spot-on, of course. Those Braves featured six players aged 25 or younger as key contributors: Mark Lemke, David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Steve Avery, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

This year's Rockies core skews just a touch older, with Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins, both 27, teaming with Francis, 25-year-old Willy Taveras, 23-year-olds Troy Tulowitzki and Ubaldo Jimenez, and 21-year-old Franklin Morales.

Meanwhile, the 2007 Diamondbacks come into Game 2 of the NLCS with a crew too young and fearless to be worried about their one-game deficit in the series: Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Drew, Chris Young, Justin Upton and Micah Owings are all under 25 (in fact, Upton, 20, is too young to drink or even to have voted in a presidential election).

So I'm watching these clubs, and remembering those Braves gone by (who came on like a freak storm off the plains, just like Arizona and Colorado have), and I get to thinking, you know, Atlanta turned out to be a pretty good club over time. Won a World Series, five NL championships and a bunch of division titles (14 straight, actually) that you might have heard about. There was a lot of turnover, sure, but their kids laid a base for a good long while.

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Coincidence? Maybe.

But it's not just the Braves that come to mind.

The 1974 NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers were similarly green, too. Steve Yeager, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Russell and Bill Buckner -- the bedrock of a team that went on to win the NL championship in 1977 and 1978 and won the World Series in 1981 -- were all 26 years old or younger.

And how about the 1970 NL champion Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine when they were still little? Johnny Bench and Davey Concepcion were just 22 then. Ditto Gary Nolan and Bernie Carbo. Don Gullett was only 19. The old men on the club were Tony Perez (28) and Pete Rose (29). They had a decent little run there in the '70s ... five division titles, four NL crowns and back to-back World Series championships in '75 and '76.

Or the 1966 world champion Baltimore Orioles? They featured a 24-year-old wisp of a player named Boog Powell, a 23-year-old Davey Johnson, a 22-year-old Paul Blair and two very young studs in the rotation: Dave McNally (23) and Jim Palmer (20).

All they did, with pretty much that same group at the core, was win two World Series and two American League championships in six years.

Each of those clubs was unique, of course. And, like the Braves, each club experienced some turnover. So I'm not ready to call their records straight-out predictive. I'm not saying this year's Rockies or Diamondbacks will lay a stranglehold on the National League for the next decade; injuries and free agency can do wicked things to young groups full of promise. But I will say I like the way a little stroll through the history books smacks of possibility for them.

The conventional wisdom on these teams is that they're a charming anomaly, feel-good curiosities awaiting some nasty AL-champion slaughter. Soon enough, the story goes, the Mets or the Dodgers or some other more predictable team will restore order, and Colorado and Arizona (clubs we still think of, 10 years or more into their existence, and with a Series title on Arizona's résumé, as somehow not quite legitimate) will fade into the background.

Troy Tulowitzki
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRookie Troy Tulowitzki, 23, has played extremely well for the Rockies this season.
But maybe that's missing the boat. Maybe, more than looking ahead to the next game in this series, we ought to be taking the long eye with these clubs, imagining, even anticipating, a sea change, a shift in the National League epicenter.

"We have to prove ourselves as a group," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said pregame Thursday. "And we're working on this year trying to make a name for ourselves as a team."

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said he was impressed with his kids' composure: "I think one of the biggest things I've seen [that makes me] most proud of this club is the poise they've shown from the start of the season through the month of September and into the postseason. I'm just enjoying being a part of it."

They're playing a series in the present, they're thinking and talking about the here and now. But what they say reaches back and echoes into the future, too, because history hints that groups like theirs, who come together when they're young and perform ahead of schedule at a level beyond their years, are pretty special.

It suggests that these unheralded clubs in Arizona and Colorado are keeping some mighty fine company right now, and that their appearance here in the national spotlight isn't just a fun little story but a harbinger. It makes you wonder whether they just may be the subject of our attention for a long time to come.

Eric Neel writes for Page 2 on ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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