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Opinion: Baseball awash in young talent for the ages

Bryce Harper, hitting against the Giants on Thursday, led the N.L. in homers and was tied for first in runs entering Friday.
Bryce Harper, hitting against the Giants on Thursday, led the N.L. in homers and was tied for first in runs entering Friday. The Associated Press

Talkin’ about their generation ... some of baseball’s 25-and-unders have gotten so good so fast that historians might want to work on some early drafts before etching their names into the ages.

At or near the top of the list is Bryce Harper. The 22-year-old outfielder and his Washington Nationals teammates are playing the Giants by the bay this weekend. On Thursday, Harper showed the full house at AT&T Park on Grateful Dead night why he is truckin’ toward a possible MVP award in the National League.

Twice in his club’s 3-1 loss, Harper reached base with sharp singles to right field, and from his defensive position out there, he threw Buster Posey out at the plate by 10 feet in the third inning. It was Harper’s fifth outfield assist of the season, a throw clocked by Statcast at 91.347 mph. On the intimidation front, his fast-arriving 215 pounds at second base convinced Kelby Tomlinson to abdicate the area after a force play rather than pivot into Harper for a double-play attempt. Harper also had a walk and a stolen base.

In his emergence into baseball superstardom, Harper had reached base in 37 of his previous 39 games entering Friday. He led the National League in home runs (29), runs (77), on-base percentage (.458, thanks to 83 walks) and slugging percentage (.643, with 25 doubles to go with all those homers). His .332 batting average ranked third in the N.L.

It’s unwise to “god them up,” as Stanley Woodward, the fabled sports editor of the long-gone New York Herald Tribune used to say about athletes. But maybe Harper’s Zeusian play this year merits an amendment to the rebuke.

“He just continues to improve,” said Washington manager Matt Williams, the once-adored third baseman of the Giants. “He’s getting better, every day. Even with all he’s done, I still think he’s a long way from his ceiling. He can get better in every aspect of the game, and he wants to do it. I look forward to that happening.”

In his first three years in the major leagues, Harper flashed signs of the spectacular. He made two All-Star teams and was voted the N.L. Rookie of the Year in 2012. But surgery on a knee in 2013 and a thumb in 2014 cut into his numbers, as well as his flesh. Harper banged up a knee Monday night in L.A., but now in his fourth season, he is mostly keeping himself in one piece. He made his third All-Star team this year.

The left-handed-hitting slugger, like everybody who follows the pastime, sees the waves of young talent washing into baseball, and he likes being a part of a new era.

“It’s exciting for baseball; it’s something the fans should be excited for, that the teams should be excited for,” Harper said before Thursday night’s game. “It’s nice to see. Definitely, I think the game is changing, evolving into a different sport. It’s a lot of fun, I think, having guys like (Mike) Trout and (Manny) Machado and (Joe) Panik and (Carlos) Correa. There’s so many guys you can name, guys like Noel Syndergaard, so many guys playing the game, doing it the right way.”

Trout, 24, is a four-time All-Star with the Angels and the reigning MVP with 131 career home runs. Machado, 23, Baltimore’s third baseman, is a two-time All-Star and past Gold Glove winner who leads the American League in assists and has hit 24 home runs. Panik, 24, was hitting .307 in his two-year major-league career with the Giants until he went out with a bad back. Correa, 20, has 14 home runs in 220 at-bats and is scaring people with his athleticism at shortstop for the Astros. Syndergaard, 22, has struck out 111 in 105 innings with the Mets.

That’s just the short list. It gets longer when you add Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (24, two Gold Gloves, 28 homers this year), St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez (23, 12-4 record, 139 strikeouts in 137.1 innings), Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole (14 wins, 2.48 ERA, 149 strikeouts in 148 innings), and a couple dozen more along the lines of Kris Bryant, Trevor Rosenthal, Yasiel Puig, Lance McCullers, Salvador Perez, Jose Iglesias, Miguel Sano and Xander Bogaerts.

Don’t forget Matt Duffy. The Giants’ 24-year-old rookie third baseman woke up Friday morning hitting .303.

“It’s not just that these guys are the future, a lot of them are making impacts right now on their lineups and in pennant races,” Duffy said.

Two weeks ago Friday, you could have made Madison Bumgarner the captain of baseball’s U-25s, but the Giants’ great left-hander aged out on Aug. 1 when he turned 26. Next thing you know, he’ll be sorting through his AARP mailers.

Bumgarner acknowledges the talk about the youngsters, but that’s about it.

“The birthday is the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m facing them,” he said.

For the record, Bryce Harper’s birthday is Oct. 16, and he’ll face off against old man Bumgarner at AT&T on Sunday.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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