Ah, to be the ripe age of 27 again. If you are an athlete, the 27th year of your life is a very important and momentous one. The body is in prime condition, and combined with just enough experience is set to reach full potential, creating a mythical age for athletic performance.
And of course, we can blame baseball for this article. (And so many other things). When it comes to superstitions, myths, trends, statistics, anomalies, or any other words you can think of to describe obscure and random things to believe in...baseball has it all.
As collectors, we like to consider ourselves the ‘nerds of the nerds’ in baseball terms, with probably fantasy baseball diehards the only ones to rival baseball card aficionados.
For the ‘age 27 is the breakout year’ maybe it is best to blame Bill James and his 1982 Baseball Abstract, where he stated that “both pitchers and non-pitchers attain their greatest aggregate value at the age of 27.” Spoken like the purest of baseball nerds, and words that fantasy baseball players live and die by.
But unlike fantasy gamers, rather than use some sort of statistical measurement that we recently made up (don’t get me started on W.A.R), we’ll just talk about a few players entering their prime that might be worth gobbling up before the season begins, regardless of their age.
First up, you’d think that this Reds starting pitcher is probably 30 years old by now, but surprisingly he is just 26 years of age. Yep, that’s right, tops on the ‘breakout players to buy’ list is the soon-to-be 27 year-old Homer Bailey.
Forever maligned in collector circles as a first-round bust, Bailey hit the headlines late last season with a no-hitter, followed up by a one-hit, 10 strikeout performance in the playoffs. The 2004 first rounder finally showed some consistency over the year, with a career-high 13 wins in a career-high 33 starts with a career-low 3.68 ERA. We’ll understand those of you who aren’t buying in just yet, but finding a couple of signed rookies cheap might not be the worst idea.
Along similar lines, many would say it is too obvious to add Max Scherzer to the list, as it could be said he has already had his breakout. With 2 straight seasons over 15 wins, Scherzer now has now over 4 full seasons under his belt. But he’s included here because he is on the verge of becoming one of the elite pitchers in the game, taking that 'next' step. Overshadowed by his teams ace, Justin Verlander, Scherzer struck out 231 batters last season, 2nd in the league only to none other than Mr. Verlander himself. In the 2nd half of last season, Scherzer’s line was one of the best in baseball, posting a 2.69 ERA, with a 1.15 WHIP, and a .229 opponents batting average.
At age 28, Scherzer has the opportunity to quietly rise into the upper echelon and into Cy Young talk alongside his teammate, and his cards are still quite reasonable at the moment. Find some deals among these Scherzer rookie cards, and you won’t have to kick yourself at the end of the year.
Another player more similar to Bailey than Scherzer, is 26 year-old Justin Smoak, the Seattle Mariners first baseman. A promising career .283 hitter in the minor leagues, Smoak has amassed over 1,200 big league at-bats but has disappointed by hitting at a lowly .223 clip. He did manage 19 home runs in 132 games in 2012, showing the potential that the Texas Rangers saw when they drafted him in the 2008 first round.
Although the Mariners aren’t the highest spenders in the league, the additions of Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay should supply Smoak with just enough protection to give him a chance to reach his full potential. With his cards at rock bottom prices, it is small investment that could pay major dividends this season.
Chris Carter is another 26 year-old power prospect that had fallen off most radars before last year. Carter belted 170 home runs in the minor leagues since 2005 as a Oakland prospect, but until last season had yet to really get much of an opportunity at the major league level. In just 67 games in 2012 for the A’s, Carter hit 16 homers to go with 39 RBI. The Astros thought enough of that performance to trade Jed Lowrie away for Carter and a couple prospects, adding a power bat as they move to the American League.
Carter will apparently play some DH and even outfield to make sure he gets into the lineup enough, with Carlos Pena and Brett Wallace in competition at first as well. This situation should provide Carter with the opportunity he needs, and while he's too old to likely be Hall of Fame material, his cards can be found in the bargain basement at the moment and he could have fans and local dealers on the hunt for rookie autos if he breaks out.
The breakout stars seem to get younger every year, bucking the ‘magical age of 27’ trend. Although not sleepers, just behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are budding young stars such as Manny Machado, Anthony Rizzo, Salvador Perez, Matt Moore and Will Myers. All have the chance to take that next step in 2013 and are worth grabbing when value is available, but most people are targeting them.
Another player to keep an eye on as well is Jedd Gyorko, the Padres standout prospect at 2nd base. Last year, Gyorko batted .311 with 30 homers and 100 RBI in the minors, showing why the Padres might just keep him in the minors until May of this year, to preserve another year in arbitration. When he finally does get his chance in the bigs (which still could happen out of spring training), he might just never leave.
There are many players rising through the ranks, and it is tough to slide young talent past die-hard collectors nowadays. But it is more of a matter guessing when the future stars reach their potential, and while they aren’t all turning the mythical age of 27, the bet is that the ones on this list will be worth an investment by the end of 2013.