This is not normal ... but is it the new normal?
Author's note: Because of ease of sorting for the various categories, I used Baseball Reference for team ages and Fangraphs for age season the individual players were in. Also, 2006 is used as a cutoff date for some of the items because that is how far back Fangraphs’ database goes.
It is no secret that this year’s Carolina Mudcats squad has been young, filled with teens who came through the DSL pipeline — the kind of roster where, especially on offense, guys who can legally drink are the exception, not the rule.
But did you know it might be historically young?
The average Carolina batter is 19.8 years old, the youngest across all of low-A. The average Carolina pitcher is 21.0 years old, tied for the second youngest across low-A this year.
When you combine those you have the youngest low-A team across all of baseball since at least 2010.
The question is, is this the result of changes from within the organization or simply part of a trend in the aftermath of the contraction of a level of rookie ball and pushing back the date of the draft.
The answer: Both
The Brewers side
Since 2006, a total of 10 guys in their 18-year-old seasons have played in low-A for the Brewers. Only two of those — Orlando Arcia and Mario Feliciano — came before 2021, and half have been this year alone.
The biggest change, of course, has come from the Brewers’ Latin American signings, both in the quality of their play and the Brewers’ willingness to push them up the ladder.
Between 2006 and 2019, I believe only five of the Brewers’ Latin American signings reached A-ball before their age-20 season, and only in the cases of Arcia and Pablo Abreu did it really feel deserved. The Brewers kind of had to move Gilbert Lara up eventually if only because of how much they paid him upon signing, and Milwaukee thought so much of Edgar Trejo and Luis Ramirez that both were released before the following season and never played in affiliate ball again.
This year alone you have had Jackson Chourio, Jeferson Quero, Hendry Mendez, Luis Castillo, Jadher Areinamo, Eduardo Garcia, Hedbert Perez, Jheremy Vargas, Jesus Garcia, Yujanyer Herrera, Arielbi Gonzalez, Jeison Pena and Alexander Vallecillo.
While the elimination of the one level of rookie ball might have sped their arrival up a bit, there is far more going on here than that. The summer 2019 and winter 2021 signing classes have been, simply put, the deepest in at least recent team history, pushing the average age down even as the number of high school players the team has drafted has declined.
That’s not to say, of course, that they aren’t following a league-wide trend, at least on the hitting side.
Between 2015 and 2019, the average age of a low-A hitter fluctuated between 21.4 and 21.6 years old. In 2022 it is 21.0. Similarly seven low-A teams have their hitters averaging 20.5 years old or younger in 2022, the same number as in the five years from 2015 and 2019 combined. Also, three of those came from one franchise: the 2017-19 Fort Wayne Tin Caps, a Padres affiliate during the time they were building their vaunted minor league system that has almost all been traded away. (Side note: the 2018 Tin Caps, which included current Brewers prospect Esteury Ruiz, is the only one since at least 2010 in which the hitters were younger than the Mudcats, checking in at 19.7 years old.)
While there has been little if any perceptible leaguewide change in the ages as far as pitching goes, the hitting changes have been enough where the Down East Wood Ducks (Rangers) and Visalia Rawhide (Diamondbacks) rank just behind the Mudcats, with all three likely among the four youngest low-A teams since 2010.
The question then becomes, is this sustainable for Milwaukee? In the short term, the answer appears to be yes. The longer term future, however, is hazier.
To start with, not only do the Brewers have the youngest low-A team, but their their two ACL teams are part of what is basically a three-way tie with the Pirates’ FCL squad for the youngest complex league team.
The following players who will be below the drinking age seem likely to spend some time with the Mudcats next season, not even considering the current DSL guys who could earn late-season promotions:
19: Castillo, Areinamo, Herrera, Luke Adams, Dylan O’Rae, Daniel Guilarte, Gregory Barrios, Miguel Briceno
20: Perez, Avina, Vargas, Vallecillo, Gonzalez, Garcia, Tayden Hall, Satchell Norman, Quinton Low, Patricio Aquino, Brailin Rodriguez, Jose Caballero
Beyond that, it is going to depend on their continued ability to sign and develop players from Latin America. It is going to be difficult to top those two classes, and the most recent one seems, at first glance, to be a little on the weaker side compared to 2021 and 2019.
Hopefully they can at least come close, however, because the more of those guys who are good enough to push their way up the pipeline early, the healthier it is for the system as a whole.