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The next generation of Tampa Bay sports stars seems to have arrived

Just like that, the music is louder. The area is hipper. There is more energy, more ambition, more hope. Also, the bedtimes are earlier.

Praise be, Tampa Bay has gotten younger.

And after all these years, isn't it about time?

Suddenly, the professional athletes of Tampa Bay look like a casting call for a new Harry Potter movie. The kids have taken over. There is Evan Longoria and Steven Stamkos, David Price and Josh Freeman, Victor Hedman and Gerald McCoy.

The common denominator? All of them are under the age of 25. Say what you want about the face of Tampa Bay sports, but agree on this: It isn't going through a lot of razors.

The next generation of Tampa Bay stars have arrived, it seems. And as soon as someone releases the belts to their car seats, things are going to get interesting around here.

Again.

(I kid, of course. After all, young stardom is the very best kind of stardom to achieve. Besides, these guys are going to outlive me by about 30 years, so that's a lot of last laughs.)

For Tampa Bay, however, the influx of so many talented young players has been a long time coming. It was, oh, about 1997 when the Bucs got out of the business of importing new young stars, a plan they doggedly stuck by until the last couple of drafts.

As for the drafting of the Lightning from 2000-2007, I am fairly certain the team didn't actually pick anyone. It just made up a lot of names and dared everyone to find out if the players really existed. Judging from results, they didn't. Think of it as the Dexter Jackson Ice Show.

These days, however, Tampa Bay is suddenly jammed with impressive athletes under the age of 25. Good thing, too. If the Rays are going to continue to compete in the AL East, where other teams have extra zeroes on their money, they'll need young players (under cheap contracts) to pull it off. If the Bucs and Lightning are going to matter again, they'll need young players to do it.

By now, every team in town should know the formula. This has happened before. There was another period, from 1995-2000, when Tampa Bay collected some of the most impressive athletes in its history. Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks came in '95. Mike Alstott came in '96. Warrick Dunn and Ronde Barber came in '97. Vinny Lecavalier came in '98. Carl Crawford in '99. Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards in 2000.

All of those guys were 25 or younger when they arrived, too. And as the Bucs won a Super Bowl in the 2002 season, as the Lightning won a Stanley Cup in 2004, as the Rays played in a World Series in 2008, it was those homegrown stars who grew into something worth remembering.

Lately, we have said too many farewells. We saw John Lynch cut, and we saw Sapp leave, and we saw Brooks and Dunn cast out. We saw Alstott hurt, and we saw Richards and Dan Boyle traded for beans. Not even magic beans. We wonder where Crawford is going, and we wonder where Lecavalier has gone.

Yeah, it's time for a new age, and that age is under 25. If Tampa Bay's teams are going to see another championship game — and for the Bucs and Lightning, you have to squint really hard — these are the guys who will make it happen.

How do you rank Tampa Bay's young guns? Factor in production, factor in potential, and factor in which players their teams would least likely trade away. Consider whether the player can lead his franchise to another appearance in a championship game. And, no, minor-leaguers don't count.

Do that, and you end up with a list that looks something like this:

1. Evan Longoria (age 24). Already, Longoria looks like a go-to guy for advertisers. He has already won rookie of the year, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. His contract runs to 2016, which suggests the Rays should consider a contract extension any day now.

2. Steven Stamkos (20). Stamkos scored 51 goals in his second season, not bad for a player whose first NHL coach, Barry Melrose, said wasn't ready for the league. Stamkos looks like the kind of scorer a team can build around.

3. David Price (24). Price wasn't quite the instant star many thought he would be last season, but there are still times you think he should clean off his bookshelf to make room for a Cy Young. Price is 3-1 this year, so he may be on his way.

4. Josh Freeman (22). The reviews were mixed on Freeman's nine starts last year. He won only three games (other quarterbacks with the Bucs, however, didn't win any), and he threw far too many interceptions, 18. Still, Freeman works as if he wants to be a star.

5. Gerald McCoy (22). He hasn't played a down. He hasn't made a tackle. So, yeah, this is a high spot for McCoy. Still, the Bucs have a lot invested in him. As a franchise, they cannot afford for him to fail.

6. Aqib Talib (24). Talib's off-the-field issues keep him from ranking higher on the list, but he has terrific coverage skills. Maturity? Not so much.

7. Victor Hedman (19). Hedman had an impressive first season for the Lightning until he ran out of gas. Still, he's a teenager who has enough size and enough skill to help turn around a forgotten franchise.

8. Wade Davis (24). The Rays don't talk about Davis without mentioning how competitive he is. If you've watched him pitch this year, you've noticed.

9. Steve Downie (23). Downie jumped from three goals to 22 this season, but the best part about him is his grit. If he's the real deal, the Lightning has a find.

10. Arrelious Benn/Mike Williams (21, 22). At this point, let's list them as one entry. The Bucs had first-round grades on both receivers in this year's draft. Which one will emerge? We'll see.

Honorable mention: Reid Brignac, Rays. Brian Price, Geno Hayes, Tanard Jackson, Bucs.

The next generation of Tampa Bay sports stars seems to have arrived 05/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 8:57am]

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