Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Young pro talent signals dawning of golden age in South Florida

Happy birthday, America. You look pretty good for 237. But I’m here today to talk about some folks who are a bit younger.

Savor this as you grill your baby-back ribs, quaff your beer or await those fireworks, because this too is something worth celebrating. And if we’re lucky, we might be celebrating it for a good long time.

Look around and notice a new golden age dawning in Miami-area professional sports. I’m not sure if our Big Four teams collectively have ever had more talented players under 25. That cutoff is arbitrary, of course. Heck, to me even Juwan Howard is young, but I figure in pro sports under 25 is that budding time when potential greatness has begun to offer hints and all we can do is wait, tantalized, to see how it plays out.

Sort of like looking up and waiting for the fireworks to bloom, right?

What follows is our list of Top 10 South Florida pro athletes under 25, right now, based on potential future greatness. It is surely the only category in which the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers all dominate that other team; you know, the one that just won a championship? The Heat’s only prominent U-25 guy is point guard Norris Cole, who, despite that fantastic high-top fade haircut, doesn’t even make our list.

• 1. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins right fielder, 23: Enjoy this guy for however long he might be here, because we are likely watching unfold a career that should surpass 500 home runs – perhaps easily – as long as he can avoid the injury issues that have nipped at him. Only Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews went from zero to 100 homers in fewer games and at an earlier age.

• 2. Jose Fernandez, Marlins pitcher, 20: This rookie has pitched only 16 games, his career in its infancy. But have you seen him? Electric. His breaking ball buckles the knees of right-handed hitters. He has a 2.72 ERA and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Scouts and analysts see a future No. 1 starter who could be Miami’s all-star representative this year.

• 3. Jonathan Huberdeau, Panthers center, 20: He had a goal and two assists in his NHL debut, finished second on the team in scoring and went on to be voted league rookie of the year, a franchise first. This is how to start your hockey career and introduce your potential.

• 4. Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins quarterback, 24: Tannehill would top this list if it were fashioned by the fervent hopes and wishful thinking of the most fans. He started every game as a rookie and threw for 3,294 yards. Now, with more weapons at his disposal including Mike Wallace, we’ll see if he’ll make the leap to stardom.

• 5. Mike Pouncey, Dolphins center, 23: There might not be a less-exciting position in the NFL than center, or a better U-25 guy playing it than Pouncey. He is no longer than “other” guy to older bother Maurkice. He should be a Pro Bowl-caliber fixture on the line into the next decade.

• 6. Christian Yelich, Marlins outfielder, 21: His first call-up to the big Marlins is imminent, and his potential as a top-ranked prospect huge. Meantime Yelich is scheduled as the club’s lone representative in this months’ all-start Futures Game.

• 7. Jacob Markstrom, Panthers goaltender, 23 – Cats have had a history of top guys at the net from John Vanbiesbrouck to Roberto Luongo to Tomas Vokoun, and the club hopes Markstrom, a lanky Swede, is better than any of them.

• 8. Erik Gudbranson, Panthers defenseman, 21 – The 6-4, 210-pound defender is physical, loves to hit and is living up to having been the third overall pick of the 2010 NHL Draft.

• 9. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins centerfielder, 22: The rookie is batting around .300, has been great with runners in scoring position, and fields well. It seems like his days in the minor leagues are permanently behind him.

• 10. Lamar Miller, Dolphins running back, 22: Not a lot of ex-Hurricanes have starred across town for the Dolphins, but Miller could be one. Daniel Thomas’ hold on the starting job is weak. Miller, based on last season’s 4.9 rookie average per carry, could become Miami’s featured back not someday, but this season.

We also considered Marlins pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, Dolphins rookie-to-be defensive end Dion Jordan, Panthers No. 2-overall draft pick Aleksander Barkov and Norris Cole’s high-top fade.

Maybe next year, fellas.

Meantime, enjoy the fireworks.