Top 20 Rookies: They’re More Vital To Success Than Ever

See also: Top 20 Rookies Chat


The top 20 rookies for 2014, as selected by Baseball America staff, with three themes to watch for this year’s class:

Rookie classes seem to get better each year. Don’t expect that trend to change, because teams have concluded that they can receive more value—but not necessarily more production—from a rookie making the minimum than they can from a mediocre free agent on a multi-year deal.

Expect pitchers to have an easier time transitioning to the majors than hitters. The league-wide strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.51 reached an all-time high in 2013, thanks to a historic strikeout rate (19.9 percent of plate appearances) and the lowest walk rate (7.9 percent) since 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. Last year’s 3.87 ERA was the lowest since 1992, the last year of 26 teams in the majors and the year before offense spiked.

Signing big-time international professionals has proven to be a ticket to the postseason the past few years. Will that trend continue for the White Sox and Yankees this year? It worked for the 2010 Reds (Aroldis Chapman), the 2012 Athletics, Orioles and Rangers (Yoenis Cespedes, Wei-Yin Chen and Yu Darvish) and the 2013 Dodgers (Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu).

Top rookie Xander Bogaerts got his feet wet last fall and is ready for center stage as Red Sox shortstop. (Photo by Ken Babbitt).

Top rookie Xander Bogaerts got his feet wet last fall and is ready for center stage as Red Sox shortstop (Photo by Ken Babbitt)

1. Xander Bogaerts, ss, Red Sox
Age: 21.
Resume: Bogaerts shined in October, belying his youth, batting 8-for-27 (.296) with four extra-base hits, six walks and nine runs scored in 12 postseason games. The first-team Minor League All-Star shortstop last year and the No. 2 prospect in the game this year, he projects as an across-the-board contributor right out of the gate after batting .297/.388/.477 with 15 homers at Double-A and Triple-A last year.
2014 Outlook: The Red Sox won’t be starting utility infielder Jonathan Herrera at shortstop on Opening Day, so it’s either going to be Bogaerts or a returning Stephen Drew, an unsigned free agent as of mid-March. If Boston does re-sign Drew, then Bogaerts must contend with Will Middlebrooks for playing time at third base. Either way, a return to Triple-A is unlikely.

2. Masahiro Tanaka, rhp, Yankees
Age: 25.
Resume: The MVP of Japan’s Pacific League last year, Tanaka went 24-0, 1.27 in 28 appearances for Rakuten, leading NPB in wins, ERA and finishing second with 183 strikeouts. He pounds the strike zone with four pitches, including perhaps the best splitter on the planet, and runs his four-seamer up to 96 mph.
2014 Outlook: Don’t expect Yu Darvish-level dominance, but international scouts project Tanaka, who signed for seven years and $155 million, to have a No. 2 starter’s ceiling. Also, the Yankees could get 60-plus starts from Japanese pitchers this season—Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda—which would surpass the 44 starts the 2001 Red Sox got from Hideo Nomo and Tomo Ohka.

3. Jose Abreu, 1b, White Sox
Age: 27.
Resume: The White Sox signed Abreu last October for six years and $68 million to establish a new record for a Cuban defector. He put on an incredible showing in Serie Nacional in 2011-12, when he hit 35 homers in 87 games and led the league in average (.394), on-base percentage (.542) and slugging (.837). Abreu turns off some scouts because he’s a below-average athlete without elite bat speed, but all he’s done is hit in Cuba and in international tournaments.
2014 Outlook: The White Sox have all sorts of options at first base—Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Conor Gillaspie, Matt Davidson—but Abreu will be the man unless he falls flat in spring training. A perfect storm of low expectations and Chicago’s homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field could result in 25-plus homers from Abreu.

4. Nick Castellanos, 3b, Tigers
Age: 22.
Resume: Just four players from the 2010 draft signed for more than Castellanos ($3.45 million), even though he slipped to the 44th overall pick. He has lived up to the hype thus far, showing an ability to hit for average and power in the minors. He led the low Class A Midwest League with 158 hits in 2011, batting .405 during two months at high Class A Lakeland in 2012 and leading the Triple-A International League with 37 doubles last year prior to a September callup.
2014 Outlook: The Tigers have a Prince Fielder-sized hole in their lineup, so with Miguel Cabrera shifting to the less-taxing position of first base, Castellanos has a clear opportunity at third base, his natural position. The catch: He played mostly corner outfield in the minors in 2012-13 while Cabrera chased two MVP awards.

5. George Springer, cf, Astros
Age: 24.
Resume: Springer came oh-so-close to going 40-40 last year, mashing 37 homers and swiping 45 bags at Double-A and Triple-A. He also managed to hit .303 despite striking out more than a quarter of the time, the result of opposing pitchers hammering the outer half with breaking stuff. He plays a strong center field, which gives him four plus tools even if he fails to curb his whiffs.
2014 Outlook: The Astros traded for center fielder Dexter Fowler in the offseason, but with Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes the projected starters on the corners, look for Springer to kick the Astros’ rebuild into high gear sooner rather than later. He can start at any of the outfield positions, has nothing left to prove in the minors and will give Houston an immediate power boost.

Yordano Ventura

Yordano Ventura opens eyes with his radar-gun readings (Photo by Robert Gurganus)

6. Yordano Ventura, rhp, Royals
Age: 22.
Resume: The hardest-throwing rookie starter last season, albeit in 15 innings, Ventura sits at 97 mph and mixes in a pair of quality secondary pitches. Given that arsenal, he won’t require pinpoint control to succeed—he logged 10.4 strikeouts per nine and allowed just seven homers in 26 starts at Double-A and Triple-A last year—but he will need to improve his walk rate (3.5 per nine) to be an impact starter.
2014 Outlook: While Ventura must prove himself in the majors to convince scouts he can make it work with a 5-foot-11 frame, the fact is some of the most successful Dominican righty starters have stood shorter than 6 feet, including Pedro Martinez, Bartolo Colon, Juan Guzman and Johnny Cueto. By making the Royals staff, Ventura will add a touch of youth to a rotation—James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Bruce Chen—oozing with veteran experience.

7. Kevin Gausman, rhp, Orioles
Age: 23.
Resume: The top pitcher drafted in 2012, Gausman carved up Double-A competition over eight starts at the outset of 2013, striking out nearly 10 batters for every one he walked. Summoned to Baltimore in late May, he logged a 7.66 ERA over five starts before being shifted to the bullpen (and also mixing in time at Triple-A). In Gausman’s 15 relief appearances he hit 99 mph and showed improved peripherals—1.04 WHIP, 11.3 strikeouts per nine, 4.4 SO/BB ratio—so he has a fallback option as an impact closer.
2014 Outlook: The Cardinals’ Michael Wacha demonstrated how to make this repertoire work—elite fastball, plus changeup, plus command—in last year’s postseason, so the Orioles hope Gasuman was taking notes. Baltimore won’t be able to keep him out of the rotation for long if he pitches to his potential.

8. Archie Bradley, rhp, Diamondbacks
Age: 21.
Resume: Bradley cut his walk rate to a high-but-more-manageable 4.1 per nine last year while ranking third in the minors with a 1.84 ERA and fifth with 162 strikeouts. Oh, and he allowed just six homers in 26 starts as a 20-year-old at Double-A. This is how you draw up a starting pitching prospect: premium velocity, plus breaking ball, durable 6-foot-4 frame and a track record for missing bats.
2014 Outlook: Dylan Bundy and Jose Fernandez beat him to the majors, but Bradley could be the third prep first-rounder from the 2011 draft to vault to the big leagues. The D-backs have solid rotation depth, but Wade Miley and/or Randall Delgado could be bullpen-bound this summer if Bradley dominates at Triple-A.

Update: A mid-March elbow injury for No. 1 starter Pat Corbin will have a trickle-down effect on the Arizona rotation, possibly enabling Bradley to make the Opening Day roster.

9. Gregory Polanco, rf, Pirates
Age: 22.
Resume: Polanco has made incredible progress the past two seasons, rocketing from relative unknown at low Class A in 2012 to Triple-A playoff participant in 2013 to No. 10 prospect in the game this year. The potential five-tool standout produced a bit of everything in the minors last year, batting .285/.356/.434 with 12 homers, 30 doubles, 38 steals and 52 walks at three levels. He punctuated the 2013 campaign by taking home the MVP award in the Dominican League with a .922 OPS.
2014 Outlook: Scouts expect Polanco’s power to play up in the majors because he commands the strike zone so well. That’s good because he’s third on the Pirates’ center field depth chart behind Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. Look for Polanco to force his way past the right-field platoon of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider near midseason.

10. Billy Hamilton, cf, Reds
Age: 23.
Resume: A tepid showing at the plate at Triple-A last year (.256/.308/.343 with three times as many strikeouts as walks) cooled enthusiasm for Hamilton’s batting potential. That doesn’t mean he lacks offensive potential, however, not when he’s an 80 runner and the best basestealer on the planet. Witness his 88 steals at an 85 percent success rate last year (counting a September callup).
2014 Outlook: Hamilton led the International League not only in steals (75) last year but also in outfield putouts (333), which could be crucial to him holding a job if he can’t keep his on-base percentage above average (about .322 for non-pitchers). With the departure of free agent Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds have only Skip Schumaker and Chris Heisey to man center field.

Oscar Taveras

Oscar Taveras tries to prove he’s healthy this spring (Photo by John Williamson)

11. Oscar Taveras, rf, Cardinals
Age: 21.
Resume: Taveras—and not Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Matt Adams nor Kevin Siegrist—was supposed to be the Cardinals’ rookie sensation for 2013. While the other rooks participated in the World Series, Taveras did not play for Triple-A Memphis after June 23 as he injured and then re-injured his right ankle. He still ranked as the Pacific Coast League’s No. 1 prospect and, when healthy, he can accomplish anything in the batter’s box, with the electric bat speed to hit .300 with 30 homers.
2014 Outlook: Hesitancy to test his surgically repaired ankle set Taveras back in spring training and could mean he won’t be ready to push right fielder Allen Craig to first base until closer to midseason. For that reason, we’re hesitant to rank him higher, despite his immense talent.

Update: Compensating for his ankle, Taveras later strained a hamstring, which resulted in him being optioned to minor league camp in mid-March.

12. Taijuan Walker, rhp, Mariners
Age: 21.
Resume: Athleticism and agility have helped Walker round out his repertoire and add polish to a cutter/slider and changeup after he turned pro. He starred as a shortstop and basketball player in high school but nevertheless made his big league debut for the Mariners about three years after being drafted. His stuff played versus big leaguers during his first three starts (3.0 SO/BB ratio, no homers in 15 innings).
2014 Outlook: A bout of shoulder bursitis set Walker back at the outset of spring training, so his 2014 big league debut probably will be delayed. He should be a perfectly fine back-of-the-rotation starter as a rookie, but he may require a season or more to hone his command.

13. Travis d’Arnaud, c, Mets
Age: 25.
Resume: The 2007 supplemental pick has been traded twice for Cy Young Award winners (Roy Halladay, R.A. Dickey), owns a Double-A Eastern League MVP award from 2011 and has compiled a career .990 OPS at the Triple-A level. What d’Arnaud doesn’t have is a clean record for health, having missed the bulk of 2012-13 with, respectively, a torn knee ligament and a broken foot.
2014 Outlook: D’Arnaud started 30 games for the Mets last summer and faces little competition (just Anthony Recker and rookie Juan Centeno on the 40-man roster) when it comes to reprising that role. Many promising rookie catchers require an adjustment period before they hit their stride—Jason Castro in 2010, Devin Mesoraco in 2012 and Rob Brantly and Mike Zunino last year being prime examples—so don’t be surprised by growing pains.

14. Erik Johnson, rhp, White Sox
Age: 24.
Resume: A second-round pick in 2011, Johnson sharpened his control in 2013, when he breezed through the upper minors and earned a September callup. He locates, he throws four pitches and he’s ready now to pitch at the back of a rotation after finishing fifth in the minors in ERA (1.96) and third in WHIP (0.99) in 2013.
2014 Outlook: Johnson throws one of the hardest sliders among rookies starters—about 88 mph on average—but his fastball velocity is closer to average, which coupled with a flyball tendency could make him vulnerable to home runs if he doesn’t hit his spots.

15. Jackie Bradley, cf, Red Sox
Age: 23.
Resume: Bradley actually broke camp with the big club in 2013 but hit just .155 in four different stints prior to a more productive September callup. He got back on track in 80 Triple-A games, hitting for more power than ever (.469 slugging, 10 homers) while showcasing his trademark batting eye (.374 on-base percentage, 41 walks). Bradley may lack a true plus tool, but he can manage the strike zone and track down the ball in center.
2014 Outlook: The Red Sox enter the season without their starting catcher (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), shortstop (Stephen Drew) or center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury) from the 2013 World Series winners. Any stability Bradley can provide in center and as a table-setter would go a long way, because the alternatives are Grady Sizemore (who hasn’t played a full season since 2008 and missed all of 2012-13) or Shane Victorino (the projected right fielder).

Jameson Taillon (Photo by Mike Janes).

Jameson Taillon might follow the Gerrit Cole template (Photo by Mike Janes)

16. Jameson Taillon, rhp, Pirates
Age: 22.
Resume: The second pick in the 2010 draft has the overall profile of a staff ace—6-foot-6 build, durability, plus fastball and quality secondary stuff—but hasn’t had the one breakthrough season to capture the attention of prospect watchers. For example, at Double-A and Triple-A last year he went 5-10, 3.73 with a 1.32 WHIP and strikeout rate of 8.7 per nine innings.
2014 Outlook: We witnessed last year the template for how the Pirates might manage Taillon this summer. They waited until mid-June to summon a 22-year-old Gerrit Cole from Triple-A, and despite underwhelming results in the International League, he made a smooth transition to the majors.

17. Noah Syndergaard, rhp, Mets
Age: 21.
Resume: The top-ranked pitching prospect in the high Class A Florida State and Double-A Eastern leagues last year, Syndergaard compiled a career-best 4.8 SO/BB ratio and punctuated his breakthrough season by starting the Futures Game in New York. Few pitching prospects combine premium fastball velocity (up to 98 mph) with such precision (career 2.5 walks per nine).
2014 Outlook: Zack Wheeler, the Mets’ rookie pitching sensation for 2013, made 13 Triple-A starts before getting the call in mid-June. Syndergaard should follow a similar track if he performs at Triple-A Las Vegas. Expect strikeouts and a solid WHIP, but because he’s around the zone so much he might allow more hits and homers than he will at peak.

18. Jake Odorizzi, rhp, Rays
Age: 24.
Resume: Bundled in trades for Zack Greinke (2010) and James Shields (2012) in the past, Odorizzi has pitched 232 innings at the Triple-A level, logging a 3.15 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine innings. His performance, track record for durability and solid, if unspectacular four-pitch repertoire make him perfectly suited to work as a No. 4 starter.
2014 Outlook: Odorizzi doesn’t have the raw stuff to rival the other pitchers in this top 20, but at this point does anyone want to bet against a Rays rookie starter? (See: Chris Archer last year or Matt Moore in 2012.) A flyball pitcher with a modest strikeout rate, Odorizzi has serious downside risk in a division featuring four pretty good hitter’s parks outside of Tampa Bay.

19. James Paxton, lhp, Mariners
Age: 25.
Resume: Held back by periodic bouts of wildness (4.0 walks per nine for his career) in the minors, Paxton has electric arm strength and the sort of power repertoire that will continue to generate swings and misses in the majors (9.6 strikeouts per nine). His vicious, low-80s curveball is his signature pitch, the type of pitch against which lefthanders have no chance.
2014 Outlook: Paxton will be prominently featured in Seattle’s initial rotation because No. 2 man Hisashi Iwakuma and rookie Taijuan Walker project to be sidelined by injuries (at least initially). Paxton looked electric in his September callup, but don’t expect consistent results if his mechanics and long levers get out of whack too often.

20. Chris Owings, ss, Diamondbacks
Age: 22.
Resume: Owings has a 17-homer season, a 20-steal campaign and a career .291 average as a minor league shortstop, highlighting a broad range of skills. He took home the Triple-A Pacific Coast League MVP award last year with a league-leading 180 hits and 104 runs. However, his career walk rate of 3.5 percent spells trouble when he’s not making enough hard contact.
2014 Outlook: If Owings hits this spring, then the D-backs seem prepared to unveil their fourth primary shortstop in four years, following Didi Gregorius last year, Willie Bloomquist in 2011 and Stephen Drew in 2010. That’s because they experienced serious Gregorius fatigue in 2013 after watching him hit .216/.304/.304 in his final 81 games.