Top 100 Roundtable: Was Wander Franco A Clear No. 1 Entering 2021?
Each year, Baseball America staffers convene to select baseball's Top 100 Prospects. Our question below is this: Was Wander Franco a clear No. 1 at the top of the list, or did other prospects have a convincing case entering the 2021 season?
Josh Norris: Last year, voting Wander Franco No. 1 overall was extraordinarily easy. His combination of youth and performance at both levels of Class A—especially considering he played in the Midwest League when it was particularly cold and the Florida State League when it was particularly hot and humid—made him a slam dunk for the top spot even with the knowledge that he likely would be eligible for the list again in 2021.
This year, it was still an easy call, but I did briefly entertain the thought of voting for either the Mariners' Julio Rodriguez or the Orioles' Adley Rutschman. Both players have extremely loud tool sets—Rutschman is one of just two position players with three 70s or 80s on his card—and would be perfectly defensible choices at No. 1 overall. However, both players have small warts.
Rodriguez has had trouble staying healthy over the last two seasons, which limited him to 84 regular-season games in 2019 and kept him out of the alternate training site in 2020. Rutschman, of course, doesn't have much of a sample size as a professional. Moreover, none of the experience he got after being drafted in 2019 came at a level with universally better pitching than he saw in college at Oregon State. He got more advanced work on both sides of the ball at Baltimore's alternate training site, but the controlled nature of that environment might tamp down the developmental value somewhat.
Finally, there just wasn't much reason to move Franco out of the No. 1 spot. He's still young, still extremely advanced and has as well-rounded of a skill set as you'll find in the minor leagues. He's the only player on our Top 100 with a projected 80-grade hit tool, which he pairs with switch-hitting ability and potentially plus power. Combine that with the ability to play up the middle, and Franco was an excellent and fairly easy choice to remain at No. 1 overall.
Kyle Glaser: The absence of a minor league season in 2020 makes it almost impossible to judge the progress of players who didn’t get major league time. The alternate site, instructional league and informal development settings all allowed players to improve their skills and get better, but nothing can simulate the grind of facing high-level competition day in and day out for five straight months.
In the absence of that, which is what truly separates the best from those who are a cut below, there was no compelling reason to unseat Franco as the game’s No. 1 prospect. He’s still the player who hit .327/.398/.487 across the Class A levels at the same age as most high school seniors. In order to jump him, someone would have had to have a truly extraordinary season. With no season to do so, the status quo holds.
Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez have a chance to be future superstars in their own right. If we look back 10 or 15 years from now and one or both have had a better career than Franco, no one should be shocked. That’s not a knock on Franco. That’s a credit to the prodigious talent both Rutschman and Rodriguez possess, and a big reason why most front office officials around the game group them with Franco as the consensus top three prospects in baseball, with all others considered a tier below.
But Franco has the age, track record, profile and, most important, talent that puts him over the top. That was true prior to last season and, with nothing materially changing due to the coronavirus pandemic, remains true entering 2021.
J.J. Cooper: Wander Franco is still the No. 1 prospect in the game, but it's closer than many may think. This is the craziest year for prospect rankings in the 40-year history of Baseball America, and that does affect the debate of who is the best prospect in baseball.
Franco came into 2020 as the No. 1 prospect in the game. Since then he and most everyone else in our Top 10 has not played in any official games. So one could start with the logic that there simply isn't enough new information to shake up the rankings.
But we tried to go deeper than just that. The debate at the top of the Top 100 ended up being a pretty complex and entertaining discussion.
Coming into 2021, it's fair to say that Franco is the prospect most likely to have a long and accomplished MLB career. His resume is nearly impeccable. He made it to High-A before his 19th birthday and he's a career .336/.405/.523 hitter. He is an incredibly polished switch-hitter. He's got a good shot of challenging for batting titles and he's going to provide plenty of defensive value as well, whether he ends up playing shortstop, second base or third base. The question about Franco's ultimate peak value revolves around his power. His swing right now is more conducive to hitting stinging line drives than it is to hitting towering fly balls, which helps explain why he hit nine home runs in 2019. Franco has significant power potential—the Rays have seen him dominate accomplished power hitters in camp home run derbies, but it's not part of his normal in-game approach right now.
And that is why there are questions as to whether Franco is going to have the biggest MLB impact of the top prospects in this year's group. Power is in many ways the story of baseball in the 2020s. Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman has a chance to be as accomplished a hitter as Franco with more power and exceptional defense behind the plate. Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez has significantly more power potential than Franco. Rodriguez's 117 mph exit velocity on a double in instructional league demonstrated his ability to hit the ball as hard as pretty much anyone—in the majors in 2020 there were only five balls hit that hard or harder.
If 2020 had been normal, there would have been a great debate, as Rutschman and Rodriguez could have added to their admittedly brief professional resumes. Or maybe Franco would have set the world on fire in Double-A and Triple-A, adding further weight to his claim to the top prospect spot. Instead, we can just sift through the fragments of information we got in a very abbreviated prospect year and count the days to the 2021 season.
2022 Top 100 Prospects Podcast
Carlos Collazo, Kyle Glaser and Geoff Pontes discuss the release of the 2022 Top 100 Prospects list.
Carlos Collazo: This is the first year I have been heavily involved in the Top 100 process, so perhaps it’s only right that I was the sole non-Wander voter at the top.
After doing my research I arrived on three players who I believe are in the elite, top tier of prospects in all of baseball: Wander Franco, Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez. Before anyone comes at me with pitchforks and torches, just know that I think all three of these players would be deserving No 1s, with solid arguments for each of them.
I think I might be one of the most skeptical people on the panel when it comes to Franco, simply because of his lack of supplemental tools. He has just two above-average tools on his scouting report, and while they are the ones you would most want to be above-average (hit and power) that’s a lot of pressure on the bat to perform up to our expectations for a 19-year-old who has yet to reach Double-A. While he certainly could stick at shortstop, it seems like he has better defensive potential at second or third, which also knocks a bit of the positional value in my mind. To be clear, this is just me picking nits with a player who is one of the best prospects in baseball.
Rutschman is one of the toolsier prospects in the game and one of the best catching prospects we have had since at least Matt Wieters. His offensive and defensive skills give him a chance to be a tremendously valuable player at a position where teams are rarely getting impact, middle-of-the-order bats. I think Rutschman is one of the highest-probability players on this list to become an impactful, regular at the big league level. Ultimately concerns about the position itself and Rutschman’s age (relative to Franco and Rodriguez) led me to putting him in the No. 3 spot.
I’m pretty infatuated with Rodriguez’s hit and power combination and believe it is one of the better combos of any prospect in baseball. While I do think Franco has the potential to get to plus power, Rodriguez has shown significantly more in-game juice at the same levels and he has the size and exit velocity numbers to back that up and allow us to dream on his home run potential in the long run. With more conviction in his power and—in my mind—less pressure on his hit tool in order to become a star, J-Rod was my No. 1 pick.
Matt Eddy: Each of our top three prospects has a case to rank No. 1
The combination of hitting ability, plate discipline, impeccable health record and infield value kept Rays shortstop Wander Franco in the top spot for me.
Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez has that "it" factor that will make him a star. He just faces more pressure to produce given his corner profile. Scouts are convinced that he will.
Among the top trio of prospects, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman was hurt the most from having no minor league season in 2020 to prove himself. At least he worked with Baltimore's burgeoning pitching talent at the alternate training site. It would surprise no one if Rutschman's offensive upside and defensive/leadership value make him the third catcher ever to rank No. 1 next year. Joe Mauer (2004-05) and Matt Wieters (2009) are the other No. 1 catchers.
Ben Badler: After ranking prospects at Baseball America for 14 years, I don't think there are too many clear-cut choices, especially coming off a year with no minor league season. We do have a ton of new information on players from the alternate training sites, instructional league, winter ball and other sources, but even that information needs to be contextualized.
I do think Wander Franco is the top prospect in baseball. He has a chance to win batting titles with elite hand-eye coordination and barrel accuracy from a short, extremely fast swing from both sides of the plate. He controls the strike zone well and has a mature plan at the plate for his age. He's an exceptionally high baseball IQ player for his age—no surprise given his family—and that shows up in his plan at the plate and instincts in the field too. When you see his bat speed and the way he can launch balls in batting practice, you can see there's power in there, but his approach in games is geared more toward contact and spreading the ball around the field. As he gets older (I mean, he's still a teenager), I think he will learn which situations and pitches he should be looking to drive the ball for damage, and the in-game power numbers could rise from there.
As much as I love Franco, Adley Rutschman has all the attributes in place to become the best catcher in baseball. He checks just about every box you look for in a hitter, with a combination of hitting ability, strike-zone judgment and power that should make him a middle-of-the-order threat for years. If you stripped away all of his defensive tools and made him a first baseman, we would still be talking about him as one of the game's best prospects. Except Rutschman is not only a catcher, he's a potential above-average defender who's quick, agile, receives well, has a strong arm and possesses all the intangibles managers love to have in a catcher.
I give Franco the edge here, but I think it's exceptionally close between two potential premium position stars.