Deep American League Rookie Class Could Be Historic
The top five prospects in baseball this year are American League position players.
Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman ranks No. 1 on the preseason Top 100 Prospects, followed by Mariners outfielder Julio Rodriguez and Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. The Tigers duo of outfielder Riley Greene and first baseman Spencer Torkelson round out the top five.
Not one member of this top prospect quintet had major league experience entering 2022, but that will change—and quickly.
The Mariners, Royals and Tigers elected not to play service time games with their future stars, so Rodriguez, Witt and Torkelson all made Opening Day rosters. Greene probably would have joined them had he not suffered a foot fracture late in spring training. Rutschman should be in Baltimore as soon as his triceps injury heals and he gets up to speed at Triple-A.
Regardless of MLB debut date, this quintet of top prospects has one thing in common. They project to form the foundation of an incredible American League rookie class, one that has a chance to be historically strong.
In addition to the prized five heading the list, the BA preseason top 20 rookies ranking also includes:
• Rays righthander Shane Baz, who has a rotation spot waiting for him once he recovers from surgery to have loose bodies removed from his elbow.
• Angels lefthander Reid Detmers, who earned a rotation spot by striking out 11 and walking none in 5.2 spring innings.
• Royals first baseman Nick Pratto, who hit .333 with a 1.212 OPS in 15 spring at-bats before being sent down as a casualty of a numbers crunch.
The projected AL rookie talent doesn’t stop there. A number of other prospects also made Opening Day rosters, most notably:
• Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, a throwback player who hit .440 with zero strikeouts in 25 spring at-bats.
• Twins righthander Joe Ryan, the key to the Nelson Cruz trade with the Rays last summer who earned the Opening Day nod for Minnesota after tossing five shutout innings with six strikeouts and no walks this spring.
The National League rookie class pales in comparison to the AL group but includes its share of promising prospects, including shortstops CJ Abrams of the Padres, Oneil Cruz of the Pirates and Bryson Stott of the Phillies; Reds starting pitchers Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo, D-backs outfielder Alek Thomas, Brewers lefthander Aaron Ashby and Japanese import Seiya Suzuki of the Cubs.
In more than 30 years of ranking the Top 100 Prospects, Baseball America has led its signature list with five consecutive hitters from organizations in the same league only once before.
That was all the way back in . . . 2021.
Only one year ago, five AL hitters ranked as the top five overall prospects, meaning that for the past two seasons, AL hitting prospects have ruled the top of the preseason Top 100.
Heading up that 2021 ranking was Rays shortstop Wander Franco, who ranked No. 1 for a second straight year, while Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic checked in at No. 4. The remaining members of the top five were Rutschman, Rodriguez and Torkelson, who all held onto spots in the 2022 top five.
Franco and Kelenic graduated from prospect status in 2021, creating space for Witt and Greene to join the top five this year.
The young National League trio of Ronald Acuña Jr., Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr.—none older than 21 at the time—rose to prominence in 2019, but looking forward, the American League appears to have a sizable advantage in terms of concentrated young position talent.
It’s likely that some combination of Wander Franco, Julio Rodriguez, Bobby Witt Jr., Adley Rutschman, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson and Jarred Kelenic will combine with the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, preseason top 10 overall prospects in 2019, plus Luis Robert and Jo Adell, who ranked top three overall in 2020, to form the core of American League all-star lineups for years to come.
To add context to this year’s AL rookie class, which is dominated by the five young hitters at the top, I searched FanGraphs for the top wins above replacement totals for rookie hitter classes by league. The results were dominated by groups of rookie position players from the mid 2000s to the late 2010s.
This is partially a reflection of volume. When MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998, it created conditions for more rookies to play and accumulate value. But the rich rookie hitter classes of the past 15-plus years also reflect teams’ greater willingness to entrust regular at-bats to unproven players. This is both because rookie hitters are better prepared than they used to be and because they represent greater value to teams, relative to veterans who make more than the MLB minimum salary.
Listed below are the nine top AL or NL rookie hitter classes since integration, according to FanGraphs WAR. The names are about what one would expect to see and are headlined by future stars such as Kris Bryant, Mark McGwire, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Fernando Tatis Jr.
The one exception is the 2011 NL rookie hitter class, which featured Wilson Ramos but no true future star. Instead, the top 10 was dominated mostly by older rookies having strong MLB debuts and a few younger ones who soon fizzled out.
If the American League rookie class of 2022 lives up to its advance billing, then the rookie hitter groups below are the ones that will form the comparison points to determine all-time greatness.
2015 National League
Top 10: Kris Bryant (6.1), Matt Duffy (4.4), Odubel Herrera (3.8), Jung Ho Kang (3.7), Joc Pederson (3.1), Randal Grichuk (3.0), Addison Russell (2.6), Cory Spangenberg (2.0), Maikel Franco (1.9) and Michael Conforto (1.9).
Top 100 Prospects: #1 Bryant, #3 Russell, #8 Pederson, #56 Franco and #80 Conforto
1987 American League
Top 10: Mark McGwire (5.1), Kevin Seitzer (5.1), Devon White (4.6), Matt Nokes (3.4), Mike Greenwell (3.4), Terry Steinbach (3.2), Ellis Burks (2.7), B.J. Surhoff (2.4), Kenny Williams (1.9) and Jerry Browne (1.4).
Top 100 Prospects: Not yet invented, though White, Steinbach and Burks were No. 1 prospects in their organizations. Yes, Steinbach ranked ahead of McGwire on the Athletics’ Top 10 Prospects ranking in 1987, the very year that McGwire established a since-broken rookie record with 49 home runs.
Did Super Two Status Affect Recent Prospect Callups?
Looking at recent history, it seems like this week’s promotions were not service time-influenced decisions.
2019 National League
Top 10: Pete Alonso (4.9), Fernando Tatis Jr. (3.7), Tommy Edman (3.3), Bryan Reynolds (3.2), Victor Robles (2.6), Kevin Newman (2.4), Mike Yastrzemski (2.2), Christian Walker (2.2), Keston Hiura (2.1) and Alex Verdugo (2.1).
Top 100 Prospects: #2 Tatis, #11 Robles, #17 Hiura, #35 Verdugo and #48 Alonso
2006 National League
Top 10: Hanley Ramirez (4.4), Dan Uggla (4.2), Ryan Zimmerman (3.8), Luke Scott (2.9), Shane Victorino (2.7), Russell Martin (2.4), Chris Duncan (2.3), Josh Barfield (2.3), Andre Ethier (2.2) and Josh Willingham (1.9).
Top 100 Prospects: #15 Zimmerman, #30 Ramirez, #42 Martin and #89 Ethier
2010 National League
Top 10: Jason Heyward (4.6), Buster Posey (4.0), Jonathan Lucroy (3.6), Ike Davis (2.9), Giancarlo Stanton (2.6), Neil Walker (1.9), Starlin Castro (1.8), Gaby Sanchez (1.8), Tyler Colvin (1.8) and Jose Tabata (1.7).
Top 100 Prospects: #1 Heyward, #3 Stanton, #7 Posey, #16 Castro and #62 Davis
2007 National League
Top 10: Troy Tulowitzki (5.2), Hunter Pence (3.5), Ryan Braun (2.5), Yunel Escobar (2.4), Josh Hamilton (2.3), Norris Hopper (2.3), Kevin Kouzmanoff (2.2), James Loney (1.8), Mark Reynolds (1.8) and Carlos Ruiz (1.4).
Top 100 Prospects: #15 Tulowitzki, #26 Braun, #38 Pence and #44 Loney
2015 American League
Top 10: Francisco Lindor (4.0), Carlos Correa (3.4), Eddie Rosario (2.4), Devon Travis (2.2), Roberto Perez (2.1), Miguel Sano (2.0), Billy Burns (1.9), Ketel Marte (1.8), Delino DeShields Jr. (1.6) and Steven Souza Jr. (1.5).
Top 100 Prospects: #4 Correa, #9 Lindor, #13 Sano and #37 Souza
2008 American League
Top 10: Evan Longoria (5.6), Mike Aviles (4.4), Jacoby Ellsbury (4.2), Denard Span (3.2), Carlos Gomez (2.7), Ryan Sweeney (2.2), David Murphy (1.8), Ben Francisco (1.7), Jed Lowrie (2.6) and Matt Joyce (1.6)
Top 100 Prospects: #2 Longoria, #13 Ellsbury, #52 Gomez, #73 Lowrie
2011 National League
Top 10: Wilson Ramos (4.4), Danny Espinosa (3.2), Chris Stewart (2.8), Allen Craig (2.3), John Mayberry Jr. (2.2), Jesus Guzman (2.1), Brian Bogusevic (2.1), Darwin Barney (1.6), Bryan Petersen (1.5) and Tony Campana (1.4).
Top 100 Prospects: #66 Espinosa and #96 Ramos