Image credit: Bobby Witt Jr. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
A total of 10 players who ranked in the preseason Top 100 Prospects made their MLB debuts within a week of Opening Day this year.
That is the second-highest total in the 30-plus years Baseball America has produced its signature Top 100 ranking. It trails only 1995, when 12 players met the criteria.
So we know the who, what, when and where of Top 100 Prospects making their debuts on or around Opening Day. The why is trickier to pinpoint.
As with most things, a number of factors are at play in the sudden shift in the way MLB front offices operate.
For the past 20 years, MLB clubs had increasingly elected to eschew the value of present wins in favor of future MLB service time considerations. Top prospects who could help the team win on Opening Day were instead sent to Triple-A for a few weeks in order to push back their eligibility for free agency by one season.
The data indicates that elite prospects making Opening Day rosters declined by 60% from the mid 1990s to the late 2010s. But that trend reversed course in 2022. Let’s explore the reasons why.
Potential draft pick compensation
The new Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced a Prospect Promotion Initiative, a set of incentives designed to encourage teams to roster top prospects on Opening Day rather than send them to Triple-A to artificially lower their service time as rookies.
The bottom line with PPI is that teams can receive a compensatory draft pick after the first round for any player who meets the following criteria:
(1) He is a rookie-eligible player who appears on preseason Top 100 Prospects rankings by at least two of Baseball America, ESPN.com or MLB.com.
(2) He accrues one year of MLB service as a rookie, typically by making the Opening Day roster. However, provisions in the new CBA award one year of MLB service to any player who finishes first or second in Rookie of the Year voting, regardless of callup date.
(3) He wins Rookie of the Year or places top three in either MVP or Cy Young Award voting in any season before he is eligible for arbitration.
There is a limit of one PPI pick per organization per year, and a maximum of three possible comp picks attached to any one player. There are also clauses for compensatory picks in the international draft, if one is implemented in the future.
One thing is clear: The value of draft picks is obvious to MLB organizations and their appeal universal. This season, fans are the beneficiaries of that appeal.
Format changes made to the 2021 season
For the first time in the modern history of the minor leagues, the Triple-A season stretched beyond Labor Day weekend in 2021.
Extending the International and Pacific Coast league seasons to Sept. 19 and 21 was a concession made because the minor league season started a month late as MLB developed Covid protocols.
At the same time Triple-A seasons stretched an extra two weeks, the first season of limited September roster expansion was enacted in MLB. The days of bloated September rosters are over. Teams now expand from 26 players to 28 for the final month, rather than unlimited 40-man roster expansion that was in effect through 2019.
More Triple-A opportunity combined with much less MLB opportunity created a dynamic in which players who previously would have been September callups were not seen as candidates for promotion in 2021.
This applies directly to Reds righthander Hunter Greene and Astros shortstop and Jeremy Peña, two Top 100 Prospects who might have received September callups last year under the old rules because they were no-doubt 40-man roster additions in November.
Now that the Triple-A season totals 150 games and will run parallel to the MLB season with games scheduled into late September, this trend will continue. September debuts for elite prospects will give way to April debuts the following year.
This should help keep the number of elite prospects making Opening Day rosters robust each season.
An unusually talented prospect class
Even under the rules of the old CBA, this year’s rookie class—especially in the American League—was positioned to be one of the best of all time. The top five prospects in baseball were all high-upside young hitters with ETAs of 2022.
Having five hitters with ETAs for that season had happened only once before in Top 100 Prospects history. That was 1994, when Cliff Floyd, Chipper Jones, Jeffrey Hammonds, Alex S. Gonzalez and Carlos Delgado headed the rankings.
This season, three of the top five overall prospects made Opening Day rosters—Julio Rodriguez, Bobby Witt Jr. and Spencer Torkelson—while Riley Greene probably would have made it four had he not fractured his foot late in spring training.
No. 1 prospect Adley Rutschman developed an arm injury early in spring training and faced long odds of breaking camp with the Orioles.
It may be years before we see a rookie class as talented as this one, and that could result in a natural dip of elite prospects making Opening Day rosters next season.
An expanded 2022 postseason field
The number of postseason teams expands from 10 last season to 12 in 2022. Just as significantly, the first round of wild card matchups will be best-of-three series, rather than one-and-done.
A combination of a playoff field boosted by 20% and teams having two outs rather than one in the first round may have enticed more teams to chase every marginal win—even those in April—by breaking camp with their best 26 players, regardless of service time implications.
Even if prospects on Opening Day rosters don’t contribute directly to victory early this season, the experience they gain in April should position them to impact outcomes in August.
The lost 2020 minor league season
It will take years to reckon with the fallout from the lost minor league season in 2020.
Some players used the down time to refine their skills in a lower-pressure training environment. Other players felt the loss of game repetitions and fell behind the pace they had established earlier in their pro careers.
We cannot state definitively that the MLB rookie class of 2022 was delayed in any way by 2020 being lost to the pandemic, but it may have played a factor with some players.
However, the theory loses credibility when considering that a number of 2022 MLB debuts were among the youngest players on Opening Day rosters.
CJ Abrams is the youngest player in the National League, while in the American League, Julio Rodriguez, Bobby Witt Jr. and Spencer Torkelson were the second, third and fifth youngest on Opening Day rosters.