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New Spring: MLB Teams Prioritize Present Wins Over Future Dollars In Opening Day Roster Decisions

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Bobby Witt Jr. (Getty Images)

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the 1994 strike almost certainly impacted the total of Top 100 Prospects who made Opening Day rosters in 1995.

It’s a new spring all across Major League Baseball.

MLB teams are eschewing future service time considerations for their top prospects in favor of selecting the players who give them the best possible roster configuration for Opening Day.

A total of 10 Top 100 Prospects are on target to make their MLB debuts on or about Opening Day this season. In order of Top 100 rank they are:

2. Julio Rodriguez, OF, Mariners
3. Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals
5. Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Tigers
9. CJ Abrams, SS, Padres
34. Hunter Greene, RHP, Reds
35. Nick Lodolo, LHP, Reds
37. Seiya Suzuki, OF, Cubs
46. Matt Brash, RHP, Mariners
67. Bryson Stott, SS, Phillies
72. Jeremy Peña, SS, Astros

Tigers outfielder Riley Greene, the No. 4 prospect in baseball, likely would have grown the list to 11 players, but he fractured his foot late in spring training and will miss Opening Day.

Additional Top 100 Prospects made Opening Days rosters, but they have prior MLB experience. That list includes Rays outfielder Josh Lowe (No. 45), who has just two MLB plate appearances to his name.

Meanwhile, two Pirates Top 100 Prospects who do have MLB experience failed to make the cut for Opening Day: shortstop Oneil Cruz (No. 14) and righthander Roansy Contreras (80). The key difference between the Pirates and the other clubs listed is that Pittsburgh has no realistic chance to qualify for the postseason, not even with the expanded 12-team field.

Still, it’s notable that the Pirates appear to be the lone organization this spring valuing future contractual control over present wins.

Ten Top 100 Prospects making their MLB debuts within a week of Opening Day may not sound like a big deal, but the total last year was three. The totals for 2020, 2019 and 2018 were four, six and two, respectively. In 2017, only one player met the criteria.

Thanks to the incomparable Dan Hirsch of the Baseball-Reference.com, we have some perspective on how these totals fit into a historical context.

Hirsch compared historical BA Top 100 Prospects data, which dates back to 1990, with MLB debut dates. If a Top 100 Prospect in a given season debuted within a week of Opening Day that year, he counts as having made the team out of spring training.

The total of 10 players projected to meet those criteria this year is the second-highest on record, just two behind the peak total.

The only season to feature more top prospect debuts on or around Opening Day was 1995, which in an eerie echo of this season also included an offseason work stoppage giving way to a delayed and compressed spring training. Similarly, the 2022 season will feature expanded April rosters, just like in 1995.

It's worth noting that one factor feeding into the all-time high of a dozen Top 100 Prospects breaking camp in the major leagues in 1995 was the players' strike the year before. The players' union struck on Aug. 12, 1994, ultimately wiping out the rest of the regular season and postseason. It almost certainly nullifying major league callups for top prospects that August and September. Those were pushed to Opening Day in 1995.

The third-highest total occurred in 1998 when eight Top 100 Prospects made their debuts on or around Opening Day. This total was boosted perhaps by the expansion D-backs (Travis Lee) and Rays (Rolando Arrojo) playing their first seasons.

If what we're seeing this spring is the beginning of a trend and not simply an aberration, then it will reverse the course of MLB service time manipulation for top prospects that has pervaded the game.

By breaking MLB debuts by Top 100 Prospects during the first week of the season into five-year buckets, we see a clear and steep decline in the number of Top 100 Prospects who broke camp with big league clubs over time. The number of qualifying prospects has declined by 60% in the past 20 years.

1990-94: 26 Top 100 Prospects debuted opening week
1995-99: 35 prospects
2000-04: 26 prospects
2005-09: 22 prospects
2010-14: 16 prospects
2015-19: 14 prospects

Among the prospects affected by this trend in the 2015-19 period were the Cubs' Kris Bryant in 2015 and the Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018. Both were held down in Triple-A for a few weeks in their rookie seasons so that their clubs could gain an extra year of contractual control—even though both players were (1) reigning BA Minor League Players of the Year who had dominated at Triple-A, and (2) were the No. 1 overall prospects in baseball that season.

In descending order of recency, here are the yearly totals of Top 100 Prospects who made their MLB debuts within a week of Opening Day.

YearTotalPlayers
20213Andrew Vaughn (#21), Geraldo Perdomo (#75), Ha-Seong Kim (#78)
20204Luis Robert (#2), Nate Pearson (#7), Daulton Varsho (#53), Evan White (#54)
20196Fernando Tatis Jr. (#2), Eloy Jimenez (#3), Yusei Kikuchi (#45), Pete Alonso (#48), Chris Paddack (#66), Jon Duplantier (#86)
20182Shohei Ohtani (#2), Scott Kingery (#31)
20171Amir Garrett (#81)
20163Nomar Mazara (#21), Robert Stephenson (#32), Kenta Maeda (#50)
20152Archie Bradley (#25), Raisel Iglesias (#58)
20142Masahiro Tanaka (#4), Jose Abreu (#29)
20135Jose Fernandez (#5), Jackie Bradley Jr. (#31), Hyun Jin Ryu (#42), Jedd Gyorko (#71), Aaron Hicks (#72)
20122Yu Darvish (#4), Yoenis Cespedes (#14)
20113Michael Pineda (#16), Brandon Belt (#23), Zack Britton (#28)
20104Jason Heyward (#1), Jenrry Mejia (#56), Mike Leake (#72), Austin Jackson (#76)
20096Colby Rasmus (#3), Brett Anderson (#7), Trevor Cahill (#11), Rick Porcello (#21), Elvis Andrus (#37), Jordan Schafer (#42)
20082Kosuke Fukudome (#30), Johnny Cueto (#34)
20077Daisuke Matsuzaka (#1), Alex Gordon (#2), Travis Buck (#50), John Danks (#56), Elijah Dukes (#79), Brandon Morrow (#87), Micah Owings (#98)
20063Nick Markakis (#21), Joel Zumaya (#35), Kenji Johjima (#66)
20054J.J. Hardy (#28), Mark Teahen (#85), Tadahito Iguchi (#96), Huston Street (#97)
20043Joe Mauer (#1), Kazuo Matsui (#7), Adam LaRoche (#73)
20037Mark Teixeira (#1), Rocco Baldelli (#2), Jose Contreras (#6), Hideki Matsui (#8), Jeremy Bonderman (#20), Chase Utley (#81), Seth McClung (#98)
20025Hank Blalock (#3), Sean Burroughs (#4), Jon Rauch (#23), Kazuhisa Ishii (#35), Colby Lewis (#82)
20016Ben Sheets (#5), CC Sabathia (#7), Ichiro Suzuki (#9), Albert Pujols (#42), Brandon Inge (#67), Juan Uribe (#94)
20005Rafael Furcal (#8), Brad Penny (#22), Matt LeCroy (#44), Luis Rivera (#51), Rob Bell (#59)
19996Kevin McGlinchy (#47), Kris Benson (#59), Freddy Garcia (#61), Cristian Guzman (#68), Warren Morris (#84), Scott Williamson (#97)
19988Travis Lee (#8), Eric Milton (#25), Mike Caruso (#34), Rolando Arrojo (#37), Braden Looper (#39), AJ Hinch (#42), Rafael Medina (#72), Javier Vazquez (#83)
19975Bartolo Colon (#14), Jose Guillen (#24), Matt Morris (#25), Kevin Orie (#42), Glendon Rusch (#89)
19964Paul Wilson (#2), Rey Ordoñez (#17), Jason Kendall (#26), Brooks Kieschnick (#47)
199512Todd Hollandsworth (#13), Antonio Osuna (#15), James Baldwin (#25), Ray Durham (#28), LaTroy Hawkins (#30), Edgardo Alfonzo (#31), Michael Tucker (#32), Frankie Rodriguez (#36), Jason Schmidt (#42), Andy Pettitte (#49), Juan Acevedo (#55), Ron Villone (#62)
19947Alex Gonzalez (#4), Darren Dreifort (#11), Chan Ho Park (#14), Rick Helling (#45), Mike Kelly (#58), James Mouton (#72), Paul Spoljaric (#99)
19934Benji Gil (#21), Tyler Green (#31), Greg Gohr (#94), Rene Arocha (#100)
19923Pat Mahomes (#25), Donovan Osborne (#35), Brian Jordan (#66)
19917Kirk Dressendorfer (#27), Jeff Bagwell (#32), Pete Schourek (#33), Darryl Kile (#34), Gary Scott (#39), Mike Timlin (#69), Chuck Knoblauch (#72)
19905Delino DeShields (#12), Brian Bohanon (#45), Carlos Baerga (#67), Scott Radinsky (#78), Eric Gunderson (#85)

Source: Dan Hirsch, Baseball-Reference.com.

CJ Abrams (Photo By Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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