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Top 100 Prospects: We're Betting On The Bat

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As you eye our latest Top 100 Prospect rankings, you may be a little surprised at who sits at No. 1.

Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna stands at the top of this year’s rankings. Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ star acquisition from Japan, ranks second.

As we began working on our Top 100, I was relatively certain Ohtani would be sit in the top spot when we released this list. He’s a big league starter with a 100 mph fastball and a devastating forkball who will immediately step to the front of the Angels’ rotation.

One pro scouting director told me he would not trade Ohtani for less than the top four prospects in a relatively stacked farm system.

But we have a process at Baseball America, one perfected over more than 25 years of putting together Top 100 lists. Our writers each submit a top 150, we add up the points, see what it spits out and then we hash out the ranking.

Those combined 150s showed we had one of the toughest decisions at No. 1 we’ve ever had. Among the five members of our prospect team (Ben Badler, Matt Eddy, Kyle Glaser, Josh Norris and myself) the ballots led to a tie at No. 1 with Ronald Acuna and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. each receiving 745 points (out of a possible 750). Ohtani was one point behind at 744. Ohtani was first on two ballots, Acuna was first on two ballots and Guerrero was first on one. The last time we had a three-way debate that close over No. 1, it was 2012 when we were debating Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Matt Moore. Back then, we put Harper first, Moore second and Trout third.

In hindsight, it may seem hard to believe we ranked Moore ahead of Trout. But at the time Moore was everything a pitching prospect could be. He was lefthanded with exceptional stuff (93-97 mph fastball, plus-plus curveball) and a track record of success that saw him go 8-3, 2.20 at Double-A Montgomery, 4-0, 1.37 at Triple-A Durham and 1-0, 2.89 with the Rays before pitching seven scoreless innings in a playoff start against the Rangers.

He had stuff and big league success.

Obviously if we could do it over, we would have put Moore behind Trout (and flip-flopped Trout and Harper, but that’s taking one sure-fire Hall of Famer over a possible Hall of Famer). That experience played a part in these rankings. In some small way, Moore kept Ohtani out of the top spot on Baseball America’s 2018 Top 100 Prospects rankings.

Moore had a solid rookie season and was an all-star in 2013, but he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in 2014 and has largely been a below average pitcher since he returned, putting up a 4.85 ERA from 2015-17, good for an ERA+ of 84. It’s a reminder of something we’ve seen time and time again: the injury risk of a pitching prospect makes them generally less reliable than a similar position player.

Alex Reyes, our top pitching prospect in 2017, is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Our best pitching prospect in 2016, lefthander Julio Urias, is trying to come back now from a serious shoulder injury.

Since 2010, 14 different pitchers have cracked the top 10 on a Top 100. Seven of them have had Tommy John surgery and another (Urias) has had a significant season-ending injury of his own.

The greatest pitching prospects of the past decade have struggled with significant injuries. As one might expect, there is no similar rate of significant injuries for position players. Yes Jurickson Profar has seen his career devastated by injuries, but he’s very much the exception.

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If Acuna (and Guerrero) live up to expectations, they will be middle-of-the-order bats for years to come. If Ohtani lives up to expectations, he will be a front of the rotation starter with the added bonus of being a useful designated hitter. Ohtani could end up being a better player than Acuna or Guerrero. But the track record of top hitting prospects reaching their projected ceilings is better than that of pitchers. When it’s close, we’re going to chose the hitter. In 2018, it’s hard for a pitcher to rank No. 1.

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