Earlier this month, Major League Baseball’s owners voted to lock out the players, triggering the league’s first work stoppage since 1994-95. From now until whenever the lockout is lifted (after the ratification of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by both the league and the MLB Players Association), there won’t be free-agent signings, trades, or any of the usual hot-stove madness that tends to populate the winter months.
Nevertheless, CBS Sports will be spending the next couple weeks breaking down the top prospects in baseball, both globally and on a team-by-team basis. That process begins today, with the unveiling of our top 20 prospect list.
Do note that the players below were identified as the top talents in the minors following conversations with scouts, analysts, and player-development types. As always, this is more of an art than a science, and some disagreement is a given.
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Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, is on the precipice of stardom. Evaluators have maintained that he would someday feature four plus or better tools (everything but the speed), as well as an excellent feel for the strike zone and field-general qualities. Rutschman, a switch-hitter, has lived up to expectations. He batted .312/.405/.490 in 43 games at Triple-A, suggesting the only thing standing between him and the majors is the Orioles’ desire to suppress his wages. Even they won’t be able to hold down Rutschman for long; he’s the future of the catcher position.
Witt was selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, making this the second time he’s finished a step behind Rutschman. That’s no knock on him, however, as he’s a high-grade prospect in his own right. He proved as much by hitting .290/.361/.575 with 33 home runs and 35 doubles across Double- and Triple-A in his first full professional season. There used to be fear that Witt would swing-and-miss too frequently to maximize his loud offensive tools; those concerns haven’t materialized, and he struck out in just 22.5 percent of his Triple-A plate appearances. Factor in an above-average glove, and Witt should accomplish something his father never did over the course of his 16-year big-league career as a pitcher: make an All-Star Game.
3. Julio Rodríguez, RF, Mariners (Age: 20)
Rodríguez fits the right-field prototype with a middle-of-the-order offensive projection and a strong arm. He has well-above-average power and a better feel for contact than most with this profile. Indeed, Rodríguez struck out in just 18 percent of his plate appearances during his 46-game introduction to Double-A last season, an impressive piece of business for someone who can’t legally drink until Dec. 29. The Mariners have shown they’re more than willing to manipulate the service time of their top prospects to save a buck, suggesting they’ll likely do the same thing with Rodríguez. Nonetheless, he should debut in the majors before the season is out.
Baz is the lone member of the top 20 who has already reached the majors. He appeared in three regular season contests with the Rays in 2021, accruing a 2.03 ERA and a 6.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio in a small sample of 13 innings. Baz demonstrated during his big-league cameo that he has three swing-and-miss pitches, including an upper-90s fastball (with movement and release-point characteristics that rival Gerrit Cole’s) and a pair of breaking balls. He’s simplified his delivery since being acquired from the Pirates as part of the ill-fated Chris Archer trade, allowing him to tally just 16 walks in 92 combined innings between the majors and minors last season. That would be impressive for anyone, let alone someone who was issuing a walk every other inning prior to the pandemic. Between Baz’s pure stuff and his newfound control, he’s the favorite to eventually succeed Tyler Glasnow (who also came over in that trade) as the Rays ace.
Rodriguez, the final first-round pick Baltimore under Dan Duquette’s watch, has proven to be a quality parting gift. He split last season between High- and Double-A, compiling a 2.36 ERA and a 5.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Rodriguez already looks like a big-league starter thanks to a physical frame and a broad, high-grade arsenal. He’s capable of dialing up his fastball into triple digits and elevating it above the batter’s hands late in counts. He complements the heater with several swing-and-miss secondary pitches, including a nasty slider that qualifies as his second-best pitch. Rodriguez has already achieved a high degree of success in Double-A, meaning he should open the year in Triple-A before making his big-league debut come summer.
Greene, the fifth pick in the 2019 draft, split his first full professional season between Double- and Triple-A, hitting .301/.387/.534 with 24 home runs, 33 troubles (triples plus doubles), and 16 stolen bases on 17 tries. He celebrated his 21st birthday in September. Predictably, Greene is considered to be an intelligent, polished hitter who should fit in near the top of Detroit’s lineup at some point early in the season. The big question is where he’ll play defensively. The Tigers have primarily played him in center so far, and it’s possible that’s where he begins his big-league career before eventually sliding to a corner (he has enough of an arm for right if so desired).
7. Francisco Álvarez, C, Mets (Age: 20)
The first of two Mets prospects on the list, Álvarez only turned 20 years old in November. Despite his youth, he hit .272/.388/.554 with 24 home runs across two levels in 2021. Part of Álvarez’s season included a stint with the St. Lucie Mets. It was then that he posted the highest average exit velocity the league saw all season — and that league included the likes of Jordan Walker, Anthony Volpe, and Austin Hendrick. It’s rare to see such offensive potency from a young backstop who is certain to remain behind the plate. Álvarez figures to open the year in Double-A; he’s one to watch.
8. Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Tigers (Age: 22)
Torkelson, the No. 1 pick in 2020, soared all the way to Triple-A in his first professional season. Overall, he performed as you would expect someone with cleanup-hitter aspirations to: batting .267/.383/.552 with 30 home runs and a 14.5 percent walk rate. He’s often been compared to Andrew Vaughn of the White Sox because of their similar profiles: each has big raw strength and a feel for hitting, as well as the intelligence to make adjustments as needed. (Vaughn, for his part, had a disappointing rookie campaign in 2021.) The Tigers announced Torkelson as a third baseman on draft day, and they’ve continued to crosstrain him at both corner-infield positions. Scouts still expect him to end up at first base, however. With the Tigers gearing up to compete in 2022, odds are Torkelson will debut early in the season.
Moreno won’t turn 22 years old until February, and he’s caught fewer than 200 professional games so far because of the pandemic and a fractured thumb. Even so, his upside and progress on both sides of the ball make him a highly promising backstop prospect. Moreno hit .367/.434/.626 eight home runs in 37 games across three levels last season; he then appeared in 22 games in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .329/.410/.494 with a walk for every strikeout. In addition to adding strength at the plate, Moreno has improved his receiving capabilities behind it. The eventual implementation of the automated ball-strike system might render some of his work moot, but it speaks well of his eagerness to get better — and his chances for stardom.
Abrams, yet another member of that vaunted 2019 draft class (he was selected sixth overall), may have made his big-league debut late last season had he not broken his leg and sprained his MCL as part of a June collision. Prior to that incident, he had hit .296/.363/.420 with 16 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases (on 15 tries) in 42 contests at the Double-A level. It’s to be seen if Abrams’ elite speed will be impacted by his injuries. Provided the answer is “no,” he could slot into the Padres’ lineup early next year as a hit-over-power option at either of the middle-infield positions.
11. Noelvi Marte, SS, Mariners (Age: 20)
Marte, who recently celebrated his 20th birthday, spent most of 2021 in a league where the average player was two years his senior. It didn’t matter, as he batted .271/.368/.462 with 17 home runs and another 24 doubles. Scouts are projecting Marte to grow into a plus hitter thanks to his hands and the natural loft in his swing. The concerns with his game revolve around his defensive position. He has the arm strength to stick on the left side, but he might have to slide over to third base. Marte’s offensive forecast is such that he’ll still rank highly even if that proves to be the case.
As with Marte, Luciano is a young 20-year-old who projects as a middle-of-the-order hitter with positional question marks. (Marte gets the higher spot because he seems more likely than Luciano to remain at shortstop.) Luciano did scuffle after reaching High-A for the stretch run — he hit just .217/.283/.295 with a 37 percent strikeout rate — but it’s not worth panicking or pressing the eject button just yet. The sample size is too small and his upside, particularly with the stick, is too big. He should get the opportunity to vindicate himself to begin the 2022 season.
13. Jordan Walker, 3B, Cardinals (Age: 19)
Walker is the first of two Cardinals on this list (both of whom were drafted in the second half of round one). He made his professional debut last season, hitting .317/.388/.548 with 14 home runs and 29 troubles (that’s doubles plus triples). Walker has near-elite raw power and, in a promising development as it pertains to maximizing its utility, he started lifting the ball more frequently after being promoted to High-A. His strikeout rate also spiked following his move up the ladder, moving up from 17 to 27 percent, but it’s easy to give him a pass on that for now because he won’t celebrate his 20th birthday until May. Walker may in time have to move away from the hot corner, likely to another corner; it won’t matter if he turns into a marquee slugger.
14. Brett Baty, 3B, Mets (Age: 22)
Some evaluators in the industry expressed skepticism when the Mets drafted Baty 12th overall in 2019. Their criticism had less to do with him as a player and more to do with his age, as he was hurtling toward his 20th birthday despite being a high-schooler. Baty did well to quiet concerns in his first full pro season, batting .292/.382/.473 with 12 home runs and 22 doubles across High- and Double-A. Baty’s boosters see a strong-bodied third baseman who could be a plus hitter. There are some areas of concern to keep in mind with him, however, as his strikeout (25.6 percent) and groundball (61.2 percent) rates at Double-A suggest he wasn’t maximizing skill set, especially considering his well-above-average raw juice.
Mayer entered last summer’s draft ranked by CBS Sports as the No. 1 prospect on the board. He ended up going fourth overall to the Red Sox, who, in our estimation, should thank their lucky stars. Mayer’s boosters believe he’ll be a well-rounded left-handed hitter who can contribute average, on-base, and slugging once he adds enough strength to his frame to launch 15-to-20 home runs annually. While he’s not a fast runner, he is a skillful defender who has the arm, the hands, and the fluidity to remain at shortstop. Mayer’s exact ceiling hinges on his aforementioned physical maturation, but if he gets close to his peak he’ll become a two-way contributor and an All-Star.
The Diamondbacks organization has made a habit out of taking undersized outfielders. Thomas, listed at 5-foot-11, is one of the prizes from that approach. (The injured Corbin Carroll is another.) Thomas authored a breakout season this year, batting .313/.394/.559 with 18 home runs, 29 doubles, and 12 triples in 106 contests across Double- and Triple-A. Thomas has a noisy swing, including an elongated leg kick, that helps him generate more power than his size indicates (encouragingly, the moving parts have not resulted in a high strikeout rate). Add in his good defense, and he should become the Diamondbacks’ starting center fielder as early as this spring.
17. Nolan Gorman, 2B, Cardinals (Age: 21)
The other Cardinal in the top 20. Gorman made two noteworthy changes last year, moving from third to second base on a nearly full-time basis and dropping his strikeout rate upon reaching Triple-A. Gorman’s improved contact rate was accompanied by a change in his swing mechanics, as he lowered his hands to streamline his swing. He has well-above-average power, the kind you seldom see at the keystone; provided his defense is deemed tolerable (and he has improved), he should spend most of the 2022 season as the Cardinals’ starting second baseman.
Leiter was the first pitcher to come off the board in July’s draft, and for good reason. In addition to having big-league bloodlines and an SEC certification, he possesses many of the traits teams seek in their pitchers these days, including an electric fastball and a release point that creates tough angles up in the zone. Leiter needs to find greater consistency with his secondaries and his command, but talent evaluators believe he’s capable of making those gains in short order; to wit, a veteran scout told CBS Sports that Leiter’s pre-draft interview was one of the best he’s experienced.
19. Triston Casas, 1B, Red Sox (Age: 21)
It’s hard for a first baseman to rank highly these days because of the offensive demands of the position. Casas is the exception based on his pleasant combination of hit, discipline, and power; he’s a triple threat in the batter’s box, in so many words. He homered 14 times in 86 games between Double- and Triple-A, and did so while striking out in fewer than 20 percent of his plate appearances despite being only 21 years old. Casas has a frame and swing path that might remind people of Freddie Freeman, and, health provided, he ought to break into Boston’s lineup sometime around midseason.
Lodolo was the first pitcher to come off the board during that 2019 draft, albeit relatively late at No. 7. He’s atoned for it by zipping through the minors, accruing a 2.31 ERA and a 7.09 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts across Double- and Triple-A in his first full professional season. (He was hampered by blisters and shoulder fatigue.) Lodolo doesn’t have loud stuff; he does have a good slider and a broad arsenal of averageish offerings that play up because of his command and the deception he creates with a lower release point. Provided Lodolo is hearty and hale, he ought to debut early this spring, with a straightforward path toward mid-rotation status.
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