Dang does it feel good to be writing about baseball again. Writing about baseball just makes things feel right in the world and after this year, getting back to normalcy is a great thing. You know what isn’t normal though? How teams handled rookies and prospects in 2020 and the rules that governed their ability to keep their rookie status. Typically, the general rules are that a hitter loses rookie status when they reach 130 at-bats or 40 days in the active roster, not including September games and pitchers have a 50-inning cap and the same 40-day timeline. However, this year the September games counted toward playing time and rookie of the year winners from 2020 aren’t counted as rookies any longer, even if they didn’t hit the rookie cutoffs. So, while reading this piece, and perusing the rookie rankings, keep that in mind when you don’t see someone on there who ordinarily might have qualified.
Updated: 12-28-20 Due to Kim signing. Rankings have also been updated.
Ian Anderson RHP ATL - There’s an argument to be made for a few other players to be atop this list but Anderson was so dominant for the Braves down the stretch and into the playoffs that it’s hard to look past what he did. He’s been long overlooked in the Braves’ deep system given who was previously ahead of him in the pitching department, however, I generally have been higher on him than most and believe he’s a long-term high-end number-two starter. In the righty’s first taste of the majors, he pitched 32.1 innings with a 1.95 ERA, 2.45 FIP, and 11.41 K/9 rate while pitching the Braves into the playoffs. He used his three-pitch mix of a mid-90s fastball, plus-curveball, and deceptive changeup not only missed bats but missed barrels as well as he had the lowest barrel rate of any pitcher with at least 30 innings pitched last year at just 1.2-percent and was just outside the top-20 in lowest average Exit Velocity. Anderson will have a prime spot in the Braves’ rotation going into the year and has already proven his stuff plays at the big-league level.
Nick Madrigal 2B CWS - You may remember Madrigal from the Rookie piece last year as well, and had he not gotten injured and missed time in 2020, he would’ve lost his rookie status for sure. In the game he did play, 29 of them, he slashed .340/.376/.369 with 11 RBI, eight runs, and two steals. While the steals were disappointing low, his batting average ranked sixth among all players with at least 100 PA last year and his 6.4-percent K-rate in those 109 trips to the plate was second-best in the majors behind only Tommy La Stella (5.3-percent) and three percentage points better than the next closest, Luis Arraez and DJ LeMahieu . Madrigal will hit in a prime spot in the order, though the signing of Adam Eaton might affect that a bit, and he still possesses plus-speed to still 30-plus bags while carrying a very high batting average for a contending White Sox that is only making their already good offense stronger so far this offseason. Madrigal isn’t going to sneak up on fantasy drafters this year.
Dylan Carlson OF STL - I swear I’m not copying straight from last year but hey when a guy was in this piece last year and kept his rookie standing, why shouldn’t he be back in the piece this year? Carlson didn’t exactly wow with his slash line from his rookie campaign, all 35 games of it, at a .200/.252/.364 pace but the counting stats were at least solid for a hitter struggling to make contact at the dish with 16 RBI and 11 runs with three long balls and eight extra base-hits. It wasn’t what we all fully expected but it’s really a tale of two stints. He started off hitting .162 in his first three weeks but then hit .278 in his last 10 days after coming back from the alternate training site and slugged .611 in that last stint as well. The pedigree is there for Carlson to be a 20-homer, 15-steal outfielder who should raise the batting average quite a bit if he cuts down on the 29.4-percent K-rate from last year and brings it back to the low-20s like we saw in the minors. A slight increase in Launch Angle should help him too. In case you think a 20-15 guy is a dime a dozen, there were 16 total in 2019 which means in a 12-team league only four teams have two of them, so not as common as you’d think.
Randy Arozarena OF TB - I can see the emails and tweets coming in now. How can you rank the player coming off the greatest postseason run from a rookie, and nearly anyone, we’ve ever seen fourth in the rookie rankings? Well let’s dig in a bit here. In the 23 games he played in the regular season he posted a 1.022 OPS with seven homers which sounds great right? But there’s a problem there, all of the damage came against lefties. He hit .400 versus LHP in the regular season and just .227 against righties while striking out just 8.7-percent against southpaws and a staggering 37.7-percent versus same handed pitchers. It keeps going too as he posted an insane 291 wRC+ mark facing lefties compared to a 126 against righties and there’s a 650-point difference in OPS between LHP and RHP. So, while he was hot down the stretch and was basically the only offense for the Rays in the playoffs and World Series, that doesn’t mean he can keep it up for a full, or close to full, season. This isn’t to say he can’t be good in 2021, as he has the tools to be a 20-20 hitter, but if he can’t sort out the issues with the splits and making more hay off of starting pitchers rather than relievers, the hot stretch for him in 2020 will be only that.
Ryan Mountcastle 1B/OF BAL - To put it simply, this guy has hit everywhere he’s been from the low minors all the way up to the majors last year. Mountcastle has an above-average hit tool and a power tool that’s burgeoning on plus while also commanding the strike zone well that makes those skills play up. He played 35 games for the Orioles and slashed .333/.386/.492/.878 with five home runs, 23 RBI, and 12 runs over 126 at-bats, just sneaking in rookie eligibility. One thing we do want to keep in mind is that he had the seventh highest BABIP, .398, in the league amongst batters with at least 100 PA last year and that is decently high for his career marks and could signal some regression in batting average. That being said, the park and division he plays in will certainly help with the offensive stats and he’ll either play full-time first base or split time there and DH in 2021 but either way the playing time, performance history, and skillset are there for him to be a .280 and 25-plus home run bat in 2021.
Sixto Sánchez RHP MIA - Being the key trade piece in the return for J.T. Realmuto already had pressure on Sanchez but so did the heaping of the mantle of the Marlins’ next ace when he was gotten in the trade. We saw glimpses of why he was being called that in 2020 when he pitched 39 innings for Miami’s big-league club. Right out of the gate his fastball is electric and explosive, but it did underperform a bit in 2020, but the same can’t be said for his best pitch in his changeup. That pitch, based on pitch weights on Fangrahs, ranked as the fourth-best changeup in the majors last season among anyone throwing at least 30 innings. It’s a 70-grade pitch and routinely made major-league hitters look ridiculous trying to make contact. Now there are some things to clean up with the first being the .303 BABIP which should be at least 20 points lower and next is the below 8.0 K/9 mark and not even 21-percent K-rate he posted in those 39 frames. Improving on the spin rate and control and movement on the fastball should improve it from the 93rd ranked fastball from last year and keep hitters honest going forward. He also needs to stay healthy to realize his full potential, but he could easily be a candidate for Miami’s ace in 2021 if things go according to plan and in that ballpark that’s a big advantage.
Ke'Bryan Hayes 3B PIT - While 2020 was essentially a lost season for the Pirates in many respects, it wasn’t in terms of seeing what their young stud third baseman is capable of. Hayes came up and played 24 games in the Steel City and slashed .376/.442/.682 with a .464 wOBA and 195 wRC+. Now to be clear most of that slash line won’t stay anywhere near that as we likely see each part fall by about 100 points in 2021, though that’s still a .276/.342/.500 slash. He also produced five homers, 17 runs, 11 RBI, and a steal in the short sample in the majors but a four-plus category third baseman is exactly what he fits. Hayes has a plus-hit tool that pairs with above-average power and speed and then elite fielding ability that likely wins him a Gold Glove sooner rather than later. Even if the bat struggles a bit, which shouldn’t affect him in OBP leagues with a BB-rate that’s been over 9.5-percent nearly his whole time in pro ball, the defense will keep him on the field getting cracks at working out of the slump. Seeing him as a .285 hitter with a 20-70-70-10 counting stat line isn’t hard to do which gives him nice value even at a relatively deep position.
Alex Kirilloff OF MIN - Kirilloff is the first player in this piece to not see time in the 2020 regular season, though he was called up for the postseason and got his first MLB hit in the playoffs, though it won’t count toward his career hit total. Kirilloff is a guy that has been on the cusp of coming up for a season or so now after being the 15th overall pick in the 2016 draft. He is mainly a hit-power corner outfield/designated hitter type who plays the outfield well enough to not be a hindrance in left field. Over 279 career minor league games, his lowest batting average mark was .283 in 2019 while combining for 36 home runs, 177 RBI, 155 runs, and 11 steals and never topping 18.5-percent in K-rate and walking about six percent of the time. There is an opening in left field for Minnesota as well as DH with Eddie Rosario and Nelson Cruz out of the picture and so Kirilloff should hit well enough in spring training to force a spot in the lineup and we’ve seen what this lineup has done the past few years which should boost his production.
Jarred Kelenic OF SEA - Had the Mariners been closer to playoff contention, it’s likely we would’ve seen the young uber-prospect come up and get some at-bats. However, that sweet lefty stroke of his stayed at the alternate training site while fantasy players were salivating over his clips that came out on Twitter. Kelenic, if he comes up early enough in the season which he should, has a shot to make it back-to-back AL Rookie of the Year winners for the Mariners after Kyle Lewis ()">Kyle Lewis won it in 2020, that’s how much hype this guy has right now and it’s not unwarranted. He has four above-average or plus tools including plus-hit, power, and throw tools and he can play anywhere in the outfield with ease. There isn’t much competition in left field at the moment and a good spring training should have him in line to open as the starting left fielder and then from there his ability to draw walks (over 8.0-percent in each MiLB season) and get his bat to the ball will keep him in the lineup for the long haul. A .270-plus average with 18-20 homers is in his wheelhouse if he gets a relatively full season.
Bobby Dalbec 1B BOS - Dalbec has never been the wait-for-his-pitch type. He’s more like the close-your-eyes-and-swing type and hopes he makes contact. But hey, can’t argue with the results that it’s brought him. In 2020 he came up for an offensively challenged Boston team and in his 23 games hit .263/.359/.600 with eight home runs, 16 RBI, and 13 runs, but it came with a whopping 42.4-percent K-rate and 39 strikeouts in those games. That being said, he still walked 10.9-percent of the time and double-digit walk rates have been his thing throughout the minors. His .394 BABIP indicates that the .263 average was inflated, and we should see regression from him in 2021 even with a lowered K-rate as he surely can’t stay that high again. The power is real though, and grades out as a 65-grade tool, though the bat plays a 35-40 grade on the 20-80 scale indicating it’s well below-average of 50. Dalbec should be full-time at first base in 2021 which gives him plenty of chances to post nice counting stats at a shallow position and have a solid OBP, but in batting average leagues, you’ll need a cushion to absorb the below-average mark he’ll post there.
Nate Pearson RHP TOR - The big righty, 6’6” 245 pounds, came up briefly last year for 18 innings over five total appearances including four starts. The flamethrower, he averaged 97.5 mph on his fastball last year and late-2019, is a future ace for the Blue Jays with an elite fastball and three plus-secondary pitches but upside wasn’t necessarily on display in the small sample last year with a 6.00 ERA and 7.18 FIP and a 16:13 K:BB ratio and landing on the IL with elbow tightness in August. He did return and looked good in a relief appearance hitting 101 on the radar gun but overall, it’s hard to see the ace-hype from that first taste. Pearson will likely be in the rotation from the jump this year and will have a chance to ease into a full season of work, though be careful here as he’s yet to top 102 innings pitched in any season in pro ball and did have the elbow issue last year so there may be an innings restriction on him or he may be moved to the pen throughout the season. The strikeout upside is huge here and Toronto’s young offense is good enough to compete in the AL East giving him solid win potential, but the ERA might be a tad high and the innings cap hurts the upside a tad too, a great buy now candidate for keeper and dynasty leagues.
Andrew Vaughn 1B/DH CWS - Vaughn was a top-three pick in the draft in 2019 and was easily the best pure hitter in the draft class and has shown that to be true in the minor leagues to this point. He showed well at the alternate training site this summer for the White Sox and though he didn’t earn the call-up this year, he reportedly impressed the GM Rick Hahn quite a bit. It’s expected that Vaughn will be the DH full-time for most of the 2021 season, though not immediately. He’s yet to play above High-A and so could see time at Triple-A after spring training unless it’s such a monstrous spring they have no choice but to add him right from the jump. The right-handed hitting, likely DH-only, Vaughn has a 70-grade hit tool and 60-grade raw power and when all is said and done, he’s a middle of the order hitter with a big impact bat, however that’s not going to be the case this year. Depending on when he gets the call his stats could vary widely but as a guy that walks a lot and can drive the ball to all fields well, he plays well in OBP leagues and if the call-up is early enough, he could see 15 homers with a very solid average.
Spencer Howard RHP PHI - When healthy, Howard would be much higher on the list than this given what he showed in 2019 and then in spring training and then sporadically on the mound for the Phillies in 2020. However, the “when healthy” portion of that statement is doing some heavy lifting. He’s been shut down with shoulder issues each of the last two years and the issues have caused the performances to be up-and-down, especially last year in 24.1 innings with 5.92 ERA. If he’s good to go in 2021, Howard should be the number four or five starter for the Phillies and could benefit from that getting good matchups against pitchers not as talented as he is and result in a few more wins and some good strikeout totals, but again there’s big injury risk here that could make the payoff that much sweeter if he reaches closer to his ultimate potential of a number-two starter which is likely realized in 2022.
Dane Dunning RHP TEX - I will preface this by saying that I remain higher on Dunning than most and that hasn’t changed after his 34.0 innings for the White Sox with his 3.97 ERA, 3.99 FIP, and 9.26 K/9. He’s since been traded to Texas in the Lance Lynn deal and that should only help his ongoing value as Globe Life Park is significantly more pitcher-friendly than Guaranteed Rate Park. Dunning has the stuff and pitch ability to be a number two starter in the majors once he’s fully back from the Tommy John surgery he underwent in late 2018 after having a great start to the Double-A campaign. He’s more of a command-and-control guy but the slider and changeup are both above-average pitches, and he does a great job of mixing pitches throwing his four pitches pretty evenly last year. He will have to keep the ball in the park better this year and you can make the argument that offensively he’s in a tougher division now but given what his previous K/9 and K-rates have been and again the home park he’s now pitching in, he should perform a bit better than he did in 2020 to make him a likely SP4 candidate.
Garrett Crochet LHP CWS - Crochet was drafted last year and then made his MLB debut later in the season which is rare in normal years and very impressive in a shortened year with no minor league season to speak of. When he made his MLB debut, he did nothing but dominate in the six innings he was on the mound. He didn’t allow a run, only three hits, while striking out eight. The lefty has an elite fastball to anchor the arsenal with it having nasty movement and topping out at 102 mph. The slider that he pairs with it is just as filthy and has people making a comp of Andrew Miller for him. The White Sox still see him as an impact starter, though he’ll need a better third pitch and his well below-average changeup as well as his below-average command. So why is he in the top-20 rookies’ piece? Well, the White Sox Pitching Coach has come out and said that Crochet will play a huge role for the White Sox staff in 2021 but haven’t stated his exact role yet. There are some in the organization and many outsides of it, including me, that believe Crochet will be an impact, high-leverage, bullpen arm for them and he may factor in the closer role as well since of the 13 saves the White Sox last year, Alex Colomé had 12 of them and he’s a free agent this offseason. So, grab Crochet as a mid-to-late-round flier to help with ratios and strikeouts with a shot at saves.
Leody Taveras OF TEX - Taveras had been on the prospect watch list for the last year or so prior to 2020 as a guy who could be a valuable fantasy producer given the role open to him in Texas and his skillset. Then 2020 came and Taveras got his shot for 33 games and there were good parts of the profile and some not so good parts. First the bad parts, he hit just .227 while striking out 32.1-percent of the time and posting just a .307 wOBA and 84 wRC+. Now for the good parts, his .168 ISO mark was a career-high, he posted at 10.4-percent BB-rate, and his eight steals put him in the top-30 in the majors, tied for the eighth-most overall steals, and among hitters with less than 200 plate appearances ranks 10th. He will come in to 2021 as the starting center fielder and likely a candidate to leadoff. He has a solid, above-average hit tool and plus-speed with little power so his ending stat line should finish in the neighborhood of a .250 average with a .320 OBP 8-10 homers and 20-plus steals.
Ha-seong Kim SS SD - A.J. Preller strikes again with a big offseason signing to deepen his already deep team. However, Kim fills a need for them and hence the reason he’s in the top-20 fresh from a big season in the KBO (Korean Baseball Organization). The Padres had one of, if not, the worst second base spot offensively last year in all of the majors, and it was a problem in 2019 too. Kim did play shortstop and third base for Kiwoom in the KBO, but many including myself presume he’ll play the keystone for San Diego right from Opening Day. The 25-year-old infielder comes with a very good history of producing across the stat line in the last few years in Korea, hitting over .300 three of the last four and having 30 home runs in 2020 along with at least 15 steals in each of those seasons. Second base is a generally shallow position which should up his value compared to being a shortstop, though many sites will list him that way to start, however, there are some things to watch for. Firstly, the pitching in the majors is better and tougher than that of the KBO and the pitch mixes are far tougher here as well. Secondly, catchers have better arms here than in the KBO which makes it tougher to steal without getting good jumps. All of this is to say there will be an adjustment period for him but the strong shot at playing time should keep him on the field and into the flow of the American-style game. Overall, he profiles as a .270 hitter with 12-15 home runs and 10-12 steals in his rookie campaign depending on where he hits in the order and how quickly he adjusts. In a year or two, he has 20-home run pop with a .280 bat and 15 or so steals.
Triston McKenzie RHP CLE - McKenzie got his first taste of the majors last year when he came up and pitched eight games down the stretch and looked good doing it. He pitched to a 3.24 ERA and 3.60 FIP while striking out 42 and walking nine in 33.1 innings. The lanky, 6’5” 165 lb., righty has a very good four-pitch mix that starts with his mid-90s fastball with great late break and moves onto his mid-80s Slider and a distinct Curveball with great spin and deception that grades as a plus-pitch, and he rounds it out with a changeup to bury in on lefties. The repertoire gives him the upside of a number-one starter to be sure and what puts him over the edge is his maturity in pitch mixing and knowing how to keep hitters off balanced routinely. McKenzie likely doesn’t fully hit that upside for a couple of years, but the strikeout upside is there now, and given his control, the ratios will remain in check. The downside with McKenzie and what keeps him in this range is his lack of innings on his arm at the potential for an innings cap in 2021 since he has 329 total innings in the minors and was coming off an injury in 2020. The other thing was that he gave up six homers in 33.1 frames with the Indians and so that’s a bit concerning as well.
MacKenzie Gore LHP SD - If you’ve been a reader of the Prospect Reports and various prospect talk on the podcasts, you already know how high on Gore I am in general so this shouldn’t be a shock to see him on this list. He was likely the most discussed prospect last spring in terms of him being called up or not and ultimately the Padres didn’t give him the ring this year, he was on the taxi squad for the postseason which is a step in the right direction. The former third-overall pick is, by most accounts including mine, the best pitching prospect in baseball and has the makings of being an absolute stud and anchor of a big-league rotation using his four-plus pitches to keep hitters off-balance and racking up the strikeouts (243 in 183 minor league innings). The southpaw should get a long look in the rotation this year for San Diego as they widen their competitive window, and they need help in the starting rotation as well. It could be rough at first, but he will settle in and could have SP4 numbers when all is said and done but if everything goes well, he could be an SP3, but that’s unlikely. Again, he’s a better candidate for longer-term leagues than redrafts this year.
Cristian Pache OF ATL - We saw a lot of the, then, 21-year-old outfielder in the playoffs for the Braves after he played just two regular-season games and then played 12 postseason affairs. Either way, it’s not a big sample size to go off of but his recent play in the minors does give us an idea of what he’s capable of. His hit tool is still developing and currently sits about a 45-grade tool, but the power and speed are both above-average as is his defense which has consistently had him ranked among the best defenders regardless of position in the minors and some of that was on display in the playoffs. Pache’s main attraction in 2021 is that he is likely to be the starting center fielder for Atlanta from the get-go and so he’ll have plenty of chances to put up stats but if the bat plays the way most, including me, think it will, we can expect about a .250 average with 13-16 home runs and 10-12 steals on the year.