There’s been a ton of talk about the most recent rookie class in the NFL and fantasy football these past few months and for good reason given their performances. While the rookie class in baseball has taken a few years to develop in the minors, it is as stacked as ever and that could actually make a difference for your fantasy team this year. We’ll break down the top-20 rookies to target in a bit but first, let’s delve into a bit of strategy when it comes to rookies and what they’ve been capable of over the last few years.
Let’s just start with last year’s class which showed off impressive speed with four guys stealing 16 or more bags and 11 stealing 10 or more. Of the 69 qualified rookies, eight hit better than .280 and 14 hit for better than .270 and of that same 69, eight hit 20 or more homers and 14 hit 15 or more homers. If we flashback to 2019, 12 guys stole 10 or more bags, 11 hit better than .280 and 17 topped .270 and a whopping 34 of 66 topped 10 homers. The pitching side of things has been just as fruitful over the last few years as well with some rookie starters even being in the “league winner” discussion like Walker Buehler, Mike Soroka, Dakota Hudson, and Trevor Rogers. It was previously the case that drafting rookies wasn’t exactly advised simply because of the majority of them not being a good value in drafts compared to production levels of players going in similar spots, however that has since changed. Picking the best rookies, wisely, can benefit you and perhaps propel you to a league win or at least a finish in the money. Again, that’s if it’s done right.
The guys mentioned in this piece are all capable of being very good players, quickly, but they generally still have a lot to prove in the highest level of the sport. That means we’re still not going to be reaching for the guys getting all the buzz in spring training or the top prospects you think can’t miss guys. The art, and yes, it’s an art, to winning at fantasy baseball involves knowing when to take a player and when to let them slide coolly by (google Trea Turner slide). Rookies are part of that equation and in general, you’ll want to focus on the players who are slated to get the most solidified playing time. We saw last year that the rookies that came in to muddled situations stayed in them much of the year like Andrew Vaughn for example. Everyone was high on him coming into the season, but he simply couldn’t get the full-time DH role for the White Sox which ultimately capped his upside. The other thing to pay attention to is not only spring training performances, but also if service time will play a role in the decision on when to bring players up, as we saw with some teams doing last year like the Royals with Bobby Witt Jr. The final rule of thumb to abide by with rookies is to realize that talent will almost always overrule roster openings. That is to say that even if it seems like the major league roster is crowded, a talented prospect will still get a shot, though that shot might still come with limited at-bats.
With that, let’s dive into who the best rookies for this year are heading into the season.
Bobby Witt Jr., SS/3B KC - This can’t be a surprise, right? The guy that everyone wanted to break camp with the team last year and then proceeded to have a remarkable 2021 campaign between Double-A and Triple-A has to be the top rookie. Over 123 games split evenly between the two levels, Witt slashed .290/.361/.575 with 33 homers, 99 runs, 97 RBI, and 29 steals. He’s expected to break camp with the team this year and play third base most likely. While he’s a natural shortstop, the Royals having Adalberto Mondesi and Nicky Lopez kind of blocks that spot but right now third base is open, and Witt has played there in the minors. Witt is a former number-two overall pick and seriously has tools to be the favorite for rookie of the year this year.
Spencer Torkelson, 1B DET - The first overall pick in 2020 made some serious noise with his bat in his first season of pro ball in 2021, jumping three levels. In the 121 games last year, he slashed .267/.383/.552 with 30 homers, 91 RBI, 89 runs, and five steals, though the speed won’t stay as he moves up the majors given his 30-grade speed. A.J. Hinch, the Tigers’ manager has already been very clear that he’s viewed as the first baseman of the future for Detroit and that future might be starting sooner than later, especially with the investments the Tigers have made in free agency. You should pencil Torkelson in as a starter on Opening Day with his patient approach at the plate, a keen eye for the zone, and double-plus raw power all making him a very intriguing option in the middle of a not terribly great position for fantasy.
Adley Rutschman, C BAL - A catcher this high on the list? Yep, when you’re a catcher with the skills of Rutschman. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft is looking more and more like the generational catcher everyone pegged him as and in 123 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year, not only did he show off the bat skills but also played elite defense. He slashed a combined .285/.396/.502 with 23 homers, 86 runs, 75 RBI, and three steals for good measure. For a 162-game pace that’s a 30-100-100 season he produced last year. The Orioles clearly aren’t going to compete again this year but it’s time for the future, and potentially current, face of the franchise to come to the majors and start getting a feel for the game at the highest level.
Seiya Suzuki, OF CHC - The newest Japanese import is on the way this year in Suzuki after being posted by his Nippon Professional Baseball team in November. He’s coming off his fifth All-Star season and fifth Gold Glove in the NPB while hitting .317/.433/.636 with 38 homers and nine steals in his age-26 season. While the 38 homers are a career-high since the start of 2016 he’s topped 25 homers a year with all but one year posting 88 or more RBI. Suzuki has also had a .300 or better average in that same span. While those are all great stats, they won’t directly translate to the majors right away as the variety of pitches, pitchers, and breaking pitches will take him some time to get used to. He’s viewed as a perennial 20-plus home run hitter while hitting for a high average likely in the top-half of a batting order. Update: His swing is made for Wrigley Field and his addition to the Cubs lineup makes it that much deeper and doesn't change the counting stats we can expect from him.
Triston Casas, 1B BOS - The Bobby Dalbec truthers aren’t going to like this but, Casas is the clear future at first base and that future could be coming as soon as mid-May. Casas was very good at Double-A Portland over 77 games with a .284/.395/.484 slash line 13 homers, 57 runs, 52 RBI, and six steals. He’d have played more than nine games at Triple-A but instead played for Team USA in the Olympics last summer. He did play in the Arizona Fall League and led the league in On-Base Percentage with a .497 mark. Dalbec has pop yes, but the problem is that there’s more swing-and-miss in his swing than what’s helpful with a 35.7-percent K-rate in the majors. He’s also committed too many errors at first. Casas should supplant him to strengthen the Red Sox infield.
Hunter Greene, RHP CIN - It had been three years since we saw Greene on a mound in a ball game after going through Tommy John in 2019 and then Covid in 2020 but it was quite the return as he posted a 3.30 ERA (3.65 FIP, 3.57 xFIP) in 106 innings between Double-A and Triple-A with 65.1 coming at the higher level. While the ERA jumped up and the K-rate dropped, the ERA can be explained by giving up 11 homers in those 65 innings, though seven came in just two starts, and a K-rate of nearly 29-percent is still elite. He brings triple-digit speeds on the fastball and big-time movement on his breaking balls both remaining late in starts and the command remained good for a guy with his stuff, sticking between 3.07 and 3.44 BB/9 last year. Updated: The Reds have stated that Greene will be on the Opening Day roster and make his MLB debut on April 10th. It's time to see what that 102-mph heater can do against big league hitters.
Riley Greene, OF DET - The Tigers might have gotten a lot of attention of the last year or two for their trio of young pitchers, but now it’s time for their young bats to start making a difference. Torkelson was already mentioned but Greene could be up a third of the way through the year too. He played 124 games across Double and Triple-A last year, slashing .301/.387/.534 with 24 homers, 95 runs, 84 RBI, and 16 steals which was good for a .398 wOBA and .921 OPS. While the K-rate of 27.4-percent wasn’t great, the walk rate of 11.3-percent was great. The power-speed combo for the 21-year-old outfielder is real as he grades out with plus-power and average speed. He’ll start in Triple-A this year but by June he should keep up with the Tigers moving one of the current outfielders to DH.
Added: Jeremy Peña, SS HOU - Just like his late-blooming skillset, he's a late addition to this list. It took Carlos Correa leaving the team to give Pena the upside to add him. It also took him being a candidate to hit near, or at, the top of the Astros' lineup. The 24-year-old shortstop was a third-round pick in the 2018 draft and reached Triple-A last year. While he only played 30 games at Triple-A, he hit .287 with 10 homers and five steals. The skills have been on display this spring as well, both defensively and offensively. Pena is a patient hit with developing pop and a good hit tool. All of that plays to a hitter capable of hitting .275 with 15-20 home runs and double-digit steals this year. Let's also not forget that Dusty Baker has already said that Pena will get the shot to be the full-time shortstop for the Astros this year.
Joe Barlow, RHP TEX - Barlow came a bit out of nowhere last year to claim the closer role after Ian Kennedy was dealt and solidified the role going into 2022. He pitched 50 total innings between Triple-A and the majors with a combined 18 saves, 11 of which were for Texas, 1.98 ERA, 3.29 FIP, 0.80 WHIP, 29.5-percent K-rate, and 10.5-percent BB-rate not to mention a 12.2 inning scoreless streak from July to early August. The high-leverage numbers are even better for him as well in terms of SLG, OBP, wOBA, and BAA which is what you want from a closer. There is no one on the roster coming to take his job and with the Rangers focused on spending in the rotation and offense, Barlow comes in as a cheap closing on option for a team that should be in a lot of close games.
Oneil Cruz, SS PIT - There’s not much to talk about with the Pirates right now, but Cruz is just too big to ignore. I mean that literally. He’s 6’7” and trying to play shortstop, which won’t last long. The Pirates have some depth in the middle infield and will likely move Cruz to the outfield, right field specifically, as he profiles better there with a strong arm and a TON of pop. He had 18 homers in 70 games across three levels last year, including two games in Pittsburgh, with 63 runs and 50 RBI. Pittsburgh is in the middle of a massive overhaul of the roster so at-bats will be available for Cruz wherever they play him, and the power is, like his height, just too much to ignore.
Nolan Gorman, 2B STL - Originally drafted to be the next third baseman for the Cardinals, that plan has clearly changed now with Nolan Arenado manning the hot corner for the next several years. They moved Gorman to second base this past year and while he’s still a work in progress, it wasn’t all that bad overall on defense. Offensively though, that’s what’s going to get him to the majors quickly as he has some of the best raw power in all of the minor leagues right now and that really started to show in 2021 even with the position change. He slashed .279/.333/.481 with 25 homers, 75 RBI, 71 runs, and seven steals in 119 games, 76 of which were at Triple-A Memphis. There’s some flexibility in the middle infield and outfield for the Cardinals this year and Gorman should play his way into that mix sooner rather than later.
Julio Rodríguez, OF SEA - The Mariners were the talk of the preseason last year both for good and bad reasons and Rodriguez fits a bit into both categories, though not directly (google comments by their former team president). Rodriguez put all that behind him and played spectacularly in 2021 between High-A and Double-A with a .347/.441/.560 slash line, 13 homers, 34 total extra-base hits, 64 runs, 47 RBI, and 21 steals in 74 games at age 20. He also played for the Dominican Republic in the Olympics as well which shortened his year a bit as well. He’ll start in Triple-A but should be up in Seattle once June hits so that the dynamic duo of he and Jared Kelenic can really show what the next several seasons will look like in Seattle.
Brennen Davis, OF CHC - It’s been a while since we’ve talked highly about a Cubs’ prospect or rookie. Really, it’s been since the class that won them the World Series. Davis is changing all that. The former second-round pick out of the prep ranks reached Triple-A at age 21 last year, though only for 15 games, while playing at the three highest levels in the Chicago system. Over 96 games, Davis slashed a .268/.379/.510 line with 19 homers, 66 runs, 53 RBI, and eight steals with the bulk (76 games) coming at Double-A. He is in line to be a starting centerfielder for the Cubs with 60-grade power and 55-grade speed and a slightly below-average hit tool. 2022 will be a year of roster turnover for the Cubs and Davis will be a part of that come early-June.
Cade Cavalli, RHP WAS - Cavalli has been the prospect that’s been most talked about in the Nationals’ system practically since they drafted him and there’s good reason for that as he’s a frontline type of arm. He never pitched in pro ball in 2020 due to the Covid year and in 2021 he went 123 innings across three levels including 24.2 at Triple-A. His overall stat line was very good with a 3.36 ERA (2.87 FIP 3.52 xFIP) with a 12.77 K/9 and 34.2-percent K-rate. That being said, his numbers did get worse as he jumped up levels and especially at Triple-A with an 8.7 K/9 and 4.74 BB/9 because he started to nibble in the zone instead of going right after hitters. The four-pitch mix he uses is more than enough to strike major league hitters at a high rate, it’s just a matter of him showing more control and then he’ll easily be up to fill a very thin major league rotation. We should see him hit around 150 innings total given his 123 innings last year.
Sammy Long, RHP SF - Two Giants in this write-up a year after winning a league-best 107 games? Well, they did lose some pieces to that team that overachieved and a few of those pieces were in the rotation. Long pitched at three levels last year including making 12 appearances, five starts for the Giants, posting a 3.95 combined ERA, 3.50 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 9.99 K/9, 27.2 K-rate, 3.07 BB/9, and 8.27 BB-rate. While the ERA in the majors wasn’t spectacular at 5.53, he was better as a starter at 4.43 (3.95 FIP) in just over half the innings he spent in San Fran. The K/9 rate was far better too at 9.27 compared to 7.36 as a reliever. He has the stuff to be a solid number four starter in the big leagues and the Giants need some back-of-the-rotation help in 2022.
Camilo Doval, RHP SF - A second closer on this list? Have I lost my mind? Not really, no. Perusing the Twitterverse we all see that closer and their high ADPs have been the talk of early draft season, so they’re clearly in demand. Doval is coming into the year as the suspected closer for the Giants after getting three saves and five wins out of the pen last year and putting up tasty strikeout numbers (37 Ks in 29 innings) but the reason he’s further behind Barlow is that there is more competition for the job in San Francisco. Jake McGee alone is enough competition but if Tyler Rogers comes back, that’s 44 saves combined waiting to pounce on any struggles Doval has. The saves and strikeouts can be tantalizing but there’s risk here.
Added: Aaron Ashby, LHP MIL - It's always tricky trying to see what a Brewers' pitching prospect will turn into knowing how they use their arms. Ashby has come up as a starter through the Brewers' system and profiles as a number four starter. He doesn't have dominating stuff by any means but he knows how to use the tools he has to strike out hitters at a good clip. In fact, at every stop in the minors he put up double-digit K/9, except one year. Last year in the 31.2 innings in the majors, he posted an 11.08 K/9 rate as well splitting between starting and releiving. That's likely his role for Milwaukee this year as well but he could get more starts than relief appearances if things go his way and he replaces Eric Lauer in the rotation. Expect a high-threes ERA, solid WHIP, and a good K-rate with a shot at wins in either role.
Shane Baz, RHP TB - Baz came up and made an appearance for the Rays toward the end of the year last year and it was great but short-lived. He pitched at three levels in 2021 with stops in Double-A, Triple-A, and MLB totaling 92 innings while posting ERAs at 2.48 or below at each stop. While the FIP did get up over 4.00 in the majors, it’s hard to take that with anything but a grain of salt as he pitched just 13 innings in three starts. The Rays need pitching depth in the rotation with Yonny Chirinos, Tyler Glasnow, and Brendan McKay all expected to miss all of, if not a big chunk of, the 2022 season which should open a good number of innings for Baz. The young righty put up fantastic strikeout and walk rates last year as he rounded into form with a combined 12.8 K/9, 37.8-percent K-rate, 1.56 BB/9, and 4.59 BB-rate. The double-plus fastball-slider combo is enough to make him a threat to major league hitters but the other two pitches in his arsenal are what make him a frontline starter prospect. The only risk here is he’s likely to be limited to 120-130 innings. UPDATE: Baz underwent an elbow cleanup procedure and is expected to be out until late May.
Edward Cabrera, RHP MIA - Cabrera got a taste of the majors toward the end of last year with a 26.1-inning stint but it didn’t exactly go well. He posted a 5.81 ERA, 8.17 xERA, and 6.63 FIP as he was really hurt by walks and home runs. Cabrera posted a 6.49 BB/9 and 2.05 HR/9 rates and it didn’t really matter if he was at home or away as he gave up the same number of walks and homers in nearly the same innings load at home and away. He is one of the talented arms coming up for the Marlins as they have basically an entire rotation in Double-A and above, but if he wants to stick in the majors long-term he’ll have to harness what’s worked for him in ERA, K-rate, BB-rate, and HR-rate in the upper minors where all of those numbers showed him as a number-two starter in the future.