To coincide with ESPN’s ranking of the top 100 players in baseball for 2021, the exercise here is to predict who will be the next to make our MLB Rank list from each of the 30 clubs among those who did not this year.
For the most part, that means either they will make the list before the 2022 season or maybe the 2023 season, because every team will have players falling in and out of contention for the list every year. So it seems silly to project a minor leaguer who’s years away from making the big leagues — though there are circumstances where that makes some sense.
In 2019, 99 players posted 3.0 WAR or higher per FanGraphs, so that provides a tidy cutoff point. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean posting one 3-win season, but being perceived as being a 3-win talent, which are very different things. Only a couple of relievers get to this level of performance, and even fewer are seen as likely to repeat it; same goes for players with more limited physical tools. For reference on some of the more unfamiliar names, here is my 2021 top 100 prospects list.
Charlie Morton, RHP
Atlanta is a tough one for this exercise as all eight of the obvious candidates have made the list. Morton and Travis d’Arnaud are both solid veterans in their decline phase, Drew Waters and Cristian Pache are prospects not quite ready to fully break through, Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson have been on a roller coaster in terms of development, and Austin Riley hasn’t put it together in his big league time.
I chose Morton because while he’s 37 and his velo has slipped a bit, there have been no signs in his performance (even in the playoffs) that he’s not still a 3-plus-win starter. I think with hindsight the Rays would rather have him back than spend basically the same amount this year in free-agent deals on Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Chaz Roe.
The Snakes have an exciting farm system full of upside position players, but they’re largely a couple of years away, while a recent top-100 prospect list graduate in Varsho will get a lot of playing time this year. He’ll get looks mostly in the outfield but is naturally a catcher who is well-suited to the 2022 reality of the automated strike zone, though Carson Kelly is better behind the plate.
Adley Rutschman, C
The O’s don’t have anyone on this year’s list, but they do have the No. 2 overall prospect in all of baseball — though he’s very unlikely to make the big leagues this year, and thus unlikely to make this list next season.
Short of a John Means breakthrough season, Baltimore likely won’t place anyone on next year’s list and Rutschman has a real shot to debut in 2022, so I’ll project him for our MLB Rank before the 2023 season opens. The O’s have the No. 2 overall pick this summer, so there likely won’t be an express-path-to-the-big-leagues pitcher like Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter around.
Chris Sale, LHP
Sale and Noah Syndergaard didn’t rate well since this is basically projecting WAR for this season and they will both be coming off Tommy John surgery and won’t play a full season anyway. That said, both probably make it if we’re doing a three-year or even a health-independent true talent level projection, so it’s easy to see Sale in next year’s edition.
Ian Happ, CF
Happ makes this year’s list if his breakout happened in a 162-game season, so he’s an easy pick for this list. He would’ve posted 5 WAR if you extrapolated his numbers out to a full season, he had the underling stats and pedigree to support it and he can capably play six positions in the field. Willson Contreras plays below his WAR totals, as he’s not that great at the nonquantified elements of catching, and he has probably already peaked as a fringe-type player.
Andrew Vaughn, 1B
The Padres, White Sox and Marlins have the deepest pool of strong candidates for this list. The Padres and White Sox have a deep, contending team and a bunch of top-100 prospects, while the Marlins simply have a bunch of solid, young players.
Veteran pitchers such as Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks and Dallas Keuchel are good options but have probably already peaked and didn’t make this year’s list. Meanwhile, two of the White Sox’s elite prospects that didn’t make the list — 1B Andrew Vaughn and RHP Michael Kopech — both have real Rookie of the Year chances in 2021. I’ll go with Vaughn since it seems easier for a position player to break onto the list than a pitcher.
Sonny Gray, RHP
Gray has essentially been the same pitcher in terms of results with the same velocity almost his entire career, so I’m not sure why he’s not on this year’s list. A number of steady, healthy, veteran starters such as Lance Lynn, Zack Greinke, Charlie Morton and Kevin Gausman didn’t make it, either, and I’m guessing a few were among the last couple of cuts, given their track records.
James Karinchak, RHP
I’m tempted to choose Nolan Jones, but Karinchak is the pick because he may already be the best reliever not on the list and is certainly in the top three. Over 32.1 big league innings, Karinchak is performing at the rate of Josh Hader (who made the list) or Liam Hendriks (just missed) and is just 25 years old. There’s not much margin for error, and he’ll need to keep this up for a full season, but he’s basically already there.
Zac Veen, RF
The Rockies had likely-to-depart franchise player Trevor Story and ace German Marquez on the list. Things aren’t going great in Colorado in many ways, and the best bet to land on a future list is a 19-year-old who hasn’t played a professional game yet. The other choices are banking on a step forward from pending free agent Jon Gray, a resurgence from Kyle Freeland or Charlie Blackmon, or a breakout from oft-injured former prospect Brendan Rodgers.
Those players are all fine but seem like a tier beneath top 100 in the game, while Veen could be in the big leagues in three seasons. It seems unlikely that he’ll be Colorado’s next elite player, but I’m not sure who I feel better about. They’re picking No. 8 in the draft this summer, so there won’t be a new shiny toy clearly better than Veen.
Spencer Torkelson, 1B
He hasn’t played a pro game yet, but I think Torkelson has a real chance to be up early enough in 2022 to make this list before the 2023 season. The Tigers didn’t land anyone on this year’s list, and I don’t think the pitchers who are candidates to make it next year (Spencer Turnbull, Matt Boyd, Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal) will break through enough to make the list. All of those pitchers will be threats to make the 2023 list, as will outfield prospect Riley Greene.
Kyle Tucker, RF
I’m kind of amazed Zack Greinke didn’t make the list, with 5.4 WAR in 2019 and on pace for even more in the shortened 2020 season. That said, he’s 37 and presumably will be regressing further, so I can’t imagine this same panel putting him on next year’s list. Justin Verlander would’ve been another shoo-in if he had not undergone Tommy John surgery. He’s also 38. I think Tucker also belonged on the list this year, with 2.0 WAR over his last 80 games, and he has prospect and draft pedigree and just turned 24.
Mondesi is in his prime and was a real threat to make the list this year after posting 6.6 WAR in his previous 236 MLB games. It’s totally reasonable to project him to keep this up and make next year’s list.
On the other hand, Bobby Witt Jr. is 20 years old, has played 37 official pro games (all in rookie ball), and has real swing-and-miss concerns, but somehow still is a totally reasonable second option.
Brandon Marsh, CF
The Angels have a few established big leaguers just below the cutoff who could break through (David Fletcher, Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney), but I think the top of the prospect list makes sense as Marsh, Jo Adell and Reid Detmers should all be MLB-ready by the end of 2021. I’ll go with Marsh as I tend to lean position player over hitter and emphasize contact rate in these situations.
Gavin Lux, 2B
The Dodgers put 10 players on this year’s list and still have some solid options for my next pick. The top of the prospect list has Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz, both likely to get some MLB time in 2020 albeit buried on the depth chart. Tony Gonsolin is even more interesting after his breakout 2020, but he’s the Dodgers’ seventh starter right now, so we may have to wait another year for the bulk performance to land him on the list. The pick has to be Lux, a consensus top-five prospect in baseball at this time last year, and still just 23, with 42 mediocre MLB games under his belt and only a platoon with Chris Taylor standing in the way of being an everyday lock.
Sixto Sanchez, RHP
The Marlins have many candidates for this list, simply because they have a bunch of solid, young players, but only one player (Starling Marte) who made the 2021 top 100. Four young members of the Opening Day rotation (Sanchez, Pablo Lopez, Trevor Rogers, Sandy Alcantara) are good options, while the deep cast of position players is headlined by a current big leaguer (Brian Anderson) and a dynamic infield prospect who got a cup of coffee last year (Jazz Chisholm). Anderson seems to have reached his upside (7.8 WAR in 366 MLB games) and didn’t make the list, while Sanchez has a high hill to climb as a right-handed starter but possesses the elements needed to do it this year or next.
Corbin Burnes, RHP
The Brewers have a top-heavy big league roster and bottom-five farm system, which is why, combined with the emergence of Devin Williams, trading Josh Hader for a potpourri of young talent makes sense. That also makes this choice simpler, because whoever among that top-heavy group didn’t make the list is a strong option. Burnes and Keston Hiura are the candidates, and Burnes is my choice here because of his 13 successful big league starts, in addition to the positive early spring buzz, as noted by hat enthusiast Jeff Passan.
Byron Buxton, CF
The Twins put four players on this year’s list, but Buxton and Max Kepler both missed despite real cases. Buxton has posted 3.9 WAR over his past 126 games, while Kepler has posted 5.4 WAR over his past 182 games. Buxton has ridiculous tools and pedigree to match, so he’s the pick, but some nagging injuries have limited his durability.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP
Sale and Syndergaard didn’t make the cut since we were basically projecting WAR for this season, and they will both be coming off Tommy John surgery and won’t play a full season. That said, both probably make it if we’re doing a three-year projection on true talent level, so it’s a bit of a technicality. Thor will be a free agent after the season, but unless he has a fantastic second half, he’s probably in line for a shorter-term prove-it deal, so his chances to return to the Mets are pretty good.
Jameson Taillon, RHP
The Yankees are a tough team for this exercise, with much of their top tier of talent on the top 100. Beyond those players there is a solid group of prospects whose outcome is probably just off the list (Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt, Yoendrys Gomez), some formerly elite pitchers coming off injuries (Taillon, Luis Severino, Corey Kluber), a solid position-player group around its peak (Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela) and some upside prospects in the lower minors (Jasson Dominguez, Kevin Alcantara, Alexander Vargas, Ezequiel Duran, Antonio Gomez). I’ll go with Taillon since his last two full seasons were at a level good enough to sneak onto the list, but there isn’t a great candidate here.
Ramon Laureano, CF
Oakland has a sexy graduated prospect duo in Jesus Luzardo and Sean Murphy who would be a fine choice for almost every club. But Oakland also has one of the most underrated players in the game in Laureano, who has posted 7.4 WAR over 225 career MLB games. He should’ve been on the list this year, and I think with a full 2020 that would’ve become obvious. Luzardo and Murphy are some of the best secondary bets to also jump on next year’s list.
Alec Bohm, 3B
Bohm and the Pirates’ Ke’Bryan Hayes are probably the two easiest choices on the entire list. They’ve performed well in the big leagues, are arrow-up, premium young players with prospect and draft pedigree, and may have been just a half-season from making the list anyway.
As mentioned above, Hayes is an easy choice here after a strong rookie year, validating his prospect status and draft pedigree.
Trent Grisham, CF
The Padres (along with the Marlins and White Sox) have one of the deepest lists of candidates here. There are the sexy prospects who could break through but likely don’t make the top 100 for another couple of years (C.J. Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Ha-Seong Kim), the steady veterans who could take one step forward and make next year’s list (Austin Nola, Joe Musgrove) and even the dynamic arm who will need to get back to where he was following his return from surgery (Mike Clevinger).
My pick is Grisham because he should’ve made the list this year anyway. He’s 24 and was on pace for a six-win season last year, even if there was a bit of luck and he’s really more of a three- to four-win type of player.
Marco Luciano, 3B
The Giants have a deep squad of solid but not spectacular players, with only Mike Yastrzemski making the top 100. Kevin Gausman is a solid candidate to make it next year if he can follow up his 2020 campaign, but starting pitchers with longer track records (Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, Charlie Morton, Zack Greinke) all didn’t make the list this year so that bar for breaking through is higher.
Luciano might have the highest upside of any non-Wander Franco prospect in baseball and could be in the big leagues in a couple of seasons, so he’s the best player for this purpose in the organization. If I’m projecting who is the next Giants player to make this list, it’s really the free agent they give nine figures to this winter.
Jarred Kelenic, RF
No Mariners made this year’s list and an easy choice is Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, for his 2.1 WAR in 76 MLB games and loud tools to boot. Kyle Seager is very solid but in his decline phase. Since I have some long-term contact questions with Lewis, I’ll opt for Kelenic, since he seems destined to play in the majors in 2021. He will hit for power with some defensive value like Lewis, but has more offensive upside.
Paul DeJong, SS
Dylan Carlson is a top-20 prospect in baseball and was trending up at the end of 2020, so he’d be a solid choice for most teams but isn’t the call here. Tommy Edman has a deceptively strong track record in the big leagues (4.1 WAR in 157 games), but I think his 2020 performance is more in line with what he’ll offer going forward.
DeJong had a poor 45-game showing in 2020 but is still just 27 and has posted 3.1, 3.3 and 4.1 WAR in his first three big league seasons. He should’ve been on the list and I think he’ll earn that spot again in 2021.
Wander Franco, SS
Franco is the best prospect in almost a decade and he’ll debut this year barring something genuinely bad for baseball happening. It’s possible he’ll stumble out of the gates and not play enough to make next year’s list, in which case a step forward from Willy Adames would probably make him next on the list, or the Rays doing the Glasnow to Luis Patino could also put the young pitcher on the 2022 list.
Joey Gallo, RF
Gallo must’ve just missed the list after a down 2020 showing. He is still a perennial three-win player entering his prime years and has a loud tool that draws attention in his majestic raw power. He is a strong candidate, like Josh Hader in Milwaukee, to be traded for multiple young players to help supplement the core as their clubs look to set themselves up for the next five years.
Nate Pearson, RHP
Danny Jansen might get to a top-100 level this year, and Alek Manoah might rush to the big leagues and jump ahead of Pearson in line, but Pearson is the best choice here. He has legit frontline starter potential and has already gotten his feet wet, showing flashes in the big leagues.
Victor Robles, CF
Robles was flat out awful in 2020 and might be just a solid two- or three-win player going forward, but he has a wide base of skills and pedigree for more than that. In addition, upside/risk pitchers like Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli aren’t great options. Carter Kieboom is the other real candidate and is another pedigreed prospect who had a terrible 2020 season, whereas Robles at least had a solid 2019 he can build on.