In ESPN’s Top 100 Baseball Players for 2021, here’s our prediction on who’s next in our MLB rankings among the 30 clubs that didn’t make it this year.
In most cases, that means they will be added to the roster before the 2022 season or perhaps the 2023 season, as each team has roster-eligible players who leave each year. So it seems foolish to project a minor league player who is still a few years away from the big leagues – although there are circumstances where it makes perfect sense.
In 2019, 99 players recorded 3.0 WAR or more in the fan chart to establish a pure cutoff point. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean you’re having a 3-win season, it means you’re seen as a 3-win talent, those are very different things. Few relievers have reached that level of performance, and even fewer are expected to be able to repeat it; the same goes for players with more limited physical abilities. As a reference for some of the lesser-known names, here’s my list of the top 100 prospects for 2021.
Charlie Morton, RHP.
Atlanta presents a challenge as the eight obvious candidates were selected. Morton and Travis d’Arnaud are solid veterans in the rundown, Drew Waters and Christian Pace are aspirants not quite ready to break through, Kyle Wright and Bryce Wilson are on a roller coaster for aspiring developers, and Austin Riley has yet to make his major league debut.
I picked Morton because, even though he’s 37 and his speed has slowed a bit, his performance (even in the playoffs) doesn’t indicate that he’s a 3+ starter yet. In retrospect, I think the Rays would rather have him back than spend nearly as much money on free agents for Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, Collin McHugh and Chaz Rowe this year.
Dolton Warshaw, C.
The Snakes have an exciting farm system full of high-potential players, but it will be a few years before they get there, while a former top 100 prospect, Warshaw, will get plenty of playing time this year. He’s mostly used in the outfield, but he’s a naturally good catcher who fits well in the reality of the 2022 automatic strike zone, though Carson Kelly is better behind the plate.
Adley Rutschman, C.
The O’s don’t have anyone on the roster this year, but they do have one of the best prospects in baseball – although it’s unlikely he’ll make the Big Leagues this year and thus won’t be on the roster next season either.
Barring a breakthrough from John Means, Baltimore is unlikely to add anyone to the roster next year, and Rutschmann has a realistic chance of starting in 2022, so I’m projecting him on our MLB roster for the start of the 2023 season. The O’s were picked second this summer, so there probably won’t be a pitcher like Kumar Rocker or Jack Leiter in the big leagues.
Chris Sale, LHP
Sale and Noah Syndergaard are not well regarded because they are essentially projecting WAR this season, and they are both coming off a Tommy John surgery and won’t play the entire season anyway. Still, it’s likely both will succeed if you make a prediction three years from now or even the actual talent level, so it’s easy to see Sale next year.
Ian Happ, Chief Financial Officer
Happ will be on the list this year if he has a breakthrough 162 games, so he’s an easy choice for this list. He’d get 5 WAR if you extrapolate his numbers over the whole season, he’d have the low stats and pedigree to back it up, and he’d be able to play six positions in the field skillfully. Wilson Contreras is playing below his WAR values because he’s not that good at the quantitative elements of catching, and he’s probably already peaked as a player on the margins.
Andrew Vaughn, 1B
The Padres, White Sox and Marlins have the most solid candidates on this list. The Padres and White Sox have a deep, competitive roster and many promising players, while the Marlins have only a solid group of young players.
Veteran pitchers like Lance Lynn, Liam Hendricks and Dallas Keuchel are good options, but they’ve probably reached their peak and aren’t on the roster this year. Meanwhile, two elite White Sox prospects who didn’t make the list – 1B Andrew Vaughn and RHP Michael Kopech – have a realistic chance of becoming Rookie of the Year in 2021. I’m going with Vaughn because it’s easier for a position player to make the team than a pitcher.
Sonny Gray, RHP.
Gray has been pretty much the same pitcher his entire career, so I don’t know why he’s not on the list this year. Several stable, healthy, experienced starters like Lance Lynn, Zack Greinke, Charlie Morton, and Kevin Gausman were also not selected, and I think some of them were among the last to be selected, given their track record.
James Karinchak, RDF
I’m tempted to vote for Nolan Jones, but the choice goes to Karinchak because he’s already probably the best reliever not on the list, and he definitely belongs in the top three. In 32.1 innings, Karinchak is on par with Josh Hader (who made the list) or Liam Hendricks (who just missed out) and he’s only 25. There aren’t many mistakes, and he needs to keep that up as the season progresses, but he’s almost there.
On the Rockies’ roster were star player Trevor Story, who has likely been released, and ace Nemec Marquez. Colorado is not in a good position in many ways, and the best candidate for the team of the future is a 19-year-old who hasn’t played a pro game yet. Other possibilities include a boost from John Gray, a rebound from Kyle Freeland or Charlie Blackmon, or a breakthrough from the oft-injured former candidate Brendan Rodgers.
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These players are all good, but seem to be in the top 100 of the game, while Veen could play three seasons in the big leagues. It seems unlikely that he’ll be the next big player in Colorado, but I don’t know who I’d rather have. They get #8 in the draft this summer, so no shiny new 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 on the 2022 roster early enough to make the team for the 2023 season. The Tigers failed to recruit anyone this year, and I don’t think the pitchers who are candidates next year (Spencer Turnbull, Matt Boyd, Casey Mays, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal) will break through enough to make the roster. All of these pitchers are threatening to make the 2023 team, as is Riley Green.
Kyle Tucker, RF.
I’m a little surprised Zack Greinke isn’t on the list, with 5.4 WAR in 2019 and on his way to even more in the shortened 2020 season. However, he’s 37 and will likely continue to regress, so I don’t see the same group adding him to the team next year. Justin Verlander would have been a different casualty had he not undergone Tommy John surgery. He’s also 38 years old. I think Tucker was the same this year, with 2.0 WAR over his last 80 games, and he has a pedigree of prospects and designers, and he just turned 24.
Adalberto Mondesi, SS
Mondesi is at his peak and is a real threat to the team this year, having put up 6.6 WAR in his 236 MLB games so far. It’s perfectly reasonable to predict that he will continue to do so and make next year’s team.
From fantasy to play to rest: Passan has a lot of thoughts on runners and teams that will be very successful next year.
Jeff Passan’s predictions for 2021
On the other hand, Bobby Witt Jr. He’s 20 years old, has played 37 official pro games (all as a rookie), and has real issues with momentum and absence, but in some ways he’s still a very reasonable second option.
Brandon Marsh, Chief Financial Officer
The Angels have a few established players in the big leagues 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, Joe Adell, and Reed Detmers should be ready for the MLB by the end of 2021. I choose Marsh because I prefer the position player over the hitter and emphasize contact speed in these situations.
Gavin Lux, 2B.
The Dodgers have 10 players on the roster this year and still have some good options for my next pick. At the top of the prospect list are Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz, who will likely get a chance to play in the MLB in 2020, even if they don’t make the roster. Tony Gonsolin is even more intriguing after his breakout year in 2020, but he’s now the Dodgers’ seventh starter, so we may have to wait another year for a big performance to put him on the list. The pick should be Lux, who was a top-five aspirant in baseball last year and is still only 23, has 42 mediocre games to his name and is only prevented from becoming an everyday player by a platoon with Chris Taylor.
Sixto Sanchez, RHP.
The Marlins have many candidates on this list, simply because they have a solid group of young players, but only one player (Starling Marte) who made the top 100 in 2021. Four young members of the opening day rotation (Sanchez, Pablo Lopez, Trevor Rodgers, Sandy Alcantara) are good options, while a deep roster of position players is led by the current big man (Brian Anderson) and a dynamic outfield prospect who got a cup of coffee last year (Jazz Chisholm). Anderson seems to have exhausted his potential (7.8 WAR in 366 MLB games) and was not retained, while Sanchez has a big mountain to climb as a right-handed starter, but has the ingredients to get there this year or next.
Corbin Burns, RHP.
The Brewers have a major league roster and a farm system in the bottom five, so combined with the emergence of Devin Williams, it makes sense to trade Josh Hader for a mix of young talent. It also makes it easier to choose, because anyone in this heavyweight group who isn’t on the team is a good choice. Burns and Keston Huera are candidates, and Burns is my pick here because of his 13 successful big league starts, plus a positive buzz in the spring, as noted by hat lover Jeff Passan.
Byron Buxton, Chief Financial Officer
The Twins have four players on the roster this year, but Buxton and Max Kepler were both absent despite their recent incidents. Buxton has put up 3.9 WAR in his last 126 games, while Kepler has put up 5.4 WAR in his last 182 games. Buxton has ridiculous talent and background, so he’s a toss-up, but recurring injuries have limited his durability.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP
Sale and Syndergaard didn’t make the cut, as we had planned this season especially WAR. Neither will play the entire season after Tommy John surgery. Nevertheless, both will probably work if we project three years ahead to the true talent level, so it’s a bit of a formula. Thor will be a free agent after the season, but unless he has a fantastic second half, he’ll probably get a shorter contract, so his chances of returning to the Mets are pretty good.
Jameson Tyon, RHP.
The Yankees are a tough team this year, with most of their talent in the top 100. In addition to these players, there’s a solid group of prospects whose results are likely to be just off the charts (Davey Garcia, Clark Schmidt, Yoendris Gomez), a few former elite pitchers coming off injuries (Taillon, Luis Severino), Corey Kluber, a solid group of position players around his prime (Gary Sanchez, Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela), and some growth prospects in the minors (Jasson Dominguez, Kevin Alcantara, Alexander Vargas, Ezequiel Duran, Antonio Gomez). I’m going for Taillon because his last two seasons were of a high enough level to get on the team, but there’s no great candidate here.
Ramon Laureano, Financial Director
Oakland has a hot ball duo in Jesus Luzardo and Sean Murphy that would fit in almost any club. But Oakland also has one of the most underrated players in the game in Laureano, who has a 7.4 WAR in 225 MLB career games. He should have been on the roster this year, and I think with a full 2020, that would have been obvious. Luzardo and Murphy are among the top bets to take second place next year as well.
Alec Bohm, 3B.
Bomb and the Ke’Bryan Hayes Pirates are probably the two easiest choices on the list. They’ve played well in the big leagues, are top young players with prospects and a good reputation, and were probably only half a season away from a place on the roster anyway.
Key’Brian Hayes, 3B.
As previously stated, Hayes is an easy pick here after being a great rookie, validating his prospect status and draft pedigree.
Trent Grisham, Chief Financial Officer
The Padres (along with the Marlins and White Sox) have one of the deepest rosters. There are attractive prospects who could break through, but probably won’t be in the top 100 for a few years (C.J. Abrams, Mackenzie Gore, Ha-Song Kim), stable veterans who could make the roster next year (Austin Nola, Joe Musgrove), and even a dynamic arm who needs to regain his game after returning from surgery (Mike Clevinger).
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I picked Grisham because he should be on the team this year anyway. He’s 24 years old and was good for six wins last season, although he had some luck, and he’s more of a person for three or four wins.
Marco Luciano, 3B.
The Giants have a deep roster of solid but unimpressive players, with only Mike Yastrzemski in the top 100. Kevin Gausman is a strong candidate for next year if he can continue his 2020 campaign, but pitchers with longer track records (Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, Charlie Morton, Zack Greinke) didn’t make the list this year, so the bar has been raised for breakthroughs.
Luciano may have the most potential in baseball among the non-Broadway mavericks to reach the big leagues in a few seasons, so he’s the best player for that purpose in the organization. If I extrapolate the identity of the next Giants player to make this list, it’s actually a free agent they’re going to give nine years to this winter.
Jarred Kelenik, RF
No Mariners made the list this year, and the easy pick of the year 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 decline. Because I have some long-term issues with Lewis, I’m picking Kelenic because he seems destined to play in the big league in 2021. He will hit for power with some defensive value like Lewis, but he has more offensive potential.
Paul DeJongh, SS.
Dylan Carlson is a top 20 prospect in baseball and was a late 2020, so he would be a solid pick for most teams, but that’s not the case here. Tommy Edman has a deceptively strong record in the Major League (4.1 WAR in 157 games), but I think his performance in 2020 is more in line with what he will offer in the future.
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DeJong had a poor 45-game hitting streak in 2020, but he has just 27 games left and has recorded 3.1, 3.3 and 4.1 WAR in his first three Big League seasons. He should have been on the list, and I think he will earn that spot again in 2021.
Vander Franco, SS.
Franco is the best prospect in nearly a decade, and he enters this year without having allowed anything really bad in baseball. Maybe he stumbles and doesn’t play enough to make next year’s team. In that case, a resurgence of Willie Adames could put him next on the list, or the Rays doing Glasnow with Luis Patino could also put the young pitcher on the 2022 team.
Joey Gallo, RF.
Gallo must have missed the list after the 2020 show. He is still a consistent player with three wins in his prime, and he has a strong instrument that stands out with its majestic raw power. He is a strong candidate, much like Josh Hader in Milwaukee, to be traded for several young players to complete the core of their clubs looking to build over the next five years.
Nate Pearson, RHP.
Danny Jansen could break into the top-100 this year, and Alex Manua could move up to the big leagues and get into the lineup for Pearson, but Pearson is the better option here. He has real starting potential and has already gotten his feet wet in the big leagues.
Victor Robles, Chief Financial Officer
Robles was just terrible in 2020 and may only be a solid hitter with two or three wins, but he has a broad skill base and a pedigree that is more than that. Pitchers like Jackson Rutledge and Cade Cavalli are not good options either. Carter Kieboom is another possible candidate and another solid prospect who had a terrible 2020 season, while Robles at least had a solid 2019 to build on.
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