One of the most intriguing aspects of MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement was the incentive for teams to promote top prospects. If their players finish among the top two in the league in the rookie of the year balloting, teams receive a valuable bonus draft pick.
For a change, many of the top-rated minor leaguers actually began the regular season on major league rosters (or were called up almost immediately). However, the jolt of excitement quickly faded as consensus top-10 prospects Bobby Witt Jr. (.217, 3 HR through Sunday’s games), Julio Rodriguez (.264, 2 HR, but 10 SB), Spencer Torkelson (.153, 3 HR) and C.J. Abrams (.182, 0 HR) have mostly struggled in their big-league debuts.
Abrams, along with top-50 prospects Bryson Stott (.135, 0 HR) and Josh Lowe (.188, 1 HR), even had to return to the minor leagues.
Yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about these talented youngsters. For starters, hardly anyone hit well over the first month of the season. Also, true talent eventually rises to the top. Witt and Rodriguez in particular have seemingly turned a corner recently.
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The good news is: the prospect well is far from running dry. We’ve already seen a second wave of prospects promoted this month, and more could be on the way soon. Let's rank the best of this new wave based on their potential impact this season.
5 (already) up
5. SS Royce Lewis, Minnesota Twins. The first overall pick in the 2017 draft , Lewis, 23, missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery. A 1.014 OPS at Class AAA Salt Lake and a hand injury to Carlos Correa led to his MLB debut on May 5 and he’s been solid as the Twins’ everyday shortstop.
He’s already hit a ball with a 114 mph exit velocity, putting him among the top 20 batters this season. In the same game vs. Cleveland, he also hit his first big-league homer, a grand slam.
— Minnesota Twins (@Twins) May 14, 2022
Correa’s return could be Lewis’ ticket back to the minors … or the Twins could look for a way to get him in the lineup at another position. Regardless, he needs to be on the major league roster if Minnesota wants to remain atop the AL Central.
4. C MJ Melendez, Kansas City Royals. After leading the entire minor leagues last season with 41 home runs, Melendez made his MLB debut on May 3 when backup catcher Cam Gallagher went on the injured list. While no one is going to replace All-Star Salvador Perez, Melendez’s bat is powerful enough to warrant a spot in the lineup – especially on a team that finished last in the AL in homers a year ago.
3. OF/1B Juan Yepez, St. Louis Cardinals. One of the Cardinals’ last roster cuts in spring training, Yepez, 24, forced their hand with nine homers and 26 RBI in 22 games at Class AAA Memphis. He’s been even better in St. Louis, hitting a scorching .366 with a pair of homers and a 1.020 OPS in 46 plate appearances.
He’s not a great defender (unlike just about everyone else on the Cardinals), so Yepez has seen most of his at-bats as a DH. While that’s usually Albert Pujols’ domain, the right-handed hitting Yepez has been quite effective against right-handed pitchers. As long as he keeps doing that, he’ll get regular at-bats.
2. OF Alek Thomas, Arizona Diamondbacks. Thomas displayed both power (18 HR) and speed (13 SB) last season in the minors. In his first seven games with the D’backs, the 22-year-old had a homer and three doubles to go with a .400 on-base percentage, three RBI and five runs scored – while starting most everyday in center field. He could be a fixture there for a long time.
1. SP George Kirby, Seattle Mariners. Kirby lost the fifth starter’s job in spring training to fellow rookie Matt Brash, but Brash’s early struggles opened the door to Kirby being promoted directly from Class AA to the majors on May 8.
The 20th overall pick in 2019 was superb in striking out seven over six scoreless innings, then pitched around some defensive lapses in his second start on Saturday. Kirby’s control has been excellent at every stop and he’s walked just one batter in 10 innings with Seattle. Throw in a 96 mph fastball and you have a recipe for long-term success.
5 (still) down
5. 2B Nolan Gorman, St. Louis Cardinals. Entering the week, Gorman leads the minors with 14 home runs and he closed the month of April with a 17-game hitting streak at Class AAA Memphis. But the Cardinals are already having trouble finding regular at-bats for the hot-hitting Yepez. So it will likely take an injury for Gorman to get the call. Even so, his left-handed bat would go a long way toward balancing out a righty-heavy lineup in St. Louis.
Nolan Gorman hits his 13th HR of the season, an 8th inning two-run, go-ahead blast to centerfield!pic.twitter.com/wLWGsUGMRQ
— Cardinals Player Development (@CardsPlayerDev) May 12, 2022
4. SP Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles. The loss of ace John Means for the rest of the season could have created a rotation opening for Rodriguez. However, the Orioles have held off promoting their prized right-hander, despite a 3.09 ERA with 46 strikeouts and only one home run allowed in 32 innings at Class AAA Norfolk (entering Tuesday's start).
— Norfolk Tides (@NorfolkTides) May 18, 2022
Like many other top minor leaguers, Rodriguez, 22, would need to be added to Baltimore’s 40-man roster before he can make his MLB debut. And as fantasy managers are well aware, finding someone to cut can be even more difficult than finding someone to add.
3. SP Max Meyer, Miami Marlins. The Marlins have a wealth of excellent pitching prospects, with Meyer, 23, at the top of the list. He could use a third pitch to go with a mid-90s fastball and killer slider, but it’s hard to argue with the results so far. The third overall pick in 2020 posted a 2.97 ERA in his first seven starts this year at Class AAA, and among his 43 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings (10.7 K/9): Ronald Acuna Jr. (twice) during his April rehab stint.
Max Meyer fanned seven -- including rehabbing Ronald Acuña Jr. twice -- for the @JaxShrimp.
The No. 3 @Marlins prospect (and MLB No. 34) has 27 K's over his first 19 2/3 innings of 2022. pic.twitter.com/UAYpSSDLWl
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) April 24, 2022
2. SS Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates. Cruz did make a brief two-game appearance in the majors at the end of last season, but the Pirates sent him back to the minors this spring to … work on his defense. Yes, the incentive for starting top prospects in the majors wasn’t enough for the Pirates, so Cruz, 23, has been left to unleash his powerful bat on Triple-A pitchers.
Oneil Cruz is getting bored with the minor leagues pic.twitter.com/1VBt22B0dN
— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) April 25, 2022
He had a career-high five RBI on Sunday and last week hit a ball with an exit velocity of 121.7 mph that made the fielder back up when he caught it. The center fielder. Now that’s power. To be fair, Cruz was hitting .185 in his first 30 games at Class AAA Indianapolis, but the talented 6-7 shortstop can be a force once he finally gets to Pittsburgh.
1. C Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles. The No. 1 overall pick in 2019, Rutschman looked poised to open the season in Baltimore until a triceps strain sidelined him for more than a month this spring. But he returned to action in late April and is poised for a call-up at any time.
Rutschman is already 24 so there’s little benefit to keeping him in the minors once he’s fully healthy. As a switch-hitting catcher with power from both sides of the plate – and excellent defensive skills behind it – Rutschman has superstar potential.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB top prospects: Best of the new wave of future stars