Cody Bellinger is already making his case to be recognized as one of the best players in the game
Like every other sport, Major League Baseball's plans were impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, interrupting spring training and delaying the start of the 2020 season. A shortened, 60-game schedule is slated to begin on Thursday (most teams start on Friday), finally giving baseball fans something to cheer about.
Included among those that will be on the field is a group of young players, some who have already left quite an impression and others that may ready to break out. Consider that some of the best players in the game recently turned 25, including NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Pete Alonso, fellow All-MLB first-team selection Josh Hader, All-Stars Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Walker Buehler, and two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. In years past, we included 25-year-olds on our list of the 25 best young players, but this season we're concentrating on the 25 best under the age of 25.
Note: To be eligible, players must be under 25 as of March 26, 2020.
1. Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers (24)
As expected, the reigning National League MVP comes in at No. 1. Bellinger hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs and 115 RBIs in his age-23 season in 2019, reaching career highs in every category. Bellinger led the NL with 351 total bases and was intentionally walked 21 times, which led all big leaguers. He ranked in the top five among all qualified hitters in ISO (.324), wOBA (.415), and wRC+ (162). Thanks to excellent defense (he was honored as the best right fielder in baseball in the Fielding Bible Awards) as well, Bellinger tied for third in all of baseball with 7.8 fWAR.
2. Ronald Acuna Jr., OF, Atlanta Braves (22)
Only four players in major league history, and none since Alfonso Soriano in 2006, have hit 40 home runs and stolen 40 bases in the same season. Acuna launched 41 bombs and swiped 37 bags (most in the National League) as a 21-year-old last season. Acuna hit .280/.365/.518, scored an NL-leading 127 runs, and drove in 101. He finished with 5.6 fWAR, which ranked No. 17 overall, and finished fifth in MVP voting. Acuna was selected for the All-MLB Second Team.
3. Juan Soto, OF, Washington Nationals (21)
Soto just turned 21 but has already established himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League. Soto hit .282/.401/.548 across 150 games in 2019, with 34 home runs, 110 RBIs, and 110 runs scored. He ranked in the top 20 among qualified MLB hitters in ISO (.266), finished ninth in wOBA (.394), and ranked No. 11 in wRC+ (142). Already worth 4.8 wins during the regular season, Soto picked up the pace in the playoffs. He hit .333/.438/.741 with three homers during the World Series and was later named to the All-MLB Second Team.
4. Shane Bieber, SP, Cleveland Indians (24)
Bieber posted remarkable numbers in 2019 to anchor Cleveland's rotation. The right-hander made 34 appearances, including 33 starts, going 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA and 259 strikeouts across 214.1 innings. Bieber tossed two shutouts and three complete games, led the American League with 1.68 walks per nine innings, earned his first All-Star nod, and finished fourth in the AL Cy Young vote. He ranked fourth in the league and No. 11 in the majors in FIP (3.32) and posted a 30.2 percent strikeout rate, which ranked tenth in the big leagues among qualified starters. According to MLB Stats, Bieber forced 364 swinging strikes on breaking balls in 2019 — more than any other pitcher in the majors. Only seven pitchers — and none younger than 24 — were more valuable as Bieber, who was worth 5.6 fWAR.
5. Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox (23)
Only three major league third basemen were more valuable than Rafael Devers last season, according to FanGraphs. Devers posted 5.9 fWAR, which fell behind only Alex Bregman (8.5), Anthony Rendon (7.0) and Matt Chapman (6.1), and tied with Nolan Arenado, at the position. Only Bellinger was better among players 24 or younger. Devers hit .311/.361/.555 with 32 homers and 115 RBIs. He recorded 201 hits and scored 129 runs, both of which ranked second on the MLB leaderboard and led all third basemen. Devers, who won the AL Player of the Month Award in May, led the majors in total bases (359) and led the AL in doubles (54), while ranking in the top 30 in both wOBA (.377) and wRC+ (132) during the regular season.
6. Gleyber Torres, 2B/SS, New York Yankees (23)
Torres made his full-season professional debut in 2014, and he hit 24 home runs as a minor leaguer before his big-league call-up in 2018. Since, Torres has launched 62 homers as a major leaguer — all before turning 23. In 2019, Torres hit .278/.337/.535 with 38 long balls, 90 RBIs, and 96 runs scored while splitting time between shortstop and second base and moving up and down the lineup. Though below-average defensive numbers hurt his overall value, Torres still posted 3.6 fWAR, which ranked No. 45 among qualified position players.
7. Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (24)
Flaherty was largely mediocre in the first half of the 2019 season, with a 4.64 ERA through the All-Star break. However, only Justin Verlander was more valuable among major league pitchers in the second half. Verlander led the big leagues with 4.4 fWAR in the second half. Flaherty was close behind with 4.1, which led the National League and tied with Verlander’s Astros teammate Gerrit Cole. Flaherty posted a 0.91 ERA across 15 starts during that period — best in MLB — and he ranked fourth in FIP (2.22) in the second half. Overall, the right-hander was 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA and 3.46 FIP across 33 starts. He struck out 231 hitters and walked 55 in 196.1 innings. Following back-to-back NL Pitcher of the Month honors in August and September, Flaherty was awarded a Second Team selection on the inaugural All-MLB Team.
8. Yoan Moncada, 3B, Chicago White Sox (24)
Moncada took a huge step forward last season, cutting his strikeout from 33.4 percent in 2018 to a more manageable 27.5 percent last year. Though Moncada’s more aggressive approach also saw his walk rate fall (from 10.3 percent to 7.2 percent), it helped improve nearly all of his other offensive numbers across the board. Moncada hit .316/.367/.548 with 25 home runs, 79 RBIs and 83 runs scored while posting a .379 wOBA, 141 wRC+, and 5.7 fWAR, which ranked No. 16 among all qualified big league position players. Moncada is currently on the 10-day injured list but the White Sox are hopeful he'll be ready to go when they open their season on Friday.
9. Mike Soroka, SP, Atlanta Braves (22)
Not surprisingly, Soroka was unable to beat out 53-homer man Pete Alonso for the NL Rookie of the Year Award in 2019, but Soroka’s performance as a 21-year old starter was one of the best for a rookie in recent memory. Soroka made 29 starts for the Braves and finished 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA. He struck out 142 while allowing 153 hits and 41 walks in 174.2 innings. Soroka surrendered just 14 home runs, and his 0.72 HR/9 led the league and ranked second in the majors. He finished sixth in the NL Cy Young race and earned a spot on the NL All-Star team.
10. Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves (23)
In case you missed it, Albies is the third Atlanta Brave to land on the top 10 of our list, while no other team has placed a second player among the group yet. It would seem the future is bright for the defending NL East champions. As for Albies specifically, the switch-hitting second baseman hit .295/.352/.500 with 24 home runs, 86 RBIs and 102 runs scored. Throw in above-average defense and baserunning ability, and Albies generated 4.6 fWAR in 2019.
11. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres (21)
Tatis made his much-awaited major league debut on Opening Day 2019, and he excelled when healthy. The flashy shortstop finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting while hitting .317/.379/.590 with 22 home runs, 53 RBIs, and 61 runs scored in 81 games. He led all right-handed hitters with a .418 batting average against left-handed pitching. Overall, Tatis was worth 3.6 fWAR, posted a .398 wOBA and 150 wRC+, and though a 29.6 percent strikeout rate is concerning, and his .410 BABIP suggests some regression on the horizon for his batting average, Tatis is one of the game’s top rising stars.
12. Yordan Alvarez, DH, Houston Astros (22)
Designated hitters don’t get a ton of respect for their overall value to a team, but it’s impossible to ignore the offensive numbers Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez put up in 2019. Alvarez hit .313/.412/.655 with 27 home runs, 78 RBIs, and 58 runs scored across 87 games to earn AL Rookie of the Year honors. Among MLB players with at least 100 plate appearances, Alvarez ranked second in wRC+ (178), third in wOBA (.432), and fourth in ISO (.342). He was selected as the All-MLB Second Team DH. Alvarez recently went on the 10-day injured list (IL) for undisclosed reasons.
13. Austin Meadows, OF, Tampa Bay Rays (24)
Because he was born in May, the 2020 MLB season would actually be Meadows’ age-25 campaign, but as of publishing, he’s just 24. And after hitting 33 home runs in his first full season with the Rays, Meadows is an obvious choice for our list. Meadows posted 4.0 fWAR, which ranked in the top 40 among all position players. He hit .291/.364/.558, drove in 89 runs and scored 83, and recorded a 142 wRC+, .268 ISO, .380 wOBA and 142 wRC+, which ranked 11th, 16th, and 22nd, respectively, among qualified hitters. Meadows also won September AL Player of the Month honors. Meadows will likely begin the season on the injured list (IL) after testing positive for the coronavirus.
14. Eloy Jimenez, OF, Chicago White Sox (23)
Excitement is building on the south side of Chicago, and young players like Jimenez are a big reason why. Jimenez was limited by hip injuries as a rookie in 2019 but still managed to hit a solid .267/.315/.513 with 31 home runs, while driving in 79 an scoring 69. A 1.9-win player, Jimenez posted a .343 wOBA, 116 wRC+ an .246 ISO. He also finished strong, claiming AL Rookie of the Month honors in September.
15. Chris Paddack, SP, San Diego Padres (24)
Similarly, San Diego appears ready to compete following another long rebuild. Paddack, who went 9-7 with a 3.33 ERA across 26 starts as a rookie in 2019, is one of the most talented young starters in baseball. Paddack struck out 153 hitters and walked only 31 in 140.2 innings, good for 4.94 K/BB, which ranked 14th in the majors among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. Paddack’s 21.5 percent K-BB rate (26.9 percent strikeout rate minus 5.5 percent walk rate) ranked No. 17 among that group.
16. Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays (22)
Though typically overshadowed by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as a Blue Jays prospect, Bo Bichette made a bigger impact for the major league team after he was promoted to Toronto in July last season. Bichette opened his big league career with an 11-game hitting streak and hit .311/.358/.571 with 11 home runs in games. Bichette scored 32 times and drove in 21 runs, and he posted a 142 wRC+ and .384 wOBA, which ranked No. 19 and No. 23 among hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.
17. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Toronto Blue Jays (21)
Guerrero didn't come close to the lofty expectations placed upon him as MLB's top prospect in 2019, but that doesn't mean he was bad, especially at the plate, and especially for a 20-year-old. In 514 plate appearances, Guerrero hit .272/.339/.433 with 15 homers, 69 RBIs, and 52 runs scored. He struck out just 17.7 percent of the time, which is decent for a power hitter and ranked among the top 90 among qualified MLB hitters, but Guerrero hit far too many groundballs, which dampened his overall production. His poor defensive performance also dragged down his overall value (Guerrero was worth 0.4 fWAR as a rookie) and the Blue Jays have decided to move him across the diamond to first base. While he has plenty to learn at his new position, the switch could be just what he needs to unlock his immense potential.
18. Keston Hiura, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers (23)
Hiura blossomed into a power hitter in 2019, having connected for 19 home runs in 84 games as a major league rookie after hitting 19 homers in just 57 contests in Triple-A (while playing in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League, but nonetheless). Hiura posted solid overall offensive numbers, including a .303/.368/.570 slash, and knocked in 49 runs, scored 51 and stole nine bases as well. He may not be a traditionally strong defender at second, but expectations for the position are changing as teams shift more.
19. Zac Gallen, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks (24)
Our list is heavy with position players, but Gallen flashed top-of-the-rotation potential as a rookie in 2019. In seven starts with the Miami Marlins, Gallen posted a 2.72 ERA and struck out 43 hitters in 36.1 innings. Following a trade to Arizona at the deadline, Gallen made eight starts and continued his solid form by posting a 2.89 ERA with 53 strikeouts in 43.2 innings. Overall, Gallen ranked No. 12 in baseball (among pitchers with 80 innings or more) with a 2.81 ERA and No. 21 with 10.8 K/9, while contributing 1.6 fWAR overall.
20. Franmil Reyes, OF, Cleveland Indians (24)
Poor defensive performance dragged down Franmil Reyes’ overall value in 2019 as he finished with 1.0 fWAR despite hitting 37 home runs. But the slugger landed in a perfect spot at the trade deadline when the Padres shipped him to Cleveland, where he is likely to be penciled into the lineup regularly at DH. Reyes hit .249/.310/.512 in 150 games split between the two clubs, drove in 81 runs and scored 69. He continued his good work in Spring Training, hitting five home runs in 27 at bats before the stoppage.
21. Sandy Alcantara, SP, Miami Marlins (24)
Life can be difficult for a young starting pitcher in the midst of a major roster rebuilt. For instance, Sandy Alcantara led the National League with 14 losses in 2019 despite posting a solid 3.88 ERA and making the NL All-Star squad. Alcantara tossed two shutouts across 32 starts (he also threw eight scoreless innings in his season debut March 31) and finished the season with 151 strikeouts in 197.1 innings.
22. Willy Adames, SS, Tampa Bay Rays (24)
Rays infielder Willy Adames broke into the lineup full-time in 2019 and performed quite well from an overall production standpoint. Playing primarily shortstop, Adams hit .254/.317/.418 with 20 home runs, 52 RBI and 69 runs scored. Combined with above average defensive numbers, Adames posted 2.8 fWAR, which ranked 14th among big league shortstops.
23. Amed Rosario, SS, New York Mets (24)
Mets shortstop Amed Rosario finished one spot behind Adames on the MLB shortstop leaderboard, having generated 2.7 fWAR in 2019. Rosario, who showcased more consistency both at the plate and in the field compared to his 2018 performance, hit .287/.323/.432 with 15 homers. He scored 75 runs, drove in 72, and added 19 stolen bases (though he was also thrown out an MLB-leading 10 times).
24. Victor Robles, OF, Washington Nationals (22)
With Juan Soto emerging as one of the best players in baseball at an incredibly young age, and longtime top prospect Victor Robles developing into the everyday centerfielder in Washington, the Nationals did just fine replacing former franchise cornerstone Bryce Harper. Robles hit .255/.326/.419 with 17 home runs, 86 runs scored, 65 RBI and 28 stolen bases in 155 games as a 22-year old last season, and finished sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.
25. Nomar Mazara, OF, Chicago White Sox (24)
On lists like this, there is always a desire to lean on a player’s potential upside as the driving factor. Sometimes, that means overlooking a player who has proven productive, yet may lack superstar qualities. Nomar Mazara, who made his major league debut way back in 2016, likely falls in the latter category. Yet, Mazara has also hit 79 homers as a big leaguer, drove in 101 runs as a 22-year old, and though he is long gone from prospect status, he could still reach greater heights as a player. In 2019, Mazara hit .268/.318/.469 (posting career highs in batting average and slugging percentage), with 19 homers, 66 RBI and 69 runs scored. The White Sox acquired Mazara from the Texas Rangers in December, and he should be a good fit in the lineup for the building club.
Next 15 (in Alphabetical Order)
Luis Arraez, 2B, Minnesota Twins (22)
Cavan Biggio, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays (24)
Tommy Edman, 3B/2B, St. Louis Cardinals (24)
Jordan Hicks, RP, St. Louis Cardinals (23) (Hicks has decided to opt out of playing this season due to pre-existing health concerns.)
Danny Jansen, C, Toronto Blue Jays (24)
Brad Keller, SP, Kansas City Royals (24)
Gavin Lux, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers (22)
Jesus Luzardo, SP, Oakland Athletics (22)
Dustin May, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (22)
Brendan McKay, SP, Tampa Bay Rays (24)
Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Kansas City Royals (24)
A.J. Puk, SP, Oakland Athletics (24)
Nick Senzel, OF, Cincinnati Reds (24)
Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros (23)
Julio Urias, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (23)
On Deck (in Alphabetical Order)
Jo Adell, OF, Los Angeles Angels (20)
Joey Bart, C, San Francisco Giants (23)
Wander Franco, SS, Tampa Bay Rays (19)
MacKenzie Gore, SP, San Diego Padres (21)
Jarred Kelenic, OF, Seattle Mariners (20)
Casey Mize, SP, Detroit Tigers (22)
Christian Pache, OF, Atlanta Braves (21)
Nate Pearson, SP, Toronto Blue Jays (23)
Luis Robert, OF, Chicago White Sox (22)
Adley Rutschman, C, Baltimore Orioles (22)
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)