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2021 MLB Preview: Top 50 Prospects

2021 MLB Preview: Top 50 Prospects

2021 MLB Preview: Top 50 Prospects

It is a very unusual year for ranking prospects. In 2020, Minor League Baseball canceled its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some prospects did get to participate in "summer camp," the second spring training that preceded the MLB season. Others spent time at the alternate training sites, and many got some work at fall instructional leagues. But no one received the normal development that comes from playing a 140-game season in the minors. The shortened MLB season also meant that some players who likely would have graduated in a normal year remain Rookie of the Year eligible in 2021.

Here are our top 50 prospects for the 2020 season, featured in the Athlon Sports 2021 Baseball Annualand courtesy of Baseball America's JJ Cooper:

1. Wander Franco, SS, Rays

S/R • 5-10 • 189 • Age: 20
Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2017

The canceled minor league season may have kept Franco from making his major league debut as a teenager. But the minors' best hitting prospect shouldn't have to wait much longer. Franco can play second or third base or shortstop. Even in their run to the World Series, the Rays lacked hitters who could provide consistent quality at-bats. Franco should help fix that before long.

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2. Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles

S/R • 6-2 • 220 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

It's not often you have a catcher who has a chance to win Gold Gloves and batting titles. Rutschman could have a very solid career even if he fails to reach his very lofty ceiling. He should become the cornerstone of the Orioles' rebuild the moment he arrives at Camden Yards, most likely in 2022.

3. Cristian Pache, OF, Braves

R/R • 6-2 • 215 • Age: 23
Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2015

Pache has gotten much bigger and stronger over the past few years, but it hasn't kept him from continuing to be the speedy, rangy center fielder who should start racking up Gold Gloves in the near future. Center fielders with Pache's type of range have value even if they struggle at the plate. Pache's approach is a little pull-heavy, but he should hit homers as well as rob them.

4. Julio Rodriguez, OF, Mariners

R/R • 6-3 • 180 • Age: 20
Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2017

It was just three years ago that the Mariners had the worst farm system in baseball. That same year, the Mariners signed Rodriguez, who is one of the biggest reasons the club now has one of the strongest farm systems in the game. Rodriguez has the kind of power that teams dream of, and he's not that far away from Seattle.

5. Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Tigers

R/R • 6-1 • 220 • Age: 21
Acquired: First-round pick, 2020

The No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, Torkelson might be able to handle a move to third base, but most likely he will end up as a first baseman. That's no problem, as he should fit in the middle of Detroit's lineup for most of the 2020s as a slugger who can challenge for home run crowns while also posting solid batting averages and on-base percentages.

6. Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Marlins

R/R • 6-0 • 185 • Age: 22
Acquired: Trade; signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2015

Sanchez unveiled one of the best fastball-changeup combinations in baseball in his 2020 MLB debut. For a pitcher who can reach back for 100 mph whenever he needs it, Sanchez doesn't strike out a lot of batters, but he seems to seek out weak contact early in counts that allows him to work deeper into games. Even with a strict pitch count, he worked seven innings in three of his seven regular-season MLB starts.

7. Nate Pearson, RHP, Blue Jays

R/R • 6-6 • 245 • Age: 24
Acquired: First-round pick, 2017

Pearson "only" topped out at 101 mph in the majors, which is notable because he's bumped it to 104 in the past. He's also improved his slider to the point where he has the near-perfect power package. The two big worries remaining are improving his control, which wavered in his jump to the majors, and staying healthy — he missed time in 2020 with a flexor strain.

8. CJ Abrams, SS, Padres

L/R • 6-2 • 185 • Age: 20
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

Abrams was one of the top prospects in the 2019 draft class, and nothing he's done as a pro — whether it was hitting .401 in the Arizona League or dominating at the Padres' alternate site — has diminished those lofty expectations. He's an athletic shortstop who can steal bases and hit for average, and he should continue to add power as well.

9. MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres

L/L • 6-2 • 197 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2017

When the Padres needed a lefty to boost their bullpen, they chose 2018 first-rounder Ryan Weathers instead of Gore. That's a clear sign that Gore's mechanics got a little out of whack at the team's alternate training site, but his athleticism, 91-96 mph fastball, and excellent four-pitch mix (fastball, changeup, slider, curveball) should make 2020's struggles a blip, not a trend.

10. Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners

L/L • 6-1 • 190 • Age: 21
Acquired: Trade; first-round pick, 2018

The trade of Kelenic may have played a part in the Mets dismissing GM Brodie Van Wagenen. Next it should help the Mariners return to respectability. Kelenic and teammate Julio Rodriguez should join Kyle Lewis to give Seattle an extremely talented young outfield in the not-too-distant future. Kelenic is the best hitter of the three and is expected to be the most capable center fielder.

11. Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals

S/R • 6-2 • 205 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2016

Carlson moved very quickly through the Cardinals system, but he found he wasn't fully ready for the majors after making the roster following the team's COVID outbreak. He went back to the alternate training site, regrouped, and had a much more impactful return to St. Louis. With enough speed to stick in center, an advanced approach, and developing power, he should be a middle-of-the-order bat in 2021.

12. Ian Anderson, RHP, Braves

R/R • 6-3 • 170 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2016

Anderson showed in the majors in six regular-season starts and four excellent postseason ones that his ability to locate a low-spin fastball, excellent changeup, and solid curveball works just as well against major league hitters as it did when he dominated in the minor leagues. His command and feel make him a solid mid-rotation starter.

13. Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals

R/R • 6-1 • 190 • Age: 20
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

The son of longtime MLB pitcher Bobby Witt Sr., the younger Witt put together extremely advanced at-bats against MLB-caliber competition at the Royals summer camp in the lead-up to the shortened season. His athleticism and defense at shortstop were expected. His rapid maturation as a hitter has been a pleasant surprise.

14. Marco Luciano, SS, Giants

R/R • 6-2 • 178 • Age: 19
Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2018

We are readying for another golden age of young shortstops. Unlike Abrams and Witt, Luciano has a good chance to eventually slide to another home defensively, but his massive power potential means he's well suited to play almost anywhere. Now he just needs to get pro at-bats, something he's lacked so far because of the coronavirus pandemic.

15. Randy Arozarena, OF, Rays

R/R • 5-11 • 185 • Age: 26
Acquired: Trade; signed out of Cuba, 2016

With 10 home runs in October, Arozarena has already put together one of the great postseasons of all time. Now he can try to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2021. Arozarena's breakout with the Rays was beyond what anyone could reasonably have expected, but his power and improving pitch recognition make him a potential impact bat for years to come.

16. Austin Martin, SS/OF, Blue Jays

R/R • 6-0 • 185 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2020

The Blue Jays have put together a very young, very promising core led by Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Nate Pearson. Martin is a perfect addition to that group. He has position versatility as a potential shortstop, third baseman, second baseman, or center fielder and was viewed as one of the best hitters in the 2020 draft class.

17. Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates

R/R • 5-10 • 205 • Age: 24
Acquired: First-round pick, 2015

Even when he was putting up solid but unspectacular numbers throughout his minor league career, scouts praised Hayes' bat. Those prognostications seemed to come true as Hayes arrived in Pittsburgh last September with a bang. He was almost immediately one of the few bright spots in a bad Pirates lineup, and his defense was every bit as good as had been anticipated. His glove is exceptional, and he's started to tap into the power that scouts have long expected.

18. Alex Kirilloff, OF, Twins

L/L • 6-2 • 195 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2016

Kirilloff will have to wait until 2021 to make his MLB regular-season debut, but he has postseason experience on his résumé thanks to a surprise callup for the Twins' Wild Card series. Kirilloff should hit for average and power and could provide a middle-of-the-lineup boost for the Twins this season.

19. Tarik Skubal, LHP, Tigers

L/L • 6-3 • 215 • Age: 24
Acquired: Ninth-round pick, 2018

Skubal took some lumps in his MLB debut in 2020, but he also flashed a lot of what has people excited about his potential. As a lefty who throws a high-spin 93-98 mph fastball that gets swings and misses and mixes in a slider, curve, changeup, and cutter, the pieces are all there. Now Skubal just has to command his pitches better and get a little less fastball-dependent, especially when behind in counts.

20. Grayson Rodriguez, RHP, Orioles

L/R • 6-5 • 220 • Age: 21
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Adley Rutschman is the face of the Orioles rebuild, but Rodriguez may be just as important, as he's the potential ace to anchor the rotation. Rodriguez's stuff has steadily gotten better to the point where his fastball, changeup, and slider are all potential above-average or plus pitches, and he consistently repeats his smooth delivery.

21. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Cardinals

L/L • 6-4 • 200 • Age: 22
Acquired: Trade; first-round pick, 2018

Liberatore carries some heavy expectations now, as he's the prospect the Cardinals acquired when they traded Randy Arozarena to the Rays. Liberatore may never have a postseason like Arozarena had, but he remains one of the best young pitching prospects in the game with a still-filling-out frame, present plus stuff, and the expectations he'll become a mid-rotation stalwart.

22. Luis Patino, RHP, Rays

R/R • 6-1 • 192 • Age: 21
Acquired: Trade; signed out of Colombia, 2016

Patino showed that his 95-100 mph fastball is one of the best in baseball in his MLB debut. It has elite velocity, spin, and movement. His downward-moving slider also has massive potential. Now, he just has to improve his well-below-average control. That's the hurdle that stands between Patino and success as a potential front-of-the-rotation starter.

23. Spencer Howard, RHP, Phillies

R/R • 6-3 • 210 • Age: 24
Acquired: Second-round pick, 2017

A walk-on who threw 84-85 mph when he arrived at Cal Poly, Howard touched 97 mph in his MLB debut in 2020. That's actually down from the triple digits he brushed in the minors. A minor shoulder injury sidelined him briefly last year, but if healthy, he should be a key part of the Phillies rotation in 2021 and beyond.

24. Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox

R/R • 6-3 • 225 • Age: 24
Acquired: Trade; first-round pick, 2014

After missing the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Kopech was supposed to be a key part of the White Sox's rebuilding effort in 2020. He ended up opting out of playing because of the coronavirus. Chicago's rebuild got the White Sox back to the playoffs last year. Now getting Kopech and his blazing fastball back should be a nice bonus as the White Sox try for back-to-back playoff trips.

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25. Triston McKenzie, RHP, Indians

R/R • 6-5 • 165 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2015

McKenzie's biggest challenge has not been hitters — he's always shown an ability to dominate when he steps on the mound. His challenge is staying healthy enough to get there. He took a big step in 2020 as he made it to the majors and held on to a spot in the Cleveland rotation, giving the team a needed boost when Mike Clevinger was demoted and then dealt.

26. Riley Greene, OF, Tigers

L/L • 6-3 • 200 • Age: 20
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

If Greene and Spencer Torkelson make it, the Tigers' pitching-heavy rebuild won't be so reliant on the arms. Greene has a chance to be a sweet-swinging corner outfielder who is above average defensively with a plus hit tool to go with 20-25 home run power.

27. Drew Waters, OF, Braves

S/R • 6-2 • 185 • Age: 22
Acquired: Second-round pick, 2017

Waters is the wingman to Cristian Pache as the next young Braves prospect who should provide a boost when he reaches Atlanta. The switch-hitting Waters can't match Pache's exceptional center field defense, but his glove is solid in center and should be an asset in a corner outfield spot. As a hitter, Waters is aggressive, but he consistently squares up velocity.

28. Max Meyer, RHP, Marlins

L/R • 6-0 • 196 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2020

Meyer's slider was the best in college baseball in 2020 and is one of the best scouts have seen in a draft-eligible prospect in years. He's short but athletic. A lot of evaluators see him as a potential ace. Thanks to that slider, he has a fallback option as a dominating reliever if he fails to reach his ceiling.

29. Jasson Dominguez, OF, Yankees

S/R • 5-10 • 190 • Age: 18

Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2019
Yankees fans have had to wait a long time for Domiguez to make his pro debut. The top international prospect in the 2019 signing class, Dominguez is now significantly bigger and stronger than his officially listed 190-pound weight, and he's posting the massive exit velocities to match in workouts and batting practice sessions. He should finally get to play in an official game in 2021.

30. Nolan Gorman, 3B, Cardinals

L/R • 6-1 • 210 • Age: 20
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Gorman's 2019 stats seem to indicate a significant step backward, but sluggers and the power-sapping Florida State League rarely mix. Gorman spent the past summer at the Cardinals alternate site with a strong focus on improving his defense at third base. His swing is likely to lead to power and strikeouts, which isn't a bad combo for 2020s baseball.

31. Andrew Vaughn, 1B, White Sox

R/R • 6-0 • 215 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

It's all coming together on the South Side. Yoan Moncada and Eloy Jimenez have settled in around Tim Anderson and Jose Abreu to give the White Sox a rapidly improving offense. Vaughn, one of the best bats in the 2019 draft class, should provide additional reinforcements in either 2021 or 2022.

32. Logan Gilbert, RHP, Mariners

R/R • 6-6 • 225 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Gilbert's mid-90s fastball with carry and plus 11-to-5 curveball seemed perfectly suited for an era where pitchers are asked to get swings and misses up in the zone with their fastball and down in the zone with their curve. But he also has improved his changeup to the point where it might be a plus pitch as well, and he has a slider to mess with hitters when they get to looking up-and-down for his fastball/curve combo.

33. DL Hall, LHP, Orioles

L/L • 6-2 • 195 • Age: 22
Acquired: First-round pick, 2017

Hall's rather frightening six walks per nine innings in 2019 is likely a blip that will return closer to normalcy once he can get back on a mound. What is also apparent is that the athletic lefty has the 94-98 mph fastball, changeup and a pair of breaking balls to baffle right-handed hitters as well as lefties.

34. Nolan Jones, 3B/OF, Indians

L/R • 6-2 • 185 • Age: 22
Acquired: Second-round pick, 2016

The Indians have started to work Jones out in the outfield. It's not a sign that he's incapable of playing third base. It's more a way to try to fix Cleveland's lack of outfield production. Jones is the team's best young hitting prospect, so putting him in an outfield corner could help everyone forgot just how little Cleveland got from its outfielders in 2020.

35. Daniel Lynch, LHP, Royals

L/L • 6-6 • 190 • Age: 24
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

The Royals got solid work from rookie starters Brady Singer and Kris Bubic in 2020. The next wave of Lynch and Asa Lacy should provide a similar or even bigger boost. Lynch blossomed late in his junior year at Virginia and has continued to build on that success. He now touches 99 mph with his fastball to go with a biting, hard slider.

36. Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates

L/R • 6-7 • 215 • Age: 22

Acquired: Trade; signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2015
Cruz is attempting to prove that he's capable of playing in the infield at a height more often seen on NBA courts. He has massive power and exceptional athleticism for his size. He is currently out on bail but facing charges after he was involved in a car wreck in the Dominican Republic that left three dead.

37. Casey Mize, RHP, Tigers

R/R • 6-3 • 220 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Mize's splitter was just as good as advertised in his 2020 MLB debut. If he gets ahead in the count, it's a great pitch to finish hitters. His inability to throw his fastball for strikes meant it didn't really matter as hitters rarely fell behind. If Mize can better command his fastball, 2020 will be a blip in a long career, but he has work to do to get to that point.

38. Keibert Ruiz, C, Dodgers

S/R • 6-0 • 225 • Age: 22
Acquired: Signed out of Venezuela, 2014
The Dodgers already have a budding star at catcher in Will Smith, but the World Series champs have another potential everyday catcher coming right behind him in Ruiz. Ruiz has always been young for whatever level he's playing at, and he made his MLB debut last year just after he turned 22. He's a good glove with a contact-oriented approach at the plate. He has the strength to add power eventually.

39. Royce Lewis, SS, Twins

R/R • 6-2 • 200 • Age: 21
Acquired: First-round pick, 2017

It is notable that while Alex Kirilloff joined the big league club for the postseason, Lewis, the No. 1 pick in 2017, did not get called up to the majors even as Minnesota showed it needed another right-handed hitter. Scouts have some interesting arguments over whether Lewis is an MLB shortstop or better off as a player who can play a little bit of everywhere. He's athletic and has the potential to hit for power, but he needs a little more polish and will be delayed a little longer after tearing his ACL in February.

40. Nick Madrigal, 2B, White Sox

R/R • 5-8 • 175 • Age: 24
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Madrigal's 2020 debut was much of what is to be expected. He is an exceptional contact hitter, he's fast and he can play solid defense at second base. He also lacks a whole lot of impact when he does connect. He had surgery to fix a separated shoulder during the offseason, but it should not hinder him in the future.

41. Corbin Carroll, OF, Diamondbacks

L/L • 5-10 • 165 • Age: 20
Acquired: First-round pick, 2019

Carroll has yet to play a game in Single-A, but he already has a very polished approach to the game. He's a little undersized, but his smooth lefty swing gives him plenty of plate coverage and makes him a potentially elite table-setter who gets on base, hits for average, and lines doubles while playing plus defense in center field.

42. Heston Kjerstad, OF, Orioles

L/R • 6-3 • 220 • Age: 22

Acquired: First-round pick, 2020
Kjerstad was not expected to go as high as he did (second overall), and his signing bonus reflects that, as he signed for well less than the draft slot recommended. But the Orioles loved his power potential and see him as a hitter who could mash home runs, hit for average, and play solid defense in right field.

43. Matt Manning, RHP, Tigers

R/R • 6-6 • 195 • Age: 23
Acquired: First-round pick, 2016

While Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize arrived in Detroit in 2020, Manning's ETA should be 2021. He actually has a chance to be the best of the group, thanks to a fastball that plays exceptionally well and pairs with a downer curveball. Manning did miss time in 2020 at the alternate training site due to a forearm strain but was pitching again in the instructional league.

44. Deivi Garcia, RHP, Yankees

R/R • 5-9 • 163 • Age: 21
Acquired: Signed out of the Dominican Republic, 2015

Garcia has already made a playoff start, although New York pulled him after one inning as an opener. That poor finish aside, Garcia made big strides in 2020 as he improved his control and sharpened his breaking ball. That should help in the long term, as he already had the mid-90s fastball and changeup to succeed as a starter.

45. Jordan Groshans, SS, Blue Jays

R/R • 6-3 • 205 • Age: 21
Acquired: First-round pick, 2018

Groshans last played in games that counted in May 2019. A foot injury wiped away the rest of his 2019 season, and he was sidelined like all minor leaguers in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He may not stick at shortstop long-term, but he is one of the better young hitting prospects in a loaded Blue Jays system with the potential to hit for average and power.

46. Asa Lacy, LHP, Royals

L/L • 6-4 • 215 • Age: 21
Acquired: First-round pick, 2020

Lacy was considered one of the two best arms in the 2020 draft. The shortened season didn't give him much of a shot to demonstrate his improved control. He racks up his pitch count sometimes as he searches for strikeouts, but his 92-96 mph fastball and 87-90 mph slider give him the weapons to retire MLB hitters.

47. Luis Campusano, C, Padres

R/R • 5-11 • 232 • Age: 22
Acquired: Second-round pick, 2017

In 2020, Campusano made his MLB debut and homered in his first game. He then missed the rest of the year with a wrist sprain and was arrested after the season and charged with felony marijuana possession. If he clears up his legal issues, he's got a promising future with exceptional bat speed and power to go with solid defense.

48. Clarke Schmidt, RHP, Yankees

R/R • 6-1 • 200 • Age: 25
Acquired: First-round pick, 2017

The Yankees liked Schmidt so much in the draft that they took him with their first-round pick even knowing he needed Tommy John surgery. His quick bounce-back post-surgery has rewarded their faith. Schmidt throws one of the more promising curveballs in baseball, and he's figured out how to pair it with a four-seam fastball that he can now work up and above the strike zone.

49. Ryan Jeffers, C, Twins

R/R • 6-4 • 235 • Age: 23
Acquired: Second-round pick, 2018

Jeffers was a surprise second-round pick, as most teams had him rated as more of a fifth- to 10th-round talent on their boards. He has quickly proven the Twins right, as he became one of the fastest movers in his draft class. He doesn't throw all that well, but he is an excellent pitch framer and has developed his power potential.

50. Ryan Mountcastle, OF, Orioles

R/R • 6-3 • 210 • Age: 24
Acquired: First-round pick, 2015

Mountcastle began his pro career as a shortstop, but his lack of arm strength meant he kept moving to new positions to try to find somewhere he could stick. He's seemingly found a home in left field, but really he's a bat whose offensive production is expected to outweigh his defensive limitations. Mountcastle has retooled his swing to better hit for power, and it's paid off.

— Compiled by JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) for the Athlon Sports 2021 Baseball Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy.