MLB Rookie Rankings — Which young star has impressed the most through one month?

MLB Rookie Rankings — Which young star has impressed the most through one month? post thumbnail image

When four of the top 10 prospects in MLB started the season in the majors on Opening Day, there was buzz that this could be one of the top rookie classes of all time. One month into the season, that hasn’t exactly been the case — but there are some first-year players standing out from the crowd.

Which one tops the list of the 10 best through the first week of May?

We asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Kiley McDaniel to rank their top 10 rookies, in addition to detailing what each one has done so far. They’ve also predicted the rest of each player’s 2022 season, as well as their long-term outlooks.

What he’s done so far: Replacing Carlos Correa is no easy ask for a rookie, but Pena has excelled on both sides of the ball. He came up through the minors with a strong defensive reputation and already looks like a Gold Glove candidate, leading the major league among shortstops in defensive runs saved, plus a 97th percentile ranking in Statcast’s outs above average. The bat has been the bigger surprise as he’s already slammed six home runs with Statcast measurements to back up the power, ranking well above average in both hard-hit rate and barrel percentage. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Pena has already shown he can barrel up fastballs and generate elite exit velocity when he does so. He’s likely to start seeing more breaking and offspeed stuff, against which he hasn’t done much so far. Pena will have to show he can adjust, so there might be some up and down periods, but the power on contact is real and his defense means he’s going to be adding value no matter what he’s doing at the plate. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Pena has always been a strong defensive shortstop and started emerging as an offensive force in 2019. However, due to the pandemic and injuries, he only played 30 career games above A-Ball entering 2022. He’s outperforming projections right now, but not by that much; he was 48th on my Top 100 because this kind of breakout was in play. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: Who says contact hitting is a lost art? Possessing the lowest swing-and-miss rate in the majors, Kwan is hitting .309/.402/.444 with more walks than strikeouts. Those numbers are buoyed by a 5-for-5 game early in the season, but his ability to put the ball in play, combined with excellent plate discipline and above-average speed, makes him a throwback of sorts, a player who might hit .300 and gets on base despite a lack of power. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Kwan already produces the most distinctive sweet of metrics of any hitter in the majors. He chases but never swings and misses. He hits over .400 on soft and breaking stuff. He’s dominated all over the strike zone — except middle-middle. His low exit velocities actually seem to be a competitive advantage. How do you predict a guy like that? Well, here’s one bold prognostication: Kwan will learn to turn on some of those middle-middle offerings and add a smidgeon of power to his wizard-like bat control at the dish. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Kwan has never had great size or tools and was a prospect afterthought until a breakout in 2021. He’s always had an excellent approach and will probably never hit 20 homers, but now there’s mistake-pouncing power that’s enough to let his other abilities play as an everyday type. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: The best hitter in Japan’s Central League in 2021 when he hit .317 with 38 home runs, Suzuki comes over to the majors in the prime of his career at age 27. He got off to a hot start, hitting .429 with four home runs in his first 10 games, but has hit .161 without a homer in 17 games since heading into Monday. The strikeout rate is high, hovering near 30%, but the walk rate is also high and the swing-and-miss rate is actually better than average. Despite excellent speed, his defensive metrics in right field have been poor. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Suzuki may have already found his level. He chases too much and might be a bit slump prone because of that, but he has a solid foundation of pop and patience to fall back on. His platoon splits are fascinating: He’s produced a BABIP over .400 against righties, but under .200 against lefties. Maybe it’s a matter of approach, but those numbers figure to regress towards each other. One possible area of growth: Suzuki has slugged much better away from Wrigley and his overall numbers will grow if his power game heats up at home, along with the weather and coming change in prevailing winds. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Suzuki had a long track record of performing in Japan and the raw tools and age were there to expect it to continue at some level, but we never know for sure how hitters will adjust to big league stuff. So far, the answer in this case is “quickly.” — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: The Twins acquired Ryan last summer from the Rays for Nelson Cruz and he made five September starts, retaining his rookie eligibility for 2022. He is 3-1 with a 1.63 ERA in five starts. Ryan sits just 92 mph with his four-seam fastball, which he throws over 50% of the time, but gets whiffs with it even though its spin rate is just middle of the road. He’s held batters to a .167 average — just .111 on his fastball — and two home runs. How does he do it? He creates deception with a low release point, creating a flatter-than-normal plane on his fastball (similar to Jacob deGrom, only Ryan obviously doesn’t throw as hard). — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: The challenge for Ryan will be how hitters adapt to him the more they see his unusual arsenal. And it’s two different arsenals. Against righties, he’s basically just fastball-slider. Against lefties, he ditches the slider in favor of a curve and changeup. The latter group are the ones to worry about, as his solid numbers against lefty hitters so far have been fairly BABIP-dependent. In other words, Ryan isn’t going to remain a 1.63 ERA pitcher but as long as his fastball continues to play against hitters from both sides of the dish, he’ll be an above average starter. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Ryan emerged in 2019 for the Rays as a fastball-heavy sleeper with good feel that got by with unique characteristics to his low-90’s heater, but there were still big questions about how that would play at the big league level. Three years later, he’s still mostly that guy, but his off-speed stuff has improved a notch and now he looks like an innings-eater at worst. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: After disappearing at the alternate site in 2020 and struggling with his command in the minors in 2021, Gore re-emerged this spring, made one Triple-A start and is 2-1 with a 2.42 ERA through his first five major league starts, fanning 22 in 21 innings and allowing just one home run. Two of those starts did come against the Reds and he has relied heavily on his four-seamer, throwing it 68% of the time heading into Monday’s start (the highest percentage of any pitcher with at least 20 innings). Of course, that fastball averages 94.9 mph and batters have hit just .175 off it with a .488 OPS. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Gore isn’t likely to maintain his teeny sub-2.00 ERA, or at least his peripherals suggest he won’t. At the same time, his peripherals are pretty solid and there’s little reason to expect a massive tumble. Still, there are oddities. As mentioned, Gore has been very fastball-reliant, and one possible consequence of this is that over his first five starts, he had yet to strike out a single left-handed batter. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: It’s been a roller coaster ride the last few years with Gore going from arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball to not being able to solve delivery issues for parts of two full seasons. His velo is back up, he’s throwing his fastball a lot, the strikes are solid once again and there’s a (fingers crossed) shot that he’s back to the 2nd/3rd starter type people were expecting years ago. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: ESPN’s No. 3 prospect heading into the season, Rodriguez’s big spring earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster even though he hadn’t played above Double-A. He hit just .136 in his first 12 games the umpires didn’t help him in April, calling him out 17 times looking at strike three, with 10 of those on pitches outside the strike zone but he’s picked it up and even hit third in the lineup on Mother’s Day. Most impressive: His athleticism and speed are even better than touted. He leads the majors with 10 steals (in 11 attempts) thanks to a 100th percentile speed ranking — and also rates in the 92nd percentile in outs above average in center field. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Rodriguez has shown elite speed and defense and has hit the ball hard consistently, or at least he has when he’s made contact. All J-Rod needs to do is make contact more consistently and he’ll bolt to the front of the Rookie of the Year race. Easy, right? No, obviously it’s not, but as Rodriguez starts to get a better read on breaking pitches, expect some semblance of this scenario to play out. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: You’ve probably seen how Rodriguez is getting treated like a rookie by umpires and you may have also seen his flashes of star-level ability. I haven’t seen enough to edit my preseason thought of being the third-ranked prospect in the spot. — McDaniel

7. Jhoan Duran, P, Minnesota Twins

What he’s done so far: Acquired back in 2018 from Arizona in the Eduardo Escobar deal, Duran had been a starter in the minors, although an elbow strain limited him to 16 innings in 2021. Moving to the bullpen in spring training, Duran has displayed some of the most electric stuff of any reliever in the majors, with a fastball that has averaged 100.3 mph and a big, knee-buckling curveball. He’s whiffed 24 batters in 14.2 innings with just three walks for a 42% strikeout rate. The only hitch: He’s served up four home runs, three of those off his splitter he’s hung a few times too many. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: The Twins are likely to contend and contending teams can use a lock-down closer and Duran has all the attributes of a top-five fireman. Developed as a starter, Duran has continued to mix in all four of his pitches so far, with his splitter proving to be inconsistent. Either he gets a handle on that or the Twins pare down his arsenal and by October, he’s turning out the lights in Minnesota on a nightly basis. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: The Twins are flush with big-league-ready prospect arms and Duran was always the unique one. He’s 6-foot-5, can sit at 100 mph in short stints, and his changeup (which he throws one-third of the time) is known as a splinker a modified splitter grip that has averaged 96 mph this year. He may move into the rotation eventually but he’s a relief ace for now. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: The 22-year-old had a cup of coffee in 2021 and then began the season as the starting shortstop with Nick Ahmed on the injured list. He earns a top-10 ranking here based on some excellent defensive metrics no surprise, as his glove carried him through the minors and a high walk that has given him a .356 OBP. Ahmed’s return has pushed him into a utility role and the rest of his offense remains a work in progress, even though at 6-2 and 200 pounds you would expect more power. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: The defense is real but the Diamondbacks have a proven shortstop glove in Ahmed. Perdomo has shown he’ll make pitchers stay in the strike zone, though he hasn’t done as well in doing something once they do, which means he might not produce enough to hold down a super-utility role just yet. Perdomo is only 22 so as long Arizona hangs in the vicinity of .500 and Ahmed stays healthy, his big-league opportunities may be limited. Then again, when Josh Rojas returned from the IL last week, Perdomo remained with the big club and Sergio Alcantara was designated for assignment. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Perdomo is a switch-hitting shortstop that’s good at everything except for in-game power. That could be a big enough problem that pitchers get more aggressive and it undermines his offensive upside, pushing him to a utility role, but it’s still early. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: ESPN’s No. 2 prospect, Witt hit 33 home runs in the minors last season and then hit .406 with three home runs in spring training to cement the starting job at third base (even though he has the skills to play shortstop). The plus-plus athleticism has been on display with some dazzling defensive plays at third, along with a top sprint speed in the 100th percentile and a max exit velocity in the 95th percentile. The hit tool is the big issue as he has just one home run, with a questionable approach that features one of the worst chase rates in the majors. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: Witt’s start has mirrored that of Rodriguez, save for the woes with umpires. His speed has impacted nearly every game in which he’s reached base. His defense at third base has been fantastic. And he’s produced upper-crust exit velocities when he’s managed to barrel up a ball. But that hasn’t happened often enough. Yet. Witt has been a tad too aggressive in his approach so far, but expect that to level off in the weeks to come. The trajectory arrow is pointed upward. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Witt has long had questions about his pitch selection, but they weren’t relevant when he demolished the upper minors last year. He now appears to be that sort of player that’s too good for Triple-A due to his physical talent (30+ homer potential, solid defensive shortstop with plus speed, if you’re into that sort of thing), but doesn’t have that key soft skill to let his tools play against the best pitchers in the world … yet. — McDaniel

What he’s done so far: The second overall pick in 2018 out of Georgia Tech, Buster Posey’s retirement opened up a starting gig for Bart, even though questions about his bat remained. So far, he looks like an extreme three true outcomes hitter, batting .158 but with a .638 OPS that is nearly league average. The defense and pitch framing continue to earn good reviews, giving him a Mike Zunino type of profile. — Schoenfield

Predicting the rest of his 2022: If you want to see what a take-and-rake approach looks like in metrics, just look up Bart’s StatCast dossier. Last percentile in whiff rate, 93rd in walk rate and an off-the-charts figure for expected wOBA on contact. In plain English: Bart doesn’t swing that often, but when he does, he looks as if he’s been possessed by Javy Baez or, to keep it in the backstop family, Cliff Johnson. If he doesn’t temper that a little, especially with runners in scoring position, his sub-.200 batting average might continue to drag down his slash line. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Speaking of pitch selection questions with massive raw power and real defensive value, Bart and Witt have similar general profiles. Bart flopped in MLB looks the last two seasons but is, so far, leaning into a power-and-patience-and-who-cares-about-batting-average approach that’s working alright. That said, the 17% walk rate or 44% strikeout rate will have to give eventually, so keep an eye on that. — McDaniel



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