MLB Rookie Rankings – There’s a new No. 1 entering the homestretch

MLB Rookie Rankings – There’s a new No. 1 entering the homestretch post thumbnail image

Remember when one month into the season, this year’s rookie class — touted as potentially one of the best of all time — hadn’t impressed as we thought it would? Fast-forward a few months and that is no longer the case.

This list looks radically different from our inaugural rankings, including a new face at No. 1. While some got off to a slow start, these MLB freshmen have shown they’re the kind of players who can make a franchise’s future seem that much brighter.

We asked ESPN MLB experts David Schoenfield, Bradford Doolittle and Kiley McDaniel to rank their top 10 rookies. They’ve also detailed how each one has performed this season to date, what to watch for throughout the rest of 2022 and their long-term outlooks.

How he’s performed so far: Rodriguez’s brilliant first half culminated with a sizzling show at Dodger Stadium in the Home Run Derby — he mashed the most total home runs in the contest, although he ended up losing in the finals to Juan Soto. His second half has been slowed by a couple of injuries, missing four games with a sore left wrist and then missing 11 more after getting hit by a pitch on his right wrist. He also hasn’t been stealing as much as the first two months, although he’s just one home run away from becoming the 12th rookie in the 20-20 club. Still, his dazzling all-around skills and superstar smile mean the Mariners have a player to build around. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: Thanks to Ichiro Suzuki’s monster rookie season in 2001 (7.7 bWAR) that netted him both the AL Rookie of the Year and the AL MVP awards, Rodriguez isn’t going to finish with the greatest rookie season in Mariners history. He does have an excellent chance of winning Seattle’s second ROY award in three seasons, joining 2020 winner Kyle Lewis. To get there, Rodriguez just needs to regain his stride as he ramps back up after the injury, primarily in terms of shaking off a little overaggressiveness he has displayed since coming back. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: The concern with Rodriguez was how long it would take for him to settle in at the big league level and make good enough swing decisions to get to his raw power in games. For some elite prospects the answer is a year or two, or sometimes never. Through 25 games this year, Rodriguez was running a 7% walk rate and 36% strikeout rate with a 69 wRC+. Since then? The same 7% walk rate with a 24% strikeout rate and a 148 wRC+. When I asked around about what changed, the answer wasn’t a different approach (his discipline numbers are flat, so it wasn’t pitch selection) but rather being on time more often with velocity, more consistent/quieter mechanics and adjusting overall to the speed of the game. My biggest concern (pitch selection) appears not to have been the issue — it was just a matter of realizing he belonged at this level and didn’t need to get away from what got him here. Entering this season, he looked like he might be special, and he has lived up to the rosiest projections so far. — McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: He didn’t debut until May 21 due to a triceps injury in spring training and then got off to a slow start, hitting .195 through his first 22 games. Hey, major league pitching is good! Since then, however, he has been exactly as advertised: a patient hitter who is going to get on base and deliver enough pop to hit in the middle of the lineup. He hit .279/.406/.521 over his next 50 games, with nearly as many walks (33) as strikeouts (34). He’s already a plus defensive catcher and has emerged as a team leader. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: It feels like the most-cited numbers for Rutschman ought to be that the Orioles are 43-30 when he plays. That’s not all because of him of course, but it’s not entirely a coincidence either. It’s possible that with a big finish, Rutschman will have made an argument that he’s already the best catcher in baseball. Despite the late start, he’s tied for fifth among catchers in bWAR. But when you rank that top five by the individual winning percentage component of the metric, here’s what you get: (1) Rutschman, .533; (2) J.T. Realmuto, .526; (3) Alejandro Kirk, .523; (4) Willson Contreras, .521; (5) Will Smith, .518. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: I did a radio interview in Baltimore last week and the hosts wanted to know about Rutschman’s trajectory: How did he get here, what should we expect going forward, etc. It’s actually quite an open-and-shut case. He was anointed soon after he got on campus at Oregon State as a potential top-of-the-draft talent with plus physical tools and the soft skills/makeup to let all of that upside show in games. He had an easy stroll through the minors, with the lost 2020 season the biggest speed bump. Despite playing a position at which injuries, game calling, stamina, etc. constantly hold even elite prospects back, Rutschman has improved at every stop and he doesn’t really have a weakness, unless you want to include his below-average speed or lack of a 70-or-80-grade tool. — McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: Wow, who saw this coming? Harris began the season in Double-A and just a few months later signed an eight-year, $72 million contract with two team-option years after that. His defense (+5 defensive runs saved) and speed (15-for-15 stealing bases) are already top shelf, but his power has been a pleasant surprise, with 12 home runs through his first 76 games. He has been particularly effective against right-handers, hitting .292 and slugging .544, with 11 of his 12 home runs. He needs to improve his plate discipline (41% chase rate, just 11 walks), but Harris has been worth 3.0 WAR in half a season. There’s a great likelihood that the contract becomes yet another bargain for the Braves. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: There wasn’t a ton of hype accompanying the news that Harris was being called up back in late May. Yet since he debuted on May 28, Brian Snitker has started Harris in center field in every game but one. It’s been remarkable to watch. Harris is 15-for-15 in the stolen base department, and during the live ball era, the record for most steals in a season without being caught is 23, set by the Phillies’ Chase Utley in 2009. Harris will have to get more aggressive to get there, but it’s possible. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Harris was an amateur prospect in the Atlanta area where I live, and at draft time, more than a couple of teams had him turned in as a pitcher. Even the Braves were set to take him a round later until the player they were going to take went right in front of them. Soon after signing it became clear Harris should’ve been a first-round pick. I was the high guy on him entering this season (38th on my Top 100) and even I didn’t think it was likely he’d spend real time in the big leagues this year. I noted in that Top 100 blurb that Harris has very limited reps relative to other prep hitters from the 2019 draft, so his improving plate discipline last year in High-A suggests there’s a better-than-usual chance he can do that in the big leagues. As is, he’s a plus defender in center who might be streaky due to his propensity to swing more than average, but he is likely at least a league-average offensive threat along with bringing real baserunning value. Even with some expected regression, he’s a 3-win player. — McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: It looks like Strider is battling his teammate for NL Rookie of the Year honors — a big kudos to the Braves’ scouting department that nabbed Harris in the third round in 2019 and Strider in the fourth round out of Clemson in 2020. After pitching in relief the first two months, Strider moved into the rotation on May 30, where he’s fanned 114 in 76 1/3 innings while holding batters to a .186 average. He can blow his 98 mph fastball past hitters and then send them to the bench with his wipeout slider. He’s gone past six innings just once, but he looks like a rotation anchor. Maybe he’s the next player the Braves lock up with a long-term deal. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: Since Strider entered the rotation, he has averaged five innings per start in the aggregate. Lately, that figure has been ticking up some, but the Braves still have him on a pretty short leash, with very little exposure to hitters beyond two trips through the order. And yet Strider hit 100 2/3 innings with his past appearance. His professional high is the 96 2/3 frames he put up last season over five different levels, including a brief stint in the majors. With the Braves seeking another deep postseason run and in a race for the NL East title, what will they do about Strider’s workload? Well, the Braves have told reporters that he’s not on an innings limit, so the question becomes whether or not Strider begins to wear down. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Speaking of unexpected Braves rookie breakthroughs, we have Strider. I went to scout him and Harris last year at High-A Rome and liked them both, but Harris seemed much more likely to be a potential Rookie of the Year type, even if I would’ve guessed that would be in 2023. I thought Strider had solid command of a top-shelf, bat-missing fastball, but his off-speed stuff lagged behind, so I thought he’d be more of a two-to-three-inning type than a true starter. He has taken another step forward, but a potential innings cap (Tommy John surgery in college, has never thrown 100 innings in a season until this year) could force him to revert to shorter stints later in the year. His long-term outlook is now in the starter-until-he-proves-he-isn’t bucket.— McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: Pena arrived in the majors with a sterling defensive reputation, and he has been the complete package in the field, arguably the leading Gold Glove contender at shortstop in the AL, with +12 defensive runs saved (only Nico Hoerner and Andrew Velazquez, with 13, have more) and rating at the 93rd percentile in Statcast’s outs above average. He got off to a great start at the plate as well, with an OPS over .800 as late as June 26, but has really struggled in the second half, with a .572 OPS in his first 29 games after the All-Star break. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: There was some major hand-wringing over Carlos Correa‘s departure from the Astros, at least outside of the Houston organization. “They have to pay Correa!” And, failing that, the cry went, “They have to sign Trevor Story.” Pena has rendered all of that anxiety silly with an outstanding rookie season. His 3.7 bWAR through his first 98 games is already the second most for a rookie Astros shortstop behind Correa’s 4.8 in 2015, numbers put up when Correa was about four years younger than Pena is now. Still, the real race to watch might be their 2022 numbers: Pena has a narrow bWAR lead over Correa’s 3.2 figure so far for Minnesota. What were we so worried about? — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Pena has a similar profile to Harris with a plus glove at a premium position, clear offensive tools and a solid rookie season but some longer-term concerns around chasing out of the zone that might cap his upside if not addressed. He’s a strong athlete with baserunning value, but has already hit a slump and missed some time with a thumb injury, concussion and illness, so the early momentum is already slowing a bit as we wait to see how he adjusts. — McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: Everybody’s favorite April rookie slumped in May (.179) but has bounced back to hit over .300 in June, July and so far in August. With elite contact skills and plate discipline, a .300 season is in his sights with his .301 overall average, and he ranks 15th in the majors in OBP. The power is minimal, with just three home runs and 27 extra-base hits, but he fits the profile of an old-school leadoff hitter who sets the table. Throw in elite left-field defense and you have a potential 5-win player. His OPS against righties is nearly 200 points higher, so he could improve against lefties. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: The return of the Butler! That is, Brett Butler, the longtime leadoff man from the 1980s and 1990s. Butler was 5-foot-10, had a career on-base percentage of .377, a career slugging percentage of .376 and averaged 41 steals per 162 games played. He typified a kind of player who has all but disappeared from contemporary baseball — the little spark plug who gets on base, is a threat when he gets there and doesn’t hit for much power. Kwan is personally bringing that type of player back from extinction. If we set aside late-career Rickey Henderson, Butler, Luis Castillo and Richie Ashburn hold the record during the live ball era among sub-6-footers, recording six seasons apiece with at least a .370 OBP, 10 steals and a sub-.400 slugging percentage. Over the past decade, Cesar Hernandez (2016) is the only one to do it. The 5-9 Kwan owns a .373 OBP, .396 slugging percentage and has stolen 12 bases. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Kwan understandably has more downward pressure on his upside than previous players on this list due to his lack of power. He’ll continue to be a Brett Gardner-esque everyday player due to his standout abilities that include basically everything except for power: plate discipline, contact, baserunning, defense and instincts. — McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: Obtained from the Diamondbacks for Eduardo Escobar back in 2018, Duran was a starting pitcher in the minors, but the Twins fast-tracked him to the majors as a reliever out of spring training even though he had pitched just 16 innings in 2021 due to an elbow strain. The big (6-5, 230 pounds) right-hander is one of the more intimidating pitchers in the game with his size and fastball that averages 100.6 mph. As a key reliever in the pen, he’s picked up six saves and 16 holds with a 2.01 ERA — including a 1.32 ERA over his past 41 innings. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: Through Sunday, there were 173 big league pitchers this season who have appeared in back-to-back games at least five times. Duran is not one of them. He has appeared with zero days’ rest just four times, two of which have occurred during August. With the Twins scratching to hang in the AL Central race and finding their quest too often undermined by late-inning struggles, how hard does Rocco Baldelli want to ride Duran? Would it even matter, as two of the six homers Duran has allowed this season have come in those zero-rest games? There are a lot of forces in play in determining how Minnesota deploys its best reliever down the stretch. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Duran hovered around the back of the Top 100 for a couple of years because the components for a mid-rotation starter are here (power three-pitch mix, sturdy frame, control) but he wasn’t always on the list due to some reliever risk and the unique sort of stuff he has. Projecting someone to be a 180 inning-plus starter is easier when there are some comparables currently doing that, while Duran sitting at 100 mph with his heater and relying on a “splinkler” at 95-97 mph that doesn’t really do the same thing a changeup does makes you wonder if he could turn over a lineup, especially when he’s more control (in the zone) over command (hitting a specific location). I think he can be stretched out to be a multi-inning option, but I still have doubts he’ll be more valuable than he has been this year trying to go 5-6 innings per outing.— McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: The tools that made him one of the top prospects in the game entering the season have been on full display. Like Rodriguez, he has a chance to go 20-20 (he’s at 16 home runs and 23 steals) — and that was after going without a home run in his first 20 games. His top sprint speed has been clocked at 30.4 feet per second — tied with Jose Siri for fastest runner in the majors. His max exit velocity is in the 92nd percentile. The rest of his game remains raw, with a high chase rate (35%) and some especially horrific defensive metrics at shortstop dragging down his WAR. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: Witt’s defensive metrics are indeed terrible, some of the worst in baseball. Kiley had him as a right-now league-average defender in terms of his tools entering the season, so something hasn’t worked out. It starts with old-fashioned errors. If Witt’s .949 fielding percentage matched the league average for shortstops (.970), he’d have about seven fewer errors. So as the Royals assess his work entering the offseason, and where to play him, a good starting point would simply be for Witt to consistently make the routine play over the last few weeks. And then we can start to work on that on-base percentage. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: The defensive struggles are indeed confusing as he has been a projected above-average defender wherever he has played and still turns in highlight-reel plays. Delving deeper into his Baseball Savant defensive splits, his third base difficulties have been lateral (where the angles are new), while on the plays that are similar to shortstop (coming in, going back) he has been above league average. He also has been negative coming in and going left or right at shortstop, which is surprising, but without doing a deep video dive that seems to speak more to polish/technique than headline ability. The offensive concern for Witt entering the year, as with Rodriguez, is that he’d swing too much and get exposed against the best pitchers in the world. That has happened at some level and he hasn’t made the adjustment Rodriguez has just yet, but I’d count on it coming. — McDaniel

9. George Kirby, RHP, Seattle Mariners

How he’s performed so far: After six starts in the minors to start the season, Kirby joined the rotation May 8 and has been a mainstay, going 5-3 with a 3.47 ERA and 93 strikeouts in 90 2/3 innings. His biggest strength is excellent control of a 95 mph four-seamer as he has averaged just 1.3 walks per nine innings. He has been a little hittable, however, allowing a .266 average (and right-handers are hitting .326 off him, as his slider hasn’t been enough of a wipeout pitch), with his hard-hit and whiff rates both well below average. He’s poised and confident and the Mariners love his future, refusing to include him in any Juan Soto trade discussions. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: Dave notes Kirby’s struggles with the slider, and that’s a key pitch for him in terms of maintaining his excellent results during this crucial stretch run for Seattle. According to Statcast, Kirby has allowed a .406 wOBA on that pitch, which means every hitter is basically Freddie Freeman when whacking at Kirby’s slider. But his xwOBA — the figure you’d look for based on the underlying metrics of the pitch — is an outstanding .287. That turns Freeman into, well, somebody not nearly as good. If Kirby’s results on the slider start matching Statcast’s expectations, he’ll be in great shape down the stretch. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: This season has gone about how I would’ve expected thus far: lots of strikes, solid outcomes, but some trouble putting away hitters with his off-speed stuff. It is really striking when watching Kirby how good his command is, truly advanced beyond his years. His off-speed pitches all grade as average to a little above, while his fastball plays a bit below its velocity due to its shape. His easy plus (maybe plus-plus?) command has to bridge that gap to deliver mid-rotation results, and that’s what he has been doing all year.— McDaniel

How he’s performed so far: Burke is this year’s popup rookie reliever. The 26-year-old lefty, who made six appearances as a starter for the Rangers in 2019, had a 5.68 ERA as a starter in Triple-A in 2021, so the move to the bullpen has served him well, as he has posted a 1.25 ERA. He has plus velocity with a four-seamer that averages 94.9 mph, but also elite extension that allows it to play up even more. He’s living a little bit off a high strand rate, but his starter’s repertoire has allowed the Rangers to use him in longer outings and he’s second in the majors in relief innings. — Schoenfield

What to watch for the rest of 2022: With 2.8 bWAR through Saturday, Burke has a chance to run down Jeff Zimmerman’s Rangers record for a rookie reliever. Zimmerman posted 3.9 bWAR in 1999 on the strength of 87 2/3 innings pitched, a 9-3 record and three saves. Burke has zero saves. Zero. Burke currently holds the Rangers’ record for most bWAR for a rookie reliever with zero saves, just ahead of Darren O’Day’s 2010 season. So if he doesn’t lapse into sub-replacement pitching, the record will remain his. There have been only 10 relievers with at least 2.7 bWAR in a zero-save season, though the Mets’ Aaron Loup did it just last season. The record is 3.4 by Tyler Clippard in 2011. That could be in reach as long as the Rangers’ new manager doesn’t start using Burke to close out games. — Doolittle

The long-term outlook: Burke has long been a prospect, but 2020 shoulder surgery seemed to have reduced the chances he’d hit that power lefty upside that he indeed has hit this season. His stuff is above average, he has been throwing quality strikes and he’s doing it in one-to-two-inning stints, so as long as he can stay healthy, he seems to have turned into a three-pitch, multipurpose reliever. — McDaniel

A quick look at how teams are doing, as a whole, with their rookie classes this season.

Team rookie leaders
1. Braves (7.25 rookie WAR)
2. Mariners (5.86)
3. Cardinals (5.68)
4. Orioles (5.58)
5. Guardians (5.43)

(Note: WAR figures are based on an average of each player’s metrics at and

Most of this makes perfect sense. The Cardinals almost always rely on internal solutions where they exist, and they’ve gotten strong rookie seasons from Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Andre Pallante. The Mariners and Orioles are recent rebuilders who have broken out and feature Rodriguez and Rutschman, two of the game’s elite prospects who have become our top two rookies. The Guardians lead the AL Central with baseball’s youngest roster.

But Atlanta? Come on, this isn’t even fair. It’s not just that the Braves are the defending champs, but before the season, Atlanta’s system was just 27th in Kiley’s rankings. And yet, here we are, with the Braves continuing to rely on homegrown players to help them contend right now. In addition to Harris and Strider, the Braves have gotten strong contributions from rookie pitcher Dylan Lee and, most recently, infielder Vaughn Grissom. — Doolittle

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