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The battle for Number One

Three of SBN’s managing editors make their cases for the best prospect in baseball

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As different national baseball publications have unveiled their 2022 top prospect lists, three names have stood at the top of nearly every major list: Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez, Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, and Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. While different outlets conflict about which is the top overall prospect, the consensus is clear that the majority of the industry views these three players sitting above the rest of the game’s prospects right now.

What’s interesting about this particular trio of players—aside from their ability to impact their teams, their fanbases, and the game of baseball itself positively for years to come—is that each player represents one of the three major paths into baseball stardom. There’s the polished college performer (Rutchsman); the splashy international free agency signing (Rodríguez); and the prep wunderkind with MLB bloodlines (Witt Jr.). But each of these players is so much more than the stereotypical version of the Three True Prospect Types.

The managing editors from the SB Nation sites for each of the Top 3—Kate Preusser from Lookout Landing (Mariners), Mark Brown from Camden Chat (Orioles) and Max Rieper from Royals Review (Royals)—got together as three people who have closely watched each of these prospects from their draft/signing up until now, as they stand poised on the precipice of an MLB debut, to talk about what you think you know and what you need to know about each player.

Julio Rodríguez

Dominican Republic v Republic of Korea - Baseball - Olympics: Day 15 Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

Kate Preusser, Lookout Landing

What you think you know:

It’s easy to lump Julio in with other prodigious power-hitting prospects who came up through the international free agency system, especially given the (often dehumanizing) language used to describe him, which echoes descriptions of so many other Latin American prospects: he’s a “monster,” “a man-child,” an “athletic specimen,” a “dynamo” whose megawatt smile is only outshone by his bat.

The stereotypical view of these players is they’re boom-or-bust; they hit a lot or not at all, Juan Soto or Rusney Castillo with nothing in between. Partly that’s related to the signing bonuses the top tier of international free agents command, typically on par with first-round picks, so a team going all-in with their bonus pool on a prospect that doesn’t pan out attracts more attention than the more common type of prospect bust (the Acuña Jr.-type “out of nowhere” prospects who way outperform their signing bonuses, usually accompanied by a weird boast about how little a team paid for a game-changing talent, almost always accompanies these players on their rise; a stereotype of a different kind to lug around). The density of talent and prominence of baseball in other countries, specifically the Dominican Republic, also plays a role here; of the top 10 players by WAR this past season, half of them were acquired through international free agency, and all but Ohtani hail from the DR. There were almost 100 Dominican-born players on MLB rosters in 2021, meaning a country roughly the size of West Virginia produced about a fifth of the US’s total number of players.

Julio’s particular narrative is further layered by the fact that he is also a Mariners prospect, a team that has a history of falling on its face in that department. Witness the pure hit tool of Dustin Ackley that turned into a cooked spaghetti noodle in the bigs; the three-headed monster that was supposed to anchor a pitching rotation in Seattle for years that turned into two players now pitching for other teams (Taijuan Walker, James Paxton) and one player who never made it out of the complex (Danny Hultzen); or the countless early-round flops (Alex Jackson, D.J. Peterson, et al). Those failures are the result of a previous regime, and the Mariners’ player development system has gradually if grudgingly earned industry-wide respect as they’ve transformed a bottom-barrel farm into one of the game’s best, but early-return struggles from Evan White, Logan Gilbert, and Jarred Kelenic–to say nothing of the meteoric rise of Kyle Lewis cut short by nagging injuries– has some fans feeling déjà vu all over again. As hyped as the majority of the fanbase is about Seattle’s up-and-coming core, the scar tissue understandably runs deep in Mariners fans.

What you should know:

If you’ve seen a Julio Rodríguez highlight, it’s probably of him redirecting a baseball to Jupiter at last year’s spring training. While the power is a compelling part of his profile, it’s far from all he is. Power hitters typically carry an expectation of high strikeouts as part of their profile—Miguel Sanó, Adolis García, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo—but so far Julio has showed an advanced plate approach and an ability to make adjustments during at-bats, doing most of his damage when he’s ahead in counts but also showing a solid approach with two strikes, seemingly willing himself to make contact and avoid a strikeout. Even when he gets fooled, he seems to understand what the pitcher was attempting to do against him, and reacts accordingly:

Typically, Julio follows up mistakes like that with an adjustment, often one that results in a base hit anyway; he’s able to work a count and extend an at-bat even when overmatched, as has often been the case as he’s played against opponents who have ranged from a handful of years to a decade-plus older than him.

And despite all those cringe-inducing “man-child” accolades, despite his gargantuan size–here’s a photo of Julio casually making the Astros’ resident Large Human Yordan Álvarez look positively mundane–Julio possesses plenty of natural athleticism lashed to an iron-clad will for greatness that’s belied by his ebullient personality. He was so annoyed that outlets tagged him with a below-average speed grade after short looks at him in the DR and his first year stateside that he responded by swiping 21 bags in 2021. With his cannon arm and bigger body, he’s been slotted in as a prototypical corner outfielder–with some even suggesting that, like fellow Big Boy Álvarez, his early years in the bigs might be a whistlestop tour from right to left before ending up at DH–but Julio, who has played center in the Mariners system in the past, wiggled his way into some center-field reps while playing with team DR this summer, and then assumed control of center upon his return to Double-A Arkansas. Julio wants to be known as a great hitter, sure, but more than that, he wants to be considered a great athlete, and has the right combination of immense physical gifts and will for greatness to be seen as such.

The argument for him to be #1:

The dings on Julio are that he hasn’t played as much as the other two due to injury and his time away with the Dominican Republic national team, and he plays a less valuable defensive spot than catcher or shortstop. Some might point out that less defensive pressure means Julio’s bat will have more of a chance to shine early on; even if defense is a lesser part of his game, that certainly doesn’t hold back Álvarez or Guerrero Jr. or Acuña Jr. from being considered among the game’s best. Setting defense aside, Julio’s bat has the chance to be the most special of the group, thanks to his immense raw power coupled with his advanced plate approach. He’s also the youngest of the three–about half a year younger than Witt Jr., and a month shy of being three full years younger than Rutschman–making his trajectory to stand at the cusp of MLB even more impressive.

This group of prospects has the chance to be one of the best since 2018’s triad of Acuña Jr., Ohtani, and Guerrero Jr., or 2012’s Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and, uhhh, Matt Moore (okay let’s hope no one is Matt Moore.) All have skill sets that will, in all likelihood, impact the game of baseball in significant ways. But Julio’s natural charisma ratchets things up one degree further; his gregarious personality and determination to bring fun to everything he does positions him well as an ambassador to grow the sport exponentially among fans and non-fans alike.

Adley Rutschman

2021 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game

Mark Brown, Camden Chat

What you think you know:

Rutschman was the kind of college prospect where pretty much “everyone” knew at the end of his sophomore season that he was going to be in the conversation for the #1 overall pick in the draft. Playing an entire season under that microscope, Rutschman only solidified his place in the top tier and eventually he went at the top of the draft, receiving a then-record signing bonus.

He is everything that you could hope for a prospect to be: He plays a premium defensive position, he’s a switch-hitter, he has the kind of offensive skills that will help him with every part of a triple-slash batting line, and he excels at the tangible aspects of defense for his position while also drawing praise for less quantifiable things like in-game leadership.

What you should know:

Orioles fans have heard much of this stuff about a can’t-miss catching prospect before. Fifteen years ago, the team had Matt Wieters as the switch-hitting catching sensation who was looked at as the answer to a long stretch of losing. He generated seemingly limitless hype as a prospect, including a website in the style of Chuck Norris Facts (look it up on Know Your Meme, kids) that featured such Matt Wieters Facts as: “Matt Wieters took batting practice. There were no survivors.” and “Sliced bread is the greatest thing since Matt Wieters.”

Wieters arrived in MLB and he was… fine. He hit acceptably for a catcher and threw out a lot of runners for a few years. No one ever mistook him for one of the top five or ten players in the league. The franchise’s fortunes were not changed upon his arrival.

How can we be sure that the same scouting-industrial complex that anointed Wieters and is now anointing Rutschman won’t be mistaken again? We can’t! Caring about prospects means being ready to be hurt again. We have to hope for a bit better success rate than Charlie Brown thinking he’s really going to kick the football this time. With Rutschman, hope for that comes from phrases like this from Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, specifically addressing the Wieters comparison: “This guy’s blood courses through his veins at a much different temperature.”

Great! Except for this: What does that even mean? No one at the time or in retrospect ever suggested anything lacking about Wieters’ blood temperature. One thing does stand out on observing Rutschman, and that’s his finding his pitcher on the way to the dugout every inning for a quick feedback session. He is engaged in getting the most out of his pitchers. Minor league coaches and players at every level he’s come across have been impressed by that unusual level of interpersonal dedication. The fan who’s ready to be hurt again can hope this is a demonstration of 80-grade makeup in action, reflecting a player who will not only get the most of his own talent but the talent of everyone else around him.

The argument for him to be #1:

When there’s a catching prospect who pretty much everyone thinks can hit for power, hit for average, and draw walks as a switch-hitter, and everyone also thinks that he will be able to excel defensively at pitch blocking, pitch framing, throwing out runners, and even about getting the most out of his pitchers through pitch calling, that guy is the best prospect in baseball.

Rutschman showed a lot of this in the high minors last year and the only thing he’s waiting for to debut is the end of the lockout and the passage of the extra year of service time date on the season calendar. We’ll know soon if he can equal or exceed the hype. Our bet is on exceed.

Bobby Witt Jr.

Kansas City Royals v Seattle Mariners Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Max Rieper, Royals Review

What you think you know:

The Royals have been known for being tools-hounds, particularly for high school draftees. Sometimes that works out, like with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with Bubba Starling. Witt is very much in that mold, a five-tool player who was named Gatorade High School Player of the Year out of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas. He brings plus power for a middle infielder with terrific speed, with many projecting him to be a 20+ home run/20+ stolen base player at the big league level. He has an outstanding arm and soft hands at shortstop, with many feeling he can stick at the position despite his 6’1’’ stature.

The son of former big league pitcher Bobby Witt, Junior has the confidence of someone unfazed by the bright lights of big league ballparks. He was brought up to the Alternate Site during the pandemic season of 2020 at age 20 and quickly impressed teammates and coaches with not only his tremendous abilities, but in the way he carried himself.

What you should know:

If there is a knock on Witt’s game it is that he is still immature in his pitch selection, as many players are coming out of high school. His first pro season after being drafted was very lackluster in 2019 in the Arizona Summer League. But during the 2020 season when minor league ball was canceled due to the pandemic, the Royals revamped their approach to hitting development in the minors. The results were impressive. As Keith Law of The Athletic recently put it:

We are not talking about the seismic change in Kansas City’s offensive approach in the minors last year. It went from an 8.3 percent walk rate from hitters on its four full-season affiliates in 2019 to a 10.9 percent walk rate at those four levels last year – a jump of nearly a third. It’s the result of a top-down decision to change how the organization teaches hitters to approach at-bats, and it worked wonders. It may have saved the careers of Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, it took Bobby Witt Jr. to the next level as a prospect, and it elevated several second-tier prospects to give them a chance to be regulars.

His walk rate and strikeout rate improved over the course of last season, even after a promotion to Triple-A where he continued to show off light-tower power, blazing speed, and highlight-reel plays. His production answered any doubts about drafting a young high school kid with the #2 overall pick in the 2019 draft, and he was named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America.

The argument for him to be #1:

One could make the argument that Rutschman has the highest floor, but lowest ceiling among the three, Rodríguez has the highest ceiling, but the lowest floor, and Witt is the right mix of high upside with less risk. He is two years younger than Rustchman, but put up a better OPS in Double-A and Triple-A this year, although in fairness, with much more slug in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Rodríguez is a year younger with very impressive numbers in Double-A this year, but in just 46 games, while Witt was outstanding for a full 123 games in the upper minors this year.

Witt gets comped to Trevor Story, which feels right and would be a fantastic outcome. Baseball has ushered in a new era of fun, young players, and it sounds like this trio will only add to that list with three players who are not only incredibly talented, but have the make up to succeed at a high level. After years of suffering in the standings, Mariners, Orioles, and Royals fans are in for a treat.

Poll

Who is the number one prospect in baseball?

This poll is closed

  • 80%
    Julio Rodríguez
    (576 votes)
  • 15%
    Adley Rutschman
    (108 votes)
  • 4%
    Bobby Witt Jr.
    (33 votes)
717 votes total Vote Now