FOX Sports MLB Analyst
Our ranking of all 30 MLB teams based on their 26-and-under talent concluded this week with the top spot going to the defending world champion Houston Astros. Before we put a bow on this project completely, we wanted to shift the focus from the teams as a collective to the individual players who comprise these groups of young talent and thus informed our rankings by extension. Just as we considered how strong the depth of each organization’s U-27 talent looks to be for the next half-decade, these rankings are based on which individual position players we’d want the most for the next five seasons.
This was even more challenging than lining up the teams, as there is so much overwhelming young talent that feels worthy of inclusion on a list like this. We compiled roughly 50 candidates and did our best to cut it in half, leaving us with a ton of honorable mentions. Gavin Lux, Eloy Jiménez, Gleyber Torres, Tyler Stephenson, Alec Bohm, Luis Urías, Lars Nootbaar, William Contreras, Ozzie Albies … these are just a few of the many players (along with several others mentioned below) who we strongly considered for inclusion but came up short.
It wasn’t easy, but we wanted to narrow it down to the best of the best. Without further ado, here are our top-26 position players ages 26 and under (pitcher rankings will be released later Tuesday):
*2023 age-season in parentheses
26. Cal Raleigh, Mariners (26)
25. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates (26)
It was awfully difficult to decide who to squeeze into these final two spots, but we ultimately went with two players who combine stable high-end defensive value with still-undetermined offensive upside. Raleigh makes the cut for the rare power he offers for a backstop combined with a sterling defensive reputation at the game’s most demanding position. Hayes is on the very short list of best third-base defenders in the world, securing an impressive WAR baseline that he just demonstrated with a 3.0 fWAR/4.3 bWAR season despite the lackluster .659 OPS. He’s always hit the ball hard, so there’s still untapped offensive potential here if he can find a way to elevate the ball more consistently. The same could be said for the switch-hitting Raleigh, if he can cut down on the strikeouts or become more consistent from the right side of the plate. Still, the standards they’ve already set have made both of these players important pillars for their respective franchises, even if you wouldn’t call them full-blown stars right now.
Honorable mention: Infielder Nico Hoerner, who just agreed to a three-year extension, was another plus-glove player with a promising bat who was considered for the list for similar reasons.
Cathedral Ceilings With Concerns
24. Bobby Witt Jr., Royals (23)
23. Luis Robert Jr., White Sox (25)
The sky is the limit for these two — we’re talking upside worthy of a top-10 spot on this list if it all clicks — but each comes with enough red flags that we were hesitant to jump all the way in just yet. Witt Jr.’s otherworldly power/speed combo was on display as a rookie, but his low on-base percentage and shockingly poor defensive metrics at shortstop severely diminished his overall value. Still, we’re talking about the youngest shortstop ever to hit 20 homers and steal 30 bags in a season, eclipsing a 22-year-old Álex Rodríguez in 1998. The physical talent is undeniable — now he just has to hone in on the little things.
Robert, meanwhile, is tracking like Chicago’s answer to division rival Minnesota’s Byron Buxton — a do-it-all center fielder who looks like one of the best players on the planet … when he can stay on the field. Granted, like Witt, Robert also comes with a propensity to swing at everything thrown his way and needs to better curate his pitch selection in order to maximize his potential at the plate.
Honorable mentions: As far as pure physical ability, Pittsburgh’s Oneil Cruz’s potential exists in a similar spectacular stratosphere, but Cruz hasn’t shown quite enough yet at the highest level to convince us he belonged on the list. That could change very quickly, but we want to see him prove it.
22. Steven Kwan, Guardians (25)
21. Alejandro Kirk, Blue Jays (24)
20. Luis Arráez, Marlins (26)
Kwan, Kirk and Arráez account for three of just six qualified hitters who walked more often than they struck out in 2022, along with Juan Soto (he’s a bit higher on this list), Alex Bregman and Yandy Díaz. This rare ability to control the zone in such a strikeout-heavy era deserves recognition and inclusion on this list. Arráez, a career .314 hitter in over 1,500 plate appearances, has the longest MLB track record of raking and thus earns the top spot, but you could argue these three in any order considering Kirk plays the most important position and Kwan’s excellent defense in the outfield.
Honorable mentions: The Cardinals’ Brendan Donovan’s on-base skills and defensive versatility had him under strong consideration, but he ultimately just missed. Vinnie Pasquantino also walked more than he struck out in his breakout rookie campaign with the Royals, but it was still a relatively small sample and his limited defensive value kept him off the list for now.
Former D-Backs With Unique Skill Sets
19. Daulton Varsho, Blue Jays (26)
18. Jazz Chisholm Jr., Marlins (25)
Enter Varsho, a former full-time catcher who has turned himself into an elite defensive outfielder, and Chisholm Jr., a former infielder who is about to try to turn himself into an elite defensive outfielder with his surprising move to center field for the 2023 Marlins. More importantly, each has tremendous offensive ability from the left side. Varsho just broke out with 27 dingers for Arizona before being traded to Toronto over the winter, while Jazz’s .282 ISO was tied with Pete Alonso for seventh-best in MLB at the time he hit the IL with a season-ending back injury. Now healthy, Chisholm will need to maintain his power surge while learning a new position while Varsho adjusts to playing a key role for a new team with World Series aspirations. You certainly won’t find me betting against either of them.
17. Jeremy Peña, Astros (25)
16. Andrés Giménez, Guardians (24)
These were two of the biggest breakouts of last season. Giménez led all players on these rankings in bWAR with a remarkable 7.4, the highest bWAR mark by a second baseman 23 years old or younger since … *checks notes* … Eddie Collins in 1910?!? Yes, that’s a real fact, and an obvious sign that Cleveland has a clear franchise second baseman (and possibly shortstop if/when Amed Rosario leaves in free agency).
All Peña did in his debut season was become the first rookie position player ever to win LCS and World Series MVP, and that came after a regular season in which he became the first rookie shortstop to win a Gold Glove while launching 22 homers for good measure. The limited OBP skills cloud his ultimate offensive ceiling, but the baseline here of power-hitting elite defensive shortstop is already an immensely valuable one — just ask Dansby Swanson.
Both Giménez and Peña chased at a troubling number of pitches out of the zone, leaving the door open for some possible regression at the plate. To be fair, you *can* be a star hitter while chasing over 40% of pitches out of the zone — Rafael Devers says hello — but it isn’t common. Time will tell if Peña and Giménez have that sort of ability, or if they will settle into being merely great rather than elite players.
The Kids Who Are About To Do It
15. Corbin Carroll, Diamondbacks (22)
14. Gunnar Henderson, Orioles (22)
The consensus top two prospects in the game check in just inside the top 15 on this list after stellar Septembers where they looked every bit like they belonged on a big-league field. Each has already shown an ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball and look like franchise cornerstones for Arizona and Baltimore for years to come.
Honorable mentions: It felt ridiculous to include anyone who has yet to record an MLB hit, but this is the part where we tell you that fellow top prospects Jordan Walker and Anthony Volpe were strongly considered for this list, as well. But even with the idea that we are projecting for the next half-decade, we felt more comfortable including those who had already demonstrated success at both Triple-A and the big-league level before crowning Walker and Volpe just yet.
The same could be said about two of the other best non-MLB hitters in the world right now who were considered in the preliminary stages: 21-year-old LSU outfielder Dylan Crews (the prohibitive favorite to go first overall in the upcoming draft who is currently hitting .531/.658/.988 for the No. 1-ranked Tigers) and 23-year-old Japanese slugger Munetaka Murakami, who just starred for champion Samurai Japan in the World Baseball Classic after launching 56 homers in Nippon Professional Baseball last season. They may end up two of the best hitters in MLB three years from now, but it’s way too early to include them.
The Kids Who Have Already Been Doing It
13. Wander Franco, Rays (22)
12. Michael Harris II, Braves (22)
Though they are younger than Carroll and barely older than Henderson, Franco and Harris have already shown star-level performance for longer stretches of MLB action and each seems to just be scratching the surface of what’s possible. Franco has been hyped for so long — and been lauded as the best player his age dating back almost a decade — that he almost gets lost in the shuffle of all the young superstars in today’s game. But switch-hitting shortstops with his feel to put the bat on the ball just do not come around often. We’re betting big on a healthier version of Franco having a much louder season in 2023 than he did while consistently banged up a year ago.
Harris had decent buzz as a prospect but nothing to suggest he was about to deliver one of the most electric rookie seasons we’ve seen in years — especially for a player with just 43 games above A-ball before his call-up. His elite defense in center combined with shocking raw power from his 6-0, 195-pound frame has immediately vaulted him into the inner circle of most exciting players in baseball. Like Peña and Giménez, his propensity to swing as often as he does and his aversion to walks opens up the possibility that MLB arms could exploit him a bit more in his sophomore year, but the talent here is so overwhelming that he’s probably a star anyway even with some lower-OBP seasons. There’s clearly staying power here, and he’s still so, so young.
Sweet-Swinging Florida Men
11. Bo Bichette, Blue Jays (25)
10. Kyle Tucker, Astros (26)
In 2015, Tampa outfielder Kyle Tucker won Gatorade High School Player of the Year for the state of Florida. A year later, a shortstop just 30 minutes down the road in St. Petersburg named Bo Bichette did the same. Fast-forward seven years and each continues to rake at the highest level just as they did in high school. Bichette has led the American League in hits each of the past two years, while Tucker is coming off back-to-back 30-HR campaigns and his first trip to the All-Star Game. Tucker gets the slight nod over Bichette for his more discerning plate discipline and manageable strikeout rate, but this is pretty damn close to a toss-up. These are both fantastic ballplayers.
9. Rafael Devers, Red Sox (26)
8. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays (24)
7. Austin Riley, Braves (26)
Now we’re getting to the good stuff. Here we have three of the most feared power bats in our game, two of whom (Devers and Riley) have made drastic improvements defensively in order to stick at the hot corner, while the one that did have to move across the diamond has become a stellar defender at first and has proven MVP-caliber offensive potential.
That we could come up with eight players to rank ahead of Devers should tell you how loaded the league is with young talent right now. Since the start of the 2019 season, no player in MLB has notched more extra-base hits than his 264, and he was finally (and deservingly) rewarded with a historic contract extension to stick in Boston potentially for life.
Vlad Jr.’s average launch angle fell significantly in 2022, lessening his slugging percentage and sinking his production to a 132 OPS+ — a mark that most players would dream of posting but looked like a stark disappointment following his monstrous 2021. As the youngest member of this trio, there’s more than enough time for Guerrero — one of the most gifted hitters scouts have seen dating back to when he was 14 years old — to make the necessary tweaks to return to MVP form.
We are only a few years removed from Riley tracking like a useful, albeit whiff-heavy platoon bat with an unclear defensive home. Allow his stunning development to remind everyone of how important it is to reach the big leagues at a young age (22 in Riley’s case) and thus allow more time to figure out how to hit the best pitching in the world, as Riley has done so incredibly over the past two seasons. The strides he’s made on defense have allowed his excellent offensive production to shine even brighter, resulting in back-to-back 6-plus bWAR seasons, something only three other MLB players can claim (Aaron Judge, José Ramírez and Paul Goldschmidt). He’ll be the Braves’ third baseman for a long, long time.
Might Make This Ranking Look Very Stupid At This Time Next Year
6. Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves (25)
5. Fernando Tatís Jr., Padres (24)
This duo is so outrageously talented that we could easily look up in even a couple months and realize ranking them this low was an embarrassing mistake. Along with Vlad Jr. and Soto, these have been the most consistent contenders at or near the tops of lists of this ilk for several years now. The challenge now for both Acuña and Tatís is that they are at least a year removed from looking like the best players in the sport and thus there is at least some degree of uncertainty regarding what to expect moving forward.
For Acuña, it’s clear his ACL injury has sapped some of his explosiveness and athleticism in the outfield and on the basepaths, but his underlying batted-ball data suggests he really hasn’t fallen off much with the bat as much as the surface stats suggest. He is still capable of being one of the best hitters in MLB, it just remains to be seen the degree to which his secondary skills will return post-injury.
As for Tatís, a self-inflicted year off due to a motorcycle accident and a PED suspension has made memories of his otherworldly impact on the Padres and baseball as a whole feel far more distant than they actually are. When he’s right, he’s in the conversation for best player in the game and, in turn, belongs in the top five even without having played since 2021. His move off shortstop may decrease his overall value, but the bat is so overwhelming that he may be worthy of the top spot on this list a year from now anyway. April 20, his projected return from suspension, can’t come soon enough.
4. Adley Rutschman, Orioles (25)
3. Julio Rodríguez, Mariners (22)
Individual players rarely sway the fortunes of a team so quickly or dramatically in baseball the way they can in other sports, yet that seemed to be exactly what took place in the cases of Rodríguez and Rutschman, the two best American League rookies in 2022. It took J-Rod one season to help finally bring postseason baseball back to Seattle, ending a historic and infamous drought that was almost as old as he was. His transformation into a legitimately awesome center fielder was the cherry on top of his well-established reputation as an offensive force. That he has proven worthy of staying up the middle is also a big part of the reason he ranks as highly on this list as he does, as center fielders with this kind of offensive ceiling just don’t come around very often.
Baltimore, still seemingly in the depths of a rebuild that featured at least 108 losses in each of the previous three full seasons, was suddenly restored to competency following Rutschman’s call-up. The Orioles went 16-24 before Rutschman made his debut and 67-55 after, finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2016. Though his raw production with the bat may not jump off his baseball-reference page the way it does with Rodríguez or any of the other players in the top-10, his impact on defense cannot be overstated. That command of the game as a field general, combined with even just an above-average bat is what has him already in the conversation for being the best catcher in MLB — one of the most valuable players a team can have in this league. That is why he belongs in the top five.
The Best Hitters On Earth
2. Yordan Álvarez, Astros (26)
1. Juan Soto, Padres (24)
It’s simple: If baseball people, from fans to front offices, have earnest conversations about whether you are the best pure hitter on the planet, you deserve to be at the top of this list. Despite their youth, Soto and Álvarez have each inspired such conversations in recent years and thus are rewarded with the top two spots on our U-27 position player rankings.
Deciding who belonged in the top spots between so many outstanding all-around talents was difficult, but it felt reasonable to default to the players who are the safest bets to dramatically impact the game any time they have a bat in their hands. And beyond their impressive track record of regular-season performances, these are also two players who have already delivered some of the biggest postseason hits and homers of the past decade, something very few other U-27 players can claim, let alone players of all ages across the league. The legends of these two hitters are already secure, yet they are also building toward something much greater. We can’t wait to see what they have in store next.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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