We're over a month into the 2022 MLB season, which seems like an appropriate time to check in on top prospects who were feverishly being promoted to big league rosters on Opening Day. It's a new trend after years of organizations manipulating service time under the guise of a player "needing to work on their defense."
The big question is why was the '22 Opening Day prospect class so large? Part of it can be attributed to a wildly talented group, but the biggest factor was likely new CBA conditions that finally encourage teams to leave spring training with their best players.
As we'll note with several players below, it isn't as if every top prospect hit the ground running en route to stardom, which is something to be mindful of when all of Twitter is screaming for a big league promotion for our favorite prospects (I'm guilty of this myself).
Stats are entering Thursday.
Kansas City's prodigal son was given the most immediate opportunity among rookies in 2022. The Royals' No. 2 hitter on Opening Day, Witt knocked a go-ahead double in the eighth inning for his first major league hit. It was a special moment for both the 21-year-old and the Royals franchise.
Since then, Witt has done a lot of things well. He's posting a sprint speed in the 100th percentile (good for 5 SBs) and while it's too early to judge his defense via advanced metrics, he's passing the eye test.
Unfortunately, Witt has yet to heat up with the bat, slashing .219/.248/.324 entering Thursday. The biggest issue is a 45 O-swing% that is the 6th worst mark in baseball for qualified hitters. His swinging strike rate isn't as bad, but the "swing and miss" element to his game has lived up to the scouting reports.
In the minors last season Witt had a 30% strikeout rate in May that he lowered throughout the season. He finished the year one steal short of a 30/30 campaign. This is in extremely talented baseball player who has made adjustments before. It starts with chasing less. He may not ultimately return draft-day value, but he's trending in the direction.
The most incredible aspect of Julio's season to-date is that he leads the major leagues in stolen bases. This might not be shocking to those who started following him in spring training, but as recently as last summer he was viewed as a bat-first corner outfielder. Now he's the Mariners' unquestioned best option in center field while recording a 98th percentile sprint speed.
Last season J-Rod talked to the MLB Pipeline guys about wanting to improve his speed and genuinely went out and did that. It's what makes him a special player and why there's no doubt that he'll turn things around at the plate.
It's actually already happening. After getting absolutely hosed on called third strikes to begin 2022, Rodriguez has overcome that adversity to post a 162 wRC+ since April 28th. The K% has come way down during this time. The barrels haven't arrived in bunches yet (1 homer for the year), but he already has a 92nd percentile max exit velocity with strong hard-hit numbers. He should be seen as a near untouchable player in dynasty leagues.
Looking at plate discipline numbers a few weeks into the year, I was impressed with Tork's O-swing%. On Fangraphs he's at 25.2% right now, which is the 27th best mark among qualified bats. On Baseball Savant he ranks in the 87th percentile for chase rate. This is promising.
Additionally, when he makes contact, the hard-hit numbers are there. His Savant page is "pinkish-red" in this regard.
The problem has been making contact, especially outside the strike zone. Torkelson's whiff rate is 36th percentile. His O-contact% is among the bottom 30 in MLB.
To summarize, Torkelson isn't chasing often, but when he does, he's whiffing a ton. Since April 19th he's batting .113/.214/.161 overall. He'll figure it out long term (think what Andrew Vaughn did to begin '22 before his injury), but I wouldn't be surprised to see Tork head to Triple-A soon to get back on track for a bit.
As of this writing Abrams is in Triple-A, and it's worth mentioning that he homered twice in his first game there on Wednesday.
It's a much needed bright spot for a 21-year-old who was clearly overmatched in his first taste of big league action this spring. Abrams hit just .182/.270/.273 with one homer and a single stolen base in 20 games. He started 8 of the Padres' first 11 games before playing time became a lot more scarce until he was optioned.
Among all the top prospects who made Opening Day rosters, Abrams was the most surprising. Between the lost minor league season in 2020 and a fractured tibia/sprained MCL last summer, Abrams entered this season with just 348 plate appearances since being drafted in 2019.
He simply needs more reps in the upper minors before he's ready to contribute at the big league level. Abrams' 21.5 K% was actually pretty respectable when factoring in his experience, but he just wasn't hitting the ball with any authority.
Pena didn't enter the year as high-profile of a prospect as the first four names we discussed, but through a month's worth of action he leads all rookies with 1.5 fWAR (Julio is next closest at 0.8).
The 24-year-old's growth is a testament to Houston's player development as they were clearly comfortable with Pena as a fallback option to Carlos Correa (similar to having Kyle Tucker/Yordan Alvarez stepping up post-Springer).
Pena's barrel rate is in the 90th percentile, which is excellent. He's playing exceptional defense and runs the bases well. While there is some swing-and-miss to his game, he's hitting the ball hard when making contact.
In the short term he seems to be the top rookie bat to roster, and there is definitely more long-term upside than we thought at this time last year. Hitting in Houston's friendly confines while surrounded by superstars helps as well.
Greene came out of the gate like gangbusters with triple-digit heat, a plus slider, and good control. Through two starts he had a 13:2 K:BB with his fastball averaging between 99.8 mph and 100.2 mph.
Unfortunately, the good times didn't last. Greene's velocity fell in start No. 3, and while it has ticked back up, it hasn't reached the highs of his first two outings. Since April 22nd his four-seamer is averaging "just" 97.3 mph.
The reason why this matters so much can be explained by this image:
That's the heat map for Greene's four-seam fastball this season, and it's...right. down. the middle.
Greene throws really hard, but he needs the triple-digit velocity if he's going to throw it down the middle. His fastball is straight. It doesn't rise or cut. A 97 mph (straight) fastball isn't really a problem for big league hitters.
Since the dip in velocity Greene has given up 17 ER in 15 2/3 IP, to go along with a 22:13 K:BB ratio. Hitters have adjusted. Until further notice he should only be rostered in keeper/dynasty formats.
From where Gore was at this time last year I consider it a 95th percentile outcome. Last May, coming off a 2020 season where he wasn't promoted despite the Padres needing pitching help, Gore was struggling at Triple-A. He was eventually "demoted" to extended spring training to work on his mechanics. Reports of his Arizona Fall League performance were unimpressive.
Then, suddenly, there was optimism this spring. I've yet to read the right story to fully explain it, but Gore is seemingly fixed as we approach mid-May. Will be contending for a Cy Young in the next year or two? I'd bet against it, but The Athletic's Eno Sarris says both his fastball and slider rate as plus in his Stuff+ model. The command is there too.
The lefty is currently throwing his fastball a whopping 66.4% of the time. His slider, meanwhile, is at 13.5%. The curve and changeup are just show-me pitches right now, but I think there's hidden upside in Gore's profile if he ever leaned into the slider more.
For now, we'll take a 2.42 ERA with 28 strikeouts over his first 26 major league innings.
I became a huge Aaron Ashby fan late last season. He had a horrible MLB debut in June, allowing seven runs (four earned) on four hits and three walks in 2/3 of an inning. It was concerning since control was his biggest question mark in the minors.
He returned in August, primarily as a reliever, and rattled off a 30 1/3 IP stretch with a 1.78 ERA, 2.64 FIP, and a 38:6 K:BB. Unfortunately, there was another disastrous outing on the final day of the season. The inconsistent command was still an issue.
What drew me to the lefty was his double-plus slider. Of any pitch thrown at least 200 times in 2021, Ashby's slider had the fourth highest CSW% (called strikes plus whiffs) in baseball. He also has a fastball that hits 99 mph with sink and run. Having already appeared in the majors there was a case to be made for him as one of the top pitching prospects in the league entering 2022. He made my preseason prediction list for 3 breakout pitchers.
This year has been a bit of a mixed bag. Milwaukee has mainly used him out of the bullpen, but he's been given a few spot starts as well. When combing through his game logs I noticed he has a 13:13 K:BB when starting and a 12:4 K:BB when operating as a reliever. Does this mean anything? Probably not, but I still find it interesting.
His best usage might ultimately be as a "super reliever" similar to how the Red Sox deploy Garrett Whitlock and how the Braves are utilizing Spencer Strider. What gives me hope in dynasty leagues is Milwaukee's recent history of pitching development. Both Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta were once seen as good stuff/bad command arms who figured it out. Perhaps Ashby will wind up as a post-hype breakout option in 2023.
I take it really hard when fantasy advice I share doesn't work out. It's bound to happen here and there, and it isn't as if anyone made a significant investment in Brash this year, but his downfall basically occurred faster than the come-up. We barely had time to analyze things before it was over.
After his debut it was a legitimate question as to why he wasn't considered a top pitching prospect entering 2022. The slider was just that good. Look at this thing!
Sadly, the control is just that bad. Add in a fastball that isn't special and big league bats quickly realized they just needed to lay off the breaking stuff.
5 starts into his career Brash became a worse version of Tanner Houck -- a righty with a freakish slider and not much else. He walked 17 hitters in 20 frames before being optioned to Triple-A with an impending transition to the bullpen.
Had Seattle kept him in the rotation opposing teams were going to continue stacking lefties against him, which is where the slider/knuckle-curve combo isn't as effective. He's at least been better as a RP so far with a 8:2 K:BB in 4 minor league innings.
The Mariners are expected to call him back up as a reliever later this summer.
Spencer Strider, RP, Braves: Strider has had some exceptional outings, one tragic one, and a couple of mediocre ones. The control is an issue when he isn't right. The Braves are talking about making him a starter, but I hope they continue using him as a super-RP. His best format for fantasy in H2H categories, particularly in dynasty leagues.
Jhoan Duran, RP, Twins: As president of the Jhoan Duran Fan Club, you won't find me saying anything negative about him. He's the best reliever on the Twins, but his 5x5 roto viability will come down to whether or not Minnesota treats him as their locked-in closer.
Nick Lodolo, SP, Reds: The lefty has missed some time recently with a back issue, but he was going to have his innings restricted this season anyways. He should flirt with streaming upside in redraft leagues throughout the summer.
Steven Kwan, OF, Guardians: The contact skills are obviously off the charts, but since April 13th he's batting just .217/.286/.319. For the year he has 1 homer and 1 steal. It was an incredible story during the opening week of 2022, but I don't think he needs to be rostered in most 12-team formats. He's a better real life option for the Guardians.
Keibert Ruiz, C, Nationals: Ruiz doesn't strike out much but also doesn't walk much. He chases too frequently for my liking, but that's kind of his thing as the bat-to-ball skills are quite strong. He's a back-end, top-12 catcher in redraft.
Joey Bart, C, Giants: The strikeouts are just too much for him to be playable in fantasy right now. Long-term I believe in the Giants' player development, and they're putting a lot on him defensively these days, but now isn't his time in fantasy leagues.
Josh Lowe, OF, Rays: I like that he didn't chase while he was in the majors, but he still struck out too much. Playing time will always be a concern with Tampa Bay rookies until they fully break out.
Joe Ryan, SP, Twins: Elite deception in his delivery makes Ryan a very difficult matchup the first time teams see him, but will the scouting report eventually get out on that sort of things? His past two starts have been far worse than his first handful. It's something to monitor.