Baseball's 25 best players under 25
If you were starting a team today, and you were able to choose only from players under 25 years old -- that’s Major League stars and Minor League prospects, just so long as they aren’t past their age-24 season in 2021 -- who would you pick? It’s a difficult, if entertaining, question. You’ve got more than a few young superstars who have already proven they can succeed at the highest level; you may have noticed one of them just signed a 14-year deal worth $340 million. You’ve also got some incredibly promising prospects who haven’t yet seen or thrown a Major League pitch. What do you do?
So, that’s exactly what we did. We chose five MLB.com writers -- MLB Pipeline prospect experts Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo; national reporter Jesse Sanchez; and analysts Sarah Langs and Mike Petriello -- to participate in a draft to each select five players under 25 to come up with a “25 under 25” list. The challenge here is that it’s not for 2021, it’s for this season and beyond, so you need to balance what the established big leaguers have already shown against the potentially sky-high promise that the younger, possibly still teenaged, players might offer down the road.
There’s no right answer. We had a lot of fun seeing how each person thought about their selections. Join us below for 25 picks in a serpentine-style draft, choosing the 25 under 25 players for 2021. The one thing we found out for sure is that there are a lot more than 25 players who came under consideration. There’s just an enormous amount of young talent in baseball right now.
1. Langs: Juan Soto, OF, Nationals (2021 age: 22)
I have spent the last two months going over Soto stats for our MLB Network Top 10 Right Now series -- where I had him as the No. 1 right fielder -- and MLB Network Top 100 Right Now -- where I had him as the No. 2 player in baseball. Given that he was my second overall player in the Majors right now behind Mike Trout, picking him first overall here was a no-brainer. Soto’s ZiPS projection comp for 2021 is literally Ted Williams, and the only players to get off to career starts like he’s had so far are Hall of Famers and Trout.
2. Callis: Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres (2021 age: 22)
I figured I’d be picking between Soto and Ronald Acuña at No. 2 because Tatis would go No. 1, so I was happy to pounce on him here. Those were the clear top three to me, and I would have taken Tatis for his all-around game and position value. I would have been fine with Soto’s breathtaking bat if I wound up with him, and Acuña isn’t far behind those two.
3. Sanchez: Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves (2021 age: 23)
The dynamic Acuña Jr. is one of the most electrifying talents in the game and it’s easy to see why he has established himself as one of the faces of the game at such a young age. Need a home run? Acuña Jr. can do it. How about a game-saving catch? Yep. He can do that, too. Steal a bag, take an extra base or throw out a runner? Check. Check. Check. There’s nothing he can’t do, and the sky’s the limit. One day, you will be able to look back at Acuña Jr.'s career and say you witnessed something extraordinary. You’ll be able to say you saw a Hall of Famer’s career from start to finish and what a treat it was. So, enjoy it! Add his “it” factor and there’s nobody I would rather have to start my team.
4. Petriello: Wander Franco, SS, Rays (2021 age: 20)
I feel like the No. 4 pick here is where this really gets interesting, because The Big Three are all going to end up in Cooperstown -- yes, I know how young they are; no, I’m not joking -- and so now I’m left between choosing the consensus top prospect or from a variety of other young players who have already proven something in the Majors. I’ll take the risk here and go with the potentially sky-high reward, because Franco is as safe a bet to succeed as any prospect in years, and it’s not like he’s a Rookie ball teenager, either; he’s likely to debut in 2021. A 20-year-old switch-hitter who can play shortstop and walked more than he struck out in the Minors, while showing plus raw power? Sign me up.
5. Mayo: Luis Robert, OF, White Sox (2021 age: 23)
I must admit I was hoping Mike would go with a big leaguer so I could nab Franco here, and had I been able to walk away with a Franco-Robert combination with my back-to-back picks, I would’ve been thrilled. I know Robert faded down the stretch in 2020, but keep in mind that was just one bad month. Yes, there’s work to be done in terms of plate discipline, as his 32 percent strikeout rate was one of the highest in the big leagues, but I’m still a big believer in all of his offensive tools, not to mention his Gold Glove defense in center.
6. Mayo: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B/3B, Blue Jays (2021 age: 22)
Guerrero Jr. is the first prospect we ever gave an 80 hit grade to, and while it’s true he hasn’t lived up to that billing just yet, he’s still been a positive contributor (2.1 bWAR) over the past two seasons. There might be a bit more pressure on his bat if he’s now a full-time first baseman, but I still have absolute faith Guerrero Jr. will more than produce enough for any position on the field. And he’ll play all of the upcoming season at age 22.
7. Petriello: Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox (2021 age: 24)
Devers had a disappointing 2020. Got it. There’s questions about his third-base defense, and his future might be at first base or DH. Got that too. Even if I did want to worry too much about weirdo 2020 baseball, the fact that a 110 OPS+ at 23 years old could be considered “a down year” tells you a lot about how big of a breakout his 2019 had been, and over 2019-20, he has the third-most hard-hit balls (95 mph exit velocity or more) in baseball. Even in 2020, Devers' barrel rate went up, while he was mostly sunk by a sky-high strikeout rate. He’ll play all of 2021 at 24; he’s the perfect combination of “already proved it” and “still has more to show.”
8. Sanchez: Eloy Jiménez, White Sox (2021 age: 24)
It’s hard to believe Jimenez is already 24. It seems like yesterday he was a 16-year-old star signing out of the Dominican Republic, dreaming of being the next Sammy Sosa. He was 15 the first time I saw him. Now, look at him. He’s a full-grown man. He might be too big for some, but he’s still agile enough to play outfield every day if needed. Remember, Jimenez is still the club’s everyday left fielder and yes, he will see some time at DH. That’s not a bad thing. They want his bat in the lineup. I’d want his bat in my lineup too. Can you say “underrated star?"
9. Callis: Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles (2021 age: 23)
If we were drafting complete lineups, Rutschman might go even higher than this because there aren’t exactly a lot of under-25 catchers who are locks to become stars. Rutschman is. I’ve been covering prospects for more than three decades, and he has the best all-around tools of any catcher I’ve seen. He’s not as athletic as Joe Mauer, but he has much more power. And he has more pop and more advanced defense than Buster Posey at the stage too. Rutschman is a switch-hitter with hitting ability, pop and plate discipline -- and he has Gold Glove ability behind the plate as well.
10. Langs: Spencer Torkelson, 3B, Tigers (2021 age: 21)
Any time you have a chance to take a top-three prospect in baseball, you do it -- those are the rules. With the serpentine draft, my pick windows were quite spaced out, so by the time I got to my personal second pick here, it was definitely prospect time. Torkelson has 70-grade power, and even in the early days of Spring Training, the videos out of camp have been a lot of fun to watch. It’ll be great to see what Torkelson does in 2021 with a Minor League season, and you have to figure we’ll see this accomplished college player in a Tigers uniform within the next year or two.
11. Langs: Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners (2021 age: 21)
After taking the third overall prospect in baseball in Torkelson, No. 4 on the list was a logical next step. The 2018 sixth overall pick by the Mets who was traded to Seattle in the Robinson Canó trade seems like he will be knocking on the door of the Mariners’ roster this season. The last time there was a Minor League season, in 2019, Kelenic slugged .540 across three levels total, including .542 at Double-A, the highest level he’s made so far. He makes a lot of hard contact, and should bring a nice power boost to that lineup, whenever he arrives.
12. Callis: Julio Rodriguez, OF, Mariners (2021 age: 20)
I really hoped to go with back-to-back No. 1 overall picks here because I love Torkelson’s offensive upside, but Sarah beat me to him. I’ll still stick with offensive upside with Rodriguez, who tore up High-A for three weeks at age 18. He could hit .280-.300 with 35-40 homers per season and he might make his big league debut as a 20-year-old this year.
13. Sanchez: Sixto Sánchez, RHP, Marlins (2021 age: 22)
I’m a big fan of the dynamic and electric player (see pick No. 3). And when that player is a pitcher? Sign me up! Sánchez dreams of being the next Pedro Martinez, and while he has a long way to go before will live up to his idol’s accomplishments, it’s great to have a goal. Here’s what we do know: Sánchez has a four-seam fastball that reaches 100 mph, a two-seamer in the 96-97 mph range, a changeup, a curve and a slider. Need more? He changed his jersey to No. 45 last November so he could have the same number as you know who.
14. Petriello: Yordan Alvarez, DH/OF, Astros (2021 age: 24)
I am here for the risk, and show me more risk in a draft like this than “the guy with bad knees and no defensive position.” Either Alvarez hits at a truly elite level or he’s not in the Major Leagues. The bar is high. But he was so good in 2019, so dominatingly truly good (.313/.412/.655, with all the underlying metrics to back it up) that I’m willing to look past the fact he played in only two games in 2020 due to double knee surgery. If Alvarez is healthy -- and I accept the “if” is doing a whole lot of work there -- everything he showed in 2019 says he’s already one of the greatest hitters in the game. I want that on my team.
15. Mayo: Ke'Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates (2021 age: 24)
I’ll tell you a little behind-the-scenes secret. Jim Callis predicted I would take the Pirates third baseman here, and I didn’t want to let him down. Truth be told, I targeted Hayes early as I waited for this serpentine draft to get back to my next two picks. Yes, I’m from Pittsburgh, but I’ve long liked Hayes, and who can blame me after his fantastic big league debut? He’s always had Gold Glove-caliber defense and the ability to make contact, but the power really showed up once he made it to PNC Park. Now maybe a 1.124 OPS over the course of an entire season is too much to ask, but Hayes looks like a future All-Star to me and is now clearly the most exciting player on the Pirates to watch.
16. Mayo: Gleyber Torres, 2B, Yankees (2021 age: 24)
I’m surprised about two things so far: that I’ve taken only guys with big league experience (Hayes is still officially a prospect) and that Torres lasted this long. Yes, his 2020 season was just so-so, but we’re talking about a guy who has played up the middle for two years in a row for the Yankees, made two All-Star teams, finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2018 and has already amassed a 6.6 bWAR. Torres will play all of the 2021 season at age 24, and if my mythical squad makes the playoff, I know Torres has a career .342/.432/.605 line in the postseason.
17. Petriello: Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves (2021 age: 24)
I’ve taken some risk so far. Franco hasn’t made it to the bigs yet; Devers took a step back in 2020; Alvarez was injured and is a DH. It’s time for some certainty, and I’ll get that in Albies, who, in parts of four seasons, has shown he can be about 10 percent above average with the bat, offering some pop and defense at second base. I’m somewhat down on Albies’ ceiling, in the sense that I don’t see enough lightning in the bat to allow him to take that next step into superstardom, but that’s OK. Albies should be a solid-to-sometimes-All-Star second baseman for the next eight to 10 years. Imagine being disappointed in that at No. 17.
18. Sanchez: Mike Soroka, RHP, Braves (2021 age: 23)
What’s not to like about Soroka? Yes, he is recovering from a torn right Achilles tendon injury he suffered last August, but he’s on the mend and he could be on the Opening Day roster if it makes sense. How good can he be when healthy? Well, he had the National League’s third-best ERA (2.68) and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2019. He pitched only 13 1/3 innings before the injury in 2020. Soroka has been fine-tuning his mechanics and strengthening his legs as part of his rehab, and his hard work is already showing up. His early side sessions have been solid and there’s a good chance you will see him on the mound in a game sooner rather than later.
19. Callis: Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals (2021 age: 21)
This was a difficult choice for me because there were so many good players and I only had two picks left. Just among shortstops alone, I could have taken Witt, CJ Abrams or Marco Luciano among prospects and Bo Bichette (whom I considered at No. 12). I opted for the guy with the best all-around tools in Witt, who could have plusses across the board and has incredible makeup as well. He’s more of a lock to stay at shortstop than those others I thought about, and he could be a 30-30 player when all is said and done.
20. Langs: Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals (2021 age: 22)
Carlson hit .200 in 119 plate appearances for the Cards in 2020, but it’s worth looking beyond last season’s results for a young player getting acclimated to the Majors. Despite the outcomes, he made a ton of very solid contact. In fact, as our colleague David Adler wrote in January, 28.9 percent of his contact was both hard-hit (a 95+ mph exit velocity) and in the launch angle sweet spot (8-32 degrees). Only four players had at least 75 batted balls with a higher rate of hard-hit and sweet spot contact: Freddie Freeman, Matt Chapman, Will Smith and Corey Seager. That’s good company, and great news for the Cardinals' offense.
21. Langs: Andrew Vaughn, 1B, White Sox (2021 age: 23)
Vaughn is the No. 14 prospect right now after being taken third overall in 2019. All reports on his offense out of the alternate training site last year were encouraging, and our Pipeline team says he projects as a 30-homer, .300 batting average type of player. The last White Sox hitter with those marks in a season was José Abreu in 2017 and 2014, and before that, it was Paul Konerko in 2010-11. Vaughn seems to have a chance at DHing for the White Sox in 2021, with his ultimate defensive position, first base, still occupied on the roster.
22. Callis: MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres (2021 age: 22)
It really pained me to not draft Giants shortstop Marco Luciano or Yankees outfielder Jasson Dominguez, who will rise to the top of our Top 100 Prospects list in the next couple of years. But I eased my pain by taking Gore, whom everyone knows I have a massive prospect crush on. Taking another hitter might have been less risky, but give me the polished lefty with four potential plus pitches, control to match, athleticism and deception.
23. Sanchez: Cristian Pache, OF, Braves (2021 age: 22)
Pache is another player I have been following since his early teens, and it’s been fun to watch him excel on the highest level. He went 4-for-22 with a double and a home run last postseason, and he is competing for the starting center-field job. Sure, his defense might be a tad ahead of his offense at the moment -- he hit 11 home runs with an .815 OPS in 104 games for Double-A Mississippi in 2019 and there are some that believe he could use some more experience on the Minor League level -- but Pache has big league potential and he’s already shown what he can do when given the opportunity.
24. Petriello: Bo Bichette, SS, Blue Jays (2021 age: 23)
I thought about dipping into the prospect lists to gamble on some high upside; there are almost certainly players that will go undrafted who will have better big league careers than Bichette. Then again, those players might not amount to anything, either, and Bichette has proven he can hit Major League pitching in parts of two seasons (137 OPS+ in 340 plate appearances). His hard-hit rate has been above average each season, and I think he’ll be a decent-if-unspectacular defender at the six. I worry that he seems unable to take a walk, but at this point in the draft, I’m putting some stock into the fact we’ve already seen him succeed, and he’s only turning 23 in March.
25. Mayo: CJ Abrams, SS, Padres (2021 age: 20)
With the final pick of this draft, I had the luxury of picking anyone I wanted. I thought about taking an arm (it would’ve been Ian Anderson or Jesus Luzardo), I could’ve showed my faith in Jo Adell to turn it around, Victor Robles was out there and I could’ve even been a Pittsburgh homer by taking Alex Kirilloff. Instead, I decided to go with full-on, yet-to-reach-the-big-leagues prospect talent. Abrams jumped into our Top 10 this year as his added strength combined with his top-of-the-scale speed makes him one of the most exciting players in the Minor Leagues, with the only question remaining being what position he moves to in deference to Tatis Jr.