Inbox: Where will Walker be on Opening Day?

March 16th, 2023

For me, March Madness is the World Baseball Classic, Spring Training and the college and high school seasons in full swing all at the same time. I'll look away from the United States vs. Colombia thriller to answer some of your prospect questions ...

With the Cardinals outfield looking jammed with the plethora of talent, where do you put Jordan Walker? On the field or back in the Minors? -- @StevieDAles97

We tackled this question on the latest Pipeline Podcast, and Sam Dykstra and I agreed that while the Cardinals have an abundance of outfield options, they should play their three best guys and Walker is one of them. He's the youngest and most inexperienced of a group that includes Lars Nootbar, Tyler O'Neill, Dylan Carlson, Juan Yepez and Alec Burleson, but elite prospects often blow up their ETAs and Walker is doing just that.

The 21st overall pick in the 2020 Draft, Walker has as much usable power as anyone on our Top 100 Prospects list, lets it come naturally and has proven to be a more advanced hitter than initially expected. He has batted .310/.388/.525 in two pro seasons despite being one of the youngest players in each of his leagues, had no problems handling Double-A at age 20 and has made a smooth transition from third base to right field.

Any argument you can make for having Walker begin the season in the Minors -- he hasn't turned 21, he hasn't played in Triple-A, he has made just 30 pro starts in the outfield -- can be trumped by his ability to hit for power and average while showing surprising athleticism for a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder. St. Louis is trying to win and Walker can help them do that.

How many of the top 25 prospects do you expect to graduate this season? -- @RandomZeltrox

The top two prospects on the Top 100, Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson and Diamondbacks outfielder Corbin Carroll, will exceed the rookie limits for at-bats or active days of service time within the first 10 days of the season. By the end of the year, I anticipate that another eight to 12 prospects in the top 25 will graduate.
Mets catcher Francisco Álvarez, Cardinals outfielder Jordan Walker, Yankees shortstop Anthony Volpe, Orioles right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, Rays righty Taj Bradley, Mets third baseman Brett Baty, Red Sox first baseman Triston Casas and Rockies shortstop Ezequiel Tovar all should shed their rookie status. Phillies righty Andrew Painter and Guardians righty Daniel Espino would belong in that group if their health wasn't in question. Four bubble guys who could go either way: Reds infielder Elly De La Cruz, Marlins righty Eury Pérez, Giants left-hander Kyle Harrison and Dodgers righty Bobby Miller.

For comparison's sake, 10 of the top 25 prospects from our preseason 2022 Top 100 graduated to the big leagues last year, including each of the top five: Bobby Witt Jr., Adley Rutschman, Julio Rodríguez, Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. Henderson, Carroll, Álvarez, Walker and Volpe should match that in 2023.

Where do you put the chances that Dylan Dodd ends up being a good middle of the rotation starter? -- @leprekhan

Dodd was one of my favorite 2021 Draft sleepers after winning Ohio Valley Conference pitcher of the year honors at Southeast Missouri State. A third-round pick by the Braves that July, he posted a 3.36 ERA with a 153/31 K/BB ratio in 142 innings while advancing to Triple-A in his first full pro season.
A classic pitchability left-hander, Dodd stands out most with his ability to command his low-90s fastball. That pitch, along with his slider and changeup, are probably more average than solid, but he has terrific feel for mixing his offerings and locations to keep hitters off balance. He's throwing a couple of miles an hour harder than usual this spring, when he hasn't allowed a run or a walk in 8 1/3 innings in big league games.
Now Dodd is battling Jared Shuster, the organization's best prospect, for the final spot in the Major League rotation. I like his floor as a No. 5 starter more than his ceiling as a No. 3 or 4, but he definitely can pitch and will help Atlanta in some role this season.

Where do you see Austin Wells? Catcher or infield? -- @bobbyduncan1234

The Yankees' first-round pick in 2020 out of Arizona, Wells entered pro ball with a reputation as an all-around offensive talent with an iffy future behind the plate. He has produced at the plate as expected, hitting .270/.388/.493 with 36 homers and 32 steals in his first two pro seasons.
Wells has shown improvement as a catcher, reducing his passed balls from 16 in 2021 to four last season while increasing his caught-stealing rate from 13 to 25 percent. He's still a fringy receiver and thrower at best, however.
For much of Brian Cashman's 25-year tenure as Yankees GM, the club has prioritized offense over defense at catcher. I think Wells will begin his big league career behind the plate before eventually moving to left field, which also will allow him to maximize the value of his bat. His profile is similar to Kyle Schwarber's at the same stage of their careers, with Wells having a better chance to catch but Schwarber getting to the Majors more quickly.