Who's the best player to debut each season over last 20 years?

February 4th, 2024

MLB Pipeline released its Top 100 Prospects list last week, and it was headed, not surprisingly, by the Orioles’ Jackson Holliday.

Enjoy Holliday topping that list while you can, though, because it’s clear it’s only a matter of time until he’s playing at Camden Yards, making his debut as one of the most anticipated prospects in recent baseball memory. He’s the sort of potential star who makes you wonder if 20 years from now, we’ll remember the 2024 season mostly for the fact that it’s the year he made his debut.

Which got us to thinking: Who has been the best player to debut each season over the previous 20 years?

It’s not always obvious. We spent the first fortnight of last season talking about the Yankees’ Anthony Volpe and the Cardinals’ Jordan Walker, but as promising as those two players’ futures are, by the end of the season, they weren’t at the forefront of that conversation.

So today, moving backward, let’s take a stab at nailing down who will end up being known as the best player to debut each season over the last 20 years. (Fun note: There’s only one season over that period that doesn’t have at least one still-active player.) Right now, Holliday looks like the early 2024 favorite, but as we’ll see. It doesn’t always work out that way.

Players are listed with the team they played for when they debuted.

2023: Evan Carter, Rangers
Holliday’s primary competition for 2024 AL Rookie of the Year is Carter, who looked so comfortable in helping the Rangers win the World Series that you almost forget he didn’t make his big league debut until Sept. 8. Walker and Volpe are still possibilities here, as is the Reds’ Elly De La Cruz, but so far, Carter seems pretty far ahead of all of them.

2022: Julio Rodríguez, Mariners
As you’ll see as we go down this list and back in time, there are certain seasons that have so many fantastic players debut that they seem destined to be known as The First Time We Met All Those Hall of Famers. It’s a little early to start saying that about Julio, of course, but the 2022 talent, led by him, is overwhelming. J-Rod, Corbin Carroll, Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson sure look like they could make up a Cooperstown Mount Rushmore at some point.

2021: Spencer Strider, Braves
The next couple of seasons, as you might suspect in the wake of the pandemic, are perhaps the weakest on this list. Many great players had their development disrupted in ways we’ll probably never be able to quantify. Strider is the clubhouse leader for now, even if it’s dangerous to ever bet on the longevity of a starting pitcher. But other than him, it’s maybe … Ha-Seong Kim? Jarred Kelenic?

2020: Luis Robert Jr., White Sox
Robert had so many injuries to start his career that he feels much older than he actually is -- he just turned 26 in August. If he can stay on the field, he has many years to compile numbers. He finally played more than 98 games in 2023 … and we saw what he could do. Cristian Javier is the best of the pitchers to debut in this shortened season.

2019: Yordan Alvarez, Astros
There was a time that Fernando Tatis Jr. would have seemed like the obvious answer here, and he may yet still rise to the top as the years go along. But his PED suspension, along with a good-but-not-transcendent return in 2023, paved the way for Alvarez to rise to the top. And don’t forget that MLB The Show 24 cover athlete Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is still somehow only 24 years old.

2018: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
This is another one of those all-timer seasons, with three potential inner-circle Hall of Famers debuting: Ohtani, Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. Of the three, Soto has the highest all-time FanGraphs WAR, but he’s the only one who hasn’t won an MVP Award yet. (And is somehow about to play for his third team.) Ohtani went 1-for-5 in his first game, by the way, in Oakland; he’d get his first win on the mound two days later.

2017: Rafael Devers, Red Sox
Devers is sort of a backup pick who has outlasted some higher-profile names. There’s an MVP Award winner here (Cody Bellinger), a Cy Young Award winner (Sandy Alcantara), a World Series winner (Ozzie Albies) as well as some other big names, including Matt Chapman and Luis Castillo. But Devers is among the youngest of the crew, has a World Series ring of his own and is maybe the most reliable of all of them.

2016: Aaron Judge, Yankees
Judge is older than most people think he is -- he was already 24 when he made his debut -- but, with all apologies to Matt Olson, he’s the obvious pick here.

2015: Corey Seager, Dodgers
You remember when all those shortstops hit free agency at roughly the same time a couple of years ago? That’s because they all debuted the same year. Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner … take your pick. We’ll go with the defending World Series MVP.

2014: Mookie Betts, Red Sox
Heading into 2014, Betts was ranked as the No. 7 prospect … on the Red Sox. (Those ahead of him included Henry Owens, Allen Webster and Garin Cecchini.) Jacob deGrom was another only-slightly-heralded prospect who eventually became one of the most electrifying and dominant players in the sport.

2013: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
This is a crowded field, with several players who look like future Hall of Famers but probably have a few more years of excellence in order to nail it down: Arenado, Gerrit Cole, José Ramírez, maybe Xander Bogaerts. None of them ever won MVP, though: The only one to debut this year who did is Christian Yelich.

2012: Bryce Harper, Nationals
As often as Harper and Mike Trout were compared throughout their prospect careers, Harper did actually enter the league a year later than Trout. In any other year, Manny Machado would have been a very solid pick.

2011: Mike Trout, Angels
No offense to other likely future Hall of Famers Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt, but this wasn’t a tough call.

2010: Freddie Freeman, Braves
This was back when Freeman projected as a good fielder and a solid, but not spectacular, bat. He turned out to be a little bit better than that, no? The Braves feature prominently this year, with a fellow past Brave (Craig Kimbrel) and a brand new one (Chris Sale).

2009: Buster Posey, Giants
Justin Turner and Andrew McCutchen top the list among 2009 debut players who remain active, but neither seems likely to catch up with the former MVP and three-time World Series champion.

2008: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Kershaw has an MVP Award, which pushes him slightly above Max Scherzer here, but honestly, I don’t want to tell either one of these guys they’re not the pick.

2007: Joey Votto, Reds
Votto is still fishing for a team this offseason, and while he hasn’t signed anywhere yet, you’d have to assume someone gives him a try at some point. He’s the easy choice from this season, though Ryan Braun, who also debuted in 2007, also took MVP honors once.

2006: Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
Laser show! Pedroia didn’t quite have the staying power that we thought he would -- and that 2006 peers Cole Hamels and Jon Lester did -- but he may end up with more Hall of Fame votes than either of them. (He also has an MVP Award on his resume.)

2005: Justin Verlander, Tigers
Verlander pitched in two games in 2005, and he gave up nine earned runs in 11 1/3 innings for a 91-loss team. It’s going to go a lot better for Jackson Holliday in 2024, one suspects. (And shout out to fellow 2005ers Adam Wainwright, Félix Hernández and Robinson Canó).

2004: Zack Greinke, Royals
He hasn’t signed with anyone yet, but Greinke certainly hasn’t retired and looks like he’ll be on the mound for somebody at SOME point this year. (Remember, he’s only 21 strikeouts away from 3,000.) He’ll be in Cooperstown five years after he retires, whenever he does, joining fellow 2004 AL Central debut colleague Joe Mauer.