Roundtable: Why Witt Jr. won out for No. 1 prospect spot

March 18th, 2022

With the release of MLB Pipeline’s new Top 100 Prospects comes the announcement of a new No. 1. And even though our previous No. 1 hasn’t graduated yet, we do in fact have a new one. Pipeline’s prospect experts sat down with editor Alyson Footer to discuss Bobby Witt Jr., what made him stand out, and the cases for two other candidates for the top spot.

Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: The prospect rankings are out and we have a new No. 1 – Bobby Witt Jr. He unseated last year’s favorite, Adley Rutschman, though a lot of publications still have Rutschman as their No. 1. What changed among this group?

Jonathan Mayo, senior writer: For me, it's really splitting hairs and they've been close to 1 and 1A since their Draft year. But Witt's near-30-30 season last year while reaching Triple-A, and his being younger than Rutschman, while [also] playing a premium position really well, gave him the edge.

Will Boor, reporter/producer: The top of the list was loaded and I'm not sure there was really a wrong answer. We sort of had the top three in their own separate tier. As for Witt, the fact that he plays shortstop was a help and the speed-power combo is really enticing.

Jim Callis, senior writer: It's super close for me. I don't think you can go wrong and I think you could argue at least one more player. I personally slightly lean to Rutschman because I think he's a better pure hitter and plays a scarcer position. But you can't go wrong with a five-tool shortstop with off-the-charts makeup either. Rutschman is the best catching prospect I've seen come out of the Draft in my 30-plus years in the business -- I'm old -- and Witt is the second-best shortstop prospect, behind Alex Rodriguez.

Sam Dykstra, reporter: We're coming off a nearly historic season from Witt. He was one steal shy of being the Minors' only 30-30 player. (He had the steal, but it was later taken back because of a canceled game.) We've seen him thrive at Triple-A at 21 (two years younger than Rutschman). On top of all that, he plays a premium position at shortstop. Even if the Royals need to move him to third base because of organizational requirements, he's a quality defender. It's a five-tool package that you rarely see. Agree with the others -- it's a real 1, 1A conversation here. But I think we're willing to bet on overall skills in this case.

Footer: There appears to be three main contenders for the title – Witt, Rutschman and Julio Rodríguez. When you get to this high on the chart, it’s often hard to give one particular player the definitive edge. Is Rodríguez third? How do you compare these players?

Callis: Rodríguez is right there with me on the same tier. He doesn't play as premium a position, but he's the best hitter in the group.

Mayo: Yep, Rodríguez is No. 3. And if you told me 10 years from now that he'll be the best of the three, I could believe it. Makeup is off the charts, superstar personality and has ridiculous offensive tools. He doesn't have the same defensive upside, and likely plays a corner spot in the outfield, which puts him just a hair behind.

Boor: As you said, when you get to the top of the list it's really hard to differentiate. We all obviously really like Julio. For me, the fact that he was an outfielder bumped him down a little bit. And [the fact] that he was still in Double-A, although he hit. 362 there, made it a bit easier to give the other two the nod.

Callis: Just to second what Jonathan said, all three of these guys get rave reviews for their makeup.

Dykstra: J-Rod is third in our group, and a big part of that is the defensive adjustment. I think Rodríguez has gotten faster of late, and there's an outside chance he could be a center fielder. But it's a classic corner-bat profile right now. There is no doubt he'll hit, but he's dealing with a higher offensive bar. We took that into consideration.

Footer: How high is Witt’s ceiling? How much of this ranking is ceiling and how much is floor?

Mayo: I think all three of these guys have high ceilings AND high floors, which is what makes them stand out so much.

Callis: I think the gap behind Witt's floor and ceiling is greater than the other two. Ceiling is a 30-30 guy who plays a quality shortstop. But he has less pure hitting ability than the other two, so the floor is lower. That said, floor might be he hits .250 and is a 20-20 guy who plays a quality shortstop. I don't see any way Rutschman and Rodríguez don't hit.

Mayo: I'd take that floor any day.

Dykstra: I don't think there's a way to describe Witt's ceiling without sounding hyperbolic. He could threaten for 30-30 in the Majors too, and if he's doing that as a shortstop, it's MVP-level consideration.

Boor: That's always a tough call to make. With guys like Witt, it's both. Is that a cop-out? As Jim mentioned earlier, Witt is the second-best shortstop he's seen, behind only A-Rod ... that's a really high ceiling. Witt got off to a slow start last year and seeing the way he bounced back from that and made the adjustments I think gives confidence that the floor remains really high.

Footer: I'm curious, as someone who is a very casual observer of prospect coverage ... does this year's top 3 or 5 seem more impressive than in years past? Is there more excitement around this year's class than others? Or are there always this many top prospects that have fans this excited?

Callis: I'd say better than usual but not exceptional? There's usually a pretty strong top three but not quite like this where three guys are legit No. 1 types. Last year was Wander Franco, Rutschman, Spencer Torkelson, that's also strong. 2019 was Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Eloy Jiménez. How about 2018: Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuña, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Wow.

Boor: Largely going to defer to Jim/Jonathan on this but I think part of it could be because Adley was a No. 1 overall pick and Witt was No. 2. The buzz has been there for them for a long time and has grown, rather than someone who was a high pick, but not Top 5, and didn't get all of their buzz until maybe Double-A.

Mayo: I think there are a few things at play. First is that, yes, this is a pretty special group at the top. Then combine that with the fact that SO much more attention is given to prospects, and it's blowing up. I know Matt Moore didn't end up being who we thought he might, but the trio of Moore, Trout and Harper was very exciting. And yes, we had Moore No. 1 on our preseason list.

Without looking, I'd say I can't remember a time where we had three guys who all could be very legitimate No. 1 prospects. And all three are very close to being big league ready!

Dykstra: I think the buzz is a result of the growth of the industry. More people are interested in prospects than ever. That's terrific. When Wander Franco debuted last year, he wasn't some new kid on the scene. A lot of fans really knew about his 80-grade hit tool and how it would play in the Majors straight away. (Really well.)

This group, in particular, has some of its own buzz, but I think that's because the prospect attention has trickled down. People have been on Rutschman since his Oregon State days. Witt was a high-school legend before he signed with the Royals. Rodríguez popped a few years back and now has international success as an Olympic medal winner for the Dominican Republic.

Callis: Ohtani, Acuña, Vlad Jr. in 2018 strikes me as three No. 1 types.

Footer: Back to Witt for a second... Is he a shortstop long-term? What kind of hitter do you envision him developing into?

Dykstra: Long term, yes. The range is good enough. He makes a lot of plays there. The arm could even be plus-plus, depending on who you ask. He fits at shortstop. Nicky Lopez and Adalberto Mondesi could push him to third base for the Royals right now, but I'd still bet on Witt at short right now if I were them.

Mayo: I think Witt could very easily be a shortstop long-term, no question. If he's not, it's because there's another shortstop on the roster who is deemed a better defender (or doesn't profile at another position). And here's the thing about Witt -- if he's told something will help his team win, he'll do it.

Callis: Witt is definitely a shortstop on merit; maybe the Royals move him because they have other shortstops but they certainly don't have to. He has been pushed aggressively, but he does have 166 strikeouts in 160 pro games and will swing and miss more than Rutschman or Rodríguez. I think he's the type of guy who hits around .270 with a ton of power and speed.

Mayo: He moved to third and even center field on Team USA as an amateur for that reason, without a complaint.

Boor: I think yes, he's a shortstop long-term and that he's someone who hits 25-30 homers and bats around .280.

Mayo: Man, I can't wait to show this to Jim when Witt is hitting .280-.300 in the big leagues annually. Headline: Callis thinks Witt can't hit!

Callis: .270 would make him a plus hitter these days ...

Dykstra: Jim mentioned hit tool questions about Witt earlier, and they are somewhat present. He struck out 23.2 percent of the time last season. But it's important to note his K rate actually went down at Triple-A as he made adjustments throughout the season. I think the .270-.280 range Will and Jim mentioned is within reach, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him push .300 at his peak, as he nearly did last year.

Footer: Who’s next as the Pipeline’s next No. 1 prospect? Does Rodríguez move up? Or maybe Gabriel Moreno? Grayson Rodriguez? Anthony Volpe?

Callis: I did a story a couple of weeks ago on who would be No. 1 a year from now and went with Anthony Volpe. I think Moreno and Rodríguez both graduate this year too. And I'd take Volpe over both if he keeps doing what he did last year.

Mayo: That might depend on when you're talking about. Like Jim said, Moreno and Rodríguez (both of them possibly) could be off the list by next year. Volpe is a good bet if he keeps it going, and I think he will. Keep an eye on Francisco Álvarez, the Mets' catcher, and Mariners shortstop Noelvi Marte, too.

Boor: Julio moves up if we are just talking immediately. Volpe is a good choice as well once we start looking further out. I'm still a really big believer in Marco Luciano. However, he did struggle when bumped up to High-A last year and didn't impress in the Arizona Fall League. The tools are there and if he bounces back with a big 2022 season I could see his stock start to rise again.

Dykstra: Jim's bet on Anthony Volpe is a good one. He's already proven that the industry may have overlooked him in the Draft and prior to his first full season. Betting against a shortstop with plus hit, plus power could be a fool's errand, and if his early success continues, he checks a lot of boxes as a No. 1 overall type, assuming all of the graduations you all mentioned.