A budding franchise cornerstone for every team

February 9th, 2024

Even if you are not a Kansas City Royals fan, you have to be encouraged by the news that the team has signed star shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year, $288.7 million extension. Baseball -- and sports, really -- are more fun when every team has a foundational superstar, a franchise cornerstone, someone whose name and face are evoked every time you think of the club. That’s what Witt is going to be for the Royals for the next decade. That’s a terrific thing.

It got us to thinking: Who’s the closest player to a budding franchise cornerstone on every team? I don’t mean Mike Trout on the Angels or Bryce Harper on the Phillies: Those are established veterans, well-known, long-standing, very familiar personalities. I mean the young guys, the person each franchise can theoretically build around over the next half-decade or longer.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll put two parameters on this sort of player:

  1. He has to be 25 years old or younger.
  2. He has to have debuted in MLB prior to 2024, unless he has already signed a long-term contract.

Even teams with little recent success have someone they can dream on heading into 2024. Here’s a burgeoning franchise cornerstone for every team.


Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B
Age on Opening Day: 25
Right out of the chute, I’m bending the rules a little bit on Vlad Jr., who only has two years of club control remaining before he is due to reach free agency. (And the same goes for Bo Bichette.) But the contract extension many expected for Guerrero a few years ago hasn’t materialized, and he also hasn’t quite repeated his MVP runner-up form from 2021. The clock is ticking to get that extension figured out … really for him and the team.

Orioles: Gunnar Henderson, SS
Age on Opening Day: 22
For a few teams on this list, I had to work a little harder to find someone who fits the criteria for a future franchise cornerstone. The Orioles have more candidates than I know what to do with. I decided to go with Henderson, if just because top overall prospect Jackson Holliday hasn’t actually debuted yet, and Adley Rutschman, if you can believe it, is already 26.

Rays: Junior Caminero, 3B
Age on Opening Day: 20
Caminero had only been 20 years old for 80 days when he made his 2023 debut late in the season for the Rays, and after 36 plate appearances, he still ranks as their top prospect. The path to playing time for him looks wide open. Is he the next great Tampa Bay position player?

Red Sox: Tristan Casas, 1B
Age on Opening Day: 24
The much-hyped prospect took a big step forward late in 2023, and he has the potential to be a 35-40 home run hitter, pairing nicely with Rafael Devers (who, at 27, already got a long-term extension). Aren’t you Red Sox fans glad you didn’t trade Casas away a couple of years ago?

Yankees: Anthony Volpe, SS
Age on Opening Day: 22
For what it’s worth, if the Yankees end up signing Juan Soto to an extension, he would actually qualify, at 25, for this list. (He’s only 2 1/2 years older than Volpe.)


Guardians: Andrés Giménez, 2B
Age on Opening Day: 25
He wasn’t quite the superstar in 2023 that he was in '22, when he finished fourth in AL MVP voting, but he still won a Gold Glove Award and is a linchpin of this entire franchise. Given that he’s now signed through at least 2029, he better be.

Royals: Bobby Witt Jr., SS
Age on Opening Day: 23
Witt is just going to keep getting better and better. That’s particularly handy for the Royals, who could conceivably now hold his rights through the 2037 season, if Witt doesn’t exercise his opt-outs and Kansas City triggers a three-year club option. (My sixth grader will be old enough to run for the House of Representatives that year.)

Tigers: Riley Greene, OF
Age on Opening Day: 23
People really might be sleeping on the Tigers. They’re in position to have a quartet of Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Colt Keith and Kerry Carpenter -- all at their peaks -- through at least the 2028 season.

Twins: Royce Lewis, 3B
Age on Opening Day: 24
Sure, he only played 58 games last year. But what 58 games they were! The Twins have been waiting for years for Byron Buxton to become a superstar, but they might have one, right now, in Lewis.

White Sox: Andrew Vaughn, 1B
Age on Opening Day: 25
The White Sox present a challenge here, if just because that exciting young core they had built a few years ago has mostly aged out of eligibility for this list. (Luis Robert Jr., to name one, is now 26.) That leaves Vaughn, who has a lot of work to do to make good on Chicago drafting him third overall in 2019. The good news here is that this spot soon will be filled by Colson Montgomery, MLB Pipeline’s No. 9 prospect, a shortstop expected to arrive sometime this season.


Angels: Logan O’Hoppe, C
Age on Opening Day: 24
You can take your pick among O’Hoppe, first baseman Nolan Schanuel, shortstop Zach Neto (or even Mickey Moniak, if you’re feeling frisky), but O’Hoppe looks like the one most likely to be an All-Star in the next few years. For all the worries about the Angels’ farm system, it should be said that they have those four players (all 25 or under) in their lineup, plus Reid Detmers and Chase Silseth in their projected rotation.

Astros: Yainer Diaz, C
Age on Opening Day: 25
Of course, this guy might end up taking his fair share of catcher All-Star votes from O’Hoppe in the years to come. The Astros would love to see right-hander Hunter Brown take this spot as well. (Yordan Alvarez, signed through 2028, turned 26 last year.)

Athletics: Zack Gelof, 2B
Age on Opening Day: 24
During a rough 2023 season for the A’s, Gelof established himself as a terrifically promising young player, the kind you just know we’re going to be watching for the next decade, at least.

Mariners: Julio Rodríguez, CF
Age on Opening Day: 23
There is no better example of “the young player most associated with his franchise” than Julio, who just turned 23 in December and already signed a long-term extension.

Rangers: Evan Carter, LF
Age on Opening Day: 21
We keep talking about young players, but Carter was able to buy his first alcoholic beverage exactly 64 days before he won his first World Series.


Braves: Spencer Strider, SP
Age on Opening Day: 25
On a team loaded with young talent -- though Ronald Acuña Jr., 26, is at last too old to be on this list -- Strider stands out. Remember, too, for all the worries about his health, he started 32 games last year.

Marlins: Eury Pérez, SP
Age on Opening Day: 20
Still only 20, Pérez (specifically his arm) was protected as much as the Marlins really could last year, but he still showed huge promise. He now should be set up to build on his 91 1/3 innings.

Mets: Francisco Alvarez, C
Age on Opening Day: 22
For all the talk of the Mets being old, they’ve got three terrific candidates for this list, with Alvarez edging out Brett Baty and Mark Vientos. And Drew Gilbert, Luisangel Acuña and Jett Williams are right behind them.

Nationals: CJ Abrams, SS
Age on Opening Day: 23
Abrams took some real steps forward last year. But as the guy who will forever be known as the primary return in the 2022 Juan Soto trade (particularly as the other players acquired in the trade have taken steps back), the Nats would like him to take some bigger ones this year.

Phillies: Orion Kerkering, RP
Age on Opening Day: 22
He was a sensation upon being called up last year, but it’s worth noting the main reason he’s on this list is that he’s only one of three Phillies 25 or under on the current roster. Andrew Painter and Mick Abel, both starting pitching prospects ranked in the top 50 overall, have yet to debut. (Painter would have last year if not for an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery.)


Brewers: Jackson Chourio, CF
Age on Opening Day: 20
In a period of transition for the Brewers, the game’s No. 2 prospect, now locked in long-term, will be a constant for years to come.

Cardinals: Jordan Walker, RF
Age on Opening Day: 21
He got off to a slow start and had some defensive difficulties in right field, but he improved as the year went on and looks like a centerpiece for the Cardinals … and maybe their next signature superstar.

Cubs: Pete Crow-Armstrong, CF
Age on Opening Day: 22
The burgeoning phenom seems tailor-made to be beloved by Cubs fans, and his speed will never slump. (Crow-Armstrong went 0-for-14 during a brief 2023 debut, but stole two bases and put on a defensive clinic in center.) Wrigley fans will be cheering him on from the bleachers for many years to come.

Pirates: Oneil Cruz, SS
Age on Opening Day: 25
This will be Paul Skenes (MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 prospect) very soon, as the righty looks like an ace in the making. But wouldn’t it be great if the Pirates could have the electric talent that is Cruz healthy and playing up to his potential when Skenes arrives?

Reds: Elly De La Cruz, SS
Age on Opening Day: 22
There might not be a more purely watchable player in the entire sport. The underlying numbers -- and, really, the overlying numbers -- weren’t there in 2023. But look at this guy. They’re obviously coming.


D-backs: Corbin Carroll, RF
Age on Opening Day: 23
Carroll almost messed around and won himself an NL MVP Award in his rookie season. One has got to be coming at some point … maybe even this year. Plus, he’s under contract through 2031.

Dodgers: Yoshinobu Yamamoto, SP
Age on Opening Day: 25
One of the side effects of building up (and of course spending) your team to win a World Series is less of an emphasis on youth. But then again: The reason Los Angeles spent so much on Yamamoto was in large part because he’s still only 25 … and an ace right now.

Giants: Jung Hoo Lee, CF
Age on Opening Day: 25
The same goes for the star the Giants brought in from South Korea, who looks very much like he may change the entire character of this team by himself.

Padres: Fernando Tatis Jr., RF
Age on Opening Day: 25
His return to the Padres last year didn’t feature the eye-popping numbers of the first few years of his career, although he adjusted brilliantly to the outfield. Tatis is still central to San Diego’s plans, all the way through 2034, which is how long he is signed.

Rockies: Ezequiel Tovar, SS
Age on Opening Day: 22
Tovar got a crash course in 2023, playing in 153 games at the age of 21. There were obvious flashes of what he can do, and continued playing time will only show us more.