The news the Mariners had called up top prospect Jarred Kelenic, the No. 4 overall prospect in baseball, led to an obvious follow-up question: Who’s next?
The buzz of a top prospect getting called up can be intoxicating, so wanting to know who among the game’s best future stars might get their chance after Kelenic makes a lot of sense. Turns out, the Mariners created another headline by making right-hander Logan Gilbert, their No. 4 prospect (and No. 28 overall), the next guy up. He also made his debut Thursday, the same day Kelenic was in the lineup.
But as good as Gilbert has the chance to be, and trust that he might be very, very good, the question is really reserved to the very top of the prospect pyramid. It’s like when someone really barrels up the ball at the plate: It makes a different sound. When a top five prospect gets called up, it creates a different kind of buzz.
With Kelenic getting called up there is no doubt all eyes will now turn to the best prospect in all of baseball, Wander Franco. Yes, he’s just 20 and yes, he hadn’t played above Low-A ball entering the 2021 season. But the Rays really set these forces in motion by pushing the precocious hitter up to Triple-A to begin the year.
It’s not like he didn’t deserve the aggressive assignment. After hitting .318/.390/.506 during his 2019 season in the Midwest League, had there been a 2020 season, it’s not outlandish to think he’d at least have made it to Double-A at some point. Given that he pretty much hits wherever he goes, a jump from even a half season in Double-A to Triple-A this year doesn’t seem quite as far of a leap.
So far (small sample size alert), Franco has gotten off to a relatively modest start, with a .269/.333/.615 line over his first half-dozen games. He did kick things off by going 5-for-9 with three extra-base hits in his first two games, then homered again a few days later. He’s only the second prospect ever to be given an 80 hit grade on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, following Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (That seems to be going OK.). He’s going to hit for average and power and show he’s ready to help out the Rays at some point this season.
The question might be where Franco should play once that call comes, though as scouts often say, “guys who hit find a place in the lineup.” He’s played more shortstop than anything, though he has gotten some time at second base over the opening week of the Minor League season. From an offensive standpoint, none of the Rays’ middle infielders are setting the world on fire and third baseman Joey Wendle has been good, but not great. A Franco who is deemed ready would be an offensive upgrade over any infielder currently on the Rays’ active big league roster.
So let the Franco clock begin! When will the Rays decide it’s time to bring the phenom up? Let’s set the over/under at mid-June and see what happens.
Of course, Franco is not the only top prospect who could come close to knocking on the door. It’s a little tougher these days because only players in Triple-A can be called up immediately, so let’s have a two-tier system. First a short list of prospects at the highest level of the Minors who we can’t wait to see, focusing on guys who have yet to play in the big leagues, followed by a quick group of players in Double-A who could push their way up before the year is out.
MacKenzie Gore, LHP, Padres (No. 6): Many expected to see the lefty in San Diego last year during the stretch run, but he had to work through some mechanical issues that kept him from being consistent with all of his stuff. It’s all still there and he’s only 22, so there’s plenty of time for him to figure it out.
Matt Manning, RHP, Tigers (No. 20): Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal are both in Detroit, with mixed results. A forearm strain last summer kept Manning from possibly joining them, but he’s back on the mound now and while he’s been prone to the long ball (six homers in 11 innings), he’s missing plenty of bats (13 strikeouts) while walking almost no one (1 walk).
Drew Waters, OF, Braves (No. 29): He’s getting very close to joining Atlanta to form perhaps the most exciting young outfield in the big leagues with Cristian Pache and Ronald Acuña Jr. The key stat to watch will be the strikeout rate (38.1 percent over his first four games, spiked by a four-strikeout game), as his approach is the only thing keeping him from showing off his many tools in Atlanta.
Adley Rutschman, C, Orioles (No. 2): The No. 1 pick in the 2019 Draft is off to a bit of a slow start, but he’s going to get locked in soon enough, with a ticket to Triple-A sure to be in his short-term future.
Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Royals (No. 7): The No. 2 pick in that Draft made a lot of noise this spring with some hoping he’d make the Opening Day roster, but since he hadn’t played above rookie ball, a Double-A start was aggressive enough for Kansas City.
CJ Abrams, SS, Padres (No. 8): One more from the 2019 Draft, another high school shortstop. Abrams hit the ground running with the leap to Double-A and seeing him help the Padres make another playoff push sure would be fun.