Gunnar, EDLC, Carroll: Debating Prospect of the Year

October 4th, 2022

This story was excerpted from MLB Pipeline's newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Let’s get this out of the way -- there was no debate on the MLB Pipeline Pitching Prospect of the Year selection. Andrew Painter ranked first or second among Minor League pitchers (min. 100 IP) in ERA (1.56), FIP (2.02), WHIP (0.89) and K% (39.8). The 2021 13th overall pick climbed two levels, from Single-A to Double-A, in his age-19 season. Other hurlers like Gavin Stone and Gavin Williams had strong seasons too, but Painter separated himself from the pack in our minds.

Hitting Prospect of the Year was a much different story. In truth, this year’s award could have gone to any of three candidates -- D-backs outfielder Corbin Carroll, Reds infielder Elly De La Cruz or Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson. We selected Henderson as the eventual winner, and you can read here about his special season climbing from Double-A to the Majors on the strength of his improved approach and prodigious tools across the board.

But Carroll and De La Cruz deserve their cases to be brought to the public too. Let’s use this newsletter space to give them their space in the sun and address why they could have won … and why they didn’t.

Corbin Carroll

The case for: Have you seen the numbers? You should see the numbers -- a .307/.425/.611 line, 24 homers, 31 steals in 93 games at Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno. There may have been a record 27 20-20 players in the Minor Leagues this year, but only two had an OPS above 1.000: Vaun Brown (1.059) and Carroll (1.036), and the latter is younger by three years. Carroll achieved all this in a comeback season after missing all but seven games of 2021 due to a shoulder injury. He’s in the Majors now too, and while we don’t count Major League stats for this award, it’s notable that he cracked The Show all the same, as did Henderson.

The case against: It’s tough divorcing Carroll’s offensive numbers from the extreme hitting environments in Amarillo and Reno. The former is garnering a reputation as the most hitter-friendly spot in the Minors, thanks to elevation and atypical winds blowing toward the fences. The left-handed slugger hit a crazy .368/.479/.769 in his Double-A home games compared to a (still good but less crazy) .255/.378/.509 on the road. His Triple-A splits were much less stark, but the Pacific Coast League as a whole is very hitter-friendly. We’re very high on Carroll as a five-tool talent -- he is No. 3 overall after all -- but those environments weighed heavily in our decision-making here.

Elly De La Cruz

The case for: You could call the Reds’ top prospect the king of the counting stats this year. You could also call him arguably the most electric player in the Minors this season. He fell only two homers shy of being just the ninth Minor Leaguer with a 30-40 season since 1958 and the first since George Springer in 2013. Instead, he settled for 28 homers and 47 steals in 120 games at High-A and Double-A. He also batted .304, slugged .586 and finished with a .945 OPS between the two levels, numbers that will play anywhere.

The case against: You might notice OBP was left out of the above paragraph. De La Cruz’s mark in that category was a tamer .359, in part due to a 30.8 percent strikeout rate. The 20-year-old switch-hitter’s propensity to punch out is his biggest prospect concern, and it was simply too difficult to overlook when it came to choosing a player of the year.

Gunnar Henderson

The final verdict: Again, you can read our feature linked above for more on the No. 2 overall prospect. But the gist is that Henderson wrapped up the best of Carroll and De La Cruz. He climbed from Double-A to The Show, becoming the youngest Major Leaguer at the time of his arrival in late August. He would have been an easy 20-20 Minor Leaguer but left Triple-A with 19 homers and 22 steals instead. With a .297/.416/.531 line and healthy 15.7 percent walk rate, he was as well-rounded a hitter as you’ll find in the Minor Leagues this year, all while having turned only 21 on June 29. We have an award just for that.