Pipeline poll: Ohtani, Acuna, Whitley tops in execs' eyes

January 5th, 2018

Shohei Ohtani can sit in the upper 90s with his fastball and make hitters look just as helpless with his power slider and diving splitter. As an outfielder, he offers exceptional raw power and arm strength to go with well-above-average speed.

There's no word yet on whether Ohtani is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He has yet to play in a single game in the United States after starring in Japan and signing with the Angels for $2,315,000 in December, and he had a platelet-rich plasma injection in his pitching elbow in October.

That didn't stop a group of club executives from anointing Ohtani as baseball's best overall prospect and best pitching prospect, making him the first player to earn both distinctions in MLB Pipeline's third annual survey. and won the previous votes as top prospect, while and were the top pitchers.

Here are the results of this year's overall prospect poll:

Shohei Ohtani, RHP/OF, Angels 10

Ronald Acuna, OF, Braves 8

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Blue Jays 1

, OF, White Sox 1

, SS, Padres 1

Forrest Whitley, RHP, Astros 1

Ohtani, who is ranked No. 1 on the Top 100 list and the Angels' Top 30 list, earned acclaim as the Babe Ruth of Japan, and there's less hyperbole in that statement than might be expected. While he was limited in 2017 by a right ankle injury that necessitated surgery in October, he won Japan's Pacific League MVP Award when fully healthy the year before. He went 10-4 with a 1.86 ERA and 174 strikeouts in 140 innings while batting .322/.416/.588 with 22 homers in 104 games in 2016.

"Ohtani's talent, athleticism and makeup are beyond compare," an assistant GM with an American League club said. "He's a once-in-a-generation player capable of things on the field we really haven't seen before."

While most teams think the 23-year-old Ohtani has more upside on the mound, there are clubs who prefer him as a position player. He could have commanded a big league contract worth $200 million or more if he had waited an additional two years to cross the Pacific Ocean, and he used that leverage to get his wish to play both ways in the big leagues. The Angels plan to use him in their rotation and deploy him as a DH on many days when he's not pitching.

"His present repertoire and polish make him a potential top-of-the-rotation starter already in 2018," a baseball-operations official with an AL team said. "If that wasn't enough, the offensive potential as a two-way player makes him easily the best prospect in baseball."

Yet as the voting above indicates, Ohtani didn't run away with top-prospect honors. Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna, who led all Minor Leaguers with 181 hits and was one of two to total 20 homers and 40 steals, finished a close second. Acuna, who also was named Arizona Fall League MVP and topped that developmental circuit with seven homers in 23 games, reached Triple-A at age 19 last season and is more than three years younger than Ohtani.

"[Yankees infielder] is my No. 1 mix of ceiling and safety, but I'm going to go with Ronald Acuna," a special assistant with an AL club said. "He's a teenager who has already shown he can perform at the upper levels. He has all five tools with an elite-level ceiling, especially if he proves he can play an above-average center field."

A second special assistant with an AL team also preferred Acuna and wondered if playing both ways might work against Ohtani.

"I picked Acuna because he can beat you in many ways and he will play every day," the second special assistant said. "He has a superstar-type ceiling. Ohtani made it tough, but will hitting slumps affect his pitching and will struggles on the mound affect his hitting?"

Four more precocious prospects received one vote each. Blue Jays third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has the same huge offensive ceiling as his father and advanced to high Class A at 18 while hitting .323/.425/.485 and ranking second in the Minors in on-base percentage. White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who got to Double-A at age 20 after headlining the trade with the Cubs last July, is one of the few players who can rival Guerrero's ability to hit for high average and power.

Heisted from the White Sox in a 2016 trade for , Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. had 22 homers and 32 steals while climbing to Double-A as an 18-year-old. Astros right-hander Forrest Whitley became just the fifth high school first-round arm this century to pitch in Double-A during his first full pro season and averaged 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings along the way.

On the subject of pitchers, Ohtani ran away with that part of our poll:

Shohei Ohtani, RHP, OF, Angels 16

Forrest Whitley, RHP, Astros 3

, RHP, Dodgers 1

Alex Reyes, RHP, Cardinals 1

Sixto Sanchez, RHP, Phillies 1

While Ohtani's sheer velocity is his most obvious trait on the mound -- he threw the hardest recorded pitch in Japanese baseball history at 102.5 mph -- there's a lot more to him than just dazzling radar guns. A special assistant with a National League club said the total package is what makes Ohtani the game's top pitching prospect.

"The combo of stuff, athleticism and ability to manipulate the baseball distances Ohtani from the hard chuckers in the Minor Leagues at this time," the NL special assistant said. "Forrest Whitley took some serious steps this summer as well, but the pure athleticism of Ohtani separates."

The only pure pitcher mentioned for best overall prospect and the only person besides Ohtani to garner multiple votes in the pitching portion of our survey, Whitley can miss bats with a lively 92-97 mph fastball, a hard 12-to-6 curveball, a power slider and a fading changeup. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 Draft recorded a 1.84 ERA in four Double-A outings in August at age 19, joining Zack Greinke, , and as the only prep first-round pitchers to reach that level during their first full pro season since 2000.

"I'll take Forrest Whitley," a second baseball-operations executive with an AL team said. "He has a power arsenal of pitches with multiple swing-and-miss offerings, along with an efficient delivery and a stress-free arm action for the durability to log innings."

Right-handers Walker Buehler (Dodgers), Reyes (Cardinals) and Sixto Sanchez (Phillies), all of whom can reach triple digits with their fastballs and have nasty secondary stuff as well, received one vote each. Buehler rocketed from high Class A to Los Angeles in his fully healthy year following Tommy John surgery in 2015, while Reyes had his elbow reconstructed in February shortly after winning our 2017 pitching poll. A second special assistant with an NL club who voted for the 19-year-old Sanchez compared him to Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez.

Had Ohtani's Japanese big league time disqualified him as a prospect, right-handers (Rays) and (White Sox) would have received one vote each from executives who mentioned them. Honeywell has three plus-or-better offerings in his fastball, changeup and the Minors' best screwball. Kopech earns comparisons as perhaps the hardest-throwing starter in the Minors.