Did anyone have Kyle Lewis and Devin Williams as their 2020 Rookie of the Year parlay before the season started? Probably not. That’s what makes rookie analysis so interesting and challenging -- talent matters, but so does opportunity.
MLB.com tapped five of its prospect experts to make their picks for the top rookies in each league in 2021. They made their choices in order, serpentine-draft style, and here are their selections:
1. Randy Arozarena, OF, Rays (Jim Callis)
Top 100 Prospect rank: No. 34
I’m picking Arozarena so Harold Reynolds will stop yelling at me about why he’s not No. 1 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects List. Seriously though, this was an easy call. After Arozarena went berserk and hit .377/.442/.821 with a record 10 homers in 20 playoff games last fall, he’s the clear rookie favorite in an AL race with fewer top candidates than the NL has. I do have some mild swing-and-miss concerns with Arozarena, but I think he’ll be fine and hit .270 with 30 homers and 15-or-so steals.
2. Jarred Kelenic, OF, Mariners (Sarah Langs)
Top 100 Prospect rank: No. 4
With the talent in the Mariners’ system right now, two straight Rookie of the Year winners seems very doable after Kyle Lewis won in 2020. And it seems like three straight could even be possible, with Julio Rodríguez in 2022. But I digress. Kelenic has shown his power consistently throughout his career in the Minors, and we’ve already seen two homers from him in big league Spring Training this year. With his ability to make hard contact, plus speed and a strong arm, he seems to have all the tools to put on a show in the Majors this year, if and when he arrives.
3. Andrew Vaughn, 1B, White Sox (Jonathan Mayo)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 14
It’s pretty simple: The dude can hit. I mean, really, really hit, with the chance to hit over .300 and bash 30-plus homers annually. While he hasn’t had a ton of professional at-bats to date, his approach is so advanced, it’s not a concern. The fact there are reports about the White Sox talking contract extension with him now points to them figuring out a way to get him in the lineup every day. It will obviously have to be DH more often than not, but he’s made a strong case the gig should be his this spring.
4. Wander Franco, SS, Rays (Sam Dykstra)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 1
You’ll hear no complaints here about getting MLB Pipeline’s top overall prospect, even if he is on the same team as Arozarena and will likely see less of the Majors. When Franco makes The Show, he will be a threat to win the AL batting title right out of the gate, and as he showed this spring, he has the power for 20-plus homers in his first season. Even if the Rays roster necessitates a move to third base -- where Franco has one Grapefruit League start so far -- the bat will be special enough to get him plenty of award consideration. He would join Ronald Acuña Jr., José Fernández, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout as recent players to win Rookie of the Year Awards in their age-20 seasons.
5. Nick Madrigal, 2B, White Sox (Jesse Sanchez)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 40
Madrigal separated his left shoulder in early August, but opted not to have surgery until after the season. He returned to hit .349 over his final 24 games, then collected three postseason hits as well. It was a sign of things to come when he is healthy. Overall in 2020, he posted a .340 batting average, .369 slugging percentage and struck out only seven times in 109 plate appearances. He walked four times and had three doubles. He’s healthy and ready to perform.
1. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates (Jesse Sanchez)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 9
Hayes is going to play every day and will get the opportunity to show just how talented he is. Sure, he slashed .376/.442/.682 during his 24-game big league debut in 2020 and received multiple Rookie of the Year votes, but you’ll be dazzled by his defense in 2021. Hayes is a plus-plus defender, which gives him a really high floor and likely a high WAR total. He showed his power last season and he has a chance run away with the NL ROY award if he continues to have the same type of pop at the plate in 2021.
2. Ian Anderson, RHP, Braves (Sam Dykstra)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 18
Anderson was already Atlanta's second-best starter during his first trip to the Majors last season, showing a fastball that averaged 94.1 mph and a curveball and a changeup that generated whiff rates around 40 percent. The bet here is that that was no mirage. Anderson’s dominant run through the postseason -- during which he struck out 24 while allowing only two earned runs in 18 2/3 innings -- further proved he shouldn’t be intimidated by more Major League looks. It’s always a question of whether pitchers will get enough playing time to win an award like this over everyday position players, but since the right-hander eclipsed 100 innings in his past two Minor League seasons, durability is less of a concern than it would be with other rookie arms.
3. Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals (Jonathan Mayo)
Top 100 Prospect rank: 13
After struggling in his first callup to the big leagues last year, Carlson got sent down to the alternate site, then came back up and posted an OPS over 1.000 before hitting cleanup in the Wild Card Series. That last third was more like who he’s going to be going forward production-wise, with the ability to be a 20-20 player right out of the gate while also being a defensive asset. And he'll only be 22 for all of this season.
4. Sixto Sánchez, RHP, Marlins (Sarah Langs)
Top 100 Prospect rank: No. 15
We got a glimpse into Sánchez’s velocity in 2020, when he made seven regular-season starts and averaged 98.5 mph on his four-seamer and 96.6 mph on his sinker -- and it’s quite something to behold. The only pitcher to throw 100 four-seamers with a higher average velocity last year was baseball’s current velo king, Jacob deGrom, at 98.6 mph. Sánchez came into camp this year with a new number: No. 45, worn by his pitching idol, Pedro Martinez. Expect Sánchez’s profile to continue to grow as he attempts to emulate Martinez’s success on the big stage.
5. Ha-Seong Kim, INF, Padres (Jim Callis)
Top 100 Prospect rank: not eligible
It’s unclear exactly where Kim will get at-bats in San Diego’s lineup, but he will get them. He signed a four-year, $28 million contract after starring in Korea’s KBO League. Kim can hit for power, control the strike zone and steal a few bases while possessing the tools to play a variety of positions. I could see him batting .275/.350/.450 with 15 homers and a like number of steals.