Roundtable: What makes Gunnar the No. 1 prospect?
With the release of MLB Pipeline’s 2023 Top 100 Prospects list comes the announcement of a new No. 1. Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson landed at the top, while D-backs outfield prospect Corbin Carroll landed at No. 2 and Mets catcher Francisco Álvarez at No. 3.
Pipeline’s prospect experts sat down with MLB.com editor Alyson Footer to discuss Henderson, what made him stand out and the cases for two other candidates for the top spot.
Alyson Footer, editor/moderator: Henderson landed at No. 1 this year, up one spot from last year’s final ranking at the end of the 2022 season. What separated him? Since all three have actually reached the big leagues already, this group is a little unique in that respect, correct?
Jonathan Mayo, senior writer: I think what Henderson was able to do in 2022 was nothing short of amazing. And it's not just the numbers he put up; it's the adjustments he made. He had a very good 2021 season, but needed to refine his approach and cut down on the swing-and-miss. And that's exactly what he did. His refined approach -- he drew a ton more walks -- allowed him to make more contact and get to his power more. Combine that with his speed and his defense, which were on display at three levels including the big leagues, he was the clear choice for No. 1 for me.
Jim Callis, senior writer: For me, separating Henderson from Carroll and Álvarez came down to two things. One, I think he clearly has the best combination of hitting ability and power among those three (and he'll probably draw the most walks as well). Two, positional value from playing on the dirt and being a solid defender vs. Álvarez being an iffy catcher and Carroll being an outfielder (albeit a very good one).
Sam Dykstra, reporter: We already knew Henderson could hit at the upper levels after his performances at Double-A and Triple-A, where he was young at both levels, but when he looked like a similar player in the Majors (takes his walks, hits the ball with authority to all fields, plays a quality infield), his stock somehow still went up. We saw what happened with Julio Rodríguez , Adley Rutschman and Bobby Witt Jr. last year in the Majors. They needed an adjustment period to the top level. Henderson did a better job of hitting the ground running than even that crew did.
Mayo: As for the point about Henderson, Carroll and Álvarez all having big league time, I think that's right. We often have prospects who have made their debuts, but I don't recall having a top three who have already gotten a taste.
Footer: Álvarez was your No. 1 last year, and he dropped two spots. Why? There are questions about how good he’ll be defensively long-term. Did that factor in?
Callis: I don't think Álvarez "dropped" so much as we like the other guys a little more. Álvarez has tremendous power, more than anyone in the Top 100, but Henderson and Carroll are no slouches in that department and are better hitters and defenders.
Mayo: It did for me, for sure. I think he's going to hit for plenty of power and might have more pop than anyone on this list, or in the Minors for that matter. If he can catch at all (stealing from something Sam said offline), he's an All-Star. But if he's a first baseman or DH, then it's not quite as exciting a prospect package. Don't get me wrong -- the bat is going to play I think, and that's why he only is No. 3. But if he's not catching, then he HAS to hit to have that kind of value.
But I do agree with Jim that we just liked Henderson and Carroll a bit more, rather than us being "down" on Álvarez.
Dykstra: Defense is the biggest drawback on Álvarez's profile. He hits the ball hard. He's the only prospect in our Top 100 with 70 power on the 20-80 scale because we know it plays in games. But the Mets have allowed his bat to do the climbing, while his glovework still has some ways to go. Ankle surgery at the end of the year adds another question mark, albeit a small one.
That said, he got very limited MLB playing time. Henderson and Carroll got a larger sample. Their relative success in The Show pushed them past him, so we have fewer questions about how they'll handle the Majors because we've seen it for longer. That's to their credit, and we wanted that reflected in the updated top three.
Footer: Do you think Henderson ends up as a third baseman or shortstop long-term? From the limited research I've conducted, there doesn't seem to be a consensus guess on this one.
Mayo: I think that depends on what the Orioles have personnel-wise. I have zero questions about his ability to play shortstop in the big leagues. But there's a chance there will be someone at shortstop, which would push Henderson to third. Long-term from a prospect standpoint, Joey Ortiz (new on our Top 100) is a superior defender, so having him at short and Henderson at third would make for a very, very good left side of the O's infield.
Dykstra: If Henderson played in a bubble, I'd say he could handle it. Definitely has the arm for it, and he's plenty athletic to handle an up-the-middle position. In reality? I bet the O's keep him at third. Jorge Mateo is too good defensively in the short term. Ortiz is nearly MLB-ready himself and would slide easily into that position. Keep Henderson where you know he can stick consistently and allow him to flourish at the hot corner instead of playing with his development by continually moving around if better shortstop defenders arrive.
Callis: I will say third base, but like Jonathan mentions, not because of any perceived shortcomings by Henderson. Ortiz is a very good defender at shortstop and I think 2022 No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday will be a little better at short than Henderson in the long run. In the short term, Mateo has a very good 2022 season there for Baltimore.
Mayo: Henderson also has the chance to be an above-average or better defender at third, I think.
Dykstra: I think it's a major point in Henderson's favor that we can have this conversation and still believe he's the No. 1 prospect in the game. Normally if a guy is even a debate to move off an up-the-middle position, he goes out of the No. 1 overall discussion. But Henderson's hit, power, run and arm tools are all so good that he'll be an All-Star-level talent no matter where he ends up.
Footer: Last year, I asked who next year’s No. 1 might be. There was obvious support for Rodríguez, and we know how 2022 turned out for him. Anthony Volpe got some support as well. He came in at No. 5 this year. Why the drop? Or was it not really a drop as much as just some new names entering the fray?
Mayo: I think the last thing more than anything. I'll let Jim wax eloquent about Volpe more, but his "down year" in 2022 was still insane -- 20-50!
Callis: The latter. Volpe got off to a slow start, then recovered and became the first Minor Leaguer with a 20-homer, 50-steal season since Andruw Jones in 1995. I think Volpe is the same guy as last year, just got passed by some very talented guys.
If you look at it shortstop vs. shortstop, Henderson has similar hitting ability and more power, quickness, arm strength and defensive ceiling at short, so that's an easy call.
Dykstra: Combination of things. Volpe got off to a slow start at Double-A. That's fine. It happens. But he showed a nice ability to make adjustments to upper-level pitching, so he holds serve in that way. Jim and Jonathan have mentioned his 20-50 numbers, and that's incredible in its own right. It was just that small bump in the road that guys like Henderson, Carroll, Álvarez and Jordan Walker (No. 4 overall) didn't have that had him on the outside looking in. The other four just had so much positive momentum.
Footer: Is Carroll somehow underappreciated even though he's No. 2? Are we not giving him enough attention or due praise?
Mayo: I think in some ways he is, which seems a little crazy given he's No. 2 and how good he was in 2022. But I think the fact he missed the 2021 season with injury left him a little bit "out of sight, out of mind."
Callis: I wouldn't say that. He's in the discussion for the top prospect in baseball and the leading candidate to be NL Rookie of the Year. He gets plenty of attention and praise. It's not like we or anyone else is saying this is Gunnar Vs. The Rest Of The World.
Mayo: Carroll came on SO fast in 2022 and, like Henderson, showed he can perform in the big leagues. Which helped us feel super comfortable ranking him this high. That and the fact the D-backs are ready to hand him the keys to center field.
Dykstra: I feel like he's placed himself squarely on most radars. Bringing his 80-grade speed and impressive ability to find the barrel to the Majors last year should have gotten many folks on board. He was the runaway pick for NL Rookie of the Year in our recent Executive Prospect Poll. His arrival is a big reason why I think some believe the D-backs could be a dark horse in the NL West this season and probably why they felt comfortable trading Daulton Varsho for Gabriel Moreno this winter.
Footer: Did anyone else get top three consideration? How hard was it to pick these three?
Mayo: For me, there's a separation between this top three and the rest of the list. There isn't THAT much space between Álvarez and Walker, but I thought Henderson, Carroll and Álvarez were the clear top three and then it was a question of who was at the top of the rest of the list.
Callis: It was a pretty clear-cut top three. Like Jonathan said, they weren't light years ahead of everyone else, but Henderson, Carroll and Álvarez were the obvious guys for the top of the Top 100.
Dykstra: Walker is knocking on that door. Easy to say since he's No. 4, but getting to see him play some outfield in the Arizona Fall League made us feel a little more comfortable that he can handle the move from third base. The only thing he lacks that the others have is Triple-A/MLB experience. His ceiling is close to the other three, thanks to his plus-plus raw power and ability to hit for an average around .300 everywhere he's been. For now, we just need to see how it translates against more upper-level pitching first.
Footer: Were any pitchers considered for top three?
Mayo: My top three were the clear top three, so no. But our top two pitchers -- Andrew Painter (No. 6 overall) and Grayson Rodriguez (No. 7) -- could have very easily been No. 4 for me.
Both of them might graduate this year, but if Painter doesn't, and he does in the Minors what he did last year, he could easily be in the top three conversation.
Callis: Painter, Rodriguez and Eury Pérez (No. 13 overall) are in the next tier of prospects, but I didn't have any of them cracking the top three.
Dykstra: Pitching is becoming increasingly difficult to rank that high, I think. Evolving roles and usage put a cap on how much impact a pitcher can have, even if he is a regular starter. So if we're talking top three overall prospects, it's a much higher bar a pitcher has to clear compared to everyday talents like the ones we have. Painter, Rodriguez and Pérez all have great potential, but they didn't quite clear that bar this time around.
Footer: Last question before we wrap: Who will be No. 1 a year from now?
Callis: There are a lot of interesting candidates, but I'm going to stick with Orioles infielders and say Holliday (No. 12 overall) will top our 2024 list. He got better in every aspect of the game last year, impressively controlled the strike zone in his pro debut, and I think he's going to have a huge year in 2024. I think he could be a non-switch-hitting version of Chipper Jones.
Mayo: I may have answered this differently somewhere else, but I'm going to predict that Elly De La Cruz (No. 10 overall) doesn't graduate this year in Cincinnati. And if he's still a prospect, his combination of power, speed and overall athleticism that plays on both sides of the ball is very, very hard to match. He had a huge 2022 season and with a little approach refinement, he'll put up even better numbers in 2023. I could see him being like Henderson and Carroll, having already gotten a taste of big league life but still qualifying, and deserving, to be No. 1.
Dykstra: I'll cheat a little and say our top-ranked prospect with a 2024 ETA -- Jackson Chourio (No. 8 overall). The Brewers' outfield prospect raced through three levels last year, showing plus power and near-elite speed in center field that helped him win a Minor League Gold Glove. He has some issues to work through with his swing and ability to make contact, so that may need some work as he returns to Double-A. The Brewers' crowded outfield, including other prospects like Sal Frelick, Garrett Mitchell and Joey Wiemer, could keep Chourio in the Minors for a bit longer, too. Consider this: He'll still only be 19 when we re-rank our Top 100 this time next year. He has ample tools and time on his side.