The two youngsters -- Walker will turn 21 next month, while Volpe will celebrate his 22nd birthday in a few weeks -- each made their big league debut on Opening Day. But who will have a bigger impact throughout 2023?
We posed that question to 20 front-office executives, asking them whether they believed Walker or Volpe would have a better season.
A whopping 75 percent chose Volpe (15 votes), while Walker was the choice for only a quarter of the respondents (five votes).
“I would have to go with Volpe, because he’s going to accumulate more on the bases, and with his defense, that should give him a bump,” said one National League executive. “If you play good shortstop in the big leagues, that will help your WAR.”
Several of the execs used projected WAR as the measuring stick for which rookie will have the better season, which theoretically favors Volpe because of his position.
“My knee-jerk reaction was Volpe by a longshot, just because of the defensive value,” an American League exec said. “However, with what Walker has produced in the Minors and the fact that he’s more than a full year younger, it makes me think it’s really close. I want to say Walker because the Volpe/Yankees hype is probably too much, but at the end of the day, I’ll bet on the premium defensive position and hit over power in Volpe.”
Volpe’s position was a key factor for many of the voters, some of whom noted that Walker’s continued transition from third base to the outfield could cause some bumps along the way.
“The easy tiebreaker is Volpe’s ability on the dirt,” an NL executive said. “Walker can really hit, but he’s rough in the outfield and the Cards do a good job rotating guys around a bit, so it might diminish his overall impact if he’s only playing five days a week. Volpe could impact the game in all three phases every day.”
“Volpe is ahead defensively; combine that with the fact that Walker is a natural infielder playing in the outfield to make the roster, he might experience some learning curves and adjustments in the big leagues,” another NL exec said. “Both are obviously impact players but Volpe I think should be more comfortable in his role and have a better season.”
Volpe earned the Yankees’ starting shortstop job after hitting .309 in Grapefruit League play with three home runs, five doubles, five RBIs, a 1.033 OPS and five stolen bases in five attempts, beating out Oswald Peraza and Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the process.
Walker matched Volpe's three home runs and five doubles but he drove in nine runs compared to five for Volpe. Walker's OPS was .791 in Spring Training, the primary difference coming from their walk total -- Volpe drew nine free passes to Walker’s two -- while each of them struck out 15 times.
Walker showed early in the spring how impactful his bat can be, going 9-for-18 with five extra-base hits.
“Interestingly enough, I think Volpe’s game is less dynamic [than Walker’s] and I think dynamic players take a little longer to get going in the Majors,” an AL executive said. “Volpe is steady and has a solid surrounding cast. The biggest issue with Volpe is that he’s in New York.”
New York’s No. 1 prospect became the club’s youngest position player to start on Opening Day since Derek Jeter in 1996, and given his position and demeanor, the inevitable comparisons to the Hall of Famer have already started. Walker became the youngest Cardinals position player to make his MLB debut in an Opening Day lineup, taking that title away from Albert Pujols.
“Volpe has a really advanced feel for the game offensively and I believe in his chance to stick at shortstop,” another AL exec said. “Though Volpe struggled a bit at Triple-A last year, he looks to have made adjustments in Spring Training and does have time at Triple-A under his belt, where Walker has not had a plate appearance above Double-A. Walker's raw power is extremely impressive but I have some concerns about potential swing-and-miss and chase in his swing at the Major League level. Both are really exciting players that have a chance to be impact guys.”
In addition to his position -- which was the biggest differentiator for most voters who chose him -- Volpe’s bat-to-ball skills stood out to a number of executives.
“Good shortstop defense means Volpe has a better chance to stick in big leagues,” an AL executive said. “I also think Walker’s approach -- high chase, high whiff, low walk -- puts him at risk for performing poorly and being optioned.”
“While Walker can blow you away with his power, the jump from the Minors to the bigs is difficult, and I think Volpe will be able to adjust to big league pitching more quickly,” another AL exec said. “Between being a patient hitter and pure contact ability, I think it’ll be easier for him to combat strikeouts at this early stage in his career.”
One AL general manager chose Volpe with the idea of “betting on the more well-rounded player who will contribute on both sides of the ball.” The GM added that Volpe’s profile as more of a contact hitter should “make him less prone to the long slump.”
“Volpe’s batted-ball profile is better,” another AL decision-maker said. “Much less swing and miss, and he will be asked to do less offensively than Walker.”
MLB Pipeline’s scouting grades list Walker with a 50 in fielding and a 70 for his arm, while Volpe received a 50 for both.
“I see [Walker] on a path to NL Rookie of the Year with offensive impact,” said an AL executive who voted for the St. Louis outfielder. “I trust the Cardinals will deploy him in a way that will help him acclimate.”
Another Walker voter said his premium power “more than makes up for the defensive differences” between the two.
“Walker’s strikeout percentage is a bit concerning,” said an AL exec who gave Volpe a slight edge. “But he hits the ball so hard.”
One AL executive noted that a “better season” can be interpreted in different ways, saying he believes both players have a chance to make an impact “right away.”
“Walker’s upside is obviously through the roof, but there could be some growing pains -- especially vs. right-handed pitchers -- with the jump from Double-A,” the AL exec said. “That said, I think he’ll slug enough to combat any struggles and will end up with a solid offensive line. He also looks comfortable in right field. Volpe will add significant value at shortstop and I expect he’ll be a steady presence in the lineup all year. Maybe not eye-popping offensive numbers, but he’ll control the zone and give good at-bats. Edge to Walker, but it’s close.”
Although Volpe was the choice for an overwhelming majority of the executives polled, the consensus belief was that both players have the tools to become All-Star caliber players for years to come.
“I’d be pretty happy adding either of them to our lineup,” an NL executive said. “These guys both look to be the real deal.”