Have glove, will travel.
We can often get caught up in the hitting and counting stats of prospects to gauge their progress. But the truth is often a player’s defensive development can just as much determine how quickly he ascends toward the Majors. Put another way, plus (or better) fielding tools can give prospects just as high a floor as those who are all-bat. Think Andrelton Simmons, Jackie Bradley Jr. or Tucker Barnhart among other modern examples.
To that end, MLB Pipeline named its 2022 All-Defense team earlier in the week. Let’s look at that through another lens. Here are the best defensive prospects for each of the game’s 30 farm systems:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Rikelbin De Castro, SS (No. 14)
The Toronto system is littered with multi-positional infielders at present, so it’s notable that De Castro made 33 of his 39 starts at shortstop last season in the Florida Complex League. The 19-year-old signed for $1.2 million in July 2019 in part because his glovework at the six gave him such a promising ceiling. A twitchy athlete, he is known for making special plays on the dirt and showing an above-average arm early in his career, but consistency will be key as he makes the jump to full-season ball.
Orioles: Adley Rutschman, C (No. 1, MLB No. 1)
The organization’s top prospect will soon be the face of the franchise and for good reason, given his skills on both sides of the ball. His plus arm helps control the running game and his receiving and blocking skills continue to improve, which should earn him plenty of 70 grades for his defense, with Orioles pitchers loving being able to throw to him.
Rays: Josh Lowe, OF (No. 4, MLB No. 73)
Drafted as a third baseman in 2016, Lowe moved to the outfield a year later and hasn’t looked back since. The Georgia native’s plus speed plays well anywhere on the grass, and if not for the Major League presence of defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier, Lowe could have manned the middle of the park in St. Petersburg down the stretch last year. His plus arm picked up six outfield assists last season and could be of use in right if that’s where the Rays end up needing him.
Red Sox: Marcelo Mayer, SS (No. 1, MLB No. 9)
Scouts considered Mayer the best consensus hitter and defender available in the 2021 Draft, and the Red Sox pounced on him with the No. 4 overall pick when he surprisingly lasted that long. The California high school product possesses just fringy speed but makes up for it with a quick first step, and he also displays smooth actions, quick hands and a finely tuned internal clock at shortstop.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Guardians: Brayan Rocchio, INF (No. 7)
Known as "The Professor" because of his outstanding baseball IQ, Rocchio makes plays with his quickness and instincts. Signed for $125,000 out of Venezuela in 2017, he's a no-doubt shortstop with good actions and soft hands, and he compensates for average arm strength with a quick release and impressive accuracy. The Guardians also have given him time at second and third base because of the glut of infielders in their system, and he has stood out at those positions as well.
Royals: Nick Pratto, 1B (No. 2, MLB No. 65)
By rule, 70 grades aren’t thrown around lightly. That type of plus-plus measure is especially rare at first base, a position not known for its defense. But it’s very much earned in the case of Pratto, who uses athleticism and flexibility to get to balls hit to the cold corner and scoop up those thrown his way. He also utilizes a plus arm, which was used to throw in the upper-80s in his high-school days, on throws across the diamond when necessary. When Pratto arrives in Kansas City this summer, he could become an immediate candidate to win a Gold Glove, an award he captured in the Minors last year.
Tigers: Gage Workman, SS (No. 14)
Workman was primarily a third baseman during his days at Arizona State, where he was a teammate of fellow future Tiger Spencer Torkelson, but Detroit slid him over to short full-time last season with promising results. Tall for the position at 6-foot-3, Workman displays quality hands at the six and has just enough speed to be a plus defender there. His above-average arm would be a fit at either spot on the left side of the dirt.
Twins: Jermaine Palacios, SS (unranked on Twins Top 30)
The Twins signed Palacios as a Minor League free agent in February 2021 and were immediately impressed with his glovework. He’s capable at a number of positions, but has the goods to play shortstop on a regular basis. He has a strong and accurate arm and plus hands, and it all plays up because of a very good internal clock, instincts and defensive savvy.
White Sox: James Beard, OF (unranked on White Sox Top 30)
As a Mississippi prep outfielder who was the fastest player in the 2019 Draft, Beard drew inevitable comparisons to Billy Hamilton. A third-round pick who ran a 6.21-second 60-yard dash as an amateur, his speed allows him to cover tremendous ground in center field, where his fringy arm is playable.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
A’s: Nick Allen, SS (No. 3)
A mainstay on our All-Defense Team, Allen has stood out defensively since his high school days. He makes all the routine plays as well as the highlight-reel ones, with impressive range, footwork and hands, to go along with a plus arm and the ability to make throws from all angles and on the run.
Angels: Jordyn Adams, OF (No. 3)
A tremendous athlete who could have played football in college had he gone that route, Adams uses his top of the scale speed (80 on the 20-to-80 scouting grade scale) to cover an enormous amount of ground in center field. He’s able to outrun mistakes, but he also has good instincts, reads and routes to further enhance his defensive profile.
Astros: Jeremy Peña, SS (No. 4)
Peña's glove made him the highest-drafted position player ever from the University of Maine (third round, 2018) and has been as good as advertised while he also has raised his offensive profile as a pro. The son of former big leaguer Geronimo Peña and Carlos Correa's heir apparent as the Astros' shortstop, he covers plenty of ground with a quick first step, has reliable hands and enhances his arm strength (grades range from fringy to plus) by getting to balls and unloading them quickly.
Mariners: Edwin Arroyo, SS (No. 11)
Arroyo was the best Draft prospect from Puerto Rico in 2021, one who came to Florida for his senior year of high school. That helped him get more exposure against good competition, leading to him being taken in the second round of the Draft. He has work to do offensively, namely gaining strength, but there’s no doubt he can play shortstop long-term, with more than enough arm, excellent hands and very easy actions.
Rangers: Maximo Acosta, SS (No. 10)
In a system teeming with talented shortstops, Acosta is the most naturally gifted defender. Signed out Venezuela for $1.65 million in 2019, he has the quickness, arm strength and instincts to make nearly every play at shortstop. He had surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome last August but will be 100 percent for Spring Training.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Cristian Pache, OF (No. 1, MLB No. 38)
We might need to rename the All-Defense Team after Pache, who’s been on it five times now, and has generally been considered to be the best defensive prospect in the game for years. His speed and his instincts are outstanding in center field and he has an arm that would make any right fielder envious.
Marlins: Nasim Nunez, SS (No. 20)
A second-round pick out of a Georgia high school in 2019, Nunez is on the short list of the very best defensive shortstops in the Minors. He's a quick-twitch athlete with well above-average speed, silky smooth actions, quick hands and plenty of arm.
Mets: Jake Mangum, OF (not ranked on Mets Top 30)
Mangum finished his four-year career at Mississippi State as the SEC all-time hits leader and fourth in NCAA history with 383 knocks, but it’s the glove that could fuel his move toward Queens. Mangum displays above-average speed and runs routes efficiently in center, where he’s made 116 of his 127 career Minor League defensive starts. A groundball-heavy approach might limit him offensively, but there are plenty of clubs that could use a speedy fourth-outfield type like Mangum’s current profile.
Nationals: Armando Cruz, SS (No. 5)
The Nationals signed Cruz for $3.9 million -- tied for the highest bonus given to an international player in club history -- in January 2020 in part because of his strong defensive reviews. Cruz was considered the best defender in his class because of the hands, footwork and instincts that allow him to make both routine and highlight-level plays. The bat remains far behind the glove at this early stage in his development, but Cruz’s defense will get him chances as he makes the move stateside, likely this summer.
Phillies: Johan Rojas, OF (No. 6)
Rojas’ 70-grade speed work on both sides of the ball, allowing him to cover a lot of ground in center field. He’s not just a sprinter out there, with his instincts allowing his speed to play up even more, and he has an above-average arm that’s an asset as well.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Brice Turang, SS (No. 3)
There were times in recent years when Milwaukee officials wondered whether the 2018 first-rounder could stick at short or if a permanent move to second base was in the offing. These days, those same officials are calling him the best defender in the system, ahead of speedy outfielders like Sal Frelick and Garrett Mitchell. His range has improved on the left side, while his hands and actions remain at least above average. To be clear, a move to second could still be possible if Turang bumps up against Willy Adames as early as this summer. But right now, he could likely slip right into the Brewers lineup at short, and the group wouldn’t skip a beat defensively.
Cardinals: Delvin Perez, SS (No. 12)
Perez’s bat (80 wRC+ at Double-A) wasn’t enough to get him on the 40-man roster when he was Rule 5-eligible last November, but if a club was looking for a backup shortstop option, they could do worse than giving the 2016 first-rounder a look. Perez uses every bit of his plus speed to make plays, and his soft hands and plus arm make him an even better gloveman. The glove alone could get him a look in 2022 either with the Cardinals or elsewhere.
Cubs: Ed Howard, SS (No. 7)
Cubs outfielder Pete Crow-Armstrong made our All-Defense first team, but Howard gets the nod here as another well above-average defender at a more impactful position. A local Chicago high school product drafted 16th overall in 2020 -- three picks before the Mets took Crow-Armstrong -- he has athletic hands, quick hands and feet, a strong arm and the ability to make throws from a variety of angles, not to mention a high baseball IQ.
Pirates: Jared Triolo, 3B (not ranked in Pirates Top 30)
Figuring out where Triolo might play in Pittsburgh, given Gold Glove contender Ke’Bryan Hayes is there, is a conversation for another time. Triolo has at least plus hands, with excellent footwork and range, and his arm has gotten stronger and more accurate in pro ball.
Reds: Michael Siani, OF (No. 11)
Siani looked like a big league center fielder as an amateur and has continued to play plus defense in center field since the Reds drafted him in 2018. He has great instincts, with an outstanding first step helping his plus reads and routes.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Corbin Carroll, OF (No. 2, MLB No. 20)
Arizona could someday build a defensive outfield around Alek Thomas, Dominic Fletcher and Carroll that would frighten anyone who would dare hit a ball to the grass. Any of the three could be mentioned here, so we’ll stick with Carroll (an All-Defense Second Teamer) for now. Before his season-ending shoulder surgery, the 2019 16th overall pick showed plus-plus speed that made him a no-doubt center fielder. That projection remains, and Carroll’s defensive brilliance should be another thing to watch when he does return healthy this year.
Dodgers: Jacob Amaya, SS (No. 14)
Amaya isn't loaded with plus tools, but his instincts and constant energy make him a quality defender at shortstop. Signed for an over-slot $247,500 as an 11th-round pick from a California high school in 2017, his positioning and quick first step allow him to get to plenty of balls, and he also has fast hands, solid arm strength and impressive throwing accuracy.
Giants: Casey Schmitt, 3B (No. 17)
A 2020 second-rounder from San Diego State, Schmitt has soft hands and good range in all directions at third base, where he made just three errors in 50 games last season. His most eye-catching tool is his arm, which also produced fastballs that reached 96 mph and devastating mid-80s splitters when he took the mound in college.
Padres: Max Ferguson, 2B (No. 20)
San Diego snagged the Tennessee infielder with its fifth-round pick last July, in part because of the plus grades he received for his run and fielding tools. Primarily a second baseman for the Volunteers, Ferguson also saw time at first base, shortstop, third base and center field during his early trips to the Arizona Complex League and Low-A Lake Elsinore. That quickness makes him a candidate to stay up the middle in some capacity, an exciting concept given his Draft slot.
Rockies: Ezequiel Tovar, SS (No. 11)
Talk to anyone about Tovar’s defense and they all bring up how easy he makes it look. He makes all of the plays, routine and flashy, with plus hands, a strong arm and incredibly smooth actions. Most feel he could play shortstop in the big leagues defensively right now, as his internal clock helps him slow the game down.