For the second consecutive year, the Rays reign supreme in the prospect world.
Led by consensus No. 1 overall prospect Wander Franco, Tampa Bay boasts a Major League-high eight prospects on MLB.com's Top 100 list, released Thursday night. Following Franco at the top are the No. 1 overall picks in the past two Drafts: Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman (2019) followed by Tigers corner infielder Spencer Torkelson (2020).
An American League pennant did not stop the Rays from staying true to form in the offseason. Now their willingness to sell off big pieces again has come to benefit their farm system in a big way.
Franco was part of the Rays’ taxi squad in the World Series, but has not yet made his Major League debut. The shortstop out of the Dominican Republic first topped the charts at the end of 2019, and his encore performance as the game’s best prospect may not even be a curtain call. Franco will be 20 years old for the entire 2021 season and has not played above the Class A Advanced level.
Like Franco, the top eight prospects on the list have not debuted in the big leagues.
Even without the cream of the crop, there was still a great deal of rookie talent on display in 2020. Pirates third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes (No. 9), Blue Jays righty Nate Pearson (No. 10), Tigers right-hander Casey Mize (No. 11), Braves outfielder Cristian Pache (No. 12), Cardinals outfielder Dylan Carlson (No. 13), Marlins righty Sixto Sanchez (No. 15) and Braves right-hander Ian Anderson (No. 18) are among the top Rookie of the Year candidates in their respective leagues after getting their first experiences in the Majors last year. This group leads a list of 29 prospects with MLB experience.
With so many ranked prospects, the Rays’ fingerprints are all over the list.
Two ranked prospects actually made their Major League debuts in the 2020 postseason: Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff (No. 26) and Rays lefty Shane McClanahan (No. 84).
Among the Top 100, 15 prospects were acquired by their current clubs in trades, including four Rays. Ranked highest in this group are Mariners’ outfielder Jarred Kelenic (No. 4), Sanchez and Tampa Bay right-hander Luis Patiño (No. 19).
Patiño and infielder Xavier Edwards (No. 85) were acquired in consecutive offseason trades with the Padres, with Patiño coming over in the Blake Snell deal in December and Edwards in last year’s Tommy Pham trade.
Rays postseason hero Randy Arozarena (No. 34) was part of the package that sent No. 37 Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis, and Shane Baz (No. 90) was part of the Rays’ return in the Chris Archer deal in 2018.
Arozarena is also among an interesting group of players who played their way on to the Top-100 prospects list during the 2020 Major League season. The 25-year-old outfielder ranked No. 19 in the Rays’ system as he set an MLB record with 10 homers in the postseason.
Right-hander Triston McKenzie (No. 51) was Cleveland’s No. 9 prospect when he struck out 10 batters in his big league debut in Detroit, his first game action in nearly two full years after various injuries. Ryan Mountcastle (No. 77) dropped out of the Top 100 when he debuted for the Orioles in August, but jumped back in after hitting .333/.386/.492 with five homers and 23 RBIs.
Dane Dunning (No. 91), who landed with the Rangers in the Lance Lynn deal in December, ranked eighth among White Sox prospects when he debuted against Mize and the Tigers in August. Bobby Dalbec (No. 93) was the third-ranked Red Sox prospect when he homered in his Major League debut -- the first of eight long balls in his 23 games with Boston.
Led by Kelenic and his likely future teammate in Seattle, Julio Rodriguez (No. 5), the Mariners are runners-up with six prospects in the Top 100. Kelenic and Rodriguez are among 10 sets of teammates ranked in consecutive slots, a phenomenon which occurred only three times at the end of last season.
Franco was limited by a hairline fracture in his left wrist during summer camp in July, but Kelenic and right-hander Logan Gilbert (No. 33), could be knocking on the door to the big leagues after making excellent strides at the alternate site in Tacoma. Right-handers Emerson Hancock (No. 31) and George Kirby (No. 92) and outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 100) are the Mariners' other Top-100 prospects.
Three rebuilding teams -- the Orioles, Tigers and Marlins -- have five prospects listed apiece. There are 10 teams -- including the Padres, who traded Patiño, Edwards and Trammell –- claiming four spots on the list.
Even after trades that brought Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove into the rotation, San Diego’s system still features plenty of star power. The Padres were able to hang on to left-hander MacKenzie Gore (No. 6), infielder CJ Abrams (No. 8), catcher Luis Campusano (No. 45) and outfielder Robert Hassell (No. 62).
Campusano is one of nine catchers listed in the Top 100. This trend has held steady since the end of the 2019 season -- Rutschman’s first on the list. There were eight Top-100 catchers at the end of 2020 and nine at 2019’s end, which was a jump from five at the end of 2018 and four at the finish of the previous year.
San Francisco’s Joey Bart (No. 23), the Mets’ Francisco Alvarez (No. 48), the Dodgers’ Keibert Ruiz (No. 57), the Braves’ Shea Langeliers (No. 73), the Rangers’ Sam Huff (No. 78), the Cubs’ Miguel Amaya (No. 89) and the Reds’ Tyler Stephenson (No. 95) round out the list of ranked backstops.
Right-handed pitchers still make up the largest group on the list with 27, but there are also 26 prospects listed as potential outfielders. Shortstop is the best represented infield position with 16 prospects, and there are 12 ranked southpaws – including the Rays’ Brendan McKay (No. 72).
Like Reds’ righty Hunter Greene (No. 71), who was picked two spots ahead of McKay in the 2017 Draft, McKay is listed as a pitcher despite having experience as a two-way player. Greene formally set the bat aside in 2018, but McKay got Major League at-bats in 2019. McKay did not appear in a game for the Rays in 2020 and had season-ending shoulder surgery in August.
Injuries have made things difficult for Forrest Whitley and Michael Kopech, two right-handers who climbed as high as Nos. 17 and 18 respectively in the overall rankings at the end of 2020.
Kopech (No. 39), the White Sox fireballer, missed the 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, returned to pitch one inning in the spring, then opted out of the 2020 regular season. Whitley (No. 41), the Astros’ lone Top-100 prospect, has been limited to 86 innings since 2018 by various oblique, lat and shoulder issues.
That duo at least remains on the list. A’s left-hander A.J. Puk, who finished the season ranked No. 53, fell off entirely. Puk was sidelined for all of 2020 with a shoulder injury that required surgery in September.
Without a Minor League season last year, it’s difficult to determine who is ready to take the next step and graduate from this list in 2021. Spring Training should provide a better sense of who made the most of the alternate sites, who is best positioned for sustained success and which young core might be ready to take their team to the postseason.
Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GerardGilberto._