Baseball's top rookies got their shine Monday night, as MLB handed out the AL and NL Rookie of the Year awards. Over the past few seasons, the hardware has frequently been followed by financial commitment.
Teams are craving youth and excellence in combination. We’ve seen that in the form of major contract extensions — three of the six finalists for Monday's awards have already signed deals with their teams — and huge trades.
There’s now a whole class of young stars who teams are investing in as franchise faces, and it’s a good day to take stock of those crucial players looking forward. For this ranking, we’re looking at the outlook for players who will be 27 or under in 2023, and are signed to a guaranteed deal — not simply under the usual banner of team control — that could last through at least 2025.
There are a dozen to rank now, which we will do while referencing, but not necessarily adhering to, FanGraphs' recently released 2023 Steamer projections. And then, there are three more stars who seem like logical names to watch this winter as extension season heats up again.
1. Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners
2023 Steamer projection: .276/.342/.497, 32 HR, 25 SB, 6.0 WAR
No, newer is not always better. But in this case, the Mariners star who ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year nod on Monday night rises to the top of the list. His relative newness may actually be serving him — via a collective lack of imagination — since we haven’t seen many of his limitations, haven’t had serious health doubts crop up despite some minor injuries in 2022.
But his in-season progress tells a different story. At 21 years old, he opened eyes with his speed and center field defense, won over America in the Home Run Derby, then showed maturation from first half to second half. He cut his strikeout rate from 26.8% before the All-Star break to 23.9% afterward, a significant move (in more limited playing time) that helped him produce an MVP contender-level .303/.361/.576 line after the break as Seattle broke its playoff drought. If that J-Rod appears consistently going forward, he’s going to remain elite, even among the game’s elite.
2. Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays
2023 Steamer projection: .286/.348/.454, 16 HR, 10 SB, 5.6 WAR
It was an injury-interrupted season for the wunderkind shortstop after signing his 11-year extension with the Rays, which slowed his advancement up the game’s mental rungs. The profile that made him the consensus No. 1 prospect, one of the most hyped in years, remains. He hits for average, barely strikes out and plays a good shortstop. As he progresses into … his slightly less early-20s … Franco could quickly evolve into the super-desirable Jose Ramirez prototype who also plays shortstop. That’s an annual MVP candidate, even if we haven’t seen it over 100 games yet.
3. Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves
2023 Steamer projection: .270/.367/.487, 31 HR, 36 SB, 5.5 WAR
Acuña is the most accomplished player on the list. Prior to his knee injury in 2021, his stat line looked … a lot like Rodriguez's, though he has been pushed to right field. Still hampered by his knee in 2022, his defense suffered, falling off from roughly average among right fielders to second-worst in the league, per Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric.
A full strength Acuña who rebounds to his established level is a 30-homer, 30-steal menace to the opposition. Absent the injury, he’d be the most sure thing here, and could easily reassert himself atop this list in 2023.
4. Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
2023 Steamer projection: .283/.365/.574, 37 HR, 20 SB, 6.0 WAR in 125 games
As you can see, Steamer projects Tatis to be equally as valuable as Rodriguez — the third-best position player in baseball — in 2023 even in 24 fewer games. The projection system, of course can’t internalize the why behind Tatis’ limited playing time. If the motorcycle injury and PED suspension turn out to be two poorly timed blips in judgment, then Tatis has the highest ceiling of any young player in baseball. It’s hard to bank on that, though.
Combine the numerous injuries with inconsistent shortstop play and whispers he might change positions, and there are as enough questions to say, let’s wait and see.
The Padres have him signed to a 14-year deal, now worth about $338.3 million after the suspension, that was characterized as a “statue contract.” They’re certainly going to be committed to finding the best way to harness his immense talent. Let’s see how he handles his return to the field.
5. Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
2023 Steamer projection: .284/.375/.557, 37 HR, 2 SB, 5.3 WAR
In contrast to the rest of the young players in his league, the hulking 6-foot-5 Alvarez is pretty much a one-dimensional player. That one dimension — his bat — can be, and often is, the difference between winning and losing.
Steamer projects his batting production as third-best in baseball in 2023 — a smidge behind Tatis, which, yeah — a season after he was the second-best hitter in baseball behind Aaron Judge. He’s locked into the heart of the Astros' lineup through 2028 on a $115 million deal.
6. Spencer Strider, Atlanta Braves
2023 Steamer projection: 154 IP, 3.11 ERA, 207 Ks, 3.7 WAR
We are in the Braves section of the list, because general manager Alex Anthopoulos has gone on an absolute spree signing young members of the team’s core for the long term — including the two top candidates for NL Rookie of the Year.
Strider is the only pitcher you’ll find here — in Atlanta or otherwise — and it makes him an interesting and difficult player to rank. He had 2 1/3 innings of major-league experience coming into 2022, then leapt from bullpen breakout candidate to starting rotation star in a matter of months. Why does he rank this highly despite being a pitcher with a minimal track record? Why did the Braves commit long-term dollars to said pitcher with a minimal track record? The sky-high potential.
At his best, the man dubbed Quadzilla looks like a shorter, bulked up, mustachioed version of Jacob deGrom. The devastating fastball-slider combo is unimpeachable. His 2022 strikeout rate — 38.3% — was third-best all time by a pitcher who threw at least 120 innings, behind only 2019 Gerrit Cole and 2018 Chris Sale.
7. Michael Harris II, Atlanta Braves
2023 Steamer projection: .276/.328/.476, 22 HR, 20 SB, 4.3 WAR
The Braves’ other Rookie of the Year candidate — who actually won it Monday — is a dynamic center fielder. This is the more usual early career extension candidate, and indeed the Georgia native locked in an eight-year, $72 million deal that could keep him in Atlanta through 2032, including options.
Harris hit the high end of what could be expected for a hitter as aggressive as he is at the plate. He will need to cut down on his chase swings to maintain this level, but his minor-league numbers suggest it’s possible. Even if the bat drops off to something more like a .245 batting average with decent power — very possible as he continues to adjust to the majors — his sublime center field defense isn’t going anywhere.
8. Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves
2023 Steamer projection: .274/.343/.512, 35 HR, 2 SB, 4.4 WAR
Now there’s a gap. Where the top five on this list all rank in Steamer’s top 11 position players, Riley is 29th. You wouldn’t be wrong to point out, though, that he was second by FanGraphs WAR in 2022. His first two seasons of full-fledged stardom have included a grand total of five games off, durability that adds up.
His defense at third base won’t drop many jaws, but it has steadily improved, slowly closing one of the few holes remaining in his game. Signed to a 10-year, $212 million deal that begins in 2023, the focus can shift to his 30+ homer thump.
9. Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
2023 Steamer projection: .259/.312/.445, 20 HR, 13 SB, 3.0 WAR in 138 games
At the ripe old age of 25, Albies signed, alongside Acuña, in a previous generation of early Braves extensions. He’s locked in through at least 2025 — and almost certainly 2027 — on a ludicrously team-friendly deal.
It’s possible he outplays the newer, shinier hitters who surround him here. He’s a good to stellar defender at second base, the position that will be most magnified by the incoming infield shift limitations. Also, he probably deserves a mulligan for his terrible injury luck in 2022 that Steamer isn’t providing. Albies has three previous seasons of 156 or more games. There’s less to dream on, but there’s also no nightmare scenario. Albies is a fully known entity: Decent average, surprising pull power and good defense.
10. Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox
2023 Steamer projection: .283/.329/.475, 25 HR, 13 SB, 4.1 WAR
Robert, who will still be just 25 for most of the 2023 season, may have the widest range of outcomes of anyone on the list. He could find a new level of discipline at the plate and win MVP. Or he could crash into a season-wrecking slump.
Such is the life of a hitter who can’t quite convince himself to lay off those breaking balls out of the zone. You might best understand the road ahead of him by looking at the career arc of Javy Baez. Robert is capable of incredible feats in center field and at the plate, but as long as his swing-heavy mode remains, he’s likely to see dramatic, unpredictable swings in his production.
11. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
2023 Steamer projection: .259/.326/.402, 14 HR, 20 SB, 3.0 WAR
A superlative defensive third baseman, Hayes will be trying to achieve his offensive breakout in 2023. Steamer projects 14 homers, more than he has hit in the past two seasons combined, and it isn’t an unreasonable projection.
Here’s why: He hits the ball very hard, very often. Per Statcast, he logged exit velocities of 95+ mph on 18.7% of his swings, 16th-best in baseball, in 2022. That’s just about as good a base as you can have as an MLB hitter. Most hitters who do that hit for power. Hayes’ issue is he puts far too many of those well-hit balls on the ground. This is an adjustment plenty of hitters have successfully made, while others never do. The Rays’ Yandy Diaz, for instance, has been this one adjustment away from stardom for his entire career.
The defense will make Hayes a very good player as the Pirates try to climb back into contention. Putting the ball in the air could make him a great one.
12. Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
2023 Steamer projection: .273/.331/.494, 33 HR, 1 SB, 3.3 WAR
Someone, hopefully new White Sox manager Pedro Grifol, needs to save Jimenez from himself. He’s an excellent hitter — a sort of Yordan Alvarez Lite — with uncommon power. The problem is he just should not play the field. Ever.
He has repeatedly, seriously injured himself trying to play the outfield, and the White Sox need to commit him to the designated hitter role. Given that path to a hopefully healthier everyday experience, he could make a real positive impact. His guaranteed deal runs through 2024, but options could take it through 2026.
3 stars ripe for big-time contracts
There’s no guarantee these stars want to sign long-term with their teams. It’s very much their prerogative to pursue their market rate in free agency. But should their respective franchises be trying very hard to keep them around? Yes.
Juan Soto, San Diego Padres: He's the big obvious name. Traded from the Washington Nationals in a mind-melting summer deal, Soto is two seasons from free agency, just turned 24, and projects as the best player in baseball in 2023, full stop.
Adley Rutschman, Baltimore Orioles: His arrival was almost too good to be true, instantly heralding the return of competitive baseball at Camden Yards. Everything under the hood, though, says it's very true. The all-everything catcher wedges in between Mookie Betts and Mike Trout in Steamer’s 2023 projections.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays: A dropoff from his incredible 2021 put a damper on things, but the younger Guerrero is going to keep hitting for years and years. The Blue Jays undoubtedly want him to keep hitting for them.