Ranking MLB's Top 10 Young Cores

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesFeatured Columnist IVAugust 22, 2022

Ranking MLB's Top 10 Young Cores

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 16: Kyle Tucker #30 of the Houston Astros runs to second base after hitting a RBI double against the Chicago White Sox during the third inning at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 16, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
    Houston's Kyle Tucker (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

    The Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves battled in the 2021 World Series, but given the strength of the young core on each of those teams, there's a good chance of a rematch at some point in the next half-decade.

    "Young core" is a vague term, both in terms of the age of the players and the quantity of players in the core, so let's get more specific:

    Young: Age-25 season or younger, meaning the player did not turn 26 before June 30, 2022.
    Core: Exactly four players, in honor of the New York Yankees' former "Core Four" of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.

    Rankings are loosely based on the combined 2022 Baseball Reference WAR of each team's core four, but injuries (i.e., Dustin May just made his 2022 season debut; Tyler Stephenson only played in 50 games, etc.) and career production prior to this season also factored into the mix.

    For most teams in the top 10, there were more than four young players worthy of consideration. In those cases, additional players may be mentioned, but each ranking is based solely on the four players listed at the top of that team's section.

Honorable Mentions

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    WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 31:  Brendan Donovan #33 of the St. Louis Cardinals looks on during the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on Sunday, July 31, 2022 in Washington, District of Columbia. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
    St. Louis' Brendan Donovan (Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

    Arizona Diamondbacks: Daulton Varsho has not started a game at catcher since June 9, so the novelty of him as a catcher/outfielder unicorn has worn off. But he's still quite valuable in the outfield alongside Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy. That outfield alone isn't enough for top 10, though.

    Chicago White Sox: See: Diamondbacks. The ChiSox have an even better young outfield trio in Luis Robert, Eloy Jimenez and Andrew Vaughn, but where's the fourth part of their core? If guys in their age-26 season counted, getting to include Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech would have potentially vaulted Chicago into our top five.

    Kansas City Royals: Bobby Witt Jr. and MJ Melendez have hit a combined 30 home runs, but they've amassed just 0.8 bWAR between them. So even though Brady Singer has been quite the bright spot in this otherwise dismal starting rotation, the overall impact of the young Royals isn't yet where Kansas City hoped it would be.

    St. Louis Cardinals: Definitely the toughest omission of this bunch because of the volume of young talent. Just among hitters, the Cards have Brendan Donovan, Dylan Carlson, Nolan Gorman, Juan Yepez and Lars Nootbaar. Throw in Andre Pallante and Genesis Cabrera on the mound, and you've got a solid septet. However, pare it down to just a core four and it doesn't pack quite the same punch.

    Washington Nationals: Kind of sad that they've made as many trades as they have in the past two years and still can't crack the top 10 in a "young cores" ranking. But give it another year and the nucleus of CJ Abrams, MacKenzie Gore, Josiah Gray and Keibert Ruiz—all acquired in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner and Juan Soto/Josh Bell trades—plus Luis Garcia should at least be worthy of a spot on this list.

10. Los Angeles Angels

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    ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 13:  Reid Detmers #48 of the Los Angeles Angels throws against the Minnesota Twins in the fifth inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 13, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
    Reid Detmers (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Reid Detmers (2.0 bWAR), Patrick Sandoval (2.7 bWAR), Jaime Barria (1.8 bWAR), Luis Rengifo (1.6 bWAR)

    We often act like Shohei Ohtani is the only Los Angeles Angels pitcher worth mentioning, but they have a solid core of young arms.

    Detmers no-hit the Rays on May 10, and Sandoval just tossed a complete-game shutout against the Detroit Tigers on Friday. That duo has made a combined 39 starts this season with an ERA below 3.50. Los Angeles also has 24-year-old Jose Suarez, who has logged 166 innings with a 3.90 ERA since the start of last season, as well as a 1.19 ERA since the All-Star Break.

    Barria has almost exclusively been used in a long-relief, mop-up role, but he has made the most of it with a 2.58 ERA.

    And then at the plate, Rengifo has been an invaluable utility man. He had a woeful .527 OPS in 87 games played between the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, but he is operating at a much better .741 mark this season while playing basically every day for the past three-and-a-half months.

9. Minnesota Twins

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    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 16: Luis Arraez #2 of the Minnesota Twins bats against the Kansas City Royals on August 16, 2022 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)
    Luis Arraez (Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Luis Arraez (4.0 bWAR), Jhoan Duran (1.9 bWAR), Trevor Larnach (1.3 bWAR), Jose Miranda (1.4 bWAR)

    Arraez is leading the AL with a .333 batting average. He's now sitting at .319 for his career with a slightly better walk rate (9.1 percent) than strikeout rate (8.7 percent). The only other players in the past 50 years with at least 1,000 plate appearances and a career batting average of .318 or higher are Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Kirby Puckett and Vladimir Guerrero—five Hall of Famers with a combined 64 All-Star Games.

    Arraez rarely homers or steals bases, but what an incredible asset atop this lineup with Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton.

    Duran has been Minnesota's most valuable pitcher this season. In 41 appearances in the past four months, this rookie has a 1.51 ERA and has not blown a single save/hold opportunity. (Meanwhile, Jorge Lopez has already blown two saves since the trade deadline, as Minnesota continues to pay for its baffling refusal to make Duran the closer.)

    Miranda is also having a strong rookie campaign, batting .285 with 13 home runs. His defensive metrics hurt his overall WAR, but per FanGraphs, the only rookies who have been more valuable on offense are Julio Rodriguez, Adley Rutschman, Steven Kwan and Michael Harris II.

    The fourth member of this young core has been out for the past two months with a core muscle strain, but Larnach is a good corner outfielder who was batting .310 through his first 29 games of this season.

8. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 15: Julio Urias #7 of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws a pitch in the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on August 15, 2022 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
    Julio Urias (John Fisher/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Julio Urias (2.9 bWAR), Gavin Lux (2.9 bWAR), Caleb Ferguson (0.8 bWAR), Dustin May (made 2022 season debut Saturday)

    Urias turned 26 earlier this month, but this is still technically his age-25 season—even though it is his seventh year in the big leagues. And he really does not get enough attention for as great as he has been.

    The lefty has a 2.40 ERA this season and boasts a 2.73 ERA and 1.03 WHIP since the beginning of 2018. Here's the full list of pitchers with at least 450 innings pitched and a sub-3.00 ERA in that time frame: Urias, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler. And yet this man has never even been named an All-Star?

    Sticking with 25-year-old left-handed pitchers, Ferguson has been mighty impressive since returning from the second Tommy John surgery of his career. He did not allow a single run in his first 19 appearances and still has a 0.44 ERA on the season. If Craig Kimbrel continues to struggle, would the Los Angeles Dodgers dare entrust the ninth-inning work for their $265 million juggernaut with Ferguson?

    May just returned from a TJ surgery of his own and did so with a flourish, going five shutout innings with one hit and nine strikeouts Saturday against the Marlins. He already had a career 2.93 ERA prior to that and was absolutely lights-out during his rehab assignment. It's ridiculous that the Dodgers get to add an arm of this caliber at this stage of an already dominant season.

    And let's not forget about Lux, batting .296 and quietly leading the majors with seven triples. He gets lost in the shuffle of this star-studded lineup, but he is a key cog in the machine.

7. Tampa Bay Rays

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    ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - AUGUST 19: Shane McClanahan #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the second inning at Tropicana Field on August 19, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
    Shane McClanahan (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Shane McClanahan (3.8 bWAR), Taylor Walls (2.2 bWAR), Wander Franco (1.6 bWAR), Isaac Paredes (2.0 bWAR)

    Considering they signed him to an 11-year, $182 million extension this past November, it's a bummer for the Tampa Bay Rays that Franco has missed more than half of this season. He was out for nearly a month with a quad strain and was back for less than two weeks before hitting the IL again with a wrist injury. But he has superstar potential and is going to be a part of Tampa Bay's core for a long time.

    In his absence (and thanks in part to Brandon Lowe missing two months earlier in the season), both Walls and Paredes have gotten more playing time than expected.

    Walls is batting .179 and might be this season's most drastic case of diverging bWAR and fWAR marks (negative-0.3 in the latter). He has a solid glove, though. He just has not been able to recover from the 19-game stretch in May in which he went 3-for-58 at the plate. Take out that three-week nightmare and he's at least above the Mendoza line with the occasional home run or stolen base.

    And though he has only played in 73 games, Paredes is almost leading the Rays in home runs with 14 of them. He hasn't gone yard since July 26, but the guy the Rays got back from Detroit in the Austin Meadows trade had 10 round-trippers in a span of 73 trips to the plate from June 5 through July 2, including a three-homer game against the Yankees.

    But hands down, Tampa Bay's brightest young star this season has been McClanahan. The lefty has made 15 starts in which he went at least six innings, allowed two or fewer earned runs and struck out at least seven batters. Justin Verlander is the favorite for AL Cy Young, but McClanahan and his 2.29 ERA are keeping the pressure on Houston's 39-year-old.

6. Cincinnati Reds

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    CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 14:  Alexis Diaz #43 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches during the game against the Chicago Cubs at Great American Ball Park on August 14, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cincinnati defeated Chicago 8-5. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
    Alexis Diaz (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Tyler Stephenson (1.5 bWAR), Hunter Greene (1.0 bWAR), Alexis Diaz (2.4 bWAR), Graham Ashcraft (2.2 bWAR)

    While the cumulative 2022 bWAR doesn't support ranking the Cincinnati Reds this high, there's just so much young talent in Cincinnati—without even accounting for how loaded that farm system is following the Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle trades. Beyond this core four, there's also Nick Lodolo, Jose Barrero and 2021 NL ROY Jonathan India.

    Plus, only getting 50 games out of Stephenson this season is a big reason this core's WAR isn't where it should be. He batted .319 with an .854 OPS in those 50 games, improving upon what was already an impressive rookie campaign in 2021. It won't be long before he's one of the most valuable catchers in the majors.

    And when Greene can keep baseballs from flying out of the yard, he's already one of the most dominant pitchers. He had three starts this season in which he went at least six innings, allowed either zero or one hit and struck out at least eight batters. When he's locating those triple-digit heaters, it's a thing of beauty.

    Ashcraft has also recorded a quality start in nine of his 16 appearances, but the actual most valuable young player on the roster has been Diaz out of the bullpen. Now, there haven't been many leads for Cincinnati to protect this season, but the rookie has a 1.74 ERA and 12.2 K/9 in 44 appearances. He has allowed just one earned run since mid-June, and it appears he has supplanted Hunter Strickland as the primary closer.

5. Seattle Mariners

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    ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 16: Julio Rodriguez #44 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates with teammates after scoring against the Los Angeles Angels during the sixth inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on August 16, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)
    Julio Rodriguez (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Julio Rodriguez (4.2 bWAR), Cal Raleigh (2.6 bWAR), Logan Gilbert (1.8 bWAR), George Kirby (0.9 WAR)

    Rodriguez is the 21-year-old phenom who became an overnight celebrity for his performance in this year's Home Run Derby. If and when Seattle makes the playoffs for the first time since he was a 10-month-old infant, his will be the face you see in every graphic regarding upcoming Mariners games. And even more nationwide fanfare is headed his way next season when Seattle hosts the All-Star Game.

    However, it's J-Rod's teammate behind the plate who has emerged as one of the best home run hitters in the majors. Raleigh had just two home runs in 148 trips to the plate last season, but he is sitting at 18 and 307, respectively, this year. That's 17.1 plate appearances per home run. It's nowhere near Aaron's Judge's absurd rate of 11.2, but it puts Raleigh slightly ahead of Pete Alonso (17.3) and just behind Austin Riley (16.9), each of whom has hit at least 30 this season. Not too shabby for a guy who I'd bet the vast majority of baseball fans have never heard of before now.

    And on the mound, Luis Castillo and Robbie Ray are the aces the M's will be leaning heavily on in October, but they wouldn't be in the postseason picture were it not for Gilbert and Kirby.

    The former got roughed up by the Yankees twice earlier this month, but he ended July with a 2.78 ERA, including a streak of seven straight quality starts from mid-May into mid-June. And while the latter's WAR is nothing special, he has a 2.63 ERA since the beginning of July after going six scoreless innings in three of the first nine starts of his MLB career.

4. Toronto Blue Jays

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 18: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. #27 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a three-run home run to right field in the second inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 18, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
    Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (3.6 bWAR), Alejandro Kirk (3.7 bWAR), Alek Manoah (3.0 bWAR), Bo Bichette (1.4 bWAR)

    It's hard to believe Guerrero doesn't even turn 24 until next March, considering it has already been more than three years since he put on that amazing show in the 2019 Home Run Derby. He's closing in on 100 career home runs after crushing an MLB-best 48 last year. So long as he stays relatively healthy, it'll only be a matter of time before he eclipses his dad's mark of 449.

    His success this season is no surprise, nor is that of Manoah, who didn't get anywhere nearly enough love last season for making 20 starts with a 3.22 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 as a rookie. Though his strikeout rate has declined, he has been even more unhittable this season and should at least appear on a few AL Cy Young ballots. Missing out on the entire 2020 season clearly had no negative impact on Toronto's first-round pick in the 2019 draft.

    Kirk had a bit of a disappointing 2021, batting just .242 with a .764 OPS. But the catcher who put up Jose Ramirez-ish numbers in the minors (.318/.416/.503 with 25 more walks than strikeouts in 165 games) has arrived in a big way. Since 2013, there have only been nine instances of a player batting at least .300 with more walks than strikeouts in a season and at least 400 plate appearances, and most of the names on that list (Mike Trout, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Buster Posey, etc.) are multiple-time All-Stars. Well, Kirk is on pace to join that club.

    Last, but not least, Bichette is sputtering through a down year, but he batted .298 with 29 home runs and an AL-best 191 hits in 2021. When that's the player under the age of 26 having the fourth-best season on your team, you're set up pretty well for long-term success.

3. Atlanta

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    ATLANTA, GA  August 19:  Atlanta third baseman Austin Riley (27) hits a three-run home run in the third inning during the MLB game between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves on August 19th, 2022 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Core Four: Austin Riley (4.9 bWAR), Michael Harris II (3.0 bWAR), Spencer Strider (2.8 bWAR), Ronald Acuna Jr. (2.2 bWAR)

    For Atlanta, we legitimately could've put this core four here at No. 3 and then added a "four more core" of William Contreras, Ozzie Albies, Mike Soroka and Vaughn Grissom at like No. 7 or No. 8. Granted, two of those guys are on the 60-day IL, and it's probably a little aggressive to give Grissom that much love all of 11 games into his MLB career, but there's no shortage of young talent in Atlanta.

    Harris and Strider are duking it out for NL ROY, even though the former wasn't promoted until May 28 and the latter didn't become a starting pitcher until a couple of days later. But that was a two-pronged catalyst for Atlanta going from a sub-.500 mess to a top-five candidate to win the World Series.

    Riley's dominance at the dish hasn't hurt, either. He has cooled off a bit since signing his 10-year extension on August 1, but from May 23 through the end of July, Riley hit .350 with a 162-game pace of 56 home runs. There's still a chance he'll win NL MVP if he heats back up down the stretch.

    And, oh yeah, there's also this 24-year-old named Acuna. You may have heard of him. The three-time All-Star and 2018 NL ROY isn't slugging anywhere near the same level he was before the torn ACL, but a .271 average with 10 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 86 games is nothing to sneeze at.

2. Cleveland Guardians

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    CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 15: Cleveland Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez (0) motions to the Guardians dugout as he rounds the bases after hitting a 2-run home run during the fourth inning of game 2 of the Major League Baseball doubleheader between the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Guardians on August 15, 2022, at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Andres Gimenez (Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    The Core Four: Andres Gimenez (5.2 bWAR), Steven Kwan (3.7 bWAR), Triston McKenzie (2.9 bWAR), Emmanuel Clase (2.4 bWAR)

    Had we gone with just overall talent under the age of 26 as opposed to a core four, it would have been Cleveland vs. Atlanta for the top spot with every other franchise fighting for a distant third. Because in addition to this stellar quartet, the Guardians also have Josh Naylor, Oscar Gonzalez, Nick Sandlin, Sam Hentges and Nolan Jones all providing value, plus recently promoted Tyler Freeman and Will Benson.

    If they gave Jose Ramirez and Myles Straw the night off for a McKenzie start, the Guardians could basically have their own version of a futures roster in which no one over the age of 25 takes the field—and they would still have a good chance of winning.

    Of the bunch, the biggest star is Gimenez. Cleveland's 23-year-old middle infielder is batting .309 with 14 home runs and 15 stolen bases with a solid glove to boot. Baseball Reference currently rates him as the fourth-most valuable position player in WAR, trailing only Aaron Judge, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

    And for Clase to have 2.4 bWAR as a relief pitcher is impressive. Only Edwin Diaz (2.7), David Robertson (2.7) and Brock Burke (2.5) rate higher, and not by much. Clase has a 1.22 ERA and a 0.66 WHIP to go along with his AL-best 28 saves.

    The 0.66 WHIP is the really ridiculous part. Among the roughly 200 pitchers who have logged at least 50 innings this season, the next-lowest WHIP belongs to Seattle reliever Penn Murphee at 0.85. Clase could literally walk 10 batters without recording an out in his next appearance and still sit atop that list.

    Throw in Kwan with a .301 batting average and McKenzie with a 3.11 ERA, and that's quite the young foundation.

1. Houston Astros

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    OAKLAND, CA - JULY 27: Houston Astros designated hitter Yordan Alvarez (44) gets ready for a pitch during the game between the Houston Astros and the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. (Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Core Four: Yordan Alvarez (4.8 bWAR), Kyle Tucker (4.4 bWAR), Jeremy Pena (3.7 bWAR) and Christian Javier (2.5 bWAR)

    It's worth noting that if we were to run this back again with the same age-based criteria seven months now, Houston would go straight from No. 1 to possibly dead last in the majors. That's because Alvarez, Tucker and Javier are each in their age-25 seasons, as is Luis Garcia, who is the only other Astro that was even remotely considered. And even Pena will barely qualify next season, as he'll turn 26 in September 2023.

    As is, what a remarkable quartet that should feature prominently in Houston's pennant chases for at least the next three-plus years.

    Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani have left Alvarez in the dust at this point, but he was one of the top candidates for AL MVP not even a month ago. And while Tucker's OPS (.815) is nowhere near Alvarez's (1.012), Houston's right fielder has been almost as valuable as its DH and is the only player in the majors with at least 20 home runs and 15 stolen bases, boasting 22 and 18, respectively.

    Seattle's Julio Rodriguez is most likely going to be named AL Rookie of the Year, but Pena is going to at least receive a good number of second-place votes. He has 16 home runs and a great glove at shortstop.

    And while Justin Verlander has soaked up all of the spotlight on Houston's pitching staff, Javier (2.88 ERA, 1.00 WHIP) is having one heck of a year. He started out the season in a long relief role but transitioned into a full-time starting role around the time Jake Odorizzi hit the IL. And since mid-May, Javier has made 16 starts with a 2.79 ERA and a K/9 ratio of 12.0.


    Statistics current through the start of play on Sunday, August 21.

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