Ranking MLB's 25 Best Players Under 25 Entering the 2020 Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2020

Ranking MLB's 25 Best Players Under 25 Entering the 2020 Season

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Want to become a star in Major League Baseball? Now more than ever, it helps to be young.

    For our part, we know this to be true because of how difficult it was to make a definitive list of the 25 best players under the age of 25 (as of Opening Day on March 26) for the 2020 season.

    The only way we could make things easier on ourselves was to set the following ground rules:

    • Must have MLB experience: If a player hasn't yet played in the majors, there are no grounds for arguing he's one of the best players in the majors. 
    • No prospects: This means all players who still have rookie eligibility, even if they've logged time in MLB.
    • Production counts: The better a player has played in the majors, the more he stands out.
    • So does upside and downside: Because there are more indications of a player's true quality than merely what's on the surface.

    We'll begin with some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Here's a few players who were considered before we left them on the cutting room floor:

          

    Hitters

    • Luis Arraez, 2B, Minnesota Twins
    • Michael Chavis, 1B/2B, Boston Red Sox
    • Francisco Mejia, C, San Diego Padres
    • Franmil Reyes, RF/DH, Cleveland Indians
    • Amed Rosario, SS, New York Mets
    • Nick Senzel, INF/OF, Cincinnati Reds
    • Dom Smith, 1B/LF, New York Mets
    • Will Smith, C, Los Angeles Dodgers

             

    Pitchers

    • Aaron Civale, RHP, Cleveland Indians
    • Zac Gallen, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
    • Brad Keller, RHP, Kansas City Royals
    • Julio Urias, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

25-21: Edman, Mondesi, Guerrero, Bichette and Verdugo

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    25. Tommy Edman, INF/OF, St. Louis Cardinals

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 3.8

    Now that Marcell Ozuna is officially out of the picture, Tommy Edman is likely the favorite to take his spot in left field for the St. Louis Cardinals. Surely, they'd like nothing more than for Edman to build on his offensive breakthrough—i.e., a .304/.350/.500 line, 11 homers and 15 steals—from last year.

    Edman's well-below-average exit velocity and hard-hit rates put that notion in serious doubt. But Edman might at least handle a high batting average while mixing in plenty of speed and good defense. A profile like that is definitely old-school, but not yet irrelevant.

               

    24. Adalberto Mondesi, SS, Kansas City Royals

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 2.6

    After going off in the second half of 2018, Adalberto Mondesi looked like an obvious breakout candidate for 2019. He instead struggled offensively with a .263/.291/.424 slash line and ultimately played in only 102 games because of injuries, including a left shoulder tear that required surgery.

    Yet Mondesi is, if nothing else, a stupendous defender and an elite speedster. He may first need to tone down his free-swinging approach, but even a modest offensive rebound in 2020 would thrust him back into the spotlight as one of the game's top two-way shortstops.

             

    23. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

    OD Age: 21

    2019 WAR: 2.1

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went into last season as baseball's No. 1 prospect, yet he was merely a serviceable rookie. In 123 games, he put up a good-not-great .272/.339/.433 line while struggling on defense. Notably, he posted an MLB-low-tying minus-16 outs above average.

    Still, it's foolish to underestimate the son of a Hall of Famer who tore up the minor leagues with a .331 average and .945 OPS. And Guerrero at least teased what he could be in July and August of 2019, when he found a groove with a .313/.388/.514 line and seven home runs.

            

    22. Bo Bichette, SS, Toronto Blue Jays

    OD Age: 22

    2019 WAR: 2.1

    It should say a lot that Bo Bichette was as valuable as Guerrero despite playing in only 46 major league games last season. Such is what happens when a player racks up a .930 OPS and 11 homers while holding things down at a premium defensive position.

    There was, however, a big gap between Bichette's actual results and his expected results on offense. He also provided mixed results (see here and here) on defense. He's definitely talented, but we'll be more convinced of his proximity to stardom when he shores up his peripherals.

             

    21. Alex Verdugo, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 3.1

    Because of the Los Angeles Dodgers' crowded outfield depth chart and a late-season oblique injury, Alex Verdugo played in only 106 games last season. Yet he made the most of them with a solid .294/.342/.475 line and strong defense (see here and here) in the outfield.

    Because Verdugo was roughly average at generating exit velocity and hard-hit balls, there's some doubt about whether he can repeat last season's offensive performance. But by performing better against lefties than righties, he at least indicated he can be more than just a platoon hitter.

20-16: Robles, Adames, Alcantara, Paddack and Biggio

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    20. Victor Robles, CF, Washington Nationals

    OD Age: 22

    2019 WAR: 4.1

    Per his 24 defensive runs saved and his 23 outs above average, Victor Robles was the best defensive outfielder in baseball in 2019. That's partially reflective of his 29.3 feet-per-second average sprint, which landed him in the 95th percentile among his fellow baserunners.

    But then there's the matter of Robles' modest .255/.326/.419 slash line, not to mention his league-worst 81.0 mph average exit velocity. But while these figures indicate a low offensive ceiling, his capacity for pulling the ball in the air gives him some sneaky power to lean on.

              

    19. Willy Adames, SS, Tampa Bay Rays

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 4.2

    The Tampa Bay Rays know they can count on Willy Adames to play good defense at shortstop. He placed fifth among shortstops with 13 defensive runs saved last season, and his ultimate zone rating and OAA were also above average.

    Adames' offensive ceiling is more difficult to determine in the wake of two good-not-great seasons in the majors, but his .742 OPS at least points to a reasonably high floor. And at last check, he had found something with a .295/.363/.508 line over his final 55 games of 2019.

            

    18. Sandy Alcantara, RHP, Miami Marlins

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 3.1

    Even though he was an All-Star last July, Sandy Alcantara still put forth a solid entry for the "Best Season Nobody Noticed Award." He tied for the major league lead with two shutouts and ended up with a 3.88 ERA over 197.1 innings.

    Granted, it's suspicious that a guy with a 95.6 mph fastball only struck out 151 batters all season. But that could also point to some unexplored upside for Alcantara, and unlocking it may be as simple as more liberally using his gnarly changeup.

             

    17. Chris Paddack, RHP, San Diego Padres

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 2.7

    Chris Paddack was a sensation early in 2019. He came out of nowhere to crack the San Diego Padres' starting rotation with a red-hot spring, and he carried it over with a 1.55 ERA through his first seven outings.

    Paddack tailed off a bit after that, but he nonetheless ended the year with a 3.33 ERA and a 4.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 140.2 innings. He can go far on his hard fastball and devastating changeup alone, and even further if he continues to hone what's already a pretty good curveball.

                

    16. Cavan Biggio, 2B, Toronto Blue Jays

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 2.8

    Cavan Biggio went into 2019 as the least heralded member of the Toronto Blue Jays' sons-of-famous-fathers brigade. But by the end of the year, he'd made a name for himself with a .793 OPS, 16 home runs, 14 stolen bases and, by at least one measure, quality defense at second base.

    Biggio showed off an especially keen eye by drawing an elite 16.5 walk percentage, and only Mike Trout was better at keeping batted balls off the ground. Factor in Biggio's penchant for pulling his fly balls and line drives, and he has the offensive skills of an older, more experienced hitter.

15-11: Jimenez, Hiura, Meadows, Tatis and Albies

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    Orlando Ramirez/Associated Press

    15. Eloy Jimenez, LF, Chicago White Sox

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 1.4

    At least until they can slot him into a comfy gig as their everyday designated hitter, the Chicago White Sox will have to live with poor defense from Eloy Jimenez. No matter the specific metric, his glove work in left field as a rookie last season was just not good.

    Of course, the White Sox won't care much about Jimenez's glove if his bat can do even better than the .828 OPS and 31 homers he posted in 2019. In light of his standout marks in exit velocity and hard-hit rate and his Rookie of the Month-winning surge last September, that can and should happen in 2020.

               

    14. Keston Hiura, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 2.1

    Keston Hiura didn't put himself on a path to stardom with his defense (see here and here) last season. He also struggled on offense to at least one extent, as he struck out (107) about four times more often than he walked (25) in the 84 games he played in the majors.

    But when Hiura does hit the ball, it stays hit. He hit 38 home runs between the minors and majors last season, with average exit velocity and a hard-hit rate that both rated as elite. In fact, not many players did more damage than him when they put the ball in play.

                

    13. Austin Meadows, OF/DH, Tampa Bay Rays

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 3.8

    Because of the presence of Yoshi Tsutsugo, Austin Meadows probably won't log as much time at designated hitter in 2020. As such, there will be pressure on him to improve his defense after posting below-average metrics (see here and here) in 2019.

    Meadows' offense, on the other hand, doesn't need any adjustments. He ended last season with a .922 OPS, 33 home runs and 12 stolen bases, and there's little indication in his Statcast readings that any of it was a fluke. He's low-key one of the best offensive players in the American League.

            

    12. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres

    OD Age: 21

    2019 WAR: 4.2

    Had it not been for the injuries that sidelined him for all but 84 games, Fernando Tatis Jr. might have been the National League Rookie of the Year for 2019. He was electrifying on both sides of the ball, but especially on offense where he posted a .317/.379/.590 line with 22 homers and 16 steals.

    This leads to the obvious question of why Tatis is outside our top 10. His shaky defense—which was well covered by Ben Clemens at FanGraphs—is one reason. The shocking degree to which he outperformed his hitting peripherals is another. These are ample excuses to not be sold on Tatis' tantalizing talent just yet.

             

    11. Ozzie Albies, 2B, Atlanta Braves

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 4.8

    Ozzie Albies' three seasons in the majors have taken him from "promising" in 2017 to "good" in 2018 to something more resembling "great" in 2019. He hit .295 with an .852 OPS, 24 homers and 15 steals and trafficked in above-average defense at second base.

    Whether Albies can be any better, however, is up for debate. His offensive profile invites some uncertainty, as he's a free-swinger who doesn't light up the exit velocity or hard-hit leaderboards. But even if Albies is what he is, he's still pretty darn good.

10. Mike Soroka, RHP, Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    OD Age: 22

    2019 WAR: 5.7

            

    Sure, Mike Soroka's 2019 breakout was punctuated by a 2.68 ERA, an All-Star nod and a runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year race.

    But shouldn't it raise suspicion that he struck out only 142 batters in 174.2 innings?

    Maybe a little, but only a little. While strikeouts are a strong indicator of a pitcher's true quality, they're also being rendered less special by the league's ever-worsening strikeout habit.

    It might be more instructive to consider if pitchers are ducking the league's escalating rate of home runs. The long ball was especially prevalent in 2019, as batters produced an all-time-record 1.4 homers per game.

    To this end, Soroka was about as good at managing contact in 2019 as his NL-best rate of 0.7 home runs suggested. Through the use of a four-pitch repertoire that allowed for different speeds and movements, he frequently induced ground balls and pop-ups and held hitters to a solid .358 xwOBA on contact.

    Assuming he can keep that up while keeping his walk rate at or near last year's mark of 2.1 per nine innings, Soroka should keep pitching like a No. 1 starter.

9. Shane Bieber, RHP, Cleveland Indians

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 5.0 WAR

              

    Though Shane Bieber took some lumps in posting a 4.55 ERA as a rookie in 2018, his outstanding 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio was just one data point that marked him as a pitcher worth watching.

    Still, even his biggest believers Beliebers probably didn't see his 2019 season coming.

    Bieber tied for the major league lead with both his three complete games and his two shutouts, and he made his first All-Star appearance en route to a 3.28 ERA, 259 strikeouts and only 40 walks over 214.1 innings.

    Bieber slightly edged Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander for the lowest walks-per-nine rate (1.68) in the American League. His strikeouts, meanwhile, sprung from a four-pitch arsenal that features a rising fastball and a slider, curveball and changeup that are all arguably above average.

    If there's a catch with Bieber, it's that he isn't immune to hard contact. His average exit velocity of 90.4 mph tied Mike Leake for the highest among pitchers who served up at least 500 batted balls in 2019.

    But as long as Bieber continues to minimize walks, rack up strikeouts and eat tons of innings, he should carry on as one of baseball's top starting pitchers.

8. Gleyber Torres, SS, New York Yankees

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 3.9

           

    Gleyber Torres has only 267 major league games under his belt, yet he's already nabbed two All-Star selections and collected 269 hits and 62 home runs.

    But as much as it feels like Torres is an elite hitter, his career .338 on-base percentage, .849 OPS, 125 OPS+ and 123 wRC+ put him more so in the realm of "very good." He could stand to draw more walks, and it bears mentioning that his 35.8 hard-hit percentage in 2019 was only in the 33rd percentile.

    Torres has also been a subpar defender at second base, where his OAA, DRS and UZR were all below-average last season.

    But with Didi Gregorius now gone from the New York Yankees, Torres is slated to move back to his natural position at shortstop for 2020. That could beget a significant defensive improvement, and he'll have a shot at becoming the first 40-homer shortstop since 2003 if he keeps the power coming.

    To this end, his talents for keeping the ball off the ground and generally avoiding center field with fly balls and line drives can only help his cause.

7. Yordan Alvarez, DH/LF, Houston Astros

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    OD Age: 22

    2019 WAR: 3.7

        

    Out of the 84 games Yordan Alvarez played with the Houston Astros last season, only 10 were as their starting left fielder. He was otherwise their designated hitter, which doesn't figure to change in 2020.

    Beyond not having any defensive value to speak of, Alvarez also isn't much of a baserunner. He's a below-average sprinter who didn't even attempt to steal a base in the majors last year.

    But in slashing .313/.412/.655 last season, Alvarez placed himself with the likes of Mike Trout and Christian Yelich with his 173 OPS+ and 178 wRC+, respectively. And lest anyone raise the possibility of a platoon split, the lefty swinger had an OPS north of 1.000 against right-handers and left-handers.

    Alvarez also drew a solid 14.1 walk percentage and ended up near the top of the leaderboards for exit velocity (92.2 mph), hard-hit rate (48.9 percent) and especially xwOBA (.410), which is Statcast's all-encompassing expected offense metric.

    In short, Alvarez is here because he's already one of the very best hitters in all of baseball.

6. Rafael Devers, 3B, Boston Red Sox

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    OD Age: 23

    2019 WAR: 5.3

               

    Following some frequently humbling on-the-job training in 2017 and 2018, you could practically see the game slowing down for Rafael Devers in 2019.

    Even though he dialed up the aggressiveness of his plate approach, he still cut his strikeout rate down from 24.7 percent in 2018 to just 17.0 percent in 2019. He also hit rocket after rocket, ultimately compiling an MLB-high 252 batted balls of at least 95 mph.

    That's how Devers arrived at a .311/.361/.555 line with 32 home runs and MLB-best marks for extra-base hits (90) and total bases (359). 

    And while DRS continued to rate him as a below-average third baseman, UZR rated him better, and OAA actually placed him among the league's best at the hot corner. Despite ongoing issues with routine plays, that gets at how well he mastered more difficult plays last season.

    The big picture is that of a player who can bury his imperfections underneath a veritable mountain of things that he excels at.

5. Jack Flaherty, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 5.9

               

    Jack Flaherty broke through with a quality season in 2018, and then cemented himself as a bona fide ace last year with a 2.75 ERA and NL-best marks with a 0.97 WHIP and a 6.2 hits-per-nine rate.

    Any belief that he can get even better in 2020, however, derives from what he did in the latter half of 2019.

    In 16 starts from July 7 through the end of the season, Flaherty put together a 0.93 ERA and struck out 106 more batters (130) than he walked (24) in 106.1 innings. By FanGraphs WAR, only Justin Verlander pitched better during that stretch.

    Appropriately, Flaherty resembled a Verlander clone during his season-ending hot streak. Though it was nothing new for him to work off his fastball and slider, the subtle ways in which he disguised and located the two pitches made them that much more effective.

    Flaherty ultimately excelled not just at limiting walks and missing bats, but also in smothering loud contact by landing in the 91st percentiles for both exit velocity and hard-hit percentage. A pitcher who can do these things leaves nothing else to ask for.

4. Yoan Moncada, 3B, Chicago White Sox

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 4.6

           

    Because Chris Sale helped them win the World Series in 2018, the Boston Red Sox probably wouldn't take back the trade that sent Yoan Moncada to the Chicago White Sox in 2016.

    Even still, Moncada is poised to make the White Sox the obvious winners of the deal in the long run. He's coming off a star-making 2019 season that was highlighted by a .315/.367/.548 slash line, 25 home runs and 10 stolen bases, not to mention eye-popping Statcast metrics:

    • Exit velocity: 97th percentile
    • Hard-hit rate: 92nd percentile
    • Sprint Speed: 72nd percentile
    • xwOBA: 81st percentile
    • OAA: 87th percentile

    The rough translation here is that Moncada was a genuine do-it-all player and that, if anything, his end results might actually undersell how good he was last season.

    If so, Moncada's next step for 2020 may involve becoming an MVP candidate.

3. Juan Soto, LF, Washington Nationals

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    OD Age: 21

    2019 WAR: 4.7

          

    Juan Soto turned 21 years old on October 25, 2019. Or, just in time to legally imbibe the champagne that was flowing after the Washington Nationals won their first World Series.

    Soto aided the effort with a .927 OPS and five home runs throughout the playoffs. For those who weren't familiar with his work, it was a coming-out party. For those who were, it was a variation on a theme.

    After all, Soto went into last year's playoffs with 266 major league games and a .287/.403/.535 career slash line already on his record. His 140 OPS+ ranked fourth all-time among hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances through their age-20 season. His 143 wRC+, meanwhile, was second only to Mel Ott.

    Last year, Soto backed up his offensive work with a nearly even distribution of walks (108) and strikeouts (132), plus a .407 xwOBA that ranked seventh among all hitters who took at least 500 plate appearances. He also stole 12 bases in 13 tries, and outs above average qualified him as a well-above-average left fielder.

    So, let there be no doubts that Soto's rise as one of the game's brightest stars is very real.

2. Ronald Acuna Jr., CF, Atlanta Braves

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    OD Age: 22

    2019 WAR: 5.5

              

    Ronald Acuna Jr. hasn't quite put it all together.

    This is most apparent with regard to his offensive output, as he was curiously a good-not-great hitter in 2019 despite hitting 41 homers and stealing 37 bases. To wit, his swing-and-miss habit and strangely unspectacular power conspired to keep his OPS south of .900 at just .883.

    Acuna could also use some polishing on the other side of the ball. He's slated for a full-time gig in center field, where he gets low ratings in UZR and OAA. For the latter, his relatively slow reactions (56th percentile in jump quickness) are a factor.

    But for all the nit-picking that can be done with Acuna, the fact remains that he had already been a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and an MVP contender in two seasons before he turned 22 on December 18. 

    There's also the reality that not a single one of his underlying talents is lacking. For instance, he has a non-aggressive plate approach, and he placed among both the hardest hitters (89th percentile) and fastest runners (96th percentile) in 2019.

    All this makes it hard to put limits on just how good Acuna can be.

1. Cody Bellinger, OF/1B Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    OD Age: 24

    2019 WAR: 9.0

             

    If ever there was an obvious choice for the No. 1 spot in a rankings list, it's Cody Bellinger for this one.

    He first broke through in 2017 by (temporarily) setting a new NL rookie record with 39 home runs. Following a slight step back in 2018, he bounced back as the best player in the National League in 2019.

    In 156 games, Bellinger slashed .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs and 15 stolen bases. He fine-tuned his approach to a point where he drew nearly as many walks (95) as strikeouts (108), and his .429 xwOBA was bested only by Mike Trout among players who took at least 500 plate appearances.

    Bellinger also had an MLB-best 19 defensive runs saved in right field alone, and he likewise acquitted himself well in center field and at first base. Altogether, he was probably the single best defensive player in the league last year.

    Put simply, there isn't a better young player right now than this guy.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference (including WAR), FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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