Top MLB Prospects Who Will Win Opening Day Roster Spots

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2020

Top MLB Prospects Who Will Win Opening Day Roster Spots

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Last season, top prospects Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack all broke camp with spots on their respective Opening Day rosters.

    Which elite up-and-comers will start the 2020 season at the MLB level?

    Ahead we have selected 10 prospects who are in the best positions to make immediate impacts this year, thanks to clear paths to playing time and MLB-ready skills.

    The goal was to choose the 10 rookies who will make the biggest impact from the get-go during the upcoming season.

    Let's get to it.

Others to Watch

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    Brusdar Graterol
    Brusdar GraterolGregory Bull/Associated Press

    Pitchers

    • LHP Logan Allen, Cleveland Indians
    • RHP Emmanuel Clase, Cleveland Indians
    • RHP Randy Dobnak, Minnesota Twins
    • RHP Kevin Ginkel, Arizona Diamondbacks
    • RHP Tony Gonsolin, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • RHP Brusdar Graterol, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • RHP Dustin May, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • LHP Brendan McKay, Tampa Bay Rays
    • LHP A.J. Puk, Oakland Athletics
    • LHP Patrick Sandoval, Los Angeles Angels
    • RHP Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants

                      

    Position Players

    • 3B Alec Bohm, Philadelphia Phillies
    • LF Dylan Carlson, St. Louis Cardinals
    • SS Willi Castro, Detroit Tigers
    • RF Jake Fraley, Seattle Mariners
    • 3B Ke'Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
    • LF Sam Hilliard, Colorado Rockies
    • 2B Nico Hoerner, Chicago Cubs
    • LF Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners
    • C Reese McGuire, Toronto Blue Jays

CF Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    The Baltimore Orioles gave Austin Hays an extended look in center field last September, and he made the most of the opportunity, hitting .309/.373/.574 with 10 extra-base hits in 75 plate appearances.

    The 24-year-old made his MLB debut on Sept. 7, 2017, a little over a year after he was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft, but injuries limited him to just 75 games in 2018 and 87 games in 2019 before he finally returned to the big leagues.

    If he can stay upright this spring, there's little doubt he's the best option for the everyday center field gig.

    Cedric Mullins floundered to a .094/.181/.156 line in 22 games in the majors last season and posted mediocre numbers upon returning to the upper levels of the minors.

    Ryan McKenna is the only other center fielder on the 40-man roster, and he hit an uninspired .232/.321/.365 in 135 games at Double-A last year, failing to build off a terrific 2018 campaign.

    Despite his delayed arrival the past two seasons, Hays still has a chance to be a long-term building block for an O's team focused squarely on the future.

RHP James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    James Karinchak will not be popping up on any leaguewide top-100 prospect lists this spring. That's just how it goes for guys destined to be slotted in the bullpen.

    However, he has a chance to make just as big of an impact as anyone on this list.

    The 24-year-old has some of the most electric stuff in all of professional baseball, with a lively 80-grade fastball that sits in the upper 90s and a lethal hammer curveball that induces plenty of swings and misses.

    He faced 125 batters during his time in the minors last season, and 74 of them were sent down on strikes for an absurd 59.2 percent strikeout rate.

    He tallied eight more strikeouts in 5.1 innings after making his MLB debut on Sept. 14, and now he looks like a safe bet to break camp with a spot in the Cleveland bullpen.

    After incumbent closer Brad Hand struggled to a 5.40 ERA with four blown saves in 15 chances after the All-Star break last season, it's not out of the question to think that Karinchak could be pitching in the ninth inning before 2020 comes to a close.

3B Carter Kieboom, Washington Nationals

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Carter Kieboom has lined up at shortstop in 267 of his 318 games in the minors, but with Trea Turner entrenched there at the MLB level, it looks like his path to a spot on the Opening Day roster runs through the hot corner.

    "He's going to get a shot," manager Dave Martinez told MLB Network Radio of Kieboom and the vacant third-base job. "He's going to play third base at spring training, and I'm looking forward to watching him play over there every day. He's got a bright future—I've said that before. He's matured a lot."

    The 22-year-old hit .303/.409/.493 with 24 doubles and 16 home runs in 109 games at Triple-A last year, so his bat should play regardless of where he lines up defensively.

    Despite hitting just .128/.209/.282 with 16 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances in a brief taste of the majors last year, Kieboom has nothing left to prove in the minors, so a strong spring should be enough to win him the third-base job.

    Otherwise, free-agent signing Starlin Castro and fellow veteran Asdrubal Cabrera look like the leading alternatives if the Nationals brass decides Kieboom needs a bit more seasoning in the minors.

2B Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    John McCoy/Getty Images

    After a breakout season in 2018, Gavin Lux emerged as one of baseball's elite prospects last year.

    The 22-year-old hit .347/.421/.607 with 59 extra-base hits in 523 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A, forcing his way onto the MLB roster down the stretch.

    He hit .240/.305/.400 with seven extra-base hits in 82 plate appearances and tallied 1 DRS in 178 innings at second base after playing primarily shortstop in the minors.

    The Dodgers used a combination of Enrique Hernandez (85 games), Max Muncy (70 games), Chris Taylor (20 games), Kristopher Negron (three games), Austin Barnes (one game), Jedd Gyorko (one game) and Justin Turner (1 game) before turning things over to Lux in September.

    With Cody Bellinger making the full-time move to center field and Muncy likely to see the bulk of his action at first base, there's a clear path to the everyday second-base role, and it will be Lux's job to lose this spring.

    There's a good chance he will open the season as the favorite for NL Rookie of the Year honors.

LHP Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    Jesus Luzardo was well on his way to snagging a spot on the Opening Day roster last spring with a 0.93 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 9.2 innings, before a shoulder strain forced him to the sidelines.

    He didn't make his first appearance of 2019 until June 11, and after posting a 2.51 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 43 innings over three minor league levels, he finally made his MLB debut on Sept. 11 for an Oakland squad in the heat of a pennant race.

    The 22-year-old tallied a pair of saves with a 1.50 ERA and 16 strikeouts in 12 innings to earn a spot on the postseason roster and then tossed three scoreless innings in the AL Wild Card Game.

    MLB.com wrote:

    "Luzardo's combination of outstanding stuff and plus control, not to mention his calm demeanor and competitiveness on the mound, help make him one of the best pitching prospects in the game. Some see a little Johan Santana in him and he's ready to start fulfilling his potential as a frontline starter right now."

    Luzardo will battle with fellow prospect A.J. Puk, among others, for a spot in the Oakland rotation behind the locked-in trio of Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea and Mike Fiers.

    Don't be surprised if he's the ace of the Oakland staff before the 2020 season is over.

C Sean Murphy, Oakland Athletics

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    It appears the Oakland Athletics are all-in on Sean Murphy behind the plate.

    The only other catchers on the 40-man roster are Austin Allen and Jonah Heim, who have a combined 34 games of MLB experience, while veteran Carlos Perez is also in camp as a non-roster invitee.

    Murphy has long been viewed as a standout defender with a 70-grade arm and stellar receiving skills, and his offensive game has come a long way since the A's selected him in the third round of the 2016 draft.

    MLB.com wrote:

    "While Murphy has always been known for his glove work, he has the chance to be an impact player on both sides of the ball. He continues to make a ton of contact with his short right-handed swing, keeping his strikeouts low. That's all the more impressive because of his considerable power, which could eventually be above-average at his peak."

    The 25-year-old has battled injuries in recent seasons, which delayed his arrival in the majors, but he finally made his MLB debut Sept. 4.

    He hit .245/.333/.566 for a 137 OPS+ in 60 plate appearances and was the team's primary catcher over the final month, showing solid pop with five doubles and four home runs.

    The front office's decision not to bring in an established veteran to compete for the job made it clear it views Murphy as the present and future at the position.

CF Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    The Chicago White Sox signed Eloy Jimenez to a six-year, $43 million deal last March, opening the door for him to break camp with a spot on the Opening Day roster rather than heading back to the minors for service time considerations.

    The six-year, $50 million extension Luis Robert received in January will serve a similar purpose.

    The 22-year-old was an absolute force in the minors last season, hitting .328/.376/.624 with 31 doubles, 11 triples, 32 home runs and 36 steals over three levels en route to closing out the year at Triple-A.

    Now all signs point to him breaking camp as the everyday center fielder.

    The White Sox received a middling .264/.307/.392 line from the center field position last year, with defensive-minded Adam Engel (86 games) and utility man Leury Garcia (80 games) serving as the primary starters.

    Robert should have no problem exceeding that level of production in his debut, and there's a good chance he will begin the year as the AL Rookie of the Year favorite.

CF Nick Solak, Texas Rangers

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    Nick Solak
    Nick SolakRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Throughout his time in the minors, Nick Solak has proved time and again that he can flat-out hit.

    The 25-year-old hit .294/.383/.468 over four minor league seasons, and after he was traded from Tampa Bay to Texas last summer, he batted .293/.393/.491 for a 123 OPS+ with 12 extra-base hits in 135 plate appearances in his MLB debut.

    Now it sounds like he will get a shot to win the everyday center field job this spring, despite spending the bulk of his time to date as an infielder, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News:

    "If he shows well, he could get a lot of playing time there. We look at Danny [Santana] right now as the everyday center fielder, but if Nick hits like we anticipate and continues to have the progression of quality at-bats, I'll want to get him in the game more," manager Chris Woodward said. "In the infield, it just doesn't fit as well. Danny is so good at moving around. A guy like that is priceless. And he likes it. I think 55 percent of him wants to play one position, but there is a big part of him that likes playing somewhere new and fresh every day."

    With an advanced hit tool and sneaky pop, Solak will go as far as his bat takes him, and if he can play a passable center field, it would give Woodward a ton of options when it comes to filling out the lineup card.

RHP Jose Urquidy, Houston Astros

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Jose Urquidy began the 2019 season far enough off the top prospect radar that he was not even included among the top 30 prospects in the Houston Astros organization, according to Baseball America.

    Now he's poised to break camp with a rotation spot after a brilliant run last September.

    The 24-year-old posted a 4.46 ERA and 1.13 WHIP with 134 strikeouts in 103 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, and when veteran Wade Miley ran out of gas down the stretch, Urquidy stepped into the rotation.

    After making his MLB debut in July, he returned to the active roster in September and logged a 1.50 ERA and .161 opponents' batting average with 16 strikeouts in 18 innings.

    That earned him a spot on the postseason roster, and he pitched to a pristine 0.90 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 10 innings during the playoffs, including five shutout innings as the Game 4 starter in the World Series.

    While Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and a healthy Lance McCullers Jr. are locked into the first three spots in the rotation, the other two starting gigs are up for grabs. Urquidy is among the front-runners to round out the staff.

1B Evan White, Seattle Mariners

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Similar to the Luis Robert extension with the White Sox, the Seattle Mariners have opened the door for first baseman Evan White to break camp with the team after signing him to a six-year, $24 million deal.

    The No. 17 overall pick in the 2017 draft after a stellar junior season at the University of Kentucky, White has done nothing but hit since starting his pro career.

    The 23-year-old hit .293/.350/.488 with 13 doubles and 18 home runs in 92 games at Double-A last year, and he could now make the jump straight to the majors.

    Daniel Vogelbach saw his production crater after the All-Star break, and he's better served in an everyday designated hitter role anyway, while Austin Nola fits best in a utility role.

    That leaves White as the best candidate to win the everyday first-base job, and he should receive every chance to do just that this spring.

                              

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.  

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