Ranking the 10 Best Young Cores in MLB Today

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2022

Ranking the 10 Best Young Cores in MLB Today

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    Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants proved in 2021 that teams built around veterans can still succeed in today's Major League Baseball, yet young talent certainly remains the modern game's most valuable currency.

    So, it's time for a fresh look at which teams have the best young cores.

    The average age of hitters and pitchers last season was roughly 28 years old, so we deemed it fair to set the age cutoff for this exercise at 26. Anyone that age or younger as of Opening Day—currently slated for March 31, but stay tuned—was eligible for consideration.

    Yet in lieu of looking at all the players who fall under this umbrella, we wanted to trim the fat by narrowing the focus to each team's most likely contributors in 2022. This led us to constructing each team's core (see the full list here) out of 26-and-under players whom Steamer projects for at least 1 WAR this year.

    Though the totality of that WAR provided us with a helpful guideline, we also didn't treat it as gospel. It was but one tool in our toolchest as we weighed the quantity, quality and health of teams' core players.

    Before we count down the top 10, let's touch on some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    Juan Soto
    Juan SotoG Fiume/Getty Images

    Kansas City Royals

    Core Players: RHP Brad Keller (26), RHP Brady Singer (25), LHP Kris Bubic (24), RHP Carlos Hernandez (24) and SS/3B Adalberto Mondesi (26)

    Looming Prospects: SS/3B Bobby Witt Jr. (21)

    Projected WAR: 10.9

    The biggest chunk (3.0, to be exact) of projected WAR here belongs to Witt, who exited 2021 as our No. 1 prospect after going off for a .936 OPS, 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases in the high minors. He projects to be the best part of a Royals core that, while solid, currently doesn't have a true star.


    San Diego Padres

    Core Players: SS Fernando Tatis Jr. (23), CF Trent Grisham (25) and INF Ha-Seong Kim (26)

    Projected WAR: 11.6

    There's actually enough projected WAR here to put the Padres in the top 10, but three players doesn't really strike us as a "core." It's nonetheless worth pointing out that Steamer might be underrating two prospects who could make an impact in 2022: catcher Luis Campusano and left-hander MacKenzie Gore.


    Washington Nationals

    Core Players: RF Juan Soto (23), CF Victor Robles (24), C Keibert Ruiz (23), 3B Carter Kieboom (24), LF Lane Thomas (26) and RHP Josiah Gray (24)

    Projected WAR: 14.0

    Wow, that's a lot of WAR...but half of it belongs to Soto, so what the Nationals have isn't so much a core as a smattering of satellites in orbit around a moon-sized space station of a ballplayer.

10. Detroit Tigers

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    Spencer Torkelson
    Spencer TorkelsonGene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Core Players: RHP Casey Mize (24), LHP Tarik Skubal (25), RHP Matt Manning (24) and OF Akil Baddoo (23)

    Looming Prospects: 1B Spencer Torkelson (22) and OF Riley Greene (21)

    Projected WAR: 10.4

    As our No. 4 and No. 6 prospects, respectively, Torkelson and Greene departed 2021 amid plenty of hype. There's little reason to think it won't carry over when they join the Tigers in 2022.

    Torkelson, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft, looked the part of a next-level hitting talent as he posted a .935 OPS with 30 homers across three minor league levels last season. Greene, who went fifth in the 2019 draft, showed off his own offensive bona fides with a .921 OPS, 24 homers and 16 steals in the high minors.

    Though Torkelson and Greene won't have much in the way of young company when they join Detroit's lineup, Baddoo isn't a nobody in his own right. His rookie season in 2021 featured only one bad month and he did his best hitting in high-leverage spots to the tune of a .314 average and .955 OPS.

    On the mound, the ups and downs that Mize, Skubal and Manning have had in the majors shouldn't distract from their potential. Especially not Mize, who pitched to a 114 ERA+ while snapping off a veritable ton of terrifying splitters last season.

9. Milwaukee Brewers

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    Freddy Peralta
    Freddy PeraltaAaron Gash/Associated Press

    Core Players: SS Willy Adames (26), 3B Luis Urias (24), RHP Freddy Peralta (25) and LHP Eric Lauer (26)

    Looming Prospects: LHP Aaron Ashby (23)

    Projected WAR: 11.1

    After previously rating as top-tier prospects, Adames and Urias spent the early portions of their careers playing below expectations. Particularly Urias, who hit .226 with virtually no power between 2018 and 2020.

    Not so in 2021. After coming over from the Tampa Bay Rays in a trade designed to make way for Wander Franco, Adames played with a chip on his shoulder and went off for a 135 OPS+ and 20 homers in 99 games with Milwaukee. Urias, meanwhile, finally came into his power in June and hit 18 homers over his final 101 games.

    Peralta and Lauer shine even underneath aces Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff. Peralta fully harnessed his electric stuff to whiff 195 batters in 144.1 innings last year. Lauer was sluggish out of the gate, but mechanical and repertoire adjustments were key in him posting a 2.23 ERA in his last 15 outings.

    In the bullpen, Ashby is a potential breakout star with a profile that vaguely resembles Josh Hader. If the Brewers end up trading Hader between now and Opening Day, Ashby will have an opening to step into his shoes in the closer's role.

8. St. Louis Cardinals

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    Tyler O'Neill
    Tyler O'NeillJeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Core Players: LF Tyler O'Neill (26), RF Dylan Carlson (23), 2B Tommy Edman (26), SS Edmundo Sosa (25) and RHP Jack Flaherty (26)

    Projected WAR: 11.8

    It's not easy to stand out when you're sharing a lineup with name-brand superstars like Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, but O'Neill managed to do so as the Cardinals' best overall player in 2021.

    In addition to winning his second straight Gold Glove, the supremely muscular Canadian finally broke out as a premier slugger by averaging 93 mph on his batted balls and launching 34 home runs. Strikeouts remain a significant problem, and yet also a forgivable one so long as he keeps his power and defense in fine form.

    It was later in 2021 that Carlson hit his stride, hitting .318 with a 1.033 OPS after the calendar turned to August. Edman and Sosa won't scare anyone offensively, but both are key components of St. Louis' stupendous infield defense.

    After oblique and shoulder injuries limited him to just 17 outings last season, Flaherty's main goal for 2022 is to stay healthy. If he can, a return to the form that led him to a fourth-place finish in the National League Cy Young Award voting in 2019 should be possible.

7. Cleveland Guardians

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    Shane Bieber
    Shane BieberCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Core Players: RHP Shane Bieber (26), RHP Aaron Civale (26), RHP Triston McKenzie (24), RHP Emmanuel Clase (23), SS Amed Rosario (26), SS Andres Gimenez (23), DH Franmil Reyes (26) and LF Steven Kwan (24)

    Projected WAR: 15.9

    If nothing else, you gotta hand it to the Guardians for the sheer quantity of their young core. And the quality isn't bad either.

    Assuming a full recovery from the shoulder strain that wrecked his 2021 season, Bieber will be Cleveland's star attraction in 2022. Powered by arguably baseball's best breaking ball, the 2020 American League Cy Young Award winner boasts a 157 ERA+ and a 5.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last three years.

    Civale doesn't strike guys out like Bieber does, but that hasn't stopped him from achieving above-average production in two of the last three seasons. McKenzie, on the other hand, can indeed miss bats and just needs to sharpen his control before his big break can happen.

    For their parts, Clase has the fastest cutter known to man, and Reyes is one of the best pure home run hitters in baseball today. The upside of the other four players listed here is questionable, yet Rosario, at least, should have an eye on him after he hit .299 upon taking up residence permanently at shortstop last season.

6. Atlanta

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    Ronald Acuna Jr.
    Ronald Acuna Jr.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Core Players: 2B Ozzie Albies (25), 3B Austin Riley (24), RHP Ian Anderson (23) and RHP Huascar Ynoa (23)

    Injured List: RF Ronald Acuna Jr. (24) and RHP Mike Soroka (24)

    Projected WAR: 17.8

    Atlanta's core may be light on quantity, but it'll be extraordinarily heavy on quality if things go right in 2022.

    This is, of course, assumes that Acuna and Soroka can be their usual difference-making selves this season. The former is coming off season-ending surgery for a torn ACL, while the latter tore his Achilles in 2020 and then re-tore it in 2021. Even if Soroka fully recovers this time, he might not be seen until July.

    When healthy, though, Acuna is an All-Star and MVP-caliber talent and generally one of baseball's most exciting players. Best exemplified by a 2019 season in which he had a 171 ERA+ in spite of a modest rate of 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings, Soroka has credentials as one of baseball's craftiest pitchers.

    Such a label also applies to Anderson, who's pitched to a 3.25 ERA in 30 regular-season starts and a 1.26 ERA in eight postseason outings. And in Albies and Riley, all Atlanta has are two infielders with 30-homer power and Gold Glove potential on defense. You know, nothing major.

5. Houston Astros

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    Yordan Alvarez (L) and Kyle Tucker (R)
    Yordan Alvarez (L) and Kyle Tucker (R)David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Core Players: RF Kyle Tucker (25), DH Yordan Alvarez (24), RHP Luis Garcia (25) and RHP Jose Urquidy (26)

    Injured List: OF Jake Meyers (25)

    Looming Prospects: SS Jeremy Pena (24)

    Projected WAR: 14.6

    At the absolute center of the Astros core are one of baseball's best overall players and one of its best hitters.

    The former is Tucker, though his own hitting credentials are nothing to sneeze at after he hit .320/.387/.600 over the last five months of the 2021 season. The latter is Alvarez, who showed no ill effects last year from the dual knee surgeries he had in 2020. In fact, he's in rarefied air with a 151 OPS+ through three seasons.

    Though neither is necessarily No. 1 material, Garcia and Urquidy boast ERAs in the mid-3.00s through 167.2 and 177.2 innings in the majors, respectively. The Astros therefore have two 20-something mid-rotation starters, which is two more than most teams have.

    The wild card in Houston right now is Pena, who'll face the tall order of replacing Carlos Correa at shortstop if the Astros don't re-sign or replace him. But if he can carry over the excellent .944 OPS he had at Triple-A Sugar Land in 2021 and also live up to his strong defensive reputation, he might just be up to it.

4. Tampa Bay Rays

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    Wander Franco
    Wander FrancoCharles Krupa/Associated Press

    Core Players: SS Wander Franco (20), OF/DH Austin Meadows (26), INF Taylor Walls (25), C Francisco Mejia (26), LHP Shane McClanahan (24) and RHP Drew Rasmussen (26)

    Looming Prospects: RHP Shane Baz (22)

    Projected WAR: 16.6

    And now for the part where we gaze in wonder at Wander.

    Franco didn't immediately live up to the hype of being baseball's No. 1 prospect last year, but then he went on a 43-game on-base streak and was the Rays' best hitter in the postseason, tallying four extra-base hits in four games. If he stays on this trajectory, he'll have a shot at becoming the youngest MVP in baseball history.

    Randy Arozarena will turn 27 on February 28, making him ineligible for this discussion. Because of Meadows, however, Franco will have at least one other young star to keep him company in Tampa Bay's lineup. He's sandwiched two power displays around a down year in 2020, hitting 33 homers in 2019 and 27 in 2021.

    McClanahan put his live left arm to work and posted a 2.75 ERA in August and September last year. Rasmussen and Baz, who's our No. 11 prospect, give the Rays two other young arms to dream on. Though not pictured here, 22-year-old righty Luis Patino is still another youngster who could supercharge the Rays rotation.

3. Miami Marlins

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    Sandy Alcantara
    Sandy AlcantaraWilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Core Players: RHP Sandy Alcantara (26), RHP Pablo Lopez (25), LHP Trevor Rogers (24), RHP Elieser Hernandez (26), 2B Jazz Chisholm Jr. (23), LF Jesus Sanchez (24) and CF Bryan De La Cruz (25)

    Looming Prospects: RHP Sixto Sanchez (23)

    Projected WAR: 15.3

    No team got as much WAR from 25-and-under starters in 2021 as the Marlins, and it's telling that it wasn't especially close.

    That was mostly Alcantara's doing as he pitched to a 131 ERA+ with 201 strikeouts over 205.2 innings, mostly owing to increased trust in his delightful changeup. Yet it was Rogers who was Miami's best (and nastiest) pitcher for the first half of 2021, earning an All-Star nod on the strength of a 2.31 ERA in 18 starts.

    With a 132 ERA+ to his name since 2020, Lopez is a darn good pitcher in his own right. After wowing with his triple-digit velocity in 2020, Sanchez is an undeniably intriguing wild card coming off July shoulder surgery.

    Though Steamer is skeptical, the same is also true of 24-year-old lefty Jesus Luzardo if he can avoid injuries and properly weaponize his stuff. And lest anyone think it's all about the arms in Miami, there's star potential in Sanchez's power—he hit 14 homers in only 64 games last season—and Chisholm's tantalizing power-speed combination.

2. Chicago White Sox

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    Luis Robert
    Luis RobertAssociated Press

    Core Players: CF Luis Robert (24), LF Eloy Jimenez (25), 3B Yoan Moncada (26), LF/1B/DH Andrew Vaughn (23), DH Gavin Sheets (25), RHP Dylan Cease (26) and RHP Michael Kopech (25)

    Projected WAR: 19.2

    The bad news is that the White Sox might have the worst farm system in baseball. The good news, though, is that said system is empty precisely because the team has mined so much from it.

    Even despite a down season in 2020, Moncada has been one of the most productive infielders in the American League over the last three seasons. Robert and Jimenez missed much of 2021 with injuries, but both have talent to spare. Jimenez, in the slugging department. Robert, in, well, every department.

    To wit, a healthy Robert can run as fast and hit as hard as anyone. He also teased an advancement with his approach in 2021, wherein his strikeout rate was 11.6 percentage points lower than it had been in 2020.

    Elsewhere on offense, Sheets and Vaughn form a dangerous platoon at designated hitter. On the mound, Cease turned a corner by squeezing 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings out of his live stuff in 2021. As he has even livelier stuff in his arsenal, you can expect an even more impressive breakout from Kopech this year.

1. Toronto Blue Jays

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    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
    Vladimir Guerrero Jr.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Core Players: 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (22), SS Bo Bichette (23), 2B Cavan Biggio (26), C Danny Jansen (26), C Alejandro Kirk (23), RHP Alek Manoah (24) and RHP Nate Pearson (25)

    Projected WAR: 20.2

    Of the six 25-and-under players who were good for at least 5 rWAR in 2021, two of them played for the Blue Jays: Guerrero and Bichette.

    It's telling that even amid a 2021 season in which he tallied an AL-high 191 hits, 29 homers and 25 steals, Bichette was still mostly in Guerrero's shadow. After getting serious about his fitness during the 2020-21 offseason, he exploded and led the AL in OBP and slugging while also tying the MLB lead with 48 home runs.

    In Jansen and Kirk, Toronto also boasts two catchers who were better than average offensively last season. It was more of a lost year for Biggio, but he may yet rebound to the player he was in 2019 and 2020. That guy had a solid .368 OBP to go with 24 homers and 20 steals in 159 games.

    As a rookie in 2021, even frequent control issues couldn't keep Manoah from a 136 ERA+ and 127 strikeouts in 111.2 innings. And even if it can't necessarily judge him by his triple-digit heat, the very existence of said heat nonetheless justifies Steamer's bullishness on Pearson as a post-hype breakout candidate.