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MLB offseason notebook: Looking at prospect rankings, a Juan Soto slight and international signings

MLB: Adley Rutschman

We’ve made it to prospect ranking season, with most of the top sites and publications rolling out their 2024 top prospect lists.

I like to peruse all of them — the work that goes into these lists is tremendous — but I am partial to Baseball America’s, simply because it has been doing it the longest, has an excellent track record and a storied history.

So, it’s noteworthy that Baseball America made a little history this year. For the first time in 35 years of ranking top prospects, one MLB organization has claimed the No. 1 spot for three consecutive years with three different players.

That would be the Baltimore Orioles, who spent about two decades in the prospect wilderness before completely bottoming out at the major-league level in 2018. The Orioles lost a franchise-worst 115 games that season, allowing them to select first in the 2019 draft for the first time in 30 years.

They selected Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, who made his big-league debut in 2022 and his first All Star team in 2023. In that same draft, the Orioles drafted high school infielder Gunnar Henderson to begin the second round, and Henderson won AL Rookie of the Year in 2023. Rutschman was Baseball America’s No. 1 prospect to start 2022 and Henderson in 2023 – becoming the second pair of teammates to claim the consecutive honor, joining the St. Louis Cardinals’ J.D. Drew (1999) and Rick Ankiel (2000).

Now, the Orioles have made it three in a row with infielder Jackson Holliday, who was the first pick in the 2022 MLB draft, being named Baseball America’s top 2024 prospect Wednesday.

Holliday, who turned 20 in December and is the son of former All-Star Matt Holliday, has cruised through the minors and reached Triple-A Norfolk at age 19. He is expected to fight for a big-league Opening Day roster spot in spring training.

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The Orioles, obviously, were in a good spot to make noise on these lists after performing so poorly in previous years; Holliday and Rutschman are two of only three No. 1 picks in the franchise’s history (pitcher Ben McDonald was first overall in 1989).

But the franchise has selected in the Top 5 on 10 occasions in the last 17 drafts, and they’ve had only one other player grace the top of Baseball America’s top prospect list in the past (catcher Matt Wieters in 2009).  

Much of the drafting credit goes to general manager Mike Elias, who has put an emphasis on amateur scouting and development since taking over at the end of 2018.

The Orioles, who won 101 games and the AL East crown in 2023, have five other players on this year’s Top 100: catcher Samuel Basallo (10), infielder Coby Mayo (25), outfielder Colton Cowser (34), outfielder Heston Kjerstad (41) and lefty DL Hall (93).  

And things could get better for the Orioles’ farm system in the near future. The organization opened its state-of-the-art, 22.5-acre Dominican Academy on Tuesday in San Antonio de Guerra, Dominican Republic. The new facility can house up to 100 players and will be the center of the franchise’s international operations. It’s a long-time coming for an organization that basically ignored the international market for decades and hasn’t originally signed and produced a homegrown Dominican player of note since pitcher Daniel Cabrera, who debuted in 2004.

The Orioles attempted to build a farm system with one hand tied behind their backs for years. And now they have a top-rated system and a fortified international pipeline.

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Juan Soto behind Kyle Tucker? No shot

MLB: San Diego Padres at Chicago White Sox
Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Since the theme of this piece seems to be rankings, let’s turn to another: MLB Network’s “Top 10 Right Now” for right fielders.

Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr., is ranked No. 1 by the network. And he should be. The 2023 NL MVP is arguably the best player in baseball, and he’s only 26.

After that, though, I think the list makes an incorrect detour, choosing Houston’s Kyle Tucker second overall. Tucker, who turned 27 Wednesday, is an excellent player. He’s a two-time All Star, won a Gold Glove in 2022 and finished a homer shy of a 30-30 season in 2023. He was fifth in the AL MVP race. I’d take him on my team any day.

But he is not at the same talent level as Juan Soto, who was dealt from the San Diego Padres to the New York Yankees this offseason.

Soto turned 25 in October, so he is basically two “baseball” years younger than Tucker. In 2023, Soto started out slow and still finished sixth in the NL MVP race. He had more homers, a higher OPS and a higher OPS+ than Tucker and walked an incredible 132 times, 52 more than Tucker.

Soto is still getting docked for his poor offensive performance in the final two months of 2022, when he was dealt to the Padres. But he actually had better overall numbers for that full season than Tucker did in his “breakout” 2022. All things being equal contract-wise, I would suspect most teams would rather have Soto than Tucker “right now.”

Not to pile on Tucker here, but if I were doing the rankings, I would have dropped him to fourth, behind Arizona’s Corbin Carroll. The NL Rookie of the Year was a 25-homer/50-steal guy and is only 23. Again, this is not meant to be a slight to Tucker; it just shows how much talent there is in right field these days.

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Some mid-January signing musings

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves
Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s international amateur signing period began Monday and some of the usual suspects in the international market grabbed the most expensive prizes again.

According to MLB.com, seven amateurs already have received bonuses of $2.5 million or more and the teams that landed them are, for the most part, known to have built significant inroads in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela over the years: the Atlanta Braves, the San Diego Padres, the Chicago Cubs, the Seattle Mariners, the New York Mets, the Cincinnati Reds and the Washington Nationals.

The Braves, who no longer are subject to restrictions because of previous international-signing sanctions, set the pace this year with a $5 million bonus for 17-year-old shortstop Jose Pedermo. Not only is it the largest of the period, but it’s also the most expensive ever allocated to an amateur born in Venezuela. Several years ago, the Braves would have been able to build on that and dole out other six- or seven-figure bonuses. But no longer.

Each team now has a hard cap on its international spending, and the Braves are in the third of five tiers, meaning they had $5.925 million to spend in 2024. Since they used most of it on Pedermo, they couldn’t afford other, top-dollar amateurs.

The cap certainly makes the field more level. But there will always be a slight advantage for the clubs that are well-established in places like the Dominican, since many of these players have been scouted – and have often agreed to join certain franchises – as they enter their teens.

Spending money is one thing; having already built relationships is another.  

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