It is still a game after all.
The Futures Game is one of the most fun days on the Minor League calendar because it places some of baseball's best prospects -- regardless of age or Minor League level -- on the same field at the same time. An 18-year-old shortstop (Luis Garcia) from Class A Advanced can be on the same roster as a 23-year-old catcher from Triple-A with 11 games of Major League experience already (Francisco Mejia), on a team being managed by a 10-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion (David Ortiz).
This is an exhibition game between the U.S. and World teams set for Sunday at Nationals Park. But there will be a winner, and if there's going to be a winner, there's going to be a favorite and an underdog. The U.S. holds a 12-7 advantage in the all-time series, dating back to the first Futures Game at Fenway Park in 1999, and has won seven of the last eight, including a 7-6 victory last year at Marlins Park. Should this batch of Americans be favored to make it eight of nine? Or does the World squad have the roster it'll take to win its second Futures Game since 2010? Let's break down both rosters position group by position group.
This was a pretty clear advantage for the World Team, even before No. 66 overall prospect Sean Murphy was taken off the U.S. roster with a pinkie finger injury.
The World has each of MLB.com's top two catching prospects in Mejia and Keibert Ruiz. Mejia is participating in his third Futures Game and is heading to Washington with a hot bat. After struggling with Triple-A Columbus in April and May, MLB.com's No. 15 overall prospect is hitting .397 with a 1.040 OPS in 32 games since June 1. Ruiz is holding his own as a 19-year-old at Double-A and might actually welcome no longer being the youngest player on the field. The Venezuela native has also drawn raves for his improvement behind the plate, and he'll put that to the test handling a rotating group of World pitchers. Both Mejia and Ruiz are switch-hitters, which will help Ortiz construct his lineup. Add in the overall ability of 19-year-old Cubs prospect Miguel Amaya -- who is showing more pop than ever with 11 homers for Class A South Bend and is also throwing out 33 percent of attempted basestealers -- and this is as well-rounded a group of backstops as could be found in the Minors. Even if Mejia, who has played 27 games in the outfield this season, moves to the grass, the World will still be covered behind the plate. (That's unlikely, however, with Mejia being listed on the roster at catcher.)
Don't get it wrong; there's a lot to like in Danny Jansen and Murphy's replacement in Andrew Knizner. The two certainly have the advantage in experience; both the Blue Jays and Cardinals prospect have played at Triple-A this season and would be knocking on the door of the Majors if not for crowded rosters. Jansen, who has a .411 OBP for Triple-A Buffalo, is in the conversation with Mejia for being the best overall offensive catching prospect in the game, and Knizner continues to show a strong hit tool while growing into a defensive asset after transitioning from third base in college at NC State. But when it comes to ceiling, the World backstops have a slightly deeper set of skills to impact the proceedings in the capital. Advantage: World
There are some fun storylines on the World side in this department. Padres prospects Fernando Tatis Jr. -- at No. 3 overall on MLB.com's list, the highest-ranked prospect involved this year -- and Luis Urias could team up together at shortstop and second base, giving San Diego fans a much-needed optimistic look at the Major League future on the dirt. Garcia will become the first Futures Game participant born in the new millennium and will do so in front of his hometown fans in Washington. Mets shortstop Andres Gimenez, already a solid defender, has improved his profile by showing increased power as a teenager at the Class A Advanced level. Astros first baseman Yordan Alvarez will provide plenty of pop of his own, if he can keep the ball in the air like he has on his way to Triple-A.
But there's just no beating the U.S. depth here. For those following the World Cup in Russia, this is an infield depth chart that could rival France's on the soccer pitch. The U.S. infield alone claims seven different Top 100 prospects -- Peter Alonso, Bo Bichette, Ke'Bryan Hayes, Keston Hiura, Carter Kieboom, Ryan Mountcastle and Brendan Rodgers. Three of those (Bichette, Kieboom, Rodgers) primarily play at shortstop, though Bichette and Rodgers have some experience at second and third. Every single one of those players has proven to be a solid hitter at the Double-A or higher, and while it would make for a right-handed heavy group, those seven alone would make for a killer lineup with plus hit tools all around and some serious thump from the likes of Alonso and Rodgers. The only non-top-100 U.S. infielder is Nathaniel Lowe, who happens to own a 1.008 OPS this season. Even when U.S. manager Torii Hunter makes the inevitable in-game moves to, say, swap Kieboom with Bichette or Hayes with Mountcastle, there won't be a significant drop off in skill level, just a different skill set. Advantage: U.S.
Similar deal here. Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glover winner as an outfielder himself, will have an embarrassment of riches on the grass Sunday. Top Angels prospect Jo Adell has shown signs of becoming a potential five-tool star as he's climbed to Class A Advanced, where he's hitting .306 with a .936 OPS, in his first full season. Alex Kirilloff and Taylor Trammell, both of whom were high picks in 2016, will bring power and speed, respectively, to the U.S. lineup. Fellow 2016 first-rounder Kyle Lewis has had issues staying healthy in the Mariners system, but on his day, he can show off the power and a good arm that made him stand out during his time at Mercer. Furthermore, Buddy Reed has become a bit of a power-speed threat with 12 homers and 33 steals for Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore to make him San Diego's third representative in Washington.
The World side has more outfielders -- seven to the U.S.'s five -- but that doesn't quite mean more talent here. Yusniel Diaz, Leody Taveras, Jesus Sanchez and Heliot Ramos make up the Top 100 bunch here, and in a vacuum, that would be quite the impressive group. Take any three of those four, and the outfield would be plenty covered defensively. But on the offensive side, Taveras and Ramos have yet to figure out Class A Advanced and Class A respectively, and though they are each young for their levels, expecting them to figure out even tougher Futures Game arms in an exhibition is quite the ask. Randy Arozarena is the veteran of the group at age 23, Seuly Matias brings power as the Minor League leader in home runs and Luis Alexander Basabe has showed five-tool potential in a loaded White Sox system. But there are simply more questions marks here, and the U.S. has too many exclamation points. Advantage: U.S.
This might depend on how much you like Jesus Luzardo. MLB.com's No. 20 overall prospect is no doubt having a successful season in which he's climbed to Double-A at age 20 and has posted a 2.30 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings across two levels. He may have some sort of revenge on the brain as well, as he'll play in Nationals Park for the first time ever since Washington dealt him to Oakland last year. (The Nats won't feel too bad. Sean Doolittle, who they got in return, is also an All-Star in 2018.) But, alas, Luzardo, who was born in Peru to Venezuelan parents, is the only Top 100 arm of the bunch on the World side. Jorge Guzman, Yoan Lopez and Kieran Lovegrove could each pack plenty of heat in shorter Futures Game stints, but overall, this is not a particularly deep group.
By comparison, the U.S. side could get to the middle or even late innings before conceivably handing the ball off to a non-top-100 arm. Dylan Cease, Hunter Greene, Mitch Keller, Matt Manning, Justus Sheffield and Kyle Wright each feature among MLB.com's Top 100, and any one of those seven could conceivably go multiple innings Sunday, as 2017 Futures Game MVP Brent Honeywell did a year ago. Of those six, only Greene and Manning -- first-rounders in 2017 and 2016, respectively -- have yet to see at least Double-A, so this shouldn't be a specifically intimidated group either. Outside those bigger names, Dakota Hudson has a 2.42 ERA at Triple-A, and C.D. Pelham should give Hunter a scary left-handed relief option, given his size at 6-foot-6 and his ability to throw in the upper-90s. With 10 hurlers on the roster and each looking for playing time, Hunter could play with some fun matchups all afternoon, counteracting right-handed bats with hard throwers like Greene, Cease and Keller while counterbalancing lefties with Sheffield and Pelham when he sees fit. The World was already fighting an uphill battle with their bats, but the international prospects won't have to face their American infield and outfield counterparts one on one. They will have to face these U.S. arms, however, and that could prove to be an even more difficult task. Advantage: U.S.