There may be no Minor League Baseball games yet, but that's not going to stop us from dreaming about lineups.In the coming weeks, Toolshed will craft the best possible prospect lineups, sorted by age. The opening edition focused on teenagers, the second looked at 20-year-olds and last week's featured 21-year-olds. This time, we
There may be no Minor League Baseball games yet, but that's not going to stop us from dreaming about lineups.
In the coming weeks, Toolshed will craft the best possible prospect lineups, sorted by age. The opening edition focused on teenagers, the second looked at 20-year-olds and last week's featured 21-year-olds. This time, we turn our attention to prospects who will be 22 this year. Eligibility is determined by a player's age on June 30, roughly the midpoint of a regular season -- the same date used by Baseball-Reference in its age calculations. Also, to keep this as clean as possible, a player will only be placed at his primary position, with an exception of a designated hitter spot. As fun as it would be to move around shortstops or put third basemen across the diamond at first to get their bats in the lineup, such moves wouldn't fit the spirit of the exercise.
With those ground rules set, here is the most prospect-laden roster of 22-year-olds headed into 2020:
Catcher -- Adley Rutschman, Orioles: Put this one down on the lineup card in ink and don't look back. Last year's first overall pick already looks like a generational talent behind the plate and could be the game's best catching prospect since Matt Wieters. Rutschman is a switch-hitter who earns plus grades for his hit and power tools, and his defense -- in terms of his framing, reaction times and throwing abilities -- are unrivaled for someone his age. The only things keeping the former Oregon State star down at No. 4 overall in MLB.com's rankings is a lack of a professional resume compared to Wander Franco and fellow 21-year-olds Gavin Lux and Luis Robert and maybe a below-average speed tool. If he holds onto this level of skill, Rutschman will be the star Baltimore builds around when its rebuild is complete. Even if he doesn't, his floor is that of a solid Major League catcher. While outcomes can be volatile for catching prospects given all that's on their plate, anyone will take those two, making Rutschman an easy selection as the game's top prospect at the position.
First baseman -- Andrew Vaughn, White Sox: Add the top first-base prospect in the game here as well. Coming out of Cal, Vaughn was taken only two picks after Rutschman last June, even though everyone knew he'd be a first baseman in the pros. Prospects who are stuck at the cold corner before their careers begin really have to hit, and the right-handed slugger certainly checks all of those boxes already. Vaughn, who turned 22 on April 3, batted .374/.495/.688 with 50 homers over three seasons on campus. He has already ascended rapidly through the White Sox system, ending his first pro season at Class A Advanced Winston-Salem. With easy power and good knowledge of the strike zone, the No. 16 overall prospect is as sure a thing to hit as could be found in the 2020 Draft, and he's a good bet to continue his quick rise toward the South Side as Nick Madrigal did a year before. For now, he fits comfortably in this spot at first and in the middle of our theoretical lineup.
Second baseman -- Vidal Brujan, Rays: Two boppers in the books. Now we could use some speed. How about a 70-grade burner? The No. 45 overall prospect has become a menace on the basepaths with 103 stolen bases in the past two seasons, including 24 in 55 games last year at Double-A Montgomery. A $15,000 signing out of the Dominican Republic, Brujan has surged up prospect boards for more than his speed, however. He makes tons of contact as a switch-hitter, having never struck out more than in 15 percent of his plate appearances for any Tampa Bay affiliate, and putting the ball in play allows him to take advantage of his speed and pick up hits. Power remains his weakest tool, especially from the left side, but there's enough elsewhere offensively to make up for that. He started to get some looks at shortstop last season for the first time since 2015, but most agree he's a second baseman long term. Either way, Brujan possesses the athleticism needed to stick up the middle, and in time, he should be a major problem for any Rays opponent.
Third baseman -- Nolan Jones, Indians: No one has to preach patience to Cleveland's top prospect. He already has it in abundance. Jones led the Minor Leagues last season with 96 walks over 126 games between Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Akron, amassing a .409 OBP and giving him three straight seasons with marks above .400 in that category. Jones has been knocked for having too much patience at times, so much so that he gets into too many deep counts that resulted in a 27.7 percent K rate last season. But when he does swing, he does so with purpose and plus-plus raw power from the left side. The No. 42 overall prospect used to face more questions about his ability to stick to third, but he has improved enough defensively (while continuing to show an at least plus arm) that he could call third home for longer than previously expected. At the very least, any lineup would welcome his OBP and pop potential, and that will be the case here.
Shortstop -- Gavin Lux, Dodgers: Lux is the first of four players in this lineup to reach the Majors, and he has the highest ceiling of the bunch. The No. 2 overall prospect soared in 2019, hitting .347/.431/.607 with 26 homers in 113 games between Double-A and Triple-A, and reached Los Angeles in time for September roster expansion. The results there were less sensational, but Lux showed enough to earn his way onto the Dodgers' starting postseason lineup. The Wisconsin native played second base exclusively in the Majors and was expected to take over the keystone again on Opening Day 2020, but that's only because of the presence of Corey Seager at short. In most other organizations, Lux -- with his solid range and good arm -- would slide easily into the Major League shortstop spot. The draw for the left-handed slugger remains his plus hit tool and plus power, and he gets added value since he's able to bring both as a gifted middle infielder. It's the total package and one that makes Lux the anchor of this entire lineup.
Luis Robert, White Sox: Chances are if you're reading this website you know about Robert's stellar 2019 season. The top White Sox prospect won a MiLBY as Top Offensive Player after batting .328/.376/.624 with 32 homers and 36 stolen bases across three levels, topping out at Triple-A Charlotte. He was one of two 30-30 players in the Minors along with Kyle Tucker, and his 170 wRC+ was tops among all Minor Leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances. Beyond the numbers, Robert possesses plus speed, a plus arm and above-average glove in the outfield. Taken all together, it's easy to see why the White Sox locked in Robert with a six-year, $50-million deal with two $20-million options -- the highest given to a player with no Major League experience. He is expected to be Chicago's Opening Day center fielder when the time comes in 2020. For now, he slots in here perfectly.
JJ Bleday, Marlins: This gives us three of the top four picks from last year's Draft in one lineup. (No. 2 Bobby Witt Jr. was featured with the 20-year-olds.) Bleday used a strong summer in the Cape Cod League in 2018 and an explosive junior campaign at Vanderbilt to propel him to the fourth overall selection last June. The left-handed slugger belted 27 homers in the spring, up from only five the season prior, and finished with a .347/.465/.701 line on his way to becoming a Golden Spikes Award finalist. (Rutschman was the one who captured college baseball's highest individual honor.) The Marlins thought Bleday was advanced enough to send him straight to Class A Advanced Jupiter, where he finished with a 107 wRC+ over 38 games despite coming off a long collegiate season. The power obviously stood out in 2019, but before that, Bleday had always been a solid overall hitter, making him more than one-trick pony offensively. He also possesses a plus arm and has been praised for his solid defense on the grass despite having below-average speed. Put him in right, where he played exclusively for Jupiter, and don't think twice.
Alex Kirilloff, Twins: In some ways, throw out Kirilloff's 2019 and focus on who the Twins' No. 2 prospect could be. Kirilloff dealt with wrist issues early in the season, and he finished with only 29 extra-base hits and a .756 OPS over 94 games at Double-A Pensacola one year after he led the Minors in extra-base hits. He looked much more like himself when he put together a .309/.358/.491 line with five homers and a 146 wRC+ in his final 27 games of the regular season. When healthy, Kirilloff has the potential to show a plus hit tool and above-average in-game power, and it's that bat Minnesota and others remain high on. MLB.com still ranked Kirilloff at No. 32 overall heading into 2020 despite the downturn. He'll need that bat because he's average at best in other areas, except for the arm that grades out as plus. The Twins continue to give Kirilloff looks at first base and right field, but with Bleday and Robert covering the other two spots, he will move over to left, where he made eight starts last season.
Designated hitter -- Carter Kieboom, Nationals: Kieboom is technically a shortstop prospect, but he spent a good chunk of last season at second base and was in the midst of trying to win Washington's third-base job this spring when things shut down. None of that matters here. What we're in for with the No. 21 overall prospect is the bat. The 2016 first-rounder's rough first Major League look in a small sample (5-for-39 with 16 strikeouts) caused many to overlook what was an otherwise impressive season for the 21-year-old. Kieboom was a Pacific Coast League end-of-season All-Star after finishing with a .303/.409/.493 line and 16 homers for Triple-A Fresno, which has one of the circuit's most pitcher-friendly parks (insofar as such a term can be used in that league). He's a career .287 hitter, despite being young for basically every level at which he's played, and the hit and power tools can be above-average at the top level. The Nats will have to find a spot on their infield for Kieboom. This lineup doesn't have that problem, and it will help to have Kieboom's level of experience fitting in alongside a slew of just-drafted talents.
Right-handed pitcher -- Dustin May, Dodgers: The toughest call of the bunch, and it's a sign of just how good May can be that he holds off a tough group of righties. (More below.) May already shows three above-average to plus-plus pitches in his mid-90s fastball, cutter and curveball. The fastball, in particular, draws raves for sinking action that has led to impressive ground-ball rates throughout his early career. May makes the whole package play up with good control and backed that up by fanning 110 and walking only 29 in 106 2/3 innings between Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City last season. The Major League club primarily used him out of the bullpen but only because it was the only open spot for his killer stuff. Like Lux, May impressed enough to make the postseason roster and appeared twice for the NL West champs in the NLDS. His stuff is starter-quality, and with three straight seasons of 130-plus innings, he's durable enough for that role too. There are too many positives on May's scouting sheet to overlook the No. 23 overall prospect in this spot.
Left-handed pitcher -- Jesus Luzardo, Athletics: A little less debate here. At No. 12 overall, Luzardo ranks as the second-best left-handed pitching prospect in the game behind only MacKenzie Gore. The young left-hander also features a mid-90s fastball, plus changeup and above-average slider and does plenty to hit his spots with regularity. He got to show off the whole package for Oakland late last season, when he posted a 1.50 ERA with 16 K's and three walks over 12 innings -- all out of the bullpen. The A's had plans to slide him right into the Major League rotation going into 2020. The only drawback of Luzardo's profile is health. He already has Tommy John surgery on his medical report, and he dealt with shoulder issues that limited him to only 43 innings in the Minors in 2019. Placing him here is a bet on the pure stuff and the mentality that has allowed him to surge through the pro ranks so quickly.
Preferred batting order
CF Robert (R)
SS Lux (L)
C Rutschman (S)
1B Vaughn (R)
3B Jones (L)
LF Kirilloff (L)
DH Kieboom (R)
RF Bleday (L)
2B Brujan (S)
The first four spots basically pick themselves here, and putting Brujan ninth is also fairly easy to give the lineup basically another speedy leadoff type once it turns over. It's spots five through eight that get tricky. The call here puts Jones fifth in order to get his OBP higher in the lineup. Kirilloff has a little more pop than Kieboom and considerably more pro experience than Bleday, so he slides into the sixth spot. Kieboom's experience helps him over Bleday as well, but the biggest call was getting his right-handed bat in the middle of the other three to keep spots five through seven from getting too lefty-heavy. In reality, a manager could put Jones, Kirilloff, Kieboom and Bleday in any order and do just fine. Every batter here projects to feature in the top or middle of a future Major League lineup.
As mentioned, the right-handed pitching spot was the toughest call to make here. No. 19 overall prospect Forrest Whitley actually ranks higher than May at No. 23, and No. 24 Matt Manning and No. 37 Ian Anderson have legitimate claims as well. May's Major League experience gives him the edge here while Whitley's Triple-A struggles did him no favors. But it wouldn't much surprise if any of the four end up with the best Major League careers in the long run.
Anyone could make a couple more fine outfields out of those who missed the cut on the grass in Taylor Trammell, Hunter Bishop, Brandon Marsh, Jesús Sánchez and Josh Lowe, and if not for Rutschman, the catching spot could have provided for some lively debate over Braves backstop Shea Langeliers and Rangers slugger Sam Huff. There was some consideration given to move Huff (the 2019 Futures Game MVP) or his fellow Texas prospect Josh Jung into the DH spot over Kieboom, but the Nats prospect's well-rounded skill set and upper-level experience won out for now.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.