ZiPS 2021 Top 100 Prospects

For the sixth year, ZiPS returns to crank out its top 100 prospects for the upcoming season. If you’re unaware of what the ZiPS projections are or the purpose they serve, please consult this article as well as this one while I reconsider my public relations strategy.

I like to think that I’ve developed a pretty useful tool over the years, but don’t get me wrong: a projection system is not even remotely a substitute for proper scouting. While ZiPS and other systems like it can see patterns in the data that are hard for humans to extract, humans have their own special tricks. Projecting prospects is hard, as you’re mostly dealing with very young players, some of whom aren’t even done physically developing. They play baseball against inconsistent competition and have much shorter resumés than established major leaguers.

That last bit is an especially tricky puzzle for 2021. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, we didn’t have a minor league season. Some prospects were left to train at home, while others saw time at their team’s alternate site or in Fall Instructional League. But those environments can’t replace live opponents who are trying to crush your hopes and dreams, and they didn’t generate much in the way of useful statistics.

You will also notice, as usual, that there are a few players who appeared on Eric Longenhagen’s Top 100 who are missing here, simply because they have only played in high school and no professional games. It’s not that ZiPS dislikes them or doubts their future, it’s just that the system doesn’t have anything useful to say. ZiPS has the capability to use college stats when it has little choice — which is why you’ll see Spencer Torkelson and Austin Martin appear — but there’s just nothing for ZiPS to work with when we’re talking about someone like Jasson Dominguez.

But when ZiPS does have something to say, it does a decent job of identifying future major leaguers. If we look back to the prospects from the inaugural ZiPS Top 100, they’ve gone on to combine for 638 WAR in the majors. And while ZiPS will miss more often on the toolsy guys, there were also some higher floor guys who ZiPS liked better than the other prognosticators, including Mookie Betts, George Springer, Marcus Semien, Kolten Wong, and Joc Pederson. This is less of a problem in the big leagues because by the time a player has reached the top of the organizational ladder, they will generally have already needed to convert at least some of their raw tools into baseball skills. Statcast and the like give us clever ways to capture things like speed or a pitcher’s stuff more effectively than ever before, but these measures can’t tell us everything, and they’re generally less available for minor leaguers. ZiPS doesn’t know who has a hitch in their swing and an inconsistent arm slot. As it turns out, however, actual performance has a lot of predictive value, and ZiPS is very happy to see a two-to-three win contributor like Wong where a prospect-watcher may be relatively unimpressed with his upside potential. One good example in the other direction is Dellin Betances. When he was an extremely erratic starting pitcher with severe control issues, ZiPS didn’t see any real upside. After all, guys who walk seven batters a game in the minors rarely pan out in the majors. What ZiPS couldn’t see was one of Betances’ teammates teaching him a new slider grip, which resulted in a pitch on the slider/cutter border that terrorized batters for five seasons.

Now to consider this year’s exercise. There’s not as much movement here as there has been in past years simply because there was no minor league season to send stocks soaring or crashing. Players with more upside but who needed time to develop it generally lost the most in the projections as a result of losing a year of their careers, as did the older prospects. One other difference of note is that I spent much of 2020 honing the minor league translations for lower-level prospects, with the biggest change being the implementation of some probability-based fielding data into the BABIP models. Re-projecting the 2014 prospects using this refined model would have improved the WAR total for the new ZiPS 2014 top 100 to 663 WAR. I do expect ZiPS to cede some ground to the scouts as time goes on; the higher floor, lower ceiling prospects that ZiPS likes tend to reach the majors more quickly.

With less dramatic changes and no minor league season to talk about, most of the commentary below will concern players who got major league time in 2020, as they played actual games. Without further ado, the 2021 ZiPS Top 100!

ZiPS Top 100 Prospects
ZiPS Rank Name Team Pos Eric’s Rank
1 Wander Franco TBR SS 1
2 Ha-seong Kim SDP SS 64
3 Ke’Bryan Hayes PIT 3B 7
4 Dylan Carlson STL LF 16
5 Ian Anderson ATL SP 13
6 Nolan Jones CLE LF 52
7 Sixto Sánchez MIA SP 28
8 Adley Rutschman BAL C 3
9 Nate Pearson TOR SP 10
10 Marco Luciano SFG SS 11
11 Keibert Ruiz LAD C 80
12 Randy Arozarena TBR LF 4
13 Jarred Kelenic SEA RF 5
14 Riley Greene DET RF 38
15 Luis Campusano SDP C 27
16 Deivi García NYY SP 60
17 Matt Manning DET SP 18
18 MacKenzie Gore SDP SP 2
19 Cristian Pache ATL CF 8
20 Jeter Downs BOS 2B 53
21 Brendan McKay TBR SP 123
22 Trevor Rogers MIA SP 104
23 Nick Madrigal CHW 2B 39
24 Austin Martin TOR CF 44
25 Spencer Torkelson DET 1B 9
26 Alejandro Kirk TOR C 74
27 Miguel Amaya CHC C Unranked
28 Julio Rodríguez SEA RF 20
29 Braden Shewmake ATL SS Unranked
30 Alex Kirilloff MIN RF 17
31 Nolan Gorman STL 3B 40
32 Simeon Woods Richardson TOR SP 72
33 Jordan Balazovic MIN SP 81
34 Nick Gonzales PIT 2B 86
35 Taylor Walls TBR SS 108
36 Miguel Vargas LAD 1B Unranked
37 Cody Morris CLE RP Unranked
38 Luis Patiño TBR SP 12
39 Gabriel Arias CLE SS Unranked
40 Jazz Chisholm MIA SS 48
41 Josh Lowe TBR CF 56
42 Drew Waters ATL CF 47
43 CJ Abrams SDP 2B 6
44 Logan Gilbert SEA SP 37
45 Michael Kopech CHW SP 34
46 Spencer Howard PHI SP 33
47 Josh Fleming TBR SP Unranked
48 Asa Lacy KCR SP 25
49 Alec Bettinger MIL P Unranked
50 Jeff Bain ARI P Unranked
51 Josiah Gray LAD SP 29
52 Vidal Bruján TBR 2B 24
53 Tarik Skubal DET SP 22
54 Austin Hays BAL CF Unranked
55 Ryan Mountcastle BAL LF 94
56 Owen Miller CLE SS Unranked
57 Max Meyer MIA SP 26
58 Casey Mize DET SP 32
59 Ben Rortvedt MIN C Unranked
60 George Valera CLE RF 63
61 Sherten Apostel TEX 3B Unranked
62 Leody Taveras TEX CF 121
63 Ryan Jeffers MIN C 59
64 Xavier Edwards TBR 2B 84
65 Grayson Rodriguez BAL SP 30
66 Tyler Freeman CLE 2B 88
67 Triston Casas BOS 1B 54
68 Emerson Hancock SEA SP 57
69 Braxton Garrett MIA P Unranked
70 Brett Conine HOU P Unranked
71 Connor Seabold BOS SP Unranked
72 Daulton Jefferies OAK P Unranked
73 Shane McClanahan TBR RP 119
74 Jhoan Duran MIN SP 82
75 Tucker Davidson ATL P Unranked
76 Kevin Padlo TBR 3B Unranked
77 Garrett Whitlock BOS RP Unranked
78 Edward Cabrera MIA SP 50
79 Aaron Ashby MIL RP 127
80 Jordan Groshans TOR 3B 77
81 Garrett Crochet CHW RP 73
82 Andy Pages LAD CF 117
83 Chris Vallimont MIN SP Unranked
84 Ezequiel Duran NYY 2B 132
85 Jacob Amaya LAD SS 118
86 Brennen Davis CHC CF 41
87 Mitch White LAD RP Unranked
88 Bryan Mata BOS RP Unranked
89 Joey Bart SFG C 55
90 Andrew Vaughn CHW 1B 14
91 Emmanuel Clase CLE RP Unranked
92 Gilberto Celestino MIN CF Unranked
93 Jean Carlos Mejia CLE SP Unranked
94 A.J. Puk OAK SP 99
95 Royce Lewis MIN SS 23
96 Cory Abbott CHC SP Unranked
97 Daniel Lynch KCR SP 62
98 Matthew Liberatore STL SP 111
99 Orelvis Martinez TOR SS 89
100 Forrest Whitley HOU SP 106

Wander Franco remains at the very top of the list. He’s as complete a talent as you can find at his age and the missed year probably has a bigger cost to his wallet than to his development. There’s literally as much difference between Franco and runner-up Ha-seong Kim’s projections as there is between Kim and number 30 prospect Alex Kirilloff. ZiPS projects 46 career WAR for Franco and sees him as an .875 OPS hitter at his peak, an absolutely bananas projections for a player who has yet to play above the High-A Florida State League. If ZiPS gave number grades, he’d be an 80, probably joining Mike Trout. Trout was “only” projected at 4 WAR as a rookie, but that was still an optimistic projection until we saw what he actually did!

You get the biggest difference between my list and Eric’s early with the aforementioned Kim. Kim projects as a three-win hitter right now, and the best player coming over from Korea ever projected, so given the lack of speculation required to make him a significant talent in the majors, he was always going to have a very high ranking.

ZiPS has been high on Ke’Bryan Hayes for a very long time and over his minor league career, it had him as the best defensive third baseman since Matt Chapman. Sometimes glove guys in the minors don’t actually work out that way — he can ask his teammate Gregory Polanco — but Hayes gave very little reason to doubt the hype in his limited time in the majors in 2020. He’s quite obviously not going to continue to hit .376/.442/.682, but that performance was enough to shift his projection in a positive direction. In terms of rest-of-career WAR, ZiPS has Hayes as fourth in baseball among third basemen, behind only Alex Bregman, Chapman, and José Ramírez, and just edging out Alec Bohm and Rafael Devers.

Ian Anderson and Sixto Sánchez excelling late in the season was enough to boost their ranks significantly. Deivi García also got a jump, and while his stats weren’t obviously a plus, ZiPS isn’t worried about the extra homers he allowed. ZiPS also thinks that Nate Pearson’s walks were a little higher than you’d expect from his plate discipline stats, and getting some actual velocity and contact data in there also gave him a bump.

The two biggest beneficiaries of the revised low minors translations are Julio Rodríguez and Braden Shewmake, though for different reasons. The boost to Shewmake’s BABIP and the inclusion of wider college data make the projections more confident that he has a very respectable floor. Rodríguez has more downside, but also more upside scenarios that involve him becoming a 30-homer hitter in a corner, with a chance at his plate discipline improving. On-average, ZiPS sees Rodríguez like Jermaine Dye, which isn’t bad for a mean expectation.

Seasons lost due to injuries hit the rankings of both Brendan McKay and Brent Honeywell Jr. significantly. But the Rays got good news elsewhere: Josh Fleming looks like he’s going to stick as a mid-rotation starter with no star potential and Luis Patiño’s minor league translations took a significant jump up. And, of course, there’s Randy Arozarena, who still qualifies for the Rookie of the Year award in 2021, as weird as that feels after his postseason performance. Some may be disappointed by Arozarena only ranking 12th, but he’s not likely to have a ton of defensive value and there’s probably not another breakout waiting. In all, the Rays have 11 players in the ZiPS Top 100.

As an Orioles fan, it pained me to see Adley Rutschman slip to eighth. What it comes down to is that he’s not an 18-year-old phenom and catcher prospects have very high failure potential, so ZiPS sees him having missed a year of development as a significant problem.

One projection certain to disappoint is that of Andrew Vaughn, a player who the White Sox are making noise about promoting aggressively this year. I can’t say for certain if that desire is earnest and not partially a public cover for not going after someone like Nelson Cruz for the team’s DH spot, but ZiPS is not sold at all on Vaughn. ZiPS is aware of his power while at Cal. Indeed, if all it knew was Vaughn’s sub-.450 slugging debut while not being young for A-ball, he would not have come anywhere near this list. On the flip side, college was enough for Spencer Torkelson and Austing Martin to do well. If Torkelson had received an official ZiPS for 2021, his top comp would be Jim Thome. That’s obviously not the average result. The projections see Martin as a high-average, high-OBP hitter in his prime, with a peak in the 115-125 wRC+ range, certainly enough that he doesn’t necessarily have to excel at an up-the-middle defensive position.

Overall, there was a lot of agreement between ZiPS and The Board. In all, 74 players appeared on both top 100 lists, which is about average for ZiPS/scout consensus; there tended to be a similar amount of overlap between ZiPS and Keith Law’s rankings when both of our lists were housed at ESPN.

If there’s anyone else you want more ZiPS insight on, let me know in the comments! And if you enjoyed this work, please consider becoming a FanGraphs member. Your support is what gives us the time to work on projects like this!

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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3 years ago

Does ZiPS incorporate postseason performance? I.e., does it “know” what Randy Arozarena did last October?