It would’ve been enough for the same old major league baseball players to be back. This MLB campaign came so close to being drastically curtailed or even lost entirely to an extended lockout that the sight of the sport’s established superstars—at least the ones without bad wrists or knees or shoulders—would have sufficed for most fans in the early stages of the 2022 regular season. Trout and Ohtani; Soto and Vladito; Scherzer and Verlander; Mookie and Turner; Harper and Judge; Franco and Ramírez; Wheeler and Woodruff; Buxton and Correa; Cole and Buehler; Bieber and Burnes. Those and other marquee major leaguers returned to action in or right after last week’s season openers, and their presence seemed extra sweet because Opening Day was delayed by only one week instead of months or more.
But Week 1 of the MLB season has had so much more in store. Correa’s replacement in Houston, Jeremy Peña, hit his first major league homer while his proud parents laughed and cried on camera. The Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr., the Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez, and the Phillies’ Bryson Stott roped doubles to left for their first or second MLB hits. Reds starter Hunter Greene, the 22-year-old righty with the fabled fastball, threw five pitches 101 miles per hour or faster in a single start, a feat only four starting pitchers—Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Nathan Eovaldi, and Verlander—had accomplished previously in the pitch-tracking era. The Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki pulled a ball into the bleachers at Wrigley, the Giants’ Heliot Ramos had a two-hit debut, and the Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson … well, he doesn’t have a hit yet, but he made a diving catch? Meanwhile, the Guardians’ Steven Kwan has owned the season so far by reaching base a record 15 times in his first four career games, highlighted by a 5-for-5 Sunday.
None of those players had been big leaguers before, but all of them were among the most highly touted talents in the minor leagues (or in Suzuki’s case, NPB, where he led all players in WAR last year). If it strikes you as unusual for so many top prospects to debut in big league games on or so soon after Opening Day, your instincts serve you well. Save for the immediate aftermath of the 1994-95 strike, no first week of a season since at least the 1980s—which predated the advent of annual top-prospect lists as we know them today—has featured such a prospect cornucopia. MLB’s new debuts dropped extraordinarily early and often this year, which not only made the start of the season more exciting but also offered an early indication that a new provision in MLB’s recently ratified collective-bargaining agreement may discourage the worst of the service-time manipulation that teams have long employed to gain an extra year of control over promising players.
Throughout this article, we’ll rely on prospect rankings by Baseball America, because they date back the furthest (beginning in 1990). Assuming the Mariners’ Matt Brash and the Reds’ Nick Lodolo make their scheduled starts on Tuesday or Wednesday, respectively, and that no other prospect reinforcements arrive in the next two days, the week after Opening Day will have featured 11 MLB debuts by players who appeared on Baseball America’s preseason top 100 list:
BA Top-100 Prospects Who’ve Debuted This Year
|Bobby Witt Jr.||Royals||SS/3B||3|
A dream realized.— MLB (@MLB) April 5, 2022
Can’t wait for Episode 1 of The J-Rod Show.
That total of 11 alone sets this season apart. The only year that featured more Week 1, ranked-prospect debuts in this 33-season sample was 1995, which was an outlier in more than one way. A strike ended the 1994 season in mid-August, and some of the prospects who probably would have made their major league debuts when rosters expanded that September instead had to wait until the following spring, when the slightly postponed ’95 season started in late April. That debut backlog led to an artificially inflated count. Before this year, the record for week-one debuts in a non-strike-affected season—defining the first day that featured more than one major league game as “Opening Day,” and setting the “week one” cutoff seven days after that—was 1998’s eight, so 2022’s 11 easily takes the cake.
This season stands out just as clearly if we compare week-one debuts based on a measure that combines top-prospect quantity and quality. If we subtract each prospect’s rank from 101, we get a number that corresponds to how promising Baseball America deemed him to be: The no. 1 prospect is worth 100 points, the no. 2 prospect is worth 99 points, and so on, down to the no. 100 prospect’s one point. If we add together the resulting transformed totals, this season’s 11 top-100 guys produce a cumulative score of 707—again, second only to 1995’s 794, and leaps and bounds above the previous high for a non-strike-affected season, 2009’s 485.
In one respect, this season’s crop of first-week debuts surpasses even 1995’s. No offense to the Bryson Stotts and Heliot Ramoses of the world, but what made this past week’s debuts so exciting not just for individual fan bases but for anyone who’s interested in the major leagues as a whole was the arrival of a trifecta of top-five blue-chippers in Rodríguez, Witt, and Torkelson, each of whom started in his team’s first game. In 15 of the past 32 seasons, not a single top-10 prospect—a tier in which players tend to produce more than double the career value of prospects ranked in the back half of the top 50—made his MLB debut in Week 1. That includes 1995, which featured 10 top-50 prospects but none from the top 10. (Todd Hollandsworth was the high man at no. 13.) The arrivals of Rodríguez, Witt, Torkelson, and Abrams in two days gave 2022 an unprecedented four top-10 debuts in week one.
The stunning thing is that these numbers all could have been better. For one thing, BA didn’t include Kwan in its top 100. The former fifth-rounder’s .328/.407/.527 performance in 77 combined Double-A and Triple-A games last year made him a bigger blip on evaluators’ radars, but among the major prospect rankers, only FanGraphs gave him top-100 love. Through Cleveland’s first four games, Kwan has seen 82 pitches and swung at 26 of them without whiffing once, though his omissions from lists may look like whiffs by the time the season is over. Beyond Kwan, Tigers outfielder Riley Greene, who posted a 1.548 OPS in 26 spring training plate appearances, appeared to be on track to join Torkelson on Detroit’s Opening Day roster before fracturing his foot in early April. Greene, BA’s no. 4 prospect, would have catapulted 2022’s cumulative prospect-rank score past 1995’s. There’s also some chance that no. 1 overall prospect Adley Rutschman could have made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster had he not strained his triceps in mid-March, though the O’s may well have sent him to Triple-A regardless.
This surge of early-season debuts seems even more notable in light of teams’ recent behavior. As Baseball America’s Matt Eddy observed last week, many teams have grown increasingly reluctant to promote top prospects as soon as they’re ready when holding them down could delay those players’ free agencies for an additional year. Controversies over service-time manipulation came to a head most notably with Kris Bryant in early 2015 and Ronald Acuña Jr. in early 2018, as well as later players such as Guerrero Jr. and Jarred Kelenic (neither of whom, to be fair, immediately met expectations when he finally got the call). Rolling, five-year averages of the number of top-prospect debuts in week one and the sum of ranks of top-100 prospects who debuted in week one show significantly lower figures over the past several seasons than were common in the 1990s and 2000s.
This year’s dramatic departure from that trend could be a product of a measure put in place in the new CBA to incentivize teams to embrace the novel concept of playing their best players. Under the updated terms, clubs can potentially pick up extra amateur draft picks (and international draft picks, if an international draft is instituted) as a reward for promoting players in time to receive a full year of service, which requires a call-up on Opening Day or shortly thereafter. Qualifying players—those who start the season with no more than 60 days of MLB service and with their rookie eligibility intact, and who appear on at least two of Baseball America’s, MLB.com’s, or ESPN’s preseason top-prospect lists—can earn their teams an amateur draft pick after the first round, and up to two international picks, if they win the Rookie of the Year Award or finish in the top three in MVP or Cy Young voting before they’re eligible for arbitration. In addition, any such player who finishes in the top two in their league’s Rookie of the Year voting gets credited with a full year of service time regardless of when he was promoted, which shifts the risk-reward calculus further toward a quick call-up.
The new CBA didn’t do much, if anything, to discourage teams from pocketing revenues rather than investing them in their major league payrolls, as evidenced by the ownership-driven, cost-cutting deconstructions of the coulda-been-contenders Reds and A’s. Nor did the new agreement adopt the most stringent potential tactics for preventing or punishing service-time manipulation. But it still may have made an impact—coupled, perhaps, with the “anyone can win” allure of the 12-team playoff format.
However, it’s too soon to consign service-time manipulation to the dustbin of baseball history. For one thing, at least one franchise is still keeping the tradition alive. The Pittsburgh Pirates, whose projected payroll tops only Oakland’s and who’ve repeatedly put profits before competitiveness, played the hoary “has to work on his defense” card when they optioned top prospect Oneil Cruz (BA’s no. 14 prospect) to Triple-A despite a 1.066 OPS in spring training. And it’s possible that the spike in promotions this season has been boosted a bit by the expansion of rosters to 28 players through May 1—a measure designed to lighten the loads on individual players after a shortened spring training—and by the reduction of September’s expanded rosters from 40 players to 28 after 2019. Some of this may be cyclical, too; certain years’ top-100 lists just happen to feature more prospects who are ready to ripen right away.
This week may mark the beginning of an enduring recovery in early-season top-prospect promotion patterns. Alternatively, it could be nothing more than a memorable blip. For now, it’s enough to know that it’s as special as it seems. MLB teams spout spring clichés about renewal and hope every Opening Day, but this year, they backed up their words by bringing us a brighter glimpse of the sport’s future than ever.
Thanks to J.J. Cooper of Baseball America, Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus, and Kenny Jackelen of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.