In case you haven’t heard, Major League Baseball is currently in the midst of a lockout with the Players Association. With a new agreement on the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) soon to come, we are left wondering what the game of baseball will look like when it returns to action.
At the same time, this spikes an intriguing amount of curiosity; what changes could be part of the next CBA? Between banning the shift, a universal designated hitter, and expanded playoffs, there are a lot of changes that could have a monumental impact on the foundation of baseball as we know it. Right now, though, everything is up in the air!
With that in mind, all we can do right now is hypothesize about the effect of a certain rule change coming into effect. One constant issue that has been at the front of CBA talks is service time manipulation. For those unaware of service time manipulation, it is the act of keeping a player in the minors just long enough for it not to count as a full year of service. Players can have their contracts renewed for three years and then have three years of arbitration, so they can be under team control for six years.
However, due to service time manipulation, talented players are often controlled for a seventh year. With there being a clear bias against players past their prime (around 29- to 30-years-old), this extra year of team control can cost them a lot of money when it is time to become a free agent. Hence why it is at the focus of CBA talks for the MLB Players Association.
All things considered, it is very likely that we see some change to how players accumulate service time for their respective organization. If teams are no longer incentivized to keep their players in the minors for the first 20+ days of the season to accrue an extra year of service time, we could see some of the game’s best prospects starting in the majors immediately. If so, this will cause their respective average draft positions to rise significantly; the biggest concern regarding their profile will be eliminated.
In my opinion, there are six prospects that stand out as the ones with the most to benefit with the elimination of service time manipulation. If you are currently participating in fantasy baseball drafts and are confident in this rule change, then you will certainly want to have these players on your radar. Who are they? Let’s dive into it!
Stats via Fangraphs; ADP data via NFC.
1B Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers
Ever since he was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, the expectation was that Spencer Torkelson would rapidly ascend to the MLB level and establish himself as a premier slugger. Remember, this is a player who posted a 1.182 OPS as a freshman at Arizona State. That is absurd!
Torkelson started the minor-league season last year at High-A, but he was able to make it to Triple-A by the end of the season. In 530 plate appearances between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, he posted a .267/.383/.552 slash line, which came with a .285 isolated power (ISO) and 14.5% walk rate. To do that as a 21-year-old is mightily impressive.
In my opinion, few hitters have a more optimized approach when it comes to hitting for power than Torkelson. He posted a fly ball rate over 48% last year, and although he didn’t pull the ball substantially, he demonstrated the type of all-fields power that is special. In other words, he has enough raw power to not have to gear for extra power, but he’s doing it anyway. Although the 21.5% strikeout rate is a bit high, that came with just a 9.8% swinging-strike rate. His passive approach will lead to more strikeouts, but his contact skills shouldn’t be questioned.
Right now, the Tigers’ starting first baseman would likely be Jonathan Schoop, but he can easily move to second base, since they don’t have any viable options at second base currently. As evident by them signing Eduardo Rodríguez and Javier Báez to large contracts, they clearly are trying to contend for the playoffs immediately. If so, Torkelson in the middle of their lineup helps them immensely. Currently being drafted as the 28th first baseman, we could see him be a fringe top-ten first baseman if guaranteed a full season. Steamer projects him for 29 home runs and a .259 batting average; he won’t hurt you from the batting average department, but will provide you with a lot of power. First base is filled with talented contributors, but expect Torkelson to stand out if given the chance to shine.
SS Bobby Witt Jr., Kansas City Royals
At this point, Bobby Witt Jr. needs no introduction. Considered to be arguably the top prospect in dynasty leagues, Witt Jr. has done nothing but dominate since being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
The Royals had a lot of success with their minor-league hitting prospects progressing nicely, and Witt Jr. was at the front of it all. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he posted a 143 wRC+ as a 21-year-old, which is extremely impressive. Furthermore, he hit 33 home runs with a .286 ISO, stole 29 bases, and also posted a fly ball rate well over 40%.
Power, speed, and a premium position (shortstop) — Witt Jr. has all the makings of a five-category contributor. By moving Adalberto Mondesí to third base, the Royals have an open spot at shortstop for Witt Jr. Steamer projects the young shortstop to hit 24 home runs, steal 18 bases, and post a .267 batting average. He’s already being drafted in the top 100, but he’ll be more than worth it if those projections hold up.
I am slightly concerned by his 14.4% swinging-strike rate, but even if his batting average isn’t as high as you’d like, the power and speed Witt Jr. brings help increase both his floor and upside. Based on their position player prospects, the Royals appear to be a team on the rise, and Witt Jr. should be expected to be at the front and center of it.
3B Josh Jung, Texas Rangers
When you spend over $500 million on Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, you do so because you’re hoping to compete right away. If so, you cannot afford to keep your best players in Triple-A. Assuming teams are no longer incentivized to keep their top minor leaguers down until they accrue an extra year of service time, will the Rangers let top prospect Josh Jung start the year at the major league level? That’s the hope!
Between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Jung posted a 152 wRC+, in addition to a 166 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances at Triple-A. Meanwhile, he demonstrated his power with a .266 ISO (.304 at Triple-A), and is seen as having a very strong hit tool. Remember, this is someone who posted a .348/.455/.577 slash line in college, with more walks (128) than strikeouts (120).
Steamer agrees with the optimism for Jung. The projection system has him with a .270/.328/.466 slash line, 16 home runs in 394 plate appearances, and a 116 wRC+. Hitting in the middle of the Rangers’ order, he would be able to have chances for RBI with Semien and Seager ahead of him, while he appears to have a strong offensive skillset. Texas is currently slotted to start Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who only posted an 85 wRC+ in 2021. For Texas to score enough runs, Jung would certainly be the better option — his projection is far more enticing.
Over the past month, Jung is being drafted as the 25th third baseman off the board. At a shallow position, he’d be a fringe starting option in 12-team formats, and a definite start in 15-team formats. He doesn’t come with the highest ceiling, but I’m extremely confident in his floor offensively. Come next year, he should be a clear top-ten option at the third base position.
OF Riley Greene, Detroit Tigers
Spencer Torkelson isn’t the only premier Tigers prospect who is likely to debut this year; Riley Greene is right behind him. Drafted just three picks after Bobby Witt Jr., Greene has been extremely impressive in his own right. If we had our way, he’d be making his debut in Detroit alongside Torkelson on opening day.
Despite being just 20 years old, Greene made it up to Triple-A, and flourished along the way. Between Double-A and Triple-A, he posted a 148 wRC+, hit 24 home runs, and stole 16 bases. The 27.4% strikeout rate is a bit of a concern, but with a less passive approach, that should improve. Remember, he was just 20!
With that line of thinking, you may believe that Greene needs more seasoning in Triple-A, and you would probably be right. However, the Tigers may give him the chance to make the Opening Day roster. According to Evan Petzold of the Detroit Free Press:
“Greene and Torkelson will enter spring training in February with opportunities to make the 2022 Opening Day roster. Although Torkelson might require an extra month or so in Toledo, he could slug his way onto the major-league team. For now, Greene seems on track to begin the season as the Tigers’ starting center fielder.”
Steamer isn’t as optimistic about Greene as some other top prospects, pegging him for a 109 wRC+. That said, you’ll gladly take an above-average hitter, especially when it comes with a fine average, power, and speed. Greene is the 83rd outfielder being taken in drafts at the moment, but he’d likely halve that number if there is more buzz about him being the everyday center fielder. The Tigers already appear tempted to slot him in there, and dis-incentivizing service time manipulation could be the final straw Greene needs to get his chance. If so, expect his stock to boom in a major way.
RHP Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds
Sticking with the Greenes, Hunter Greene also stands out as a prospect who could make his way on the Opening Day roster with some noticeable changes in the next CBA. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Greene was the consensus top prospect in the 2017 draft as a high-school athlete able to throw over 100 mph, but that was over four years ago!
That’s right: Injuries have certainly impacted Greene, who has already undergone Tommy John surgery, but he was able to pitch 106.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. Considering he is still only 21 years old, his development certainly remains on schedule.
That’s even truer when you take into account Greene’s production in the minors last year. In those 106.1 innings, he posted a 31.7% strikeout rate and a 22.8% K-BB ratio. With a triple-digits fastball and a three-pitch mix with his slider and changeup, there are no doubts that he should be able to miss bats at a high level in the majors.
Will the Reds put Greene on the Opening Day roster? Currently, the back-end of their rotation consists of Vladimir Gutiérrez and Reiver Sanmartín, who Greene appears to be a clear upgrade over, while the team is rumored to be looking to trade Sonny Gray. As they look to cut costs, they may not seek to bring in a veteran, opening the opportunity for Greene and fellow pitching prospect Nick Lodolo. However, Greene gets the edge over Lodolo due to his immense strikeout upside, which is what we are chasing in fantasy baseball drafts. Should we get more assurance that Greene could make the Opening Day roster, he certainly will be drafted much higher than as the 154th pitcher on the board. If you’re confident in him getting the opportunity, make sure to prioritize him now.
RHP Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles
When you think about Orioles prospects, you probably first think about former No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman. The young catcher is considered arguably the top prospect in the sport, and could be making his debut next year. However, in terms of fantasy, don’t discount his battery mate as the more valuable option out of the gate.
There are a lot of deserving nominees when considering who the top pitching prospect is. In my eyes, though, it is Grayson Rodriguez. That’s the case when you post an absurd 40.5% strikeout rate, 33.7% K-BB ratio, and 2.67 FIP in 103 innings between High-A and Double-A.
Few pitchers appear to have as deep of an arsenal as Rodriguez, who complements a mid-90s heater with three strong off-speed pitches: two breaking balls and a strong changeup. When you’re looking for a sustainable approach and going deep in games, having a deep pitch mix is important, and that’s what Rodriguez has.
Rodriguez dominated Double-A, and he could be looking at an instant promotion to the MLB level. There is nothing left for him to prove in the minors, and the Orioles likely won’t want to spend extra money on a veteran starting pitcher if they don’t have to. As they transition to a new era, expect Rodriguez to be in the rotation, potentially at the start of the year. He would be the poster boy for service time manipulation, but assuming that is no longer possible, there aren’t any true reasons to keep him in the minors any longer. It is time for him to shine; considering he is a fringe top-200 (197) pitcher right now, there is plenty of surplus value to be had if you draft him now, compared to waiting for news that he could make the Opening Day rotation.
Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)