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MLB 26-and-under power rankings, Nos. 20-16: How high are the ceilings for Bobby Witt Jr., Oneil Cruz and Evan Carter?

The Rays, Rangers, Pirates, Nationals and Royals make up next tier on this year's young talent ranks

Yahoo Sports’ 26-and-under power rankings are a remix on the traditional farm system rankings that assess the strength of MLB organizations’ talent base among rookie-eligible and MiLB players. While focusing on strictly prospects can be a useful proxy for projecting how bright an organization’s future is, it fails to account for young players already contributing at the big-league level.

By evaluating the strength of all players in an organization entering their age-26 seasons or younger, this exercise aims to paint a more complete picture of each team’s young core. These rankings value productive young big leaguers more heavily than prospects who have yet to prove it at the highest level. Years of club control are also part of the evaluation, so as to not overrate the value of players who might leave in free agency in the next couple of years.

To compile these rankings, each MLB organization was given a score in four categories:

  • Young MLB hitters: scored 0-10; 26-and-under position players and rookie-eligible hitters projected to be on Opening Day rosters

  • Young MLB pitchers: scored 0-10; 26-and-under pitchers and rookie-eligible pitchers projected to be on Opening Day rosters

  • Prospect hitters: scored 0-5; prospect-eligible position players projected to reach MLB in the next 1-2 years

  • Prospect pitchers: scored 0-5; prospect-eligible pitchers projected to reach MLB in the next 1-2 years

Here's this year's full list, from the Orioles to the Rockies. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
Here's this year's full list, from the Orioles to the Rockies. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports) (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

We’re counting down all 30 organizations’ 26-and-under talent bases from weakest to strongest leading up to Opening Day, diving into five teams at a time and highlighting their key players in each category.

Next up is the fourth tier of teams: Nos. 20-16.

Full rankings: Nos. 30-26. Nos. 25-21. Nos. 15-11. Nos. 10-6. Nos. 5-1.

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20. Kansas City Royals (total score: 15/30)

The only three teams in baseball with a legit under-26 Cy Young candidate and an under-26 MVP candidate are the Braves (Spencer Strider/Ronald Acuña Jr.), the Mariners (George Kirby/Julio Rodríguez) and, of course, the Royals. That’s because Bobby Witt Jr. and Cole Ragans look like the real deal — and the linchpins of K.C. baseball for the next half-decade at least.

Witt, who received a massive, 11-year extension in February, took an enormous step forward last season on both sides of the ball. The soon-to-be-24-year-old rated as one of the league’s best defensive shortstops while clubbing 30 homers and stealing 49 bases. He’s already an All-Star-level talent who could get even better if he starts walking more.

While Witt has been a famous, highly touted talent for years, Ragans exploded into relevance last year after a midseason trade sent him from Texas to Kansas City in exchange for Aroldis Chapman. It was one of the most remarkable midseason shifts in recent memory, as Ragans went from a mediocre reliever to a dominant starting pitcher. It remains to be seen whether the 26-year-old can replicate his Randy Johnson-esque second half over a full season, but he’s already quite the coup for a K.C. team that has struggled to develop starting pitching.

Beyond those two, it’s somewhat of a bare cupboard. Pasquantino and Garcia look like legitimate every-day players with All-Star ceilings, but there’s very little impact at the minor-league level. Things are even bleaker on the pitching side, which is an embarrassment for a team that has spent so many high draft picks on arms over the past half-decade.

If the Royals are going to contend anytime soon, the second level of young position players already in the majors, including Massey, Pratto, Melendez and Velazquez, needs to pop. Kansas City deserves credit for an aggressive, relatively high-spending winter, but this organization needs to develop a few more pitchers in-house for us to feel optimistic about their future. — J.M.

19. Washington Nationals (total score: 15/30)

We’re already a few years removed from the Nats shipping out the core of their 2019 World Series team, but it’s still too early to deliver a definitive review. The Abrams/Gore/Gray/Ruiz quartet — the latter two acquired in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal, the first two in the Juan Soto deal — has shown flashes in spurts but can’t yet be considered the core of a true contender.

Abrams was outstanding in the second half of '23 but needs to show more defensive consistency while continuing to cut down on his chase rate. Ruiz flat-out needs to hit the baseball harder and still has a ton of room to grow as a defender. For Gore, the key will be incorporating his changeup more to avoid barrels. And while it was great to see Gray limit the ding-dongs after he led MLB in homers allowed in 2022, he’ll need to reduce his 11.5% walk rate, which was third-highest in the league last season. The entire Nats 26-and-under MLB contingent is a great reminder that player development doesn’t end in the minor leagues.

Things are pretty nice down on the farm, too, thanks to the potentially franchise-altering duo of Crews and Wood. Crews would’ve been the No. 1 overall draft pick last year if his LSU teammate Paul Skenes hadn’t posted one of the greatest college pitching seasons of all time. The Nats were happy to scoop up the slugger with the second pick, and Crews has already performed as advertised. He has an advanced approach and great opposite-field juice and should be a phenomenal defensive corner outfielder. Wood is a different animal altogether, in the Elly De La Cruz mold of generational athlete who will be a superstar if he makes enough contact. The 21-year-old already has three homers this spring and should make his way to D.C. at some point this season.

With all that good news, why aren’t the Nats higher on this list? Mostly because the young MLB core still has more to show. But also, Washington’s inability to produce a homegrown starting pitcher and the recent “I don’t care how fast you throw ball four” situation create some concern that this organization is still behind the times from a developmental standpoint. — J.M.

18. Pittsburgh Pirates (total score: 15/30)

Pittsburgh is in danger of reaching that horrifying stage of non-contention in which the “rebuild” becomes a permanent state of play. There’s a lot of awesome talent in this organization, but we’ve yet to see it evolve into meaningful contributions and, you know, wins in the big leagues. A healthy and productive 2024 is particularly crucial for Oneil Cruz, who missed most of 2023 after fracturing his fibula on a slide in early April. The gargantuan shortstop remains one of the most fascinating, high-ceilinged players in the league, but he has to actualize on that potential if the Pirates are to have any hope of competing anytime soon.

The other key character for Pittsburgh in 2024 is Davis, who has been relatively disappointing since the Pirates took him with the first overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. With Endy Rodriguez out all year after elbow surgery, Davis is going to get the chance to catch consistently after exclusively manning right field as a rookie. He has looked stellar at the plate in spring, and whether he can (1) keep that going in the regular season and (2) improve as a defender will be huge data points moving forward for Pittsburgh.

Things are more complicated on the pitching side, with the recent crop of youngsters such as Priester and Contreras unable to find consistency and success thus far in the bigs. How they continue to develop alongside the even more promising wave of Skenes/Jones/Solometo/Burrows/Harrington will be fascinating. There is no such thing as too much pitching, and the Pirates organization right now is chock-full of arms. Skenes, whom one Pirate described to me as “an absolute moose” this spring, has a chance to be a true ace. — J.M.

Oneil Cruz leads the next wave of Pirates talent. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
Oneil Cruz leads the next wave of Pirates talent. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports) (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

17. Texas Rangers (total score: 15/30)

I have a feeling Rangers fans would be a bit irked about this ranking had they not just watched their team win the first World Series in franchise history. But just as the Marlins’ dearth of hitters limited their overall score despite an overwhelming collection of pitchers, Texas’ wealth of young, impact bats can compensate for the lack of pitchers only to a certain degree. To be clear, though, I’d much rather be in Texas’ position, and that’s reflected in the Rangers' overall ranking. Hitters are simply easier to bank on for the long haul, especially when they’ve already demonstrated the kind of skill that the Rangers’ group of bats has.

Carter’s poise and performance from his second-half call-up through the end of October offered a tremendous display of his advanced offensive ability. Now it’s a matter of how much better he can get and how well he answers three big questions: 1. Can he hit lefties? 2. Can he hit for significant power? 3. Can he play center field? The last one might not matter as long as the switch-hitting Taveras continues to progress offensively, given that his glove has never been a concern. He and Duran blossomed into pivotal down-lineup contributors in 2023, while Jung burst on the scene at third base as one of the best rookies in the American League.

If the group we’ve already seen succeed in the big leagues weren’t impressive enough, Texas has another stud knocking on the door. Langford, last year’s No. 4 pick out of the University of Florida, is a monster in the making. The ultra-jacked Langford demolished minor-league pitching last year and hasn’t missed a beat this spring, already looking like one of Texas’ best hitters. As of this writing, we didn't know if Langford would be on the Rangers’ Opening Day roster (he is), so we included him in the prospect bucket, where he ensured Texas’ perfect score. It won’t be long before he’s mashing baseballs to previously undiscovered territories beyond the Globe Life Field outfield fence.

Lastly, perhaps 1/10 is too harsh a score for Bradford, the lone Rangers rep in the young pitching category. He threw meaningful innings in October — and could again this season as Texas waits for its more established arms to get healthy — but there’s limited upside in a soft-tossing lefty of his variety. As for the arms on the farm, there isn’t a lot of imminent help on the way. The uber-famous Vanderbilt duo of Leiter and Rocker is fun to dream about, but inconsistent performance and injuries have made it difficult to project anything for either of them with certainty. Church and Kelly could contribute in relief this season, though. — J.S.

16. Tampa Bay Rays (total score: 15/30)

As the headliner of the trade return for Tyler Glasnow, Pepiot will be one of the more intriguing pitchers to watch in 2024. I’m eager to see what else Tampa Bay can coax out of his arsenal, which is currently headlined by a legitimately elite changeup. Bradley has a pec injury that will delay the start to his season, but he showed exceptional raw stuff with flashes of refinement as one of baseball’s youngest starting pitchers in 2023. Paredes and Lowe each broke out as key members of the Rays’ surprisingly dominant offense (at least in the regular season), and they’re expected to continue producing in the middle of the lineup behind veteran stars Yandy Diaz and Randy Arozarena.

Caminero, one of baseball’s top prospects, is the real wild card here — for better or worse. With him just 20 years old until July and yet to have played a game in Triple-A, it wasn’t shocking to see him optioned to the minors recently, despite his finishing 2023 with the big-league club. While his bat speed is freakish and his offensive ceiling sky-high, Caminero has enough to work on both defensively and in terms of honing his plate discipline that we might not see that much of him in 2024, especially considering Tampa Bay’s bevy of infield options (even with Wander Franco likely out of the picture for good). I’m bullish on Caminero’s long-term future, but it’s not quite as clear as some of the other elite hitting prospects across the league.

The good news is Caminero isn’t the only Tampa Bay hitting prospect impressing the industry. Williams and Isaac were two of the biggest breakouts among all minor-league hitters in 2023, Simpson might be the fastest player in organized baseball (94 steals last year!), and Shenton has raked at every level and should help this year. The pitching talent on the farm might be more anonymous than in past years, but we can safely round up on the arms in this organization, considering Tampa Bay’s track record of discovering and developing guys who can reliably record outs in the big leagues. — J.S.