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MLB 26-and-under power rankings, Nos. 5-1: Orioles' and Braves' young hitters, Mariners' pitching headline this year's list

The Orioles, Braves, Mariners, Diamondbacks and Guardians come out on top in our 2024 young talent rankings

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

Full rankings: Nos. 30-26. Nos. 25-21. Nos. 20-16. Nos. 15-11. Nos. 10-6.

All that's left is the final tier of teams, the cream of the crop: Nos. 5-1.

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5. Cleveland Guardians (total score: 19)

Similar to their Ohio counterparts in Cincinnati, who checked in one spot below on our rankings, Cleveland scores favorably for its staggeringly deep group of every-day contributors on both sides of the ball, including several with considerably gaudier résumés than those of the Reds’ youngsters. Though they don’t quite boast the overwhelming star power present in the handful of organizations ranked ahead of them, the Guardians’ ability to develop consistent waves of MLB-quality players is what has kept them competitive most seasons, despite a maddeningly low payroll.

Long known for churning out high-end pitching talent, the Guardians have quietly assembled a nice collection of hitters around franchise cornerstone Jose Ramirez, who at age 31 is one of the oldest players on the roster. Gimenez might never replicate his shocking offensive output from 2022 (141 OPS+!!!), but at worst, he’s an elite up-the-middle defender who can hold his own at the plate and swipe a ton of bags. Kwan has established a similar floor as a fantastic left-field glove with otherworldly contact skills, albeit with minimal pop.

Considering Cleveland’s well-documented lack of power in recent years, the continued growth of the 24-year-old Naylor — whose .470 SLG% as a rookie in 2023 ranked seventh among MLB catchers with at least 200 plate appearances — will be paramount for this club moving forward. Manzardo (acquired last summer from Tampa Bay for right-hander Aaron Civale) and 2022 first-round pick DeLauter are two more lefty sluggers who could quickly change the complexion of this Cleveland lineup from a power perspective once they arrive in the big leagues in the not-so-distant future.

But this team's greatest upside still lies on the mound. Injuries wrecked McKenzie’s 2023, but the slender right-hander was one of the most effective starters in the American League in 2022 and appears to be back to full strength this spring. His missed time last year further cleared the way for the Guardians to introduce three more gifted hurlers to the big leagues in Williams, Allen and Bibee. Bibee finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Gunnar Henderson and seemed to only get better as the season went on, posting a 2.33 ERA over his final 15 starts. Allen didn’t arrive with quite the prospect hype of his rotation mates but adds a valuable left-handed element to this rotation and projects as a stable No. 4 starter, thanks in large part to his fantastic changeup. Williams is an imposing right-hander whose pure power stuff outpaces his peers fairly comfortably, but he has had issues staying healthy over the course of his career — issues that popped up again this spring.

And then there’s Clase. MLB’s saves leader the past two seasons, the fire-breathing cutter-monster turned 26 earlier this week and is primed once again to headline Cleveland’s ever-effective bullpen. Trade rumors swirled around both Clase and Shane Bieber this past winter, but Cleveland opted to keep them both. The Guardians remain in position to make a run at the AL Central if enough of the aforementioned young players continue to improve at the big-league level. — J.S.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (total score: 20)

The 2023 Snakes were a Cinderella story, yes, but these D-backs are not a flash-in-the-pan mirage. Led by a trio of offensive cornerstones in Carroll, Moreno and Lawlar, Arizona looks primed for a half-decade-long window of contention.

It all starts with Carroll, the runaway 2023 NL Rookie of the Year, who ripped 25 homers, 30 doubles and 10 triples while stealing 54 bags. He’s a perennial All-Star, a catalytic leadoff guy under contract until the sun shrinks and the oceans rise. And the 23-year-old could still improve if he ups his walk rate and starts elevating the ball a bit more. Moreno, whom Arizona acquired last winter from Toronto, has all the makings of a franchise catcher: a laser-beam arm, an above-average stick and the confidence of his pitching staff. After returning from the injured list Aug. 13, the 24-year-old had an .878 OPS over the season’s final seven weeks and ripped a series-defining homer off Clayton Kershaw in the first inning of NLDS Game 1.

Lawlar became the first high school position player from the 2021 draft to reach the big leagues when he joined the D-backs for last year’s stretch run. Still just 21, he’ll start the year in the minors but remains an incredibly promising talent and a key part of Arizona’s future. There are some questions about how viable his hit tool will be against MLB pitching, but the glove and the power potential give him a huge floor. Lastly, Thomas, McCarthy and Perdomo are all solid contributors with big flaws: doesn’t walk/can’t stay healthy/doesn’t hit the ball hard.

Besides Pfaadt, the pitching in this organization feels very quantity over quality, which is more or less what the baseball world witnessed during last year’s playoff run. Nelson, Henry, Jameson, Cecconi, Walston and Jarvis all look like fifth or sixth starters. But while depth is un-sexy and unhelpful in a postseason series, it’s absolutely crucial over the course of 162. This is a good group of young arms, especially if Pfaadt can solidify over a full season what he flashed in October. — J.M.

3. Seattle Mariners (total score: 21)

One year after slotting in at No. 6 on our 26-and-under power rankings, the Mariners leap into the top three, thanks to a standout sophomore campaign from Rodriguez and a spectacular young pitching staff that somehow continues to get stronger. Although J-Rod’s struggles at the plate the first few months contributed to a final triple-slash line (.275/.333/.485) worse than the one he posted as a rookie (.284/.345/.509), his historically hot August and sensational defense in center field propelled him to another fantastic all-around season. As a 22-year-old, he smashed 32 homers, swiped 37 bags and finished fourth in AL MVP voting. At 23, he is a full-blown MVP candidate and one of the faces of the sport. The Mariners are extremely fortunate to have him at all, let alone under contract for the next decade-plus.

But it’s the pitching that vaults Seattle into the upper echelon of this list. Kirby’s unparalleled command and increasingly impressive arsenal already have him in Cy Young conversations as he enters his third big-league season. Miller and Woo showed flashes of brilliance as rookies, but both need to find a more consistent way to get lefties out if they want to follow in the already-accomplished footsteps of Kirby and Logan Gilbert (who is a couple of months too old for this list). And while Munoz is currently the only definitively healthy one among the bullpen trio of the holdover Brash and offseason acquisition Santos, that is a hellacious group of right-handers for opponents to deal with should they all round into form later this season. This is a ridiculous amount of pitching talent that, if healthy — never a guarantee — projects to form what could be the best overall staff in baseball if it all comes together.

If there is a flaw here, it’s the relatively thin amount of prospect depth at the upper levels of the minors. While the Mariners have done a tremendous job in both the draft and the international market in recent years, in terms of identifying impact position-player talent, it’s difficult to imagine any of those players contributing significantly this season. And in a year with pressure and expectations to return to October — and with a position-player group with a litany of durability questions — a few ill-timed injuries could expose this relative weakness at some point. That said, Bliss and Taylor are smaller speedsters with more pop than you’d expect, and they project as the key next-men-up in Triple-A Tacoma. We’ll probably see them this season, but ideally not for too many plate appearances.

Overall, Seattle’s spectacular run of developing impact pitchers combined with a franchise pillar in Julio solidifies its spot near the very top of our rankings. The foundation of this roster is extraordinarily strong. — J.S.

2. Atlanta Braves (total score: 21)

The Atlanta Braves employ the best position player (Acuña) and the best pitcher (Strider) on this entire list. Even though their system is notably shallow, particularly on the position player side, and their young talent is disproportionately concentrated in Acuña and Strider, those two players are so overwhelmingly, undeniably good that we have no choice but to stuff Atlanta way up the list. It’s also worth noting that Austin Riley and Ozzie Albies, two All-Star infielders, miss the cutoff date by only a few months, giving Atlanta two more star bats in the middle of their primes.

Acuña is coming off a season for the ages, an unprecedented, 41-homer, 73-steal campaign that earned him unanimous NL MVP honors. While the power-speed display was electrifying, his ability to slice his strikeout rate in half is what really enabled his supersonic ascension. Even though his outfield defense is continuing to trend downward, Acuña, somehow just 26, is one of the five best players in the world, a force to be reckoned with on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

Strider, too, is singular. That 3.86 ERA from a year ago looks messy, but go an inch beneath the surface, and it's obvious that this is one of the game’s truest aces. Strider had one of the top five strikeout seasons by a starting pitcher in baseball history as a 24-year-old in 2023, despite throwing his fastball and slider a whopping 93% of the time. The mustachioed right-hander added a curveball to his arsenal this winter, which helped propel a roughly flawless spring training (0.00 ERA in 18.2 IP with 29 strikeouts). With Gerrit Cole on the mend till at least May, Strider is, in this writer’s opinion, the best starting pitcher in the world.

But this ranking isn’t just about Acuña and Strider (though it is mostly about Acuña and Strider). Harris had a .912 OPS from June 7 through the end of last season and is an elite defender in center field. His swing decisions are still shoddy, but even if that never improves, the 23-year-old is an immensely valuable cog in this Atlanta machine. Kelenic comes to town via an offseason trade with oodles of upside, but the 24-year-old hasn’t yet proven that he can be an every-day big leaguer. Whether he sinks or swims in the Atlanta pressure-cooker is one of the most fascinating storylines of this Braves season.

With longtime frontline arm Max Fried likely to depart in free agency this winter, the Braves appear to have the horses to backfill some of that value in-house. Waldrep, a 2023 first-round pick, and Smith-Shawver, who made Atlanta’s playoff roster last year as a 20-year-old, both have rotation stalwart upside. This organization has generally done a good job of developing pitching internally, and while the road is filled with bumps and terrors for any young arm, the industry is confident that at least one of the two will become a quality contributor for the Braves over the next half-decade. — J.M.

Julio Rodriguez leads a sparkling young core for the Mariners, but No. 1 on this year's list goes to the Orioles. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)
Julio Rodriguez leads a sparkling young core for the Mariners, but No. 1 on this year's list goes to the Orioles. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports) (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

1. Baltimore Orioles (total score: 22)

Baltimore has had the top prospect in baseball for three years running. Ahead of 2022, it was all about Rutschman, who has since blossomed into one of MLB’s best catchers and could elevate even further if he taps into the power he showcased at last summer’s Home Run Derby. Last year, it was Henderson’s turn to shine. After struggling through a lackluster April/May, the O’s shortstop of the future — and now — exploded to life over the final four months, finishing the year with 25 homers, a 125 OPS+ and an AL Rookie of the Year award. Now, it’s Holliday time, with the 20-year-old primed to debut in Birdland at some point this summer. This is an unprecedented run of success for Baltimore’s hitting development and scouting groups, but the organization’s strength comes from its depth as much as its stars.

Westburg is slated to be the every-day third baseman this year. Cowser and Stowers both had a disappointing 2023, but they have strong track records that make their other-worldly performances in spring training smell more legit. Kjerstad is a former No. 2 overall pick who had a .904 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A last year. Mayo, who ranks ahead of Kjerstad on many prospect lists, might eventually move to first base, but the 22-year-old produces eye-popping power from an entertaining, herky-jerky swing. And then there’s Basallo, the O’s farmhand with the best chance to continue the run of No. 1 overall prospects. As an 18-year-old last year, the Dominican catcher completely obliterated Low-A and High-A, showcasing comical levels of juice from the left side of the plate. If his defense — the receiving and framing are the biggest weaknesses — takes a step forward, we’re talking about a monster.

The arms in this org are firmly behind the bats, but they’ve progressed nicely the past few seasons. Rodriguez was sensational in the second half last year before imploding in his ALDS start against Texas. He’s a crucial part of Baltimore’s 2024 plans. None of the prospect pitchers is particularly “famous,” but both McDermott and Povich could develop into rotation pieces and provide depth as soon as this season. Pham is a personal favorite as an undersized, under-the-radar, twitchy righty with fun fastball shape and a bulldog’s aggression.

How exactly GM Mike Elias and Baltimore’s front office leverage this glut of talent over the next few seasons will be fascinating. It’s a first-world problem but a daunting task nonetheless: Which hitters to keep, which hitters to trade, which hitters to prioritize, all while ensuring that everybody gets enough at-bats at the right level. The Orioles, coming off a 101-win season, finally dipped into their golden farm system this winter, shipping DL Hall and Joey Ortiz to Milwaukee for a year of Corbin Burnes. That won’t be the last time Elias sends away prospects for impact talent — or at least, it shouldn’t be; otherwise, the Orioles might end up with too many Michelin chefs in the kitchen. — J.M.