Tablesetter. Catalyst. Sparkplug. Guys at the top of the lineup have been saddled with many well-worn nicknames over the years, but it’s not always so easy to find true leadoff hitters these days.
The role has changed over time, from when it used to only be a pure speed guy to kick things off, to now when someone who sees pitches and gets on base can fill the role capably. Find someone with wheels and patience and you might have a true impact player to pencil in atop a lineup. The 30 prospects below have attributes that could point to a future career as a leadoff hitter.
Blue Jays: Austin Martin, SS/OF (No. 2, MLB No. 16)
Martin is the type of pure plus hitter you’d want getting as many plate appearances as possible. The Blue Jays have shown how aware they are of that by hitting the 2020 first-rounder first or second only in the Double-A New Hampshire lineup. Even now — as Martin hasn’t taken off with a .261 average and .768 OPS entering Thursday — he still walks plenty (13.2 percent) and posts an impressive .382 on-base percentage. (His college OBP: .474 over three years at Vanderbilt.) With above-average speed as well, the future Blue Jays could do well to let Martin set the table ahead of the other young mashers.
Orioles: Terrin Vavra, 2B (No. 10)
Acquired from the Rockies in the 2020 trade for Mychal Givens, Vavra brings a high baseball IQ (Growing up around the game as the son of former Tigers and Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra and with two brothers who also have played pro ball doesn’t hurt.) and advanced approach at the plate to a lineup. He has a .413 on-base percentage in Double-A in his first season with the Orioles, in line with a .407 OBP for his career, and he even knows how to steal a base, with 18 in his 2019 full-season debut.
Rays: Vidal Bruján, 2B/OF (No. 2, MLB No. 38)
It’s telling that the Rays have built a talented roster at Triple-A Durham, and the player they’ve had at the top of the Bulls lineup for 33 of 37 games has been Bruján. Of course, the No. 38 overall prospect is an obvious choice. His plus-plus speed makes him an automatic contender, and he leads all Minor Leaguers with 117 steals since 2018. He backs that up with good plate discipline that has resulted in a near-even 208/220 K/BB ratio in his career, and his switch-hitting lessens the concerns over pitching matchups.
Red Sox: Jarren Duran, OF (No. 3/MLB No. 89)
Batting .252/.346/.577 with 10 homers and six steals in 26 Triple-A games, Duran could provide a spark for Boston’s lineup in the very near future. A seventh-round pick from Long Beach State in 2018, he’s the fastest runner in the system and is hitting for more power since making some swing changes last summer.
Yankees: Oswald Peraza, SS (No. 4/MLB No. 100)
Signed for $175,000 out of Venezuela in 2016, Peraza is enjoying a breakout season, hitting .294/.370/.503 with six homers and 16 steals in 36 games between High-A and Double-A. He has the line-drive contact skills, developing power and plus speed to succeed in the leadoff role and also plays a nifty shortstop.
Indians: Tyler Freeman, SS (No. 2/MLB No. 79)
Freeman will drive high on-base percentages with high batting averages, as he’s a gifted contact hitter with a career .318/.378/.439 line in the Minors and similar numbers in Double-A this season. The 2017 supplemental second-rounder out of a California high school also has good instincts on the bases.
Royals: Kyle Isbel, OF (No. 5)
Kansas City was so pleased with Isbel’s progress at last year’s alternate site and this Spring Training that they jumped him from Class A Advanced in 2019 to the Major League Opening Day roster in April. Results weren’t quite up to snuff (.265/.306/.324), resulting in a move to Triple-A Omaha, but the left-handed-hitting outfielder has slotted right into the top of the Storm Chasers lineup. His nine steals are sixth-most at Triple-A this season, and his improvements in approach should get him on base enough to take advantage of those wheels.
Tigers: Riley Greene, OF (No. 2, MLB No. 15)
You might figure that someone with Greene’s plus hit tool and above-average power would be a better fit at second or third spot in the lineup, but the Tigers have used Greene exclusively out of the leadoff spot at Double-A Erie. (And that was before Spencer Torkelson and Dillon Dingler arrived.) That said, there’s nothing wrong with getting Greene as many times up to bat as possible. The 20-year-old already shows a patient approach at the upper levels with a 12.3 percent walk rate and .358 OBP, and he has decent enough speed to keep the carousel moving for the boppers behind him.
Twins: Spencer Steer, 2B (No. 30)
The Twins’ third-round pick out of Oregon in 2019, Steer’s plate discipline and feel for the barrel make him a quality leadoff candidate. In his brief pro career to date, he has an OBP of .380 (.370 this year in his full-season debut) and while he’s not a burner, he’s shown he’s not afraid to run and has excellent instincts on the basepaths.
White Sox: Bryan Ramos, 3B (No. 13)
Ramos is just 19 and hasn’t played above Low-A, but he works counts better than most players in the White Sox system and could develop solid on-base ability if he develops more patience. Signed for $300,000 in 2018 after defecting from Cuba, he’s hitting .235/.350/.419 with five homers and 22 walks in 36 games.
Angels: Jordyn Adams, OF (No. 3/MLB No. 96)
Adams fits the old-fashioned mold of a leadoff type because of his 80 speed, which he’s still learning to use effectively on the basepaths, though he did swipe 16 bags in 2019. Beyond his wheels, though, he’s shown a penchant for working counts and getting on base, with a .350 OBP since being the Angels’ first-round pick in 2018.
Astros: Jeremy Pena, SS (No. 4)
The son of former big league second baseman Geronimo Pena, Jeremy’s quality defense got him drafted in the third round out of Maine in 2018. He has proven a better hitter than expected in pro ball and batted .303/.385/.440 with 20 steals between two Class A stops in his lone full season in 2019, but he’ll miss much of this year after injuring his left wrist diving for a ball in Spring Training.
A’s: Luis Barrera, OF (No. 7)
Barrera has an excellent feel to hit, albeit without much power, and doesn’t strike out a ton. His 70-grade speed would also be an asset on the basepaths and he brings a high-energy passion for the game that can help get any offense going.
Mariners: Jarred Kelenic, OF (No. 1/MLB No. 4)
Don’t fret, Mariners fans, he’ll be back soon and he’s clearly getting his feet back under him in Triple-A. We all know he can hit and get on base, with a .289/.364/.519 career line in the Minors and while he’ll provide power out of a leadoff spot, he never sells out for it. And we know he can run after he went 20-20 in 2019 and is a perfect 7-for-7 in the Minors and big leagues in stolen-base attempts this year.
Rangers: Josh Jung, 3B (No. 1/MLB No. 49)
The eighth overall pick in the 2019 Draft from Texas Tech, Jung is an advanced hitter who can handle all types of pitching and control the strike zone. He just joined Double-A Frisco this week after recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot, and he should produce high batting averages and on-base percentages while providing 20 or more homers per season.
Braves: Michael Harris, OF (No. 9)
It’s starting to look more and more like the Braves may have gotten a steal in the third round of the 2019 Draft. He was a two-way player who some teams liked more as a pitcher, but the Braves are letting him hit and he’s responded with a .300/.349/.422 line. He’s also shown a more advanced approach at the plate than one might expect from a two-way high schooler, shooting up to High-A now at age 20 and hitting .333 there. He’s also gone 17-for-19 in stolen-base attempts since he was drafted.
Marlins: Victor Mesa Jr., OF (No. 11)
The son of Victor Mesa, who was Cuba’s version of Rickey Henderson and the leadoff hitter on some powerhouse international teams, Victor Jr. signed for $1 million as a package deal with his brother Victor Victor ($5.25 million) in 2018. Victor Jr. has proven the better prospect thus far, impressing with his left-handed stroke and feel for the strike zone, and he’s batting .235/.318/.356 in Low-A.
Mets: Pete Crow-Armstrong, OF (No. 5)
Plus speed? Check. Good hit tool? Fits the bill. Experience? Crow-Armstrong only batted leadoff for Low-A St. Lucie last month. The down note here is that the 2020 first-rounder underwent shoulder surgery that could possibly knock him out for the rest of the season, though the Mets haven’t ruled out a 2021 return. For now, Crow-Armstrong’s .417/.563/.500 line and two steals are frozen in place, leading New York fans to dream about his future attempts to replicate those numbers over larger samples from the top of a batting order.
Nationals: Viandel Pena, 2B/SS (No. 28)
Washington is more known for its pitching prospects these days, so we need to dip lower to find a leadoff candidate. Pena has a chance to fill that role as a switch-hitter with above-average speed and a career .397 on-base percentage in the Minor Leagues. He is also two years removed from winning the 2019 Gulf Coast League batting title with a .359 average over 37 games. A true lack of power blunts Pena’s offensive potential, but if he can get that to even a 40 tool, a future leadoff spot becomes even more of a possibility.
Phillies: Johan Rojas, OF (No. 7)
Signed for just $10,000 in January 2018, Rojas has shown off a knack for making very hard and consistent contact, with high exit velocities, since he joined the organization. There’s work to be done in terms of his overall approach and selectivity because of that natural feel for the barrel, but his hit tool plus his speed (43 steals in 166 games and 10 so far this year in his full-season debut) point to a future at the top of a lineup.
Brewers: Garrett Mitchell, OF (No. 1, MLB No. 51)
The 20th overall pick from last year’s Draft has already looked like he could beat previous offensive expectations, based on his strong Spring Training and standout start at High-A Wisconsin. Mitchell, who missed some time with a left leg strain, is reaching base more often than he’s not with a .518 OBP through 14 games and is walking more (15 times) than he’s struck out (11). Even with the injury, the plus-plus speed remains with six stolen bases thus far. If Mitchell drives the ball even more in pro ball — as he was showing signs of doing in the spring — then he might play himself into a No. 2 or 3 spot in the lineup. Right now, it’s easy for Brewers fans to dream of seeing him up top.
Cardinals: Masyn Winn, SS (No. 5)
Winn is going to be an offensive project, and the Cardinals knew that when they took him in the second round last year. But you can already see the pieces put in place during his time as a leadoff man at Low-A Palm Beach. The right-handed hitter is batting just .234, but thanks to 25 walks, he has a much more solid .357 on-base percentage. His above-average speed has come through as well with 12 steals in 36 games. It’ll be a few years, but the foundation is there for Winn to be a St. Louis tablesetter.
Cubs: Brennen Davis, OF (No. 2/MLB No. 47)
Davis has the power to hit in the middle of the order but also possesses the polished bat and plus speed to be a catalyst atop it. Off to a .235/.358/.397 start between High-A and Double-A after missing some time when he got hit in the head by a pitch in Spring Training, he was also a basketball star at his Arizona high school before the Cubs made him a second-round pick in 2018.
Pirates: Liover Peguero, SS (No. 4)
He’s only 20 and he’s making his full-season, and Pirates, debut, after coming from the D-backs in the early 2020 Starling Marte trade. He has a .352 OBP in his career (.344 this year as one of the younger players in High-A), with the chance to hit for average and steal bases (26-for-32 in his career).
Reds: Alejo Lopez, 3B (Unranked)
A 27th-round pick in the 2015 Draft, Lopez is having a breakout in Triple-A this year with a .362/.437/.448 line. But he’s actually always hit, albeit under the radar and without much power, now with a career .306 average and .378 OBP, and he’s shown the ability to play both third and second, while also playing left field in winter ball.
D-backs: Corbin Carroll, OF (No. 1, MLB No. 35)
There might not be a more stereotypical leadoff hitter among MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 than Carroll. The 20-year-old outfielder had season-ending shoulder surgery last month, but before that, he showed an advanced ability to hit and reach base at High-A Hillsboro, where he produced a .435/.552/.913 line in seven games. Small-sample concerns aside, it backs up the reports that Carroll had held up well against tough competition at last year’s alternate site, where he showed an ability to control the strike zone and use his 70-grade speed to his advantage. The D-backs will want Carroll fully healthy for his return because of his ceiling as a leadoff stalwart.
Dodgers: Michael Busch, 2B (No. 3/MLB No. 84)
One of the best all-around hitters in the 2019 Draft, Busch went 31st overall out of North Carolina because of his combination of hitting prowess, power and plate discipline. He’s hitting .252/.382/.462 with six homers in 31 games after making the jump to Double-A despite just 10 previous games of pro experience, and his on-base ability would fit nicely in the leadoff spot.
Giants: Luis Matos, OF (No. 7)
Part of the best group of young international talent the Giants have had in years, Matos could have solid tools across the board and one club official described the organization’s plan for his offensive development as “just don’t screw him up.” Signed for $725,000 out of Venezuela in 2018, he’s hitting .300/.340/.443 with 11 steals in 34 games in Low-A.
Padres: Robert Hassell III, OF (No. 4, MLB No. 48)
You could certainly make the case for CJ Abrams here, but there’s an even greater likelihood that he features more prominently in the heart of the lineup. Instead, Hassell could be a solid option from the top, as he’s been to this point for Low-A Lake Elsinore. The 19-year-old outfielder has shown a solid approach with a .387 OBP through 34 games, aided by 20 walks, and his above-average speed has kept things moving to the tune of 13 steals. Having both Hassell and Abrams hit ahead of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Manny Machado in a few years is a tantalizing thought.
Rockies: Ezequiel Tovar, SS (No. 19)
The 19-year-old Tovar is known more for his impressive glovework at shortstop, but he’s made a lot of strides at the plate to make him a more intriguing all-around player. Giving up switch-hitting has helped and he’s added strength and is impacting the ball more now, in his full-season debut (.307/.350/.520) than he has previously, to go along with going 8-for-9 in stolen-base attempts.