One of the best parts of a new baseball season is trying to project which players are going to come out of nowhere and surprise everyone (à la Scooter Gennett last year). In this article, there is going to be a wide array of players ranging from everyday MLBers to deep sleepers looking to get a shot at the big leagues. There are obviously multiple breakout candidates for every team so feel free to comment and tell me which guys I missed. Rejoice for the return of baseball!
Chicago White Sox – Michael Kopech (SP)
All due respect to Yoan Moncada, who I think is going to be a stud this year, the Sox desperately need some talent on the mound. The rotation is currently headlined by the 36-year-old James Shields who went 6-19 over the course of last season. Enter Kopech, a flame-throwing righty who consistently hits triple digits on the radar and has been clocked as high as 105 mph. Kopech, who was acquired in the Chris Sale deal, looks primed to make his big league debut at some point in 2018. Over the course of last season (split between AA and AAA) Kopech registered a monstrous 11.5 K/9. Although he endured a rough spring training, Kopech looks like he has the makings of a potential ace as he continues to diversify the pitches he has in his repertoire.
Cleveland Indians – Yandy Díaz (3B)
Díaz is as physically imposing as baseball players come and his biceps are bigger than my love for Busch. No seriously, look.
Picture credit to Diaz’s Instagram.
That guy could deadlift Bartolo Colon. Interestingly enough, Díaz’s muscular prowess has not resulted in home run power at the plate. There is a fantastic piece done by Travis Sawchik on The Athletic which goes over the issue surrounding Díaz.
Among all major-league batters who put at least 30 balls in play last season, Díaz ranked eighth in average exit velocity (91.5 mph), according to Statcast data. The names who ranked ahead of Díaz? Aaron Judge, Nelson Cruz, Joey Gallo, Miguel Sano, Efren Navarro, Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton.
At issue? Among hitters with at least 100 batted ball results last season, Díaz ranked 387th out of 388 batters in average launch angle (0.0 degrees).
You obviously cannot hit bombs if every ball you put in play is a wormburner but Díaz is so tantalizingly close to becoming a full-time big leaguer because all of his other numbers are fantastic. The big man slashed .350 last year in AAA and had a .352 OBP in a 49 game audition with the Tribe last season. The Indians are one of the best teams in baseball and it shows with depth at every position but I am wholly excited to see what Yandy can do if given the opportunity this season.
Detroit Tigers – Miguel Cabrera (1B)
Put down your pitchforks. I understand that this is a bit of an obscure pick and more of a bounce-back than a breakout, but hear me out. Last year was unquestionably the worst year of Miggy’s career (thanks to two herniated disks in his back) and at 34 with an injury-riddled history, it seems some of the media had begun to write his swan song. I, however, am on quite the opposite side of things and if the way he looked in the Grapefruit League is any indication, Cabrera is hitting like his old self again. In 57 at-bats the veteran recorded a batting average of .368 with 3 dingers, and 13 RBIs. The Tigers are poised to have a dismal season, but Cabrera says he’s healthier and fitter than he’s been in almost half a decade. Those words should terrify AL pitchers and I’m fully expecting another 30 HR, 90 RBI season with a possible Comeback Player of the Year award.
Kansas City Royals – Cheslor Cuthbert (DH/3B)
The Royals lost two big bats in Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain this offseason. While those subtractions obviously put a glaring hole in their lineup, it also opens the door for younger players to make a name for themselves. Enter Cuthbert, a guy who hit .274 over 128 games in 2016, but sported a shoddy .231 average over 58 games in 2017. The 25-year-old has shown he can hang at the big league level but his bat was invisible last season. It seems that Cuthbert will handle most of the DH duties throughout the year as Moustakas has taken over his regular 3B spot. With a guaranteed spot in the heart of the Royals order I expect Cuthbert to provide some excitment in what looks like a disappointing season for Kansas City.
Minnesota Twins – Byron Buxton (OF)
The speedy Buxton was a trendy breakout pick coming into last season. The former #1 ranked prospect struggled early on in the year but ultimately put up half-decent numbers. I think he can do even more in 2018. He already looks like one of the league’s best defenders as he added a Gold Glove to his mantle and his bat only got better as the season progressed. If you look at last season’s stats prior to June 30th, Buxton had a dismal .195 BA with only 4 dingers and 14 RBIs. After June 30th? A .309 BA with 12 bombs and 37 RBIs. Couple that with the 29 stolen bags he had in 2017 and Buxton could become a valuable offensive weapon if he finds his consistency. He could be one of the bigger breakouts of the year.
Chicago Cubs – Tyler Chatwood (SP)
It is somewhat hard to pick a breakout for a team that has such little turnover. The Cubs have the exact same starting lineup they had last year so I am looking at the pitching staff for this breakout. Although spring results should be taken with a grain of salt, Chatwood looked fantastic on the mound (2.91 ERA over 6 starts). He projects to be the Cubs No.5 starter in the rotation and now that he’s out of the homerun haven called Coors Field he should see a dramatic increase in his numbers. With one of the best lineups in the league supporting him every five days he should easily improve on his 8-15 record from last season.
Cinncinnati Reds – Luis Castillo (SP)
I think this guy is on a lot of people’s breakouts board because his talent is so damn tantalizing. A firey fastball, wicked changeup, and treacherous slider coupled with the .198 BA opponents had against the righty last season is a deadly combination. So why are we not hailing this guy as a frontrunner ace? Due to the fact that he only pitched 89 innings last year. With such a small sample size it is hard to predict what Castillo pundits will see this season. He was never a highly touted prospect but Reds fans are ecstatic to see what Castillo will do with a full season’s work. He could become the biggest breakout pitcher of 2018.
Milwaukee Brewers – Brandon Woodruff (SP)
Damn, this was a hard team to pick someone for. There are no real suprises in their starting lineup so Woodruff was the next logical conclusion. The 6’4 lefty has a grinder mentality on the mound and bodes a fearsome duo of pitches with his fastball and slider. The Brewers #3 prospect is primed to join the starters after a primer in the bullpen. I think his ceiling by season’s end is third in the rotation.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Jameson Taillon (SP)
The pitcher trend continues. The 26-year-old compiled an 8-7 record last season and figures to be the headliner of the rotation with the departure of Gerrit Cole. Taillon has dealt with a multitude of injuries throughout his young career but his talent is undeniable. The #2 pick from the 2010 draft has never really lived up to expectations but with a clean bill of health anything is possible. He had a solid 8.4 K/9 last season so cutting down on the walks (3.1BB/9) will be the biggest factor for Taillon this year. He has a 95+ MPH fastball, a filthy curve, and is excellent at keeping the ball in the park. 14+ wins is not out of the question as the Pirates playoff hopes lie firmly in his glove.
St. Louis Cardinals – Jose Martinez (1B)
Martinez had a mini breakout last season and he looks poised to improve on his numbers this year. He’s batting in the heart of the Cardinals order attempting to show that the power he displayed in 2017 was no fluke. He batted a scintillating .308 over 272 plate appearances and now he seems to be locked in to a starting role. Screw you Brendan Ballantyne for already picking him up in our fantasy league. Martinez will thrive in the improved Cardinals lineup.
Baltimore Orioles – Chance Sisco (C)
One of the best prospects in the O’s system has made the opening day roster. After the departure of Welington Castillo, Sisco grabbed the opportunity behind the plate and looks like he’s going to run with it. He had a spectacular spring batting .419 with eight extra-base hits and 10 RBIs. The 23-year-old has hit at every level he’s played at and adds his left-handed stroke to an already powerful Orioles team. His defense is what holds him back and will be the reason why Caleb Joseph gets his fair share of starts, but there is no denying the offensive talent Sisco has in his possesion. I would not be suprised if he won the starting job outright by season’s end.
Boston Red Sox – Rafael Devers (3B)
Devers might be the consensus breakout pick for the year. The rookie shined for the Red Sox last season after being called up at the end of July. He slashed .284 with 10 bombs and 30 RBIs. Now in his sophmore season and starting at 3B, the sky is the limit for Devers. He should be able to rake in one of the more talented lineups in the AL. Plus, the man definitley lands Tilted Towers.
New York Yankees – Gleyber Torres (SS/2B)
Considered a top-five prospect by many around baseball, Torres should get his first taste of the big leagues this season. He torched AAA over 23 games last year carrying a .309 BA. Tyler Wade is currently serving as the Yankees primary 2B but Torres is undeniably the future for the Bronx Bombers at that position. If he starts the year hot down Wilkes-Barre he could see a promotion in the very near future.
Tampa Bay Rays – Blake Snell (SP)
Brent Honeywell is the Rays top prospect and looked to be one of the brighter spots for Tampa’s year, but a spring injury derailed all those hopes as the 22-year-old will now have Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2018 season. Due to that, Snell becomes the next logical choice. After the All-Star break in 2017, Snell compiled a 5-2 record with a 3.49 ERA and continuously increased his fastball velocity. His first start of the season saw him go 5.2 innings giving up 3 hits and no earned. If that is a sign of things to come the Tampa faithul should be in for a treat of a season.
Toronto Blue Jays – Randal Grichuk (OF)
The Jays have a multitude of possible breakouts in the organization. Teoscar Hernadez was a sensation after they acquired him at the trade deadline last season and Vladdy Guerrero Jr. is one of the most promising prospects in baseball. While those two could impress, I believe Grichuk is the most likely to post a solid statline. The former Cardinals outfielder has displayed prominent power over the past two seasons totaling a combined 46 homeruns. Those came in the pitcher-friendly confines of Busch Stadium so it is not unreasonable to suggest Grichuk could reach close to 30 in the Rogers Centre. The biggest issue for the 2009 1st round pick are his high strikeout totals and mediocre OBP. If he can combine some discipline with the already evident power Grichuk could be a prominent source of offense in the anemic Jays lineup.
Atlanta Braves – Ronald Acuña (OF)
He is the consensus best prospect in baseball for a reason. The only reason he isn’t on the Braves current roster is due to service time. If Acuña was part of 172 service days in a season that would burn a year of his contract so the Braves are simply waiting a few weeks before bringing him up. Once he reaches the majors he should immediately impress. He is a defensive wizard in the outfield, a speedster on the base path, and possesses a heavy swing. He was one of the best players in the league during spring training and I’m sure Braves fans are itching to see him in the everyday lineup.
Miami Marlins – Braxton Lee (OF)
The 24-year-old was just recalled by the Marlins and could become a regular in the outfield for the team this season. He was a force in AA during 2017 batting .309 with 20 stolen bags. After Jeter’s teardown of the team this offseason there are a plethora of opportunities for young players to impress and Lee looks like he’s off to a good start. He has a servicable glove with speed to burn so fans should be expecting to see Lee on a consistent basis in 2018.
New York Mets – Amed Rosario (SS)
Rosario was a bit of a disappointment during his 2017 rookie campaign so expectations are high for a rebound. Fellow Bench Lifer, Thomas Waind, also picked him to breakout in our 2018 MLB Predictions article which can be found here. He torched AAA last year with a .328 BA, 58 RBIs, and 19 stolen bases but instantly struggled once he came to the majors. He obviously has a talented bat so it is hard to determine why he has had such difficulty taking the next step. Thankfully, he is an absolute burner on the basepath and capable at the hot corner so he has some current positives. If he finds his confidence at the plate he can reclaim his title as one of the game’s most promising young shortstops.
Philadelphia Phillies – Scott Kingery (2B/SS)
Kingery was expected to get the same treatment that the aforementioned Acuña recieved; however, he made the Phillies opening day roster and for good reason. Kingery was a stalwart in the minors last season registering a combined 26 home runs, 29 stolen bags and a .530 slugging average between AA and AAA. He was also one of the best Phillies players in spring training tallying 5 bombs and a .411 BA. The Philly infield is a little crowded with other young talent but Kingery looks like he’s an everyday player. He could realistically hit 20 homeruns and 30 stolen bags if he sticks around for the full season.
Washington Nationals – Michael Taylor (OF)
Washington is another team that really did not see much turnover coming into 2018 so a breakout was hard to decide on. Taylor had a postseason to remember in 2017 and the Nats are hoping the October productivity that saw him hit .333 with 2 dingers and 8 RBIs carries over into 2018. Taylor is a solid defensive outfielder and has shown he has some pop in his bat. He belted 19 homeruns last year in only 118 games, but he projects to improve on that total this season. He will be the starting centerfielder on most days for the Nationals so he should surpass the total games played he had a year ago.
Houston Astros – Alex Bregman (3B)
Bregman was good last season, but I think his ceiling is even higher. On such a loaded Astros team he put up 19 HRs, 71 RBIs, and 17 stolen bases which are impressive in their own right, although a majority of those stats were garnered in the second half after a dismal start to the campaign. Bregman is a former 2nd overall pick and his talent is undeniable. If he can find his consistency for an entire season, the 23-year-old is poised to be one of the best players in the MLB.
Los Angeles Angels – Shohei Ohtani (SP/DH)
While fellow Bench Lifer Brendan Ballantyne would like to see C.J. Cron in this spot, I have to give it to the newest Japanese sensation to hit the MLB. If his first week of big league action is any indication, Ohtani is going to be an absolute gem to watch this year. The 23-year-old already has a pitcher win under his belt along with 2 HRs in 14 at-bats. The hype was real coming into this season and Ohtani is currently delivering on every bit of it.
Oakland Athletics – Marcus Semien (SS)
I feel like taking Matt Olson in this spot is an illegal pick because most pundits would agree his scorching run last year was his true breakout. With that in mind, I struggled to find someone for the A’s and the Semien pick is more of a re-breakout selection due to how poor his 2017 was. He had an awesome 2016 with 27 bombs and 75 RBIs but insted of improving on these stats his numbers fell hard across the board as he battled injury. He looks to be the A’s leadoff guy and should put up decent numbers for a lineup with suprising pop. I expect him to get back to where he left off two years ago.
Seattle Mariners – Mitch Haniger (OF)
Before injuries derailed his 2017 campaign it looked like Haniger was breaking out before our very eyes. He had 16 HRs, 47 RBIs, and a .282 BA through 96 games before being shutdown for the rest of the year. He hits the ball ridiculously hard which is potent when coupled with his above-average launch angle. Similar to last season, he’s started the season on a tear with 2 dingers, 6 RBIs, and a .700 SLG%. As a baseball fan I’m hoping Haniger can stay healthy because I’m truly excited to see what he can do over a full campaign. A lineup with Cruz, Cano, Haniger, and Seager would be a scary proposition for other AL West teams.
Texas Rangers – Willie Calhoun (2B/OF)
Calhoun is also getting the Acuña service time treatment this season even though the Rangers could really use his talents in the outfield after the injury to Delino DeShields. With that being said, Calhoun should be up around the end of April and he’ll be bringing his big bat with him. He belted 31 HRs and 93 RBIs last year in AAA which has the Texas faithful ecstatic to see him. He is my AL ROTY pick and I’m expecting 25+ dingers from the pride of Vallejo, California.
Arizona Diamondbacks – Ketel Marte (SS)
This is a guy who seems like he’s right on the cusp of putting it all together. Marte is an athletic speedster with great plate discipline. Michael McDermott from Arizona’s SBNation blog has some interesting statistics which bode well for Marte’s breakout candidacy:
At the plate, Marte took a major step forward [in 2017]. Marte’s overall batting line doesn’t look impressive with a .260/.345/.395 slash (89 wRC+), but the numbers beyond the surface suggest he’s easily capable of more. His ground ball rate dropped from 50% to 45%, hard hit rate spiked from 21% to 28%.
The K-BB% improved 12.0% with a 4.5% reduction in strikeouts and a 7.5% improvement with walks.
It seems apparent that Marte is getting better at the plate. He may never be a power hitter persay, but he has flatline speed that make extra bases routine. With that in mind, another thing to look forward to is his ability to swipe bags. Although he’s had two seasons of 20+ stolen bases in AAA it has not yet translated to the MLB level. He is unquestionably the fastest player on the D’Backs, who are already one of the more aggresive base-stealing teams in the majors, so it is only a matter of time before the basepath results come.
Colorado Rockies – Ryan McMahon (1B/2B/3B)
The Rockies infield is a little cluttered this season so a regular spot for McMahon could be difficult to come by; however, he deserves an opportunity to show what he can do against big league pitching. He raked in AAA Albuquerque last season batting .374 over 314 plate appearances while also tallying 14 HRs and 56 RBIs. He is easily one of the Rockies top-three prospects and probably a top-fifty prospect league wide. The biggest key for him at the next level is to work on reducing his strikeout rate. He has the luxury of playing in Coors Field which is a scary proposition when coupled with his prevalent bat speed and power.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Kenta Maeda (SP)
Maeda had an up-and-down season last year with some stretches of greatness followed by bouts of ineptitude. He had a solid 13-6 record but his ERA reached 8.05 at one point during the campaign before settling at a mediocre 4.22. While the regular season was inconsistent he was an absolute dynamo coming out of the bullpen in the playoffs. He had a 0.88 ERA over nine postseason appearances while oozing confidence and aggresiveness. He has always been talented but it seems there are times where he lacks trust in his pitches. Maeda is primed to rack up fantastic numbers on a solid Dodger squad if he can perform like the October version of himself.
San Diego Padres – Manuel Margot (OF)
Margot had a rookie season to remember for the Padres in 2017. He slashed .263/.313/.409 with 17 steals, even after dealing with a calf injury that cost him some time. It looks like he is the future of the Padres outfield for years to come. He improved on his launch angle which led a suprising 13 HRs – the most he has hit at any level of professional ball. He’s only 23 so we can assume he’ll only continue to get better. On an offensively starved Padres team, Margot will be the one beacon of hope.
San Fransisco Giants – Joe Panik (2B)
The Giants have the 2nd oldest roster in the MLB so finding a player that had not already broke out is a task in itself. With the additions of Longoria and McCutchen, Panik finds himself playing in a much deeper lineup with more protection from high-pressure situations. Tyler Wilson from Lifestyle Sports figures Panik could be the next Scooter Gennett, who had a massive breakout last season. He went on to compare each player’s numbers through the first four years of their careers and the results were eeriely similar:
Gennett (456 G, 1,637 PA): .279/.318/.420, 90 2B, 10 3B, 35 HR, 82 BB, 291 SO, 99 OPS+
Panik (438 G, 1,818 PA): .282/.345/.408, 86 2B, 16 3B, 29 HR, 150 BB, 176 SO, 105 OPS+
Two things stand out to me when comparing Panik and Gennett side-by-side. First, Panik’s walk rate (8.3 percent) is considerably higher than Gennett’s (5.0 percent). Second, Panik’s strikeout rate (9.7 percent) is considerably lower than Gennett’s (17.8 percent).
I know these stats oftentimes go hand-in-hand, but the fact that Joe Panik has put up very Gennett-esque numbers with better non-contact result rates shows that he’s got the potential to not only do what Gennett did in 2017, but possibly take the next step past that level of play and become one of the game’s true stars.
Panik is only 27 and he’s been a servicable player throughout his young career. He already has 3 HRs in just 6 games this season which makes it seem likely he will crush his previous career high of 10. The Giants were absolutely pathetic last season but with the additions they made and an improvement from Panik they should be miles better.