MLB

MLB breakout candidates: One player from all 30 teams who’s ready to step up as spring training games start

Travis Bergen: Bergen showed improved velocity and spin last year, convincing the Diamondbacks to accept him as the return for Robbie Ray at the deadline. That didn’t stop the D-Backs from designating Bergen for assignment. Oh well; he still might find his way into someone’s bullpen, be it Arizona’s or elsewhere. His fastball, up two ticks to 92 mph, is effective up in the zone thanks to its natural rise and the flat plane created by his size and release point. Bergen’s breaking ball spins at a faster pace than those thrown by many high-quality starters (Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers Jr., Max Fried), but you wouldn’t have known it based on the results: He coerced only one whiff and three chases on 62 pitches. If Bergen can just flip it over the plate more frequently as a means of stealing strikes and keeping batters honest, he should be able to curb his walk rate and enhance his fastball’s potency. There’s modest potential here. Jake Lamb: “Break out” in this case can stand for “contributing more than you’d expect from a recent vet signing on a non-guaranteed deal.” Here’s what we wrote about Lamb earlier in the offseason: “This is not an overreaction to Jake Lamb’s impressive 13-game stint with the Athletics that saw him deliver seven extra-base hits in 45 at-bats. Rather, it’s a direct response to his ball-tracking data, which is a good deal better than you’d expect from someone with a 74 OPS+ since 2018. Lamb hit the ball 95 mph or harder on more than half of his batted balls, putting him 23rd in the majors among qualified hitters — just ahead of Bryce Harper, Jorge Soler and Gary Sanchez, among others. He did that while hitting the ball in the ‘sweet spot’ launch angle range (10 to 30 degrees) as frequently as the likes of Francisco Lindor, Andrew McCutchen and Aaron Judge. That’s good company. You don’t want Lamb facing lefties, but he looks like a decent (and cheap) bet to be a tolerable, if not good most-days platoon option at either corner-infield position.” Chance Sisco: It wasn’t long ago Sisco was hailed as a top-100 prospect. These days, a few stop-and-gos and high draft picks later, he’s not even regarded as the best young catcher in the Orioles organization. Sisco is, nevertheless, an interesting player who is entering his age-26 season after posting a 98 OPS+ the past two years. There are plenty of flies in his ointment: He strikes out a ton; his swing-and-miss rate on in-zone pitches was even-steven with Chris Davis; and he was possibly the worst receiving catcher in baseball last season, per Baseball Prospectus. To that we say: It’s 2021, folks. There’s a Twitter account dedicated to Daniel Craig introducing The Weeknd; there’s approximately 184,231 two-star movies available for streaming at a low cost; and there’s even a website that tests your iceberg drawing skills. Comparatively, a catcher improving their framing doesn’t sound like such a stretch of the imagination, does it? Besides, there are enough recent examples of folks doing it — Willson Contreras, James McCann, Omar Narvaez — that ruling out the possibility of improvement is illogical. Maybe Sisco doesn’t do it this year; maybe it’s next, or the year thereafter, or whenever he’s jettisoned to make room for Adley Rutschman. But enhanced framing, plus some good fortune, could put him on the Tyler Flowers career path. Nick Pivetta: You might think dogs are silly for chasing after cars, squirrels, tails and other things they can’t catch, but we’re inclined to agree with Melville’s claim that “there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” In other words, of course we’re dumb enough to once more forecast a Pivetta breakout. We explained why we’re still intrigued after the Red Sox acquired him in August. (Long story short: His underlying numbers and stuff suggests he should be better.) One of these years, our faith is going to be rewarded; until then, we’re going to go bark. Nico Hoerner: It’s easy to focus on what Hoerner can’t do (slug), or what he didn’t do (perform well in his rookie season). Context is said to be king for a reason, and it’s not because the crown is a birthright. Hoerner made some under-the-hood improvements in 2020: He employed a tamer approach, resulting in a higher walk rate and lower chase and swing rates, and he also hit the ball two miles per hour harder than he did during his 2019 big-league stint. Those are positive signs for someone who skipped Triple-A after 70 Double-A games. Hoerner isn’t going to develop into a star or anything, but it’s too early to give up the ghost on him becoming a solid second-division regular. Jimmy Cordero: The White Sox bullpen is stacked with intriguing pitchers about to embark on their first full seasons. We’re highlighting Cordero because his bloated ERA (6.08 in 26 innings) tells a misleading story about his 2020. His sinker-slider combination suppressed contact at an elite rate last season, permitting him to rank in the 96th percentile of exit velocity. That didn’t prevent him from allowing 11 hits per nine frames, but we don’t think that will carry into the new year. As an added bonus, Cordero has the best short-sleeve game in the majors since the days of Joel Peralta. Jeff Hoffman: Hoffman, the ninth pick in the 2014 draft, has made 68 career big-league appearances. In those games, he’s accumulated a 6.40 ERA and a 1.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Why is he on here? Three reasons. One: Hoffman is no longer a member of the Rockies, meaning he no longer has to pitch in Coors Field. Two: He has better stuff than his results suggest, including a high-spin fastball and both a breaking ball and changeup that coerced whiffs more than 30 percent of the time last season. Three: Hoffman now gets to perform under the tutelage of Derek Johnson, seemingly one of the top pitching coaches in the game. Maybe Hoffman just isn’t meant to be a competent big-league hurler, but we find this gamble worth the taking. Cal Quantrill: The Fighting Franconas nabbed Quantrill as part of the Mike Clevinger trade last summer. He spent almost the entire rest of the season in Cleveland’s bullpen, where he managed a 1.84 ERA and a 6.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Presuming Quantrill gets a crack at a rotation spot, he could be a solid mid-rotation type. As we noted in August, he bears enough of a resemblance to Zach Plesac to think better days await. Tyler Kinley: Despite a so-so ERA and middling strikeout-to-walk ratio, there was a lot of red on Kinley’s Baseball Savant page from last year. He limited quality of contact; he missed bats; he threw his upper-80s slider and mid-90s fastball hard and with spin. The only area where Kinley struggled was with his control: He issued a walk every other inning (though his strike percentage was fairly close to league-average). The Rockies might be a mess, but keep an eye on Kinley in 2021. If his first half looks as good as the percentile doohickies on his stat page, then he’s going to be in demand at the deadline. Victor Reyes: As explained in the introduction, we try to make this process more interesting for the reader and more challenging for the author by abstaining from picking top prospects. Sometimes, though, that leaves you with a situation like this one, where you have no real choice other than to tab a player like Reyes, whose chances of “breaking out” are remote. He’s a fast runner, and at 6-foot-5 he’s probably the tallest singles hitter in the league, so he’s got that going for him. Otherwise? Reyes has at least average raw power that he can’t access because of his mechanics and his swing-happy approach. The best-case scenario here entails him getting enough playing time to become the first Tigers outfielder since Rajai Davis with 10 triples and 10 stolen bases. Shy of that, he seems unlikely to qualify as a “hit” in next year’s column. Myles Straw: It’s a year too late to pick Framber Valdez and a year too early to pick Abraham Toro, so that leaves us with Straw. He’s a very, very fast runner and capable center fielder who might pop some big defensive ratings. Straw isn’t as promising at the plate. He’s patient and he makes an above-average amount of contact, but he offers so little power that pitchers have no hesitation in challenging him with heat. Some players of this ilk will have a few competent offensive seasons; Straw just might be one of them. Jake Newberry: Maybe it’s cheating to include Newberry, the possessor of a career 115 ERA+ in 61 big-league appearances. We’re doing it anyway on the proposed basis that he could take a step forward in meaningful, underlying ways (such as with his 1.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio). Newberry has a 93-mph fastball that has been walloped the past two seasons. Fortunately, your favorite deity blessed him with a plus slider that responded to career-high usage last season (51.2 percent) with a 48.5 percent whiff rate. Newberry has enough feel for the slider to use it as both, a chase offering versus righties and a strike-stealer against lefties. There’s no reason to start rationing the pitch now, in our estimation, so he should try chucking it even more and see where that leaves him. Luis Rengifo: A repeat selection. Rengifo should be able to usurp Franklin Barreto as the Angels’ utility infielder of choice before spring fades into summer. He can defend, he can run, and he can manage the zone. Rengifo just turned 24 years old, meaning there’s still a path for him to develop into a second-division starter type, or at least someone who could reasonably start a few times a week and provide average-ish production. Alex Vesia: Newcomers are going to have a whale of a time establishing a handhold on a role with this Dodgers team. Vesia, recently acquired from the Marlins for Dylan Floro, has the means to beat the odds and take a permanent role in the L.A. bullpen at some point this year. He has a hoppy low-90s fastball, a history of throwing strikes, and a pair of decent secondary pitches (though he didn’t use either frequently in his big-league debut). Given how skilled the Dodgers are at player development, there’s a chance they unlock something more from Vesia that allows him to further exceed expectations. Ross Detwiler: From our recent piece on under-the-radar signings: “It’s easy to dismiss him because of his career to date. He turns 35 in March and he has a 90 ERA+ in more than 670 big-league innings. Even his success last season came in 19 innings, and with a poor strikeout rate (6.9 per nine). If there is one good reason to give him another look, it’s a rebooted slider that held opponents to a .208 average and generated 34 percent whiffs. If the Marlins ask Detwiler to crank up his slider usage in 2021, he might be on the cusp of remaking his image.” Drew Rasmussen: We’re again going with Rasmussen, who struck out 30 percent of the batters he faced last season over 12 big-league appearances. We’ll ignore his other statistics since they are not supportive of our narrative, but don’t sleep on a fastball-breaking ball pairing that missed all kinds of lumber in limited action. Rasmussen could begin the year in Triple-A and end it in a high-leverage role. Shaun Anderson: Although Anderson came up through the minors with aspirations of becoming a No. 4 starter, he spent last season serving as a glorified right-handed specialist. Nearly 70 percent of the batters he faced were righties, and he responded in kind by spamming them with sliders every other pitch. It worked: Anderson’s slider had a .108 average against and coerced a 40 percent whiff rate. His high-spin fastball wasn’t nearly as effective, but that’s all right. The Twins have done well with other slider-heavy right-handers in recent years, and there’s every reason to think Anderson will flourish. Luis Guillorme: The Mets aren’t projected to have a player on their Opening Day roster who is younger than 25; they aren’t the Nationals, but they aren’t flooded with youth, either, and that can make identifying good breakout candidates tough. Hence Guillorme, who is unlikely to start most days unless there’s an injury. His bat, predicated on walks and opposite-field singles, is just a little too light to slot in as Plan A. Even so, Guillorme might finish a lot of games as a defensive sub, making him feel emergent. He’s a plus defender with smooth actions and enough arm to play the left side. The Mets won’t need him at shortstop, and not even really at second; they could use him in place of J.D. Davis at third, however, and he should pop up in late-and-close situations, or whenever a run saved is deemed to be superior to a run created. Jameson Taillon: Taillon hasn’t pitched since May 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. He altered his arm stroke during the layoff, shortening it in a way that’s going to cause people to think “Lucas Giolito” (or “Robbie Ray,” if you’re a pessimist). The Yankees figure to have Taillon change his pitch mix, too. That could entail further emphasizing his breaking balls, his best pitches statistically. If Taillon can stay healthy, he has a chance to provide the Yankees rotation with a big-time boost. Tony Kemp: Kemp nudges out Nik Turley and Austin Allen for this spot based on his high-grade flip game. OK, that’s not entirely correct (though he may be the AL’s answer to Kolten Wong): He’s also here because he’s an interesting case study in the interplay between exit velocity and launch angle. More than 40 percent of Kemp’s batted balls last season were within the 10-to-30-degree window, putting him in a class with Paul Goldschmidt, Travis d’Arnaud, Will Smith and other Good Hitters. The difference between them and Kemp is that he doesn’t hit the ball authoritatively, even by accident: He was one of three batters last season whose max exit velocity failed to top 100 mph (Ender Inciarte and Dee Strange-Gordon were the others). The lack of oomph makes it unlikely that Kemp will become the A’s version of Donovan Solano; the more realistic hope is that he authors a Sogard-in-2019-style run one of these years, possibly this one. Zach Eflin: Good luck making heads or tails out of Eflin’s 2020. His strikeout rate and his ERA+ each reached career-best levels, and they were accompanied by a pitch-mix switcheroo that saw him mothball his four-seamer and reduce his slider usage in favor of his sinker. Clearly the meddling worked … except batters hit over .300 against the sinker and the slider. His curveball, the other pitch he used more than 10 percent of the time, saved his bacon by holding opponents to a .100 average and generating a 44 percent whiff rate. What does it all mean heading forward? Beats us. Ostensibly Eflin will be reconfiguring his arsenal once more heading into the spring. We’re not convinced he’ll top or repeat last season, but he’s the most compelling candidate on the Phillies roster to have his performance stray from expectations in a positive manner. Nick Mears: Ke’Bryan Hayes will give Pirates fans some much-needed hope. Mears has a chance to become a bright spot, too. He showed off his late-inning potential last season, chucking a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that elicited whiffs on 57 percent of the swings taken against it (albeit in only five innings of work). The Pirates figure to move veteran relievers like Richard Rodriguez, Chris Stratton and Michael Feliz as the opportunity presents itself, so Mears could slot into a setup role before the year ends. Joe Musgrove: Finding an unheralded Padre is like pedaling up a hors catégorie ascent on a unicycle. To choose Musgrove, a popular pick in these sorts of columns, is to relent and to allow the slope to take over. Musgrove keeps popping up in “breakout” pieces because of this nagging feeling that he could get a little more from his arsenal if he optimized his pitch mix by better leveraging his breaking balls. Do the Padres agree, and will Musgrove be willing to comply and able to execute? We’ll find out. Nick Tropeano: Though this is only Tropeano’s age-30 season, he hasn’t been relevant in an hour. The last time he contributed more than one win above replacement was in 2016, when he was teammates with Jered Weaver, Tim Lincecum, Huston Street and Ricky Nolasco. Not content to be classified as a thing of the past, or mistaken as retired, Tropeano resurfaced last year with the Pirates and showed a little something in relief, punching out 19 of the 66 batters he faced. He excelled behind a heavy dosage of sliders and splitters, two pitches that generated whiffs on more than 40 percent of the swings taken against them. If Tropeano can throw more strikes, thereby allowing him to better leverage his bat-missers, he could be a multi-inning reliever. Luis Torrens: Whether by luck, skill, or some combination thereof, the Mariners have unearthed several decent backstops in recent years (Omar Narvaez, Austin Nola, Tom Murphy). Might Torrens be the next one? He might. Torrens was overmatched as a Rule 5 pick in 2017. He mostly stayed in the minors until last season, when he showed a disciplined approach and the ability to make hard contact in 25 games. Torrens’ defense wasn’t as impressive (he ranked 93rd out of 99 catchers in framing), but he won’t turn 25 until May and there’s evidence that can be improved with enough work. Lane Thomas: Thomas is a repeat pick after receiving just 40 plate appearances last season. The Cardinals only subtracted from their outfield over the winter, suggesting he should get more burn in 2021, if only as Harrison Bader’s caddie at the onset. Thomas hits the ball hard and minds the zone; he runs well and can play center; and, let’s face it, he seems like the exact kind of player to emerge and inspire “Devil Magic” quips. Yoshi Tsutsugo: At the risk of oversimplifying things, it’s good to hit the ball hard; it’s good to command the strike zone; and it’s good to make contact at a higher clip than the league-average. Tsutsugo did all those things in his rookie season, yet he wasn’t rewarded for his efforts with more than a 97 OPS+. The Rays discussed him in trades over the winter, suggesting they’re not sold on him doing much better in Year No. 2 (or, perhaps more truthfully, that they wanted to shed his $7 million salary). We’re willing to press our luck, but we are mindful of his suboptimal distribution of hard-hit balls that sees him make his best contact at low-flying trajectories. Nick Solak: Solak finished last season with a 90.4 percent in-zone contact rate and an 89.9-mph exit velocity. If you can find it in your heart to round up his exit velocity to 90 mph, then he was one of five hitters (minimum 100 plate appearances) in the 90/90 club, joining Mookie Betts, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rendon and Robinson Cano. Making contact nearly every time you swing, and hitting the ball hard in the process, is an almost foolproof way to excel at baseball. Who knew? Solak is still dogged by positional questions, but his bat is above reproach. He’s going to hit, and hit a lot. Julian Merryweather: You might recall that Merryweather was the player the Blue Jays received from Cleveland in the Josh Donaldson trade a few summers ago. He didn’t make his big-league debut until last season, just weeks before turning 29, but he showed enough to earn a spot here. Merryweather’s fastball averaged 96.7 mph and he has an assortment of secondary offerings (residual from his starting days) that should enable him to turn over a lineup before he departs if the Blue Jays want to get creative with his usage. The most interesting aspect of Merryweather’s game is the velocity distance between his heater and his 81-mph changeup, his preferred offspeed offering last year. Alex Claudio and Jharel Cotton have possessed similar gaps in recent years, though neither had the ability to touch into the upper-90s the way that Merryweather can, giving him an added dimension of intrigue and possibly GIFability — in so many words, he’s going to coerce some embarrassing swings provided he stays healthy (no promises). Carter Kieboom: The Nationals roster is not an easy place to find breakout candidates. The team is mostly made up of established veterans, to the extent that only three of their projected 26 players are under the age of 25: Juan Soto (of course), Victor Robles and Kieboom, who gets the nod here because Robles has already authored a four-win season. After two failed cameos, Kieboom would settle for a two-win season. His discipline has translated to the big-league level, but his power has not. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the Nationals ask Kieboom to be more aggressive at the plate, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if he ends up reaffirming why he was once a top prospect.



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