It’s time for our favorite annual activity now that spring is in full bloom: looking for a breakout player for each squad. Spencer Strider and Steven Kwan were among the crop we called last year, and previous iterations have also correctly predicted Cal Quantrill, Drew Rasmussen, DJ LeMahieu, and Ketel Marte, among others. We attempt to play this game at a high level of difficulty, as is customary. It means we don’t consider top prospects (unless there is no other option) or experienced big-league players (unless in situations where we think they will significantly improve). Sorry, guys, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other breakout essays online that will tell you that Gunnar Henderson and Corbin Carroll might develop into good players by the conclusion of this season.
Please remember that this is a subjective exercise as you go through it
RHP Drey Jameson: Jameson is just missing a mustache—or an obsession with The Strokes—to draw parallels to Spencer Strider. For a variety of reasons, those would be excessive, but they are to be expected when you are a short, athletic right-hander with a quick arm and good stuff. Throughout the course of his four big-league outings last season, his fastball averaged 96 mph, and his slider-cutter produced a strikeout percentage of 46%. Jameson’s command falters frequently enough that he might have to accept being an erratic starter in the middle of the rotation. He gets the nod because we believe that his positive moments will make it simpler to accept his negative ones..
OF Sam Hilliard: In general, it’s not a good idea to wager on a batter getting better after leaving Coors Field. Having acquired Hilliard from the Rockies in November, the Braves are hoping that he will be an exception. We believe the gamble is worthwhile. Hilliard is equipped with a number of noisy tools, such as above-average speed, arm strength, and pop. Last season, he shared a top exit velocity of 115.1 mph with his new colleagues Austin Riley and Ronald Acua Jr. Hilliard’s propensity to swing and miss and hit the ball at unfavorable angles has limited his statistics performance. No tiny peas, that much is certain. As the Braves outfield is set up for right-handed pitching, Hilliard should experience a considerable amount of damage. We’ll see if a new beginning at a different company can enable him to realize his unrealized potential.
RHP Kevin Bradish: Given that Bradish’s breakthrough began last season, this would be considered cheating. He made 13 starts after coming off the injured list in late July, compiling a 3.28 ERA and a 2.32 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Changes in Bradish’s mechanics (he stopped using his rocker stride and slid toward the first-base side of the rubber) and pitch use (he threw his slider more frequently) complemented his improved pitching, making his improvements stickier than they otherwise might. We believe Bradish will surpass his overall 82 ERA+ even if he is unable to keep up his late-season pace…
RHP Brayan Bello: In his 13 big-league appearances last year, Bello recorded a 90 ERA+ and a 2.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which are slightly below-average numbers for a starter. No matter what position the Red Sox utilize him in, we believe he can perform better. Bello’s fastballs averaged 96 mph or higher, while his trapdoor changeup produced 44 percent whiffs, displaying an alluring mix of arm strength and velocity. Yet, his four-seamer raises some inside-baseball-type concerns for us. His tiny height and three-quarters arm slot provide him a solid approach angle, but his four-seamer lacks a strong vertical break. With the pitch up in the zone, we’ll cross our fingers and hope he can still be successful.
RHP Jeremiah Estrada: Estrada’s route to the Opening Day roster was obstructed by the Cubs’ addition of numerous seasoned veterans to their bullpen over the winter. It won’t matter because he can clear a path thanks to his fastball, which acts like a chainsaw. Estrada’s heater checks all the boxes: top-notch velocity, vertical break, spin axis, and even more effective velocity because of his deep release position. Last year, he outclassed minor league batters, striking out more than 40% of them across three levels. It won’t be long before Estrada has the chance to use the same strategy against MLB opponents.
OF Oscar Colas: Sorry Romy González, but the White Sox don’t have many exciting breakthrough prospects, thus Colas is the natural choice. Former two-way player, formerly known as the Cuban Ohtani, signed with the White Sox in early 2022 for $2.7 million. Just one year later, he might start the season as Chicago’s right fielder. Colas has above-average power and athleticism, but he doesn’t provide much of a danger in terms of stolen bases. His strategy will restrict his on-base possibilities, which will make his game heavily reliant on his slugging performance.
3B Spencer Steer: Steer participated in 28 games throughout the final 28 games as part of the Tyler Mahle deadline comeback. He had a poor batting average (72 OPS+) and more strikeouts than hits, but he did demonstrate his versatility by playing more than five games at each of the first, second, and third base positions. Of course, we’re not picking Steer as a breakout candidate just because he can occasionally stand in the mud; rather, we’re picking him because we believe his offensive future is bright. He previously posed a threat to lefties due to his disciplined approach and strong contact skills. Steer will need to maximize his 25-year-old season because the Reds have a wealth of promising infield prospects on the way.
OF Will Brennan: Going back to the strategy that worked effectively last year of selecting a left-handed outfielder with promising bat-to-ball abilities in this position? Brennan is, it must be said, at best a toned-down version of Kwan. He does not sprint as well, and neither is his contact rate Arraezian. Yet, despite having more strength than Kwan, he still succeeded on about 90% of his in-zone swings. The latter sentence reveals the primary distinction between Brennan and Kwan: while Kwan keeps a tight zone and keyholes pitches up and in, Brennan swings at everything. In other words, Kwan chased fewer than 35 times in a month three times whereas Brennan chased 35 times in his 11-game cameo late in the year. Still, pardon our digression Brennan only needs to provide the Guardians with a lefty counterpart to Oscar Gonzalez in right field for him to be worth the selection; he doesn’t have to be Kwan 2.0.
OF Sean Bouchard: Outsiders had no incentive to follow the Rockies in September, but Mr. Bouchard’s situation took an interesting turn during those games. He always started in left field and had a 157 OPS+ thanks to his borderline passive approach, which resulted in walks in more than 20% of his plate appearances. The full list of batters who swung less frequently than Bouchard with at least 95 plate appearances is as follows: Daniel Vogelbach, Mike Ford, Juan Soto, Jonah Bride, and Josh VanMeter. It’s challenging to succeed if all you do is take pitches (unless you’re Gregory Blakemoor Norton), so it seems sensible that Bouchard is more comparable to Ford or VanMeter than Vogelbach or Soto.
The key to being a good golfer is mastering the short game, not the long game (or so they say). We consider Vierling’s selection the latter. He hit the ball hard often last season, he was just seldom rewarded for it. To wit, he ranked 216th (out of 218 batters) in wOBA on batted balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. You don’t have to be a data whiz to appreciate that Vierling is heading for positive regression. The Tigers’ new front office seems to agree, having acquired him as part of the Gregory Soto trade with the Phillies.