When we're talking about sleepers or busts for Fantasy Baseball drafts, price tends to play a big role in how I tend to think about things. A player I like can be a bust if it's going to cost too much to draft them, while a player I'm not necessarily in love with can move into sleeper territory if it turns out everyone else likes him even less than I do.
Things are a lot less complicated when it comes to the breakouts question. Price really doesn't matter very much to me – if I think a first-round player is going to have the best season of his career, I'm fine calling him a breakout. Not everyone agrees with me on that definition, but all I have to do is point to Aaron Judge last year – established players can break out! It happens every year.
I don't actually have any first-round caliber players on my first list of breakouts, though I think you could certainly make a case for Kyle Tucker, Bobby Witt Jr, Michael Harris, and maybe even Mike Trout if you think he's got a chance to stay healthy this season. I won't be making those cases here, but I do have 12 players I think could take a big step forward this season. I'm not necessarily going to pay all the way up for each of these players in every draft, but you can bet I'm going to have them all on at least a few of my teams this season. The payoff could be huge.
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ARI Arizona • #7 • Age: 23
Carroll more than held his own in his first taste of the majors, hitting .260/.330/.500 with a manageable enough 27% strikeout rate. Ideally, you'd see him cut that K rate as he gets more experience, but the fact that he hit .306 with a .404 wOBA against breaking pitches as a left-handed 22-year-old suggests he may not have too much trouble with that. Carroll is arguably the top prospect in baseball, and he has a very Fantasy-friendly profile, having hit .307 with 24 homers and 31 steals in just 93 games in the minors last season, too. Carroll doesn't cut a particularly imposing presence, and his quality-of-contact metrics last season weren't terribly impressive, but his minor-league track record suggests he'll make adjustments and get the most out of his skill set. He's a potential five-category contributor who could be a truly elite base stealer – he was the fastest baserunner in baseball in 2022.
Eloy Jimenez LG
CHW Chi. White Sox • #74 • Age: 27
If the White Sox are smart, they'll finally relegate Jimenez to a full-time DH role, because injuries have been the biggest hindrance for Jimenez so far. Over the past two seasons, he has played just 139 of 324 possible games, and thankfully the addition of Andrew Benintendi this offseason seems likely to keep Jimenez in the DH spot more often. Jimenez started to break out when he was on the field last season, with the underlying metrics to back it up, including a 92.8 mph average exit velocity that would have tied Vladimir Guerrero for the 10th-best in baseball if he had enough at-bats to qualify. A .300 average and 30-plus homers is well within the realm of possibilities for Jimenez if he stays healthy.
Seiya Suzuki RF
CHC Chi. Cubs • #27 • Age: 29
Early on in his rookie season, Suzuki looked like an absolute star, hitting .279/.405/.529 in April with a 30-homer pace. That would be the high point of his season, as he slumped in May before a finger injury cost him more than a month, but he still showed pretty solid skills all across the board that make me think he could have a better time in year two. Suzuki ranked in the 63rd percentile in average exit velocity and showcased a bit more upside with a 75th-percentile max exit velocity. He also sported a 77th percentile sprint speed along with excellent plate discipline markers, a sign that he could be a better source of both batting average and speed than he was as a rookie. Suzuki's stateside debut was already pretty solid, but I can still see a path to 25 homers and 15 steals here.
ARI Arizona • #31 • Age: 26
There are certainly some red flags in McCarthy's profile, starting with pretty bad quality-of-contact metrics that cast doubt on his .283/.342/.427 line as a rookie – xBA suggests he probably should have hit more like .249. However, McCarthy put bat to ball often enough and has plenty of speed to spare, so it's not unreasonable to think he might outrun his projected average – he hit .307 in 86 career games at Triple-A. I'm not expecting much power, but if McCarthy can hit .270, he could pretty easily be a 30-steal guy, and that isn't the ceiling. He held his own against lefties (.764 OPS), too, so hopefully, there isn't much platoon risk here. If you don't want to pay up for speed, McCarthy could be a very good source of it in the mid-to-late rounds.
CHW Chi. White Sox • #25 • Age: 25
Vaughn makes a lot of contact and hits the ball hard, as advertised, but we're still waiting for him to live up to the lofty expectations he carried with him as a prospect. The problem, as with so many other players with a similar profile, is fairly straightforward: Vaughn hits the ball on the ground too much to take advantage of whatever else he does well. That was especially an issue in 2022, as his expected isolated slugging percentage dipped from .191 to .160, as his average launch angle fell from 9.7 degrees to 7.5. Vaughn isn't far off from a breakout, given his 82nd percentile average exit velocity and very solid 17.3% strikeout rate. He's cleared to play first base, his natural position, full time for the first time as a major leaguer, and hopefully that can help him settle in. There's still potential here for a similar profile to former teammate Jose Abreu's.
Riley Greene CF
DET Detroit • #31 • Age: 23
There was a lot of optimism surrounding Greene at this time last year, but a foot injury during spring training delayed his MLB debut and may have hampered his chances of ever becoming the kind of impact player we thought he could be as a rookie. Greene wasn't bad as a rookie, sporting a .682 OPS that, once you take his tough home park into account, made him right around an average major-league hitter. However, his five homers and one steal came as a significant disappointment after a minor-league breakout in 2021 that saw him finish with 24 and 16 of them, respectively. Losing those spring reps surely didn't help, but he's healthy heading into 2023 and there's still quite a bit to like about the 22-year-old. He sported above-average exit velocities and hard-hit rates despite the missed time, and I think you could probably chalk up the disappointing speed to coming back from a broken foot. Greene struck out an alarming 28.7% of the time, but he was about middle of the pack in terms of chase rate and contact rate, so it's not unreasonable to think he can improve that aspect of the game. Add in changes to the outfield walls designed to make Comerica Park a more hitter-friendly venue, and there's still a lot to like about Greene.
KC Kansas City • #9 • Age: 26
There probably won't be more than a few breakouts columns written this offseason without Pasquantino featured. He had a very good rookie season, hitting .295/.383/.450 in just under 300 plate appearances, and he might have left a little meat on the bone, even. His exceptional plate discipline – 11.4% strikeout rate, 11.7% walk rate – should help him post strong batting averages consistently, and it's reasonable to think he could hit for even more power than he did. His expected isolated slugging percentage of .187 – compared to his actual mark of .155 – sure suggests as much, as does a pull-heavy approach with very strong quality-of-contact metrics. Pasquantino could emerge as an Anthony Rizzo-esque contributor with the bat, with only a poor home park for power and a mediocre lineup likely to hold him back. He might just be good enough to overcome it.
PIT Pittsburgh • #13 • Age: 26
I tend to fall in love with guys like Hayes, who are just one tweak away from stardom, especially when that tweak can be dumbed down to, "Hit the ball in the air more." Hayes is one of the best defensive players in baseball and a very good athlete, and he hits the ball very hard, ranking in the 84th percentile or better in average exit velocity, max exit velocity, and hard-hit rate. The problem is, he hits the ball on the ground too often, and he hits the ball up the middle or to the opposite side too often. If he can just start to hit the ball in the air more, especially to the pull side, Hayes has the skill set to be a very good Fantasy option – a 20-20 season is well within the realm of possibility on the high end, with good batting averages. Will he make those tweaks? I'd bet against it. But the skill set is there, and it's enough to make sure I'm going to target him as a corner infielder in case he figures it out.
Logan Webb SP
SF San Francisco • #62 • Age: 27
Despite putting together a 2.90 ERA over 192.1 innings, Webb is actually cheaper than he was a year ago. Probably because, after striking out a very healthy 26.5% of batters in 2021, he regressed to just a 20.7% rate in 2022. He went from someone who appeared to have quite a bit of upside to someone who is viewed as a pretty boring innings-eater type. Maybe it was never realistic to view him as something more than that; maybe his 2021 strikeout rate was unsustainable. Or … maybe that upside is still there. His slider whiff rate took a step back, from 47.1% to 31.1%, but if he can get back to somewhere close to that 2021 rate, Webb still probably has plenty of upside. And if he doesn't get there, well, the floor is still pretty high in that home park, with his groundball tendencies. It's a somewhat similar profile to Sandy Alcantara a year ago, and while I don't think Webb is going to win the Cy Young, there's probably more upside here than he's currently getting credit for. After all, he's done it once.
CIN Cincinnati • #21 • Age: 24
I've got Greene in my busts column, because I contain multitudes. The truth is, while I don't particularly like the idea of paying a top-10 round pick for him, I have no trouble seeing the case for Greene. Velocity can be viewed as a proxy for upside when it comes to pitchers, and Greene has more velocity than maybe anyone in baseball history – 45% of all pitches thrown 100 mph or harder by starting pitchers last season were thrown by Greene, an astounding stat. The problem is, the angle at which he throws it led to him giving up a ton of home runs last season, and a slider is really his only other weapon at present. That slider is a very good weapon, of course, and he's got a changeup that could help him take another step forward if he continues to develop it. Greene has thrown just 311.2 innings as a professional, so he's still very much a work in progress, but the ceiling is sky high. I don't love the price, but I definitely like the talent.
George Kirby SP
SEA Seattle • #68 • Age: 25
Kirby put up a 3.39 ERA with 9.21 K/9 as a rookie, and I'm betting he can be even better than that if a few things go right. He made his major-league debut after fewer than 120 innings in the minors, so Kirby may not be a finished product, and he's already pretty good. The question is whether he can turn one of his pitches into a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch to boost his strikeout rate. Kirby has a deep, varied arsenal and good command, but none of his pitches had a whiff rate over 22% last season. His command and plus velocity should help Kirby be a solid option no matter what – kind of like Webb – but if he can figure out how to get a little more out of either his slider or changeup, that would help him take a leap. Like Webb, I like drafting Gilbert because of the floor, with the ceiling outcome with a few helpful tweaks a nice bonus.
Dustin May SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #85 • Age: 26
I threw that Sandy Alcantara comp out with Webb, but it applies much more to May. Like Alcantara – at least prior to his breakout – May has electric stuff that hasn't consistently led to the kind of strikeout numbers you would think just from watching him. However, what it has led to is consistently impressive quality of contact numbers, with May sporting a .358 expected wOBA on contact allowed for his career. We've seen flashes of more strikeout potential, especially in his brief 2021, when he started getting more whiffs with his curveball, and that was still there for him even amid a shaky return from Tommy John surgery last season. He knocked the rust off last season and should be in line to take a step forward in 2023, and if he can manage that, May has the kind of pure stuff that can make him a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. He may not chew up innings like Alcantara, but he might have a bit more strikeout upside to make up for it.