MLB breakout players 2023: Predicting the top hitters and pitchers ready to make the leap to household names
Hipsters get a bad rap for their snob tendencies, but everyone can appreciate the initial allure: Seeing a great band up close in a tiny 300-person room for $20 feels extremely gratifying when they start selling out basketball arenas. The same goes, in a lot of ways, for baseball players. Seeing a future star’s potential — or drafting it in your fantasy league — before anyone else can be an instant mood booster.
And every year, MLB delivers surprise stars who rocket out of their normal orbit and into the mainstream. Just last year, the examples included Andres Gimenez, Taylor Ward and Nathaniel Lowe with the bat, or Dylan Cease, Nestor Cortes Jr. and Kyle Wright on the mound.
They happen, they change the course of seasons, and sometimes you can even see them coming. So it’s the time of year where we have some fun trying to spot the big names before they pop.
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Below are picks for every lineup position, plus five starting pitchers and three relief pitchers, with reasons statistical and … less objective … for recommending them. Of note: These are players who are not prospects — those youngsters are covered in a separate guide. The promise here is potential leaps from established major leaguers or pros coming over from Japan.
Thanks to premium defensive skills, the New York native doesn’t need to change a thing — except perhaps his durability track record — to be a solid starter in center. If he were to add even a dash of the power surge he showed in a terrific postseason showing, he could ascend into All-Star territory. Yankee Stadium’s more famous porch is in right field, but the left field dimensions are also accommodating for a right-handed swinger with borderline pop like Bader. Also helpful: The strikes he’s likely to see from pitchers desperately trying to face Aaron Judge with the bases empty.
What a breakout looks like: 120+ games, .255 AVG, 20 homers, 20 steals
RIYL: Hometown heroes, second-row homers
Here’s a case where 2022 sure looked like a breakout. Kirk hit .285 with 14 homers, good for a 126 OPS+ and an All-Star selection, and commanded a full-time lineup slot in Toronto split between catcher and DH. This offseason, though, the Blue Jays gave an indication that they see his prowess continuing or growing. They dealt away rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno, who might be the next best bet for a catcher breakout, to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Kirk’s bat-to-ball skills are just that special. He has batting champion potential.
What a breakout looks like: Vying for the AL’s top batting average, making 80+ starts behind the dish, getting MVP votes
RIYL: A short (batting) king, the athletic stylings of Willians Astudillo
Vinnie Pasquantino, Royals designated hitter
He looks like the archetypal thunderous first baseman. He looked like a secondary prospect in the Royals’ young core, behind Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez and even fellow first baseman Nick Pratto.
On all counts, Pasquantino has quickly asserted himself as something more. An 11th-round draft pick who torched every level of the minors, he’s not a homer or whiff basher at all. He walked more than he struck out in a stellar 72-game introduction to the majors in 2022. And while he won’t be winning awards for fielding or running, he could turn into a full-blown star on the bat alone (and his often humorous Twitter game).
This is an MVP vote-getter checklist: In addition to the mature eye, Pasquantino puts the bat on the ball and makes a ludicrous amount of hard contact. Steamer, a projection system at FanGraphs, foresees Pasquantino as a top-15 hitter in baseball, even without a serious power uptick. Giddyup.
What a breakout looks like: .280 AVG, .375 OBP, 28+ homers
RIYL: Freddie Freeman Lite / Brandon Nimmo Heavy, the concept of the New York Jets and success sharing a sentence
Here’s your homer-bashing first baseman archetype: A jovial lineup presence who menaces right-handed pitching, Tellez is probably the least famous hitter with a feasible shot at leading the majors (or at least the National League) in home runs. It wouldn’t be coming out of nowhere, either. Tellez finished tied for seventh in MLB last season with 35, despite struggling with left-handed pitching. And a fairly simple brew of underlying metrics can sway you he’s still on the upswing entering his age-28 season: He hits the ball as hard as almost anyone in baseball and has shown steady improvement in his approach at the plate.
What a breakout looks like: .260 AVG, 35+ homers, 90+ RBIs
RIYL: Friends officiating weddings, pro wrestling, the literal idea of getting rowdy
The lanky Bohm has had more than his share of ups and downs in a major-league career that somehow only began in 2020, but the tribulations have only secured his status as a lineup fixture Philly fans have chosen to deserve. A former No. 3 overall pick, he has demonstrated significant contact ability, logging a .280 batting average across a full season in 2022. Everything about Bohm’s long-levered, stay-back-and-uncoil swing suggests there’s more power to be tapped.
What a breakout looks like: .275 AVG, 22+ homers, slugging percentage over .440
RIYL: Tough love, lip reading, Diet J.D. Martinez
Oneil Cruz, Pirates shortstop
The appeal of Cruz is obvious: He’s 6-foot-7, plays shortstop and might reasonably inspire fans sitting 450 feet away to don helmets. If he boosts his swing decisions to merely below-aveage, he’s going to be an absolute force.
What a breakout looks like: Strikeout rate under 30%, 30 homers, 15 steals
RIYL: Lasers, physics problems, Luka Doncic, Statcast
Masataka Yoshida, Red Sox outfielder
A star in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball, Yoshida joined the Red Sox on a five-year, $90 million deal this offseason. And the projection systems are all-in on his skillset. Steamer, a system at FanGraphs, thinks his penchant for contact and total mastery of the strike zone could put him among the league on-base percentage leaders right away.
What a breakout looks like: .290 AVG, .370 OBP, 15+ homers
RIYL: Michael Brantley, Green Monster doubles
Fresh off a 4 WAR showing in his first full MLB season, Hoerner will move to second base as Dansby Swanson joins the Cubs. Hoerner could immediately be one of the better defenders there in a crucial year for second basemen. A minuscule strikeout rate and evolving extra-base power speaks to a young hitter comfortable with how he’s being attacked. With a few extra walks and/or a few more line drives, the smart, speedy Hoerner could swipe 30 bags. With a few bigger hacks, maybe he threatens 20 homers. The sturdy base is there. He could make a jump in any direction.
What a breakout looks like: .290 AVG, 15 homers, 30 steals
RIYL: 2022 Andres Gimenez, that one crazy Marcus Giles season
New outfield partner Jazz Chisholm Jr. has a higher ceiling and more flash in his game, but De La Cruz quietly showed off a promising bat in September. Baseball Prospectus analyst Robert Orr noted his evolution to handle all manner of pitches late in the season.
What a breakout looks like: .270 AVG, 20 homers, a full-time job for Miami and your fantasy team
RIYL: If Alex Verdugo was a pleasant surprise instead of a letdown, underdog stories
Dustin May, Dodgers starting pitcher
With Walker Buehler on the shelf after Tommy John surgery, the red-haired May (who returned from Tommy John late in 2022) will be relied upon in the starting rotation. The pure stuff says he can handle it, possibly with flying colors. He throws three different types of fastballs (four-seam, cutter, sinker) and a slider that give his pitches the feel of being controlled live by a joystick. Oh, and he can do all that in the upper 90s.
What a breakout looks like: 140+ innings, 2.85 ERA, a top-15 K/9 mark
RIYL: Expressive leg kicks, Carrot Top, divergent baseball overlays
Brady Singer, Royals starting pitcher
Singer was really good in 2022, a rare Kansas City pitcher taking a step forward with a 127 park-adjusted ERA+. With a delivery that seems to hit fast-forward in the middle, he flummoxes hitters with a sinker he can throw all over the zone, and a slider he works off it. Almost no one gets batters to stare at this many strikes. With a forward-thinking new coaching staff and improving lineup, he might jump into Cy Young voting.
What a breakout looks like: 30 starts, 130 ERA+, 0.8 or better HR/9
RIYL: Peak Sonny Gray, early Aaron Nola, a good umpire punch out
George Kirby, Mariners starting pitcher
Kirby reached the majors as advertised: He walked nobody, struck out a fair amount of batters and remained in full command of a diverse arsenal. Pretty impressive for a 24-year-old rookie hurler, and not all that different from what fellow strike-throwers Shane Bieber and Aaron Nola did before finding true strikeout stuff and turning into aces. It’s not a bad thing when your fastball is good enough to lead the way, but Kirby’s next step is finding which of his many secondary pitches can truly dominate a lineup.
What a breakout looks like: 160+ innings, 125 ERA+, 26% strikeout rate, threatening a sub-1.00 WHIP
RIYL: Cliff Lee starter kits, strikes on strikes on strikes
Nick Lodolo, Reds starting pitcher
Lodolo is … something entirely different. A beastly left-hander who could front the next good Reds rotation, he might hit you in the foot (he plunked an MLB-high 19 batters in only 19 starts in 2022) or get you to look silly swinging at a power curveball (that also hits you in the foot). His stuff is overpowering, sometimes even for him. But that’s nothing new in the lineage of terrifying left-handers with power stuff. The upside for dominance, and especially strikeouts, is immense as he enters his first full season.
What a breakout looks like: 175+ innings, 125 ERA+, 200 strikeouts
RIYL: The 15 minutes per year Andrew Heaney is good and healthy, if Chris Sale ate Robbie Ray
Aaron Ashby, Brewers starting pitcher
The numbers weren’t pretty in 2022 for the hard-throwing lefty who looked like the next example on the Brewers conveyer belt of future starters getting some fine-tuning at the MLB level in the bullpen. There are a lot of factors that hampered him last season — pinging back and forth from rotation to bullpen because of injuries, his own lackluster command, bad luck on grounders — even while he posted big strikeout and ground-ball numbers. Generally, having either of those in the abundance Ashby does is a harbinger of success. Having both? Usually great! The big question is whether he can command his visually promising sinker enough to get real results. There are enough examples of Milwaukee solving these puzzles to think Ashby might figure it out in a big way.
What a breakout looks like: 140 IP, 3.30 ERA, 10.0+ K/9, 55% ground-ball rate or better
RIYL: Mirror image of A.J. Burnett, left-handed Lance McCullers Jr.
Jhoan Duran, Twins relief pitcher
Duran was phenomenal as a rookie, posting a 1.86 ERA with 103 mph heat, a super-bendy curveball and a pitch called the “splinker,” which is a portmanteau of splitter and sinker. So this isn’t so much a bet that he will be better, but a bet that he will become more prominent in the Twins bullpen and perhaps take over the closer job to rack up saves and crazy ratio numbers.
What a breakout looks like: 2.00 ERA, 20+ saves, bushels of strikeouts
RIYL: Race cars, roller coasters, Shohei Ohtani’s best pitches combined into one
Brock Burke, Rangers relief pitcher
File Burke under quiet 2022 breakouts that might get loud in 2023. After struggling with injuries, the lefty figured out a souped-up arsenal with notably a firm slider and changeup, and posted a 1.97 ERA across 52 games of multi-inning relief work. With the Rangers upping the ante, Burke could become a linchpin of the bullpen or even a savior for a high-risk rotation. Think the Andrew Miller model: Some saves, some wins, and plenty of solid innings.
What a breakout looks like: Sub-3.00 ERA, 10 wins, 10 saves
RIYL: Rangers’ answer to Paul Sewald, do-it-all duct tape, Swiss Army knives
Carlos Estevez, Angels relief pitcher
Freed from Coors Field, Estevez has a chance to claim the Angels’ closer job and show what his upper-90s fastball might be able to do closer to sea level. Without the various complications of pitching for the Rockies, he could surge into leaguewide relevance.
What a breakout looks like: 24% strikeout rate, 20+ saves
RIYL: Right-handed Jake McGee, penny stocks