Attempting to Find Possible Breakout Stars in 2021: AL Edition
Every season, we find breakout players dotting the MLB landscape that nobody is really looking at. It might be a talented player finally getting the chance to play every day, or even a guy who almost comes out of nowhere.
And while they can be especially difficult to identify, half the fun is trying to do just that.
Here are the players I think could break out in 2021:
Tampa Bay Rays: utility man Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
It’s hard to imagine a rougher transition to the major leagues from Japan than an abbreviated spring training, a ramp-up via summer camp and then a blitzball-type season of 60 games played at a frenetic pace.
I think Tsutsugo is the perfect player for what Kevin Cash wants to do on a daily basis — move guys around, get on base and do so while not making that much money — and I think there’s a lot left in there for a guy who walked 14.1 percent of the time last season.
A .309 wOBA isn’t altogether impressive — though with a .197 batting average, it’s something — and his xwOBA was a much more intriguing .325. Steamer and ZiPS both think he can be in that range, with Steamer projecting a .330 wOBA and a slash of .233/.340/.438. If he can play even decent defense at a few positions, I think he can be a really, really nice player.
New York Yankees: infielder Miguel Andujar
There’s no good reason, but I still believe. I don’t know what this would look like, but I can’t quit on a guy who is still just 26 and was as good as he was as a 23-year-old — though that was, in fairness, 2018.
Trying to find another player on the Yankees is kind of hard to do, since a lot of their players have significant hype. Could Gary Sanchez rebound? Sure. But he’s already been what I would consider to be a star. Clint Frazier was almost a two-win player in 39 (!) games last season. That’s already verging on star status.
I do, however, think Jameson Taillon becomes the next former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher to take a step forward elsewhere — which is kind of the opposite of what used to happen under pitching coach Ray Searage.
Toronto Blue Jays: pitcher Anthony Kay
With some help from a Blue Jays fan friend, this came down to Kay and Julian Merryweather. The reports I’ve read on Merryweather suggest he may not make the team out of spring training and could be more of a reliever type, while Kay — a part of the return for Marcus Stroman — seems to be more likely ticketed for a rotation spot in the future.
It’s going to be kind of a weird year in the Toronto rotation behind Hyun-Jin Ryu, and I think Kay has a real shot to take a step forward. He already strikes guys out and in limited big-league time has kept the ball in the ballpark. If he can pare down the walks a bit, I think he can be a real difference-maker. He throws plenty hard (93.6 mph fastball average in MLB) and a 10 percent swinging-strike rate gives me some hope for the future as well.
Baltimore Orioles: pitcher Dean Kremer
Baltimore’s going to look kinda weird this year — especially in the rotation. For me, this is about opportunity. Kremer didn’t look too bad in his 2020 cup of coffee — 10.6 K/9, 2.76 FIP, zero homers/.211 batting average allowed in 18.2 innings — but he also walked 14.5 percent of the batters he faced and as a result, carried a WHIP of 1.45.
This is basically just shooting for the stars, because I think Kremer has done a fairly good job of throwing strikes in the minor leagues — at least relative to 2020 — had the strikeout numbers have been eye-popping good down there (10.9 K/9 in 356.2 MiLB IP).
Boston Red Sox: pitcher Nick Pivetta
Pretty much everything is in place for Pivetta to take a step forward this season. Well, let’s be clear — he’s shown the ability to be capable of taking that next step. He’s basically the right-handed Robbie Ray.
He strikes everyone out. His walk numbers are iffy. His home run numbers are terrifying. But if he can keep the ball on the ground and in the park — big if on the latter — he has the potential to pitch like his 2018 FIP indicated he was capable of (3.80).
Minnesota Twins: catcher Ryan Jeffers
Jeffers getting to the big leagues in 2020 was certainly a surprise. Not because Jeffers wasn’t a strong prospect, but because the Twins seemed fairly set at catcher with Mitch Garver, Alex Avila and even Willians Astudillo in the mix.
Add to that a lack of a real minor-league season, and it wouldn’t have been terribly surprising for Jeffers — who had all of 99 plate appearances above High-A — to spend the whole season at the alternate training site in St. Paul. Instead, Jeffers stepped in when Garver struggled and got hurt, hitting .273/.355/.436 in 23 games while also starting both of the team’s postseason games.
It won’t be easy for Jeffers to break out. He fanned 30.6 percent of the time in his limited stretch with the Twins last season, and he’s still competing with Garver for time behind the plate. But the hill he climbed last year to make a difference was even steeper, and he projects as a good defensive catcher, to boot.
Chicago White Sox: pitcher Dylan Cease
With Reynaldo Lopez being sent out, it appears as though Cease will get a crack at Chicago’s rotation to start the season. It hasn’t been pretty — 4.7 BB/9, 5.00 ERA/5.71 FIP — in his first 131.1 big-league innings, but it’s also not uncommon for pitchers to struggle as they find their way in the big leagues.
Cease has all the tools that one would want from a big-league starter — and a good one. He ranked as high as No. 21 on MLB Pipeline’s top-100 prospects (prior to 2019) and his minor-league numbers look really strong (3.02 ERA, 11.4 K/9).
It’s going to come down to how Cease gets swings and misses. His fastball is huge (97.1 mph average velo) and entirely hittable (.971 OPS). It carries more swing-and-miss (8.4 percent) than one might expect from a heater, but 58 of his strikeouts have come on the pitch — and 51 of his career walks.
He’ll go as far as his fastball goes — which could be out of the park as well.
Cleveland Indians: pitcher Cal Quantrill
Cleveland has a lot of fun players in this mold. I 100 percent expect they’ll turn another starter into a gem — either Quantrill or Triston McKenzie — but I’m also not out on Bradley Zimmer (somehow) or Bobby Bradley taking a step forward, either.
But in Quantrill, they’re already getting a guy who was a capable big-league pitcher. He has strikeout stuff. He has good command. He can induce grounders.
For Quantrill, it’ll come down to evening out his home-run luck — 13.2 percent HR/FB rate — and otherwise just figuring out a nice balance to his four- and two-seam fastballs. They’ve both been really good, but the sinker doesn’t get as many grounders (47.6 percent) as you’d want for a pitch that has a 6.1 percent swinging-strike rate.
If he goes four-seam, slider and changeup I really think he’ll find the path to being a No. 2 starter — unless Cleveland decides to unlock something out of the sinker-slider mold, as they have with guys like Justin Masterson and Corey Kluber in the past.
Watch out for this guy.
Kansas City Royals: pitcher Jakob Junis
Most of my intrigue regarding Junis comes from this terrific story in The Athletic by Alec Lewis detailing some of the changes the righty has made to build his repertoire past just having a good slider.
Junis is another guy who just hasn’t kept the ball in the ballpark. But I see respectable strikeout, groundball and walk rates with the potential to take a step forward with some sort of secret sauce. I think that’s what a lot of pitchers in this ether — Ray is another, as is the next guy — are missing. Could the tweaking of his pitch mix be that secret sauce?
I think so.
Detroit Tigers: pitcher Spencer Turnbull
This is basically just underscoring my affinity for guys who get strikeouts, keep the ball on the ground and keep the ball in the yard. I had him picked as a breakout player last year and he was really good, but it’s hard to put much stock in a true “breakout” in 56.2 innings.
This year, he blows up — and steals some of the hype Matt Boyd had generated before.
Oakland Athletics: infielder Chad Pinder
Pinder smoked the ball last season but didn’t have much to show for it. Among the 389 players with at least 60 plate appearances, Pinder’s average exit velocity of 92.3 mph placed him right in the mix with Bryce Harper and teammate Matt Olson.
Those two guys combined for 27 homers last season — while Pinder had just two and hit only .232/.295/.393. The biggest issue for Pinder has been getting out of his own way against righties in his career (.284 OBP), but the A’s are again going to be a mix of guys moving all over with the corners of the infield and up the middle in center being pretty consistent.
I think Pinder — despite turning 29 next Monday — still has room for another gear.
Houston Astros: outfielder Myles Straw
The job in center is Straw’s for the taking in Houston after the departure of George Springer, and I think he’s going to steal a ton of bases no matter where he hits in the lineup. I think his small sampling in 2019 — 24/19 K/BB ratio, 18.8 percent/14.8 percent K%/BB% — are indicative of a guy who won’t hit for any power but will pollute the bases and run at will.
It’s possible he won’t hit at all — no projection systems even forecast him for a 90 wRC+ — but if he can even hover close to 100, he’s going to be extremely, extremely valuable.
Seattle Mariners: catcher Luis Torrens
Tom Murphy is coming back from a significant injury, and I think Torrens is going to get a ton of run behind the plate for the Mariners. Torrens also crushed the ball last season, averaging 93.0 mph exit velocity — 10th among 366 hitters with at least 70 PA — despite hitting just .257/.325/.371. He didn’t strike out much (19.2 percent), walked a fair amount (9.0 percent) and hits the ball hard. I think there’s ample breakout potential here.
Los Angeles Angels: pitcher Griffin Canning
Like with all Angels pitchers, the question is if Canning can stay healthy. I asked a beat reporter friend of mine who his breakout star would be for the Angels, and brought up Canning which was met with agreement.
In 146.2 big-league innings, Canning has fanned more than a batter per inning and maintained a respectable 4.36 ERA (4.35 FIP). He’s only 24, and has an absurd swinging-strike rate of 13.0 percent in his big-league career.
This might be the biggest possible superstar jump we’re looking at in the AL this season.
Texas Rangers: outfielder Leody Taveras
The Rangers are going to be horrible, and Taveras is going to get tons of run — literally and figuratively — in Texas’ outfield. He only hit .227/.308/.395 last season, but he walked more than 10 percent of the time and stole eight bases in just 33 games.
This is going to be a 30-steal kind of guy — especially on a bad team — though I do think this is kind of a Straw situation with less plate discipline, unfortunately. For me, though, this is about the opportunity. Maybe Nick Solak, Willie Calhoun, Ronald Guzman or Nate Lowe take a step forward this season — but I’m going with Taveras.