Top MLB Breakout Candidates at Every Position Entering 2018

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2018

Top MLB Breakout Candidates at Every Position Entering 2018

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    Like every MLB season, 2018 will feature its share of breakout stars.

    We won't know who those stars will be until the games are played. In the meantime, as prospects and veterans alike stretch their muscles in Florida and Arizona, here's a look at the top breakout candidates at each position.

    For our purposes, we're considering youngsters who've never taken a swing or thrown a pitch in the big leagues as well as players with an MLB resume who are primed to take the next step toward elite status.

    Here's what they all share: a path to playing time at the highest level, an as-yet-unreached ceiling and tantalizing talent. 

Catcher

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Chance Sisco, Baltimore Orioles

    The Baltimore Orioles might open 2018 with Caleb Joseph as their primary backstop. That said, Joseph is 31 and owns a career .225 average.

    The door is wide-open for Chance Sisco, who owns a .311/.390/.426 slash line in five minor league seasons and refined his catching skills at Triple-A Norfolk in 2017, where he threw out a career-best 23 percent of would-be base stealers.

          

    Francisco Mejia, Cleveland Indians

    Technically, Francisco Mejia is blocked on the Cleveland Indians depth chart by Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes. Neither possesses the offensive credentials to keep Mejia down for long.

    The 22-year-old has slashed .293/.349/.447 in five minor league seasons and sipped his cup of coffee with the Tribe in 2017.

    It shouldn't be long before he's shouldering everyday receiving duties for the defending American League Central champs.

         

    Austin Barnes, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Austin Barnes took playing time from Yasmani Grandal down the stretch and in the postseason for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but L.A. opted not to trade Grandal this winter.

    That sets up an interesting competition this spring and a chance for the 28-year-old Barnes to fully establish himself.

    "Yasmani obviously had more opportunities, more at-bats, more playing time [in 2017]—and I see that again," manager Dave Roberts said, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times. "But Austin has earned the right to get opportunities."

First Base

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Greg Bird, New York Yankees

    Greg Bird was a sizzling breakout candidate after hitting 11 home runs with an .871 OPS in 46 games with the New York Yankees in 2015.

    Shoulder surgery wiped out his 2016 season, and he played only 48 games in 2017 due to an ankle injury.

    Bird finished the season strongly, hitting .379 with four homers in his final 10 games. If he can avoid the disabled list (admittedly a big "if"), he could join the swelling ranks of young Yankees stars. 

           

    Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics

    Matt Olson turned heads in a 59-game audition with the Oakland Athletics in 2017, clubbing 24 home runs with a 1.003 OPS.

    If the 23-year-old can come close to replicating that production over a full campaign, he'll establish himself among the AL's elite power hitters and be a massive, cost-controlled boon to the budget-conscious A's.

          

    Ryan McMahon, Colorado Rockies

    With Ian Desmond sliding to the outfield, the Colorado Rockies have opened a spot at first base for Ryan McMahon.

    McMahon hit .355 with a .986 OPS at Triple-A last season and got his feet wet with a 17-game MLB look. The Rockies could add depth from a free-agent pool that includes old friend Mark Reynolds, but for now McMahon appears to be Plan A.

Second Base

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Yoan Moncada, Chicago White Sox

    The moment is now for Yoan Moncada. The 22-year-old sensation enters spring as a presumptive starter for the Chicago White Sox and a foundational piece of their accelerating rebuild.

    Moncada hit .282 with 12 home runs and 17 stolen bases at Triple-A in 2017 before slashing .231/.338/.412 in 54 games with the White Sox.

    Now, he'll be given every opportunity to deliver on the hype that's followed him from Cuba to the Boston Red Sox to the South Side.

           

    Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

    The Yankees have holes in the infield after trading second baseman Starlin Castro and third baseman Chase Headley this winter. One of them should be plugged by top prospect Gleyber Torres.

    Torres hit .287 with an .863 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017 before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in June. Assuming he's healthy, the Yanks will plug him in at second and watch his star propel into the firmament.

          

    Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves

    At the tender age of 21, Ozzie Albies is ready to make an impact with the Atlanta Braves.

    In 57 games with the Braves last season, Albies hit .286 with an .810 OPS. A solid spring will guarantee him a starting gig on Opening Day.

    "I feel so good," Albies said, per David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I want to have a better season this year than last year. Just keep my approach the same and make things happen."

Third Base

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Jeimer Candelario, Detroit Tigers

    The Detroit Tigers are in the beginning stages of a painful yet necessary rebuild. Jeimer Candelario could offer a cathartic dose of optimism in the Motor City.

    The 24-year-old hit .330 with an .874 OPS in 27 games with the Tigers after coming over from the Chicago Cubs at the 2017 trade deadline.

    He's on track to man the hot corner full time for Detroit in 2018 and has the tools to produce.

          

    Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

    Maybe Rafael Devers already broke out for the Boston Red Sox. The 21-year-old clubbed 10 home runs and tallied 30 RBI in 58 games for Boston.

    Now, the Sox are expecting Devers to replicate that success and boost an offense that finished last in the AL in home runs. 

    Sure, they inked free-agent slugger JD Martinez, but Devers is an indelible piece of Boston's offseason puzzle.

         

    Miguel Andujar, New York Yankees

    Speaking of young AL East infielders, the Yankees are hoping for big things from Miguel Andujar, who could win the third base job with a superlative spring. 

    The 22-year-old hit .315 with an .850 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A last season and went 4-for-7 with two doubles and four RBI in an impressive MLB audition. 

Shortstop

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    J.P. Crawford, Philadelphia Phillies

    A first-round pick in 2013, J.P. Crawford struggled in 23 games with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017 after hitting .243 at Triple-A.

    That said, his range and defense are top-notch, and the Phillies plan to make him their everyday shortstop.

    "I just thought to myself that I finally have a chance to start my career and be a part of this team from the get-go," Crawford said after arriving in camp, per Matt Breen of Philly.com. "Hopefully, I can make an impact on Opening Day."

         

    Amed Rosario, New York Mets

    If you're sensing a trend of National League East teams giving starting gigs to young shortstops, you're not wrong.

    The New York Mets are counting on Amed Rosario, who hit .328 with 19 stolen bases at Triple-A and got 165 at-bats with the Amazin's. 

    "The sky is the limit for this kid," Mets veteran Jose Reyes said, per Newsday's David Lennon. "He can do everything he wants to do."

          

    Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

    Dansby Swanson fell mostly flat in his first full big league season, as he hit .232 with a .636 OPS for the Braves.

    The 24-year-old was the first overall pick in 2015. Expectations are calibrated accordingly, and he can live up to them with a needle-moving 2018.

Outfield

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    Alex Verdugo, Los Angeles Dodgers

    The Los Angeles Dodgers outfield could be staffed by Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles, Matt Kemp, etc.

    Rookie Alex Verdugo can enter the competition after hitting .314 with an .825 OPS at Triple-A last season and making his MLB debut.

    As shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger have demonstrated, the defending Senior Circuit champions are ready and willing to give MLB jobs to minor leaguers the moment they're ready.

       

    Manuel Margot, San Diego Padres

    Manuel Margot was slowed by a calf injury in 2017 but hit .263 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 126 games for the San Diego Padres. Tack on eight defensive runs saved in center field, and you're describing a star in the offing.

    Margot turned 23 in September, meaning he's on the edge of his prime. The Friars won't compete in 2018, but they'll enjoy his exploits.

       

    Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies

    The Philadelphia Phillies signed first baseman Carlos Santana this winter, which pushes Rhys Hoskins to left field. The 24-year-old hit 18 home runs in 50 games last season for the Phils and is poised for a 162-contest breakout.

    FanGraphs' Depth Charts projects 36 homers and a .522 slugging percentage. Philadelphia would take that with a smile. 

Pitcher

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    Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals

    Alex Reyes posted a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. He was a safe bet to emerge as the game's next ace.

    Tommy John surgery erased his 2017 season, but at age 23, he's primed for a comeback.

    The Cards may use him out of the bullpen or slot him into the rotation. Either way, he's an arm to bet on.

          

    Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

    Shohei Ohtani posted a 2.52 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings and an .859 OPS in five seasons with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters.

    The 23-year-old eschewed untold millions by bucking MLB's international signing rules and agreeing to terms with the Los Angeles Angels before his 25th birthday.

    Now, we get to watch his triple-digit fastball and fence-clearing power stateside. Get your popcorn ready.

          

    Tyler Chatwood, Chicago Cubs

    The Chicago Cubs are banking on exciting things from right-hander Tyler Chatwood, even after signing ace Yu Darvish.

    Chatwood had extreme home/away splits last season with the Rockies, as he posted a 6.01 ERA and .302 opponents' average at Coors Field and a 3.49 ERA and .200 opponents' average on the road.

    Wrigley Field isn't a hurlers' paradise, but a move away from the Mile High confines could propel the 28-year-old Chatwood to top-of-the-rotation status.

       

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference