Every MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star in 2018

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2018

Every MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star in 2018

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    Everyone loves a good breakout. By that, we mean a player who takes a significant leap forward and emerges as a legitimate MLB star.

    As the 2018 season approaches, let's take a look at the top potential breakout candidate from all 30 teams. Some are prospects who've yet to sip a cup of coffee. Others have achieved moderate big league success but haven't approached their ceiling.

    However, they all have a plausible path to playing time at the highest level and a bushel of burgeoning, tantalizing ability. 

American League West

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    Houston Astros: LHP Anthony Gose

    The defending champion Houston Astros need help in the bullpen—specifically, left-handed help. Hence their decision to take a flier on converted outfielder Anthony Gose.

    The 'Stros snatched up the 27-year-old Gose, who played in parts of five seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers, in December's Rule 5 draft, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle. As Bleacher Report's Danny Knobler reported in July, Gose can touch triple digits with his fastball. 

    His lack of MLB pitching experience makes him a massive question mark, but he's young enough to make the transition and supplant Tony Sipp (5.79 ERA in 2017) as Houston's top southpaw option out of the 'pen.


    Los Angeles Angels: RHP Shohei Ohtani

    Two-way Japanese star Shohei Ohtani surprised the baseball world when he shunned the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and other top suitors and instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, Southern California's other team. 

    Now, Ohtani has a chance to help Mike Trout, baseball's best player, return to the postseason stageand potentially revolutionize the game.

    It remains to be seen exactly how the Halos will use Ohtani, but the career .859 OPS and 2.52 ERA he posted in five seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Pacific League tease limitless possibilities for the slender, hard-throwing, big-hitting 23-year-old.


    Oakland Athletics: INF Franklin Barreto 

    Still only 21 years old, Franklin Barreto slashed .290/.339/.456 with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases at Triple-A last season. He also made his big league debut with the Oakland Athletics on June 24.

    The toolsy Venezuelan can play shortstop and second base and could win an Opening Day job with a strong spring. If not, he'll take over as soon as a spot frees up. 

    The perpetually rebuilding A's aren't shy about giving young players a shot, and veteran second baseman Jed Lowrie could be demoted if he doesn't perform or traded if he does.

    This is the place where we mention first baseman/outfielder Matt Olson, who hit 24 home runs for the A's and another 23 at Triple-A last year, yet owns a career .249/.364/.479. slash line in the minor leagues. Maybe he'll be a thing, maybe not. Stay tuned.


    Seattle Mariners: 1B/DH Dan Vogelbach

    In 24 games with the Seattle Mariners between 2016 and 2017, Dan Vogelbach hit .175 without a home run. It's a minuscule sample size, but it's been enough to prevent Seattle from handing the 25-year-old a regular gig.

    Vogelbach will have to hit his way into playing time for the M's, who acquired first baseman Ryon Healy from Oakland and have Nelson Cruz ensconced at designated hitter. He's got the power to do that, as he showed by clubbing 17 homers with an .844 OPS in 125 games at Triple-A last year.

    If Vogelbach is going to translate that success to The Show, this is the season to do it.


    Texas Rangers: INF/OF Willie Calhoun

    When the Texas Rangers shipped ace Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers at the 2017 trade deadline, young slugger Willie Calhoun was the main piece to come back.

    The 23-year-old got his first taste of the big leagues with Texas and hit .265 with a home run in 13 games. More intriguingly, he hit .300 with 31 home runs in 128 games at Triple-A.

    He'll get an opportunity to start 2018 with the Rangers, likely in the outfield. Look for his big bat to thrive in the hitter-friendly confines of Globe Life Park. 

American League Central

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    Chicago White Sox: RHP Michael Kopech

    Michael Kopech probably won't begin the season on the Chicago White Sox's 25-man roster. If the flame-throwing 21-year-old builds on his 2017 success, however, it won't be long before he's singeing radar guns on the South Side.

    In 134.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season, Kopech posted a 2.88 ERA while averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings. Add the allure of his legendary fastball, which Bleacher Report's Scott Miller highlighted in a profile last March, and you've got the makings of a must-watch hurler. 

    Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada could also break out for the ChiSox, but Kopech has the potential to surpass him.


    Cleveland Indians: C Francisco Mejia

    After hitting .297 with an .835 OPS at Double-A, Francisco Mejia made the jump to the majors last season. He hit just .154 in an 11-game audition with the Cleveland Indians, but few doubt he's the Tribe's catcher of the future.

    Whether that future comes soon will depend on the 22-year-old's performance this spring. The Indians still employ the light-hitting but experienced duo of Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes behind the dish.

    If Mejia lives up to his potential, he'll seize playing time and primary catching duties sooner than later.


    Detroit Tigers: 3B Jeimer Candelario

    The overdue rebuild is finally underway in Detroit, meaning Tigers fans are in for some losing seasons.

    Jeimer Candelario could be a bright spot in 2018, though. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs at the 2017 trade deadline in the deal for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila, Candelario hit .330 with an .874 OPS in 27 games with the Tigers and is penciled in as the team's Opening Day third baseman.

    At 24 years old, Candelario is the promise that will offset the painful present in the Motor City.


    Kansas City Royals: SS Raul Mondesi

    Assuming the Kansas City Royals don't re-sign free agent Alcides Escobar, Raul Mondesi figures to be the team's everyday shortstop.

    A second-generation big leaguer, Mondesi posted an .879 OPS with 13 home runs and 21 stolen bases at Triple-A last season. The 22-year-old has yet to translate his tools in 72 games with Kansas City spread between 2016 and 2017, as he's hit a scant .181.

    He's got the youth, ability and opportunity to change that in 2018 for the rebuilding/transitioning Royals. 


    Minnesota Twins: OF Byron Buxton

    You could argue Byron Buxton finally broke out in 2017 after a few seasons of unfullfilled hype.

    The second overall pick in the 2012 draft, Buxton struggled in stints with the Minnesota Twins in 2015 and 2016. The "bust" talk was building.

    Last season, Buxton broke through, hitting 16 home runs with 29 stolen bases and winning a Gold Glove in center field. 

    Still, his .253 average and .314 on-base percentage leave ample room for improvement. At the still-tender age of 24, the hyper-athletic Buxton has the ability to go from non-bust to genuine superstar.

American League East

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    Baltimore Orioles: C Chance Sisco

    The Baltimore Orioles are stuck in neutral. It looks like they're going to hang on to third baseman Manny Machado in his final season before free agency and delay a rebuild, but they have little chance of catching either the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees in the AL East.

    Speaking of catching, the O's should soon hand behind-the-plate duties to Chance Sisco. The 22-year-old owns a .311/.390/.426 slash line in five minor league campaigns and threw out a career-best 23 percent of would-be base stealers at Triple-A Norfolk in 2017.

    With Welington Castillo gone via free agency, Sisco will compete with 31-year-old Caleb Joseph, a career .225 hitter. If Sisco hits to his potential, the job should soon be his, rebuild or no.


    Boston Red Sox: C/IF Blake Swihart

    Speaking of young catchers, Blake Swihart is buried on the Red Sox's depth chart behind Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon.

    Swihart is also out of options and would surely be claimed by another team if placed on waivers. Hence the Red Sox's preference to test him as a super-utility player, per MassLive.com's Christopher Smith.

    Swihart, Smith notes, may see time at first base, second base, third base and the outfield while also serving as the third catcher. That could equal enough at-bats for the 2011 first-round pick to make his MLB mark.

    You could make a compelling argument for third baseman Rafael Devers here, but we're leaning on subjectivity and saying the 21-year-old already broke out for Boston.


    New York Yankees: INF Gleyber Torres

    After trading third baseman Chase Headley to San Diego and second baseman Starlin Castro to Miami this winter, the New York Yankees have holes in the infield.

    They may not be done shopping, but Gleyber Torres should fill at least one of those gaps.

    MLB.com's No. 2 overall prospect, Torres hit .287 with an .863 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017 before requiring Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in June. Assuming that injury is healed, he'll be gunning for an Opening Day job and a chance to join the ranks of rising stars in the Bronx.


    Tampa Bay Rays: RHP Brent Honeywell

    The Tampa Bay Rays may or may not trade top starters Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi at some point in 2018. Either way, Tampa will find a spot for top prospect Brent Honeywell.

    The 22-year-old right-hander and screwball artist has little left to prove in the minors after striking out 11.3 per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A last year.

    He could begin the season in the bullpen or the rotation but figures to be starting regularly for the Rays at some point soon.


    Toronto Blue Jays: OF Teoscar Hernandez

    Teoscar Hernandez will have to fight for a starting job in the Toronto Blue Jays outfield after the club signed veteran Curtis Granderson, per SportsNet.ca's Shi Davidi.

    The 25-year-old will force the issue if he reprises the numbers he put up last season after a trade-deadline swap from the Houston Astros. In 26 games with Toronto, Hernandez hit eight home runs and posted a .908 OPS.

    Granderson, meanwhile, hit a career-worst .212 in 2017 and turns 37 in March. It's possible Hernandez will win the right field gig and run with it.  

National League West

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    Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Yoshihisa Hirano

    The Arizona Diamondbacks figure to have an open competition for the closer's job after Fernando Rodney went to Minnesota via free agency.

    Archie Bradley and Brad Boxberger are viable candidates, but keep an eye on Japanese import Yoshihisa Hirano. 

    The 33-year-old owns a career 3.10 ERA with 156 saves in 11 seasons with Japan's Orix Buffaloes. The D-backs landed him for a modest two-year, $6 million deal, meaning he'll be a steal if he can come close to replicating his JPPL stats.   


    Colorado Rockies: OF David Dahl

    After slashing .315/.359/.500 in a 63-game stint with the Colorado Rockies in 2016, David Dahl saw his 2017 wiped out by back and rib injuries. 

    The 23-year-old is taking swings again and feeling healthy, according to Patrick Saunders of The Denver Post

    If so, he'll be squarely in the mix for a starting outfield job with the Rockies and a chance to pick up where he left off in 2016.


    Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Alex Verdugo

    The Dodgers outfield is crowded but far from set. Yasiel Puig will be the starting right fielder, and 2017 breakout Chris Taylor has the edge in center. Powerful underperformer Joc Pederson is looking to get back on track, while Enrique Hernandez, Andrew Toles and Matt Kemp are also in the picture. 

    To that muddled group, add Alex Verdugo. The Dodgers' No. 2 prospect, Verdugo hit .314 with an .825 OPS at Triple-A before getting into 15 games with the Dodgers.

    L.A. resisted the urge to trade Verdugo at the deadline last year, and now the 21-year-old has a shot to stick at the highest level with the defending NL champs.


    San Diego Padres: OF Manuel Margot

    A calf injury hampered Manuel Margot in 2017, but he showed flashes of the star the San Diego Padres believe he can be.

    The 23-year-old hit .263 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 126 games with eight defensive runs saved in center field.

    A healthy 2018 should show why he's a cornerstone of the Friars' future. 


    San Francisco Giants: OF Steven Duggar

    The San Francisco Giants have made key additions after a disastrous 98-loss season, including outfielder Andrew McCutchen from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

    The Giants quickly announced they plan to play McCutchen in right field and slide Hunter Pence over to left, per MLB.com's Chris Haft.

    That leaves a hole in center that could be filled via trade or by a low-cost free agent. Or, San Francisco could give an audition to Steven Duggar.

    The 24-year-old shot through the Giants' admittedly thin system in 2017 and slashed .262/.365/.445 across three levels with excellent glove work. Even if he isn't the Opening Day center fielder, it's a safe bet he'll make his AT&T Park debut in 2018.

National League Central

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    Chicago Cubs: OF Mark Zagunis

    An on-base machine who owns a career .402 OBP and .842 OPS across four minor league seasons, Mark Zagunis will need a torrid spring to make the Cubs' 25-man roster, let alone earn regular playing time.

    Yet, the 24-year-old's skill set and ability to play all three outfield positions make him an ideal fit for Cubs manager Joe Maddon's mix-and-match machinations.

    Last season, it was unclear if Ian Happ would have a regular role with Chicago, and he wound up playing in 115 games and clubbing 24 home runs. Don't be shocked if Zagunis is the Happ of 2018.


    Cincinnati Reds: RHP Luis Castillo

    Luis Castillo teased ace-level results last season for the Cincinnati Reds. This season, he may emerge as an honest-to-goodness ace.

    In 15 starts with the Reds, Castillo posted a 3.12 ERA and struck out 98 in 89.1 innings. The 25-year-old Dominican features a blazing fastball that sits in the high 90s and reaches triple digits, plus a changeup that FanGraphs' Eno Sarris dubbed "his best pitch."

    Castillo didn't debut with the most sparkling prospect pedigree, but he's on track to attain elite status.


    Milwaukee Brewers: OF Lewis Brinson

    Lewis Brinson hit a scant .106 in 21 games with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, but he should be a pivotal part of the Brew Crew's outfield going forward.

    The 23-year-old torched the Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .331/.400/.562 slash line. He'll need to similarly set the Cactus League ablaze this spring to open 2018 with Milwaukee.

    The Brewers view him as a building block regardless and will no doubt give him another look at some point this season.


    Pittsburgh Pirates: OF Austin Meadows

    The McCutchen trade signaled the end of an era in Pittsburgh, and it may usher in a new one.

    Top prospect Austin Meadows has battled injuries during his time in the Bucs system but owns a .292 average and .818 OPS in five MiLB seasons. 

    "It's been a tough road, but I feel like that's behind me now," Meadows said of his injury woes, per MLB.com's Adam Berry.

    Now, a starting role in the Pirates outfield could be ahead of him.


    St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Alex Reyes

    Alex Reyes was poised for a breakout last season before Tommy John surgery put him on the shelf.

    He had a dominant debut in 2016, posting a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals while flashing an eye-popping fastball and devastating "hammer" curve.

    The 23-year-old could work his way back via the bullpen, but his future is in the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation—quite possibly at the top.

National League East

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    Atlanta Braves: SS Dansby Swanson

    Dansby Swanson didn't have the season he or the Atlanta Braves were hoping for in 2017.

    The first overall pick in 2015 slashed .232/.312/.324 in his first full big league campaign and went from a Rookie of the Year front-runner to a ho-hum fizzle.

    Sawnson did improve his production in the second half, hiking his average from .221 to .249 and his OPS from .620 to .661. Those aren't star-making numbers, but it's an encouraging sign.

    The Braves have other potential studs-in-waiting, including second baseman Ozzie Albies and outfielder Ronald Acuna. But we'll give Swanson the nod and offer him another chance to live up to that No. 1 overall hype. 

    For what it's worth, Swanson is projected to finish with 1.3 WAR by FanGraphs, ahead of Acuna (0.6 WAR) and just behind Albies (1.7). After a full year of MLB experience, Swanson is the most likely to exceed the projection. 


    Philadelphia Phillies: SS J.P. Crawford

    Another shortstop hoping to meet expectations, J.P. Crawford should get his shot with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2018.

    A first-round pick out of high school in 2013, Crawford struggled in a 23-game debut with the Phillies and hit just .243 at Triple-A in 2017.

    That said, he flashed strong defense and is only 23 years old. A full season as the team's everyday shortstop could help his bat catch up to his glove and make him a key piece of the Phils' rebuild.


    Miami Marlins: OF Braxton Lee

    The Miami Marlins are tearing down the roster under the new ownership group fronted by Derek Jeter. It's a painful reality for their fans, but it's also an opportunity for young players to emerge.

    Braxton Lee, who came over last season in a trade with the Rays, is one such prospect. A 12th-round pick in 2014, Lee is no one's idea of a blue chipper. But the 24-year-old opened eyes in 2017, hitting .309 with a .395 on-base percentage and 20 steals in Double-A. 

    He's got the glove and range to play center field and could be the Marlins' Opening Day starter. It'll be a sink-or-swim jump, but Lee should get plenty of patience on a team that might vault past 100 losses.


    New York Mets: OF Brandon Nimmo

    The New York Mets were in the mix for McCutchen but balked when the Pirates demanded outfielder Brandon Nimmo as part of the return, per Abbey Mastracco of NJ Advance Media.

    Clearly, the Mets think highly of the 24-year-old, who hit .260 with a .797 OPS in 69 games last season.

    New York has Yoenis Cespedes and the recently signed Jay Bruce locked in at the corners, but Nimmo should get significant playing time in center field while Michael Conforto works his way back from shoulder surgery.

    If Nimmo hits well enough in the interim, it could be difficult for the Mets to relegate him to the minors or the bench.


    Washington Nationals: OF Victor Robles

    Chances are, Victor Robles will begin 2018 in the minors. He's just 20 years old and has yet to play at Triple-A after making the jump from Double-A to a 13-game look with the Washington Nationals last season and a spot on the Nats' division series playoff roster.

    Washington has Adam Eaton, Michael Taylor and Bryce Harper slated to start from left to right. It wouldn't make sense for Robles, the franchise's top prospect, to play a fourth-outfielder role.

    An injury could quickly change the calculus, however. At the least, Robles will be given a shot this spring.

    "It's never a bad idea to get more minor league at-bats; that's never a bad thing," general manager Mike Rizzo told SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio (via Federal Baseball). "But he forced his way on the playoff roster last year, and we're going to give him every opportunity to force his way onto the big league roster."


    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.