10 MLB Players Primed for 2020 Breakouts After Finishing 2019 Strong

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 8, 2020

10 MLB Players Primed for 2020 Breakouts After Finishing 2019 Strong

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    Ketel Marte was arguably the biggest breakout star of the 2019 season, coming out of nowhere to emerge as a National League MVP candidate for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

    There were warning signs of what was to come, though.

    While he posted a forgettable 102 OPS+ during the 2018 campaign, he closed the season on fire, hitting .301/.373/.562 with nine extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances in September.

    That proved to be a springboard to a monster season in which he posted a 149 OPS+ with 36 doubles, nine triples and 32 home runs with 6.9 WAR.

    So which young player will build on a strong finish to 2019 and turn in a breakout 2020 season?

    Ahead we've highlighted 10 candidates—five hitters and five pitchers—who showed signs down the stretch of bigger things to come.

LF Willie Calhoun, Texas Rangers

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    After starting the 2019 season in Triple-A and then suffering a quadriceps injury, Willie Calhoun finally became an everyday player for the Texas Rangers in late July.

    Over the final two months of the season, he posted an .823 OPS with 14 home runs in 216 plate appearances while serving as the starting left fielder.

    That helped him finish with a .269/.323/.524 line and 21 home runs, and his .262 BABIP relative to a terrific 40.7 percent hard-hit rate indicates plenty of room for positive regression in his offensive numbers.

    While the 25-year-old remained a below-average defender (-7 DRS, -11.2 UZR/150) who is probably best suited as a full-time designated hitter, he has a chance to be one of the primary run producers for a team eyeing contention.

LF/3B J.D. Davis, New York Mets

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    The New York Mets acquired J.D. Davis in an under-the-radar, five-player trade with the Houston Astros last offseason.

    The 26-year-old entered the year with a strong minor league track record but an underwhelming .194/.260/.321 line with a 27.1 percent strikeout rate in 181 plate appearances in the majors.

    He ended up being one of the team's most productive hitters, posting a .307/.369/.527 line for a 138 OPS+ with 22 doubles and 22 home runs in 453 plate appearances.

    Most of that damage was done over the final two months of the season, when he batted .321/.374/.600 with 10 doubles and 12 home runs in 182 trips to the plate.

    Entering his age-27 season, Davis will be counted on to anchor the offense alongside reigning NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto.

SP Max Fried, Atlanta Braves

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    The No. 7 overall pick in the 2012 draft by the San Diego Padres, Max Fried ranked as one of Baseball America's top 100 prospects prior to the 2013 (No. 46) and 2014 (No. 53) seasons, before he was traded to the Atlanta Braves in the Justin Upton blockbuster.

    The left-hander has since emerged from a deep stable of young starting pitching talent to carve out a spot in the MLB rotation.

    The 26-year-old posted a 4.02 ERA with 173 strikeouts in a career-high 165.2 innings for the NL East champions last season.

    His first- and second-half splits reveal a player in the midst of taking a significant step forward:

    • First Half: 98.2 IP, 4.29 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 3.3 K/BB
    • Second Half: 67.0 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.2 K/BB

    With a dynamic repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, a stellar curveball-slider pairing and the occasional changeup—plus a durable 6'4", 190-pound frame—he looks the part of an impact starter for years to come.

CF Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles

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    Austin Hays made his MLB debut about 15 months after he was picked 91st overall in the 2016 draft, and he seemed to be on the cusp of establishing himself as a long-term piece of the puzzle for the Baltimore Orioles.

    Instead, he spent the 2018 season in the minors, and he was riding the bus once again to begin last season before a thumb injury sidelined him for a good chunk of the first half.

    He made his return to the majors in September, and while it was a small sample size, he performed well enough to make himself the front-runner for the center field job heading into camp.

    The 24-year-old hit .309/.373/.574 with six doubles and four home runs in 75 plate appearances, and his strong 9.3 percent walk rate is a good sign for the future.

    Don't be surprised if he establishes himself as a cornerstone of Baltimore's rebuilding effort alongside slugger Trey Mancini and 2019 All-Star John Means.

CF Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays

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    On the surface, Teoscar Hernandez finished last season with remarkably similar numbers to those he posted in 2018:

    • 2018: 523 PA, 109 OPS+, .239/.302/.468, 22 HR
    • 2019: 464 PA, 105 OPS+, .230/.306/.472, 26 HR

    His performance in the second half, however, provided plenty of reason for optimism.

    The 27-year-old hit .259/.346/.592 with 11 doubles, 18 home runs and 38 RBI in 62 games after the All-Star break, including a .909 OPS with five home runs and 13 RBI in September.

    A look below the surface at his batted-ball data also speaks to an improving hitter.

    His 52.9 percent hard-hit rate in the second half trailed only Aaron Judge's (56.2%) and Miguel Sano's (53.3%) among qualified hitters.

    Cutting down his 33.0 percent strikeout rate will be the next step for Hernandez to unlock his offensive potential, but he's trending in the right direction—and the Toronto Blue Jays could be rewarded for their patience.

SP Adrian Houser, Milwaukee Brewers

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    The road to MLB relevance has been a long one for Adrian Houser.

    A second-round pick by the Houston Astros in 2011, he was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers at the 2015 deadline in the deal that also brought Josh Hader, Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips to Milwaukee in exchange for Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers.

    While he regularly appeared on organizational prospect lists, he was never viewed as a future impact player, and entering last season, he had pitched just 15.2 MLB innings.

    A strong start to the season at Triple-A—where he posted a 1.27 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 21.1 innings over four starts—earned him a call-up to the MLB bullpen at the end of April, and he was an effective relief option throughout May and June.

    He moved into the rotation full-time at the end of July.

    By season's end, he was one of the team's most reliable starters, posting a 3.02 ERA and 1.03 WHIP while holding opponents to a .201 average and compiling 52 strikeouts in 47.2 innings over his final 10 starts.

    Roster Resource projects him to fill the No. 2 starter role behind 2019 All-Star Brandon Woodruff, and he could be the X-factor for the pitching staff in 2020.

SP Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres

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    Dinelson Lamet was a popular breakout candidate heading into the 2018 season after he posted a 4.57 ERA with an eye-opening 139 strikeouts in 114.1 innings as a rookie.

    Instead, shortly after being named the team's No. 2 starter, he suffered an elbow injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery before Opening Day arrived.

    A forgotten man of sorts, he returned with a vengeance in July to log a 4.07 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with a brilliant 105-to-30 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 73 innings.

    If those numbers were not impressive enough, he closed the season with overpowering starts against a pair of playoff bound teams in the Brewers (6.0 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 14 K) and Los Angeles Dodgers (5.0 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 10 K).

    His lethal slider accounted for 77 of his strikeouts, and he limited opposing hitters to a .116 average and .078 ISO with the pitch, according to Brooks Baseball.

    Still just 27 years old, Lamet has a chance to join Chris Paddack and rising prospect MacKenzie Gore atop the starting rotation for the foreseeable future.

SP Joe Musgrove, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Joe Musgrove was one of the four players the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired from the Astros in the Gerrit Cole blockbuster trade prior to the 2018 season.

    Living up to that trade is no easy task, especially considering the pitcher Cole has become.

    That said, Musgrove has emerged as a promising young arm in his own right.

    The 27-year-old has a 4.28 ERA and 1.20 WHIP with 257 strikeouts in 285.2 innings spanning 51 appearances in his two seasons with the Pirates, and his 3.72 FIP speaks to an even more effective pitcher than the surface-level numbers suggest.

    He took his game to another level over his final seven starts of the 2019 season, posting a 3.57 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 40.1 innings.

    With a strong 6'5", 235-pound frame and a deceptive five-pitch arsenal, Musgrove could vault into the role of staff ace during the upcoming season.

RF Victor Reyes, Detroit Tigers

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    Victor Reyes was in over his head as a Rule 5 pick making the jump from Double-A to the majors in 2018, hitting .222 with a brutal 42 OPS+ in 219 plate appearances during a minus-0.8 WAR season.

    The Tigers sent him to Triple-A to continue his development last year, and he hit .304/.334/.481 with 30 extra-base hits in 308 plate appearances.

    After a few brief promotions, he was called up for good at the end of July.

    By the end of the season, he was the team's everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter, and his arrow is pointing straight up heading into 2020.

    Over the final two months of the 2019 campaign, he racked up 69 hits, trailing only Tim Anderson (81), Trea Turner (72) and Jose Abreu (70).

    The 25-year-old has excellent contact ability and plus speed, and he graded out as an above-average defender (2 DRS, 14.3 UZR/150), giving him a well-rounded skill set and plenty of long-term upside.

RP Brandon Workman, Boston Red Sox

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    After several seasons as a useful middle reliever, Brandon Workman took his game to another level in 2019.

    The 31-year-old finished with a 1.88 ERA and 1.03 WHIP and a career-high 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings in 73 appearances while filling a number of roles in the Boston Red Sox bullpen.

    His performance in the closer's role down the stretch, however, is what makes him a breakout candidate for the upcoming season.

    During the final month of the season, he nailed own all seven of his save chances while allowing just three hits and two unearned runs with 18 strikeouts in 11.1 innings.

    All told, he finished with a team-high 16 saves while holding opponents to a .123 batting average.

    His 5.7 walks per nine innings give some reason for pause, but as long as he keeps piling up strikeouts and limiting damage when hitters do put the bat on the ball, he has the stuff to emerge as one of baseball's most dominant closers.


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