Budding MLB Stars Primed to Break Out in 2022

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2021

Budding MLB Stars Primed to Break Out in 2022

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    Every MLB season features a handful of breakouts, often from young players who take the next step from contributor to star while they settle into life in the big leagues.

    Austin Riley, Tyler O'Neill, Freddy Peralta, Cedric Mullins and Logan Webb were among the biggest breakout stars in 2021, while uber-prospect Wander Franco delivered on the hype as one baseball's most productive players during the second half.

    Who will take that step forward in 2022?

    Here, we've identified 10 playersfive hitters and five pitchers—who have the potential to emerge as All-Star performers in 2022.

    To be eligible for inclusion, players had to be 27 years old or younger, and they could not have been selected to an All-Star Game to this point in their career.

OF Harrison Bader, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Fans of highlight-reel defense are already well-acquainted with Harrison Bader.

    The St. Louis Cardinals center fielder took home Gold Glove honors in 2021. He has already racked up 39 DRS at the position during his brief time in the majors.

    The 27-year-old entered the 2021 season with a .234/.322/.399 line and 94 OPS+ in 1,050 career plate appearances, and it remained to be seen whether he would ever make a significant impact on offense.

    He finished this past season with a 116 OPS+ and 38 extra-base hits en route to a career-high 3.9 WAR, and he carried the offense at times with huge performances in July and September:

    • July: 92 PA, .357/.402/.619, 7 2B, 5 HR, 18 RBI
    • Sept: 117 PA, .333/.368/.613, 10 2B, 7 HR, 19 RBI

    With a bit more consistency at the plate, Bader could emerge as a two-way superstar.

RHP Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Shane Baz was arguably the top pitching prospect in baseball when he made his MLB debut on Sept. 20. He went 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA, 0.68 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 13.1 innings over three starts down the stretch last year.

    That was enough to earn him the start in Game 2 of the ALDS, capping off a season that started with him posting a 2.06 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and a 113-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 78.2 innings in the upper levels of the minors.

    Now the 22-year-old is set for his first full season in the majors, and he has the stuff to quickly pitch his way into the staff ace role in Tampa Bay.

    In a limited sample size, he averaged 97.0 mph with his fastball and limited opposing hitters to nonexistent production with his hard slider (.077 BA, .308 SLG). He also features a slower curveball and a plus changeup, giving him the repertoire to thrive atop the rotation.

    Pencil him in as one of the early AL Rookie of the Year front-runners.

RHP David Bednar, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    If you're looking for baseball's next bullpen star, Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander David Bednar is a name to know.

    The Pirates acquired the 27-year-old last offseason in the three-team, seven-player deal that sent Joe Musgrove to San Diego. Despite posting a lackluster 6.75 ERA in 17 appearances with the Padres over his first two MLB seasons, he quickly emerged as a reliable late-inning arm in Pittsburgh.

    Bednar was particularly dominant over the final two months of the season after the Pirates traded Richard Rodriguez to the Atlanta Braves. He posted a 0.92 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 12.4 K/9 while tallying three saves and four holds in 16 appearances.

    With a dramatic velocity disparity between his fastball (96.7 mph) and curveball (77.5 mph) and a quality splitter to round out his repertoire, he checks all of the boxes to be a late-inning ace for a young Pirates team building toward contention.

2B Jazz Chisholm Jr., Miami Marlins

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    With loud raw tools, Jazz Chisholm Jr. was a highly regarded prospect throughout his time in the Arizona Diamondbacks system before the D-backs traded him to the Miami Marlins in exchange for right-hander Zac Gallen at the 2019 deadline.

    After debuting as a September call-up in 2020, he took over as Miami's starting second baseman last season and filled up the stat sheet as a rookie with 20 doubles, 18 home runs, 53 RBI, 70 runs scored and 23 steals in 124 games

    With that said, Chisholm still has work to do refining his overall game.

    A 6.7 percent walk rate led to a middling .303 on-base percentage, and he also struck out 28.6 percent of the time, failing to put his top-flight speed to full use as a result. He was also caught stealing an NL-high eight times, leaving room for improvement in his baserunning as well.

    Despite those shortcomings, Chisholm was still a 2.5 WAR player in his first full season. That could prove to be just the start for the 23-year-old middle infielder.

RHP Tanner Houck, Boston Red Sox

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    Tanner Houck has proved he has the stuff to miss bats at the MLB level. Now it's just a matter of doing it over a full season in the Boston Red Sox rotation.

    The 25-year-old was slowed by a flexor strain in his arm last season, and he ended up pitching out of the bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs as a result. His overall numbers were still impressive enough to believe his future is bright.

    Over 13 starts and five relief appearances, he posted a 3.52 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and an 87-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 69 innings, limiting opposing hitters to a .223 average and .608 OPS along the way.

    A 2.58 FIP suggests he was even better than those surface-level numbers. Continuing to develop his splitter into a reliable third offering alongside his heavy mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider could help him cement his place as a breakout star in 2022.

OF Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners

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    Seemingly poised for instant stardom after raking in the minors, Jarred Kelenic instead struggled mightily in his first taste of MLB action. He hit only .096 with 26 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances before the Seattle Marines optioned him back to the minors in early June.

    He returned to the big leagues for good a month later, and as the second half unfolded, he began to look more and more comfortable.

    The 22-year-old finished with a .181/.265/.350 line and 72 OPS+ with 13 doubles, 14 home runs and 43 RBI in 93 games, whiffing at a 28.1 percent rate on his way to a forgettable minus-1.8 WAR debut.

    However, he posted an .854 OPS with seven home runs and 20 RBI in 29 games in September and October while also tallying 12 walks in 118 plate appearances. That strong final month should be a springboard to bigger and better things in 2022 for a player with bona fide superstar potential.

LHP Patrick Sandoval, Los Angeles Angels

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    Even with Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen added to the starting rotation via free agency, the Los Angeles Angels will still need their incumbent starters to pitch up to their potential for the starting staff to be a strength this year.

    Left-hander Patrick Sandoval was quietly enjoying a breakout season in 2021 with a 3.62 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 94 strikeouts in 87 innings before his campaign was cut short with a lower-back injury in August.

    The 25-year-old came two outs away from throwing a no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins on July 24, striking out a career-high 13 batters along the way, and he also had a 10-strikeout game against the Seattle Mariners at the beginning of June.

    Sandoval ranked among the MLB leaders in average exit velocity allowed (97th percentile) and whiff rate (92nd percentile), keeping hitters off-balance with a five-pitch repertoire that featured a mid-80s changeup as his primary pitch thrown nearly 30 percent of the time.

C Tyler Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds

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    In November, the Cincinnati Reds traded longtime backstop Tucker Barnhart to the Detroit Tigers. Their starting catcher job now officially belongs to Tyler Stephenson after he split time with the former Gold Glove winner in 2021.

    Stephenson, 25, hit .286/.366/.431 with 21 doubles, 10 home runs and 45 RBI in 402 plate appearances to finish sixth in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. He also saw 23 games of action at first base while filling in for an injured Joey Votto.

    He threw out only 19 percent of base stealers and graded out as a below-average pitch framer, but he has the tools to develop into at least an average defender behind the plate with more reps in the years to come.

    With that said, his bat gives him star potential. It wouldn't be surprising to see Stephenson emerge as a top-five offensive performer at the position in 2022 now that he is moving into a true everyday role in the Cincinnati lineup.

LHP Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Even fans who are aware that Ranger Suarez enjoyed a breakout season in 2021 might not realize just how good he was while splitting his time between the bullpen and starting rotation for the Philadelphia Phillies.

    The 26-year-old had a minuscule 1.36 ERA in 106 innings, and he was equally impressive early in the season pitching in relief and later in the year after he moved into a starting role.

    • Starter: 12 GS, 1.51 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 65.2 IP
    • Reliever: 27 G, 1.12 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 40.1 IP

    All of that amounted to an out-of-nowhere 5.6 WAR season, a mark that matched NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and trailed only Zack Wheeler (7.6), Walker Buehler (6.7), Robbie Ray (6.7), Max Scherzer (6.0), Gerrit Cole (5.7) and Brandon Woodruff (5.7) among all pitchers in 2021.

    Despite that, he didn't show up on a single NL Cy Young ballot, and his phenomenal season went largely unnoticed on a national level.

    With a full season in the starting rotation, he'll be a household name before 2022 comes to a close.

OF Lane Thomas, Washington Nationals

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    If the early returns are any indication, trading away Lane Thomas could prove to be a Randy Arozarena-esque regret for the St. Louis Cardinals in the coming years.

    A 26-year-old outfielder without a clear path to playing time in a crowded St. Louis outfield, Thomas was shipped to the Washington Nationals at the 2021 trade deadline in a 1-for-1 deal for veteran starter Jon Lester.

    With Victor Robles struggling and eventually demoted to the minors, the Nationals gave Thomas a chance to play center field on an everyday basis. He responded by hitting .270/.364/.489 for a 133 OPS+ with 14 doubles, seven home runs and 33 runs scored in 45 games.

    Digging deeper into his impressive surface-level numbers, Thomas had a 42.7 percent hard-contract rate that ranked 16th among all MLB hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, ahead of the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (41.7 percent), Giancarlo Stanton (41.6 percent), Mookie Betts (41.0 percent), Rafael Devers (40.1 percent), Juan Soto (39.1 percent) and many others.

    His sample size (264 PA) was a small one relative to those guys, and he'll need to adjust as the league adjusts to him, but he's put himself on the radar as one to watch in 2022.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.


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