10 MLB Players with the Most to Prove in 2022

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 14, 2021

10 MLB Players with the Most to Prove in 2022

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    Every player has something to prove every season in a sport where it takes contributions from the entire 26-man roster to win a championship.

    However, for some MLB players, the 2022 season comes with some added scrutiny.

    Whether it's a highly touted young player who needs to deliver on lofty expectations, an established star returning from injury, or an upcoming free agent with a chance to significantly alter his value, players are under added pressure for a variety of reasons.

    Ahead we've highlighted 10 MLB players with the most to prove during the 2022 season.

    These particular players were selected based on expectations and potential impact on their team, though there are certainly others who belong in this conversation as well. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

C Joey Bart, San Francisco Giants

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    From the moment he was selected No. 2 in the 2018 draft, Joey Bart has been viewed as the catcher of the future for the San Francisco Giants. That future is now after franchise icon Buster Posey announced his retirement.

    Bart saw 33 games of MLB action in 2020 after Posey opted out of the season, hitting .233/.288/.320 for an 68 OPS+ with seven extra-base hits in 111 plate appearances. He returned to Triple-A this past season to continue refining his game, and the results provided plenty of reason for optimism.

    The 24-year-old hit .294/.358/.472 with 15 doubles, 10 home runs and 46 RBI in 67 games at Triple-A Sacramento, and he threw out 33 percent of base stealers for good measure.

    Veteran Curt Casali returns as a defensive-minded backup, but the starting job now belongs to Bart. He will be a key member of a Giants team with lofty expectations after last year's 107-win showing.

3B Alec Bohm, Philadelphia Phillies

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    The No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft and the No. 28 prospect in baseball at the start of the 2020 season, Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm looked like a star in the making as a rookie.

    He hit .338/.400/.481 for a 137 OPS+ in 44 games to finish runner-up to Milwaukee Brewers reliever Devin Williams in 2020 NL Rookie of the Year voting, and he was the starting third baseman and No. 5 hitter on Opening Day this past season.

    However, he hit just .243/.298/.343 with six home runs and 41 RBI during the first half and continued to struggle after the break before he was optioned back to Triple-A in late August while the Phillies pushed for a playoff berth.

    Despite his middling overall numbers, the 6'5" slugger posted strong average exit velocity (89th percentile) and hard-hit rate (90th percentile), which provides some optimism he can get back on track and continue his development as a middle-of-the-order run producer in 2022.

RHP Mike Clevinger, San Diego Padres

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    After missing the entire 2021 campaign recovering from Tommy John surgery, right-hander Mike Clevinger has a chance to be the biggest addition of the offseason for the San Diego Padres as he returns to a spot in the starting rotation.

    The 30-year-old has been nothing short of dominant when healthy throughout his MLB career, going 44-23 with a 3.19 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and 10.0 K/9 in parts of five seasons with Cleveland and San Diego.

    However, he has pitched more than 130 innings in a season just once in his career, and showing some level of durability could go a long way in boosting his stock before he reaches free agency for the first time in his career next winter.

    With something resembling his 2019 season when he posted a 3.02 ERA and 1.16 WHIP with 207 strikeouts in 200 innings, he would be one of the most sought-after starting pitchers on a free-agent market also set to include Nathan Eovaldi, Chris Bassitt, Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea, Taijuan Walker and Zach Eflin.

OF Joey Gallo, New York Yankees

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    Joey Gallo hit .160 with a 38.6 percent strikeout rate and just 0.5 WAR in 58 games after he was traded to the New York Yankees last season.

    Despite that rocky debut, he still has the potential to be one of the best players on the Yankees roster next season. He had a 139 OPS+ with 4.2 WAR in 95 games with the Texas Rangers at the time of the trade, providing star-level production despite a .223 batting average and a 32.2 percent strikeout rate.

    As long as his strikeout rate sits closer to 30 percent than it does to 40 percent, he is more than capable of offsetting a low batting average with his elite power, Gold Glove defense in the outfield and terrific on-base ability that led to an AL-high 111 walks in 2021.

    The 28-year-old is a free agent after the 2022 season, so not only does he face the pressure of performing under the bright lights of New York, but he'll also be trying to position himself for a lucrative long-term contract.

OF Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners

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    Outside of Tampa Bay Rays budding superstar Wander Franco, no rookie debuted with loftier expectations in 2021 than Seattle Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic.

    After hitting .291/.364/.540 with 23 home runs and 20 steals over three minor-league levels as a 19-year-old in 2019, then turning heads at the team's alternate site, he began the 2021 season as the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball.

    He made his MLB debut on May 13 and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run in his second big-league game, but he struggled to find his footing from there, posting an ugly .096/.185/.193 line with 26 strikeouts in 92 plate appearances before he was optioned back to the minors.

    The 22-year-old returned a month later and steadily improved as the second half wore on, finishing on a high note with an .854 OPS, seven home runs and 20 RBI in 29 games over the final month of the year.

    With expectations to finally turn the corner from afterthought to contender, the Mariners are banking on that strong final month being a springboard to a breakout season.

2B Gavin Lux, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    A first-round pick in 2016, Gavin Lux soared up top-prospect lists with a breakout 2018 season and then hit .347/.421/.607 with 59 extra-base hits in 113 games in the upper levels of the minors the following year to force his way onto the MLB roster.

    Expected to take over as the Los Angeles Dodgers' starting second baseman in 2020, he was instead a non-factor, playing in just 19 games and hitting .175 after being sent to the team's alternate site to begin the year.

    He failed to seize a starting job once again this past season before Trea Turner was acquired to play second base, but he came on strong down the stretch with a .360/.467/.500 line in 60 plate appearances in September.

    That hot streak led to him seeing starting action in center field in the playoffs, and while that proved to be an adventure defensively, it did show the team's faith in his bat. With Corey Seager gone in free agency and Turner set to shift to shortstop, he'll once again have a clear path to an everyday job at second base this spring if he can make the most of the opportunity.

SS Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

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    At first glance, Dansby Swanson may seem like an odd addition to this list as an established everyday player who just set career-highs in hits (146), doubles (33), home runs (27), RBI (88) and runs scored (78) for the World Series champion Atlanta Braves.

    However, those numbers were accompanied by a somewhat lackluster .248/.311/.449 line and 97 OPS+, which represented a step backward from the numbers he logged while finishing 18th in NL MVP voting during the shortened 2020 season.

    The 27-year-old is one of the more fascinating players in the 2022-23 free-agent class, and if he can come closer to the .274/.345/.464 line and 111 OPS+ he logged a year ago, he will likely be the next shortstop to put pen to paper on a $100 million-plus deal.

    Otherwise, his ceiling might be the six-year, $75 million deal Brandon Crawford signed with the San Francisco Giants back in 2015.

RHP Noah Syndergaard, Los Angeles Angels

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    Every year there seems to be at least one high-profile free agent who bets on himself by signing a one-year deal and parlaying that into a significant payday the following offseason.

    It was Josh Donaldson (ATL) and Yasmani Grandal (MIL) in 2019, Marcell Ozuna (ATL) in 2020, and Marcus Semien (TOR) and Kevin Gausman (SF) so far in 2021.

    Could Noah Syndergaard be the next to join that list after he inked a one-year, $21 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels?

    The 6'6" flame-thrower spent most of 2021 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he did return with a pair of one-inning appearances down the stretch to shake off the cobwebs. He will join Shohei Ohtani in anchoring the rotation, and while guys like Patrick Sandoval, Reid Detmers and Griffin Canning have shown promise, it will be up to that duo to carry the load for an Angels pitching staff that has been a perennial disappointment in recent years.

RHP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros

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    How much does future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander have left in the tank?

    The 38-year-old pitched just six innings in 2020 before he was sidelined with a forearm strain, and he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery which kept him on the shelf for the entirety of the 2021 campaign.

    The Houston Astros brought him back on a one-year, $25 million deal that includes a player option for 2023, and the reigning AL pennant winners will ask him to lead a rotation that also includes Lance McCullers Jr., Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia.

    The last time he was healthy, Verlander went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and 300 strikeouts in 223 innings. Anything close to that level of production would make an already good Astros team that much more dangerous, while a failure to return to form would create a significant hole in the starting staff.

OF Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Christian Yelich was squarely in the best player in baseball conversation as recently as the 2019 season, and his dramatic decline in production the past two years has been one of the more head-scratching developments in the sport.

    • 2018: 147 G, 164 OPS+, .326/.402/.598, 77 XBH, 7.3 WAR
    • 2019: 130 G, 179 OPS+, .329/.429/.671, 76 XBH, 7.0 WAR
    • 2020: 58 G, 110 OPS+, .205/.356/.430, 20 XBH, 0.5 WAR
    • 2021: 117 G, 99 OPS+, .248/.362/.373, 30 XBH, 1.2 WAR

    The 30-year-old is still making quality contact, grading out well in average exit velocity (81st percentile) and hard-hit rate (90th percentile), but his barrel rate is down and he has struggled badly against breaking pitches with a .196 average and 36.5 percent whiff rate against them in 2021.

    Set to earn $22 million annually from 2022 through the 2028 season, Yelich needs to return to form for a Brewers team that is currently lacking an impact offense to support one of baseball's best pitching staffs.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.