Each MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star for 2022 Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2022

Each MLB Team's Potential Breakout Star for 2022 Season

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    Adley Rutschman is coming.
    Adley Rutschman is coming.Diamond Images/Getty Images

    With each new Major League Baseball season inevitably comes a new limelight for a fresh crop of stars.

    No matter when it starts, the 2022 season will be no different.

    As for which players might achieve their star breakouts this year, we've identified one possibility for every MLB team. These include established major leaguers who are capable of more than they've shown so far, as well as top prospects who are high on talent and short on things left to prove in the minor leagues.

    We'll go division by division, starting in the American League East and ending in the National League West.

American League East

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    Tanner Houck
    Tanner HouckMichael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: C Adley Rutschman (B/R's No. 2 Prospect)

    The Orioles have another top-five prospect in the person of right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, but he hasn't yet ascended to the Triple-A level. Rutschman, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, did that last year and kept the hype train moving by batting .312/.405/.490 in 45 games. That big bat of his makes him a candidate for an early-season promotion and potentially a run at the AL Rookie of the Year.

          

    Boston Red Sox: RHP Tanner Houck

    Houck handled 86 innings for the Red Sox between 2020 and 2021, impressing with a 2.93 ERA and 108 strikeouts. His slider is a filthy pitch, and he passed a crucial test with it last season by using it to hold left-handed batters to a .171 average. He thus might be able to survive as a two-pitch pitcher, in which case his next challenge is proving he can last more than four or five innings at a time.

         

    New York Yankees: RHP Luis Gil (No. 92)

    Speaking of young righties with nasty stuff, Gil made an impression in 2021 by dialing his fastball up to 99 mph and whiffing 38 batters in 29.1 innings for the Yankees. The catch is that the control issues he's had in the minors were also present in the majors, where he issued 19 free passes. But if he can make the necessary strides there, his stuff could play in either a starting or relief role in 2022.

         

    Tampa Bay Rays: RHP Shane Baz (No. 11)

    As if the Chris Archer trade wasn't already looking bad enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Baz had to go have an epic season in 2021. In addition to starring for Team USA at the Olympics, he posted a 2.06 ERA at Double-A and Triple-A and showed flashes of brilliance for the Rays at the end of the year. With electric stuff and sharp command, he should be another candidate for the AL Rookie of the Year.

         

    Toronto Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson

    Pearson used to be a top-10 prospect in his own right, but two seasons' worth of injuries and unspectacular returns (i.e., a 5.18 ERA) for the Blue Jays have sidetracked his trajectory. And yet his fastball, which has brushed 102 mph in the majors, may yet be his ticket to stardom, even if it's in more of a Josh Hader-like relief role if Toronto goes that route with him.

American League Central

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    Spencer Torkelson
    Spencer TorkelsonDustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Chicago White Sox: RHP Michael Kopech

    The White Sox don't have any top 100 prospects, and their roster mostly consists of veterans who have fully realized their potential. Yet one major exception to the latter is Kopech, who's slated to get a chance to start after working out of the bullpen in 2021. Even if he tailed off in the latter half of last season, his mix of high-octane stuff and solid control still puts his upside through the proverbial roof.

          

    Cleveland Guardians: 1B Bobby Bradley

    It's fair to look at the Guardians lineup and see a major need for additional impact around Jose Ramirez and Franmil Reyes. However, that's where Bradley might help. Making contact has been a consistent struggle for him, but it's telling that he had about the same expected slugging percentage as Reyes when he did make contact in 2021. If he can do that more often, 30-plus homers is possible.

         

    Detroit Tigers: 1B Spencer Torkelson (No. 4)

    Outfielder Riley Greene, who we have ranked at No. 6, is arguably just as exciting a prospect as Torkelson. Yet Torkelson's knocks on the door to the majors are louder, as he's fresh off a year in which he had a .935 OPS and 30 homers in the minors and then starred in the Arizona Fall League. His hit and power tools are clearly ready for The Show, so the only question is when the Tigers will give him a job. 

         

    Kansas City Royals: SS Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 1)

    As spectacular as Torkelson and Greene may be, it's Witt who's the best prospect in the AL Central and indeed all of MLB. He showed off all five tools as he put up a .936 OPS, 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases at Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. So even if he has to play third base in deference to defensive-wiz shortstop Nicky Lopez, it'll be an upset if he doesn't crack the Royals' Opening Day roster.

         

    Minnesota Twins: DH/OF Alex Kirilloff

    Not unlike Pearson, Kirilloff is a formerly elite prospect whose stock has taken damage from injuries and disappointing returns with the Twins. But dare we say that he was better in 2021 than his .722 OPS indicates? The sizable gap between his expected and actual slugging percentage is one reason to believe as much, so good health might be the only thing he needs to bust out in 2022.

American League West

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    Jo Adell
    Jo AdellAssociated Press

    Houston Astros: SS Jeremy Pena (Not Ranked)

    Whether it's so they can ultimately re-sign Carlos Correa or pivot to Trevor Story, it does seem like the Astros are bluffing with their apparent confidence in Pena as their default shortstop. But then again, maybe not. He's generally regarded as a plus defender, and he showed very well offensively with a .944 OPS in 30 games at Triple-A last season. Such things make him a potential gem hiding in plain sight.

         

    Los Angeles Angels: RF Jo Adell

    The 73 games that Adell has played with the Angels since 2020 have given rise to questions about his star potential. (He was once ranked as high as MLB's No. 2 prospect by Baseball Prospectus.Yet mechanical changes helped with his offense in 2021, particularly with regard to his strikeout rate. With more of that, it'll be that much easier for his power and speed to show through in 2022.

          

    Oakland Athletics: LHP A.J. Puk

    The Athletics' looming firesale is surely a bummer for the team's fans, but it at least figures to open up playing time for younger players. That includes Puk, who could potentially slide into a starting role. In spite of Tommy John and shoulder surgeries, he can still get his fastball into the upper 90s with a nasty slider to boot. Those things are reason enough not to give up on him just yet.

         

    Seattle Mariners: CF Jarred Kelenic

    It was tempting to go with outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who we have ranked as MLB's No. 3 prospect, as the Mariners' top breakout candidate. But Kelenic was supposed to be The Next Big Thing before Rodriguez, and he may yet be. As bad as his rookie season was on the whole, he's going into 2022 needing to pick up where he left off after teasing a breakout with an .854 OPS and seven homers last September.

         

    Texas Rangers: 3B Josh Jung (No. 25)

    The Rangers aren't really going to go with Isiah Kiner-Falefa at third base, right? Maybe, if they just want a good glove at the position. But if they'd rather have a power hitter, they might hand the hot corner to Jung and see if he can maintain the slugging prowess he showed at Double-A and Triple-A in 2021. All told, he had a .990 OPS and 19 homers over 78 games.

National League East

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    Keibert Ruiz
    Keibert RuizJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Atlanta: RHP Bryce Elder (Not Ranked)

    The answer here could have been either Cristian Pache or Drew Waters, but both outfielders suffered stock loss throughout the 2021 season. Not so for Elder, who pitched to a 2.75 ERA across three levels of the minors. A big key for him was developing his slider at Atlanta's alternate site in 2020, giving him a plus weapon that could be put to good use in either the rotation or the bullpen in 2022.

         

    Miami Marlins: RHP Anthony Bender

    Perhaps the obvious pick here would be Jesus Sanchez, but the 31.1 strikeout percentage he had in 64 games with the Marlins last year doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. So instead, our eyes are on Bender as a candidate to close for Miami in 2022. His weapons-grade sinker and slider combination just screams "Closer stuff!" and there isn't a clear hurdle in his way of actually getting the job.

         

    New York Mets: 3B Mark Vientos (Not Ranked)

    So stuffed with veterans is the Mets roster that it's not easy to spot playing-time daylight for what prospects the club has. But there could be an opening for Vientos at third base if Eduardo Escobar has to spell an aging Robinson Cano at second base. Vientos may not be in our top 100, but he should nonetheless be on plenty of radars after posting a .933 OPS and 25 homers in the high minors last season.

          

    Philadelphia Phillies: SS Bryson Stott (No. 70)

    It doesn't get much more tenuous than the left side of the Phillies infield, where shortstop Didi Gregorius and third baseman Alec Bohm both had deeply disappointing seasons in 2021. Should that happen again, Stott could get his shot after posting a .390 OBP with 16 homers and 10 steals in the high minors in 2021. Though he's a natural shortstop, he has experience at third base if he's needed there.

         

    Washington Nationals: C Keibert Ruiz

    Acquired alongside right-hander Josiah Gray in the blockbuster deal that sent Max Scherzer and Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers last July, Ruiz made a decent first impression in 23 games with the Nationals. He notably showed off his advanced approach by walking more than he struck out. More of that plus some of the power he had been developing in the minors could boost him to a breakout in 2022.

National League Central

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    Aaron Ashby
    Aaron AshbyAaron Gash/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs: OF Brennen Davis (No. 12)

    Though Rafael Ortega enjoyed a nice breakthrough for the Cubs last year, he's also a 30-year-old journeyman and is therefore a flimsy option as a regular in center field. The position could soon pass to Davis if he continues to polish the many tools in his shed. He made progress in that regard last year, particularly as he had a nice balance of walks (11) and strikeouts (15) in 15 games at Triple-A.

         

    Cincinnati Reds: RHP Hunter Greene (No. 13)

    There appear to be openings in the Reds rotation even as of now, and there will only be more if the team trades Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray and Tyler Mahle. Bully for Greene, who ascended to the Triple-A level in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2021. He has a legit 80-grade fastball that routinely hits triple digits, even getting as high as 104 mph. Factor in a plus slider, and he's all you could want in a power pitcher.

          

    Milwaukee Brewers: LHP Aaron Ashby (No. 94)

    Elsewhere on the topic of power pitchers, Ashby is a rare left-hander who can run his fastball up to 100 mph. He also has a devastating slider, plus a changeup that's a bat-misser in its own right. It's control he struggles with, which could keep him from cracking a deep Brewers rotation. But even if he has to work as a reliever in 2022, he should be yet another shutdown arm alongside Josh Hader and Devin Williams.

         

    Pittsburgh Pirates: SS Oneil Cruz (No. 33)

    Want to see a 6'7", 220-pound shortstop? Well, Cruz is really your only option in that regard. He's about as powerful as you'd expect, as he averaged 100.5 and peaked at 118.2 mph with the five batted balls that he hit late in 2021. He also has one of the strongest arms of any shortstop. So as long as he avoids enough whiffs and fields enough balls cleanly, he could make a play for the NL Rookie of the Year.

         

    St. Louis Cardinals: 3B/2B Nolan Gorman

    The Cardinals are a good-looking team, but one specific flaw they have is a lack of left-handed power. That's where Gorman could come in handy. He hit 25 homers in the high minors last year, plus another in a 6-for-16 showing in the Arizona Fall League. After getting some reps at second base in 2021, he's a candidate to take over there for Tommy Edman in the majors early in 2022.

National League West

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    Gavin Lux
    Gavin LuxDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks: OF Alek Thomas (No. 47)

    Especially with Ketel Marte ticketed to play second base more than center field in 2022, there appear to be openings for playing time in the Diamondbacks outfield. This is good news for Thomas, who was last seen hitting .313 in the high minors in 2021. Getting to play at high elevation with the Triple-A Reno Aces certainly helped, but that average also reflects what's generally seen as a plus hit tool.

          

    Colorado Rockies: LF Connor Joe

    Arguably no team needs a pick-me-up or two (or three, etc.) in 2022 as much as the Rockies, yet there unfortunately isn't much in their farm system to dream on right now. Joe is therefore something of a lack-of-a-better-choice pick here, though he did show some promise in hitting a solid .285 with the Rockies last year. He notably hit .366 against fastballs, which is a good skill to have at Coors Field.

          

    Los Angeles Dodgers: INF/OF Gavin Lux

    Lux's stock has fallen precipitously since he was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2019, yet it's too early to write him off as a lost cause. Even if he didn't break out in 2021, he made strides with his strikeout and walk rates and the quality of his contact. If he makes further improvements there and also more comfortably settles into a role as a utility man, 2022 could finally be his year.

         

    San Diego Padres: C Luis Campusano (No. 20)

    The Padres got just 0.4 rWAR from behind the plate in 2021, so Austin Nola and Victor Caratini might not want to get too comfortable as regulars. Coming for their playing time is Campusano, who hit .295 with 15 homers for Triple-A El Paso last season. Even if his defense still needs work, the Padres might not be able to resist the temptation of his offense for long.

         

    San Francisco Giants: RHP Camilo Doval

    Is this cheating? After all, Doval arguably had his breakout late in 2021, wherein he logged 15 scoreless appearances with 20 strikeouts over 14.1 innings in September. Regardless, our guess is that he'll keep it up as the Giants' closer in 2022. Because small sample size be damned, there's just a lot to like about a reliever who can touch 103 mph with a sharp slider on the side.

          

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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