Ranking Taylor Ward, Nestor Cortes and the 25 Emerging Stars of the 2022 Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2022

Ranking Taylor Ward, Nestor Cortes and the 25 Emerging Stars of the 2022 Season

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Every MLB season sees a handful of stars emerge.

    Last year, Cedric Mullins (Orioles), Austin Riley (Braves), Bryan Reynolds (Pirates), Carlos Rodon (White Sox), Logan Webb (Giants), Ty France (Mariners), Willy Adames (Brewers), Jonathan India (Reds), Freddy Peralta (Brewers), Trevor Rogers (Marlins), Jonathan Loaisiga (Yankees) and Garrett Whitlock were among the biggest breakout stars.

    Now that we are roughly one-quarter of the way into the 2022 campaign, it's time to take a look at whose stock is trending up.

    Ahead we've ranked the 25 biggest emerging stars of 2022 based on their production relative to past performance, and narrowing the list to 25 was not an easy task.

    Let's kick things off with some honorable mentions who could still play their way into the top 25 before the year is over.

Honorable Mentions

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    Seiya Suzuki
    Seiya SuzukiJustin Casterline/Getty Images

    Here are some others who were part of the preliminary list:

    • RHP Jason Adam, TB
    • LHP Brock Burke, TEX
    • OF Gilberto Celestino, MIN
    • RHP Alexis Diaz, CIN
    • IF/OF Brendan Donovan, STL
    • RHP Jhoan Duran, MIN
    • RHP Scott Effross, CHC
    • RHP J.P. Feyereisen, TB
    • RHP Logan Gilbert, SEA
    • RHP Tony Gonsolin, LAD
    • OF Luis Gonzalez, SF
    • IF Luis Guillorme, NYM
    • LHP Sam Hentges, CLE
    • OF Connor Joe, COL
    • OF Steven Kwan, CLE
    • RHP Alex Lange, DET
    • RHP Michael Lorenzen, LAA
    • OF Brandon Marsh, LAA
    • SS Jorge Mateo, BAL
    • RHP Triston McKenzie, CLE
    • IF Owen Miller, CLE
    • RHP Drew Rasmussen, TB
    • C Keibert Ruiz, WAS
    • RHP Drew Smith, NYM
    • LHP Jeffrey Springs, TB
    • RHP Spencer Strider, ATL
    • OF Seiya Suzuki, CHC
    • 1B Rowdy Tellez, MIL
    • RHP Keegan Thompson, CHC
    • 1B/OF Juan Yepez, STL
    • LHP Bruce Zimmermann

Nos. 25-21

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    Julio Rodriguez
    Julio RodriguezSteph Chambers/Getty Images

    25. LHP MacKenzie Gore, San Diego Padres

    The No. 10 prospect in baseball at the start of the 2021 season, Gore spent part of last year at the Padres' alternate site working through mechanical issues, but he has come out the other side looking like a potential front-line starter. The 23-year-old has a 2.06 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 35 innings while posting a manageable 2.8 BB/9 walk rate.


    24. RHP Joe Ryan, Minnesota Twins

    Ryan had a busy 2021, starting the year in the Tampa Bay Rays system before getting traded to the Minnesota Twins in the Nelson Cruz deal at the July deadline while he was with Team USA at the Olympics. He returned to post a 4.05 ERA in five starts down the stretch, and he has a 2.28 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 43.1 innings this season as a staple in the starting rotation.


    23. OF Julio Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners

    After a red-hot spring training earned him a spot on the Opening Day roster, Rodriguez struggled out of the gates, but he's hitting .315/.351/.522 and has posted five home runs and 14 RBI in 97 plate appearances since the calendar flipped from April to May. He also leads the majors with 13 steals and has provided quality defense in center field.


    22. LHP Eric Lauer, Milwaukee Brewers

    Lauer was quietly effective at the back of the Milwaukee rotation last season with a 3.19 ERA in 118.2 innings, but he is showing more overpowering stuff this year. The 26-year-old has seen a big uptick in his strikeout rate (8.9 to 11.7 K/9) and has simultaneously trimmed his walk rate (3.1 to 1.7 BB/9), and the result is a 2.16 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 41.2 innings.


    21. OF Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles

    Hays finished the 2021 season on a high note by putting up a .921 OPS and eight home runs in September, and that has carried over into a breakout 2022 campaign. The 26-year-old is hitting .283/.349/.434 and has a 129 OPS+, 15 extra-base hits and 20 RBI in 41 games, and the rebuilding O's have him under club control through the 2025 season.

Nos. 20-16

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    Tarik Skubal
    Tarik SkubalIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

    20. RHP Kyle Wright, Atlanta Braves

    Wright's numbers would look better had he not been shelled by the Boston Red Sox on May 10, allowing seven hits, four walks and six earned runs in 4.2 innings. Despite that clunker, he sports a 2.49 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 47 innings, and he's finally living up to being the No. 5 pick in 2017.


    19. 2B/SS Andres Gimenez, Cleveland Guardians

    After hitting .218 and putting up a 74 OPS+ in 68 games last season, Gimenez entered the year with a precarious hold on a starting job, but he's been one of baseball's best second basemen. The 23-year-old is hitting .288/.310/.486 with 12 extra-base hits, and his 1.8 rWAR ranks fourth at the position thanks in part to his stellar defense up the middle.


    18. RHP Dany Jimenez, Oakland Athletics

    Jimenez has been selected in the Rule 5 draft twice, including by Oakland last year before he was returned to Toronto, where he spent the season at Triple-A. The 28-year-old rejoined the Athletics as a minor league free agent during the offseason, and he has pitched his way into the closer's role, converting all 10 of his save chances and posting a 0.49 ERA, 0.87 WHIP and 9.3 K/9 in 18 appearances.


    17. LHP Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers

    The Tigers have not taken the step forward toward contention many were expecting, but Skubal has been a clear bright spot. With a 2.22 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 44.2 innings, he looks like the team's most likely All-Star Game representative, and he's done a nice job of building off a solid rookie campaign that included a 4.34 ERA and 164 strikeouts in 149.1 innings.


    16. RHP Ryan Helsley, St. Louis Cardinals

    Armed with a fastball that averages 99.3 mph and a hard-biting slider, Helsley has been virtually unhittable. The 27-year-old has allowed two hits, three walks and one unearned run in 15.2 innings, striking out 26 of the 52 batters he has faced while tallying two wins, two saves and four holds in 13 appearances. Giovanny Gallegos is still the closer in St. Louis, but Helsley has been the team's best reliever.

Nos. 15-11

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    Jonah Heim
    Jonah HeimRichard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    15. C Jonah Heim, Texas Rangers

    With so many light-hitting catchers around baseball, Heim has made noise by batting .270/.356/.494 for a 148 OPS+ with five home runs and 15 RBI in 101 plate appearances. The 26-year-old also ranks fourth in the majors in pitch-framing value and has been a great pickup as part of the Elvis Andrus-for-Khris Davis trade.


    14. LHP Patrick Sandoval, Los Angeles Angels

    The biggest reason for the Angels' early success has been a vastly improved starting rotation, with the starting staff's ERA trimmed from 4.78 in 2021 to 3.17 this year. Sandoval has been a big part of that turnaround, posting a 1.79 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 40.1 innings, and he'll be just 25 years old for the entirety of the 2022 season.


    13. C/OF Daulton Varsho, Arizona Diamondbacks

    The list of players in the majors capable of playing catcher and center field begins and ends with Varsho, and that defensive versatility alone makes him an extremely valuable asset. Add to it the fact that he sports a 136 OPS+ with 10 doubles, eight home runs and 21 RBI, and he's racked up an impressive 1.7 WAR through 42 games.


    12. RHP Paul Blackburn, Oakland Athletics

    Drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the first round in 2012, Blackburn was traded twice before he found a home with Oakland. However, he had been little more than organizational depth before this year, as he sported a 5.74 ERA in 138 innings scattered over the last five seasons. The 28-year-old got an opportunity when Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt were traded, and he's making the most of it with a 1.70 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 47.2 innings.


    11. SS J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners

    Crawford turned a corner last season with 3.8 WAR in 160 games, finally showing the tools that made him a top prospect throughout his time in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system. The 27-year-old has been even better this year, hitting .296/.377/.441 for a 145 OPS+ with 13 extra-base hits in 175 plate appearances while continuing to play elite defense at shortstop.

10. RHP Clay Holmes, New York Yankees

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Where would the New York Yankees be without Clay Holmes?

    With Aroldis Chapman struggling before landing on the injured list because of Achilles tendinitis, and Jonathan Loaisiga failing to match last year's success, Holmes has become the team's best reliever by default, and he's thriving in an expanded late-inning role.

    The sinkerballer has a 0.38 ERA, 0.72 WHIP and a pristine 24-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23.2 innings, tallying four wins, five saves and seven holds in 22 appearances while limiting opponents to a .181 batting average and just two extra-base hits in 86 plate appearances.

    The move to acquire him from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the deadline last year for Diego Castillo and Hoy Park flew under the radar at the time, but it now looks like one of the front office's best moves in recent memory.

9. RHP Pablo Lopez, Miami Marlins

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Pablo Lopez has shown front-line starter flashes in the past, including last season when he pitched to a 3.07 ERA and 1.12 WHIP with 115 strikeouts in 102.2 innings, but he has never put it all together for a full season.

    It's all clicking now, though.

    The 26-year-old has a 2.04 ERA and an NL-leading 201 ERA+ to go with a 0.96 WHIP, a .204 opponents' batting average and 56 strikeouts in 53 innings.

    A lethal changeup that has limited opposing hitters to a .159 average while accounting for 30 of his strikeouts and a 43 percent whiff rate has been the key to his success, and he has streamlined his approach by throwing fewer sinkers and more four-seam fastballs.

8. RHP Alek Manoah, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    The No. 11 pick in 2019, Alek Manoah was one of the most polished college arms in his draft class, and he moved quickly through the minors to make his MLB debut on May 27, 2021.

    The burly 6'6", 285-pound right-hander went 9-2 and posted a 3.22 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 127 strikeouts in 111.2 innings to finish eighth in AL Rookie of the Year voting, and he is developing into the present and future ace of the staff in Toronto.

    Through eight starts this year, he's gone 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and a 43-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 50 innings. He is also one of just six qualified starting pitchers with an opponents' batting average below .200.

    He matched his career high by going eight innings last time out, and his seven quality starts are tied for second in the majors, so he is showing early signs of being a workhorse.

7. SS Jeremy Pena, Houston Astros

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Just for fun, let's start by comparing Jeremy Pena's 2022 production to that of Carlos Correa, the player he replaced as the starting shortstop for the Houston Astros.

    How can you look at the decision to let Correa walk as anything other than a three-year, $105.3 million bullet dodged by the Houston front office?

    Looking beyond that one-to-one comparison, Pena leads all shortstops with 2.4 WAR, and if the season ended today, he might be the front-runner for both AL Rookie of the Year and the AL Gold Glove at shortstop.

    The same farm system that churned out Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Kyle Tucker appears to have developed another star.

6. LHP Nestor Cortes, New York Yankees

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Drafted by the New York Yankees in the 36th round in 2013, Nestor Cortes was selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, returned to the Yankees, traded to the Seattle Mariners and ultimately re-signed by the Yankees to a minor league deal before last year.

    He began the 2021 season at Triple-A, and he didn't join the starting rotation until July, but he finished the season with a 2.90 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 103 strikeouts in 93 innings.

    In other words, his breakout this season didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but it's still been surprising to see his name plastered all over pitching leaderboards.

    The 27-year-old has a 1.80 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 56 strikeouts in 45 innings, and his .180 opponents' batting average trails only Justin Verlander (.161) among qualified starters.

5. LHP Shane McClahanan, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

    Shane McClanahan finished seventh in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season when he went 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 141 strikeouts in 123.1 innings, and he threw five shutout innings in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox.

    The No. 31 pick in the 2018 draft, he is the ace of the Tampa Bay staff in his second season, and he's racked up an MLB-leading 74 strikeouts in 52.1 innings to go along with a 2.06 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and a .184 opponents' batting average.

    The 25-year-old attacks hitters with a well-balanced four-pitch arsenal, including a fastball that averages 96.8 mph, a terrific curveball that has accounted for 31 of his strikeouts, and a curveball and changeup that have both induced whiff rates north of 45 percent.

    The Rays simply know how to develop pitching.

4. RHP Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    Likely part of the reason the Chicago White Sox were comfortable letting Carlos Rodon walk in free agency is they had Michael Kopech waiting to step into the starting rotation.

    Acquired alongside Yoan Moncada in the Chris Sale blockbuster with the Boston Red Sox in December 2016, Kopech missed the 2019 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery before opting out of the 2020 campaign, but he returned last year as a valuable swingman.

    In four starts and 40 relief appearances, he posted a 3.50 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 103 strikeouts in 69.1 innings, recording four wins and 13 holds.

    After tossing seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Yankees on Sunday for his third straight quality start, he has a 1.29 ERA and 0.86 WHIP in 42 innings, and he checked in No. 2 in our way-too-early AL Cy Young rankings behind Justin Verlander on Tuesday.

3. 2B Jazz Chisholm Jr., Miami Marlins

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Jazz Chisholm Jr. offered a glimpse of his dynamic power-speed combination as a rookie last season when he tallied 18 home runs and 23 steals in 124 games.

    However, it was clear he still had work to do in refining his overall approach as he finished with a .303 on-base percentage and a 28.6 percent strikeout rate in 507 plate appearances.

    That work has paid off, as the 24-year-old is hitting .290/.341/.581 with 18 extra-base hits and six steals, and he's trimmed his strikeout rate to 23.7 percent and made a modest improvement in his walk rate.

    On top of his offensive production, he has also tallied 5 DRS at second base, and his 2.0 WAR through 34 games puts him on pace for an elite all-around season. The Marlins appear to have their next face of the franchise.

2. 2B Tommy Edman, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Justin Berl/Getty Images

    Tommy Edman put together a 3.7-WAR season last year while replacing Kolten Wong as the St. Louis Cardinals starting second baseman and leadoff hitter, but there were some holes in his game, most notably a subpar .308 on-base percentage.

    Improving in that area was clearly a focal point, and he's done just that, as his walk rate has spiked from 5.5 to 10.5 percent and his on-base percentage has climbed with it to an excellent .367.

    The 27-year-old is hitting .278/.367/.437 for a 135 OPS+ with 14 extra-base hits, 10 steals and 33 runs scored, and the reigning NL Gold Glove winner has also already tallied an MLB-leading 8 DRS in 321 innings at second base.

    On a team headlined by established superstars Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, it's Edman who is tops on the Cardinals roster with 2.7 WAR, and he's well on his way to his first All-Star selection.

1. RF Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    A first-round pick in 2015 who was drafted as a catcher, Taylor Ward has spent the last several seasons bouncing between Triple-A and the majors, shifting positions from catcher to third base to the outfield.

    The 28-year-old entered the 2022 season as a .230/.305/.388 career hitter with 15 home runs and 55 RBI in 534 plate appearances in the majors, and he began the year on the injured list while recovering from a groin strain.

    He made his season debut April 16, starting in right field and going 2-for-3 with a home run, and he hasn't looked back since.

    In 131 plate appearances, Ward is hitting .370/.481/.713 to go with six doubles, nine home runs, 23 RBI and 2.3 WAR. His strong batted-ball metrics, which included a 97th percentile standing in barrel rate, give no indication of significant regression to come, and he has been the biggest breakout star of the 2022 season.


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant, and accurate through Wednesday's games.