Anytime I'm writing about breakouts for Fantasy Baseball, I can't help but think back to the 2017 season. I wanted to include Giancarlo Stanton in my breakouts list that season, coming off his career-worst .815 OPS in 119 games. His price had never been lower, and it seemed people might have forgotten about just how good he could be.
We would, of course, be reminded when he hit .281/.376/.631 with 59 homers and 132 RBI, however I didn't get to put that feather in my cap because I let my coworkers talk me out of including Stanton among my breakouts. "He's already broken out," they said! And I listened. The fool.
Because the truth is, the definitions of all these terms we use – "sleeper" or "breakout" or "bust" – are all squishy at best. There's no one right definition, and it differs for everyone. And I like to embrace that in making these kinds of lists. When it comes to breakouts specifically, it's all about finding impact players where you typically don't get them. Whether that means someone is making the leap from being just another guy to a must-start player or leaping from must-start to superstar – or just bouncing back after a down season – breakouts should be players with a significant change to take your team up a notch.
So, those are the three categories I'm choosing from for my first round of breakouts, and here are 13 players who fit:
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Jo Adell LF
LAA L.A. Angels • #7 • Age: 23
Adell was also part of my sleepers column, which highlights the fungibility of these terms. But Adell is someone I'm going to draft a ton of as a fifth outfielder, utility, or bench bat. His 150-game pace in Triple-A last season was 45 homers and 17 stolen bases while hitting .289/.342/.592, and while he didn't impress much in the majors yet again, he's still just 23 years old with excellent minor-league production and elite tools – he's posted a max exit velocity in the 97th percentile over the past two seasons with a sprint speed in the 98th percentile, per StatCast data. He's still figuring out how to put those elite tools into play, but you've got a chance to bet on a potential five-category stud with a late-round pick. Make sure you take advantage of it.
CHW Chi. White Sox • #25 • Age: 24
Here's another example of a top prospect being pushed down draft boards because of struggles in his first MLB season. Now, it's worth noting with Vaughn that his 127-game sample in the majors in 2021 was nearly three times as many games as he had played in the minors, so maybe it's a little harder to write that off as a small-sample fluke – and I wouldn't do that. He needs to be better than he was last season to emerge as a must-start Fantasy option. However, let's not forget, Vaughn made the leap to the majors after just 29 games at High-A while learning a new position. He hit the ball really hard and started to cut his strikeout rate as the season went on. I'm less certain he's going to be a star than I was this time last year, but his overall outlook probably hasn't changed all that much. If you get him after 200th overall, Vaughn is a great buy.
SEA Seattle • #36 • Age: 25
Gilbert got hit hard as a rookie, and I think you can probably chalk that up to some poor command – he threw a few too many sliders in the middle of the zone and the rare changeups he threw were left up in the zone too often. However, he posted above average whiff and strikeout rates with good control, and he ranked 17th among 129 pitchers with at least 100 strikeouts in contact rate on pitches in the strike zone – just behind Corbin Burnes and just ahead of Kevin Gausman. The makings of a very good pitcher are here, he just needs a few tweaks.
Luis Urias SS
MIL Milwaukee • #2 • Age: 24
Urias' .913 OPS in Triple-A has always made him interesting in my eyes, and he finally started to show signs of figuring things out in 2021. His overall numbers won't blow you away, but there was a light that went on in June, and he hit .261/.355/.473 from June 1 on. Urias has pretty fringe-y power, but has geared his swing to generate more loft, especially to the pull side and also cut his strikeout rate to a much more manageable 20.4% for the season – and down to 18% from June 1 on. Urias compares very favorably to someone like Jonathan India, but you can draft him five rounds later in most drafts, at least. Eligibility at every non-1B position certainly helps, too.
DET Detroit • #57 • Age: 29
It's possible to put too much weight on peripheral stats, because some pitchers just consistently underperform them every year, the way Rodriguez did in 2021, when he had a 3.32 FIP with a 4.74 ERA. But Rodriguez hasn't really been that guy in his career – from 2015 through 2019, he had a 4.03 ERA and 3.94 FIP. So, I'm inclined to believe that the peripherals are more representative of how Rodriguez is likely to pitch in 2022 – especially with stats like FIP, xFIP, SIERA, and xERA (among others) all point in the same direction with different inputs. He's also moved to a better home park and division, so his degree of difficulty should be lower this season. I could see Rodriguez ending up being a solid No. 3 Fantasy starter.
Pete Alonso 1B
NYM N.Y. Mets • #20 • Age: 27
Alonso is exactly the kind of player most people would say can't be a breakout candidate – after all, he had a 53-homer season in 2019! However, I don't think anyone would disagree with the idea that Matt Olson had a breakout season in 2021, and he was well established as one of the game's best power hitters. In Alonso's case, I think he could take another step forward thanks to the improvements he's made as a contact hitter – his 19.9% strikeout rate in 2021 was legitimately good for a power hitter, and he did it without having to sacrifice his power – his average launch angle and exit velocity were basically identical to his rookie season, as was his expected wOBA. I could see Alonso putting together an MVP-caliber season -- like Jose Abreu with more pop.
Byron Buxton CF
MIN Minnesota • #25 • Age: 28
The breakout already happened in 2021, but I have to include Buxton here for the sake of my brand. He played at an MVP level last season, albeit in just 61 games, as injuries continue to be an issue. However, while Buxton's main issue in the past has been concussions, in 2021, it was a hip injury that cost him a month – the first of his career – and then a hit-by-pitch that cost him two. Even if you think Buxton is more injury prone than your typical player, it's impossible to blame him for getting hit by a pitch. And he came back from that injury to hit .258/.319/.553 with a 43-homer, 19-SB pace, so no ill effects. He's a legitimate 35-25 threat who could hit .280, and the injury discount is still there. If he plays 130 games, Buxton is going to be one of the best values of the first 100 picks.
Willy Adames SS
MIL Milwaukee • #27 • Age: 26
Adames' breakout already happened in 2021 as well, however it just isn't reflected in his price. He's going off the board as the 131st player and the 18th shortstop in NFC drafts, despite hitting .285/.366/.521 with a 30-homer, 190-run-plus-RBI pace after getting traded to the Brewers. It was a huge outlier for his career, so some skepticism is warranted. However, I don't think that much skepticism is warranted – he's a career .217/.275/.341 hitter at Tropicana Field, his former home in Tampa, vs. a .290/.365/.508 lifetime mark everywhere else. Adames talked about how he had trouble seeing the ball in Tropicana Field, and the fact that his post-trade numbers look so much like his career numbers away from there seems like a pretty good reason to buy that excuse.
LAA L.A. Angels • #6 • Age: 31
Rendon is going to be hit with the injury risk label after shedding it for years, and considering he's a soon-to-be 32-year-old coming off hip surgery, that's not unfair. Especially since Rendon just wasn't any good at all in 2021 – even his typically elite plate discipline wasn't quite as good as we're used to seeing. This could be the beginning of the end for him, especially since hip injuries can be especially tough to overcome. However, Rendon has been a top-40 pick for about a half-decade and now he's routinely falling out of the top-100. I'm willing to bet it was just a one-year fluke at that price.
MIL Milwaukee • #22 • Age: 30
On the Fantasy Baseball Today podcast recently, we talked about Yelich and Cody Bellinger, two former NL MVPs who have struggled with injuries and poor production over the past two seasons and who are back-to-back in ADP right now. While both Frank Stampfl and Scott White said they'd rather take the chance on Bellinger, I think I'd rather bet on Yelich. For one thing, Yelich was simply a better player at his best than Bellinger, so a return-to-form would be a return to a higher baseline. However, part of my thinking is also that, while Yelich hasn't hit well the past two seasons (.234/.360/.392), he's been quite a bit better than Bellinger (.195/.278/.364). Yelich's back injury is, obviously, the big stumbling block for him, and he's older than Bellinger, so his chances might be lower anyway. However, I tend to look at it like this: Bellinger has to avoid injuries and fix his swing (he was 48th percentile in average exit velocity and 20th percentile in hard-hit rate in 2021), while Yelich just needs to stay healthy (he was still 80th percentile in average exit velocity and 87th in hard-hit rate).
Aaron Nola SP
PHI Philadelphia • #27 • Age: 28
Nola is another player who wildly underperformed his peripherals, and that's the kind of player I'm always going to bet on – especially with an elite player like Nola. Nola was, in most ways, the same guy he's always been, with one big exception – his groundball rate fell from 49.4% to 41.6%. That helps explain the increase in his home run rate, however even that explanation doesn't really hold up to scrutiny – he allowed 26 homers with 23.5 expected homers per Statcast data – in 2019, he allowed 27 on 24.5. He was especially hurt by home runs that just barely cleared the wall – 15 of his 26 allowed were classified as "doubters" by Statcast, compared to just nine of 27 in 2019 and one of nine in 2020. Nola wasn't perfect, but his poor results look a lot more like the result of crummy luck than anything else.
CIN Cincinnati • #58 • Age: 29
Whereas, Castillo actually didn't pitch as well in 2021 as he had before. His struggles weren't just the result of bad luck – his strikeout rate collapsed to 23.9% from right around 30% the previous two seasons. Castillo was still elite when it came to suppressive quality of contact, so that wasn't an issue for him, and his velocity was mostly where it needed to be – his struggles early on especially were a real conundrum. He turned things around as the season went on – 2.73 ERA, 26% K rate from June 1 on – but remains discounted compared to previous seasons. If I can get Castillo in the sixth round or so as my No. 2 or especially No. 3 SP, I'm going to feel really good about my staff.
HOU Houston • #35 • Age: 39
I mean, it's Justin Verlander, what do you need me to say? Yeah, he'll be 39 on Opening Day and effectively hasn't pitched since 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, so it's entirely possible he's just lost it. However, the last time we saw him pitch, he threw 223 innings with 300 strikeouts, a 2.58 ERA and 0.803 WHIP. He was the best pitcher in Fantasy. Unless we get really worrying reports from spring training, Verlander looks like one of the best bets at pitcher you can make outside of the top-100 in ADP. He's going just behind Shane McClanahan and just ahead of Blake Snell, and the potential upside with both pitchers doesn't come close to Verlander's. Historically, pitchers outside of the fifth round in ADP turn in top-100 seasons less than half of the time, so you should generally be aiming for pitchers with high-end upside. Verlander is the best example this season.