Every year we discuss the difference between a sleeper and breakout for Fantasy Baseball. The truth is that it's different for everybody. To me a breakout is a player who can provide excess value, perhaps even league-winning upside. A sleeper, on the other hand, is more of an undervalued player who doesn't have that same potential. Either way, you want to target both sleepers and breakouts throughout your draft. If you hit on enough of these players, that's how you'll ultimately win your league.
Breakouts are not created equal, though. They come in all different shapes and sizes. For example, names like Dansby Swanson and Sandy Alcantara were players who showed signs of breaking out in the past but finally put it all together in 2022. Guys like Adolis Garcia and Nestor Cortes flashed skills in 2021 but we didn't trust it enough. And then we have the biggest breakouts of all from last season… prospects. Julio Rodriguez, Spencer Strider, and Michael Harris were top prospects who hit their 90th percentile outcomes (or better).
Breakouts can come from all over the draft, too. Alcantara and Swanson were top-100 picks entering last season. Garcia was drafted inside the top 200. Cortes and Rodriguez were outside the top 200 and the Braves prospects even went undrafted! Let's start near the top of this year's draft board and work our way down.
Top-100 hitter breakouts
The story of Jazz Chisholm's young career has been a lack of health. After playing just 124 games in 2021, Chisholm was limited to just 60 games last season due to a stress fracture in his back and a torn meniscus. The production when he's been on the field, however, has been stellar. Last year he hit .254 with 14 home runs and 12 steals in those 60 games. That is a 35-homer, 30-steal pace over 150 games. Sounds like a league-winner to me.
He also made year-over-year improvements in both plate discipline and batted ball data. Chisholm posted a 90.4 MPH average exit velocity (tied for second among second basemen) with a 16.7% barrel rate (by far the best among second basemen). That barrel rate was also eighth best among hitters with 150+ batted ball events. You don't normally see that type of power production from a middle infielder. Chisholm needs to improve against lefties and stay on the field but if he does, a 30-30 season is within his range of outcomes.
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UPDATED 3/7 — It's hard to know for sure but I'm willing to wager Corey Seager will be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the upcoming shift restrictions. Moving forward we will see four defenders on the infield dirt with two on either side of second base. The days of the second baseman playing in short-right field are gone (for now). Seager hit .245 last season but Statcast says he deserved a .283 batting average. It makes sense given Seager's low strikeout rate and high line-drive rate.
In his first season in Texas, Seager posted a career-high 33 home runs and hit the ball extremely hard, as he always does. His 91.1 MPH average exit velocity ranked in the 86th percentile. He's actually been at 91 MPH or better three years in a row. Oddly enough, Seager had just a .645 OPS on the road last season and we have no reason to believe that will stick. As he regresses on the road and in the batting average department, a big year should be on the horizon. If it all comes together, we're looking at a .280+ batting average, 30+ home runs and 180+ runs plus RBI.
Seager's ADP has risen considerably since originally writing this back in January. He's moved up nearly 20 spots on average and is consistently being drafted in the fifth round of 12-team leagues, which I am totally fine with. This is a clear market correction but even with that, Seager offers considerable upside and profitability.
If it were up to me, I would just post a bunch of majestic Oneil Cruz home runs as the analysis for drafting him. Cruz has some of the biggest upside in the entire player pool. As a rookie he hit .233 with 17 home runs and 11 steals in 87 games. He's a physical freak in the mold of a left-handed Aaron Judge. He stands at 6'7, has the hardest exit velocity in the Statcast era and his sprint speed was 98th percentile. His raw power-speed combination is second to none.
Of course, physical traits are not everything. Cruz posted an unsightly 35% strikeout rate. He has to find a way to improve and it seems like maybe something clicked in September. From September 1 on, Cruz hit .288 with six homers, five steals and a 30% strikeout rate. 30% is far from perfect but it's manageable. He also has to improve against left-handed pitching. Cruz hit just .158 with a .532 OPS against lefties last season. Perhaps the biggest X-factor in Fantasy Baseball, Cruz can provide first-round value if he can make the improvements mentioned above. A 40-20 season is within his range of outcomes, which you can't say for many.
We all have players we can't quit. Eloy Jimenez is one for me. This is my third season with CBS and I'm pretty sure I've written Jimenez up as a breakout each year. Like Chisholm earlier, injuries have been the biggest issue for Jimenez. He's played just 139 of a possible 324 games over the past two years. Jimenez returned on July 6 last season, however, and was awesome over the final three months. During that span he hit .305 with 15 home runs, a 92.9 MPH average exit velocity and a 15.7% barrel rate. His .895 OPS ranked ninth-best among qualified hitters.
Jimenez also didn't play the field a single time after August 26, which could have helped him stay healthy. With the White Sox signing Andrew Benintendi, Jimenez is expected to be the team's full-time DH. If Jimenez could stay on the field, his upside is similar to that of Seager, except from a shallow outfield position. Even 140 games would likely see Jimenez pop 30+ home runs in 2023.
This year's Shane McClanahan?
It's highly unlikely any of these pitchers well be as good as Shane McClanahan was last season but each of the names below possesses impressive skills and a good opportunity. You can find these pitchers in the mid-late rounds of your draft from picks 125-225.
First up is everybody's favorite breakout pitcher: Nick Lodolo. From a skills perspective, what's not to like? Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, his 11.4 K/9 ranked eighth while his 20.9% K-BB% ranked 18th. He throws mid-90s with the fastball and leans on a nasty curveball, which is already one of the best in the league. That pitch allowed just a .136 batting average against with a 46% whiff rate. Per this fantastic breakdown from Justin Choi, Lodolo also changed the shape of that curveball midseason, adding more horizontal break to the pitch.
The downside for Lodolo is that he's on the Reds and has to call Great American Ballpark home. Oddly enough, Lodolo still posted a stellar 2.85 ERA at home last season with a 5.11 mark on the road. You have to imagine he regresses some in Great American Ballpark but he should get better on the road. If Lodolo could keep the walks under control, we're looking at a low-mid 3s ERA with tons of strikeout.
Jesus Luzardo… potential realized! He finally put it together in 2022, posting a 3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP with 120 strikeouts over 100.1 innings pitched. Among starting pitchers with at least 100 innings, Luzardo ranked 16th in K-BB% (21.3%), 16th in swinging strike rate (13.8%), and 19th in SIERA (3.28). He's basically a top-20 starting pitcher! Guess what? He's not being drafted anywhere near a top-20 starting pitcher.
The reason for that is likely health. Luzardo only made 18 starts last season due to a strained left forearm, which is usually a sign of worse things to come. It's also worth noting that his fastball velocity was down 1.3 MPH upon returning for his final 12 starts. Even with the velo down, the results were fantastic during that stretch. As long as he can avoid injury, Luzardo will ride a diverse four-pitch mix to great ratios and strikeouts. Wins could be hard to come by, however, with the Marlins run support (or lack therof).
Perhaps I shouldn't do this but I'm willing to just give Dustin May a pass for his 30 innings last season. Coming back from Tommy John surgery, May posted a 4.50 ERA and lacked control based on his 4.2 BB/9. For what it's worth, he still posted ridiculous spin rates in his six starts: 82nd percentile in fastball spin, 100th percentile in curve spin.
Prior to Tommy John, May looked like he was already breaking out in 2021. He changed his pitch-mix in the small sample, lowering his sinker usage while raising his curveball and four-seam fastball usage. While it was only five starts in 2021, May posted a 2.74 ERA, 0.96 WHIP with 35 strikeouts and a nasty 14% swinging strike rate over 23 innings. May gets whiffs and induces a ton of groundballs for one of the best teams in baseball. Perhaps he'll only throw 120-130 innings but May could make a Tony Gonsolin-esque impact in 2023.
One year after successfully converting Drew Rasmussen into a starter, the Rays did the same thing with Jeffrey Springs in 2022. Stop me if this sounds familiar. Among starting pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched, Springs ranked 15th in K-BB% (20.6%) and 13th in swinging strike rate (13.5%). Each of his FIP, xFIP, SIERA and xERA were 3.32 or less. Choose a stat, Springs was awesome!
So why is Springs going as late as he is? Innings. Springs made a huge jump in innings from 2021 to 2022, going from 44.2 to 135.1. He made 24 starts from May 9 on. Springs only went six innings in seven of those. He did not go more than six innings a single time. That's really the only negative but perhaps we shouldn't be so hard on Springs considering it was his first season as a starter. I'm not sure he'll go six innings much this season either but I'd expect the Rays to get the most out of Springs' three-pitch mix once again in 2023.
Everybody's favorite breakout hitter
If Lodolo is everybody's favorite breakout pitcher then Lars Nootbaar is everybody's favorite breakout hitter. On paper his 2022 might not look that impressive but let's dig a little deeper. Among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, Nootbaar's 14.7% walk rate was sixth best. While he only hit .228, he got on-base at a .340 clip. He also crushes the ball! His 91.7 MPH average exit velocity ranked in the 90th percentile while his 12.1% barrel rate was 85th percentile.
Lastly, do you know what I love most about a young left-handed batter? The ability to hit same-handed pitching! Nootbaar hit .273 with an .846 OPS vs. lefties last season. He hits the ball hard, has a good eye at the plate and shouldn't be at risk of a platoon. The one downside is that the Cardinals are loaded with talent. As of now they have Tyler O'Neill, Dylan Carlson, Juan Yepez and Nootbaar in the outfield and at DH. They also have Nolan Gorman and Alec Burleson on the bench with top prospect Jordan Walker on the way. Talent usually wins out and that's why I like betting on Nootbaar but if he struggles during spring training or early in the season, he could find himself on the outside looking in.
Triston Casas got the call late last season and struggled mightily early on. Over his final 13 games, however, he hit .316 and lowered his strikeout rate to just 22%. He also flashed power to all fields and advanced plate discipline. Casas had 19 walks to 23 strikeouts during his 27 games. Of his five home runs, three went to the opposite field, including a monster shot off Gerrit Cole. I have some questions about the batting average but think Casas will get on base quite a bit and hit 20+ home runs. If everything works out, he could push 30. I like him as a corner infielder or bench stash with upside.
UPDATED 3/7 — Logan O'Hoppe just put together one of the most impressive minor-league seasons you will see by a catcher. He slashed .283/.416/.544 with 26 home runs over 104 games. In the 29 games he spent at Double-A with the Angels, his OPS jumped to 1.147 with a whopping 22% walk rate. O'Hoppe got a taste at the end of last season and is already a better framer than Max Stassi. If the Angels want to compete with the likes of the Astros and Mariners, they need to field their best team on Opening Day. That includes O'Hoppe. I love him as a second catcher in two-catcher leagues.
Since writing this back in January, there have been whispers that O'Hoppe could begin this season in the minors. I don't think it has anything to do with performance but more to do with baseball politics and service-time manipulation. Either way, I'm still in on O'Hoppe. Maybe I'm wrong and he still starts the season with the Angels and, if that's the case, the breakout is on. Even if he starts the season in the minors, O'Hoppe is worth stashing because of his considerable upside at a not-so-great position.
UPDATED 3/7 — All Oscar Colas did last year in his first taste of pro ball was hit at every level. In 117 minor-league games, Colas hit .314 with 23 homers and an .895 OPS. His batting average actually jumped with each leap from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A. Colas has had a unique journey as a 24-year old, spending time in Japan before signing with the White Sox last offseason. As a result, he's mature beyond his years and it's showed at the plate. The White Sox currently have an opening in right field and there's a chance Colas seizes it during spring training. He's more of a name for deeper five-outfielder leagues.
I previously included Oswald Peraza in this column but I've cooled on him a little bit. Let me explain. I still like Peraza long term but I'm a little nervous about this season. Fellow top prospect Anthony Volpe is having a big spring, which could complicate Peraza's playing time and thus, his redraft value. Perhaps I'm overthinking it, Volpe gets sent down to start the season and Peraza is the starting shortstop on Opening Day. Even with that, Volpe will be up at some point and the Yankees have a lot of mouths to feed with Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, Josh Donaldson, Oswaldo Cabrera, Peraza and Volpe. It's a good problem for the Yankees but could become a headache for Fantasy.