There are sleepers, and there are breakouts. So what's the difference?
Sleepers might be slipping through the cracks a little more, going later in drafts on average. Their defining characteristic is that they're underappreciated. Breakouts are more widely known but still harboring untapped upside. They may also be underappreciated, but their defining characteristic is that they're about to be better than they've ever been before.
I would say that this group, my breakouts, is generally the one I'm most excited to draft, even more than my sleepers. But more than anything, the distinction is about giving me another opportunity to write about the players that I like.
So here are 12 more that I like.
Corey Seager, SS, Rangers
FantasyPros ADP: 59.0
I've been banging the drum for Seager for years, believing he had the capacity for first-round production on the level of Freddie Freeman. And now, heading into his second season with the Rangers, the stars may have finally aligned for him. It may not seem that way given that he just hit a career-worst .245, raising questions about his most reliable contribution, but that's likely to correct itself. The bigger takeaway from his 2022 season is that he finally proved he could be a 30-homer guy if he just held it together for a full season.
But wait, what makes me so sure the batting average will correct itself? Well, for starters, he came into last year a career .297 hitter. His .283 xBA, according to Statcast, was still 96th percentile and in line with career norms. There were no substantive changes to his strikeout rate or exit velocities, and he didn't put the ball in the air at a disproportionately high rate either. That's generally all the digging you need to do to determine the likelihood of a bounce-back, but just for good measure, I'll point out that Seager had a .242 BABIP against the shift last year. He entered with a career mark of .336. Maybe teams figured out the perfect way to position their fielders against him, but it's a moot point. The shifts are going away, and most everyone who's looked at last year's data agrees that Seager stands to be the biggest beneficiary.
How does a .300-hitting, 30-homer shortstop sound to you? The only others with that kind of potential are Fernando Tatis, Trea Turner and Bo Bichette, but I'd say Seager is the best bet of all of them to reach both thresholds.
Oneil Cruz, SS, Pirates
FantasyPros ADP: 82.0
Cruz may never hit .300 like Seager can, but when you add up all the other possible contributions, he's the highest-upside shortstop short of Fernando Tatis. The problem is that he struck out 35 percent of the time as a rookie, a rate that would have been disqualifying for most of major-league history. One of the things Statcast has revealed to us over the past eight years, though, is that outlier exit velocities are capable of overcoming outlier strikeout rates. Aaron Judge, who coincidentally also stands 6-feet-7, is a perfect encapsulation of this. When he first broke into the league, he would strike out upward of 30 percent of the time, yet he kept his batting average in the .270-.280 range, even hitting 52 home runs as a rookie.
"Yeah, but you can't compare Cruz to the best home run hitter of his generation," you might say, except that in terms of how hard they impact the ball, I absolutely can. Cruz set a record for the hardest-hit ball in the Statcast era at 122.4 mph last year and has three times hit the ball in excess of 118 mph already, something Judge has done 14 times in his career. Turns out they have more in common than just their height.
"OK, but Cruz striking out 35 percent of the time isn't the same as Judge striking out 30 percent of the time." True, and until September of last year, Cruz wasn't having much of an impact in Fantasy. But that's when he cut his strikeout rate to 29.8 percent and went on to hit .288 (34 for 118) with six homers, five steals and an .884 OPS for the month. Pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? Cruz maintained a strikeout rate of 24.6 percent over his minor-league career, so this does seem like a hurdle he can clear. And if he does, a 40-homer, 20-steal season is on the table.
Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B, Royals
KC Kansas City • #9 • Age: 25
FantasyPros ADP: 99.5
Pasquantino might be the most popular breakout candidate across all of Fantasy Baseball, to the point you could argue he's not even a discount anymore. But if indeed lives up to the upside so many see in him, then he absolutely is. You realize Matt Olson is a top-40 pick, right? Pasquantino's potential impact is greater than Olson's as a .300-hitting 30-homer guy with superlative on-base skills.
Let's start with who Pasquantino was in the minors, slashing .292/.382/.569 in what was basically two seasons of work there. When he finally got the call in late June (I say "finally" because he looked like he was ready during a monstrous May), he was a little slow out of the gate, but over his final 40 games with the big club, he hit .362 (51 for 141) with seven home runs and a .996 OPS, walking 21 times compared to just 12 strikeouts. It's that last number that's nothing short of awe-inspiring. In all, Pasquantino struck out just 11.4 percent of the time, which puts him in the same company as Alex Bregman and Keibert Ruiz, the top 3 percent of the league. Except unlike those two, he genuinely clobbers the ball. With an average exit velocity of 91.2 mph, his contact is both high quantity and high quality.
Playing in Kansas City may hold him back, both because the rest of the lineup is weak and because it's a terrible place to hit. While he actually had 10 home runs, most venues would have put him at 15 or more, according to Statcast. He would have 21 in Cincinnati. The 25-year-old actually did his best work at home, though, slugging just .378 on the road, so there's room for improvement there.
Sean Murphy, C, Braves
FantasyPros ADP: 119.5
The breakout case for Murphy could be as simple as him going from Oakland to Atlanta, where he'll enjoy a big park upgrade (his career OPS is .684 in Oakland compared to .820 everywhere else) and an even bigger lineup upgrade. But honestly, I had him penciled in as a breakout even before the trade that sent him to the Braves.
Keep in mind that, even though he's 28, last year was only his second with a significant number of at-bats, so it stands to reason that he may have only rounded into form last June. From that point forward, in the final four months of the season, he struck out at a 17.3 percent rate, down from 26.5 percent previously, and batted .273. What makes the lower rate particularly compelling is that he struck out just 17.1 percent of the time during his minor-league career. If he was lacking in anything during those formative years, it was power. The final two-thirds of last season represented a return to the contact skills he had all along.
What could undermine Murphy's breakout potential is the fact the Braves already have an All-Star catcher in Travis d'Arnaud, but let's give them some credit here. They already had a terrific catcher tandem in d'Arnaud and William Contreras but were willing to give up the younger, higher-upside, cost-controlled half (Contreras) to get Murphy. Why? They know the new rules being implemented this year will lead to more activity on the base paths, and Murphy is a big upgrade defensively. They got him to control the run game, which means they'll want him behind the plate as often as possible.
Hunter Greene, SP, Reds
CIN Cincinnati • #21 • Age: 23
FantasyPros ADP: 120.0
I'll admit that the breakout case for a pitcher who throws 102 mph is an easy one to make, but nonetheless, Greene's numbers as a rookie last year (particularly the 4.44 ERA) weren't so good. Were they to become good in his second season, it would be a breakout -- and a fairly significant one.
So let's not reinvent the wheel here. Greene could be great, and you should know about it. He had a better swinging strike rate than Gerrit Cole and a better K/9 rate as well. Most convincing, though, is that over his final five starts, even with a brief IL stay following the first, he had a 0.62 ERA, 0.69 WHIP and 14.0 K/9. He went six innings in four of them. What changed is he threw his fastball even harder, averaging 99-101 mph on it after averaging 97-99 previously, which may have helped curtail some of the home run issues he experienced previously. Perhaps more sustainably, he threw 68 percent of his pitches for strikes compared to 62 percent in his first 19 starts.
If Greene's upside was forcing him up draft boards into near-ace territory, you could make a bust case for him instead given his injury history and penchant for hard contact. But seeing as he's the 35th starting pitcher off the board on average -- only slightly early for my tastes -- a glass-half-full view is warranted.
Nick Lodolo, SP, Reds
Nick Lodolo SP
CIN Cincinnati • #40 • Age: 25
FantasyPros ADP: 137.0
The hype for Greene is robbing Lodolo of his own buzz, but it's honestly a toss-up which one I'd rather have. The left-handed Lodolo had a similar K/9 rate (11.4) and has a more complete arsenal, with the curveball standing out in particular. It's a truly elite pitch with ridiculous horizontal movement that may ultimately count for more than Greene's pure heat.
You could argue Lodolo also rounded into form sooner than Greene, delivering a 2.92 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 10.9 K/9 over his final 13 starts (it was five for Greene, remember), and a bigger sample size is always more convincing. Moreover, Lodolo mostly serves up ground balls on contact, a trend that only increased during that 13-start stretch, which makes him less vulnerable than Greene to the horrors of Great American Ball Park. He feels like the more complete pitcher even if he doesn't sizzle as loudly.
If Lodolo has one disadvantage, it's that he threw only 116 innings last year (after throwing just 50 2/3 the year before), so it's possible the Reds continue to baby him in Year 2. Even so, I may actually like him a little more than Greene. He seems like the safer breakout pick, if nothing else.
Dustin May, SP, Dodgers
Dustin May SP
LAD L.A. Dodgers • #85 • Age: 25
FantasyPros ADP: 167.0
To see May pitch is to question what's physically possible for a ball to travel from a pitcher's hand to home plate. The inches of break he gets on his sinker, which peaks at 99 mph, is a complete outlier and a sight to behold. But it's not just a GIF-worthy pitch, all bark and no bite. He's already one of the best ground-ball pitchers in the game and is showing real improvement as a bat-misser, aided by his four-seamer (which he also throws quite hard) and curveball.
His return from Tommy John surgery last year was a mixed bag. He struck out nine over five one-hit innings in his first start back but struggled with walks thereafter. The bite on his pitches was still there, though, which is enough to reminisce about those five starts he made prior to the injury in 2021, which yielded a 2.74 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 13.7 K/9. Even his career numbers -- a 3.26 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 8.8 K/9 -- are reasons to get excited, especially since he pitches for the Dodgers, a team that should maximize his win potential. Control and durability are major hurdles, but the upside is something to shoot for, especially since May is barely going inside the top 50 at starting pitcher.
Rowdy Tellez, 1B, Brewers
FantasyPros ADP: 172.5
It's true that Tellez's biggest step forward probably came last year, when he went from 11 home runs to a career-high 35, 14 more than ever before. But I do think it's possible he could get even better, and it's easier to make that case when he's still being disrespected in drafts. Among those who hit 30-plus homers last year, 23 players in all, his ADP is by far the lowest, seeing him drafted after the likes of Ian Happ and Harrison Bader.
Why the skepticism? I honestly can't say. Tellez makes high-quality contact, his average exit velocity registering in the 86th percentile and his max exit velocity in the 98th percentile, according to Statcast, and he actually underperformed his expected slugging percentage. He also doesn't strike out like you'd expect a power hitter to, and that's been true for him from the beginning. I suspect drafters are turned off by his .219 batting average, but his expected batting average was .252. And seeing as he's a left-handed hitter who's slow out of the box, it stands to reason that infield shifts played a part in that disparity. His BABIP against them was .219, which is, in a word, pathetic. But as you may have heard, infield shifts are going away this year, at least the most extreme versions that allow three infielders on one side of second base.
If Tellez's power is legitimate -- and I see no reason to question it -- there's only room to improve in batting average, perhaps by as much as 30-40 points. I'll take that from my starting first baseman, particularly if it allows me to fill the spot as late as Round 15.
Vaughn Grissom, 2B, Braves
FantasyPros ADP: 190.5
The case for Grissom is primarily one of playing time. What was a question heading into the offseason is a near certainty now with Dansby Swanson departing for the Cubs and the Braves bringing in no one else to play shortstop. It's a vote of confidence for the 22-year-old, who many presumed didn't have the defensive chops to man shortstop at the major-league level. His work with infield instructor Ron Washington this offseason has apparently changed that. Maybe from a lesser organization, you wouldn't trust such a leap of faith, but the Braves have championship aspirations and a tremendous track record of late.
So Grissom looks to be their everyday shortstop while still retaining eligibility at the much weaker second base. What does it mean for Fantasy? Quite possibly, five-category production. You need only prorate his small sample of stats from last year to come away with that impression. It's a little misleading because he came out of the gate scorching hot only to go 8 for 46 (.174) over his final 15 games, but again, the Braves' faith in him speaks for itself
Grissom's Statcast page will underwhelm you, but he's produced at every level he's tried, making a quick climb up the minor-league ladder to debut at age 21. He slashed .322/.411/480 in the minors the last two years, swiping 43 bases in 183 games, and early returns suggest the majors will go much the same way.
Lars Nootbaar, OF, Cardinals
FantasyPros ADP: 192.0
Let's just get it out of the way: Nootbaar sounds like the impulse buy you make in the IKEA checkout line after spending your lunch hour waffling between the MALM and HEMNES bedroom series instead of, you know, eating lunch. All right, we did it. It's done did.
Now ... what Nootbaar (the person) did down the stretch for the Cardinals last year was genuinely exciting. He homered nine times in his final 45 games, good for a .272 ISO. The reason I focus on the ISO and not the slugging percentage is that he hit a suspiciously low .232 during that time, but it wasn't for a lack of discipline. In fact, his disciplined approach has long been his defining characteristic. In those same 45 games, he drew 26 walks compared to just 28 strikeouts.
No, what was new for Nootbaar was the quality contact. After a couple of years working with Driveline Baseball, a data-driven development program, to speed up his bat by 8 mph, he suddenly began crushing the ball, his average and max exit velocity both measuring right around the 90th percentile. You combine that quality of contact with his already elite plate discipline, and well, we might have a Walmart version of Vinnie Pasquantino on our hands. Nootbaar is available 90 picks later and plays a much weaker position.
Of course, he's also less of a certainty. The Cardinals tended to sit him against left-handers even during his strong finish, and they have a number of high-end alternatives for their outfield, including top prospect Jordan Walker. But the signs are there for Nootbaar if they're willing to see him through.
Peter Fairbanks, RP, Rays
FantasyPros ADP: 223.0
I'm not going to claim the Rays have settled on a closer, am I? For Fairbanks to live up to the breakthrough label, I kind of have to. I'll admit it's a precarious position. From Nick Anderson to Andrew Kittredge to Jason Adam, they've left a trail of closer fakeouts in their wake (and oh yeah, Adam is still in the mix). But I would argue, perhaps dubiously, that none were as talented as Fairbanks.
The numbers pretty much speak for themselves. In his 24 appearances after returning from a strained lat, there was nobody better. The righty lights up the radar gun at 101, and his 14.3 K/9 was the sixth-highest among pitchers with at least 20 innings. The most impressive number of all might have been the three walks. He's been in the Rays bullpen for a few years now, but poor control prevented him from living up to his potential. He seems to have turned the corner in that regard.
But will the Rays make him the closer? They basically did last September, allowing him to record four of the team's final five saves (extra innings excluded). His final seven appearances all came in the ninth inning. Perhaps most telling is that the Rays locked him up with a three-year extension this offseason. He's now cost-controlled, with no fear of his saves total upping his arbitration figure. Maybe it's enough to keep them from going the committee route this year.
Reid Detmers, SP, Angels
Reid Detmers SP
LAA L.A. Angels • #48 • Age: 23
FantasyPros ADP: 239.5
Detmers is a classic case of a player who was completely transformed midseason, but too late to bring his numbers back in line. Those players usually don't slip past anyone anymore, not in the Year of Our Lord 2023, but the fact he's going outside the top 225 is pretty good evidence that people simply didn't notice.
So what was his transformation? In 12 starts before being sent to the minors to retool his slider, the 23-year-old left-hander had a 4.66 ERA, 6.8 K/9 and 9 percent swinging-strike rate. In 13 starts after returning, his slider having picked up 3 mph, he had a 3.04 ERA, 9.9 K/9 and 13 percent swinging-strike rate.
It doesn't get much simpler than that. We already knew Detmers had considerable potential. Not only was he drafted 10th overall in 2020, making a quick ascension to the majors, but he also had 15.7 K/9 prior to his initial call-up in 2021. Maybe the Angels' six-man rotation is scaring some would-be drafters away, but if he's the real deal, it won't matter.