As of right now, fans are enjoying a golden age of baseball youth. A changing of the guard, so to speak, sprouts breakout players worth watching for years to come season after season. The 2017 season was no exception, as rookie sensations Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge emphatically bursted onto the Major League Baseball scene, becoming must-watch players essentially overnight.
Bellinger, Judge, and other players like Andrew Benintendi and Josh Bell were 2017 rookies, stamping their place in the game and earning the chance to build on their excellent debut seasons. The concept of a breakout player, however, doesn’t just consist of rookies. Baseball is a game of chance and, in a sense, redemption, and any player can come from the woodwork to surprise the bunch.
It was the Chris Taylor, Yonder Alonso, and Zack Cozart types who really gave the majors a shock. They had established themselves for other reasons, be that defensive purposes for being a somewhat reliable bench player, but in 2017 just went ballistic and fired off hit after hit, earning All-Star Game appearances along the way.
It’s important to remember that we are living in an era during which nearly all of the game’s foremost players are under the age of 30. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, Corey Seager, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, and many others highlight an extremely young list of superstars bound to have future Hall of Fame cases. Breakout players happen every year, but this era is the most fertile for young superstars to grow.
In 2018, we will see many of these sort of players come to fruition and explode onto the picture. Here are Baseball Essential’s Top 10 breakout player of the year candidates for the 2018 season.
Greg Bird, New York Yankees
On a team with powerful righties Judge, Stanton, and catcher Gary Sanchez, the Yankees still won’t be void of pop from the left-handed side of home plate. First-baseman Greg Bird can supply timely, clutch contact hitting and couple it with the power to knock 30 home runs.
Bird’s issue up to this point in his career has been nagging injuries, and for that reason the slugger once considered the top prospect in the New York system was promptly written off as the Judge and Sanchez fever spread through the Bronx.
In 2018, and with good health, Bird can break out and join his teammates in the upper echelon of MLB power-hitters. His potential is there at 100 percent — hopefully his body will be 100 percent as well.
Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
A simple look at defensive metrics for centerfielders allow you to feel the hype around Byron Buxton. It’s his steady improvement with the glove and with the bat as the cornerstone player in the Minnesota Twins system that allows you to fully realize it.
On an up-and-coming Twins team that has the depth and the youthful power to contend for years to come, Buxton is primed to break out onto the scene in 2018. Already a five-WAR player thanks to his defensive prowess, the bat of the former number-two overall pick continues to improve as his batting average and power stats are gradually rising.
Buxton can run the bases well, too. He is quickly becoming a superstar with his versatility and his exciting style of play, and 2018 could be the year he takes his biggest step.
Aaron Nola, Philadelphia Phillies
As the Philadelphia Phillies continue their seemingly stable rebuild, one pitcher is rising above his peers. In 2017, Aaron Nola posted a 12-11 record with a 3.54 earned run average in 168 innings as the team’s de facto ace. At just 24, this exciting right-hander looks primed for the role as the number-one Phillies pitcher for years to come.
Nola was seventh amongst National League pitchers with a 4.5 WAR, and ranked in the top-ten in strikeouts per nine innings (9.8), walks plus hits per inning (1.208), strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.77), and fielding independent pitching (3.27).
He’s already from a statistical standpoint one of the preeminent pitchers in the hurler-heavy NL East, but with adding eyeballs and a maturing arsenal of nasty pitches, Nola should surprise a lot of people in 2018.
Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
Jose Altuve. Carlos Correa. George Springer. Dallas Keuchel. Justin Verlander. Those are the first names that come to mind when you think of the Houston Astros, and of course, for good reason. However, if you watched Alex Bregman play third base in the postseason, you know he’s a guy to keep an eye on.
Bregman, simply put, is a gamer. He isn’t afraid to get dirty at the hot corner, and does he look fantastic over there. All postseason long, the 23-year-old from LSU made dazzling stops, throws, and picks to solidify his status as one of the premier third basemen in baseball.
In addition, Bregman isn’t too shabby with the bat. He hit .284 in 2017 with 18 home runs, numbers that will surely only improve. Bregman looks like a player any team can build around, and it’s scary to think he’s on a team already with the likes of the names listed above.
Willie Calhoun, Texas Rangers
If you ask Willie Calhoun what position he plays, he’ll tell you he hits third. The 23-year-old just plays to bash the heck out of baseballs. Calhoun was the return from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Rangers for Yu Darvish, and as the Japanese pitcher evaluates his future, Texas is set with theirs in Calhoun.
Calhoun played just 13 MLB games in 2017, tallying nine hits and four RBIs. However, the slugger started the Triple-A All-Star Game thanks to a .300 average and 31 home runs between Oklahoma City (LAD) and Round Rock (TEX).
Calhoun may not have a set position, but if Texas can keep the left-handed hitter in the lineup, they will reap the benefits. Calhoun is just 5’8″, but has the pop of a 6’4″ behemoth. His .927 OPS in Triple-A is not to be overlooked, either.
Alex Reyes, St. Louis Cardinals
When the St. Louis Cardinals shut Alex Reyes down for the entire 2017 season, all of baseball fandom wished the young man the best. Tommy John surgery sidelined the now-23-year-old fireballer, but a healthy elbow means Reyes, perhaps the top prospect pitching prospect in baseball, gets another chance.
In 2016, Reyes went 4-1 with an ERA of 1.57, compiling a 2.1 WAR in just 46 innings of work. It’s likely when he returns for the Cardinals this season, that his workload restrictions will limit him to fewer innings than the righty is capable of, but that won’t stop him.
Reyes throws a 100-mph fastball and a power curveball, coupled with a neat changeup. If healthy, he will be lethal out of the bullpen and depending on the strength of his arm, a massive weapon in the rotation. His development is dependent on his health, but at 100 percent, Alex Reyes has superstar potential.
Lewis Brinson, Milwaukee Brewers
At the trade deadline in 2016, the Milwaukee Brewers dealt Jonathan Lucroy to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Lewis Brinson, a top farm hand in the Texas system. As Lucroy was traded out of Texas, and Brinson looks primed for an immediate breakout, I’d say the deal worked out well up north.
At 23 and a superb defender, Brinson is a part of a great Brewers core that consists of youth, speed, and power. Though his short MLB stint didn’t go as planned (23 games hitting .105), Brinson’s impressive Triple-A slash line of .331/.400/.562 oozes promise and a confidence fans in Milwaukee should have for their future outfielder.
Brinson, along with mainstay Ryan Braun, Keon Broxton, and the weirdly athletic Domingo Santana, make up an exciting outfield full of talent. The top prospect in the system, the lanky right-handed Brinson, might be the best of them all (that includes Braun. Seriously).
David Dahl, Colorado Rockies
It wasn’t long ago that Rockies prospect David Dahl marveled onlookers with his historic streak of at least one hit in his first 17 career major league games. Staying on the number 17, Dahl only played 17 Triple-A games this year and sat the entire MLB season out with a back injury.
Still, the five-tool outfielder has the stuff to be an MLB superstar. If Dahl, whose career .315 batting average in 222 at-bats with the Rockies is something to build on, can stay healthy, the versatile left-handed hitter could potentially grab a spot on the Rockies opening day roster.
Dahl is a player who will come out swinging in spring training looking to treat that chip on his shoulder. With a great eye, a very strong batting stance, and a multi-faceted game that consists of stellar outfield defense, Dahl has a chance to be an impactful breakout player if his health permits it.
Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees
Any prospect expert in baseball will agree, Yankees infield strongarm Gleyber Torres is a top-ten pupil in all of MLB. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the Torres we thought we would due to the Tommy John surgery the infielder, just 21, underwent.
But 2018 will be different. Slated to make the 25-man roster for the Yankees, Torres will provide a steady bat and a wonderful defensive arsenal of glove speed, arm strength, and quick feet at any position the Yankees need filled (Torres has played all over the infield in the minors).
The righty thrower and batter is just now able to legally purchase alcohol, but will supply New York baseball fans will oohs and ahhs in 2018 if his health stays consistent and ready. I’ve read a lot of comparisons to Cleveland Indians infielder Jose Ramirez in the Venezuelan, which should bring a smile to anyone in pinstripes.
Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks
It’s easy to forget that Ketel Marte is only 24 years old, an age a large majority of major leaguers are just now getting to the show. He’s got a head start, but we’re still waiting for the Marte who can set the world on fire. This is the year he can break out as the Arizona Diamondbacks starting shortstop.
Marte jumped into an injury-riddled situation at shortstop in Phoenix last season, as Chris Owings and Nick Ahmed each went down after being hit by pitches. Marte was at first just a throw-in on the Jean Segura and Taijuan Walker trade, but showed his value when they needed him, and showed his immense potential in the process.
Marte runs the bases hard, can hit for average decently as a switch-hitter, and plays both third base and shortstop better than most. If he gets the chance he could earn in spring training, Marte could lift himself up to All-Star status.