Baseball fans, it is time to start thinking about which players will help your team in 2020! A few weeks ago, before the 60 game season announcement, @JTillinghast27 wrote an AL breakout players article and today I am following up with an NL edition. Looking into player profiles to find encouraging areas and areas for improvement, I chose one player from each NL team who I think will have a breakout 2020 season. It could be argued that some players on this list have already “broken out” a bit, but I will explain why I think those breakouts can be continued/legitimized this season. Enjoy, and feel free to comment below with your own breakout players!
Luke Weaver, SP:
This player was on his way to a breakout season with his new team in 2019 but was sidelined early by a forearm/elbow injury. Luke Weaver was looking like the player he was expected to be, going 4-3 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 26.5% strikeout rate over 64 ⅓ innings pitched with the Diamondbacks prior to his injury. Now healthy and heading into a shortened season, I think Weaver can pick up where he left off.
One of the main contributors of Weaver’s success was his jump in strikeout rate (19.9% in 2018 vs 26.5% in 2019). This could be due in part to improvements in his changeup. Weaver has relied on his changeup fairly heavily throughout his career and used it almost identically in 2018 and 2019 (24.9% usage in 2018, 24.8% usage in 2019). The difference in the pitch was in its movement. 2018 was a harder changeup (85.4 MPH) with relative lack of both vertical (2.7 inches) and horizontal (1.8 inches) movement compared to league average. 2019’s changeup was not thrown as hard (84.5 MPH), leading to less horizontal movement (2.6 inches below league average) but more vertical drop (0.1 inches more than league average). Consequently, Weaver saw an improvement in swinging-strike rate (14.4% in 2018 vs 18.3% in 2019) as well as in batting average against (.269 in 2018 vs .169 in 2019). If Weaver maintains these changes, there is no reason he can’t deliver top-of-the-rotation numbers in 2020.
Johan Camargo, 3B:
2020 is the time for Johan Camargo to become a regular contributor to the Braves again. With Josh Donaldson now on the Twins, the starting third base job is up for grabs between Camargo and Austin Riley. Camargo’s fielding skills and versatility (he saw time at first base, second base, shortstop, third base, left field, and right field in 2019) and his more-consistent batting approach give him the edge over Riley to be the everyday third baseman.
We saw what Camargo could do with regular at-bats in 2018 (.272/.349/.457 slash line, 19 home runs, 76 RBI over 524 plate appearances), and while he failed to replicate that in 2019 (.233/.279/.384 slash line, seven HR, 32 RBI over 248 plate appearances) there were some positive underlying signs. His plate discipline was decent (6.0% walk rate, 17.3% strikeout rate) and his batted-ball profile was similar to what it was in 2018 (33.7% hard-hit rate, 12.5-degree launch angle in 2018; 31.6% hard-hit rate, 10.8-degree launch angle in 2019). I think that Camargo will be able to find his groove this season with regular playing time at a single position in the middle of a loaded lineup.
Nico Hoerner, 2B:
My vote for the Cubs 2020 breakout player is their top prospect Nico Hoerner. The 23-year-old performed well in his 2019 big-league stint, putting together a .282/.305/.436 slash line with three HR and 17 RBI in 82 plate appearances. He played mostly shortstop during that time, but was in the mix to start at second base during the first round of Spring Training. With the shortened season now a reality and the Minor league season canceled, hopefully the Cubs will allow Hoerner to develop his skills at the big-league level through routine playing time. Given his first impression and his pedigree, I think Hoerner has what it takes to be a contributor to a competitive Cubs team.
Shogo Akiyama, CF:
Given his track record in Japan (five-time NPB All-Star, two-time Pacific League Golden Glove winner), this one may be somewhat cheating, but Shogo Akiyama fits quite well with a Reds team that is looking to compete this season. He profiles as a true centerfielder with some pop and speed who can set the table for a lineup. Akiyama compiled a stellar .301/.376/.454 career slash line with the Lions and had a nice 2019 season with a .303/.392/.471 slash line, 20 HR, 62 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. While some hitters have issues transferring their skills to MLB, Akiyama’s overall batting profile appears valuable even if it were to take a bit of a hit. Reds manager David Bell certainly thinks so, as he has stated this offseason that Akiyama is expected to hit leadoff when he’s in the lineup. Given his age (32) and his relatively low career steal conversion rate (~63%), I do not expect his speed to transfer as well in that regard. However, his raw speed will transfer covering the outfield.
Raimel Tapia, LF:
Raimel Tapia has always been an intriguing player to me but has never really been given the chance to play full-time. I think that changes this season. He had the speed (85th percentile in baseball) and fielding (87th percentile outs above average [OAA]) in 2019, but was inconsistent at the plate. His .275/.309/.415 slash line with nine HR, 44 RBI, and nine stolen bases over 447 plate appearances was nothing to scoff at, but his inconsistent approach kept him out of routine playing time.
Tapia put in the work this offseason to get ready for an everyday role in 2020. He gained 20 pounds and changed his load up from an inconsistent leg lift/leg thrust forward to a more compact toe touch. The added muscle combined with the smoother swing mechanics should add pop and consistency to his bat that will help him thrive as the Rockies everyday left fielder.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Julio Urias, RP/SP:
2020 is the time for Julio Urias to make his mark in the Dodgers’ rotation. The Dodgers won’t have to worry about limiting his innings due to the shortened season, so he should be free to fire on all cylinders. The 23-year-old is a Statcast freak; in 2019 he was is in at least the 69th-percentile for fastball velocity (95.1 MPH), fastball spin (2,511 revolutions per minute), curveball spin (2,746 revolutions per minute), hard-hit rate (24.9%), exit velocity (83.2 MPH) and all expected stats. Urias showed huge strikeout capability (26.1% strikeout rate, 13.7% swinging-strike rate) as well as control (1.08 WHIP) in 2019. I think he finally gets the chance to showcase his skills and arsenal to the fullest this season.
Brian Anderson, 3B/RF:
Brain Anderson is an overall solid but underrated player. He provided a respectable .261/.342/.468 slash line with 20 HR and 66 RBI in just 120 games in 2019 (he missed time with a broken left hand). His Statcast metrics suggest that his production can continue. His hard-hit rate was in the 86th percentile at 45.7%, which was an improvement from 2018’s 42.4%. Not only is Anderson hitting balls harder than the average big leaguer, but he is improving his hard contact. Factor in the Marlins moving in some fences at their home Marlins Park and it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that Anderson’s power production will continue to increase.
Apart from his bat, Anderson is a capable defender at both third base (8 defensive runs saved above average [DRS]) and right field (5 DRS). The Marlins are a team that may not be all that exciting, but Anderson will be an exciting player to watch this season.
Adrian Houser, SP:
The Brewers have a bunch of interesting pitchers on their roster this season, but my favorite of them is Adrian Houser. Houser started the 2019 season out of the bullpen with the occasional spot start but took on a full-time rotation role at the end of July and did not disappoint (2-3 with a 3.28 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 26.7% strikeout rate over 12 starts). There are several signs that indicate to me that he will be able to build on this success in 2020.
First, Houser’s batted-ball profile was stellar. He is a groundball pitcher (4.4-degree launch angle, 55.4% groundball rate), thanks in part to a reliance on a sinker with above-average drop (1.9 inches above league average). Further, not only did he keep the ball on the ground, but he kept it softly on the ground (91st percentile in exit velocity, 61st in hard-hit rate). His ability to limit hard contact, limit damaging contact, and miss bats (25.3% strikeout rate on the season) helped bump all his expected stats into at least the 75th percentile of baseball. Overall, I see no reason why Houser’s success will not translate over to this season.
New York Mets
Amed Rosario, SS:
I am quite high on this next guy and think 2020 will be the season he fully breaks out. 24-year-old Amed Rosario has shown progression in each of his Major League seasons, posting a .287/.323/.432 slash line with 15 HR, 72 RBI, and 19 stolen bases in 2019. There are some signs that suggest to me that he can do even better in 2020.
The first is his plate discipline. Rosario has never walked all that much, but he has lowered his swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone each season (38.1% O swing rate) and has increased his swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone each season (71.8% Z swing rate). Regardless of how he gets on base, the more he does, the more opportunities he has to steal bases. The second is his batted-ball profile. Rosario posted a respectable 39.1% hard-hit rate in 2019 and upped his average launch angle to 8.8 degrees. If he continues trending in that direction, he should be one of the Mets’ stronger offensive pieces in 2020.
Spencer Howard, SP
It will be interesting to see how Spencer Howard finds playing time this season, but, based on recent comments by general manager Matt Klentak, it sounds like the desire to limit his innings will not be an issue due to it being shortened. As such, I think the Phillies prospect will have enough opportunity to break out this season. He looked impressive last season at Double-A Reading, posting a stellar 2.35 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, and a 31.1% strikeout rate over 30 ⅔ IP. His mid-to-high 90’s fastball an arsenal of off-speed pitches seem legitimate big-league tools.
The main sticking point to all of this is that Howard needs the opportunity to start to break out. The Phillies backend rotation options of Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez have all been inconsistent over their careers, so it makes sense to give Howard a shot this season. So long as that happens, I see positive things for him in 2020.
Bryan Reynolds, OF:
This player’s 2019 rookie season could be described as a breakout, but I expect Bryan Reynolds to prove in 2020 that his success was not a fluke. Reynolds put together a solid .314/.377/.503 slash line with 16 HR and 68 RBI over 546 plate appearances. His swing doesn’t profile for huge HR numbers (9.4-degree launch angle, 20.9% FB rate), but he hit the ball hard (61st percentile exit velocity, 67th percentile hard-hit rate) and on a line (28.7% LD rate). This, combined with his speed (76th percentile) suggests that he should still be able to rack up extra-base hits even if the ball doesn’t leave the yard.
Reynolds’ fielding skills should also help ensure he receives routine playing time. He played all three outfield spots in 2019 with a combined 5 DRS and 2 OAA. Reynolds is a well-rounded player who should be a bright spot for the Pirates this season.
San Diego Padres
Dinelson Lamet, SP:
Dinelson Lamet returned from Tommy John surgery in 2019 to post an uninspiring 3-5 record with a 4.07 ERA over 73 IP. However, there are plenty of stats under the hood to make me think he can do great things in 2020. He has an impressive 30.6% career strikeout rate thanks in part to a 96-MPH fastball and a nasty set of curveball and slider.
Further, his 3.61 SIERA, average exit velocity (86.9 MPH, 77th percentile in baseball), and hard-hit rate (34.1%, 69th percentile in baseball) in 2019 suggest that he got unlucky on balls in play. Now healthy and with an improved lineup supporting him, Lament will hopefully regress towards his 2019 SIERA with his high strikeout rate, making him a high-end starter in 2020.
San Francisco Giants
Michael Yastrzemski, OF:
2019 was a feel-good season for Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski. Having been a Minor-leaguer for the majority of his career, the then 28-year-old was called up at the end of May and was able to contribute, posting a .272/.334/.518 slash line with 21 HR, and 55 RBI over 411 plate appearances. I think he can build on that in 2020. Yastrzemski was able to hit the ball hard (his 42.9% hard-hit rate was in the 74th percentile in baseball) with a good uppercut swing (18.5-degree launch angle). His ability to hit for power in pitcher-friendly Oracle Park, coupled with the fact that he should now be an everyday player makes him the top breakout candidate on a Giants team filled mostly wit aging veterans.
St. Louis Cardinals
Tommy Edman, 2B/3B/OF:
Tommy Edman joined the Cardinals in June of the 2019 season and produced right away, compiling a .304/.350/.500 slash line with 11 HR, 36 RBI, and 15 stolen bases over 349 plate appearances. I think he will build on that success in 2020. He has always done a good job of putting the ball in play (17.5% strikeout rate, 8.3% swinging-strike rate) which benefits him due to his speed (.346 BABIP). I’m not sure that his power will translate, as his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate were in the 21st and 19th percentiles in baseball, respectively. However, his speed and ability to steal bases (15-of-16 conversion rate), should help him get around the bases.
Additionally, Edman is an extremely versatile and capable defender (6 DRS at second base, 2 DRS at third base, 3 DRS across all three outfield positions, 87th percentile in overall OAA). This will be especially helpful in the shortened season. Overall, I think Edman will continue to impress in 2020 hitting at the top of the lineup for the Cardinals.
Carter Kieboom, 3B:
This last pick is the biggest maybe of all my picks. Carter Kieboom is the Nationals’ top prospect and could potentially start at third base for the Nats this season. However, this decision is very much up in the air, and with every game counting that much more, the defending champions may not have the patience to let a young player fight through potential issues. Kieboom did struggle in his limited MLB exposure in 2019, managing a poor .128 /.209/.282 slash line with a 37.2% strikeout rate in 43 plate appearances.
That being said, he posted a solid 9.3% walk rate and has always done a great job drawing walks. Further, his 2019 numbers come from a very small sample size and he has never been a high-strikeout player, so I expect that mark to come down quite a bit. His pedigree is well-known and he showcased it through most of the season at Triple-A Fresno. I think, if given the chance, Kieboom can have his skills flourish in 2020.
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