Written by: Deniz Bayrakeri
Follow him on Twitter:@DenizBayrakeri
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter:@ProspectsWorldW
The start of the 2021 MLB Season is just a few short months away. On the heels of our Breakout Prospects series, @DenizBayrakeri has started his mission through the MLB side of things with a breakout player per team. First up, West Division Breakout Candidates. Enjoy.
Texas Rangers: 1B Nate Lowe
Nate Lowe was drafted in the 13th round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2016. Scouts praised his offensive approach and ability to hit, also suggesting the strong 6 foot 4, 235-pound 1st baseman has power potential too. However, after hitting just 5 HRs in his last college season over 247 at-bats, there were real concerns about his bat path which caused lower-lying contact. Additionally, there was doubt about his ability to hit lefties along with speed issues that could limit his defensive versatility.
It is obvious Lowe was a project in need of molding entering professional baseball.
A Promising Minor League Career
Lowe’s statistics in the minor leagues are a strong representation of his scouting profile:
Lowe walked at an above-average rate in all minor league levels while maintaining strong swinging-strike rates, never topping 8.9%. These numbers suggest that Lowe’s approach and contact skills are a plus. Add in a consistent yearly decrease in ground-ball rate, it appears that Lowe has been working on his swing, making it more likely that he taps into his raw power potential. By hitting fewer ground balls, Lowe is able to create more line-drives and fly-balls, leading to more base-hits. With Lowe’s ISO improving into the .200s in 2018 and 2019, it looks like he has found how to generate his raw power into in-game success.
When looking at other top seasons by players 23 years of age and younger, Lowe ranks among an interesting group of players:
Outside of AJ Reed, all of these hitters have gone on to have strong major league success, which bodes well for Lowe’s chances. In terms of how Lowe compares to the players on the list, he ranks 3rd lowest in SLG but ranks the best in SwStr%. This makes sense given Lowe’s batted ball distribution (36.4 Pull%, 31.6 Cent%, and 32.1 Oppo% in 2018 across all 3 levels).
He is clearly not a hitter like Joey Gallo who sells out for power. Instead, Lowe combines a disciplined approach with contact skills to hit the ball to all fields while having the power to punish mistakes. Lowe’s stat line is eerily similar to Joey Votto’s at the same age, and everyone knows how his career has turned out.
Major League Call Up
Nate Lowe was called up to the major league team in mid-2019 and was immediately thrown into a committee at first base, reducing his playing time and adding to the growing pains that he was expected to have. With limited playing time, Lowe’s statistics have not been jaw-dropping. However, his above-average ISO and walk rate shows show that there is potential for growth:
After being traded to the Texas Rangers on December 10th, Lowe finally has the chance to establish an everyday role on a rebuilding team that is willing to let him grow. Based on the above data, there is reason to believe that Nate Lowe can breakout this coming season with consistent at-bats.
Los Angeles Angels: 1B Jared Walsh
After earning the September 2020 AL Rookie of the Month honors, Jared Walsh is ready to continue his breakout into the 2021 season. The 27-year-old first basemen had previous disappointing appearances in the majors in 2019 and 2020.
However, after the Angels shipped off infielder Tommy La Stella, Walsh secured everyday playing time and made a case for why he deserves to stay. He accrued a .326/.357/.719 line with a 182 wRC+ along with nine home runs in 98 plate appearances after the trade.
So what did Walsh do differently this time around in the majors? The biggest change is in his swing mechanics:
On the left is Walsh’s swing in 2019, with his 2020 swing on the right.
The first thing that pops out is how much quieter Walsh’s mechanics are in 2020. He still uses a high leg kick to generate much of his power, but by keeping his arms and shoulders tighter he is able to simplify his swing and waste little movement, creating a smoother path to the ball.
The results of his tinkering have been massive. Walsh’s contact on pitches in the zone jumped roughly 13% to 89.2%. His K% also fell from a terrible 40.2% all the way down to 13.9%. This means that he is making more direct contact and therefore can use his raw power to its potential.
His hard-hit % decreased in 2020, but Walsh’s power is no concern as his max exit velocity increased while his barrel % remained the same. His new approach and swing have also contributed to other benefits:
The increase from 6.7% to 28.1% in HR/FB indicates that he has learned to use his hard contact skills to generate home runs. Additionally, with his more balanced approach, Walsh is now able to sit back more on pitches and drive them to all fields as shown by his lower pull %, and increasing center and opposite field
While the sample size is small for Walsh, it is easy to believe he can replicate his 2020 stats in a full season. Obviously, there are some things that need improving, such as his putrid 4.6% walk rate.
However, with his swing and approach fundamentally changed, Walsh has enormous hitting potential and earned a spot for consistent at-bats.
Oakland Athletics: LHP Jesus Luzardo
After battling various injuries, Jesus Luzardo finally stayed healthy throughout the course of a full season, albeit a shortened one. Below is a look at his rookie year:
At the first glance, Luzardo has three plus pitches, with his fastball, changeup, and curveball producing positive run value. Additionally, his low walk rate of 6.9% indicates he has above-average command of his pitches.
Potential For Pitching Greatness
When looking deeper into his whiff metrics it can be said that Luzardo has room for improvement:
To evaluate a pitcher’s strikeout potential, O-Swing%, Z-Contact%, and SwStr% are three metrics to measure how good their “stuff” is. Looking at Luzardo’s 2020, the numbers are comparable to Trevor Bauer’s, who is arguably one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game today:
The main difference between the two pitchers is O-Swing%, with Bauer having a 3% advantage in 2020. What this means is that hitters were chasing Bauer’s pitches out of the zone more than Luzardo’s. A reason for this is Bauer’s notably high spin rates on his fastball and breaking pitches. Just take a look at how increasing his spin rates affected his percentile rankings in key statistics this past season:
The Spin Rate Question
Luzardo has the pure stuff and control to be a dominant pitcher in the major leagues, but the key to breaking into the elite category may be his spin rates.
In 2020, Luzardo’s percentile rankings for his fastball spin (79th) and curveball spin (53rd) were decent. The rates led to high percentiles in the horizontal movement for his fastball/sinker and changeup. On the contrary, his vertical movement for each pitch has been below average in his time in the majors:
By putting more emphasis on creating a vertical movement with his spin, Luzardo could generate more swinging strikes leading to better overall peripherals. An arsenal of pitches that can move vertically and/or horizontally can only better Luzardo; the hitter will not be able to focus on a singular part of the zone leading to less Z-Contact %.
With his rookie year behind him, the Athletics are counting on the 23-year-old to be the ace of the staff. If he is able to improve upon his already plus pitches and add more dynamic movement, hitters will have a difficult time making contact against Luzardo, leading to a breakout 2021.
Houston Astros: RHP Enoli Paredes
Enoli Paredes is a hard-throwing righty that found a role in Houston’s pitching staff this season. In the minors, Paredes has put together impressive numbers, pitching as both a starter and reliever:
Paredes does not have the typical body of a power pitcher (listed at 5’11”- 168 lbs) but he compensates by having an strong, athletic delivery to generate his power.
His Fangraphs scouting report writes that “he is arguably the best athlete in this system, and it’s incredible that he’s able to stay balanced over his landing leg despite taking a gargantuan, max-effort stride toward home. So deep is the bend in Paredes’ landing leg, so low to the ground at release, that his fastballs approach hitters at a very flat angle that they seem to struggle with.”
Pitching only 20.2 innings in 2020, there is hardly enough sample size on Paredes at the major league level. In the limited amount of appearances, however, Paredes showed strong signs of a potential dominant reliever:
Paredes primarily used two pitches in 2020, the fastball (68.2%) and slider (26%). His fastball’s velocity average was 95.7 mph (2396 RPM), and he threw his slider hard as well with an 85.5 mph average (2891 RPM). With both pitches being high velocity and high spin rate, it is easy to see why Paredes had strong whiff % and barrel % in 2020.
Concerning the fastball, Paredes does a fantastic job hiding the pitch with his delivery, making it deceptive and hard for hitters to recognize if it is coming up in the zone or down around the knees. His fastball’s vertical and horizontal movements come out to +1.4 and -5.3 inches compared to the average respectively. As shown below, Paredes is able to make batters hack and miss on fastballs out of the zone, making it a put-away weapon:
Room For Improvement
The problem Paredes will face is that he lacks pitches outside his fastball and slider. His third most used pitch was the curveball, only being thrown 14 times. As a result, the fastball and slider will have less surprise and put-away potential if he does not add to his repertoire.
The future is bright for Paredes, as he has already shown the ability to dominate hitters with only two pitches. With lauded pitching coach Brent Strom, it is conceivable that Paredes will add on to his already electric stuff and improve his secondary pitches. If he is able to do so, expect Paredes to heavily improve in the pitching percentiles and breakout into one of the best relievers in baseball.
Seattle Mariners: 1B Evan White
Evan White, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, took home his first career Gold Glove Award in 2020. The 24-year-old led all AL first basemen with seven DRS — two more than any other AL player at the position.
A Fielding Guru
White has been heralded as a defensive star ever since the Mariners took him in the first round of the 2017 draft. There were reasonable expectations coming into 2020 that he could blossom into the best defensive first baseman in the game.
As quoted from a Baseball America scouting report, “Defensively he is the rare example of a first baseman who is a plus runner with a plus arm. While he can handle either corner outfield spot, he’s such an elite defender at first base, earning future 70 grades on the 20-80 scouting scale, that he’ll likely stay in the dirt. His defensive ability has drawn comparisons to Cody Bellinger, a similarly skilled athlete who is capable of playing in the outfield but is so good at first base that it seems foolish to take him out of the dirt.”
This scouting report came to be true; throughout White’s rookie season, he displayed all the tools desired for an elite first baseman. White showed incredible speed and reaction to plays, as well as the ability to stretch out far and dig out those balls in the dirt. Taking a look at the clips below, it is unquestionable that he is one of the best fielders in the American League:
Problems At The Dish
When it comes to the offensive side, however, White struggled mightily during his rookie year. He finished the season with a .176/.252/.346 slash line in 202 plate appearances, with eight homers, 26 RBI, 18 walks and 84 strikeouts. This should come as no surprise though, as White essentially made the jump from AA to the MLB, only logging 18 AAA plate appearances in 2018.
In the minors, White was an above average hitter. He profiled as a contact oriented hitter, with decent walk ability and has improved his power since coming out of college (only 17 homers in 3 seasons with Kentucky).
While he had a poor offensive 2020, White’s percentiles show potential:
White was elite in key offensive categories such as exit velocity, hard hit %, and barrel %, suggesting an increase in power numbers is on the way.
Additionally, White is trouble for infielders. According to Statcast, he has elite sprint speed for a first basemen (28.2 feet per second). That kind of speed makes a fielder think and act quickly on a ground ball, causing potential errors and more on base opportunities.
These metrics show that White has a strong ability in barreling up the baseball, and thus hits the ball harder than most other hitters. He obviously has raw power, and with more reps in the majors he should be able to build upon his contact skills. In 2020, White struck out 41.6% of the time, leading to a career low BABIP (.264).
Once he is able to consistently hit the ball and improve his pitch recognition, White could have a huge breakout season. He is due for positive regression and should only improve from here as he is still young at 24 years of age.
Arizona Diamondbacks: C/OF Daulton Varsho
In 700 plate appearances at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Daulton Varsho slashed .335/.428/.572. He hit 24 home runs and stole 32 bases in 162 total games, showing he can be a power and speed threat. These numbers were convincing enough for the Arizona Diamondbacks to select Varsho in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft.
Solid Minor League Campaign
In his short-season debut, Varsho jumped out of the gate quickly, posting solid peripherals and proving himself better than the competition with a 150 wRC+:
After posting another solid year in 2018, Varsho enjoyed a solid breakout campaign in 2019, showing evaluators that he deserves viewed as a top-end prospect:
Many started to take notice, as Varsho began to move up prospect rankings around the industry. Varsho was named the 2019 Minor League Player Of The Year for the Arizona Diamondbacks by Baseball America. Eventually, Baseball America ranked him as the Diamondbacks No. 1 prospect, and No. 56 in all of baseball.
Potential for Offensive Success
Daulton Varsho made his MLB debut in 2020. The 24 year old showed signs of offensive promise (10.4% walk rate) as well as defensive versatility, spending time at catcher, center field, and left field.The bad news was that Varsho posted a strikeout rate of 28.7%, which was 12% higher than his career 16.2% MiLB strikeout rate.
However, as the season wore on, Varsho did improve. His strikeout rate consistently trended downward, while his walk rate, hard-hit rate, and batting average improved. From September 4 through the end of the season, Varsho posted a .822 OPS, while dropping his strikeout rate to 24% and walking at 12.2%.
So why will Varsho break out in 2021? The evidence lies in his offensive approach. For several years now, Varsho has consistently shown a plus hit tool. From the left side of the plate, he has a good eye for pitches and can hit the ball to all parts of the field. Throughout his career, Varsho has had the ability to walk at a high rate while striking out a low clip, setting him up for major league success.
Varsho is aggressive at the plate but shows good discipline on pitches. He is known to work deep into at-bats and foul off tough pitches, forcing the pitcher to increase his pitch count. Additionally, when Varsho pulls the ball, he can really display his quick bat speed and power. Here is a video of him displaying his raw power, reaching an exit velocity of 109 mph on the home run:
Varsho also has the ability to hit the other way. In the below video, Varsho uses the outer half of the plate to beat the shift and his plus speed (86th percentile) to create a double:
If there is something that holds Varsho back, it will be his capability to hit against lefties. In his small sample size in the majors this past season, Varsho put up putrid numbers against left-handed pitchers:
This current inability may reduce his playing time against southpaws early in his career, limiting him to a platoon role. Once he is able to figure out this problem and adjust his approach, Varsho could become a strong major league contributor.
Colorado Rockies: LHP Ben Bowden
After a season where the Rockies’ bullpen finished with a franchise-worst ERA of 6.77, it can be said that there are improvements needed to be made. Given that the Rockies only rostered left-hander in the bullpen is Phillip Diehl, there is a strong chance that Ben Bowden can make his MLB debut in 2021 and carve out a role.
Bowden spent his college seasons at Vanderbilt pitching in relief. In 2016, he became the closer for the national champions and was selected as a second-round pick that same year by the Colorado Rockies. After missing the entirety of the 2017 season due to a back injury, Bowden moved quickly across the minor league levels.
The southpaw has all the makings of a strong set-up man in a bullpen. Importantly, Bowden is not a one-trick pony, boasting two average or better secondary pitches to go with decent control. It’s an advanced mix that has Bowden on track to become a high leverage reliever.
Bowden’s major league-caliber tool is his mid-90s fastball, which he throws downhill well from his tall frame with good late life and movement, topping out at 97 mph.
His changeup continues to be his best secondary offering, thrown with excellent arm speed and good break to it.
His breaking ball is a slurve hybrid but does have some power and could become a solid slider. Once Bowden refines it enough to give him another out pitch, Bowden could become an impact reliever in MLB.
Bowden will not need plus command to be a successful reliever, as his K/9 rates and xFIP through the minor leagues indicate he has overwhelming stuff, reducing the reliance on the defense behind him. His fastball has enough zip and velocity on it to the point where he can challenge any hitter in the zone, an important characteristic for any dominant reliever to have.
Bowden is ready to breakout in 2021. Given his stuff, mentality, and previous experience closing, it would not be surprising if he ended up pitching in the ninth inning soon for the Colorado Rockies.
San Diego Padres: LHP Adrian Morejón
With two seasons in the majors under his belt, there is a lot to like about Adrian Morejón’s stuff.
An Overwhelming Arsenal
His fastball touches 99 mph, which has less arm-side movement than typical, and some natural sinking action. This pitch also had 38% more horizontal break than the average fastball in 2020, as seen in the second clip.
A plus, high-spinning curve with little depth and slight glove-side movement that is thrown extremely hard. Morejón also uses a devastating knuckle-curve variation as seen below:
His splitter has decent cut action, generates a high number of swings (57.1% Whiff) and fly-balls, while having one of the lowest spin rates in baseball (963 RPM).
Morejón’s slider was his best put-away pitch (32%) and has the highest spin rate of pitches in his arsenal (2712 RPM). Additionally, his slider was above average in both vertical (+11%) and horizontal (+62%) movement compared to the rest of MLB sliders.
It is with this repertoire that Morejón struck out two batters over three shutout innings against the Cardinals in the 2020 wild-card series.
Breakout On The Horizon
Morejón’s K/9 (11.64), BB/9 (1.86), and xFIP (3.02) were all above league average for relievers across MLB in 2020. Despite the poor metrics traditional metrics (4.66 ERA) and varying percentile rankings, Morejón is a good pitcher who just needs more time in the bigs to establish himself.
He was also touched for seven home runs in just 19 1/3 innings in 2020, as opponents have had high success against his powerful fastball that he simply leaves over the middle of the plate far too often. Below is a chart of the location of hits against his fastball:
Another thing holding Morejón back is his inability to stay healthy over the course of a full season. Since he came over from Cuba, Morejón has never pitched more than 60 innings in a season. He has dealt with numerous injuries and there are legitimate red flags around him. The talent is there, but Morejón’s durability issues likely point to a full-time transition into a relief role, especially with the Padres loading up on starting pitching talent this offseason.
Expect Morejón to contribute significant innings for the Padres in 2021. What he does with those innings will depend on further honing his fastball command and continuing to improve his health.
San Francisco Giants: OF Mauricio Dubón
After a trade from the Brewers, the Giants shifted Dubón from the infield to center field in 2020. It appears that the position came naturally to him, as Dubón racked up four outs above average, tying him for 4th among center fielders. This can be attributed to above average sprint speed and his elite outfielder jump, as he placed in the 87th percentile for the metric.
Improved Swing Mechanics
After a strong transition to the outfield, the next stage of Dubón’s progression will be through his ability to hit for power. He made strides in 2020, changing up his swing mechanics as seen by the videos below:
Dubón made some notable differences. His bat placement and hands are higher, and he opened his stance slightly while using a smaller leg kick.
All these changes have led to a smoother bat path and more use of his hip rotation to generate power.
The results have been solid. While his .726 OPS leaves much to be desired, Dubón increased his average launch angle (16.7 degrees), exit velocity (86.2 mph), sweet spot (40.3%), barrels (4%), and hard hit (30.6%). Dubón also doubled his walk rate (8.5%), indicating that he is becoming more comfortable in his approach and letting the game come to him.
This trend will do Dubón well in the upcoming season. Once he puts on more weight, it can be expected that his power numbers will rise, leading to a breakout 2021 for the up and coming outfielder.
Los Angeles Dodgers: 2B Gavin Lux
An Elite Level Prospect
Gavin Lux torched every level of the minor leagues and came into the 2020 season as the #2 prospect in all of baseball. He was spectacular in 2019, hitting 25 home runs and stealing 10 bases in 523 plate appearances between Double and Triple-A along with a .347/.421/.607 slash line. This breakout led to Lux being named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Expectations for the young second baseman were understandably high, and many writers picked Lux to take home Rookie of the Year honors going into the 2020 season.
After missing the start of training camp and losing a roster spot due to Covid-19, Gavin Lux did not make an impact on the championship Dodgers squad. He struggled both defensively and at the plate, perhaps never getting quite up to speed.
Despite these issues, there is a lot to like about Lux’s potential. Lux features a plus hit tool that has been graded as a future 70 by some scouts. It is very rare to find players with this kind of hitting caliber. With his plus raw and game power along with above-average speed, you have a future perennial all-star. Here are the FanGraphs scouting grades on the 23-year-old:
After the 2017 season, Lux changed his swing mechanics and started to use more of a leg kick. As a result, he increased his line drive rate, which led to more home-run power. Check out how his LD% and HR/FB% increased steadily over his seasons in the minor leagues:
Another thing that Lux did well in the minors is hitting across the entire field. In his time with the Dodgers, Lux has not been able to replicate the same success. Instead, he has predominantly been pulling and hitting balls up the middle. However, his sample size in the majors is small. With adjustments, it can be assumed that he can get his swing back on track. Here is a look at his spray chart in 2019:
In 2020, Lux struggled mightily against secondary pitches. He batted just .167 against off-speed pitches and .100 against breaking balls, leading to a 27.5% strikeout rate. However, Lux showed plus plate discipline throughout the minors. His 11.2% career walk rate and 18.2% strikeout rate show that he has an advanced approach that should translate to the majors once he gets more consistent playing time. Additionally, Lux has elite bat-speed along with a career 8% swinging strike rate in the minors, which should accelerate his adjustment to major league pitchers.
Lux’s defense has also been a question mark. He posted a -31.4 UZR/150 in 2020 and showed poor throwing ability. Some believe that Lux might have the yips with his throws to first base. However, Lux has a strong, athletic build with decent range at second base and still posted 6 DRS, showing that there is some upside there.
Gavin Lux is on the cusp of a breakout in 2021. He has proven that with optimal playing time he can be a force at the plate. With Enrique Hernández’s departure, the opportunity is there for Lux to seize if he can show his ability in Spring Training.
FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference, Baseball America, YouTube