2021 Central Divisions – MLB Breakout Candidates

2021 Central Divisions – MLB Breakout Candidates

Written by: John Storey
Follow him on Twitter: @JohnStorey_
Follow Prospects Worldwide on Twitter: @ProspectsWorldW

The start of the 2021 MLB Season is here! On the heels of our Breakout Prospects series, @DenizBayrakeri and @JohnStorey_ have dove in looking for breakout candidates for all 30 teams. First up, was the West Division Breakout Candidates. Today, we look at the Central Division’s breakout Candidates. With the East Breakout Candidates on deck. Enjoy!

Detroit Tigers | LHP Daniel Norris

Daniel Norris’ career has been some kind of journey. Through trials and tribulations, he’s been a top prospect, part of a major trade deadline acquisition, and eventually aged to a somewhat forgettable veteran. Though the past few years have been a little more noteworthy.

2020 was Norris’ first full season pitching out of the bullpen. And he found success there. Norris had the best season he’s had in nearly five years. Over 27 and two-thirds innings, Norris pitched to a 1.16 WHIP with a 24.1% strikeout rate – the second-highest of his career. He also posted the lowest walk rate of his career – 6.0%. According to both ERA- and FIP- this was his best big-league season yet.

Progress is nothing new for Norris – he’s been inching closer towards productivity and 2020 was his biggest stride yet. There were a couple of noticeable changes that led to 2020. First, pitching out of the bullpen allowed Norris to focus on just three pitches: his fastball, slider and changeup. Stripping the curveball and sinker from his arsenal. But more important than what he is throwing is how he is throwing it. The bigger and more recent change Norris has made is to his fastball.

Over the off-season, Daniel has worked to refine the spin efficiency on his fastball. Including a trip to Driveline, he’s been working to correct his four-seamer’s spin axis to collect more (or less, rather) vertical movement. It’s difficult to gauge how effective these adjustments have been without spring training data. But Norris has spoken about how easily he was able to increase the spin efficiency of his fastball. He says his priority this spring has been to implement those changes on a more consistent basis.

Moving into a high-leverage bullpen role – and embracing it – will allow Daniel Norris to air out his fastball. That, in combination with optimizing the spin (which sat at the 85th percentile in 2020) could set Daniel Norris up for a big 2021. Perhaps big enough to change the narrative of his career to something closer to initial expectations, and just in time for free agency, too.

Chicago White Sox | 1B/LF Andrew Vaughn

If you hadn’t heard of Andrew Vaughn coming into 2021, you sure have now. Just a year and a half ago, the White Sox selected this slugging first baseman third overall and for good reason. Perennially dominating with the California Golden Bears set the table for a strong professional debut in the second half of 2019 at the bottom of the White Sox’ system.

Throughout his baseball career, he’s delivered impressive power with a prolific ability to hit for average and get on base. One of his greatest assets is his maturity and plate discipline. His time in the minors in 2019 yielded 30 walks and 38 strikeouts – not only a strong ratio but an impressive strikeout rate across 245 plate appearances.

He’s coupled that with impactful power. His 6 home runs and .171 minor league ISO project favorably going forward. Even as a bat-to-ball first player, Vaughn’s power potential itself could carry him.

The White Sox’ roster is also prepared to take on the soon-to-be 23-year-old. Vaughn slots in at either first base or DH, depending on Jose Abreu, without really restricting or bumping anyone, and will get some looks in LF with the injury to Eloy Jimenez this spring. The Sox’ willingness to not suppress his service time and grant him a spot on the Opening Day roster could be the start of an exciting career for Vaughn. It’s more a question of when, not if, Andrew Vaughn is a big part of an already heavy-hitting White Sox lineup.

CLICK HERE to read a full in-depth scouting report on Andrew Vaughn

Milwaukee Brewers | RHP Ray Black

Ray Black is a difficult case as he’s got some outstanding raw tools. His fastball is among the hardest in baseball and comes with excellent spin. After three major league seasons, he’s demonstrated that those tools play. However, even when he is on the field, he’s been virtually incapable of backing them up with the command necessary to optimize his arsenal.

Struggling with hefty walk rates, Black pitched himself into far less advantageous situations. Across his major league career, he’s averaged 4.68 walks per nine. Overcoming this will be critical to having success going forward. Assuming he can overcome it, the results could be exciting.

2020 was very much a lost year for Ray, who sat out the whole season, less three innings, out due to a rotator cuff injury. And injuries have been another big part of Black’s suppressed potential. Over the last three seasons, he’s thrown just 42 and third innings.

Aside from injuries and his command, Black has made a lot of recent progress. With a 98 MPH fastball and a wipeout slider, Black has consistently devastated hitters. His expected stats, especially when isolating 2019, have been elite. He’s also consistently improved the number of first-pitch strikes he’s thrown. Although he didn’t throw many, Black was able to stabilize his extension on his slider (previously, he was releasing it a little shorter). This spring, Ray sailed through two and two-thirds innings throwing 68% strikes, collecting five strikes and two walks.

If Black can complete his rehab and find a way to assert himself into the Brewers’ bullpen, there’s little reason to doubt his potential. His ability to command the ball may influence the degree to which he succeeds, but even without elite command, his fastball/slider combo will play. 

Cleveland | INF Ernie Clement

This feels like a bit of a wild card. However, considering that the majority of Cleveland’s young middle infield prospects are a year or two away, Clement may have a chance at a big-league debut in 2021. And if he’s able to retain the consistency he’s carried throughout his career, he may be a nice surprise for Cleveland.

Drafted as a fourth-rounder after three successful seasons with the University of Virginia in 2017, Ernie has slowly built momentum in his two minor league seasons. He’s continued to do exactly what he did in college. Sink base hits through the infield. His power is non-existent (he never achieved an isolated slugging greater than .092 in college), but he’s been able to collect hits wherever he’s gone.

Clement has hit at every level he’s played. Maintaining a .250 batting average at every significant stop he’s made has labelled him reliable, even if his wRC+ and wOBA are lacking. His consistency and ability to develop may be the attributes that propel him into a roster spot.

There’s also his strong showing this spring. Clement didn’t exactly face big-league calibre arms all March, but it’s still worth noting he posted an impressive .545 batting average (without any walks or extra-base hits) in 11 pinch-hit plate appearances with just two strikeouts.

Avoiding strikeouts is another specialty of Clement. Throughout his professional career, he’s struck out in just 7.3% of his plate appearances. In 2019, spending the vast majority of his time in AA, he struck out 7.6% of the time. That ranked 11th among all 1,468 minor league players. And the only player to post a better strikeout rate who played at or above AA that season was Nick Madrigal. In essence, Clement is a Madrigal lite, whose path to a roster spot is likely easier playing for Cleveland (rather than Chicago).

With some uncertainty and opportunity in Cleveland’s middle infield, and Clement’s positional versatility (playing four positions in 11 games this spring) Ernie has a chance to demonstrate he’s more than just a farmhand this season. 

Kansas City Royals | 1B Ryan O’Hearn

Ryan O’Hearn broke onto the scene in 2018 with quite a bit of excitement. He collected an excellent 153 wRC+ in that first year, slashing .262/.353/.597. He accompanied that with 12 home runs through 170 plate appearances. However, he was unable to maintain that come 2019. His performance degraded to a measly 68 wRC+ then 63 wRC+ in 2020.

Now, he may be poised to regain his 2018 performance. O’Hearn’s recent showings clearly don’t properly illustrate who he is. His expected stats sat higher in both 2019 and 2018 than his actual numbers, and he’s maintained several other attributes from 2018. The amount of hard contact O’Hearn has hit has remained virtually unchanged. Also, he’s slashed the amount of soft contact he produced over the last three years.  What has changed is the amount of launch angle Ryan’s batted balls have left the bat with.

In his first year, O’Hearn’s launch angle was 17.7 degrees. High as it may seem, it worked. His expected stats in 2018 were bearish on O’Hearn that year. But since, his launch angle has fallen to 13.3 degrees in 2019 and 11.9 in 2020. He’s lost distance on his batted balls and lost a bit of his ability to go to the opposite field. Teams have also shifted O’Hearn significantly more than the 16.5% they initially did in 2018 (48.5% in 2018 and 76.8% in 2020).

For O’Hearn, returning to his 2018 form isn’t necessary for him to break out. All he needs to do is find a happy medium between the highs of 2018 and the lows of 2019-20. He will succeed if he’s able to modify his approach to accommodate more launch angle. His plate discipline in 2020 also settled back to values similar to 2018 which is a healthy step forward. It’s easy to see Ryan O’Hearn making the adjustments necessary to regain his form. And if he does, he’ll pack a heavy threat into the Royals’ lineup.

Minnesota Twins | RHP Brent Rooker

Although he’s yet to truly reach the majors, Brent has shown some potential in the minor leagues. He played three seasons there before 2020 when he took 21 plate appearances with the Twins. Throughout his three seasons in the minors, he’s shown an ability to get on base at a .357 clip. Even if his walk to strikeout rate doesn’t glisten, he gets on base enough to satisfy his power tendencies and satisfactory plate discipline.

He’s performed well throughout the minors and hasn’t at all struggled to progress to higher levels. He started his professional career off by slugging 18 home runs in 62 games between A+ and rookie ball. While his power took a back seat in 2018, in 2019 he hit another 14 long balls throughout 67 games in AAA.

Rooker’s most recent work in AAA is some of his most impressive. In 2019 he slashed .281/.398/.535. He earned himself 21 plate appearances in Minnesota in 2020 and made the most of them, collecting a pair of doubles and a home run to hit .316 with a .381 on-base percentage. He slugged .579.

Rooker, at 26 years old, is not far down the Twins’ depth chart. And a large factor in his upcoming season will be whether or not he gets an opportunity to continue what he started in 2020. Given that Rooker has failed to falter through his minor league progression, if he’s given an opportunity with the Twins, he could become a pleasant surprise in Minnesota.

Cincinnati Reds | RHP Jeff Hoffman

Jeff Hoffman’s pedigree is largely tied to being one of the centrepieces of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2015 acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki. Six years later, Hoffman has failed to live up to the top prospect hype that once surrounded him. However, that’s not to say he hasn’t made strides toward a more exciting, perhaps impending, future.

For one, 2021 will be Hoffman’s first big-league season outside of Colorado. While blaming Jeff’s lofty FIPs on Coors Field would be grossly naive, getting into the more pitcher-friendly environment that is Cincinnati will surely help. And not just the ballpark. Cincinnati is also one of baseball’s more progressive and intelligent organizations, employing Driveline founder Kyle Boddy.

Jeff will have at least some opportunity to start 2021, as the Reds plan to slot him into their rotation to start the season. While it’s unlikely he’ll stay there once some of their other arms begin to recover, an impressive performance or two could at least buy him some time. He’s made a few improvements over the past few years that may help him do just that.

First, he’s lowered his walk rate each of the last two seasons. He boosted his first-pitch strike rate by a little less than 4% and cut the number of meatballs he served by 1.9% last season. He’s also steadily added a hair of velocity to his fastball over the past couple of seasons, although that’s to be expected working out of relief.

Hoffman’s curveball has been inherently impressive. It’s featured upper percentile movement over the past few seasons and while hitters have had some success off of it, Jeff has earned much kinder expected stats that suggest he’s received some poor batted-ball luck.

Another intriguing component of Hoffman’s game is his fastball spin. According to HawkEye, last season Hoffman’s fastball spin was 99.2% efficient. He puts more of that spin toward horizontal movement than would be ideal, but the prospect of how he could use that is exciting. Commanding the pitch at the top of the zone could also help Hoffman refine its effectiveness. Those are among the optimizations that the Reds’ pitching experts could help realize. If all goes well for Jeff Hoffman in 2021, perhaps his name will carry a bit more weight going forward.

(Percentile, MLB)

St. Louis Cardinals | OF Tyler O’Neill

The sheer number of notifications I’ve received that Tyler O’Neill has driven in or scored a run for the Cardinals this spring is reason enough to believe that this is his year. But, truthfully, an impressive spring is nothing new for O’Neill. He’s shown flashes of early brilliance before. However, this year may be different.

Slashing .372/.400/.581 across 45 plate appearances, O’Neill has been one of the Cardinals’ most productive hitters this spring. But, the biggest question mark is what’s changed? There are few questions around Tyler O’Neill’s ceiling, but why should he come any closer to reaching it in 2021?

For the first time in his career, he’ll have a roster spot and some latitude to get comfortable in it. Even before Harrison Bader’s forearm injury, O’Neill was slated to start in left field for the Cardinals. This will be the first time he will have the benefit of the doubt. There’s no objective evidence that a longer leash will lead to dramatically better performance, but it’s certainly not going to hurt him.

Any subjective evidence should exist in his plate discipline. That’s been O’Neill’s biggest problem throughout his career. He’s produced sickening strikeout to walk rates and plate discipline numbers that don’t offer much hope. But this may be a case where the trend is more important than the value. In each of O’Neill’s latest two seasons, he’s improved both his strikeout and walk rates. He also cut down on swings outside the zone, swinging strikes and increased his contact rate on pitches inside the zone. Even if the results haven’t been particularly exciting, he’s made consistent improvements.

2020 was especially rough, but O’Neill’s batted ball luck did suppress his results. With a .189 BABIP and expected slash stats all above their actual values, there’s reason to believe that a full 162 games, especially the potential to start as many, could provide the foundation Tyler O’Neill needs to finally break into the star he’s long been touted to be.

Chicago Cubs | OF Joc Pederson

Deeming Joc Pederson a breakout candidate does him a bit dirty. The 28-year-old has had a great deal of success in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. But he never ascended to superstar status. After seven seasons in the shadows of countless Dodgers sluggers, the Cubs are offering him a central role in Chicago with the opportunity to take his career to the next level.

For starters, Wrigley Field won’t help his case. Wrigley’s deep corners will add some precariousness to previous home runs over Dodger Stadium’s more welcoming foul poles. But setting that aside, there’s a lot to like about Joc Pederson in 2021.

Even accounting for baseball’s tumbling reliance on fastballs, Pederson saw a steep decline in the number of fastballs that he was offered in 2020. Going from 60.4% in 2019 to 46.9% last year likely suffocated some of his offensive output. While the most recent pitch mix against Joc is closer to the major league average, it’s reasonable to anticipate that he sees a few more fastballs, whether it’s a regression toward the mean, or the relatively long season, even if he doesn’t have the fearsome Dodgers lineup protecting him.

For those more interested in tangibles, look no further than Pederson’s monster spring. Through 18 games, he clobbered a whopping 8 home runs, the most in baseball. While that’s still spring training, there’s no question he’s off to a great start. Combined with a change of scenery and a new role, 2021 could be the year Joc Pederson takes his career to a new level.

Pittsburgh Pirates | OF Anthony Alford

Once a top prospect, despite fewer, often truncated opportunities, Alford never gained traction in the Major Leagues. As a quad-A player, Alford served as Toronto’s fourth outfielder in the best of times. That came to an end last August when the Pirates claimed him off waivers.

Now with Pittsburgh, Alford is starting a new chapter. He’ll have the opportunity to seize a starting role for the Pirates and implement his development in Toronto. Much of what made him a once rising star still exists. His ability to swipe a bag will make him an asset in the Pirates power lacking lineup. Speaking of which, Alford himself does bring a spot of power. Throughout his minor league career, Alford has shown glimpses of power. Most recently, in 2019, he hit 7 home runs through 76 games. Not exactly silver slugger pace, but enough to provide the Pirates with some surplus-value and change the course of Alford’s career.

The difference-maker for Alford has been his ability to avoid stringing out. Even in his small big-league sample, Alford’s strikeout rate soared nearly 10% higher than his rate in the minors. He’ll need to curb that and make strides in his ability to make contact. Despite this, he’s off to a deceptively strong spring. Alford has nine hits in 12 games (four extra-base hits) alongside a pair of walks. However, he’s still carrying a 32.3% strikeout rate this spring and his exit velocity across 19 batted balls sits at 83.9 MPH – that number won’t play in the regular season.

In the early stages of his career, Alford split time between baseball and football. Even once baseball became his sole focus, injuries plagued much of his minor league career. Starting 2021 with an Opening Day start in the Pirates’ outfield represents a reset for Alford, a second graduation to the big leagues, and if nothing else, a proper opportunity. He’ll also have a front office advocate and aid in Ben Cherington whose tenure in Toronto overlapped with Alford’s for nearly five years. For a guy like Alford, those factors may be just enough to kickstart a step forward.

All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com, thebaseballcube.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.

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2021 West Division MLB Breakout Candidates

Featured Image Credit: MLB.COM

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