Predicting MLB's 10 Breakout Superstars in 2020

Dan Mennella
July 15, 2020 - 11:33 am
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The 2020 Major League Baseball season is almost upon us.

Whether it will actually come to fruition is another matter, but for now, with first pitch slated for July 23, we have actual sports to speculate about and obsess over -- because that's what we do as sports fans.

Of course, 2020 is not your typical MLB season. In just about every conceivable way, the campaign will bring unprecedented firsts.

Sticking to on-field changes, there's a bevy of new rules to which players and fans will have to acclimate themselves, including the universal DH and new rules for extra innings in 2020, as well as the three-batter minimum for every pitcher, which was instituted in the offseason prior to the pandemic.

These tweaks have sent into overdrive a veritable cottage industry of prediction pieces based on the new schedule and rules. Fair enough; there should be plenty of such analysis given the circumstances.

This list, however, isn't as influenced by those developments. Instead we're looking at young-ish players who appear to be poised for breakouts based on recent play, a new opportunity, or some combination of both.

Pitchers

Max Fried
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Max Fried, Atlanta Braves

The other Mad Max of the NL East, Fried delivered on the promise that once made him a top-10 overall pick in the second half of 2019. The lefty posted a solid 3.63 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in 12 stars after the All-Star Game. Better still, Fried is now presumably entrenched in the rotation, and his 3.42 xFIP in 225 career innings suggests even more success lay ahead.

Mitch Keller
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Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates

Keller was a minor disappointment in 11 starts with the Bucs last year, but his impressive minor league track record portends a big rebound in 2020. The righty consistently recorded more than a strikeout per inning with adequate walk rates in the minors, a trend which held true when he made the jump to the Pirates. The question is whether Keller can limit hard contact and home runs, but the spacious confines of PNC Park should help in that regard.

Julio Urias
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Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

Urias' young career has not gone as smoothly as the easy greatness that was once predicted for him by many. Injuries have been the prime culprit, and last year he was suspended 20 games amid allegations of domestic battery. The case was dropped, and Urias pitched pretty well last year as a long man and spot starter. He was penciled in as the Dodgers' fourth starter before the shutdown, so his rotation spot should be secure, but David Price's opting out should all but seal it. The lefty owns a 3.18 ERA and 3.40 FIP in 188 career innings.

Casey Mize
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Casey Mize, Detroit Tigers

Mize looked every bit the No. 1 overall pick in his first full season in pro ball in 2019, dominating at high-A and more than holding his own in Double-A, before his year ended prematurely with a minor shoulder injury. Though he racks up his share of strikeouts, Mize isn't a power pitcher in the traditional sense. He relies on his sharp command and control, and though it's unclear if he'll start the year in the majors, his spacious home ballpark will help his cause when he makes the jump.

Hitters

Willie Calhoun
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Willie Calhoun, Texas Rangers

Calhoun's star had dimmed to some degree after he arrived on the prospect scene as a deft stick with no position in the field, but he seemed to figure it out in the second half last season. The lefty slugger posted a solid 265/328/540 line with 16 homers in 238 plate appearances after rejoining the team in late July for the balance of the campaign. Another year of major league at-bats in what is presumed to be a hitter-friendly new ballpark could bring Calhoun to the next level, though a broken jaw in spring training and a tight hip flexor in summer camp could be ominous signs for his season.

Alex Verdugo
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Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox

Verdugo seems to have been a trendy breakout pick for several years running now, owing to the fact he was unable to crack the lineup in a deep Dodgers outfield. No shame in that, but the sweet-swinging lefty now has his opportunity with the Red Sox. Though it feels like he's been around forever, Verdugo is the owner of only 488 career plate appearances, 377 of which came last year when he posted a 114 OPS+ with the Dodgers. Improvement is often nonlinear, but it's not hard to see a star trajectory for the 24-year-old slugger.

Oscar Mercado
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Oscar Mercado, Cleveland Indians

Mercado flashed his huge potential in 2019, clubbing 19 homers and swiping 29 bases combined in Triple-A and the majors. He also showed his rawness at times, struggling through long slumps and iffy plate discipline. Now penciled in as the Tribe's starting center fielder, Mercado, 25, should have every chance to refine his plate approach and potentially put up the kind of year that once made him a top prospect.

Dominic Smith
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Dominic Smith, New York Mets

You might've missed Smith's mini-breakout in 2019, but for Mets fans it was a long time coming. The No. 11 overall pick in 2013 finally appeared to hit his stride last season when injuries to others opened up some playing time, raking to the tune of 282/355/525 with 11 homers in 197 plate appearances, before a stress reaction in his foot essentially ended his campaign in late July. He returned for one plate appearance in late September -- and clubbed a pinch-hit three-run bomb. With the universal DH in place, Smith figures to see an uptick in opportunities in 2020, and he could be in for a much bigger breakout if he takes advantage of the additional chances.

Eloy Jimenez
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Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox

Jimenez staked his claim as a slugger to watch as a rookie in 2019. The question now is, how much better can he get? Jimenez socked 31 homers at the age of only 22, suggesting there could be even more untapped potential. A penchant for striking out coupled with a below-average walk rate suppressed his batting average and OBP last season, but those figures were much more palatable throughout his minor league career. Forty homers or more (in a full season) feels well within reach, and should be achievable with another year of smoothing out the rough edges with regard to plate discipline.

Kyle Tucker
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Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

Like several others on this list, it feels like Tucker has been around forever, but in fact he just turned 23 in January and has only 144 career plate appearances in the majors. A September callup last year hinted at his athletic, free-swinging upside, with four homers and a 122 OPS+ in 72 PAs. Tucker, an outfielder by trade, might have a narrower path to playing time than some of the other candidates here, but the Astros worked him out at first base this spring, and all-world DH Yordan Alvarez was sidelined for undisclosed reasons at summer camp only about a week before Opening Day 2.0.