Here are five MLB NL Central sleeper breakout candidates who can make impactful contributions to their teams in 2023.
5 MLB NL Central Sleeper Breakout Candidates
Spencer Steer, Cincinnati Reds
Though a ridiculously small sample size, what pops out at first glance within the stat line of Cincinnati Reds corner infielder Spencer Steer’s first five games is the “20/20.” Unfortunately, that’s not 20 combined home runs and steals, which would be quite a feat only five games into the season.
Noted for his excellent batting eye and on-base skills, Steer begins the season with an identical strikeout and walk rate of 20%.
While teammate Jason Vosler has gotten some notoriety because of his consecutive multiple bombs in Great American Small Park, 25-year-old Steer clearly is one of the Reds’ long-term answers somewhere on the infield.
Ranked as the number five prospect in a talented Reds farm system, Steer’s bat is his carrying tool. With a patient eye that will lead to long at-bats, he should have plenty of opportunities to crush his own bombs with launch angles perfectly suited to do just that.
Coming over in the deal that sent Tyler Mahle to the Minnesota Twins, Steer hit 25 home runs in 2022 for two organizations, across three levels including the major leagues.
His bat is quietly heating up: now with two home runs through seven games and backed by some sizzling percentages including a .333 ISO and a .583 slug. And though his team has gotten off to a mixed start, their collective talent could produce sneaky great results in the long run.
Jeremiah Estrada, Chicago Cubs
Major League Baseball teams can make amazing discoveries in the pile of forgotten prospects, particularly with high-leverage relievers.
His humble pedigree belies his high-quality stuff, which he’s been developing in the Cubs minor-league system. Over three minor-league levels in 2022, he posted gaudy strikeout rates and battled control issues.
The Cubs brought Estrada up for a five-inning cup of coffee in 2022. He recorded eight strikeouts in that limited sample, produced behind a very good 13.7% SwStr%.
Estrada gets 3.6 inches of vertical rise on his four-seamer, which registers 27% above average – good for tops in the league projected over a full season.
He threw his slider just under 19% of the time and got an amazing 53% whiff rate. The pitch has good east-west movement and elicits 57% better than average horizontal break, which profiles as top 50 in the league.
The 83 mph slider plays exceptionally well off of his rising 97 mph heater creating a 14 mph differential, while falling off the table just as the hitter realizes he swung early and over.
As if the filthy, rising cheese and tight slider weren’t enough of a devastating combo, Estrada’s changeup also gets high marks with a 60 grade.
The Cubs’ already decent bullpen should get an enhancement with the addition of Estrada relatively soon. And while he may just be getting a look in the middle innings initially, the Cubs may be looking at the closer of the very near future.
Matthew Liberatore, St. Louis Cardinals
Another player on this list begins the 2023 season in the minor leagues, though his prospect pedigree shines somewhat brighter than Estrada’s. St. Louis Cardinals’ Matthew Liberatore was drafted 16th overall in the first round by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018.
Like Estrada, Liberatore was summoned for a brief call-up in 2022 and started seven games for the Cards. The results were certainly not what the player or the organization wanted.
Known to control and command five different pitches well, the tall lefty mustered an unappealing 4.47 BB/9. His elite curveball and decent changeup and slider generated above-average whiff rates. However, his four-seam got hammered with a .649% slugging against.
His four-seam and two-seam fastballs should feature better. They almost create a changeup-like speed differential, with his four-seam muscling up near 100 mph and the two-seam hovering in the low 90s.
The net results for all of his pitches at AAA to begin the season bode well that Liberatore could be back in the rotation soon. Throwing 10 innings across two starts, he has yet to allow a run while striking out 12 against four walks.
With Adam Wainwright‘s injury potentially keeping him out until May and only Jake Woodford standing in his way, Liberatore could be up before the end of April, making an impact for a Cardinals team that is many folks’ favorites to win the division.
Joey Wiemer, Milwaukee Brewers
Tools is a word that springs to mind when contemplating Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Joey Wiemer. MLB rates him as the 87th-best prospect in 2023, which displays the leaps this 4th-round selection has taken in his game over the past few years.
MLB grades his Speed and Power both as 60, while Fangraphs forecasts a more bullish 70 grade for both. With a 70-grade arm to go along with a centerfielder’s range, Wiemer has been given an early opportunity to put those tools on display. An injury to infielder Luis Urias prompted Wiemer’s call from AAA over more highly rated prospect Sal Frelick.
Wiemer has rewarded the Brewers with promising early returns. Some small sample defense metrics classify Wiemer as the league leader in Success Rate Added. Over seven games he’s slashing .333/.407/.542 with a homer and a steal.
One of the scouting knocks on Wiemer was the swing and miss in his game, which he improved on in AAA last season. The athletic right fielder continues the good process in his MLB debut, resulting in another identical strikeout and walk rate appearing on this list. Wiemer’s is even better at 11.1% K & BB rates through seven games.
Also looming is 19-year-old phenom Jackson Chourio, who starts the year at AA, where a call-up to the Show can be anytime. If Wiemer continues these positive trends while playing elite defense and barreling up baseballs, the Brewers will have some good problems to solve as their prospect talent glut continues to emerge.
Ji Hwan Bae, Pittsburgh Pirates
It’s probable that the Pittsburgh Pirates once again fall to last place in the National League Central. The team has pockets of talent to be sure, and players like Oneil Cruz will become cornerstones of future successful seasons.
Should the Pirates upset and bring out the best in developing pitching like Mitch Keller, under-the-radar utility man Ji Hwan Bae could provide a spark for run-scoring while also contributing defensive versatility.
23-year-old rookie Ji Hwan Bae has so far seen time at second base and in center field. Bae can spray the ball to all fields and exhibits sprint speeds in the 96 percentile.
Bae also doesn’t appear to be a mere rabbit, as he’s also already popped a homer and carries a .217 ISO to go along with two steals through his first six games.
A dynamic player like Bae is exactly the kind of talent that has the potential to start a chain reaction for his teammates’ success by being on base and creating havoc with his speed.
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