In a baseball division as unpredictable as the AL Central seems poised to be in 2023, players can come out of nowhere to help their teams unexpectedly take giant leaps. Here are five AL Central sleeper breakout candidates.
Five MLB AL Central Sleeper Breakout Candidates
Kerry Carpenter, Detroit Tigers
25-year-old lefty slugger Kerry Carpenter arrived at a great time to start his first full year with the Detroit Tigers. Long regarded as a pitchers’ paradise, Comerica Park underwent renovations to the center field and right field walls, which adjust for a more offensive-friendly environment.
Carpenter’s home park is still no launching pad, but the unheralded non-prospect may not need the help. Over two minor league levels and 113 plate appearances in the major leagues, he walloped 36 home runs in 2022.
Across 12 games in 2023, Carpenter has tallied three home runs, with a .538 slug to go along with a baller 141 wRC+. The underlying metrics forecast even better results with his expected batting average (xBA) at .280 versus his current .238.
His xSLG of .639 is good for top 5% in the league, and his power hitter profile gets even more legit with a 99 percentile Barrel%.
The Tigers scored quite a find with Carpenter – whose 25% strikeout rates are decent, and projection systems like ZiPS evaluate him to improve over the season.
Jake Burger, Chicago White Sox
27-year-old Chicago White Sox masher Jake Burger originated as a prospect of note, drafted in the first round of 2017. Like so many of his fellow prospects who failed to make a meteoric rise, Burger was hampered by a series of injuries that stunted his development.
Ironically, injuries may be blamed for why Burger has garnered his 2023 playing time. Once third baseman Yoan Moncada returns from the injured list, it remains to be seen what happens to that playing time.
What Burger has to show over 30 plate appearances should give the White Sox reason to consider parlaying Burger into at least some kind of utility role. Because it may be Burger Time on the South Side.
Sporting a slash line .308/.367/.962, he’s already clobbered five homers. That’s accompanied by a monstrous .654 ISO but also comes with a 33% strikeout rate.
Most definitely, these numbers should deflate, but his BABIP of .250 seems reasonably sustainable – especially if he just keeps smacking dongs, as home runs do not contribute to the Batting Average On Balls In Play stat. The burly corner infielder simply smokes baseballs with a max exit velocity of 118 mph, which ties for first in the league with Matt Olson.
The final unsustainable, yet impressive, indicator that Burger’s bat has some special qualities may be found in his 41.2 Barrel%. When a player barrels almost half the balls he puts in play, that player needs to play.
Tanner Bibee, Cleveland Guardians
Ranked by MLB as the 59th-best prospect entering 2023, Tanner Bibee was drafted by the Cleveland Guardians out of college. Originally known to be able to control four pitches, his development, once he reached the minor leagues, took a dramatic step forward.
When first drafted, his fastball sat in the low 90s. Now as he waits for a call up to the Show, that fastball can touch the upper-90s and sits mid-90s. These incredible gains have been credited to alterations in his delivery, which boosted his velocity while not sacrificing the control and command he was known for in college.
In 2022, he tore up High-A for 59 innings and then spent 73 innings at AA, where the competition arguably checks up more fierce than any other minor league level. With a minuscule 1.83 ERA, he registered a 9.9 K/9 to go with a terrific 1.71 BB/9 in his 2022 AA time.
Over two games started at AAA in 2023, he’s yet to give up a run with a 12.27 K/9. With obvious openings in the Guardians’ rotation, there may not be many more minor-league starts for this potential future rotation staple.
MJ Melendez, Kansas City Royals
While few expected the Kansas City Royals to contend this year, even fewer might have expected the collective talent on this roster to get off to such a rocky deficit of 4-15. The right sleeper waking up at the right moment could provide a catalyst for this team to change their luck.
Catcher and outfielder MJ Melendez debuted in 2022 and compiled a fairly unremarkable line of .217/.313/.393 with 18 home runs over 534 plate appearances. In 2023, he’s replicating his 2022 walk rate of 12%, but striking out 10% more of the time at an unreasonable 35%.
There’s ample reason to believe 24-year-old Melendez can do better. In 2021 across AA and AAA, he smashed 41 bombs at 22 years old. So, it’s not a matter of power developing but rather manifesting at the big league level.
What Melendez packs under the hood of his swing portends this power could show up at any moment. His average exit velocity of 96 mph stacks him in elite 99 percentile territory. And while his Barrel% isn’t in the Superman-esque Burger-ian range, 19.4% surely profiles as an ideal optimal power hitter barrel rate.
Something clearly has yet to click for the Royals as a team, as their contact percentages across the roster have fallen since last year. Melendez’s contact rates are 15% down from 2022, so a bounce back should come. The versatile player possesses the punch to be a middle-of-the-order bat in what’s sure to be a more productive team by season’s end.
Starting Rotation, Minnesota Twins
It seems like it’s been a minute since the Minnesota Twins have trotted out a formidable starting pitching rotation, which is why it’s worth highlighting the current iteration as a whole. Not only have the current five starters gotten the Twins out to a first-place standing in the NL Central, but each of them appears to have conscientiously altered their pitching approach.
Newly acquired Pablo Lopez leads this starting five with a plus changeup to go along with a fastball that has experienced a significant 2 mph uptick in velocity. All of his pitches feature above average whiff rates. Lopez also added a sweeper, which he’s throwing 23% of the time to the tune of a scorching 50% whiff.
The 27-year-old has started four games and registered a 1.73 ERA to go along with an 11.42 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9. Lopez could be in talks for Cy Young votes if he keeps this up. This is pure front line performance and ideally what a club wants from their ace.
Kenta Maeda actually did receive Cy Young votes in his 2020 season with the Dodgers, where he compiled a 2.70 ERA and 80 strikeouts over 60 innings during the shortened season. Short bursts appear to be Maeda’s strength coming into the 2023 season.
He’s started three games but only pitched 13 innings, coming out early for fluky precautionary reasons. Of the Twins’ starting five, his pitch changes aren’t as steep. He’s increased his sinker usage at the expense of his four-seam and upped his splitter to over 30%. While the results have been mixed with a 4.15 ERA, the process as a glorified opener could work, if he continues to walk basically no one and strike out a batter per inning.
Veteran hurler Sonny Gray will hope to keep his health going, as he exhibits front end of the rotation stuff when on the mound. Featuring a six-pitch arsenal, Gray’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs have previously been the weak spots in his repertoire. He now throws them half as much and gets much better results from his two-seam.
Now in his walk year with the Twins, Gray has decided to lean into his strengths of spinning off-speed tilt-a-whirls, while using his fastballs as more of a change of pace from his four off-speed offerings.
He throws a cutter and a slider a combined 30% of the time, and the slider gets 50% whiffs. Gray now mixes in his changeup 10% of the time, where in previous years, he barely threw it. He rounds it out with an above-average curve he throws 27%. Early returns have been great with a microscopic 0.83 ERA and a 12% swinging strike rate.
Unlike Gray, Joe Ryan qualifies as a pitcher whose fastball has been his most effective pitch. Ryan must be aware of this because he throws it almost 60% of the time.
During the off-season, Ryan joined many of the other pitchers, who have reaped benefits from a collaboration with the brain trust at Driveline. Instead of adding pitches though, Ryan has chosen to pare down to three offerings, including a new splitter.
This simple trio, which also includes a sweeper, has elicited above-average whiffs, garnering a 13.8% SwStr%. Utilizing his own natural athleticism, as well as a strategic mental approach, Ryan’s commitment to his craft puts him in good company in this revamped rotation.
Finally, another excellent off-season acquisition Tyler Mahle came over from the Cincinnati Reds. He’s also another Twins pitcher who’s gone slider crazy – now throwing the pitch 30% of the time, which triples his previous usage.
His process has been slightly better than the results, carrying a 4.11 ERA with an inflated 25% HR/FB rate. Mahle possesses very decent stuff, which gets a 12.1 swinging strike rate. And his status as a number five shows the kind of high floor the Minnesota Twins pitching rotation will hope to continue to exploit throughout the season and on into the playoffs.
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