With the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes already in full throttle before April is even over, the AL West promises to be an intriguing baseball division to follow. The theme in this division is deep under-the-radar sleepers – whether it’s on a dynasty franchise like the Houston Astros or the definition of a rebuilding team like the Oakland A’s, who will soon no longer have that city to call home. Here are five AL West sleeper breakout candidates.
Five MLB AL West Deep Sleeper Breakout Candidates
Ben Joyce, Los Angeles Angels
To begin the season, the Los Angeles Angels have gotten unsteady work from the backend of their bullpen. The long-term answer, and potentially even short-term answer, as to who closes ball games for the Angels might be current minor leaguer Ben Joyce.
Drafted in the third round in 2022, the flamethrower has already had Tommy John surgery while he was in college at Tennessee, where his fastball was clocked as high as 105.5 mph. Control can be the last thing to return in TJ recovery, and Joyce currently sits in AA with a horrid 15 BB/9 over four innings.
Joyce made waves when he was the talk of the Halos’ Spring Training, where he compiled a 2.70 ERA over 6.2 innings with 10 punch outs along with six walks. Were it not for that shaky control, Joyce probably could have capitalized on preseason buzz and made the team’s Opening Day roster.
The team has shown they’re not shy about promoting untested prospects like shortstop Zach Neto. Once Joyce can refine his strike-throwing ability – along with expanding his repertoire of apparently two different sliders – the Angels could receive a significant boost that would shore up their ability to win games.
Brent Rooker, Oakland A’s
The Oakland A’s recently made headlines by announcing a move to Las Vegas, and to celebrate, they called up premium arm, Mason Miller. And while Miller deservedly receives a lot of ink spilled over him, it remains to be seen how many innings the team will let him go while only playing for a golden tomorrow.
A player for whom room no bubble wrap will be necessary is 28-year outfielder Brent Rooker. Through 16 games his strikeout and walk rates track at an identical 16.9%. He’s already popped six long balls to go with a slash line of .333/.441/.729.
What’s wild is Statcast seems to indicate this may be semi-sustainable. Rooker profiles in the elite range of expected stats with a .314 xBA, .614 xSLG, and an xWOBA of .443, which itself is top 3% in the league.
Rooker got some run with the Minnesota Twins in 2021 when he had a .196 ISO but struck out almost 33% of the time. If the right-handed hitting slugger has truly cut his strikeout rate, he’s primed to explode and finally exploit his original 65 raw power scouting grade.
Corey Julks, Houston Astros
Another late-20s late bloomer, Corey Julks has finally seen some major league daylight after toiling in the Houston Astros prospect-rich minor-league system since 2017.
Regardless of his lack of prospect pedigree, the toolsy outfielder posted a fantastic 2022 in AAA, where he hit 31 home runs and stole 22 bases over 590 plate appearances.
Over 61 plate appearances in limited major league playing time, 2023 has seen Julks hit .311 with two home runs. His 31% K rate and 1% walk rate leave much to be desired. But the player has demonstrated much better plate discipline in his minor league career, so it’s possible those rates normalize over a bigger sample.
With a behemoth like Yordan Alvarez dealing with lingering back issues, the Astros could use a potent bat like Julks in their everyday lineup.
Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners
Jarred Kelenic is the least deep of these deep sleepers, but it’s remarkable how quickly pundits cast him off as a forgotten man. Prospect fatigue can set in rather prematurely with some players and 23-year-old Kelenic of the Seattle Mariners presents such a case. Drafted sixth overall by the New York Mets, that club shipped him to the Mariners in 2019. Kelenic lost the 2020 season while in the minor leagues, only to debut in the major leagues in 2021.
A case could be made that this abnormal trajectory hampered his development and subsequent opening act in the Show. Regardless, Kelenic underwhelmed in his age-21 rookie season and followed it up with an equally disappointing sophomore effort, with respective wRC+ showings of 74 and 55.
Kelenic looks like he’s developed a short memory and turned the page because he’s come out swinging in 2023. Barreling balls at 18%, good for 90 percentile. Like Rooker, he’s a Statcast darling with a 100 percentile xSLG of .732 and an xWOBA of .463 in the top 1% of the league.
All these sexy metrics translate out to some incredible early-season production of seven home runs and three stolen bases over 81 plate appearances. The lefty left fielder sports a 210 wRC+ to go along with a 8.6% walk rate.
With the ability to spray the ball to all fields, only one of Kelenic’s homers has actually been of the true pull variety. His average and max exit velocities classify the lefty’s swift stroke in the 88 and 86 percentile respectively.
His emergence on a team that has major pockets of talent could be the difference maker in the Mariners going to the postseason.
Cole Ragans, Texas Rangers
Though the Texas Rangers have chosen to deploy him out of the bullpen to open the season, Cole Ragans developed as a starting pitcher. He received a 40-inning callup in 2022 and displayed mediocre results.
However, Ragans showed up to Spring Training in 2023 flashing significantly more fire velocity than the 92 he averaged in the majors last season. Now pumping gas at an average of just under 96 mph, Ragans has made six appearances and registered a 2.00 ERA.
The fastball pops with excellent horizontal movement and has been generating good whiffs at 24.2%. Ragans also features a plus changeup scouts have graded at 60, though it’s only been average for him in a small sample. Changeups tend to be “feel pitches” that a pitcher might need consecutive, consistent usage in order to optimize.
Thus far, his appearances have been mostly of the short burst kind, but he recently pitched four innings of long relief against the formidable Houston Astros. He held his own, giving up two runs and striking out three. Then, after not pitching for 10 days, he had a meltdown against the Cincinnati Reds, so the Rangers’ utilization of Ragans has arguably yet to tap into what he’s capable of.
The Rangers currently have no openings in their starting rotation, but that rotation comes with as much injury risk as any in the league. With his ability to give them length out of the bullpen already demonstrated, Ragans seems like the de facto number six starter.
Averaging mid-90s from the left side with above-average offspeed stuff gives Ragans the look of at least a very decent back-end starter. Still just 25, the former first-round pick possesses an even higher ceiling that he flashed with an 11.4 K/9 in 2022 AA ball.
If Ragans can synthesize his newfound velo with commanding his three off-speed options, the Rangers could alchemize rotational depth into an every fifth-day rotational staple.
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