While the season is still young enough to write sleeper breakout candidate articles, the Tampa Bay Rays have announced their presence with authority. After jumping out to a first-place lead backed by a torrid April, their first-place standing will come under heavy fire as this division is shaping up to be equitably competitive.
Here are five AL East sleeper breakout candidates, who could be difference-makers for their teams.
Five MLB AL East Sleeper Breakout Candidates
New York Yankees Injury Replacements
The New York Yankees have been somewhat decimated by injuries, which has allowed the spotlight of the Big Apple to shine on a few potentially unlikely heroes and feel-good stories for the season.
Kicking off with a pair of toolsy rookie call-ups so nice they named them twice, Oswaldo Cabrera got his first chance on Opening Day, while Oswald Peraza has been the recent beneficiary of the beleaguered Yankee regulars. Kidding aside, the Yankees really do have a pair of similarly named players in Cabrera and Peraza, whose toolsy profiles are strikingly similar.
Over 29 games played, 24-year-old Cabrera has taken turns at every position except catcher and center field. Thus far, his defensive versatility has shown through, showing great arm strength and outfielder jump metrics in Statcast. His offense seems to be a work in progress, but it could be a matter of adjusting to the league, which has adjusted to him after a decent 44-game debut in 2022.
22-year-old Peraza also debuted in 2022 to a promising 146 wRC+ over a late-season 18-game call-up. He, too, has played all around the infield and gotten off to a sluggish start offensively. As the weather warms, both players’ bats could also heat up, and both have shown a minor league history of speed and power, which Yankee Stadium can play up better than anywhere.
After not playing in 2022, journeyman slugger Jake Bauers has resurrected himself as a recent Yankee call-up. He was tearing it up at AAA, and now over nine plate appearances, Bauers has tallied a single hit — which, naturally, was a homer belted to the short porch in right field against one of his former teams, the Cleveland Guardians. The former Tampa Bay Ray prospect possesses a left-handed stroke that was made for Yankee Stadium. So if playing time is available, the dongs will come.
Finally, DH Willie Calhoun comes in as another journeyman slugger who hits from the left and qualifies as a potentially feel-good comeback from the post-hype prospect wasteland. As everyone did in 2019, Calhoun mashed his fair share of long balls.
But the Texas Rangers, who traded for him from the Los Angeles Dodgers when he was a well-regarded prospect, never found much playing time for the defensively limited Calhoun. He makes an excellent amount of contact, and, of course, his swing is perfectly suited to be a Bronx Bomber.
Josh Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
One of the major contributors to the phenomenal run the Tampa Bay Rays find themselves in would be former first-round homegrown Rays prospect, Josh Lowe. Equipped with a power/speed blend that can cause havoc in a lineup, Lowe sputtered over a 52-game rookie effort in 2022.
A changing of the year and baseball season finds Lowe with a strikeout rate that improved from 33.3% in 2022 to his current 22.9%. In just under 100 plate appearances the athletic outfielder has tallied six homers and five steals to go along with 19 RBI.
Lowe has actually posted the best strikeout rate of his professional career including the minor leagues. Though many projection systems forecast bad weather ahead with an increasing strikeout rate, it’s also possible Lowe has fixed something in his swing.
Statcast indicators point in a positive direction overall regardless. His xWOBa of .420, which is top 4% in the league, portends his strong performance should continue. One curious metric stands out in which there’s a vast difference between his average exit velocity of 86 mph and Max EV of 111. The average EV falls well below league average, while his Max puts him in a decent power spectrum.
Regardless of whether Lowe regresses, his efforts are banked. The Rays’ overall season record hangs that crookedly in the Win column due in large part because sophomore Josh Lowe has opened the season leaving behind the slumps of 2022.
Yennier Cano, Baltimore Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles have played above most expectations entering the season, though they were a pick for Cinderella breakout by certain writers. Of course, victory laps are premature, especially considering the Tampa Bay Rays have stolen the show in the AL East. Still, the Orioles sit only 4 1/2 games back and only lead a tight scrum of would-be contenders.
29-year-old Yennier Cano has emerged out of nowhere as one of the Orioles’ late-inning relief corps and blazes an emblematic trail of unexpected success in parallel to the team for which he pitches. According to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, the non-sidearmer’s sinker achieves the quality of movement ride only generated by pitchers who throw sidearm.
An ideal pairing for a sick 96 mph sinker happens to be a changeup that fades in a deceptively similar trajectory to the sinker but comes in six mph slower. Batters have been decidedly fooled by this exquisite duo, garnering Cano a 13.3% Swinging Strike in racking up 16 strikeouts over 14 innings. Adding to all this yummy Yennier-ness is the fact that he has yet to walk anyone.
The Cuban phenom also made history by becoming the first Baltimore Oriole to retire the first 20 batters he faced. For the Orioles’ part, they maintain they have no idea how the reliever went from ineffectively wild to be able to dot his sinker with lethal accuracy. This team will need every advantage in a division where a tight competition in May could be four teams fighting for second place the rest of the way.
Jarren Duran, Boston Red Sox
Paralleling his fellow fallen prospect star in the AL West Jarred Kelenic, Jarren Duran has set his detractors on their heels in early 2023. Duran experienced brutal slumps to begin his career, and he actively tinkers with his swing, which can certainly lead to a zigzag progression for developing hitters.
When the zigzag finally stabilizes, it’s often exactly because of a mechanical fix. In Duran’s case, the tweak involved the positioning of his hands during the setup of his swing. The adjusted angle of his new swing path has led to some convincing results.
Hitting .382 with a 1.0610 OPS over 77 plate appearances, Duran has also collected two homers and four stolen bases. His 9.2% Swinging Strike displays his knack for plate discipline. While this keen eye might not reflect in his 6% walk rate, his 92% Zone Contact rates as elite. In other words, the centerfielder swings at balls he can do damage on and might strike out on pitches he lets float into the strike zone that are not to his liking.
An injury to Adam Duvall, who himself was on an otherworldly heater when he damaged his wrist, opened the door to playing time for Duran. All he’s done to capitalize on this momentous opportunity is stroke an almost .500 BABIP, which will obviously come down. But he’s also posted a top 2% xWOBA of .447, which means metrics expect some of these gains will keep. Duran also plays stellar defense, registering in the 89 percentile of the Outs Above Average metric.
Nate Pearson, Toronto Blue Jays
Add Nate Pearson‘s name to the growing list of former top prospects who have found new life in 2023. Pearson has reinvented himself as a high-leverage reliever. He could always re-reinvent himself as a starter later, but for now, this commitment to harnessing his raw stuff in short bursts seems to be the path of success the Toronto Blue Jays want him to embrace.
Slowed over the years by injuries and inconsistency, Pearson possesses elite pedigree and filthy stuff. His arsenal includes a fastball that can hit triple digits, which pairs with a slider and a curve. Over a small sample of 4.1 innings since his recent call-up, all three pitches grade above average.
His fastball was originally projected as a future 80-grade pitch, which is the elite of the elite. And while most of his injuries have been unrelated to his arm, velocity has been studied as a contributor to an arm injury.
Regardless of his long-term future, it’s exciting to see a pitcher with his ceiling at the major league level in any role. With this division showing its competitive teeth early, it’s all hands arms, and talent upside on deck for the Blue Jays and the rest of the AL East squad nipping at the heels of some devilishly ferocious Tampa Bay Rays.
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