As the 2023 MLB season nears, a big topic of conversation is around what players will step up and have big years. In just the last two seasons, players including Shane McClanahan, Andres Gimenez, Austin Riley, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and more have broken out to become bona fide stars. There are many candidates to have breakout seasons in 2023, and here are the five players who I believe will live up to that potential.
As a former top 25 prospect in baseball, Dustin May hasn’t yet reached his potential in the big leagues. Although he has shown flashes of brilliance on the mound, being able to stay on the mound has been a problem for May. Heading into 2023, May is healthy and will have the opportunity to be in the rotation on Opening Day. With the Dodgers not having Walker Buehler for 2023 due to Tommy John surgery, it will be a massive boost to the rotation if May stays healthy and has a good year.
May has a 3.26 ERA in just under 150 career innings, and he had a 2.62 ERA in 79 innings from 2020-2021. Coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2022, May made six big league starts, struggling with his command to the tune of a 4.50 ERA in 30 innings. If May can get his command back and perform like he did in 2020 and 2021 for a full season, he would be viewed as a budding ace. And for a Dodgers team that has an expectation of winning a World Series, Dustin May could be the most important piece of their very talented rotation.
In 2022, the Kansas City Royals gave a handful of players their MLB debuts, including Bobby Witt Jr., who was the 2022 preseason number one prospect in baseball. However, it could be argued that the Royals debutant who had the most impressive season in 2022 was Vinnie Pasquantino. Pasquantino played in 72 games in 2022, putting up a slash line of .295/.383/.450/.832 with 10 doubles and 10 homers. That gave Pasquantino a wRC+ of 137, which was the same as Jose Abreu and was actually higher than all three AL All Star first basemen Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ty France, and Luis Arraez.
Pasquantino walked more than he struck out last year, having a BB/K rate of 1.03. Pasquantino’s BB rate of 11.7% was 32nd best in the big leagues for hitters with over 250 plate appearances, and his K rate of just 11.4% put him 10th best in the big leagues for hitters with over 250 plate appearances. If Pasquantino can put up similar numbers in 2023, he should find himself in the All-Star conversation. If he improves, it could be a scary sight for pitchers around the league.
Heading into 2023, Hunter Brown is set to start the season as the Astros number five starter following confirmation that Lance McCullers would miss the start of the season. Last season, Brown pitched 20 innings in seven appearances (two starts), posting a 0.89 ERA and a 1.98 FIP. Brown also made three appearances out of the bullpen in the postseason without giving up a run.
Brown has drawn some comparisons to former teammate Justin Verlander, as Brown idolized him while growing up in the Detroit area and has a delivery that is almost a carbon copy of Verlander’s. He also throws the same pitches, with a curveball and slider being his two secondary pitches. The only big differences are that Brown throws harder (his secondary pitches are approximately six mph faster) and he throws his curveball more than his slider, whereas Verlander throws his slider more than his curveball.
Although Brown has a similar delivery and pitch mix as Verlander, he performed on the mound more like a right handed Framber Valdez, producing a ground ball rate of 68% and a GB/FB (ground ball to fly ball) ratio of 3.09. The only qualified pitcher in 2022 with a GB/FB ratio over 3 was Framber Valdez, at 4.16. If Brown can produce weak contact and get ground ball outs at those rates, he can have a very successful year. When McCullers is healthy, Brown’s performance could prompt the Astros to revert to the 6 man rotation they used in 2022.
The 2022 NL Rookie of the Year competition was a two-man race between Braves teammates Michael Harris and Spencer Strider. The player who finished in third place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting was Cardinals utility man Brendan Donovan. In 2022, Donovan won the NL Gold Glove for the utility position, the first utility gold glove ever given out. Donovan brings a ton of value due to his versatility in the field. He played 38 games at 2B, 31 at 3B, 20 in RF, 19 in LF, 16 at 1B, and 7 at SS. Donovan also had a DRS (defensive runs saved) at 0 or more at every position except for SS, where he had a DRS of -1.
Donovan wasn’t just a defensive specialist as a utility guy. His bat was nothing to scoff at either. Donovan had a slash line of .281/.394/.379/.773 with 21 doubles and five homers, giving him a wRC+ of 129. Donovan has legitimate potential to hit .300 with a .400 OBP. And he only had 468 plate appearances in 2022. So if he adds another 125-150 plate appearances, he could even be a 30 double guy as well. Donovan should be in line to play everyday, and I believe he will play himself into a top spot in the lineup. He’s a perfect fit to slide into the second spot after Tommy Edman, where he can get on base for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
The 2022 AL rookie class was absolutely stacked with position players, but George Kirby proved himself to be the best rookie pitcher in the AL. Kirby didn’t make his debut until May 8, but he made 25 starts, pitching 130 innings. Kirby had a bit of a rough start in the big leagues, with an ERA over 4.00 and a FIP just shy of 5.00 in his first ten starts. However, that was mostly bloated from a couple bad outings. In Kirby’s last 15 starts, Kirby pitched 77 innings and posted a 2.92 ERA with a 1.80 FIP. Also of note is that Kirby was one of only four starters to only give up one home run from July 1st to the end of the regular season.
Another thing that Kirby did really well was limiting walks. Over his 130 innings, Kirby only walked 4.1% of the hitters he faced. If he would have pitched enough innings to qualify that would’ve given him the fourth lowest walk rate among starters in 2022. Being able to limit walks and homers are two crucial things a pitcher needs to do to be successful, and Kirby does both of them very well. When you add in the fact that Kirby still has room to grow, the sky could be the limit for him. If he generates more swings and misses and weak contact, the Mariners could have an ace on their hands.
Those are the five players who I believe will have breakout years in 2023. There is a lot of talent around the league, and anyone could be in for a breakout season. It’s all down to who put the work in during the offseason and who gets the opportunity to display their skills. These five guys are my choices, who are your breakout candidates for 2023? Tweet out your breakout candidates to me @derrik_maguire and @BleacherBrawls and we may just discuss it on the Bleacher Brawls podcast.