Ten MLB breakout predictions for 2023: Jim Bowden’s hitters and pitchers to watch

With spring training games underway, it’s time for my breakout player predictions for 2023. My definition for a breakout candidate is simply a player I expect to perform at a dramatically higher level than their major-league track record, or to burst onto the scene and blow away the rookie field. Breakout players share common traits including the ability to adjust and adapt, a high baseball IQ, and tremendous physical and mental skills. In addition, it’s usually a player 26 years old or younger.

Here are the 10 players I think are primed for breakout seasons in 2023.

1. Luis Robert Jr., CF, White Sox

Age: 25
B: R T: R HT: 6-2 WT: 220
WAR: 2.1 OPS+: 109
Slash line: .284/.319/.426
2B: 18 HR: 12 RBI: 56 SB: 11

I am much higher on Luis Robert Jr. than most analysts, based on their rankings and discussions I’ve had with evaluators throughout the game. Bottom line: I like his hit tool and defense better than most. Robert has yet to live up to my lofty expectations, but last year that had more to do with injuries, including trying to play through pain in his left wrist and hand. What I like about Robert is that he hits all types of pitches. He’s a .300-plus hitter against the fastball, but he’s also proven he can hit all the secondary pitches; in fact, he hit more home runs against breaking balls last year than fastballs, and he hit more than .400 against off-speed pitches. He also has the skills to develop into a well-above-average defensive center fielder. As a rookie, he won a Gold Glove Award in the shortened 2020 season, then had two subpar defensive years (according to the scouts and the metrics). However, he has the talent and athleticism to be a special outfielder. Offensively, I believe he will break out this year with 25 to 30 home runs and at least 30 stolen bases, thanks in part to the rule changes that encourage running. So get ready for The Robert Show. It’s coming to the South Side of Chicago this year, if he can stay healthy.

2. Cristian Javier, RHP, Astros

Age: 25
HT: 6-1 WT: 213
WAR: 3.7 ERA+: 152
W-L: 11-9 ERA: 2.54 IP: 148 2/3 SO: 194 WHIP: 0.948

The first move rookie general manager Dana Brown made with the Astros was to extend Cristian Javier, and I believe that five-year, $64 million deal will end up being the most undervalued contract signed this offseason. In essence, the contract bought out the rest of Javier’s arbitration years and two years of free agency, which is significant. Now, down the stretch last season and in the postseason, Javier was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He threw six no-hit innings in what became a combined no-hitter in Game 4 of the World Series. And, as The Athletic’s Jayson Stark chronicled, Javier allowed two hits or fewer in his final six starts of 2023 (regular season/postseason, all five innings or more) — a streak no pitcher in history can match. But I think over a full season he’s poised to take another step. In the past two years, Javier has made 34 starts and 32 relief appearances for the Astros, mostly because their rotation was so deep. However, with Justin Verlander departing in free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. again dealing with shoulder issues, Javier now has a clear spot in the rotation, and I believe by season’s end he will be their second-best starter behind only Framber Valdez. Last season, Javier struck out 194 in 148 2/3 innings thanks to his mid-90s fastball that opponents hit just .183 against, his wipeout slider (.121 batting average against), his Uncle Charlie curveball (.226) and his respectable changeup. It’s scary to think about what he could do for an encore.

3. Jazz Chisholm Jr., CF, Marlins

(Jazz Chisholm Jr. (Rhona Wise / USA Today)

Age: 25
B: L T: R HT: 5-11 WT: 184
WAR: 2.4 OPS+: 139
Slash line: .254/.325/.535
2B: 10 HR: 14 RBI: 45 SB: 12

Jazz Chisholm Jr. recently said he expects to be the first player to join the 50/50 club — 50 home runs and 50 stolen bases in a single season. He was kidding, but that’s the level of swag Chisholm exudes. He’s moving this year from second base to center field, a switch he’s embracing, and of course he’s already predicting he’ll win a Gold Glove Award in the outfield someday. He does not lack confidence. But, after an injury-shortened season in which he made the All-Star team, I think he’s poised to back it up even more on the diamond. He’s ready to show off his athleticism in the field, and if he continues to make adjustments at the plate, there’s no reason he can’t hit 20 home runs and steal 40 bases this season. In a couple of years, maybe he will even join the 30/50 club. (Sorry, Jazz, you’re never getting to 50/50.) His sprint speed is in the 94th percentile, which should mean he’ll have special range in center field. But how quickly will he pick up reads, jumps and angles at his new position? At the plate, I love that he hit .306 against breaking balls with six home runs to go along with his .250 average with eight home runs against fastballs. Chisholm has quick-twitch muscles and oozes energy and enthusiasm. A special talent who is ready to break out.

4. Andrew Vaughn, 1B, White Sox

Age: 24
B: R T: R HT: 6-0 WT: 215
WAR: -0.2 OPS+: 111
Slash line: .271/.321/.429
2B: 28 HR: 17 RBI: 76 SB: 0

Andrew Vaughn, the third player selected in the 2019 MLB Draft, has been blocked on the White Sox at first base, where team leader José Abreu was stationed for nine years. However, Chicago let Abreu walk in free agency to clear the way for Vaughn, after making him play the outfield corners and designated hitter most of the time over his first two years in the majors. Now that he’s at first base, he can concentrate on doing what he does best: hit and hit with power. He turns 25 in April and I can’t wait to see what he does this season. I think his home run total will swell from 17 last year to 22-24 this year, and his on-base percentage will be much higher — closer to what he did in the minors, perhaps even reaching the .350 range. Two metrics stand out when evaluating Vaughn’s potential: First, he was in the 90th percentile in hard-hit rate last year; second, he was in the 92nd percentile in both average exit velocity and max exit velocity. Those numbers indicate his home run power and slugging percentage could skyrocket as early as this season.

5. Jordan Walker, OF, Cardinals

Jordan Walker (Rhona Wise / USA Today)

Age: 20
B: R T: R HT: 6-5 WT: 220
Slash line (Double A): .306/.388/.510
2B: 31 HR: 19 RBI: 68 SB: 22

I typically don’t put rookies on this list but Jordan Walker has to be this year’s exception. I believe he’s the best prospect in the sport. All he needs is a major-league opportunity to prove how impactful his middle-of-the-lineup bat can be. Walker’s best positions are probably going to be first base or third base, but he’s blocked at both in St. Louis, with National League MVP Paul Goldschmidt at first and perennial Gold Glove winner Nolan Arenado at third. Therefore, the Cardinals have decided to put Walker in a corner outfield spot to give him a better path to make the major-league team out of spring training. I recently talked with Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch, who told me the Cardinals are open to Walker making the team this spring if he earns it, even though he’s never played above Double A. Walker slashed .306/.388/.510 with 31 doubles, 19 home runs, 68 RBIs and 22 stolen bases last year at Double-A Springfield. How much do I love his potential? Here is what I said about him in my top 50 prospect rankings last August:

“An incredible athlete for his size, Walker has few holes at the plate, which is difficult to achieve for a young player with a large frame. He has electric bat speed with lofting power to all fields and profiles to develop into a 30 to 40 home run hitter (per season). Walker also looks like a .300 hitter who could become a .400 on-base percentage standout. He is so talented he could play third base, first base, right field or left field — wherever the Cardinals have a need. Don’t be surprised if Walker makes it to St. Louis this season; if not, he’ll be there on Opening Day next year, and I predict he will be the NL Rookie of the Year in 2023. He’s a superstar in the making.”

Only one question remains: Will he be good enough defensively in the outfield to make the big-league team out of spring training?

6. Alec Bohm, 3B, Phillies

Age: 26
B: R T: R HT: 6-5 WT: 218
WAR: 0.8 OPS+: 100
Slash line: .280/.315/.398
2B: 24 HR: 13 RBI: 72 SB: 2

A lot of people don’t realize that Alec Bohm had more hits last year than third basemen such as Arenado and Alex Bregman (and he tied Rafael Devers with 164). He also significantly improved his defense at third base, thanks to hours and hours of work with Phillies infield coach Bobby Dickerson. Bohm has shown through his work ethic and accountability that he’s committed to being the best he can be. I believe he will hit between 20 and 25 home runs this year and increase his RBI total to the 90 range.

7. Riley Greene, CF, Tigers

Age: 22
B: L T: L HT: 6-3 WT: 200
WAR: 1.4 OPS+: 
Slash line: .253/.321/.362
2B: 18 HR: 7 RBI: 43 SB: 3

Riley Greene enters his sophomore year after a solid showing as a rookie in 2022. However, he dealt with a significant injury, missing the start of last season with a fractured right foot. Greene played well in center field, finishing in the 71st percentile in Outs Above Average, 67th percentile in arm strength and 75th percentile in outfielder jump, according to Statcast. At the plate, he was in the 77th percentile in hard-hit rate and the 82nd percentile in maximum exit velocity. I absolutely love his swing and how he uses the whole field. His upper-deck batting practice power is special, and I see it translating in time to game power. One disadvantage for Greene is the lack of quality hitters in the Tigers’ lineup; if he gets hot, he could be pitched around more than a second-year player should be. Regardless, I see him taking a huge step forward this year and representing the Tigers in the All-Star Game in July.

8. George Kirby, RHP, Mariners

George Kirby (Joe Camporeale / USA Today)

Age: 25
HT: 6-4 WT: 215
WAR: 1.4 ERA+: 109
W-L: 8-5 ERA: 3.39 IP: 130 SO: 133 WHIP: 1.208

George Kirby had a solid but not spectacular rookie season. He struck out 133 and walked just 22 in 130 innings but also yielded more than one hit per inning pitched. He tallied a 2.99 FIP and a 109 ERA+, both above-average marks, as he finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Kirby’s calling card has always been his special command, which I think will significantly improve in the majors this season, now that he has 25 starts under his belt. Also, the Mariners’ strong up-the-middle defense — with Cal Raleigh behind the plate, the newly acquired Kolten Wong at second base, J.P. Crawford at shortstop and superstar Julio Rodríguez in center field — will give Kirby more confidence to locate his pitches. I believe his strikeout rate will rise to his minor-league norm of 10 per nine innings and that he’ll allow less than one hit per inning pitched this year. The key for Kirby will be improving the location and consistency of his curveball and cutter. I love his pitchability.

9. Ke’Bryan Hayes, 3B, Pirates

Age: 26
B: R T: R HT: 5-10 WT: 205
WAR: 4.3 OPS+: 87
Slash line: .244/.314/.345
2B: 24 HR: 7 RBI: 41 SB: 20

Ke’Bryan Hayes was on my breakout predictions list last year, but it just didn’t happen, partly because he was nagged by a persistent back injury and partly because of his low launch angle, which has limited his ability to capitalize on how hard he hits the ball. (He ranks in the 85th percentile in average exit velocity and the 84th percentile in hard-hit rate.) Defensively, there’s no issue. He is already one of the best at third base and finished second to Arenado for the 2022 NL Gold Glove Award. Before last season, Hayes signed an eight-year, $70 million extension that on the surface looks club friendly, but that’s only going to be the case if he learns how to lift the ball. I think he will. If he does, there’s no reason he can’t get 30 to 35 doubles and 16 to 19 home runs this season. He’s also at the magic age of 26, which is usually when these types of adjustments are made by young players.

10. Jarred Kelenic, LF, Mariners

Age: 23
B: L T: L HT: 6-1 WT: 206
WAR: -0.2 OPS+: 55
Slash line: .141/.221/.313
2B: 5 HR: 7 RBI: 17 SB: 5

I hesitated to put Jarred Kelenic on this list, but as one of my mentors once taught me, if you want the best fruit from a tree, you must take the risk and go out on a limb to get it, no matter how weak the limb is. He also told me, if/when it breaks, pick yourself up, go back up the tree, and don’t be afraid to go back out on the limb or you’ll never get the best fruit. Here’s what I’m getting at: I can’t forget what I saw from Kelenic in 2019, when at 19 years old he mashed 23 home runs and stole 20 bases in the minors. I hate being wrong about players, but based on the way he’s performed in the big leagues, I have never been so wrong. However, I believe he will get there. Kelenic showed a glimpse of what he can do at the end of last year — albeit just a glimpse. But if he adjusts this season and can gain confidence, perhaps he breaks out. Remember he is only 23, and most major leaguers’ best years don’t start until age 25. Sometimes a team has to be more patient than it may want to be with player development, and that is the case here. Last season in Triple A, Kelenic slashed .295/.365/.557 with 32 doubles, 18 home runs and 65 RBIs in 394 plate appearances. I believe that will eventually transfer to the majors; I’m just not sure the breakout is going to be this year, but why not take the chance? I do love quality fruit (and talented baseball players, too).

(Top photo of Luis Robert Jr.: Nick Wosika / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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