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2022 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Candidates - AL Central

andrew vaughn fantasy baseball rankings waiver wire pickups draft sleepers

It’s never too early to start laying the groundwork for a fantasy championship run next fall, whether you’re looking to repeat or not. Maybe you found success with 2021 breakout fantasy stars Tyler O’Neill or Cedric Mullins. Maybe you were a big believer in Austin Riley, Jordan Romano, or Jonathan India.

Identifying and drafting or adding those breakout candidates can pay huge dividends. There are probably a plethora of fantasy managers who won championships thanks to O’Neill, Mullins, Riley, Romano, India, or another breakout player. It’s never too early to start looking for those players either regardless of if the calendar still reads October.

And that’s exactly what I’m aiming to do here. Give you the names you need to know ahead of the offseason and before drafting next spring. Arm you with the knowledge to either defend your title next year or claim the championship for yourself this time next year. I’ll start this week with one way-too-early breakout candidate for each American League Central team and then move on to the other divisions.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received five total writing awards and 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, tops in the industry! Congrats to all the award winners and nominees including Best MLB Series, NFL Series, NBA Writer, PGA Writer and Player Notes writer of the year. Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!

 

Detroit Tigers - Riley Greene

This could easily be Spencer Torkelson. Both are close to the Major League level and likely to debut early in the 2022 season. Both also have tremendous upside and potential at the plate. Both are also looking at little in the way of competition in the outfield and at first base, respectively.

It’s Greene who gets the call here because he might be just a small bit ahead of Torkelson in terms of Major League readiness. Make no mistake, both could very well be in Detroit by May or June, but if I had to pick one to debut first, it might just be Greene.

The 20-year-old has done nothing but hit and produce this season. In 373 plate appearances at Double-A Erie, he hit .298 with a .381 on-base percentage, 16 home runs, and 12 stolen bases in 373 plate appearances. Since being promoted to Triple-A, Greene hit .308 with a .400 on-base percentage, eight home runs, and four stolen bases in 185 plate appearances.

The outfielder did all that while playing against competition that was significantly older than him, something that’ll happen once he reaches the Majors. The competition was on average 3.9 years older than Greene in Erie. That number jumped to 6.4 in Toledo.

When evaluating players in non-fantasy situations, wRC+ is an incredibly useful stat. Generally, 100 is around league average. So, if a player had a 110 wRC+, you’d know that they were essentially 10% better than the league average at the plate. Again, it’s not something that’s really a scoring stat in fantasy, but it can be helpful in identifying productive players.

Greene’s wRC+ at Double-A was 145. His wRC+ at Triple-A was 153.

Not only will he walk into a starting role in Detroit, but he’ll also hit in a lineup that could feature several quality hitters, which certainly won’t hurt RBI and run-scoring opportunities. Jeimer Candelario and Robbie Grossman both finished 2021 with an on-base percentage over .350 while Jonathan Schoop and Eric Haase both hit 22 home runs. The Tigers are an obvious fit on paper for a marquee free agent shortstop like Carlos Correa or Corey Seager. And oh yeah, Torkelson will debut as well.

Free-agent shortstop or no, Greene has enough ability and upside at the plate to hit near the top of the order in Detroit next season. He’s certainly someone to keep in mind for 2022 fantasy drafts if he’s hitting behind an on-base threat like Grossman and ahead of a run producer like Correa.

 

Chicago White Sox - Andrew Vaughn

Due to injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, the Chicago White Sox utilized a lot of outfielders in 2021. Leury Garcia. Adam Engel. Billy Hamilton. Jake Lamb. Brian Goodwin. Gavin Sheets. Adam Eaton. Andrew Vaughn.

Each of those nine players logged at least 130 plate appearances.

Spoiler alert, Chicago won’t give that many outfielders that much playing time next year. Not with Robert and Jimenez back. Furthermore, Garcia and Hamilton are free agents after the season, while Lamb and Eaton are no longer with the organization.

The question now becomes, who fills in that other outfield corner spot opposite Jimenez and next to Robert?

A platoon of Sheets and Vaughn doesn’t help anyone from a fantasy standpoint, but if Vaughn starts, we could have a full-fledged breakout on our hands.

The 23-year-old made his Major League debut this season, after finishing 2019 at Advanced-A. In 465 plate appearances, the former top prospect hit .235 with a .310 on-base percentage, 15 home runs, and a stolen base.

They certainly aren’t eye-popping numbers, but there’s plenty to be encouraged about from a fantasy standpoint. Praised for his hit tool as a prospect, Vaughn registered in the 81st percentile in hard-hit rate and kept his strikeouts relatively low, with a strikeout rate of 21.5%.

What’s more, the right-handed hitter’s versatility should aid both the White Sox roster and your fantasy roster, as he’s capable of playing the outfield corners and first base. Positional flexibility is crucial in fantasy, and Vaughn certainly fits the bill. He should be eligible in the outfield and at first base in most leagues.

Admittedly, Vaughn did struggle in the season’s second half, but this was his first Major League season. Furthermore, he hadn’t played above Advanced-A before 2021. Prospects aren’t a surefire thing to improve or even reach their ceilings as players, but Vaughn has serious upside. After all, just last year, FanGraphs’ The Board had the Cal product ranked 17th among all Major League prospects in their mid-season update. Right behind Ke’Bryan Hayes and ahead of the likes of Jazz Chisholm Jr., Dylan Carson, and Randy Arozarena.

He’ll be fine.

Just draft him in the later rounds next spring and wait for the numbers to start rolling in.

 

Cleveland Guardians - Nolan Jones

Opportunity plays a significant role in fantasy, and there’s plenty of it in the Cleveland outfield.

Among Major League outfields, the Cleveland outfield grouping hit the fewest home runs in baseball and had the sixth-lowest on-base percentage. The batting average was passable (STAT), but the moral of the story here is that the Guardians outfield left much to be desired.

Furthermore, Myles Straw might be the only lock among the outfielders on the roster to play regularly next season.

Besides Straw, just one other Cleveland outfielder had a wRC+ above 91 for the team this past season. That was Jordan Luplow. Luplow was traded to Tampa Bay in July.

Again, wRC+ isn’t going to help much in fantasy scoring, but from a real-life perspective, it helps with identifying productivity. The reality is, Cleveland’s outfield wasn’t productive. Like at all.

The Guardians outfield ranked had the seventh-lowest wRC+ in baseball and is chock-full of players who have yet to establish themselves in the Majors.

Nolan Jones has yet to establish himself in the Majors. In fact, he’s yet to play in the Majors. However, there’s little doubt about his potential impact at the game’s highest level. He could be looking at a strong rookie season, both from a real-life and fantasy perspective, in 2022.

FanGraphs’ article ranking the organization’s top 49 prospects from April placed Jones at the top of Cleveland’s farm system, praising the 23-year-old’s raw power and plate discipline. Eric Longenhagen wrote the following about Jones in the same article:

“Jones has elite feel for the zone and huge power. His skillset is a scaled down version of Adam Dunn’s or Joey Gallo’s, and quite similar to Pat Burrell’s (other than the handedness).”

Jones’ walk rate in his first season at Triple-A in 2021 was 14.5%, and that was actually the lowest of his career. He’s going to get on base, and he has the raw power to do damage as well. Furthermore, he could be doing that damage hitting near some quality batters.

As a whole, the Guardians lineup certainly wasn’t the most productive, but if Cleveland keeps the same core together, Jones would be a candidate to hit second, fourth, or fifth alongside some combination of Straw (.365 on-base percentage), Rosario (.309 average in the second half), Jose Ramirez (36 home runs, 27 stolen bases and a .355 on-base percentage) and Franmil Reyes (50 extra-base hits).

Jones could be particularly valuable in deeper leagues where on-base percentage is part of the scoring, especially if the home runs start flying. If anything, he has a chance to be one of the most productive fantasy rookie batters next season, regardless of league size.

If he hits second ahead of Ramirez on a regular basis, his fantasy value and upside will skyrocket

 

Kansas City Royals - Adalberto Mondesi

Ok, so this is slightly cheating, but Mondesi has never played more than 105 games in a season. Nor has he topped 450 plate appearances in a single campaign.

That’s partly due to injuries and partly due to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, but it’s frightening to think about what Mondesi might be able to accomplish with a full season’s worth of plate appearances.

The infielder was limited to just 120 plate appearances this season due to injury but racked up 14 stolen bases and six home runs. The high strikeout rates (32.5% in 2021, 29.9% for his career) are slightly problematic. So too are the low walk rates (4.2% in 2021 and for his career). However, with most stolen base threats you’re already sacrificing in other categories. With Mondesi, you’re getting one of the league’s elite base stealers and base runners, as well as someone with the potential to reach 20 home runs.

Since 2018, the 26-year-old has the fourth-most stolen bases in the league with 114. Only Trea Turner (122), Whit Merrifield (117), and Starling Marte (115) have more. He’s also done it in far fewer games (271) than Turner (491), Merrifield (542), and Marte (458).

And guess what? The Royals like to run too. The club led baseball with 124 stolen bases in 2021. The next closest team had 110. Kansas City’s willingness to send base runners only underscores Mondesi’s sky-high upside in 2022. Simply put, the speed and power combination give him league-winning upside.

 

Minnesota Twins - Joe Ryan

The Minnesota Twins embarked on something resembling the early stages of a rebuild in July, trading away Jose Berrios, Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, and Hansel Robles. Minnesota’s roster figures to look even more different come Opening Day. Michael Pineda and Andrelton Simmons are free agents this winter, while Byron Buxton, Kenta Maeda, and Mitch Garver are speculative trade candidates.

Regardless of whether or not the Twins continue to rebuild, Joe Ryan seems as if he could turn in a quality 2022 season.

Speculatively speaking, Ryan looks like a favorite for one of Minnesota’s rotation spots. The 25-year-old posted a 4.05 ERA and a 3.43 FIP in five starts spanning 26.2 innings. He struck out 30 batters while surrendering just five walks.

It’s a small sample size to be sure, and Ryan struggled in his only start that didn’t come against either the Cubs or Cleveland, but the relative lack of walks is certainly encouraging and something that could help the right-hander break out next season.

Ryan’s walks per nine innings rate finished at 1.69. Again, we’re talking about a small sample size here, but it falls right in line with the right-hander’s career 2.1 walks per nine innings in 226 minor league frames and 1.6 walks per nine innings in 66 innings at Triple-A this season.

The fact that Ryan is already limiting walks is a positive and he’ll miss some bats with his curveball as well. The former Rays prospect only threw 32 curveballs in 2021, but he got swinging strikes on 16 of them. Combine those two with a potential season-long rotation gig and Ryan could easily outperform his average draft position by this time next year.



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