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2022 Fantasy Baseball Breakout Candidates - AL East

As Major League Baseball’s postseason starts to move towards a conclusion, the greater fantasy baseball-playing world is probably either still basking in the glow of a fantasy championship or lamenting losses or missteps in coming up short. Either way, it’s never too early to start compiling a list of players who could help you win your league next year.

Perhaps you’ve eschewed the world of redraft and are in a keeper league or a dynasty league. Now could be the time to make moves for players who’ll help you build the foundation for a winner. Those players could be the obvious, established impact players. Guys like Juan Soto, Shohei Ohtani, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. However, those championship-winning players could also be the less-obvious candidates who have yet to break out in the Majors.

And that’s what I’m aiming to do here. Give you one player per team, per division who is a breakout candidate ahead of next season. Call them way-too-early breakout picks if you’d like. They’re the players who could help you celebrate a fantasy baseball title this time next year. In the last column, I highlighted the American League Central. This time, I’ll highlight the AL East.

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Baltimore Orioles: Jorge Mateo

Sometimes, for a breakout candidate to emerge in fantasy, all it takes is opportunity. Opportunity for consistent playing time. For Jorge Mateo, currently with his fourth organization, that opportunity might be in 2022.

Matteo’s speed and upside have never been in question, he’s just faced some roadblocks in the form of being on rather crowded 40-man rosters in New York, Oakland, and San Diego where he didn’t get a consistent look in the Majors despite last playing below the Triple-A level in 2017.

The 26-year-old played relatively well for the O’s following a mid-season trade from the Padres, hitting .280 with a .328 on-base percentage, a 102 wRC+, two home runs, and five stolen bases in 116 plate appearances in a Baltimore uniform.

The overall offensive numbers weren’t terribly eye-catching, and his .359 BABIP was rather unsustainable. Still, if anything, he looks like he’s done enough to warrant a much longer look in 2022 on a Baltimore team that won’t be going anywhere fast. Of course, that’s purely speculative, but Mateo is exactly the type of player the Orioles should be giving an extended look to - a player who was a promising prospect but has yet to stick at the Major League level.

His speed, which ranked in the 99th percentile league-wide according to Statcast, should give him all sorts of fantasy value, especially in a regular role.

Of the 22 qualified hitters who finished in the 90th percentile or better in sprint speed, 17 finished with at least 13 stolen bases.

Mateo had the fourth-fastest sprint speed in the league in terms of feet per second (30.4 feet, per Statcast). He registered 10 stolen bases in 89 combined games between the O’s and Padres last year and should comfortably blow that 13 mark out of the water with consistent playing time. In fact, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he could reach 30 stolen bases should he stick in Baltimore’s lineup.

The 27-year-old probably isn’t going to contribute in as many other categories as other stolen base threats like Trea Turner or Adalberto Mondesi, but if he has a regular role, he should provide some quality surplus value as a late-round pick.

 

Boston Red Sox: Josh Taylor

Taylor had a quality year out of the bullpen in 2021, pitching to a 3.40 ERA and a 2.83 FIP in 47.2 innings while striking out 11.33 batters per nine innings. His walks (4.34 per nine innings) left a bit to be desired, but the left-hander established himself as a late-inning option for Alex Cora’s Red Sox team.

Speaking of that Red Sox team, someone has to close games for them.

Matt Barnes was excellent for much of the season but faltered down the stretch. He made the team’s Wild Card round roster but was left off the team’s rosters for both the American League Division Series and the American League Championship Series. He only pitched in the Division Series against the Rays due to being added to the roster as an injury replacement for fellow reliever Garrett Richards.

Speaking of Richards, he’ll be a free agent this winter. As will Hansel Robles and Adam Ottavino.

Enter Taylor, who could not only shoot to the top of Boston’s closer depth chart but could also shoot to widespread fantasy relevance as a closer on a potential playoff team.

The Red Sox could very well add significant bullpen reinforcements this winter, but as of right now, Taylor looks like perhaps the best internal option to pitch the ninth.

One of the southpaw’s biggest keys to success during the 2021 season, and one that could lead him to success next season as Boston’s closer, is an excellent slider that sported a sparkling 47.3% whiff rate this past season.

Opposing batters hit just .175 with a .223 slugging percentage against the pitch with similarly excellent expected stats (.196 xBA, .291 xSLG).

Taylor certainly had a good year in 2021, but a further fantasy breakout as the team’s closer could be in store in 2022.

 

New York Yankees: Kyle Higashioka

The Yankees certainly need to improve by next season, if they want to improve on their finish to the 2021 season. However, as things stand, reinforcements look more likely to come from outside the organization than from within.

New York’s most promising prospect close to the Majors is shortstop Oswald Peraza, but the Yankees are already sporting a crowded infield mix that could become even more crowded if Brian Cashman and company sign one of the winter’s marquee free agent shortstops. Peraza’s path to regular playing time certainly isn’t a clear one. And while you could make the argument that young starters Deivi Garcia or Clarke Schmidt could fit the bill as breakout candidates, the Yankees could very well look for veteran rotation reinforcements to pitch in the rotation after Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery like they did last winter with Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon.

Kyle Higashioka is the pick here due to Gary Sanchez’s waning production at the plate.

Sanchez mashed 55 combined home runs in his first two seasons and registered respective on-base percentages of .376 and .345 in those two seasons. What’s more, his strikeout rate didn’t top 25% in either season, finishing at 24.9% and 22.9%.

Since those two years, the catcher has failed to top a .320 on-base percentage in a single season. He’s still hitting home runs, with 85 total homers in the four seasons since, but the 28-year-old’s strikeout rates continue to rise. Since 2018, his strikeout rates are as follows: 25.1%, 28%, 36% and 27.5%. Even if you take the pandemic-shortened 2020 number (36%) out of the equation, it’s not an ideal mix of numbers for a player with such low on-base percentage numbers.

Higashioka’s numbers from 2021 were actually similar to Sanchez’s in many ways. Like Sanchez, he had a low batting average and on-base percentage but registered promising power numbers (10 home runs and a .207 ISO in 211 plate appearances.) Despite fewer plate appearances, Higashioka and Sanchez had nearly xwOBA metrics at .334 and .335 respectively.

An even timeshare between the two certainly isn’t ideal for fantasy managers as even with Sanchez’s struggles, the 28-year-old was a quality catching option in 2021 given the dearth of catching options in fantasy baseball.

However, if the Yankees go with Higashioka as the primary starter, the 31-year-old could have some fantasy appeal next season.

 

Tampa Bay Rays: Shane Baz

If Shane Baz’s first three starts as a Major League pitcher are any indication, the 22-year-old is going to be fantasy relevant for a long time.

The right-hander struck out 18 batters in 13.1 innings while surrendering six hits, three earned runs, three walks, and three home runs.

His CSW rate metrics by start? 32%, 37% and 27%.

Opponents managed just a .226 wOBA and a .245 xwOBA against Baz who showed particular promise with some of his offspeed offerings, generating whiff rates of 40.7% and 50% on his slider and curveball respectively.

Of course, basing any judgment on a player’s first three appearances probably isn’t the wisest move and Baz’s sample size is incredibly small. But the starter’s late-season performances looked more like a young player immediately living up to his top prospect billing than something unsustainable or out of nowhere. FanGraphs’ The Board had Baz ranked as the 59th-best prospect as part of the publication’s in-season update.

The Rays certainly seem to think highly of Baz after starting him in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Red Sox.

That the right-hander struggled in that start is irrelevant. What’s much more relevant is that he got the start in a playoff series.

Given that he just debuted in the Majors, it’s unlikely that Baz throws anything close to 180 innings next year, but he should be in the rotation from Opening Day onwards.

That should mean plenty in the way of strikeouts as well as wins for fantasy managers. Tampa Bay should once again be poised for a deep October run and Baz could play a key role in leading the charge. He’s someone who could be drafted in the mid-to-late rounds of drafts but could perform like a player drafted in a much higher round.

 

Toronto Blue Jays: Nate Pearson

Like Baz, Pearson is a former top prospect with not much in the way of Major League experience.

In an article ranking FanGraphs’ top 133 prospects in February, Eric Longenhagen placed Pearson 10th on the list, right between Spencer Torkelson and Marco Luciano and ahead of current big leagues Luis Patino, Ian Anderson, Dylan Carlson, Tarik Skubal, and Jazz Chisholm Jr.

Pearson has thrown 33 innings to date in his Major League career and spent most of his time with Toronto in 2021 pitching out of the bullpen. However, with Robbie Ray and Steven Matz slated for free agency this winter, Pearson may move back to the rotation to help replace the duo in the Blue Jays rotation alongside Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Berrios, and Alek Manoah.

There’s a big “if” here. If Pearson returns to the rotation, he’s someone you want to target in drafts next year thanks to a potentially devastating power fastball/slider combo.

If he stays in the bullpen, he’ll certainly have promising upside but won’t be nearly the same breakout candidate he would be if he goes back to the rotation.

Simply put, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many starters after the early rounds with the same kind of upside as the right-hander.

Even if Ray, Matz, and Marcus Semien all depart via free agency, Pearson should still be pitching on a team that contends for the postseason next year. He may not be a finished product, but the fantasy upside here is enormous for a pitcher on a contending team with his pitch arsenal.

Like Baz, he’s a young pitcher with elite stuff who could both miss bats and accumulate wins with aplomb if things line up.



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