In a perfect world, we would see the best MLB prospects immediately live up to the hype and prove that they belong in the show.
But that is not reality. And, news flash, baseball is hard. Going from the Minors to the Majors is indeed a leap, and some just aren’t quite ready to make it upon arrival. But be patient — sometimes, it just takes a while for a player to fulfill their potential. In this article, we will identify three second-year hitters who could break out in 2022.
Jarred Kelenic, Outfielder, Seattle Mariners
Kelenic is really the perfect player for this kind of list. Ranked as high as No. 4 on prospect lists prior to the 2021 season, Kelenic debuted for the M’s on May 13 and basically fell on his face. He put together an anemic .096/.185/.193 slash line with a 31.3 percent strikeout rate over 23 games before being sent back down in early June. He punished Triple-A pitching, so the Mariners recalled him in July. He still struggled, but there were more bright spots.
Still, entering September, his OPS for the season was a scant .507 through 64 games. But it seemed like Kelenic started to figure it out during that final month. He slugged seven homers, posted an .854 OPS, dropped his K rate to a more workable 27.6 percent and went 3-for-3 in stolen bases. There is a 25-homer, 20-steal player here. We began to see that at the end of last year. It stands to reason that the 22-year-old Kelenic will continue his ascent in 2022.
Tyler Stephenson, Catcher, Cincinnati Reds
Stephenson is not a good defensive catcher. But hey, his bat will definitely play, and that’s what matters in fantasy baseball. Plus, after Cincy shipped out Tucker Barnhart following last season, Stephenson is set up for an everyday role. He could also play at first base or DH, given the implementation of universal designated hitter. Stephenson put together a solid .286/.366/.431 line last year with 10 homers in 350 at-bats. That total will certainly increase in 2022 considering his playing time bump and the gift to hitters that is Great American Ball Park. He needs a bit of a swing change in order to help him make hard contact more consistently, but he has the skills to finish as high as No. 4 among fantasy catchers in his second year.
Oneil Cruz, Shortstop, Pittsburgh Pirates
Cruz isn’t truly a second-year player because, although he did get to the Majors last year, he still has rookie status. But I’m making an exception here because, one, there honestly isn’t a deep crop of second-year hitters that I believe are worthy breakout candidates (second-year pitchers are a different story). And two, who doesn’t hope for the best from a 6-foot-7 player who has an absolutely thunderous bat and plays shortstop? Cruz, a top-15 prospect entering this season according to Baseball America, hit .310 with 17 homers in just 68 MiLB games last year.
Despite getting just nine plate appearances with the Pirates in September, Cruz did something uniquely special during his time in Pittsburgh: He hit a ball 118.2 mph, the seventh-hardest contact created by any hitter last season. Some of the names in front of him? Stanton, Ohtani, Machado, Judge, Alonso. Cruz struck out four times and will probably whiff quite a bit in the Majors. But the power is absolutely legit. He may not start the year with the big club, but Cruz deserves a call-up at some point in the early part of the season. If so, he could easily bash 20 homers and maybe steal double-digit bases. He’s a perfect late-round selection in your draft. And again, he’s a 6-foot-7 shortstop! This is going to be fun to watch.