Ten Upper-Level Breakout Prospects To Watch, 2022 Edition
Players blossom at different ages. For some, it happens in high school. For others, it’s not until college. Some break out in the lower levels of the minors. Others don’t fully click until they reach the upper levels of the minors.
Those who blossom in high school and college naturally get attention because of the draft, and breakout players in the low minors generate excitement as young newcomers full of potential to dream on.
As discussed last year, those who break out in the upper minors are often overlooked, largely because they’ve already been around for a while. In reality, those breakouts in the upper minors have vastly higher success rates of becoming stable major leaguers, with prominent recent examples including Jeff McNeil, Ty France, Randy Arozarena, Jake Cronenworth, Jared Walsh and top AL rookies Steven Kwan and Jose Miranda.
Here is a look at 10 prospects who broke out in the upper levels of the minors in 2022. If recent history is any indication, at least a few of them will go on to become everyday players in the major leagues, with a future all-star or two likely among them.
Players are listed in alphabetical order. All statistics are through Aug. 31.
Will Brennan, OF, Guardians
Brennan fits the Cronenworth/Walsh mold as a former two-way player in college who blossomed once he focused solely on being a position player in pro ball. He worked as both a starter and reliever in addition to playing center field at Kansas State before becoming strictly an outfielder after Cleveland drafted him in the eighth round in 2019. He progressively improved each year and became a popular breakout pick among club officials entering this season, which he’s lived up to by hitting .307 with 10 home runs, 95 RBIs, 19 stolen bases and an .833 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A.
Brennan draws frequent comparisons to fellow Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan as an undersized, lefthanded hitter who can just plain hit. He controls the strike zone, puts together good at-bats and turns around good velocity with a short, direct swing. He frequently drives balls hard the other way into the left-center gap for doubles and has sneaky power to his pull side. Brennan is a good athlete who can play all three outfield positions, although his speed fits better in a corner than center field. With his ability to hit and slide into multiple spots, he has a chance to emerge as a starting outfielder in Cleveland.
Kerry Carpenter, OF, Tigers
Carpenter has always hit. He was a two-time junior college All-American at St. Johns River State (Fla.) JC and led Virginia Tech in runs, home runs, RBIs and total bases in his lone season with the Hokies. Despite that production, he lasted until the 19th round in the 2019 draft before the Tigers selected him. He hit .303 and won the Gulf Coast League MVP award in his pro debut, finished among the team leaders in nearly every offensive category at Double-A Erie in his first full season and broke out in a big way this year. Carpenter hit .313 with 30 home runs, 75 RBIs and a 1.025 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A and got promoted to the majors on Aug. 10, where he has spent time as the as the Tigers starting left fielder and DH and is off to a .273/.340/.523 start.
Carpenter lacks a famous pedigree or loud supplemental tools. He’s a below-average defender who is limited to a corner, is an average runner at best and has a solid but unremarkable arm. But he does the most important thing, which is hit. He has plus raw power from the left side and has shown the ability to self-diagnose flaws and make adjustments to make enough contact to get to it. He destroys fastballs, hits lefties as well as righties, has power to all fields and keeps his strikeouts low for a power hitter. There is little question he can impact the ball, and he keeps answering doubts about his pure contact skills. Rival evaluators largely project Carpenter to be a backup or Triple-A depth outfielder, but he has the traits of the type of player who exceeds expectations.
Jordan Diaz, 1B, Athletics
Diaz signed with the Athletics for $275,000 out of Colombia on the strength of his bat and has lived up to that pedigree as a pro. He consistently hit for average despite being young at every level and grew into power at age 21 this year. Diaz has hit .324 with 16 homers, 68 RBIs and an .874 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A and ranks third in the minors with 139 hits.
There is little doubt about Diaz as a hitter. Though he rarely walks, he does a good job of separating balls and strikes, stays composed when he’s behind in the count and picks out hittable pitches he can drive. He stays short to the ball and uses the whole field, showcasing home-run power from line to line. He rarely strikes out, handles pitches high, low, inside and outside and hits every pitch type, leaving pitchers little recourse. Diaz’s defense is a different matter. A third baseman when he signed, he has already moved to first base and has primarily been a DH this year. Even without a position, his bat is potent enough to get him every day at-bats in the majors.
Justin Dirden, OF, Astros
Dirden appears to be the Astros latest under-the-radar find. The physical outfielder led the Ohio Valley Conference in nearly every offensive category with Southeast Missouri State before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the 2020 season. The Astros signed him as an undrafted free agent following the shortened five-round draft. Dirden hit well during a half-season at the Class A levels in his pro debut and hit another gear this year, batting .322 with 23 homers, 96 RBIs and a 1.003 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A. He ranks second in the minors with 66 extra-base hits and is tied for third with 253 total bases.
Dirden lacks big tools but does everything well. He has a sound, consistent swing from the left side, does a good job of hitting the ball where it’s pitched and takes advantage of mistakes. He has above-average power he gets to in games and can drive the ball out to all fields. Dirden’s bat is his best asset, but he’s a capable defender at all three outfield spots and has shown off impressive arm strength, including recording 11 outfield assists in only 76 games last year. Dirden projects to be a fourth outfielder, but he has a chance to hit himself into a larger role.
Dominic Fletcher, OF, D-backs
The younger brother of Angels infielder David Fletcher unsurprisingly shares a lot of the same traits as an undersized player whose instincts allow him to play above his pure tools. After a middling first full season in 2021, Fletcher came back stronger this year and has hit .314/.389/.499 across Double-A and Triple-A to enhance his status in the eyes of both opposing scouts and D-backs team officials.
Fletcher is a smart, heady player who consistently overachieves. Though he’s only an average to above-average runner, he’s an exceptional defender in center field because he gets excellent jumps, runs pristine routes and plays fearlessly, including running into the walls without hesitation. He routinely makes highlight-reel plays and is arguably the best defensive center fielder in the D-backs organization, ahead of even Alek Thomas. Fletcher’s offensive numbers are aided by the hitter-friendly environments of Amarillo and Reno, but he has a good feel for contact, has improved his chase rate and takes consistent, controlled at-bats. He’s added muscle without losing any fluidity or athleticism and can run into power on occasion. Fletcher will likely break in as a fourth outfielder, but he has the skills and instincts to potentially play his way into a regular role.
Moises Gomez, OF, Cardinals
Gomez showed enormous power but also huge strikeout totals in six years in the Rays system and was allowed to leave as a minor league free agent after last season. Gomez signed with the Cardinals and promptly cut his strikeout rate, improved his walk rate and started making significantly more contact, allowing his power to play and leading to a breakout season. He’s hit .304—a 133-point improvement from last year—across Double-A and Triple-A and is tied for the minor league lead with 33 home runs.
Gomez is built like a slugger with a powerful lower half and a strong, thick upper body. He has above-average bat speed and sends towering home runs to all parts of the park with his combination of bat speed and strength. He posts loud exit velocities when he connects and can impact the ball like few others in the minors. Gomez swings hard and still misses too many hittable pitches—leading to a strikeout total that still remains too high—but he is at least moving in the right direction. He plays with energy and moves well for his size in right field, ultimately projecting to be an average defender with plus arm strength. Many evaluators believe he will swing and miss too much to be more than Triple-A depth, but others see his youth, bat speed and upward progression and think he can grow into at least a part-time role in the majors.
Michael Massey, 2B, Royals
Massey hit .324 in his career at Illinois and became the highest-drafted infielder in program history when the Royals selected him in the fourth round in 2019. He immediately jumped out to evaluators as a potential sleeper in his first full season last year and made good on those predictions this year, batting .312 with 16 homers, 77 RBIs and 13 stolen bases across Double-A and Triple-A to earn his first big league callup. He has settled in as the Royals starting second baseman over the past month and hit .256 through his first 28 games.
Massey has all the attributes of a quality hitter with quick, strong hands, a natural feel for the barrel and advanced command of the strike zone. He consistently squares balls up and drives them hard to all parts of the field. He’s a contact hitter first, but he has progressively grown into power and can drive balls out to his pull side. Massey is a bat-first player, but he’s fine at second base and has the athleticism to play other infield positions as needed. Whether he seizes the everyday second base job or settles into a role as an oft-used utilityman, Massey projects to get regular at-bats for the Royals moving forward.
Astros' Justin Dirden Tests New Body At Big League Camp
After hitting a wall late in 2022, Dirden spent three weeks in the offseason building strength and stamina that could push him to an MLB role this season.
Matt Mervis, 1B, Cubs
Mervis is yet another player who played both ways in college and blossomed once he focused on being a position player in pro ball. A first baseman and hard-throwing reliever at Duke, he went unpicked in the shortened 2020 draft and signed with the Cubs as an undrafted free agent. After a poor first full season last year, he shortened his swing and stormed three levels up the minors in 2022. He is batting .310 with 27 homers, 100 RBIs and a .971 OPS across High-A, Double-A and Triple-A and has emerged as the biggest breakout prospect in the Cubs farm system.
Mervis is a big, powerful lefthanded hitter at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds. He crushes fastballs, including high-velocity ones, and stays back on changeups to demolish them, too. Balls jump off his bat and frequently clear 400 feet. Mervis does most of his damage against righthanders and is somewhat susceptible against lefties, although he’s competitive enough against them to be respectable. He’s a passable defender at first base who makes the routine plays, and he occasionally shows off the arm strength that helped him touch 96 mph on the mound. Mervis lacks impact secondary tools and largely projects to be a platoon first baseman, but his power from the left side gives him a chance to make an impact in that role.
Esteury Ruiz, OF, Brewers
Ruiz long showed a tantalizing power-speed combination in the low minors with the Padres, but he swung at everything and lacked a position. He returned in 2022 with an overhauled approach and substantially improved his chase rate, number of pitches per at-bat and pitch selection, leading to a breakout season and his first big league callup. Ruiz entered Thursday batting .332 with 13 home runs, 51 RBIs, 70 stolen bases and a .973 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A and was the top prospect the Brewers acquired in the deadline trade for closer Josh Hader.
Ruiz is a sleek athlete with surprising above-average power in his thin frame and elite basestealing instincts that make him a premier threat on the basepaths. His newfound offensive success is based entirely on his improved plate discipline and pitch selection, and how well that holds will determine if he can hold down a regular role in the majors. Ruiz came up as a second baseman, but his hard hands made him unplayable in the infield and led to a conversion to the outfield. He is still improving his routes, reads and instincts, but he’s a good athlete and an extremely hard worker who should get better with experience. Ruiz still faces skepticism that he’ll maintain his improved approach against big league pitching, but if he can, he has the physical ability to be an everyday outfielder who provides power and speed.
Lenyn Sosa, 2B, White Sox
Sosa flashed tools and ability in previous years, but he lacked a consistent approach and often tried to do too much at the plate. He adjusted his stance this season and immediately showed improved pitch recognition, faster bat speed and better barrel control, leading to a breakthrough season. He hit .320 with 20 home runs, 69 RBIs and a .900 OPS across Double-A and Triple-A and earned his first big league callup, appearing in 11 games over two separate stints with the White Sox.
Sosa has long been a solid defender in the infield with smooth actions, quick hands, a reliable glove and average range. He can play at shortstop and is an above-average defender at both second and third base, giving him the versatility to play wherever needed. He has added strength without losing any fluidity or athleticism and projects to age well. Sosa’s offensive adjustments have altered his outlook. Where he previously projected to be a fringy hitter with little power, he’s now at least an average hitter who handles velocity, adjusts to spin and drives the ball to the gaps with authority. His versatility and newfound offensive prowess give him a chance to play a regular role, whether it’s as an oft-used utilityman or true everyday starter.