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Pittsburgh Pirates

At first, I wanted to be contrarian and say Rodolfo Castro (because he is interesting!). Then I thought about how the question of whether Ke’Bryan Hayes can realize his potential has been an intriguing one since the day he entered the league.Then I considered the fact that Bryan Reynolds is one of the league’s best hitters (18th in OPS since the start of 2021) and rarely gets mentioned in such rarefied air. But who am I kidding? There’s only one correct answer here.

Oneil Cruz is not just the most interesting player on his own team, or in his division; he might be the most uniquely fascinating player in all of baseball. His freakish athleticism is bested by perhaps only Shohei Ohtani, and—physically, at least—he looks capable of reproducing the kind of earth-shattering power display that Aaron Judge just authored in 2022.

The knock on him has been an extreme penchant for missing on breaking stuff, but he appeared to make significant strides in this respect in the second half of the season. His performance over the final month-plus (September and October)—the period in which pitchers attacked him with spin more than any other—represented a night and day improvement over his rest-of-season performance: 

Breaking Balls Whiff% AVG / SLG
Pre-Sept 398 55.1% .131 / .214
Sept+Oct 250 42.5% .228 / .404

While a .228 BA and a .404 SLG don’t appear especially impressive at first blush, consider that the league’s performance against breakers in 2022 was .219 and .371, and that Oneil’s struggles against sliders and curves were the only obstacles holding him from superstardom. His line against other pitch types in his other career so far: .278 and .571. If he’s figured out spin, well, look out.

Cincinnati Reds

The 2021 season was a dream; the Reds were a fun but flawed bunch on the cusp of postseason contention and had a bright young star fresh off an NL Rookie of the Year campaign to build around, in Jonathan India. They should have been on their way to bigger and brighter things. Instead, they jettisoned their core while their ROY winner endured a nightmarish sophomore season, battling injuries and struggling at the plate. 

It would be difficult to picture a more dramatic change in fortunes between seasons, but we’ve seen what India is capable of, and he’ll take up a new role as the steward to a fresh wave of talented prospects that the team received in exchange for selling off their core. Whether he can recapture that form and become a catalyst at the top of the lineup for future Reds teams is one of the most pressing questions Cincinnati has at present. So what went wrong in 2022?

For one thing, he stopped impacting the ball entirely. His average EV dropped, from an average-ish 87.6 mph in 2021 to a 3rd percentile mark of 85.1 mph in 2022. His hard hit percentage—aka how many of his batted balls were 95+ mph—declined nearly 10%, from 38.8% to 28.6%. Considering hitting the ball hard is the most important part of hitting, that’s not really what you want. The sudden drop off can be at least partially attributed to a series of leg injuries India suffered throughout the season. The rest of his batted-ball distribution remained mostly the same, but it stands to reason that the same kinds of balls put in play with less authority would lead to worse results.

Otherwise, India’s skills remained largely the same, with one notable exception: his performance against offspeed pitches. 

% of Pitches AVG SLG
2021 11.4 .224 .408
2022 10.8 .081 .108

After a solid showing against changeups in his debut, India couldn’t handle them at all in 2022, mostly by way of making noncompetitive contact. He couldn’t hit with any authority against these pitches anywhere down in the zone in 2022, and it produced the kinds of contact that lead to .120 BABIPs (three hits on 25 balls in play) against a pitch type.

He’ll be looking to reestablish himself in his third season, and doing so begins with punishing the slower stuff again.

Chicago Cubs

Can Dansby do it again? Can Christopher Morel improve his plate skills enough to tap into the slugging potential? Will Seiya Suzuki take a step towards stardom? All questions important to the 2023 Cubs, but when it comes to who the most fascinating player on the roster is, it doesn’t get much more intriguing than a 27-year-old former MVP on a “prove it” deal after two seasons looking completely lost at the dish.

Plenty of ink has been spilled about Cody Bellinger already. Some, ahem, have been recorded in audio form, too. There’s many theories about what’s gone wrong with him, but the bottom line is this: Hehas a shot at a fresh start, and for the first time in a long time he should be entering a season fully healthy. That, more than anything else, should give him a shot at recapturing some of his former glory. Bellinger’s physical condition being compromised could very well have led him to press. In April 2021 he fractured his fibula; after returning from the IL his hard-hit percentage plummeted and he became much more aggressive at the plate, a pattern that continued into 2022—his offense never returned to its previous heights:

A healthy Bellinger still doesn’t mean the return of his MVP form, but even his being an average-to-above average bat would be enormous for the Cubs, not to mention Bellinger’s future.

Milwaukee Brewers

For a team with playoff aspirations, the Brewers lineup is surprisingly shallow. They only have five definite regulars currently projected to be above league average by DRC+: Christian Yelich, Willy Adames, Rowdy Tellez, Jesse Winker, and William Contreras. Another player emerging as a legitimate bat would be enormous for the Brew Crew’s postseason chances. That’s where Luis Urías comes in.

While Milwaukee has no shortage of candidates for this supporting role—Tyrone Taylor, Garrett Mitchell, freshly-signed Brian Anderson, Joey Weimer or Sal Frelick if you’re feeling bold—Urías boasts a combination of track record and skills that make him the likeliest to step up. He won’t wow you with any flashy tools, but what he lacks in flashiness he makes up for by having very few weaknesses. He possesses above-average plate skills, including a discerning eye that prevents him from expanding the zone (80th percentile chase rate) and solid bat-to-ball ability (63rd percentile whiff rate), along with the requisite approach (34% flyball rate) and pop to punish mistakes (54th percentile barrel rate). It’s a very well-rounded profile.

If he does have a problem area to work on, it’s the same one that Cruz—and many other young hitters—could stand to fix: an inability to handle MLB breakers. His problem isn’t swinging over them; his whiff rate was just over 21% versus sliders and curves. Rather, it’s the degree that his quality of contact suffers against spin: 

Sliders+Curves 84.8 .152 .280
Other pitches 88.5 .272 .448


Urías has been around long enough that he may just be unable to shore up this hole in his game. It’s hardly fatal; so long as he continues to work pitchers into fastball situations and doesn’t expand the zone, he’ll continue to see enough pitches to hit that he can remain a viable contributor. But there is a book on how to get him out, and until he rewrites some portion of that book he won’t reach the next level that the rest of his skills make possible.

St. Louis Cardinals

As one of baseball’s deepest rosters, the Cardinals feature a ton of players who I could write about here. There’s offseason workout warrior Lars Nootbaar, who ended the second half on a tear. There’s Tyler O’Neill, seemingly a superstar in the making by the end of 2021, who took a huge step back last year as he dealt with injuries. A deep bench of former prospects supplies a list of breakout candidates: There are reasons to be excited about each of Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, and Juan Yepez. St. Louis has the second-best prospect in baseball. Oh, and there’s the literal MVP entering his age-35 season, not to mention his partner in crime and fellow MVP candidate across the infield.

But we’re not targeting any of those players here. No, the player who could change the long-term plans of the Cardinals the most is struggling former top-20 prospect Dylan Carlson. The Cardinals clearly still have faith in him; they declined to include him in a possible package for Juan Soto

Perception of Carlson around baseball is divided; on the one hand, a top prospect managing a 95 DRC+ through 1200 career plate appearances is a bit of a disappointment. On the other: A plus glove in center field with an essentially league-average bat is an exceedingly valuable player. And at just 23 years old, there’s still room for Carlson to grow. The problem is that unlike the rest of the players mentioned today, Carlson doesn’t suffer from poor contact quality against a certain pitch type; he suffers from poor contact from an entire side of the plate:


We can see that from both sides he exhibits a good eye, creating positive value from laying off chase and waste pitches. But once pitchers challenge him within the zone, the contrast in his performance is stark. He simply wasn’t able to hit from the left side of the plate. And that’s been the story for his entire major-league career; there’s nearly a 200-point gap between his career OPS against left-handed pitching (.869) and against right-handed pitching (.686). Cedric Mullins had a 260-point gap in his splits when he elected to hit from only one side; Carlson isn’t seeing a divide quite that dramatic—nor is he as helpless from his weaker side as Mullins was from his (.439 OPS as a RHB)—but he could be a candidate to see less right-handed pitching if he can’t improve as a lefty.

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