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MLB’s 20 best breakout players of 2018

It’s never too late to take your career to the next level, as these 20 players have proven this season.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There’s something to be said for having patience with baseball players as they develop and acclimate to the major leagues, whether you’re a fan, a teammate, a manager or coach, or a front office exec, and there are few things more satisfying than when a player you’ve invested in for several years — whether that investment is simple fandom, organizational resources, or a big-league roster spot — finally puts it all together and turns into a great major-leaguer. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at 20 big-leaguers who had MLB experience prior to 2018 but have taken their performance to a whole new level this season:

Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Brewers Aguilar has struggled out of the gates a bit in the second half, hitting .172/.294/.414 with four homers in 17 games, but he was perhaps the best story of the first half. The 28-year-old first baseman, who was claimed off waivers from the Indians prior to the 2017 season, performed well in reserve duty for the Brewers last year, but then had to battle for his roster spot this spring as the Brewers looked to employ a Ryan Braun/Eric Thames platoon at first base with Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, and Domingo Santana holding down the starting outfield spots. Out of options and really without any positional flexibility, Aguilar looked to have his back up against the wall but then ultimately earned a job on the big-league club. With Yelich and Thames going on the DL in April, Aguilar took total advantage of the increased playing time and forced himself into an everyday role at first base (with a few cameos at third). He hit .298/.373/.621 over the first half, making the NL All-Star team while heading into the break leading the NL in home runs (24) and ranking second among qualifying NL hitters in OPS (.995). He was impressive enough (and others unimpressive enough) to force the Brewers into changing their plans, as Braun and Thames were shifted to platoon outfield roles and Santana was sent to the minors. Aguilar is going to have to stay on top of his game if he wants to maintain an everyday role on a deep Milwaukee club, but he’s clearly shown himself to have game-changing power — a skill that will play on any team.

Javy Baez, IF, Cubs The 25-year-old Baez is an interesting case considering that he’d done plenty of exciting things on a national stage but had never really posted great numbers prior to this season — his career-high OPS+ was a rather pedestrian 102. With manager Joe Maddon giving him the lion’s share of the playing time at second base for the first time this year, though, Baez has emerged in a major way, ranking third among NL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR (4.9) entering play on Wednesday. Though he still strikes out a ton (105) and barely ever draws a walk (17), he ranks sixth in the NL in homers (25), first in RBI (88), seventh in steals (19), 10th in average (.298), tied for second in slugging (.585), and sixth in OPS (.916). His emergence has been key in propelling the Cubs to the NL’s best record as Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have underperformed this season, and if he maintains his MVP-caliber form as those two bounce back in future seasons, Chicago should be an extremely imposing force for years to come.

Trevor Bauer, RHP, Indians — Bauer was a solid back-of-the-rotation arm who pitched like an ace for short stretches prior to 2018, but he had never really put it all together, as he had never posted an ERA under 4.00 or a WHIP under 1.30 over a full season. As the 27-year-old right-hander would probably put it, he’s been 420 times better than he ever was before this year. Bauer ranks fourth among qualifying major-league starters in ERA (2.25), second in innings pitched (159.2), third in strikeouts (206), and best in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.39). With that type of performance, he has to be considered a legitimate AL Cy Young candidate, and he’s finally starting to live up to the expectations that many had for him when he was selected No. 3 overall in the 2011 draft.

Mark Canha, 1B, Athletics The 29-year-old Canha, a Rule 5 pick prior to the 2015 season, has finally rewarded the Athletics for the gamble they took more than three years ago, becoming one of the team’s most versatile players since his recall from Triple-A on April 8. Canha has played seven games at first base, 36 in left field, 52 in center, and nine in right for an A’s team that didn’t have a ton of proven bench options heading into this season. He’s complemented that defensive versatility with the ability to contribute significantly at the plate, hitting 14 homers in 333 plate appearances and posting a .256/.330/.455 slash line, which was good for an impressive 118 OPS+ heading into Wednesday night’s game. His presence has been key as the A’s have trudged forward without expected contributors Matt Joyce and Jake Smolinski for large chunks of the 2018 season.

Charlie Culberson, IF/OF, Braves After six years of bouncing around the NL West, spending most of his time in Triple-A and coming up to the majors only when a need arose, the 29-year-old Culberson has been one of the league’s best utility players in his first season spent fully in the big leagues. Over 76 games, Culberson has played every position except pitcher, catcher, and center field and has posted a .283/.329/.493 slash line with eight homers (including two walk-offs) in 219 plate appearances. Despite Culberson’s relatively advanced age and his lack of a significant track record, this performance somehow isn’t that surprising for the guy who took over for an injured Corey Seager during last year’s playoffs and went on to post an incredible .500/.471/.938 slash line with two doubles, a triple, and a home run in 18 postseason plate appearances for the Dodgers. After years of toiling in the minors, the 2007 Giants first-rounder has taken full advantage of his first legitimate opportunity and has seemingly earned himself a secure big-league role heading into next season, with the potential to create more postseason magic if the Braves hold onto a wild-card spot and end their four-season playoff drought.

Elias Diaz, C, Pirates While he hasn’t even been the most impressive catcher on his own club, the 27-year-old Diaz has quietly been one of the best-hitting backstops in the majors this season. Over 214 plate appearances, the fourth-year major-leaguer has posted a .284/.332/.442 slash line with seven homers. His success is a reward for the Pirates’ patience — though he had long been a highly-regarded prospect, few people would have faulted them for giving up on him last offseason, as he was out of minor-league options and had a posted an unimpressive .579 OPS in his first significant taste of big-league action in 2017. With starter Francisco Cervelli owed $11.5 million next season, Diaz probably isn’t going to earn the Pirates’ everyday catching job in the near future. But he’s definitely earned himself more playing time than your typical backup catcher, and he’s put himself in decent position to take the torch from Cervelli when the 32-year-old hits free agency after next season.

Eduardo Escobar, 3B, Diamondbacks The 29-year-old Escobar, an eight-year major-league veteran, had never posted an OPS+ better than 105 coming into this season, but the longtime utility man thrived after being cast into the Twins’ everyday third-base role this season, hitting .274/.338/.514 with 37 doubles and 15 homers in 408 plate appearances before being dealt to the Diamondbacks on July 27. The pending free agent has continued to thrive following the trade, hitting .333/.356/.462 over his first 45 plate appearances, and he continues to lead the majors with 42 doubles. With Ketel Marte and Jake Lamb having solid grasps on long-term starting jobs in Arizona, Escobar seems unlikely to remain with the D-Backs beyond this season, but for now he has a chance to make himself a household name across America as Arizona makes a strong playoff push.

Mike Foltynewicz, RHP, Braves — Foltynewicz has long been considered to be one of the pitchers with the most upside in baseball, although the 26-year-old right-hander had largely failed to live up to the hype prior to this year. Things didn’t look too great after he had surgery in 2015 to correct thoracic outlet syndrome — an operation that few pitchers have fully recovered from — but he’s somehow been the first pitcher to get significantly better after the surgery and has broken out in a major way this year. He’s posted a 2.98 ERA over 22 starts — including one complete-game shutout — while striking out 145, walking 51, and holding opponents to a .211 average over 124 innings. Foltynewicz was named an All-Star for the first time last month and will play a major role down the stretch as the Braves try to reach the postseason for the first time since 2013.

Marco Gonzales, LHP, Mariners The 26-year-old Gonzales reached the majors quickly, making his debut in June of 2014 after being selected by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2013 draft, but he never really established himself in St. Louis. Things weren’t looking great for him after he was traded to the Mariners in July of last year and struggled in a second-half audition, but the crafty left-hander has finally figured things out this year and has arguably been the most consistent starter for a Seattle team that still has a shot to make the playoffs. He’s endured a rough start to August, allowing 11 runs over 12 innings, but Gonzales still has an impressive 3.79 ERA and 1.20 WHIP over 23 starts, 12 of which have been of the “quality” variety. His 4.72 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked ninth in the majors entering play on Wednesday, and he also threw the first complete game of his career against the Royals in June.

Alen Hanson, IF/OF, Giants — Hanson was long regarded as an elite prospect, being listed among MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects for four straight years from 2012-15 and ranking as highly as No. 3 in the Pirates’ system and No. 40 in all of baseball in 2013. The Pirates exhausted his minor-league options by the age of 24, though, and he had seemingly faded from relevance as he signed a minor-league deal with the Giants this winter. He had a quiet spring training and didn’t make the Opening Day roster, but he’s proven those long-ago prospect projections right since being called up from Triple-A on April 28, hitting .276/.301/.469 with six homers and five steals in 208 plate appearances while seeing action at second base, third base, shortstop, and left field and posting a ridiculous .500/.579/.813 slash line in 19 pinch-hitting appearances. At just 25 years old, Hanson still has some upside remaining and has earned the chance to compete for at least a platoon starter role over the long term, with his floor being that of a multi-talented utility man at the big-league level.

Gorkys Hernandez, OF, Giants — The 30-year-old Hernandez, the 2007 MVP of the Low-A Midwest League and a three-time participant in the Futures Game last decade, had all but been written off as a guy who had a chance to be an effective major-leaguer heading into the season. While he’d been an alright backup type over the last couple seasons in San Francisco, he had no homers while posting a .652 OPS in 348 plate appearances for the Giants last year, and it appeared certain that he would never hit for enough power to seize a regular big-league role. Against the odds, Hernandez made San Francisco’s 25-man roster out of spring training — essentially as the 25th man — but after Austin Jackson failed miserably as the team’s starting center fielder, Hernandez swooped in and seized the role during the first half, posting a .277/.324/.454 slash line in 283 plate appearances prior to the All-Star break. Despite Hernandez’s strong performance, the Giants called up highly-regarded prospect Steven Duggar just prior to the break and handed him the everyday center field role, and Hernandez has struggled since in part-time duty, posting a .163/.245/.349 line in 49 second-half PAs. But he still has the most home runs (13) of any player on San Francisco’s active roster — an incredible feat for a guy who literally hit no homers last year — and has played solid defense at all three outfield spots. He already has the most homers by a Giants starting center fielder since Andres Torres hit 16 in 2010, and while he pretty clearly isn’t the guy they see as the long-term everyday answer at that position, he’s been a major steadying presence there this year following years of disappointing production from veterans like Angel Pagan and Denard Span.

Tony Kemp, 2B/OF, Astros Kemp doesn’t play the same style of game that the vast majority of major-leaguers do in today’s slugging-intensive league, but he’s nevertheless broken out in full force this year and has played a major role in plugging the holes created by various injuries and the underperformance of Marwin Gonzalez. While appearing at all three outfield positions plus second base, Kemp has posted an outstanding .288/.381/.423 slash line with four homers, eight stolen bases, and nearly as many walks (22) as strikeouts (24) in 185 plate appearances. The 26-year-old’s success is a major testament to the Astros’ outstanding organizational depth, as he’s gone from being a little-used injury replacement in 2016-17 to a near-everyday starter this season. While he certainly hasn’t achieved the level of stardom of his undersized counterparts yet, the 5-foot-6, 165-pound Kemp is the latest among a group of hitters under 5-foot-10, including Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, and his teammate Jose Altuve, who have found significant major-league success in recent years.

Miles Mikolas, RHP, Cardinals — Mikolas has very arguably been the most unexpected success story in the majors this season, and he really should get some back-of-the-ballot NL Cy Young votes. Over 37 major-league appearances with the Padres and Rangers between 2012-14, Mikolas had posted a 5.32 ERA with 62 strikeouts and 34 walks in 91.1 innings. Before the 2015 season, he signed with the Yomiuri Giants, looking to reshape his career, and that he did. In three seasons overseas, he had a 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 62 starts, and that success earned him a two-year, $15.5 million contract with the Cardinals last December. While St. Louis obviously had high hopes for the 29-year-old right-hander, he’s exceeded any expectations that they could have had, as his 2.74 ERA and 0.56 homers allowed per nine innings both rank fourth-best among qualifying NL starters, while his 1.56 walks-per-nine and (for what it’s worth) .800 winning percentage rank best among that group. He’s pitched like a legitimate ace — an unbelievably important development for a Cardinals team that has got just one start from Alex Reyes in between major injuries and has been without Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez large chunks of the season. St. Louis may be too far in the hole to make a playoff run this year, but their rotation could be dominant in 2019 if Mikolas maintains this form, Reyes, Wacha, and Martinez get healthy, and Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson continue to progress.

Max Muncy, IF, Dodgers — If Mikolas hasn’t been the biggest surprise of 2018, then Muncy probably has. The 27-year-old utility infielder, who considered retirement following a 2017 campaign that was spent entirely in Triple-A, had posted a career .195/.290/.321 slash line with five homers in 245 plate appearances over parts of two seasons with the Athletics. But after signing a minor-league deal with the Dodgers over the offseason, having a rather nondescript spring training, getting assigned to minor-league camp on March 12 and beginning the season in Triple-A, Muncy has been fantastic since being called up on April 17. He was arguably the Dodgers’ first-half MVP and one of the key reasons that they found new life after appearing to be dead in the water when he first arrived. In 279 first-half plate appearances, he posted an outstanding .271/.409/.604 slash line — good for an NL-best 1.013 OPS entering the break — with 22 homers while appearing at first base, second base, third base, and left field. He narrowly missed out on a spot on the NL All-Star team but earned himself an appearance in the Home Run Derby. Muncy has slumped a bit since the break, posting a .648 OPS with just two homers, but thanks to his overall body of work, he’s made himself such a key presence in the Dodgers’ lineup that he’s forced Cody Bellinger to the outfield more often than not in recent weeks.

Edubray Ramos, RHP, Phillies Though he drew the short end of the stick and is currently in the minor leagues because he has options and the Phillies have lots of relievers, the 25-year-old Ramos has been one of the most effective right-handed relievers in the majors this year after being rather average during his first two major-league campaigns. Making frequent use of a nasty slider, Ramos has posted a 1.91 ERA with a .223 opponent batting average, 33 strikeouts, and 13 walks over 33 innings. He should factor into the bullpen mix in the postseason if the Phillies hold onto their lead in the NL East and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011 this fall.

Blake Snell, LHP, Rays Snell had a very good rookie season and was solid in his sophomore campaign, so his breakout 2018 season hasn’t been an absolutely massive surprise. With that said, the hard-throwing lefty has become one of the best pitchers in the majors this season and has turned into the latest ace for a Rays team that seems to develop top starter after top starter before eventually trading those pitchers away. Snell has posted a 2.27 ERA that ranks fifth among qualifying major-leaguers, along with a stellar .190 opponent batting average, 137 strikeouts, and 49 walks. If he can stay healthy — he was sidelined for two weeks recently due to shoulder fatigue — and continue to sharpen his command, he could turn into a perennial Cy Young candidate. For that matter, he should receive AL Cy Young votes this season.

Ryne Stanek, RHP, Rays — After having a rather miserable rookie season during which he posted a 5.85 ERA and 1.90 WHIP over 21 appearances, the 27-year-old Stanek — now known to some by the alias of #TheOpener — has thrived in a starter-but-not-really role and has also been dominant out of the bullpen during his sophomore campaign. Over 18 starts, during which he’s accumulated 27.1 innings, he has a 2.63 ERA while holding hitters to a .165 average, striking out 38, and walking 11. In 19 appearances out of the bullpen, he has a 2.45 ERA and has limited opponents to a .169 average while striking out 22 and walking eight over 18.1 innings. Stanek gets overlooked by some because he’s playing for a small-market team that frankly hasn’t put much of an effort into being competitive this year — if anything, they’ve done the opposite — but he’s quietly established himself as one of the most effective pitchers in the major leagues, regardless of what role he’s used in.

Ross Stripling, RHP, Dodgers — Stripling is currently on the DL, but he put the Dodgers on his back during the first half, ascending from a rather anonymous long-relief role to become the surprising ace of the Dodgers’ rotation and an NL All-Star. Stripling has thrown for a 2.68 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over 27 appearances, including 16 starts, and he has a career-best 10.30 strikeouts per nine innings. He posted a 9.35 ERA and 1.73 WHIP over two second-half starts before going on the DL, so there’s understandably skepticism that he’ll continue to be a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter. No matter what happens, though, Stripling was instrumental in giving this Dodgers team a chance to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season, even with four-fifths of the Opening Day rotation spending time on the DL before the All-Star break.

Eugenio Suarez, 3B, Reds Suarez had shown flashes of greatness ever since his debut in 2014 and was very good in 2017, posting an .828 OPS with 26 homers, but he’s taken his game to the next level this year, developing into one of the best hitters in the majors and a legitimate NL MVP candidate. In 426 plate appearances, the 27-year-old Suarez ranks third among qualifying NL hitters in OPS (.958), eighth in batting average (.303), ninth in OBP (.383), fifth in slugging (.576), fifth in home runs (26), and second in RBI (87) — and he’s done all that despite missing nearly three weeks in April with a broken thumb. While Suarez turned into a superstar later than most great hitters do, it’s now very possible that he’ll take the torch from Joey Votto — who has taken a bit of a step back this year — as the most imposing hitter in the Reds’ lineup for many years to come. That’s good news for the Reds, who bet on his potential by giving him a six-year, $66 million contract with a club option for 2025 prior to this season.

Kirby Yates, RHP, Padres — Yates is the rare major-leaguer who has turned into one of the best players at his position after his 30th birthday. The 31-year-old had bounced around the majors, shuttling between Triple-A and the big leagues and doing nothing particularly special, from 2014 until last year, when he joined the Padres in April and showed signs of progress: he held hitters to a .206 average and had 87 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, but had a just-OK 3.72 ERA and allowed 10 home runs. Considering the small sample size and the fact that he was 30, it was reasonable to think that Yates’ mini-breakout would fail to carry over into 2018, but he’s silenced his doubters and significantly improved upon last season’s numbers this year. Over 44 appearances (43.1 innings), the 5-foot-10 right-hander has a 1.66 ERA with a .170 opponent batting average, 55 strikeouts, and just 13 walks while cutting down significantly on his home runs allowed — he’s given up just two long balls this year. His age and the fact that he pitches his home games in a pitchers’ park will understandably lead to continued skepticism about his ability to maintain these results, but the fact of the matter is that he’s been one of the majors’ most dominant relief pitchers this season.