By William Gregory, Jack Kruger, Daniel Pardi, Daniel Mueller, Nick Durand, Michael Donahue, and Nolan Bruce
Photo: (Michael Reeves/Getty Images)
Every Major League Baseball season, there are interesting players that break out at unexpected times. A former top prospect finally puts it together after seasons of treading water, an unheralded player emerges from the depths of obscurity, or a big leaguer just overperforms what was previously expected.
In M-SABR’s first group writing project of the 2022 season, we are seeking out the Max Muncys, the Cedric Mullins, and the Jeff McNeils of the baseball world. Each of our writers were tasked with picking a player that they think will outshine their projections. Some players have debuted in the majors, others are young minor leaguers. Either way, we think these are the players you should look out for in 2022.
William Gregory: Michael Stefanic – Los Angeles Angels AAA – Middle Infielder
He’s right handed Jeff McNeil with a glove.
Michael Stefanic was the best batter in NAIA Westmont College school history, racking up Gold Gloves and All-Conference nods in all four of his years in Santa Barbara. The Los Angeles Angels signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2018, and Stefanic hit for a 98 wRC+ at High-A Inland Empire in 2019. Conventional wisdom would have led you to believe he’d probably be out of affiliated ball in the next couple seasons, you’d be wrong.
Prior to 2021, the relatively diminutive Stefanic had hit only 14 home runs across all levels including college. He hit 17 homers in 2021. The Boise native had always hit for average, but his power surge added a new element to his game. Stefanic ended up recording the 14th best wRC+ at the AAA level with 130, resulting from a triple slash of .338/.408/.505. Those college Gold Glove awards weren’t a fluke either, Michael Stefanic recorded a 3.96 range factor per game at second base in 2021. That puts him as an above average defender for his position. Stefanic became an extremely well-rounded player in 2021, and he could spend 2022 in Los Angeles because of it.
The Angels’ 2021 middle infield was a disaster. Michael Stefanic’s ZiPS OPS projection is just over .700, higher than all other Angel infielders last season. The only guy they have worth keeping around is David Fletcher, but BABIP regression in 2021 helped him to the worst season of his career. However, Fletcher was still in the 98th percentile in Outs Above Average at second base in 2021. There is a world in which Stefanic can bump Fletcher to shortstop and be an everyday starter at second, supplanting the other “options” the Angels have. Over the next three seasons, Stefanic is projected to be a 2 WAR player on part-time duty. Not bad for a 5’10” kid from Idaho who hasn’t ever sniffed the Angels’ Top 30 Prospects list despite being 26 years old.
Jack Kruger: Gabriel Arias – Cleveland Guardians AAA – Middle Infielder
Twenty-one year old Cleveland Guardians shortstop Gabriel Arias (6-1, 217lb), the fourth ranked prospect in the Guardians organization, showed an advanced, MLB-ready approach in AAA this past season. His youth and general fielding ability make him an easy choice for a player that will be undervalued going into the 2022 MLB season.
A minor league signing by the Padres back in 2016, Arias has faced a relatively short path to the majors. He was included in the trade which sent Mike Clevinger to the Padres back at the end of 2020, sending him to Cleveland where he put up his most promising year yet.
In 2021, Arias got on base 34.8% of the time in AAA Columbus, while also hitting thirteen home runs and twenty nine doubles in 483 plate appearances, good for a .802 OPS. Despite having just turned twenty-two, he is projected to be on the Guardians opening day roster, but it is possible that players like Amed Rosario, Brayan Rocchio, and Andrés Giménez limit his role on the field.
While he doesn’t have what I would consider a “star” swing, his approach is very developed and he does a great job driving the ball to every part of the field. Though he projects to fit somewhere between six and nine in a good starting lineup, Arias has enough pure power to get 25-30 home runs out in a full season and has shown real development in terms of recognition and getting solid contact in the last couple of years.
But what shines about Arias’ game isn’t a dependable bat, it’s his athleticism and fielding. He is a fairly clean young fielder, with a .963 fielding percentage last season, and he has improved greatly in the field season by season. Scouts rave about his top class arm and general athletic ability, which projects him as an above average shortstop, third baseman, and second baseman in the long term. In general, Arias’ versatility is a powerful weapon that will help him stand out in a crowded Guardians infield.
The versatile and solid-hitting Arias will likely outperform the low expectations put on him going into this season. His high career on base percentage and good power potential put him on a short list of young MLB shortstops with a good eye, pop, and solid fielding. Looking into the future, it would not be a surprise if Arias becomes a staple of a strong Guardians team for years to come.
Daniel Pardi: Colby White – Tampa Bays Rays AAA – Relief Pitcher
Drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019 out of Mississippi State, Colby White played his first full season as a minor league player last year and more than proved himself as a successful pick. White flew through the minors, starting on the Rays’s low A team at the beginning of the season and finishing as a member of their AAA squad in Durham. Across the four teams he played for last year, White threw in 43 games and managed 11 saves out of the bullpen, awarding him the Rays’s Minor League Relief Pitcher of the Year award.
The 23-year-old posted some impressive numbers across his first season, yielding a 1.44 ERA along with a 0.658 WHIP. White also proved to be highly efficient, striking out 104 batters, most amongst relievers in Tampa’s pipeline, with K% of 45 in 62.1 innings. Players facing him batted a measly 0.124 which was the lowest in the minors among pitchers who threw 60 innings or more. Needless to say, batters have a hard time succeeding against White and he should continue to dominate next season.
The Rays are positioned well going into 2022 as they are projected to win their division. While their bullpen is by no means holding them back, the addition of White could be a factor that brings them back to the World Series. With the lockout delaying the start to Spring Training, it’s unlikely we see Tampa add White to the roster when games begin. However, continued production from White in the minors during the first part of the season should solidify his case for a spot on the roster later in the year and his presence should help the Rays’s chances at winning in a deep playoff run.
Daniel Mueller: Gavin Lux – Los Angeles Dodgers – Middle Infielder
Gavin Lux was drafted with the 20th pick in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but was not considered a Top 100 Prospect until a breakout 2019. Lux recorded a 166 wRC+ and a triple slash of .347/.421/.607 with 26 homeruns in 113 games across AA and AAA, earning himself numerous awards, including Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. Lux made his major league debut in September of that season and skyrocketed his expectations for his future, as he was named the #2 Prospect in baseball by MLB.com going into the 2020 campaign.
2020 was disappointing for Lux, however, as he spent the entirety of the Dodgers’ shortened championship season bouncing back and forth between the active roster and taxi squad, after having shown up late to summer camp and struggling during intrasquad games and scrimmages.
The first half of 2021 was much of the same for Lux, as he slashed .227/.307/.349 over the first four months of the season, resulting in a demotion to AAA. Despite this, he stayed persistent and, after being promoted once again in early September, Lux finally demonstrated some of the production that was expected of him after his electric 2019 season, putting together a 162 wRC+ and .360/.467/.500 in 60 plate appearances down the stretch.
The adjustments Lux made in his month in the minors allowed him to rejuvenate his career and his outlook for 2022 looks very promising. With Dodgers’ long time shortstop Corey Seager now fielding grounders for the Texas Rangers, expect Lux to get plenty of starts alongside Trea Turner, with opportunities to produce in a manner similar to the flashes he showed in 2019 and late 2021.
Nick Durand: Tyler O’Neill – St. Louis Cardinals – Outfielder
Tyler O’Neill is a player that wasn’t expected to be a massive contributor during the 2021 season, especially coming off a disappointing shortened 2020 season where he slashed .173/.261/.360. Originally a third-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in 2013, O’Neill was traded to the Cardinals in 2017 in a deal for Marco Gonzales. He was considered one of the higher rated prospects in both the Mariners and Cardinals farm systems until his debut in 2018. He was considered a toolsy player that was lauded for his power, speed, and arm strength.
O’Neill would only play in a total of 121 games across his first two seasons in the majors. During that time, he managed to accrue high strikeout and low walk percentages. He was by no means spectacular at the plate during these first two seasons (.254/.303/.500 in 2019 and .262/.311/.411) but the potential and tools were still there. Despite his poor showing at the plate during the 2020 season, it was in the field where O’Neill began to make an impact. Playing exclusively in LF in 2020 he managed a 5.7 UZR in just 50 games on his way to his first Gold Glove award.
2021 represented O’Neill’s first full season in the majors, and the season where he would seemingly put everything together. He would play in a total of 138 games on his way to a .286/.352./.560 slash line, along with 34 home runs and an OPS+ of 150. O’Neill did most of his damage in the second half of the year with a .296/.386/.573 slash line and 19 home runs to help fuel a late-season surge by the Cardinals. Across the entire 2021 season, O’Neill finished in the 94th percentile for both average exit velocity and hard-hit percentage, and in the 96th percentile for barrel percentage and expected slugging percentage.
In addition to O’Neill’s increased plate prowess, he continued to impress in the field. Playing exclusively in LF again, he managed a 6.7 UZR in 138 games and was in the 86th percentile in MLB in outs above average. He earned his second career Gold Glove award. He also showed out in the speed department, finishing in the 98th percentile in sprint speed to go along with 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Perhaps all O’Neill needed was consistent playing time to put everything together at the plate and in the field, and while he is by no means a household name, it may be time to familiarize yourself with Tyler O’Neill, as he could be an impactful player for years to come.
Michael Donahue: Bradon Walter
Imagine for a moment that it’s a clear weekend in the spring of 2016. You find yourself in Newark, Delaware to watch the UD Blue Hens’ baseball team. Bradon Walter is on the mound. You know it’s going to be a great game. As a freshman in 2016, Walter posted great numbers as the primary weekend starter for the Blue Hens with a 7-3 record, 3.63 ERA, and 85 strikeouts in 89.1 innings. He earned CAA All-Rookie team, Louisville Slugger/CBM Freshman All-American, Third Team All-Colonial Conference, and UD Team Pitcher of the Year.
The sky was the limit for Walter after his freshman season, but in the spring of 2017, after posting a 3.42 ERA and striking out 61 batters in 55.1 innings, Walter suffered a season ending elbow injury. This would keep him out for the rest of the 2017 season, and cause him to miss the entire 2018 season. Walter would return in 2019, where in 14 starts he posted a 3.86 ERA with 106 strikeouts. His comeback season got him drafted in the 26th round by the Boston Red Sox in 2019.
He started his stint with the Red Sox in 2019 in rookie ball and in 13 games he posted a 2.70 ERA, struck out 39 and posted a WHIP of 1.020. After taking a pause during the shortened 2020 season, Walter took off again in 2021. He split time in Low and High A-ball where he put up a 2.92 ERA, struck out 132, a WHIP of 0.974, and a walks per nine of 2.0 in 89.1 innings. According to MLB.com, Walter has three pitches, a fastball that sits at 92-94 and touches 97 and with late life, a slider that sits in the low 80’s with sharp horizontal break, and a changeup.
Walter is quickly moving up the ranks in the Red Sox system as a potential diamond in the rough. Recently, the Red Sox front office under Chaim Bloom has been very good at developing young arms that have been overlooked due to early struggles or injury, a prime example being last years’ Rule 5 pick Garrett Whitlock. It will be fun to watch Walter as he could be another Boston success story that bucks the trend of the organization being unable to develop pitching. He is expected to join the Red Sox as soon as potentially late 2022 or sometime in 2023.
Nolan Bruce: Shane McClanahan – Tampa Bay Rays – Starting Pitcher
As recently as 2019, Shane McClanahan was an afterthought in the Rays system. He was 22 years old and wasn’t even a Top 10 Prospect in their organization. Just 2 years later, he started 25 games at the major league level in 2021, while performing 15% better than the average major league pitcher according to ERA+. McClanahan finished 7th in Rookie of the Year voting. This slightly above average rookie pitcher might just have what it takes to be elite, despite critics believing he’s a candidate for regression.
Fans who love batted ball stats like Barrel % and Hard Hit % might be wondering why I believe a guy within the bottom 10th percentile of the league in these stats is “being overlooked”. The answer is not that simple. First, McClanahan has such fantastic SO/9 and SO/BB stats that many hitters don’t even get the chance to make contact against him. Striking out this many hitters can help neutralize the effects of a lot of hard hit balls. To go along with his high strikeout rates, McClanahan has a 3% above average ground ball rate and a 3% below average fly ball rate, so most batted balls against him are angled lower. This can also be shown by his 2.7% HR%, which is below the league average of 3.3% despite sitting in the top 10% of hardest hit balls.
Now that you know that his rate stats were good enough to mitigate his batted ball stats and take him to an above average level in 2021, you might be wondering why I believe McClanahan has elite potential. This was his first full season on the mound. He has now put a full season on film for both himself and his coaches to analyze and make improvements. McClanahan’s changeup finished with a +3 run value (it led to more opposing runs scored) as a result of an opposing wOBA of .515 compared to an xwOBA of .349. His FIP had consistently been close to 3.3 despite this, and would be below that if not for the month of June where he struggled mightily. His ERA was 12 points higher than his FIP, which means with slightly better fielding, he could take even more opposing runs off of the scoreboard.
McClanahan has already shown that he can improve as a player, rather than stay stagnant or regress. From Opening Day to July 9, he posted 10 starts of above 4 ERA. From that date until the end of the regular season, he posted 0. Any pitcher who can keep up that pace is guaranteed to be elite. He might not be the stereotypical great pitcher, but in his own way, Shane McClanahan might just be able to prove the doubters wrong and force hard hit baseballs into the ground enough to become an elite pitcher.
That wraps up our first group writing project of the upcoming 2022 season. We will try to have an article in the offseason debriefing these players’ seasons, and assessing our evaluations.