Ten MLB players who are ready to explode this season — and help your fantasy team

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Ten MLB players who are ready to explode this season — and help your fantasy team

Happy pitchers and catchers week! One of the most exciting parts of spring training every year is when uber-talented young players show signs that they are about to explode in the major leagues. It’s that special time when potential becomes production, when a prospect really turns into a Rookie of the Year candidate. Or it can be a second-year or third-year player who matures physically or mentally and puts it all together to reach new heights.

This type of breakout helps their team win more games, and it may even help a club go from pretender to contender for a wild-card spot or division title. But, of course, these explosions of talent are also significant in fantasy baseball and can be the difference between winning and losing your league championship. In fantasy, everyone knows the names to draft in the early rounds — it’s no surprise when Ronald Acuña Jr., Aaron Judge and Julio Rodríguez are taken in the first five picks. However, the key is to draft that type of talent before a player realizes their potential because that’s when you can get those standouts in later rounds.

For those who don’t follow fantasy baseball, the format in basic leagues establishes position-player value based on five categories: batting average (or on-base percentage), runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases. Therefore, the best position players in fantasy fill up at least four of those five categories. Obviously, runs and RBIs are significantly impacted by the batters around them in the lineup, but for the most part, a player can control the other three categories.

As spring training gets underway, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the most exciting young players in the game, guys who could explode in 2024. These players are loaded with tools and could fill up those four or five categories I mentioned but haven’t yet done so at the level their skills project. So, regardless of whether you’re interested in real-world baseball, fantasy baseball or both, here’s my list of youngsters who could be breakout difference-makers this year.

His tools are scary and he has a Hall of Fame ceiling. In his spotlight-stealing debut last season, De La Cruz ranked in the 100th percentile in sprint speed, the 97th percentile in base running value and the 98th percentile in arm strength. He displayed upper-deck power. He’s a four-tool player and the fifth tool, hitting, still needs development. De La Cruz stole 35 bases last year but is capable of 50 this year. He hit 13 home runs last year and I expect around 25 this year. He’s surrounded in the Reds lineup by players who should help him get at least 80 runs and 70 RBIs. He needs to work on handling the breaking ball better, chasing fewer pitches out of the zone and mashing balls in his sweet spots in early counts. But all the elements are there for De La Cruz to make meaningful progress in 2024.

Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, dealt with injuries in recent years that delayed his development but was healthy over the final month and a half of last season. He shined. The injury setbacks gave him time to mature physically and mentally, and by the end of 2023 he was the Twins’ best player. Lewis, 24, is primed to pop. Last year he hit 15 homers in 58 games and slashed .309/.372/.548 (150 OPS+). He hit a staggering .337 against fastballs, .278 against breaking balls and .308 against off-speed pitches. Good luck trying to pitch to him. This season he’s ready to make the jump to All-Star and potential MVP candidate.

Wyatt Langford had an impressive first season as a pro. (Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

Langford is about to make more noise than any rookie in 2024 because of his ridiculous bat and his home run potential. The 20-year-old was the fourth-overall pick in last year’s draft and he’s already major-league-ready. He might end up being the best player taken in that draft. Last season across four levels, from rookie ball to Triple A, he batted .360/.480/.677 with 10 home runs, 30 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in just 44 games and 200 plate appearances. Oh by the way, he also smacked 21 homers (in 303 plate appearances) and stole nine bases in 10 attempts for the University of Florida in the first part of the year. He’s going to be my pick for American League Rookie of the Year and the only thing that could hold him back is if the Rangers don’t let him make the big-league team out of spring training. Langford could be a steal in fantasy drafts because he has the potential of filling up all five categories and next year being a first- or second-round (fantasy draft) type talent. He’s that good.

Brewers general manager Matt Arnold made it clear to me that Chourio will be given every opportunity to be their Opening Day center fielder and if that’s the case, there is no reason to believe he won’t be among the front-runners for National League Rookie of the Year. Chourio, 19, is a line-drive machine who loves to hit the ball up the middle. He has a short, compact swing that is direct to the ball, which should help him avoid batting slumps. He has already hit 20 or more home runs twice in the minors and last year stole 44 bases between Double A and Triple A. I think he could realistically slash something like .270/.332/.478 in his rookie year while joining the 20/20 (home runs, stolen bases) club.

Volpe had a strong rookie season, with 21 home runs, 24 stolen bases and 3.3 WAR (Baseball Reference). He hit just .209 and reached base at a paltry 28 percent rate. He played in front of the most demanding fans and in the most difficult market for a rookie. And he did it with class, while showing his work ethic and a high baseball IQ. He did a great job of adjusting and I think will fare better against breaking balls this season after really struggling against them last year. If he can get his average up to .240-.250, then his home runs could creep up to 24-25 and his stolen bases could reach 30 (or more). He scored 62 runs last season but should get more this year; if he hits ninth for the Yankees, he’ll have DJ LeMahieu, Juan Soto and Aaron Judge batting behind him. He’s a great value player in fantasy and should be even more of a difference-maker at the bottom of the Yankees batting order this summer.

Can Nolan Jones build upon his strong first season with the Rockies? (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

Jones is not getting the recognition he deserves after an impressive first season with Colorado; he slashed .297/.389/.542 (138 OPS+) with 20 home runs, 20 steals and 4.3 WAR. I’m not sure why he’s not getting more love in fantasy drafts. Perhaps people aren’t buying his rookie season. Or perhaps it’s because he plays for a last-place club. Regardless, keep in mind he plays half his games at Coors Field. That should matter. In addition, he put up those 2023 numbers over 106 games and just 367 at-bats. What happens when he gets 500 at-bats this year? Jones hit .300 against fastballs, .317 against breaking balls and .262 against changeups. Those splits scream that last year wasn’t a fluke. He slashed .288/.380/.554 on the road with 10 home runs, the same total he hit at home. I think he’s a .300 hitter with 30/30 (home runs, steals) potential. He’s not a name yet, but he will be. Draft him if you can.

Greene is going to make his first All-Star team this year — and you can put that in cement, not pen or pencil or even a Sharpie. He hasn’t yet scratched the surface of his potential due to injuries and having to develop as he hits in a subpar lineup. In 2021 in the minors, Greene slashed .301/.387/.534 with 24 home runs and 16 stolen bases between Double A and Triple A, and I believe those numbers will soon translate to the majors. The Tigers lineup is improving, which will help him get better pitches to hit and in turn enhance his ability to score and drive in more runs. After about 750 big-league at-bats, his time is now.

Walker was my preseason pick to win NL Rookie of the Year in 2023 and although I might have whiffed on that one, I think he’ll prove me right in his sophomore year like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout did after their subpar first seasons in the majors. (Judge and Trout, of course, went on to win Rookie of the Year honors, while Walker has exceeded the rookie limits.) Walker had to learn right field last year, a new position, while having more hitting advice thrown his way than perhaps any other player in the majors. When the Cardinals finally left him alone, he started to produce. In fact, his on-base percentage was .347 in August and .363 in September/October with seven home runs and 23 RBIs over his final 51 games. He hit fastballs as well as breaking balls, which is a telling sign that he’s going to hit at this level. It’s hard to predict whether a 6-foot-6 player is going to become a .300 type hitter, but Walker has that potential, and his power should grow to 20-22 homers this year and 25-30 in subsequent years. Having Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado around the batting cage every day also will help his development. Get ready because Walker will wow this season, just a year late for my prediction.

What kind of numbers can Jackson Holliday put up in his first major-league season? (Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

The Orioles are planning to play Holliday at second base during spring training and will give him every opportunity to win that position, which I think is an absolute lock. Holliday has the best hit tool of any prospect in baseball and I won’t be surprised if he hits .300 in his rookie campaign. In his first year and a half in the minors, he slashed .320/.449/.490 with 13 home runs, 84 RBIs and 28 stolen bases over 541 at-bats. I think he’ll have more of an impact on the Orioles than he’ll have on your fantasy team as a rookie because I don’t believe he’ll hit 15 home runs and steal 15 bases this year. He will help fantasy owners in the average and OBP categories and should help some in runs or RBIs, but since he’ll be hitting toward the bottom of the Orioles lineup he might not be as productive as you’d think. Holliday, 20, still could be a rookie of the year in reality, but I predict his numbers will be more like Wander Franco’s were over (10 home runs and 10 steals) his first 500 major-league at-bats.

Cruz missed the majority of last season due to a fractured left ankle he suffered on an awkward slide into home plate in early April. He underwent surgery and his recovery thus far has been promising. I’m not going to promise he’ll be able to stay at shortstop his whole career, but as long as he regains most of his lateral movement, I see no reason he won’t remain there in the short term. As a rookie in 2022, he slashed .233/.294/.450 with 17 home runs and 54 RBIs but did strike out a whopping 126 times in 87 games. Still, his ceiling is limitless — yes, even his personal goal of someday hitting 40 homers and stealing 40 bases — based on his raw tools alone. Last year he had a .375 OBP in the small sample before he got hurt. Cruz might start slowly this year as he returns from the injury but could put up strong numbers in the second half. He could be a bargain pick with upside in fantasy drafts.

(Top image: Royce Lewis: Daniel Shirey / MLB Photos via Getty Images; Elly De La Cruz: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today; Anthony Volpe: Al Bello / Getty Images)