MLB Breakout Predictions: NL Central

by Ryan Harless

Ryan Harless is a third-year undergraduate at BGSU from Hillsboro, Ohio. He is majoring in Sport Management with a Journalism Minor. Baseball and golf at all levels are his primary interests but he is also interested in combat sports, hockey, basketball, and football.

February 11, 2023

MLB Breakout Predictions: NL Central

Early spring is one of my favorite times of year because it means I get to look forward to the upcoming Major League Baseball (MLB) season. While most teams and fans have an idea of where their team will end up, there is always a chance that a new star will emerge and stake their claim as a top talent.

In this entry, I plan to discuss who I believe will be the “dark horse” for each team (by division) across MLB in 2023, starting with the one that I have to most experience with. The National League (NL) Central.

Starting with the Pittsburgh Pirates, there are a lot of possibilities as they have plenty of young talent. I look for Andrew McCutchen to have a bounce back year in his return to the Pirates; Ke’Bryan Hayes is also super fun to watch and will be a key member of the team for years to come. However, you simply cannot miss my pick, Oneil Cruz, the 6’7” short stop with all five tools at his disposal.

Given Cruz‘s size, he has been compared to Cal Ripken Jr., even though Cruz has three inches on Ripken when talking about height. In 2022, he did worry fans with his 34.9% strikeout rate and .233 batting average, but I’m going to chalk that up to it being his first Major League experience.

I anticipate that Cruz will hit .275 with 80+ RBI and at least 20 homers.

Next, we can take a look at the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are a team with loads of young players who could step up and bring the rebuilding process to an end. I would like to say that Alexis Diaz (younger brother of Mets closer Edwin Diaz) will be the breakout star for the Reds this year. But I don’t believe the team will give him enough save opportunities to consider him their star.

I look for another pitcher, Hunter Greene, to be the definitive ace of the staff and star of the team. Greene has shown flashes of greatness in the past with his blazing fastball and frisbee-like slider. He has already set many MLB records for pitch velocity in just his rookie year.

I think Greene will stay healthy this year and throw 175 innings. If he can keep his home runs against down, I think he can keep his ERA under 3.00 on the season.

Finishing ahead of the Reds in 2022, were the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs had a sneaky good offseason this year, picking up former league MVP Cody Bellinger and established star Dansby Swanson. But outside of established stars, I look for second baseman Nick Madrigal to finally hit his stride in the Majors.

Madrigal is yet to play 60 games in one season which I believe has prevented him from setting his feet and catching onto things. But through 552 plate appearances in his career so far, he’s got a .289/.336/.355 slash line. While the .355 slugging is a little lower than you’d like to see, he is a traditional second baseman.

If Madrigal plays the whole season, expect him to put up a .280+ average and at least 150 hits. With Madrigal, you are getting a sure handed second baseman who can bat leadoff and get ‘ducks on the pond’ for the power hitters in the lineup.

Finishing above the Cubs in the Central standings are the Milwaukee Brewers, another team with a lot of star power to show this season. Featuring former MVP Christian Yelich, all-stars Brandon Woodruff, Devin Williams, Corbin Burnes, and Willy Adames, this team can seriously contend for the NL Central crown and even more.

Aside from all of the above is one of my favorite players to watch, first baseman Rowdy Tellez. In a Brewers’ uniform, Tellez gives me flashbacks to another great Brewer first baseman, Prince Fielder; both are big boys who can hit the ball a country mile.

Tellez hit multiple clutch homers for the Brew Crew last postseason and I don’t see him stopping anytime soon. He is a true power hitting first baseman who brings a charge to the team when they’re down. Last year, he smashed 35 homeruns and 89 RBI yet he only managed a .219 average.

I’m expecting Rowdy to have a major breakout year where he hits 40 homers and 100 RBI. To do so, he needs to improve his average to somewhere around .240, but I know he can. Look for the Brewers to find their new franchise first baseman in a ‘Rowdy way’ this season.

Finally, there are the winners of the NL Central in 2022, the St. Louis Cardinals. Much like the Cubs, my choice for their breakout star isn’t someone known for his hitting (although he can still hold his own at the plate). The Cardinals have so much star power on the team that it is difficult to find someone primed for breakout who hasn’t already emerged.

Last year’s NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, and Willson Contreras to go along with their already strong pitching staff makes for a team primed to repeat as NL Central Champs.

I have chosen outfielder Lars Nootbaar as my breakout star for the Cardinals this season. Lars showed off his defensive prowess last year making many memorable grabs in right field along with some more than competent batting stats to boot. Last year he only batted .228 but he had a .340 on base percentage as well as a .448 slugging percentage. On top of that he already has a career 120 OPS+ meaning that he is 20% better than the average major leaguer today.

I can see Nootbaar batting .260 with 20 homers and 80 RBI this season. I would even venture to say that if he chooses to focus on power in his swing, he could hit 30+ homers at the sake of his average.

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