2023 Underrated Players: Up and Coming Hitters
These underrated players solidified themselves as big leaguers last year and are primed to break out even further in 2023.
Every year there are going to be players that don’t get enough attention because there’s only so much room in the media. Breakout players are part of what makes the beginning of the MLB season so exciting as numerous players go from barely known to household names around the league within the span of just a few months.
Furthermore, there are many veteran players that make adjustments, get healthy, or simply just bounce back. Looking into both of these categories is something that provides excitement and gives people something to look out for in the upcoming season.
While rookies are always enticing, and there’s a plethora of young studs ready to make an impact, this piece is going to focus on guys already in the league. In my eyes, the two categories of underrated I discussed above are very different types of players.
There are a ton of young players that just haven’t been around long enough or haven’t produced enough to get the attention they deserve. This type of player falls into the “Up and Coming” category as they’re players I believe should be getting more recognition moving forward.
On the other hand, there are always going to be veterans coming off a rough season. The 162-game season is brutal and almost every single MLB player will have a down year at some point in their career. However, a lot of these guys can and will bounce back the following season. So, these players will slot in the “Bounce Back” category, which we will explore in a future article.
This is gonna be the first of the series that will look into hitters and pitchers in each of these two categories. For now, we’ll look at underappreciated young hitters. All of these players, and many others I won’t get to, deserve more recognition. So let’s dive in.
Up and Coming Hitters
Vinnie Pasquintino: Kansas City Royals 1B
The Royals have quietly built a very solid young offensive core of hitters. With Bobby Witt Jr. taking the majority of the attention due to his pedigree as a prospect, Pasquintino flew under the radar during a very strong rookie campaign. The young first baseman just missed 300 plate appearances, after debuting in late June, but showed flashes of being an All-Star caliber hitter.
The 2019 draft pick showcased plenty of pull-side power, as evidenced by his .450 SLG which ranked second to Salvador Perez on the roster. His swing is dynamic and his peripherals show that he may have much more in the tank moving forward. His xSLG and xWOBA were both noticeably higher than his actual numbers and he should continue to progress as a hitter. The poise he showed at the plate in his first season bodes incredibly well for his future outlook.
I see no reason why Pasquitino won’t be the second-most valuable hitter behind Witt Jr. for the Royals this coming season after getting a taste of big-league success last year. He hits the ball incredibly hard and doesn’t swing-and-miss a lot like many other young first basemen. Over the course of a full season, he could easily hit 25 or more home runs with a slugging percentage that approaches the .500 mark. I’m expecting him to break out in a huge way in his first full season.
Christopher Morel: Chicago Cubs UTL
The Cubs were a team that demanded tons of attention this winter as they seemed at least somewhat interested in almost every high-end free agent. While they didn’t necessarily crush the offseason, they brought in the new face of their team, Dansby Swanson, as well as numerous key contributors all over the field. With all the additions made, a player like Morel can kind of slide under the radar.
Morel should certainly not be overlooked as he put together one of the best seasons on the team last season as a rookie. Morel flashed a really strong bat for someone of his stature as he ranked in the 91st percentile of barrel rate in the league and consistently hit the ball very hard.
While strikeouts were a major issue and need to be addressed, Morel clubbed his way to 16 home runs and a 108 wRC+ in 425 plate appearances. If can make further adjustments against breaking pitches, he could be in line for even more offensive production.
Morel is far from an elite defender, but his speed and versatility will continue to provide value for the Cubs moving forward. With Swanson and Nico Hoerner locked in up the middle and Cody Bellinger set to start in center field, Morel will likely have the chance to earn a regular role at third base and/or as the fourth outfielder on the team. He doesn’t have the makeup of a star hitter, but his bat and speed should be very useful for Chicago this season.
Jake McCarthy: Arizona Diamondbacks OF
The Diamondbacks have quickly become a favorite team to follow here at Just Baseball due to the surplus of young and controllable talent they’ve stockpiled over the past few seasons. There are plenty of players in the organization that could fit well on this list, but I’ll focus on one that’s received very minimal attention.
McCarthy debuted in 2021 and didn’t show much in less than 100 plate appearances he was given. However in 2022, McCarthy played 99 games and really began to showcase potential of being a good big leaguer. He’s one of many incredibly fast members of this team and was in the 98th percentile for sprint speed. His bat-to-ball ability was all steady as he regularly put the ball in play all over the field and finished the year with a .283 AVG in his 354 plate appearances.
McCarthy may not be one of the focal points of this team, but his elite speed and plus-hit tool will continue to make him a valuable piece. At the very least, he’s an elite fourth outfielder for Arizona and has the ability to grow into more. He should continue to develop as a hitter and build on his quality first real season last year, but his floor as a speedy contact guy is very high regardless.
Alec Bohm: Philadelphia Phillies 3B
The Phillies are coming off a surprise run to the World Series and they added a superstar shortstop in the form of Trea Turner. It’s been a fun few months for the city of Philadelphia, but this team is hungry for more. Even with the addition of Turner, the Phillies will need help up-and-down the lineup while Bryce Harper recovers from surgery and targets a post-All-Star break return. I believe Bohm could become a key part of this team.
Bohm was the third overall pick in 2018 and has flashed his impressive bat over the past three seasons. He was excellent in the shortened 2020 season but took a step back in 2021. He seemed to put things together last year and played in an impressive 152 games for the Phillies while sporting a .280 AVG on the year. He’s got so much more in the tank than that, though. He struck out a lot less this past season and his advanced metrics point to even more production at the plate to come.
Bohm should be slugging a lot more than he did last year as he finished the year with just 13 home runs and a .398 SLG, but still was at least an average hitter. He easily has the ability to reach the 20 home runs threshold and could be a major part of this offense in the absence of Harper.
A step forward should be expected coming off a solid full season in the league and I think Bohm has the ability to become a key piece of his team.
Brendan Rodgers: Colorado Rockies 2B
Rodgers, another third-overall pick, finally put together a nearly full season with the Rockies in 2022. He appeared in the three seasons prior, but never played more than 102 games and had struggled to stay on the field and remain impactful. He put it together and played 137 games for Colorado this past season and developed as a hitter in many ways.
Rodgers is likely to remain the second baseman alongside top prospect Ezequiel Tovar, who is set to become the shortstop of the future. He grew into a strong defender this past year and should form a formidable duo with Tovar moving forward.
The shift to second base could not have worked better as he went from a below-average shortstop to a Gold Glove-winning second baseman. His plate discipline also improved astronomically last season as he became around league average in the walk department and struck out much less than in his previous partial seasons. These are clear signs of growth at the plate.
Furthermore, he’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has and should continue his uptick in quality contact. He ranked in the 80th percentile in hard-hit rate and should be able to sustain it with the new plate discipline he’s developed. Rodgers is beginning to hit his stride in MLB and should remain one of the best players on the Rockies’ roster in 2023.
Nick Maton: Detroit Tigers OF
Here’s our first player who is switching teams at a young age this upcoming season. He was recently traded to Detroit as part of a package that netted the Phillies Gregory Soto, who will significantly deepen their bullpen. Maton, on the other hand, should be given an opportunity to succeed on a Tigers team that lacked pretty much any offense last season.
Maton has shown some signs in limited time with the Phillies over the past two seasons, but it’s hard to judge based on his 216 plate appearances thus far. However, it’s worth noting that Maton’s OPS from 2021 to 2022 escalated from .708 all the way to .855 in his 35 games this past season. This is definitely escalated by his five home runs in just 72 at-bats.
These numbers shouldn’t be considered deeply based on the sample size, but Maton has the tools to succeed and he’s now in a position to get everyday at-bats that he was never able to garner in Philadelphia. He should easily appear in more games this year and I expect him to become a productive hitter in an otherwise poor Tigers’ lineup.
Luis Rengifo: Los Angeles Angels 2B/UTL
Yes, there are other players on the Angels other than Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. Those two were the clear leaders of the offense and breakout star Taylor Ward was excellent as well. But I doubt most people know that Luis Rengifo was by far the fourth-best offensive player on the Angels last year. Rengifo was not expected to produce much but solidified himself as a useful piece of the Angels lineup.
Rengifo had just 14 career home runs in nearly 200 games played over his first three seasons in the league but saw a huge uptick in power via his 17 homers last season.
One of the issues that did hold him back was a horrendous 3.3% walk rate on the year which marked a career-low. So, while his contact and power improved a lot, Rengifo barely ever walked. If he’s able to walk at even a slightly below-average rate, his OPS could approach the .800 mark.
Rengifo crushed left-handed pitching and should continue to do moving forward. If he can develop his ability to walk and shore up his defense, he could become a seriously valuable piece. He’s never a player that’s going to get much attention given that he plays with two of the best players ever, but Rengifo deserves props for his breakout season and his ability to hit the ball all over the field. It’s a bit unclear what the Angels’ plan is for their infield, but he should remain a useful bat in the lineup.
Joey Meneses: Washington Nationals 1B/OF
Disclaimer: Yes, he was a 30-year-old rookie. Yes, he only played 56 games.
Okay, now that we got that out of the way…this guy absolutely raked last year. Joey Meneses came out of nowhere and was hands down the best hitter on the Nationals roster in the second half of the season. He put up an unreal .930 OPS over his 240 plate appearances, with an outstanding 47.1% hard-hit rate, well above MLB average.
Meneses was simply an all-around beast at the plate in his short rookie campaign.
While there’s a good chance he regresses next year, he still deserves a lot of credit for one of the best rookie seasons in the league, while playing for the lowly Nationals. Every single metric you can look at shows Meneses as an above-average hitter, but the league may adjust and he could struggle with more time being spent on the scouting report against him.
Still, as of now, he figures to be set in the heart of the Nationals lineup everyday given their rebuilding status. While he’s almost certainly not going to produce the insane numbers he did, he looks like he can be a true major league bat, which the Nationals don’t have many of at this current juncture. I really hope he continues to rake because making the league and dominating after a decade in the minors is just awesome.
Jonah Heim: Texas Rangers C
Our first catcher! Jonah Heim was very quietly one of the more valuable catchers last season for Texas. The Rangers’ spending spree over the last two seasons has taken the spotlight there, but a few in-house pieces have grown into valuable options.
Heim is one of the best framers in the league and with the new pitching staff in town, this should prove very valuable for the new-look Rangers. His bat has continually improved over his career as he reached nearly the .700 mark for OPS, which is high for a catcher.
Heim’s continual growth as a hitter bodes well, but his glove is what matters the most ultimately.
At a position where offense is a plus, Heim’s 16 home runs and clear power potential is huge. He’s not only crushed some baseballs but done it in huge moments too. I think there’s an argument to be made that Heim is a top-10 catcher right now and I don’t think he’s valued enough frankly. I expect him to take another step forward as he’s done every year and cement himself as a clear-cut top 8-10 catcher in the game.
Nick Gordon: Minnesota Twins UTL
One of the trends of this piece has been versatility and the ability to fill numerous holes. A lot of these players’ value lies somewhat in that and Nick Gordon is definitely the same. He played second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field, and even pitched a few times for the Twins last season and will likely continue to play all over next year.
Even as a utility player, Gordon is going to have some serious value after a strong second season in the league last year. He put together a quality .743 OPS and his metrics show that his bat could produce even more going forward. His xSLG was almost 40 points higher than his actual and ranked in the 86th percentile of the league. The main issue for Gordon was his plate discipline as rarely walked and had a very high chase rate.
If Gordon can clean up his approach, there’s a chance his numbers could improve a lot given the quality of contact he made consistently last season. He hits the ball hard and continues to boast a very solid hard-hit rate every season. While they appear to be very deep with hitters, the Twins need to continue getting Gordon into their lineup as his bat and versatility can be impactful for them and will continue to improve.