Top 2024 Breakout Candidates for Each Team in the NL Central

The NL Central features an abundance of players primed for a breakout season. Here are five names who could take a leap forward in 2024.

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 26: St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jordan Walker (18) hits the ball during a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the St Louis Cardinals at American Family Field on September 26, 2023 in Milwaukee, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Last season, there were a number of players in the NL Central who took a step forward and became foundational pieces for their organization.

Mitch Keller broke out for the Pittsburgh Pirates and became a building block in their starting rotation, William Contreras took a leap forward with the Milwaukee Brewers and evolved into one of the top catchers in baseball, and the Reds had several players blossom into essential roster pieces.

This season, the NL Central appears to be wide open once again. Each team will be searching for their next breakout star to help separate their club from the rest of the pack, and there is plenty of enticing talent within this division who could be primed for a breakout season.

Here are the top breakout candidates for each team in the NL Central for the 2024 season.

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Chicago Cubs Breakout Candidate: Jordan Wicks, LHP

2023 Stats: 7 GS, 34.2 IP, 4.41 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 6.23 K/9, 2.86 BB/9, 0.3 fWAR

Last season, Jordan Wicks made his debut with the Cubs while the club was in the midst of a tight playoff race, but the pressure hardly phased him. Wicks hit the ground running, giving up just five runs in his first four starts of his big league career.

His overall stat line is skewed due to a blow up start in his final outing of the season – a game in which the Cubs were already eliminated from the postseason. For a rookie getting his first crack at big league action during a pivotal stretch in the season, Wicks looked the part of a poised major league starter.

Wicks features a wide arsenal that is headlined by a fantastic changeup. In his small major league sample size, opposing batters hit just .171 against his changeup while slugging just .317 against the pitch. Generating a whiff rate of 30%, it’s easily the best pitch in his arsenal.

Wicks also uses three types of fastballs: a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter. Of those three heaters, his sinker, which he threw nearly 20% of the time, performed the best last season. It had an opposing batting average and slugging percentage of just .174.

Wicks might not have the most overpowering arsenal, but his ability to locate pitches and limit damaging contact is going to be extremely valuable for the Cubs in 2024.

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The 24-year-old still has some improvements to make at the big league level as he continues to tweak his pitch mix. However, not only does he have an opportunity to secure a back end rotation spot come Opening Day, he has the potential to be the Cubs’ number three starter behind Justin Steele and Shota Imanaga as the season progresses.

Honorable Mention: Christopher Morel, 3B/DH

You could argue that Christopher Morel broke out to some degree in 2023. In 107 games last season, he launched a team-high 26 homers, drove in 70 runs, and finished the year with the best isolated power on the team at .260 (min 400 PA).

Morel has extreme power upside, as was illustrated by his 15.9% barrel rate and 50% hard hit rate in 2023. However, his game comes with some severe swing-and-miss vulnerability. Morel struck out 31% of the time last season while posting a whiff rate of 37%, which was in the bottom two percent of baseball.

On top of his shortcomings at the plate, Morel is also a very limited defender. He posted negative outs above average (OAA) and defensive runs saved (DRS) at each position he played last season. Until he shows he can cut back on the whiff rate and take a step forward as a defender, Morel’s overall upside is limited, but his power hitting prowess gives him a lot of potential.

Cincinnati Reds Breakout Candidate: Elly De La Cruz, SS

2023 Stats: 98 G, 427 PA, .235/.300/.410, 13 HR, 35 SB, 84 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

When looking for players with extreme breakout potential, Elly De La Cruz is at the top of that list. His first stint in the majors featured some peaks and some valleys, but the high points were some of the most exciting moments in baseball.

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De La Cruz hit for the cycle less than a month into his MLB career, he racked up a whopping 35 stolen bases in just 98 games, and he hit a baseball 119.2 miles per hour, which was the third-hardest hit ball in the league last season.

On top of demonstrating his raw power at the plate, De La Cruz was also in the top 2% of baseball in arm strength, and he tallied the fastest sprint speed recorded last season at 30.5 feet per second.

That being said, it wasn’t all perfect for De La Cruz. It’s important to note that after the All-Star break, he slashed .191/.271/.355 for a .626 OPS and a 36% strikeout rate in 292 plate appearances. He ended the year with a zone contact rate of just 79.8%, and he posted a whiff rate that was in the bottom quarter of baseball (29.7%).

De La Cruz is far from a polished product, and he has a wide range of outcomes for the 2024 season. He has a lot of room for improvement, but at just 22 years old, he’s one of baseball’s most exciting breakout candidates.

Honorable Mention: Hunter Greene, RHP

Hunter Greene has shown flashes of being a dominant arm in his young big league career. Last season, he was in the 91st percentile in strikeout rate (30.5%) to go along with a K/9 of 12.21, which was the second-best mark in baseball (min 110 IP).

While Greene ended the year with a below average ERA of 4.82, his advanced metrics were significantly more encouraging than that (3.82 xERA, 4.25 FIP, 4.00 xFIP).

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There’s a ton to be excited about with Greene, but he needs to show that he can stay healthy for a full season. There are areas in his game he needs to improve upon as well, such as his pitch command and his ability to limit hard contact.

That said, the 24-year-old is heading into his third major league season with a very high ceiling. He still has room for improvement, but he has all the tools to break out and become an elite arm for the Reds.

Milwaukee Brewers Breakout Candidate: DL Hall, LHP

2023 MLB Stats: 18 G, 19.1 IP, 3.26 ERA, 3.00 FIP, 10.71 K/9, 2.33 BB/9, 0.4 fWAR

The Milwaukee Brewers recently acquired DL Hall from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Corbin Burnes, and there is a lot to like about the young southpaw. The former first-round pick has the stuff to take a leap forward in 2024, and he has the opportunity to carve out a significant role in Milwaukee’s pitching staff.

Hall’s biggest weapon is his four-seam fastball. The pitch sits at an average velocity of 95.6 miles per hour, but his impressive extension of seven feet, which is in the 92nd percentile per Baseball Savant, makes the fastball appear even faster to the hitter. In 19 major league innings last season, his four-seamer generated an impressive 30.2% whiff rate, and batters hit just .200 against the pitch.

His primary secondary pitch is a slider, and it’s a good one. Last season, the pitch had a solid whiff rate of 31%, and its impressive shape and velocity combination earned a Stuff+ grade of 130.

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Hall also uses a changeup as a way to combat right-handed batters, and it’s developing into a very important pitch for him. He threw the pitch 16.4% of the time last season, all of which came against righties, and it generated a 36.4% whiff rate with an expected batting average against of .189.

There are questions to what Hall’s role will be in the big leagues, however. He was used as a reliever in Baltimore, as 28 of his 29 appearances came out of the bullpen. He has yet to show than he can handle a starter’s workload, and it’s unclear how his pitches will perform when stretched out as a starter for an entire season.

That said, the Brewers are bullish on using him as a starter to open the year, and he has the stuff to make a significant impact. The opportunity is there for him to claim a middle of the rotation spot, and he’s an arm Brewers fans should be excited to watch this season, regardless of what his role ends up being for the Crew.

Honorable Mention: Sal Frelick, OF

Sal Frelick has already become a fan favorite in Milwaukee, and he has some breakout appeal heading into the 2024 season. On top of playing great defense in the outfield, Frelick has the offensive floor that can provide a big boost of consistency for the Brewers.

Between his strong bat-to-ball skills and his ability to command the strike zone, Frelick can post quality contact numbers while walking at an excellent rate. His type of player profile will be very valuable for the Brewers, but with so much uncertainty surrounding how the playing time will shake out in Milwaukee’s outfield, it is difficult to predict what his season-long output will look like for Frelick.

With Christian Yelich manning left field and Jackson Chourio expected to take over in center, that leaves Frelick, Joey Wiemer, and Garrett Mitchell all fighting for the final starting spot in right field. Frelick does have the highest floor among that group of players, however, and that could be advantageous for his playing time moving forward.

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If he can take a step forward in the quality of contact department, Frelick has a really exciting outlook for the upcoming season if he is the full-time starter in right field, or even finds a way to earn a starting gig in the infield.

Pittsburgh Pirates Breakout Candidate: Henry Davis, C

2023 MLB Stats: 62 G, 255 PA, .213/.302/.351, 7 HR, 3 SB, 76 wRC+, -1.0 fWAR

Henry Davis made his major league debut with the Pirates last summer, but his first crack at big league action was rather underwhelming. He hit just .213 to go with an OPS+ of 78 and a wRC+ of 76, and he struggled to make an impact for a vast majority of his 2023 season.

However, not only is Davis primed for a bounce-back season, but he could be in line for a big breakout campaign in 2024.

Davis cruised through the minor leagues, hitting at every stop along the way. He has demonstrated his ability to hit for average with his good bat-to-ball skills while also showing an enticing amount of power potential. It’s a small sample size, but in his 14 career Triple-A games, Davis slashed .375/.516/.604 with a .229 ISO and a .491 wOBA.

Davis was drafted first overall as a catcher back in the 2021 draft, but he hardly did any catching at the big league level last season. In his 60 starts, Davis started 49 of those games in right field and the other 11 games as the Pirates’ designated hitter. However, following the injury to Endy Rodriguez, Davis is going to get a ton of run behind home plate in 2024.

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While he might not grade out as the best defensive catcher, an everyday role behind the dish could be advantageous to his player development.

Davis is an exciting talent that Pittsburgh’s fanbase should be excited about. The Pirates are moving in the right direction, and Davis could be the next big piece to break through for them. If he can ride his hot spring training into the start of the regular season, Davis could be in line for a big step forward in 2024.

Honorable Mention: Oneil Cruz, SS

Oneil Cruz is an exceptionally exciting athlete with some of the game’s best potential. At 6-foot-7, Cruz is one of the fastest players in the sport, he has one of the strongest arms in the game, and he possesses an insane amount of raw power.

Yet, there are some factors that are capping expectations for Cruz in 2024. For starters, he played just nine games last season before fracturing his left ankle on a slide into home plate. While he’s expected to be healthy come Opening Day, he may need some time to get re-acclimated to the big leagues.

There are also some red flags in his profile that create hesitation. Back in 2022, Cruz sported a whiff rate of 35.4%, which was in the bottom five percent of baseball, and he had one of the worst strikeout rates in MLB at 34.9%. On top of his bat-to-ball concerns, he has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching in the big leagues, as he is hitting just .173 with an OPS of .555 and a wRC+ of 54 against southpaws.

Cruz is a tall player with such long levers in his swing, and it appears he is still adjusting to big league pitching. Still, when looking at talent alone, Oneil Cruz has all the attributes to break out if he is able to stay healthy in 2024.

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St. Louis Cardinals Breakout Candidate: Jordan Walker, OF

2023 Stats: 117 G, 465 PA, .276/.342/.445, 16 HR, 7 SB, 116 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR

Jordan Walker had an unusual rookie season in 2023. After cracking the Opening Day roster as one of the most exciting prospects in baseball, a late-April demotion to Triple-A Memphis slowed his hype train and ultimately staggered his breakout.

Walker’s highlights from last season included starting his MLB career with a 12-game hit streak, along with a separate 17-game hit streak when he was recalled at the beginning of June. He ended his rookie season as an above average hitter, posting a wRC+ of 116 and an OPS+ of 114.

However, significant defensive struggles were Walker’s greatest shortcoming. He made the transition from the infield to right field last season, and the results were subpar. Among all qualified defenders, Walker had the fifth-worst outs above average (OAA) in baseball last season at -14, according to Baseball Savant, to go along with -16 defensive runs saved (DRS).

Walker has the talent to become a star in St. Louis, but he is far from a polished product. That being said, Dan Szymborski’s 2024 ZiPS projections are quite high on Walker. The system projects him for the second-highest wRC+ (120), OPS (.805), and wOBA (.346) on the team this season.

Walker has the talent to flirt with 30 or more homers in a full season, and he will have an opportunity to be a significant run producer in a Cardinals lineup that is expected to rebound in 2024. The 21-year-old is a gifted athlete, and if he can improve his swing decisions and take even a slight step forward defensively, a breakout season could be in store.

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Honorable Mention: Nolan Gorman, 2B

Nolan Gorman is another player who broke out to some degree last season. In 464 plate appearances, he launched 27 home runs while posting an OPS north of .800 to go with a WRC+ of 118. He was one of the Cardinals’ most valuable offensive weapons, and he showed a good bit of improvement in his sophomore season.

Gorman’s quality of contact was outstanding in 2023. He had a 16.5% barrel rate (97th percentile), a 48.5% hard hit rate (86th percentile), and an average exit velocity of 91 miles per hour (77th percentile). However, he needs to improve in some areas in order to take a step forward this season.

Gorman struggled in the bat-to-ball department, and that led to spells of inconsistency at the plate. Last season, he posted a whiff rate of 35.5%, which was in the bottom five percent of the league, and that led to a strikeout rate of 31.9%. Additionally, Gorman has struggled defensively in his young big league career, as he has posted negative OAA and DRS in each of his two big league seasons.

Like the other honorable mentions discussed, Gorman has some immense offensive upside that Cardinals fans can be excited about. However, the 23-year-old has room for improvement as he attempts to reach a new level in 2024.