The end of the year is a great time to take a breath and look back at the baseball season that was. Some things happened as expected, but one of the things that’s so great about this game is when the unexpected happens.
And that happened in the form of breakout seasons by players everywhere in the pro game. There were surprises in the big leagues and across every level of the Minors. Here’s a prospect from each organization who really opened eyes in 2022.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Ricky Tiedemann, LHP (No. 1/MLB No. 33)
The 2021 third-rounder showed up to his first Spring Training with improved velocity in the 95-96 mph range and never slowed down in his first taste of the Minors. The southpaw had the highest strikeout rate of any teenage Minor Leaguer (min. 70 IP) at 38.9 percent, just beating out Andrew Painter (38.7) and Eury Pérez (34.6) among others, and he finished with a 2.17 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over 78 2/3 innings at Single-A, High-A and Double-A. The 13th lefty taken in his Draft class now ranks as MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 LHP prospect.
Orioles: Heston Kjerstad, OF (No. 9)
Yes, as the former No. 2 overall pick in the Draft (2020), there is a level of expectation to produce. But when you don’t play for two years between the pandemic and the lingering effects of myocarditis, just getting on the field for a season was a huge win. Then Kjerstad went out and hit .309/.394/.457 in 65 games across two levels of A ball before really making a statement by winning Arizona Fall League MVP honors (.357/.385/.622).
Rays: Kyle Manzardo, 1B (No. 4)
Collegiate first basemen have higher standards they need to hit (pun intended) to climb prospect ranks in their first full season, and Manzardo -- a 2021 second-rounder out of Washington State -- cleared that bar comfortably in his first full season. The left-handed slugger led Rays Minor League qualifiers in all three slash-line categories (.327/.426/.617) and produced 22 homers in 93 games at High-A and Double-A. His solid 16.4 percent K rate helped alleviate some concerns that come with a first-base profile, and Manzardo enters 2023 on the cusp of the Top 100.
Red Sox: Ceddanne Rafaela, OF/SS (No. 3/MLB No. 96)
It seemed like Rafaela was producing weekly highlight-worthy defensive plays in center field at High-A Greenville and Double-A Portland, but it was his bat that fueled his true breakout. The Curaçao native’s yearly OPS jumped from .729 in 2021 to .880 this past season, and he added power that helped him slug above .500 for the first time and produce a career-high 21 homers over 116 games. A bona fide Top 100 prospect now, Rafaela was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.
Yankees: Will Warren, RHP (No. 8)
Will Warren wields a whirly. Say that five times fast, and be sure to remember it’s a big reason why the 2021 eighth-rounder became a Top 10 prospect in the New York system. Warren’s sweeping slider -- a signature pitch of the organization -- helped him strike out 125 in 129 innings at High-A and Double-A in his first full season, when he showed decent stuff and good durability. The 23-year-old right-hander ended the season as the top-ranked hurler in a system that is top-heavy with bats.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Guardians: Tanner Bibee, RHP (No. 6/MLB No. 99)
There are quite a few candidates for this spot, including Gavin Williams and Bo Naylor, but we’ll lean toward Bibee -- the 156th overall pick in the 2021 Draft who is now on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list. After showing special control at Cal State Fullerton, the 23-year-old right-hander displayed sharpened stuff in 2022, headlined by a mid-90s fastball and an above-average sweeping slider. He was perhaps at his best at his highest level of Double-A, where he sported a 1.83 ERA with 81 strikeouts and only 14 walks in 73 2/3 frames.
Royals: Tyler Gentry, OF (No. 8)
Gentry showed decent skills in 2021, but knee injuries limited him to only 44 games at High-A. Much healthier in 2022, the former Alabama star was even more productive this summer as he led Royals farmhands in average (.326), slugging (.542), OPS (.965) and wRC+ (152) over 108 games at High-A and Double-A. Anything close to that level of hitting next year should get Gentry a chance to perform in KC.
Tigers: Kerry Carpenter, OF (Not eligible for Top 30)
You can’t write about breakouts from the Detroit system without mentioning Carpenter -- a left-handed slugger who worked on adding loft to his swing and doubled his Minor League career home-run high from 15 to 30 … before he was called up to the Majors. Carpenter’s .645 slugging percentage at Double-A and Triple-A led the 609 Minor Leaguers with at least 400 plate appearances. He was still slug-over-hit in the Majors (.252/.310/.485, six homers in 31 games) and has a chance to be the Tigers’ Opening Day left fielder or DH.
Twins: Louie Varland, RHP (No. 10)
In some ways, Varland -- a 2019 15th-round pick out of Division II Concordia -- had a breakout campaign in 2021, when he was the organization’s Minor League pitcher of the year. He earned the award again this past season, but at the upper levels, finishing with a 3.06 ERA and 10.4 K/9. More importantly, he made his big league debut with a solid five-start showing, putting him in line to make a bigger contribution to the Major League staff in 2023.
White Sox: Lenyn Sosa, INF (No. 4)
The 22-year-old showed improved swing decisions in his first elongated taste of the upper Minors, and it showed up in his numbers. His .315 average, .369 OBP, .511 slugging percentage and 23 homers in 119 games across Double-A and Triple-A all represented career highs. Sosa got 11 games with the White Sox in June and August, and while those didn’t go nearly as well (.114 average, .368 OPS), they at least gave him the experience needed to prepare for a return in 2023.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Edgar Quero, C (No. 3)
A switch-hitter who was just 19 for all of the 2022 season, Quero signed in February of 2021 and has quickly gone from an unknown to a catching prospect on the brink of joining our Top 100. He spent the year in Single-A and hit .312/.435/.530, drawing a lot of walks and tapping into his power with 17 homers, all while continuing to work on improving his defensive skills behind the dish.
Astros: Justin Dirden, OF (No. 11)
Dirden had impressive numbers in 2021, but they came at the lower levels, including the launching pad that is High-A Asheville. This season, the 25-year-old proved his bat was no fluke with a .324/.411/.616 line and 20 homers in 92 games at Double-A Corpus Christi, forcing his jump into Houston’s top dozen prospects. His 69 extra-base hits (including those from Triple-A Sugar Land) led all Astros prospects by 13 and were fifth-most in the Minors.
A’s: Jordan Diaz, 1B/3B (No. 9)
Diaz took a nice step forward in 2021 in his first full season pf pro ball, showing enough to earn a spot on the 40-man roster. He took another leap in 2022 while moving to the upper levels, hitting a combined .326/.366/.515 between Double-A and Triple-A en route to making his big league debut.
Mariners: Bryce Miller, RHP (No. 5)
The Mariners liked Miller’s pure stuff enough to take him in the fourth round of the 2021 Draft out of Texas A&M, but it was a little unclear whether he could start long-term. If 2022 is any indication, consider that question answered in the affirmative after Miller pitched his way to Double-A, threw a ton more strikes and struck out 11 per nine while holding hitters to a combined .195 batting average.
Rangers: Cole Ragans, LHP (Graduated from Top 30)
The Rangers took Ragans at the end of the first round back in 2016, and he was a top 10 prospect in their system as recently as 2019. But he didn’t pitch between the end of 2017 and May of 2021 because of two Tommy John surgeries. His 80 2/3 IP in 2021 were a very good step, but no one could have predicted he would approach 135 IP in 2022, pitching so well in Double-A and Triple-A (3.04 ERA, 10.7 K/9) that he’d be called on to make nine big league starts.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Roddery Munoz, RHP (No. 26)
Signed for just $30,000 close to the end of the 2017-18 international signing period, Munoz didn’t make his United States debut until 2021 and didn’t really jump on the prospect map until this past season. He touched Double-A for the first time, topped 100 IP, missed a bunch of bats (10.7 K/9) and showed enough to earn a spot on the Braves’ 40-man roster.
Marlins: Dax Fulton, LHP (No. 8)
Fulton blew out his elbow and had Tommy John surgery before his senior year of high school, but he was so well-regarded that the Marlins took him in the second round of the 2020 Draft and gave him $2.4 million to sign. In his first year back on the mound in 2021, he got stronger as the season wore on and earned a promotion to High-A. In 2022, Fulton took another big step, throwing a lot more strikes (3.2 BB/9 compared to 4.4 the year prior) while missing a ton more bats (11.4 K/9 vs. 9.7) and reaching Double-A at age 20.
Mets: Alex Ramirez, OF (No. 4/MLB No. 85)
Signed in July 2019, Ramirez missed out on the 2020 season like everyone else and then skipped right over Complex Leagues to play at Single-A St. Lucie in 2021. After showing decent power and good speed out of his 6-foot-3 frame, Ramirez has four potentially above-average tools, helping his route into the Top 100.
Nationals: James Wood, OF (No. 3/MLB No. 34)
OK, technically Wood’s breakout came in the Padres' system, but the Nats are the ones who will reap the rewards. The 2021 second-rounder looked tooled-up early at Single-A Lake Elsinore, showing plus power and speed -- notable given his size at 6-foot-7. Washington picked up the outfielder in the Juan Soto blockbuster at the Trade Deadline, and Wood finished his first full season with a .313/.420/.536 line, 12 homers and 20 steals in 76 games. He could be the Nats’ top prospect before long.
Phillies: Hao Yu Lee, 2B (No. 6)
The Phillies were excited to see what Lee could do in his first full season of pro ball after he signed in the summer of 2021 and made a brief but impressive debut in the Florida Complex League. Despite missing a chunk of time with a broken hand, Lee didn’t disappoint as a teenager in Single-A, hitting .283/.384/.415 before earning a late promotion up to High-A to finish the year.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Jackson Chourio, OF (No. 1/MLB No. 10)
If we’re making posters of 2022 breakouts, Chourio deserves to be featured in the hero spot. The Venezuelan outfielder famously skipped right over the Arizona Complex League and climbed three levels from Single-A to Double-A -- all in his age-18 season. Chourio hit .288/.342/.538 with 20 homers and 16 steals in 99 games across those three affiliates, all while showing plus power, 70-grade speed and strong defense up the middle. Though some hit-tool questions persist, he now has the potential to be a No. 1 overall prospect before he graduates.
Cardinals: Gordon Graceffo (No. 3/MLB No. 79)
Graceffo was ranked as MLB Pipeline’s No. 204 Draft prospect in 2021 and went 151st overall to St. Louis that summer. Just over a year later, he was in our Top 100 ranks on the strength of added fastball velocity in the mid-90s, a good four-pitch mix and solid control. The right-hander finished his age-22 season at Double-A Springfield after a dominant High-A turn, and while his whiff numbers backed up a bit in the Texas League, his quick ascent, coupled with the overall improved stuff, could get him Major League rotation looks by the end of the upcoming campaign.
Cubs: Porter Hodge, RHP (No. 22)
A high school draftee from Utah who signed as a 13th-rounder in 2019, Hodge had back surgery in 2020 and posted a 6.44 ERA combined in 2019 and 2021. Improved conditioning and athleticism led to a 2022 breakout that saw his stuff get better and the results followed: Hodge pitched across two levels of A ball and finished with a 2.63 ERA, 11.6 K/9 rate and a .202 batting average against.
Pirates: Endy Rodriguez, C/OF (No. 6/MLB No. 97)
The Pirates thought they were getting a very intriguing prospect when they acquired Rodriguez from the Mets in the three-team deal that sent Joe Musgrove to San Diego, and he had a very solid full-season debut in 2021. But he exploded in 2022, hitting his way from High-A to Triple-A and being named the catcher on our Prospect Team of the Year after hitting a combined .323/.407/.590.
Reds: Elly De La Cruz, SS/3B (No. 1/MLB No. 14)
De La Cruz really burst on the scene in 2021, going from a prospect not even on the Reds’ Top 30 to one who landed on our Top 100 before the start of the 2022 season. But that was based off of a 61-game United States debut, and we wanted to see what he’d do for an encore. All De La Cruz did was establish himself as one of the most exciting prospects in the game, one who reached Double-A at age 20 and hit a combined .304/.359/.586 with 28 homers and 47 stolen bases.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Brandon Pfaadt, RHP (No. 4/MLB No. 90)
It remains one of the most astounding stats of the 2022 Minor League season. Pfaadt’s 218 strikeouts in 167 innings between Double-A Amarillo and Triple-A Reno marked the first 200-K campaign in the Minors since 2011 and the most punchouts by any Minor Leaguer since 2001 (Brandon Claussen, 220). A 92-94 mph fastball, plus changeup and sweeping slider helped keep those K’s coming and launched Pfaadt onto the Top 100 for the first time.
Dodgers: Gavin Stone, RHP (No. 7/MLB No. 77)
Signed for well-under slot as a fifth-rounder in 2020, Stone had a solid pro debut across two levels of A ball in 2021 before really taking off last year. His 1.48 ERA led the Minors, and he was among the leaders with a 12.4 K/9. Pitching across three levels and ending in Triple-A, Stone also held hitters to a combined .205 batting average.
Giants: Grant McCray, OF (No. 4)
Prior to the 2022 season, McCray may have been best known for being the son of Rodney McCray, he of the crashing through the Minor League fence fame. A third-rounder out of high school in 2019, McCray moved slowly due to injuries and the pandemic … until 2022. There’s still work to do on his approach (170 strikeouts), but the power-speed combination started showing up in a big way with 23 homers and 43 steals, mostly in Single-A San Jose.
Padres: Alek Jacob, RHP (No. 25)
The 6-foot-4 righty was a standout starter at Gonzaga but was passed over 489 times before San Diego selected him in the 16th round in 2021. The Padres moved Jacob to the bullpen and pushed him to three different levels before giving him another advanced assignment to the Arizona Fall League. Jacob thrives on funk from a difficult sidearm angle that helps him put nasty sink on his fastball, good spin on his slider and some fade on his changeup. Though he lacks anything resembling big-time velocity, Jacob can throw off enough hitters’ timing to find a Major League role shortly.
Rockies: Adael Amador, SS (No. 3/MLB No. 61)
The Rockies clearly thought highly enough of Amador to give the infielder $1.5 million to sign in July 2019, and he gave a good taste of his potential by hitting well in his pro debut in the Arizona Complex League in 2021. The jump to full-season ball is always a good test, and Amador passed with flying colors by hitting .292/.415/.445 with 15 homers and 26 steals as a teenager, earning a spot on our Top 100.