These 7 players broke out in 2022. Can they do it again?

February 24th, 2023

To be one of the best 50 players in baseball in a specific season is an incredible accomplishment. More than 1,000 humans play in a big league game in a given year. To be one of the 50 best? Incredible.

But doing it once is one thing. The trick is being able to do it again. When you look at the top 50 players by FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement (WAR) in 2022, some are obvious superstars whom you expect to see there every year: Aaron Judge, Shohei Ohtani, Nolan Arenado, Mike Trout. But other guys are surprises, ones that few people probably saw coming. Did they just have one particularly great year? Or was this a sustainable breakout?

Here’s a look at seven of the most surprising top 50 players from 2022, and whether they can repeat the feat in 2023.

, SS, Cubs
6.4 WAR (12th in MLB)

Swanson sure picked the perfect time -- right before free agency -- to have the best year of his career. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft won his first Gold Glove Award and had the highest OPS+ of his career at 115. The key was, for the first time, hitting for power and average at the same time (.277, 25 homers). That plus exceptional defense (second in MLB in Outs Above Average) will absolutely get it done -- and will get suitors lining up for you.

Can he repeat it?

The Cubs are certainly counting on it, after signing Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million contract. But it sure seems like an open question. Even in his career-best season, Swanson’s numbers at the plate paled in comparison to all the other big free agent shortstops this past offseason, and his defensive metrics, as great as they were in 2022, were a little out of line with the rest of his career. The Cubs are paying him to be a top 50 player moving forward. It is very much up for debate whether he will reach those heights again.

, 2B, Guardians
6.1 WAR (17th in MLB)

Francisco Lindor had a fantastic year in 2022. According to fWAR, he was the seventh-best player in the Majors. But, suffice it to say, Guardians fans didn’t really miss him that much -- not with the way Giménez played in his second season after arriving as a key piece of the Lindor trade. Even the brightest projections didn’t see Giménez making this much of a leap. A .371 OBP? Giménez became, in many ways, the personality of that Guardians team: talented, feisty, relentless. And he makes about, uh, $30 million less than Lindor.

Can he repeat it?

He’s only 24, so you would think the sky is the limit. But the combination of his high chase rate and low walk rate does give you some reason for pause. Maybe he can build on last year and become a true superstar. But even if he takes a step back, Giménez is still positioned to be the beating heart of this forever-fun team for years to come.

, 2B, Mets
5.9 WAR (21st in MLB)

McNeil is often thought of as a throwback player who stirs memories of Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, guys who just got base hits, back when the game wasn’t so analytically driven. But McNeil is a great player both old-school and new-school wise. The nice thing about hitting .326, like McNeil did last year, is that even if you only have a 6.8 percent walk rate (relatively low), it still adds up to a .382 OBP, which was eighth in MLB. He also had the lowest strikeout rate in a full season of his career. Every team would be elated to have a Jeff McNeil.

Can he repeat it?

McNeil has shown consistent bat-to-ball skills, and that low-ish strikeout rate gets more and more valuable each year as strikeouts remain high throughout the Majors. The only questions here are age and health. McNeil is older than you think; he’ll turn 31 on April 8. Can he hold up? If he plays 148 games like he did last year, I bet he surprises us by being right back in the top 50 again in 2023.

, SS, Cardinals
5.6 WAR (24th in MLB)

For his first three seasons, Edman filled a bit of a utility role while playing primarily second base. But when the Cardinals demoted Paul DeJong to Triple-A last May, it was Edman who took over as the primary shortstop. Many questioned that decision at the time, but Edman ended up being one of the best all-around players in the sport. He hit 13 homers, stole 32 bases in 35 attempts and thrived defensively, finishing tied for fourth among shortstops with 11 Outs Above Average despite making only 74 starts there. You might not have realized that Edman had a higher WAR than Julio Rodríguez or Adley Rutschman last year, but he did. And he’s still only 27.

Can he repeat it?

It does seem unlikely. His hitting tailed off around midseason last year before rebounding late, and he’s not particularly known for plate discipline. But he doesn’t have to be one of the best 50 players in baseball to be a huge plus for the Cardinals. And he sure looks like he’s going to stick at shortstop for a long time.

Michael Harris II, CF, Braves
4.8 WAR (35th in MLB)

The Braves knew, when they called up Harris, that they were getting a terrific defensive center fielder. But who in the world thought he would hit like this (19 homers, 20 steals, a .297 average and a 135 OPS+)? Harris was a monster right out of the gate, changing everything about the Braves instantly and establishing himself as a centerpiece of the entire roster. The surprise wasn’t that the Braves gave him a contract that could run through 2032, but that it didn’t extend into infinity.

Can he repeat it?

He hadn’t shown anything like this in the Minor Leagues, so a little bit of regression should be reasonably expected. But he’s also the sort of smart player who may just keep getting better as he learns more about the league. One thing is clear: Your team wishes he played for them.

, OF, Blue Jays
4.6 WAR (38th in MLB)

Varsho has to be the best fielding outfielder who has also caught a no-hitter. (Tyler Gilbert, back in 2021.) Varsho’s transition from catcher to fantastic outfielder has been a truly incredible one, and the numbers back up what your eyes told you: No outfielder had more Outs Above Average last year than Varsho (18), even though he only started 103 games out there. The bat picked up in 2022 as well. Varsho lost a few points in OBP but made up for it with a power surge, totaling 27 homers. Now he gets to do it with a team with serious World Series aspirations.

Can he repeat it?

The Blue Jays will happily take all the homers he wants to hit, but he’s up north because of his defense, which should contribute to a greatly improved unit in Toronto. Given the year-to-year fluctuations in defensive metrics and Varsho’s OBP limitations, it will be difficult for him to repeat his 2022 WAR. But like with Edman, the Jays don’t need him to be one of the top 50 players to be a huge improvement for their team.

, SP, D-backs
4.3 WAR (47th in MLB)

The other guy in the Cardinals’ infamous Marcell Ozuna trade that brought Sandy Alcantara to Miami, Gallen -- later flipped to Arizona for Jazz Chisholm Jr. -- was one of the only NL pitchers who could have been reasonably compared to Alcantara last year. The right-hander was everything the D-backs could have dreamed of in 2022, dropping his ERA nearly two runs, throwing 184 innings and finishing fifth in NL Cy Young Award voting. After an up-and-down 2021, you wondered if Gallen’s success during the shortened 2020 schedule was a fluke. But now he’s a full-fledged ace.

Can he repeat it?

For all of Gallen’s excellence last year, his strikeout rate was basically identical to 2021. The main difference was his MLB-leading rate of 5.9 hits allowed per nine innings, supported in part by a .237 BABIP that was easily a career low. Is that sustainable? Seems like a stretch. He’s still the ace in Arizona, though, even allowing for a small step back.