Who will be 2024's breakout star, according to execs?

April 3rd, 2024

Last week, we asked more than two dozen Major League executives which rookies would have the biggest impact on the 2024 season. The group of players to choose from was well-defined, limited to those who had yet to qualify for rookie status entering the season.

The other question we asked was a little more difficult to define.

Which players do you think will have breakout seasons in 2024?

There were no guidelines, leaving the game’s decision-makers to interpret the question in their own way. Based on the responses, executives took it in a number of directions:

, Orioles (5)
, Royals (4)
, Twins (3)
, Royals (3)
, Royals (2)
, Yankees (2)
, Cardinals (2)
, Mets (1)
, Cubs (1)
, Mets (1)
, Marlins (1)
, Astros (1)
José Caballero, Rays (1)
, Red Sox (1)
, Red Sox (1)
, Brewers (1)
, Blue Jays (1)
, Giants (1)
, Mariners (1)
, Angels (1)
, Angels (1)
, Orioles (1)
, Tigers (1)
, Rockies (1)

Gunnar Henderson, last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, received the most mentions, a sign that execs around the game believe the infielder’s impressive rookie campaign was just the beginning for the 22-year-old.

“Gunnar is ultra-talented, and I think he gets lost in the shuffle there a bit,” a National League executive said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if he takes another step forward.”

Henderson entered last season as MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect in the game, and his 34-game stint in 2022 (4 HR, 18 RBIs, .788 OPS) did nothing to diminish that ranking. He hit 28 home runs with 82 RBIs and an .814 OPS in 150 games in 2023, winning the AL’s top rookie honor in unanimous fashion.

As the 2024 season gets underway, there is a widespread belief that, much like his team, Henderson will continue to trend upward.

“Now he has seen what it takes to succeed over the course of a full season,” an AL executive said. “He also knows what it means to play meaningful, winning baseball, which should only help him continue to get better and better.”

“You could list any of six or eight Orioles hitters on the breakout list and all would be good choices,” an NL executive said.

Vinnie Pasquantino earned four votes, the only other player to be mentioned more than three times. A shoulder injury -- which ultimately led to surgery -- ended the first baseman’s season last June, giving him plenty of motivation for this season. He even referred to himself earlier this year as “an animal that’s been in a cage for nine months.”

The 26-year-old belted 24 home runs in the Minors in 2021, then hit 28 homers between Triple-A and the Majors in '22, showing the power the Royals are hoping will be present in their lineup on a nightly basis.

“If he can stay healthy, Pasquantino should be a force in K.C.’s lineup,” an NL executive said. “He’s hitting third in that lineup with some pretty good hitters in front of him. He should have plenty of chances to drive in runs.”

One of those hitters is Maikel Garcia, 24, who received three votes. The infielder played only nine games in 2022 when he made his big league debut, but he started 100 games at third base last season, adding another 18 starts between second base, shortstop and designated hitter, hitting four homers with 50 RBIs, 23 stolen bases and a .681 OPS.

“Garcia already held his head above water in 2023 despite his youth,” an NL executive said. “He has the tools to be an impact defender at third base with a rapidly improving bat.”

After hitting two homers with a .984 OPS in 37 spring plate appearances, Garcia homered twice in Kansas City’s first series of the season, showing some added pop from last season.

“We’re going to see added damage from his bat in year two,” added an AL exec.

The other Kansas City player to receive multiple votes was Cole Ragans, who thrived during his three-month stint with the Royals last season after being acquired in a late-June trade for Aroldis Chapman. Ragans, who had a 5.32 ERA in 64 1/3 innings for Texas in 2022-23, posted a 2.64 ERA in 71 2/3 innings (12 starts) for the Royals after joining the team at the All-Star break.

“After pitching well last year, he has a chance to dominate this season,” an NL executive said.

Royce Lewis received three votes, though they were cast prior to the quad injury that will keep the Twins infielder out of action for at least the next month, possibly two.

The most interesting name mentioned as a breakout candidate? Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a three-time All-Star who finished as the runner-up in AL Most Valuable Player voting in 2021.

Guerrero certainly broke out three years ago, leading the AL in home runs (48), on-base percentage (.401), slugging percentage (.601), OPS (1.002), OPS+ (167) and total bases (363). But his numbers have declined in every one of those categories during each of the past two seasons, leading some to wonder whether his huge 2021 was the exception or the norm.

“When he was in the Minors and in 2021, he was the best hitter I had ever seen in person,” an AL executive said. “It was fun and terrifying to watch him play. Since then, something has been off, but he’s too talented to not break out again. Plus, Toronto needs him hot to get back in the conversation of the AL East.”