Will these strong finishes carry over into 2024?

December 27th, 2023

How a player finishes a season tends to have a lot of influence over the way we perceive him heading into the following year, especially when it’s someone still trying to establish himself in the big leagues.

Naturally, a strong finish fosters optimism and builds anticipation for what the player might do next.

With that in mind, here are 10 emerging players we'll be watching closely in the year ahead as they look to build on superb performances from the latter stages of 2023.

, OF, Rangers
Carter didn’t make his MLB debut until Sept. 8, but he left a lasting imprint on the season nevertheless. The 21-year-old produced 1.6 WAR (per Baseball-Reference) over just 23 games in the regular season, slashing .306/.413/.645 with five homers, 12 RBIs and three steals. Carter further raised his profile in the postseason, showing poise beyond his years while reaching base at a .417 clip and collecting a playoff-record nine doubles over 17 games for the eventual World Series champions. With a well-rounded skill set and an excellent grasp of the strike zone, MLB Pipeline’s No. 8 overall prospect has a chance to be special.

, 1B/3B, Reds
Part of a promising collection of youngsters who debuted with the Reds in 2023, Encarnacion-Strand took some time to find his footing in the Majors. But after hitting .230 with four homers and a .645 OPS over his first 39 games, the right-handed slugger ended the season with a flourish. In his final 24 games, Encarnacion-Strand went deep nine times and drove in 21 runs while hitting .333 with a 1.055 OPS, tapping into the power he showed while rising to the ranks of MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 prospects.

, C, Guardians
The Guardians opened last season with a veteran catching tandem of and , but after releasing Zunino in June, Cleveland gave Naylor his first chance at regular MLB playing time. The young backstop didn’t do much with the opportunity at first, but he erupted for a .321/.434/.679 slash with seven homers and eight doubles over his final 28 games. While Naylor’s contact-quality metrics weren’t particularly notable during that time, he maximized his production by dramatically reducing his strikeout rate and increasing his pull rate. Naylor’s defense was his calling card as a top prospect, but the light-hitting Guardians are counting on his continued offensive development.

, SP/RP, Padres
King has started only 19 games across five MLB seasons, but his performance in eight appearances after joining the Yankees’ rotation this past August was impressive enough that New York was able to make him one of the key pieces in a trade package for superstar outfielder . Over 38 1/3 innings in that span, King struck out 48 batters with only nine walks and recorded a 1.88 ERA with a 2.47 FIP. King actually threw harder, on average, as a starter than he did as a reliever, and his ability to put batters away with all four of his pitches -- he had a K-rate of 26.2% or better with his four-seamer, sinker, sweeper and changeup -- bodes well for his future as he transitions to a full-time starting role.

, 3B, Twins
Six years after being selected first overall in the 2017 MLB Draft, Lewis finally broke through with the Twins this past season, putting multiple ACL tears behind him and emerging as one of Minnesota’s best hitters. Lewis’ power blossomed down the stretch, when he went deep 11 times while producing a 1.051 OPS in his final 26 games. Despite dealing with a left hamstring strain, Lewis crushed four more homers in the playoffs, helping the Twins snap a record 18-game postseason losing streak and win their first playoff series since 2002.

, C, Angels
We didn’t see much of O’Hoppe in 2023, with the backstop missing nearly four months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder on April 25. However, he showed some serious pop before and after the procedure, hitting 14 homers and slugging .500 in just 182 at-bats on the year. That included nine homers with a .581 SLG in 26 games after the calendar flipped to September. O’Hoppe’s poor defensive metrics behind the plate are a cause for concern, but his power might be for real.

, SP, Royals
The Rangers picked Ragans 30th overall in the 2016 MLB Draft, but after he struggled in limited opportunities with the team across 2022-23, Texas shipped him to the Royals in a late-June trade for veteran reliever . Ragans looked like a potential ace with Kansas City, recording a 2.64 ERA with 89 K’s and 27 walks over 71 2/3 innings. The underlying metrics backed up his performance. From the date of his first Royals start (July 15) through season’s end, Ragans ranked sixth in MLB (min. 500 swings) with a 32.3% whiff rate and eighth (min. 200 batters faced) with a .208 expected batting average, based on quality of contact (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) and K’s.

, SP, Orioles
MLB Pipeline’s No. 7 overall prospect entering 2023, Rodriguez came to the Majors amid considerable hype. However, he didn’t find immediate success with the Orioles, posting a 7.35 ERA and a 5.90 FIP over his first 10 starts, which earned the hard-throwing righty a ticket back to Triple-A in May. The move seemed to work wonders for Rodriguez, who returned to MLB in July with a renewed vigor. Although the 24-year-old was hit hard by the Rangers in his lone playoff start, his performance over his final 11 outings (2.18 ERA, 2.80 FIP) in the regular season offers hope that he’s on the verge of a major breakout in 2024.

, SP, Tigers
Skubal made significant strides in 2022, but his season ended prematurely when he needed to undergo flexor tendon surgery in August. His recovery from the procedure carried over into 2023, and he didn’t make his first start until July 4. From that point forward, though, Skubal was incredible, posting a 2.80 ERA with a 102-to-14 K/BB ratio and a 2.00 FIP over 80 1/3 innings. On the year, Skubal ranked in the 94th percentile or better in expected batting average allowed, barrel rate allowed, strikeout rate and walk rate, and had the second-lowest expected ERA (2.30) among qualifiers. If he stays healthy in 2024, the 27-year-old could be a dark-horse contender for the AL Cy Young Award.

, OF, Cubs
Coming off a .770 OPS as a rookie in 2022, Suzuki suffered a left oblique strain in February that caused him to miss all of Spring Training and the first two weeks of the regular season. The outfielder had a tough time getting into a rhythm after returning from the injured list and was sitting on a .713 OPS when July ended. However, he really turned it up over the final two months of the season, finding the All-Star level form he showed during his career in Japan. In 50 games after the start of August, Suzuki posted a .350 average with 31 extra-base hits (12 homers) and a 1.073 OPS. Whether they re-sign  or not, the Cubs need Suzuki to be one of their leading offensive threats in 2024.