One of the many beautiful aspects of baseball is unpredictability. Every week, month, and season, new stars emerge that we didn’t expect, both at the Major League level and in the minor leagues. We saw an endless amount of breakout prospects last season and I’m sure we’ll get plenty more this season. That’s what I’ll be discussing below with six prospects in the American League East that broke out in 2021 and are rising up rankings or could breakout out this season.
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Rising & Breakout Prospects for 2022: AL East
Taj Bradley (RHP – TBR)
In a system full of talented arms, Taj Bradley stood out in a big way last season. The 2018 5th rounder finished with a 1.83 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 7.8 BB%, and 31.0 K% in 103.1 combined innings between Lo-A and Hi-A. Ever since being drafted out of high school, Bradley has improved every season in the Rays organization, improving his ERA, walk rate, and strikeout rate each season. He was especially tough to hit in 2021, recording a .180 BAA and 15.4% SwStr rate while being rather young for the levels he was at.
Taj Bradley had his full arsenal working for the @BGHotRods.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 29, 2021
Bradley lost about 10 pounds entering 2021 and reported to camp in exceptional shape. Not that he was in poor shape before, but Bradley truly entered 2021 spring training in the “best shape of his life”. In addition to the improved conditioning, Bradley added a few ticks to his fastball and sat more in the mid-90s last season while touching the upper registers at times with solid life. He’ll also mix in a plus slider with sharp break and a serviceable changeup that showed improvement in 2021.
With two plus offerings, at least an average changeup, and potentially above-average command and control, Bradley should continue his rise up rankings in 2022 and potentially crack top-50 lists by mid-season.
Anthony Garcia (1B – NYY)
Without question, one of the most intriguing prospects in the New York Yankees system is Anthony Garcia. The hulking outfielder turned first baseman slashed .306/.444/.678 with 14 home runs in 153 plate appearances between the Complex Level and Lo-A last season. Impressive right? Well, there are some red flags in his profile that will need to be improved before we go overboard with his majestic power.
Anthony Garcia. 423 ft. 105.8 MPH. You know the drill by now.
— John Brophy (@jbrophybaseball) September 4, 2021
Garcia possesses double-plus raw power and has added plenty of bulk since signing with the Yankees back in 2017. However, his contact rates were much lower than you’d expect when seeing his .306 average. After posting a 62.1% contact rate in the FCL, that rate dipped down to a lowly 54.5% in Lo-A. His exceptional quality of contact definitely helped aid a higher BABIP, but that’s not entirely sustainable longterm. At least, not to this extent. Garcia will likely always run a higher BABIP due to his power, but those contact rates and his swing and miss tendencies will need to improve.
Even while hitting .306, Garcia struck out 32.7% of the time with an 18.8% SwStr rate. But on the bright side, Garcia has also shown the ability to work the count and draw plenty of walks, recording a 20.3% walk rate in 2021. That also likely led to a slightly higher strikeout rate due to all the deep counts he worked himself into. If Garcia can improve his contact rates and trim the strikeout rate a bit, he has the potential to develop into a middle-of-the-order masher with 30+ homer upside.
Jonathan Aranda (1B/2B/3B – TBR)
Oh, look, another talented Tampa Bay infield prospect. Do they grow on trees down there or something? They must. Anyway, Jonathan Aranda is a talented bat that you should be targeting in dynasty leagues. Here’s why.
In the 2021 season, Aranda played in 100 games on the dot, 21 in Hi-A and 79 in Double-A. He absolutely dominated both levels. Aranda slashed .351/.449/.554 in Lo-A and followed that up with another stellar .325/.410/.540 line in Double-A, combining for 22 doubles, 14 home runs, and five steals as well. Aranda projects as a plus hitter with a mature approach at the plate and great contact skills to all fields. He posted an 82.4% contact in Hi-A and 77% in Double-A to go along with an 8.8% SwStr rate, 10.2% walk rate, and 18.5% strikeout rate overall.
While Aranda might not have a big power/speed blend, he’s shown around average game power with 5-8 SB upside, and his plus hit tool and approach should carry him to the Majors. I’m usually terrible with comps, but Jeff McNeil comes to mind, or maybe even Bryan Reynolds if Aranda comes close to reaching his ceiling. The talent is there, but it all comes down to where he’ll fit in. Luckily, Aranda played first, second, and third base last season and has some experience in the outfield as well. That’s going to come in handy.
Connor Norby (2B – BAL)
I’ve already rambled on about Colton Cowser a ton this offseason, so let’s shift our focus to another intriguing bat drafted by Baltimore this past July. Drafted in the second round, Connor Norby was considered one of the best pure hitters in the entire draft class. He hit north of .400 in both the shortened 2020 season and in his final season at East Carolina in 2021 where he slashed .4.415/.484/.659 with 15 homers and 18 steals in 61 games, with nearly as many walks (33) as strikeouts (34). Norby didn’t stop there either, posting a .380 OBP, three homers, and six steals in 33 minor league games following the draft.
With Norby, the profile is fairly similar to Cowser’s, but with less power and run-producing potential. While Cowser profiles as a 25+ homer bat, Norby projects more as a 45-grade game power bat with close to above-average speed that could land him in the 15-homer, 15-20 steal range longterm. If that’s the power/speed level Norby reaches, that will be more than enough to provide solid fantasy value given his plus hit tool and great approach at the plate. Norby has a quick and compact left-handed swing and can barrel up pitches anywhere in the zone with an all-fields approach. While he might not have a massive offensive ceiling, there’s a high floor here and a well-rounded offensive profile from the second base position.
Heston Kjerstad (OF – BAL)
It seems like forever ago, but less than two years ago, Heston Kjerstad was the #2 overall selection. But thanks to the lost 2020 minor league season and a heart issue in 2021, Kjerstad has yet to make his professional debut. That will finally change in April. When talking with Eric Garfield on an episode of Fantrax Toolshed recently, he mentioned that Kjerstad has been very impressive in minor league camp so far, and all reports indicate that his health scare from 2021 is behind him and he’ll be ready to go.
Finally back swinging the bat again! pic.twitter.com/iWMJyonTNS
— Heston Kjerstad (@hestonkjerstad) September 21, 2021
Due to the fact that it’s been about 21 months since he was drafted with zero plate appearances to his name, Kjerstad has fallen down prospect rankings. It was the right move, but get ready for that dynasty stock to rise once Kjerstad finally gets into game action. Kjerstad possesses plus or better raw power from the left side and projects to have around an average hit tool as well. There’s minimal to no speed to speak of, so the bat will have to be impactful for Kjerstad to stand out in fantasy, but he has the potential to do just that. Kjerstad projects as a power-hitting corner outfielder that should get a nice boost from Camden Yards as well. Now is a great time to try and acquire him in dynasty leagues.
Miguel Bleis (OF – BOS)
The Red Sox system has been on the rise over the last few years, and the next name that could rise to prominence is Miguel Bleis. Outside of the big names in this farm system, Bleis is the one I’m most excited about. Bleis racked up four homers and seven steals in 36 games last season with a .252/.331/.420 slash line. A solid professional debut, but it’s the offensive profile that truly excites. Blei’s is listed at 6’3/170 but looks to have added a little bulk since then. He’s been lauded for his strength and athleticism with above-average raw power and plus speed and projects to add even more power as he continues to fill out his frame. With a potential plus power, plus speed profile, Bleis has strong breakout appeal in 2022 as he comes stateside for the first time.
Other Risers/Breakouts in the AL East To Target
Baltimore: Kyle Stowers (OF), Maikol Hernandez (SS)
Boston: Brayan Bello (RHP), David Hamilton (SS), Niko Kavadas (1B), Alex Binelas (1B/3B)
New York: Randy Vasquez (RHP), Antonio Gomez (C)
Tampa Bay: Tommy Romero (RHP), Willy Vasquez (SS), Junior Caminero (INF), Osleivis Basabe (MI)
Toronto: Gunnar Hoglund (RHP), Manuel Beltre (SS), Rocky Tiedemann (LHP)
Media Credit: John Brophy (@jbrophybaseball), MLB Pipeline, Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire, Heston Kjerstad
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