Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson among four breakout candidates for 2022 MLB season

Sportsnet looks back at the top 10 best Blue Jays plays from the 2021 season.

Each MLB season brings its own set of surprises, good and bad. There are players we hype up that fall flat and others who rise to stardom in real time.

It’s more fun to project positively, which is what we’ll do here in identifying a few breakout candidates for the 2022 season.

Based on early-career returns, advanced metrics or some other factor, each of these four players has a chance to excel in the next campaign.

(Note: 2022 projection data comes via Steamer, which is found at Fangraphs.)

RP/SP Nate Pearson — Toronto Blue Jays

2021 stats: 15 innings, 4.20 ERA, 20 strikeouts, 4.64 FIP, 0.0 fWAR

2022 projections: 99 innings, 4.33 ERA, 105 strikeouts, 4.39 FIP, 1.0 fWAR

As the Toronto Blue Jays’ top pitching prospect in recent memory — and with a triple-digit fastball to boot — Pearson could’ve been featured on a list like this entering either of the past two seasons.

After posting a 2.30 ERA in 25 minor league starts in 2019, Pearson was exalted as a front-end-starter-in-waiting. Since then, the power righty has battled injuries to his elbow and groin, and his first 33 innings as a Blue Jay have come with an uninspiring 5.18 ERA.

Perhaps it’s too early to alter the expectations of Pearson (he’s only 25, after all), but he did impress as a reliever during the final stretch of the 2021 season.

In his final eight appearances, Pearson allowed just five hits and one run while striking out 15 batters in 9 2/3 innings (0.93 ERA). He pared down his pitch selection to fastballs and sliders, watching his whiff rate rise in the process (an 8.2 per cent jump from 2020).

Robbie Ray has proven that starters can thrive on a fastball/slider diet, so we won’t close that door yet for Pearson. But given his command issues to date (6.8 walks-per-nine innings), bite-sized assignments as a reliever could suit him well.

If Pearson stays healthy in 2022, he’ll once again have the tools to succeed in Toronto — as a starter or a reliever.

OF Jarred Kelenic — Seattle Mariners

2021 stats: 93 games, .181/.265/.350, 14 HRs, 73 wRC+, -0.7 fWAR

2022 projections: 131 games, .232/.307/.424, 103 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Sometimes players with the highest of hopes have the hardest of falls.

Kelenic, who rose to No. 4 in MLB Pipeline’s overall prospect rankings last season, reached the majors in May. He seemed ready, and previous comments made by Kelenic and his agent suggested that his debut was long overdue.

But a slow start with the Mariners ground to a complete halt on May 25, when a sixth-inning strikeout for Kelenic marked the beginning of an 0-for-42 slump. Seattle shipped the outfielder back to the minors, where he worked to rebuild confidence and find success at the plate.

He came back to the majors on July 16, his 22nd birthday, and his production quickly improved. From Aug. 1 onward, Kelenic posted a .758 OPS, with 11 home runs in 56 games. His final month was especially encouraging.

Kelenic still has strides to make in regard to contact quality (20th percentile average exit velocity) and contact rate (11th percentile strikeout rate). But it probably felt good just to see the results shift in his favor.

A strong close to 2021 might be a sign of what’s to come in 2022.

SP Shane Baz — Tampa Bay Rays

2021 stats: 13 1/3 innings, 2.03 ERA, 18 strikeouts, 4.07 FIP, 0.2 fWAR

2022 projections: 118 innings, 3.71 ERA, 134 strikeouts, 3.80 FIP, 2.1 fWAR

As if Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows weren’t enough in exchange for Chris Archer, the Rays’ final knife twist from their 2018 trade deadline swap with the Pittsburgh Pirates is that Baz could be the crown jewel of the return.

Baz made three starts over the final few weeks of the 2021 season, confounding hitters with a high-90s heater and a pair of devastating breaking pitches. His slider and curveball combined to garner a 43.9 per cent whiff rate and just two hits in 22 at-bats (.091 batting average).

The long-haired righty was touched up by the Red Sox in his lone post-season appearance (six hits and three runs allowed in 2 1/3 innings), but he showed enough this past fall to warrant plenty of excitement entering the new year.

Glasnow was on a Cy Young-calibre pace last season before getting hurt. Meadows was an all-star in 2019 and earned down-ballot MVP votes in 2021. Now Baz has emerged as a Rookie of the Year contender entering next season.

If there’s a Pirates fan in your life, give them a hug.

OF Max Kepler — Minnesota Twins

2021 stats: 121 games, .211/.306/.413, 19 HRs, 95 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR

2022 projections: 130 games, .233/.328/.443, 110 wRC+, 2.3 fWAR

Kepler has more MLB experience than the other three breakout candidates combined, so you might not view him as a logical fit for this exercise. But breakout seasons can happen at all ages and stages, and we’ve got some reasons to believe Kepler is on the cusp of something excellent.

For the past six seasons, Kepler has been a steady but unspectacular presence with the Twins. His career wRC+ is 101 (only topping 110 once, but never falling below 90), and he has never been an all-star, Silver Slugger or Gold Glove winner.

In 2021, Kepler’s high quality of contact and poor luck led to a notable disparity between his wOBA (.309) and xwOBA (.347). That 38-point gap was the second-highest among players with at least 400 plate appearances.

Paired with an excellent chase rate (93rd percentile), Kepler is bound to find his way on base at a higher clip next year. For a team coming off a last-place finish in the AL Central, Kepler should be one of the Twins’ brightest lights.

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