MLB players to watch in 2024

Fans will be closely watching a number of top prospects set to arrive in MLB in 2024. Everyone expects big things from players such as Jackson Holliday, Jackson Chourio, Jordan Lawlar, and Wyatt Langford. Former LSU stars Paul Skenes and Dylan Crews are expected to debut and could be very good almost immediately. Let’s not forget incoming international players with superstar potential, such as Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Jung Hoo Lee, and Shota Imanaga.

With all the exciting newcomers, it’s easy to forget about past top prospects who, for one reason or another, have yet to live up to their billing. Maybe an injury derailed their career, or they’ve just struggled to adjust to MLB. Some may be solid starters, but haven’t been as good as scouts predicted.

Here’s a look at 20 of those players who could finally put it all together in 2024.

OF Matt Wallner, Minnesota Twins

The Twins have been high on Wallner for years. They drafted him out of high school in 2016, and after he opted to attend college, they picked him in the first round in 2019. He had a good rookie year in 2023, with 14 homers and an .877 OPS in 213 at-bats. He has always been a boom-or-bust hitter and owns a terrible MLB strikeout rate (32.9%).

Yet when he’s booming, which should happen more frequently this season with more experience and playing time, he’s fun to watch.

LHP MacKenzie Gore, Washington Nationals

One of the top 10 prospects in baseball in 2021, the lefty has had control issues but showed great improvement last year. He pitched surprisingly well in the second half; in five August starts, he produced a 3.76 ERA with a .214 opponents’ batting average. Sometimes pitchers take a couple of years to figure things out at the MLB level.

OF Jarred Kelenic, Atlanta Braves

The No. 6 overall draft pick in 2018, Kelenic looked totally overmatched his first two seasons in Seattle, but finally got on track in 2023. While he still fanned way too much (132 Ks in only 372 at-bats), he boosted his batting average from .141 to .253 (.746 OPS).

Now set to start in left field for the Atlanta Braves, he’ll benefit in a couple of ways. He’ll have the opportunity to learn from some of the best hitters in the business. Also, the Braves are going to be chasing plenty of starters in the early innings, meaning this loaded lineup — and Kelenic — will get plenty of chances to feast on mediocre long relievers.

1B Vinnie Pasquantino, Kansas City Royals

The 26-year-old slugger’s 2023 season ended June 9 when he suffered a right shoulder injury. But in his first 489 MLB at-bats, he has 19 home runs and a .799 OPS. He puts the ball in play, too, with a low 10.8% career strikeout rate. He said recently he’s fully recovered from his injury and is ready to go. Look for more “Pasquatch” sightings.

OF Alek Thomas, Arizona Diamondbacks

Thomas is a former top-100 MLB prospect who plays Gold Glove-caliber defense but has yet to figure out things at the plate (75 OPS+ in 755 MLB at-bats). But that could change in 2024.

The 23-year-old left-handed hitter had the third-worst launch angle in MLB last season (2.2 degrees). That results in a lot of groundballs. Thomas has been working to improve that. He hit four home runs in the postseason in 54 at-bats, and the Arizona Republic reported he spent the offseason retooling his swing to produce more lift. Even with marginal offensive production he remains worth playing because of his great glove, but just imagine if he could smack a few more home runs.

2B Vaughn Grissom, Boston Red Sox

After an impressive MLB debut in 2022, Grissom took a step backward last year for the Atlanta Braves both with the glove and at the plate (78 OPS+). The Red Sox have big expectations for him this season. He’s moved from shortstop to second base, and while he won’t wow anyone with his glove, he has a good track record as a hitter in the minors and in 2022. Although he suffered a setback with a strained groin in spring training, the Red Sox are expected to give him every opportunity to show his potential this year.

SS Elly De La Cruz, Cincinnati Reds

Some might be surprised to see him on this list, because he has generational raw tools, with his speed, power, and rocket arm. Yet for some reason, many fans love to troll this guy as overrated. Granted, De La Cruz had some serious issues in 2023. Most glaringly, he struck out an incredible 144 times in 388 at-bats.

De La Cruz is still only 22, and a big step forward seems in order for 2024. He will look to make more consistent contact at the plate, after posting a below-average 89 OPS+. Still, De La Cruz may be the only “below-average” MLB player fans will buy tickets to watch. You never know when he’ll leg out a triple with his elite speed or crush a monster home run; he cranked one 470 feet early in spring training that left fans buzzing.

C Bo Naylor, Cleveland Guardians

The 24-year-old backstop hit 11 homers with a .809 OPS in 198 at-bats last season. He has a good eye (13% walk rate in 2023; MLB average was 8.4%) and with more playing time, the home runs will come. A young catcher with pop who reaches base a lot is a rare commodity.

3B Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates

The defensive wizard has always made hard contact. His average exit velocity last season, 92.2 mph, ranked 19th in baseball, just behind Mookie Betts and Austin Riley, just ahead of Adolis García. That’s elite company. But Hayes had never been able to get the launch angle to be a consistent home run/extra bases threat — until the second half of 2023.

The 27-year-old Hayes spent time on the IL and had only 204 at-bats in the second half, but he hit 10 home runs, with an .874 OPS. If he can maintain that stroke in 2024, he might be looking at his first All-Star appearance.

RHP Shane Baz, Tampa Bay Rays

The former prized prospect hasn’t pitched since July 2022 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Rays will be sure to bring the 24-year-old flamethrower back slowly this season; many projections suggest he’ll make around 15-17 starts. Still, it would be easy to see him getting stronger as the year goes on and becoming a factor if the Rays make the postseason. When he’s on, Baz has a dominating fastball that generates swings and misses.

OF Jordan Walker, St. Louis Cardinals

Walker had a strange rookie season, with a hot start and good finish (five home runs, .800-plus OPS in his final 102 at-bats). In between, there was a trip to the minors and some big slumps. The converted third baseman also looked terrible defensively; he had -13 runs prevented, the second-worst figure among MLB outfielders (Kyle Schwarber had -17).

No one can question Walker’s commitment to improving his game — he bought a house near the Cardinals’ Florida training facility so he could work out five days a week in the offseason. Walker should be better both in the field and at the plate this year. He’s a good bet to hit far more than the 16 dingers he had in 2023.

RHP Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles

What a great time to be an Orioles fan, as it seems like there’s a top-10 MLB prospect arriving in Baltimore every few months. Rodriguez was one of those prized young players when he debuted in 2023. The early results were dreadful, including a 7.33 ERA in his first 11 MLB starts. That earned him a ticket back to Triple-A.

When Rodriguez returned in mid-July, he abandoned his cutter, and the results were incredible. Rodriquez made 13 starts in the second half, with a 2.58 ERA. If only it were that easy for every pitching prospect to figure things out. Look for big things from Rodriguez on a very good team in 2024.

SS Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates

Many fans might overlook Cruz, after he missed virtually all of last season with a leg injury. And in 2022, he had an ugly 34.9% strikeout rate in 331 at-bats. Yet he appeared to have dramatically cut down on his Ks in spring training and limited regular season action last year. He’s a Statcast beast, consistently hitting the ball hard and far. Cruz is a threat to hit 30 homers this season — which poses a threat to boaters in the Allegheny River behind PNC Park.

C Patrick Bailey, San Francisco Giants

A former top-10 prospect for the Giants, Bailey had an underwhelming MLB debut last season, with 100 strikeouts and a 77 OPS+ in 326 at-bats. But Bailey, picked No. 13 overall by the Giants in 2020, is an excellent defender behind the plate. With that, he’ll have every chance to prove himself as a hitter.

Bailey hit seven home runs as a rookie, but some scouts believe the switch-hitter could blossom into a 20-25 home run hitter. One other curious note: according to Statcast, Bailey ranked fifth among all batters in the difference between his slugging percentage (.359) and his expected slugging percentage, or xSLG (.420). That essentially means he had a lot of hard-hit balls that turned into outs. Maybe his luck changes this year.

2B/OF Davis Schneider, Toronto Blue Jays

The former 28th-round pick exploded on the scene in 2023, with nine hits and a pair of homers in his first three games. But he finished September in an 0-for-31 skid. Add it all up, and he had eight homers and 21 extra base hits in 116 at-bats for a 1.008 OPS. Schneider’s hot start has many Blue Jays fans thinking big, but it remains to be seen which Schneider shows up in 2024. He’s set to split time between second and left field.

RHP Hunter Greene, Cincinnati Reds

Remember when this guy graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2017 as a can’t-miss high school prospect? Through two seasons, his triple-digit fastball has looked unhittable at times, but plenty of MLB hitters can catch up with heat when they know it’s coming. Greene was just too predictable with his 99-mph average fastball last season, leading to poor results (4.82 ERA). He’s trying to add a splitter and curveball this year to keep hitters off balance. If he can control those pitches, and paint that fastball, look out.

RHP Jordan Hicks, San Francisco Giants

This might be a reach, but if everything goes according to plan, Hicks could be a big surprise. He has already made a name for himself throwing triple-digit smoke out of the bullpen. Now, after being mainly a reliever since his 2018 MLB debut, he finally gets a chance as a starter. Hicks, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the San Francisco Giants this offseason, is still just 27.  He plans to dial back on his fastball and mix in other pitches, hoping to generate quick outs versus six-pitch strikeouts. The right-hander has struggled in limited action this spring, however.

RHP Brandon Pfaadt, Arizona Diamondbacks

The rookie was underwhelming during the regular season in 2023 (5.72 ERA in 19 games) but he looked like a different pitcher in the postseason. He had a 3.27 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 22 postseason innings. Can Pfaadt come anywhere close to that level for an entire season? Many believe changes he made after a slow start last season are sustainable.

2B Zack Gelof, Oakland Athletics

The 2021 second-round draft pick had a great rookie year, smacking 14 homers with a 137 OPS+ in 270 at-bats. Unfortunately, he plays in Oakland, and many baseball fans may not have noticed (judging by A’s attendance figures, many local fans might have also missed him last year). But if he can maintain those numbers in 2024, he’ll be a candidate to represent the Athletics in the All-Star Game.

SS Anthony Volpe, New York Yankees

He hit 21 home runs, stole 24 bases and won a Gold Glove in 2023, which would be a very good rookie year for any shortstop not saddled with the unfair “Next Derek Jeter” tag. There were some issues (81 OPS+, 167 Ks), but Volpe should be better in 2024. He worked on his swing mechanics this offseason to reduce strikeouts. And more people will notice him this year as the Yankees are a favorite to make the postseason. Remember at this time last year, Volpe didn’t even know if he had made the roster.

About Arthur Weinstein

Arthur spends his free time traveling around the U.S. to sporting events, state and national parks, and in search of great restaurants off the beaten path.