1 potential surprise star in each division

Detroit Tigers

Who do you think was the most valuable player in the NL Central last season?

Paul Goldschmidt? No. Nolan Arenado? No. Cody Bellinger or Dansby Swanson or Christian Yelich or Corbin Burnes? No. The answer is actually William Contreras, who led the division with 5.4 Wins Above Replacement, per FanGraphs.

The point is: The top players in any given year just aren’t always who you’d expect. It’s easy to see an Adley Rutschman or Julio Rodríguez or Corbin Carroll as the next top dog in their divisions. But let’s try to find some more under-the-radar candidates who could take MLB by storm in 2024.

Here’s one dark horse who could emerge as the top player in every division.

AL East: Anthony Volpe, SS, Yankees
Top player in 2023: Aaron Judge (5.3 WAR)

Let’s start with this snapshot of Volpe’s rookie season: 21 home runs, 24 stolen bases, a Gold Glove Award at shortstop. If you just saw that, you’d think the Yankees already had one of the league’s top rising stars on their hands. But really, Volpe has massive untapped potential after Year 1. There’s room for a huge leap offensively — Volpe batted only .209 with a .666 OPS and 81 OPS+ in his big league debut. And given that he’s only 22, was a top prospect entering the big leagues and flashed his exciting tools as a rookie, that huge leap isn’t hard to believe for Volpe in Year 2. With his power-speed combo and Gold Glove ability at a premium position, the Yankees shortstop could quickly become one of the best players in a stacked division.

Other candidates: Randy Arozarena (Rays), Triston Casas (Red Sox), Masataka Yoshida (Red Sox), Jackson Holliday (Orioles)

AL Central: Riley Greene, CF, Tigers 
Top player in 2023: Bobby Witt Jr. (5.7 WAR) 

Entering his age-23 season, Greene already has an impressive all-around game at one of the game’s most valuable positions in center field, with four plus tools in his contact hitting, power, speed and glove. He’s already made an impressive leap at the plate from his rookie season in 2022 to his sophomore season in 2023, improving from a 97 OPS+ to a 117 OPS+. And he has great underlying numbers, ranking in the top quarter of MLB in essentially all of Statcast’s quality-of-contact metrics in 2023 (expected batting average and slugging percentage, exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrel rate and launch angle sweet-spot rate). Greene — who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow and should be ready for Opening Day — just needs to put together a full, healthy season, and he should be a star for Detroit.

Other candidates: Royce Lewis (Twins), Cole Ragans (Royals), Tarik Skubal (Tigers), Eloy Jiménez (White Sox)

AL West: Evan Carter, LF, Rangers
Top player in 2023: Shohei Ohtani (9.0 WAR)

If you watched Carter on the Rangers’ World Series run last October, you saw a star in the making. The 21-year-old was one of the reigning champs’ best players on the game’s biggest stage despite entering the postseason with just 23 big league games under his belt. Carter can do it all — hit for average, slug home runs, draw walks, steal bases and make highlight-reel catches in the outfield. In 40 games across the regular season and postseason, Carter posted a .303/.415/.574 slash line and .989 OPS with six home runs and six stolen bases. That puts a 20-20 season … maybe even a 30-30 season … in reach in 2024. Throw in Carter’s .300 bat, elite plate discipline and Gold Glove potential in left field (+3 Outs Above Average in 2023), and he could certainly join the likes of J-Rod, Mike Trout and his teammate Corey Seager as one of the best players in the AL West.

Other candidates: Jeremy Peña (Astros), George Kirby (Mariners), Josh Jung (Rangers), Shea Langeliers (A’s)

NL East: Michael Harris II, CF, Braves
Top player in 2023: Ronald Acuña Jr. (8.3 WAR)

If the best player in the NL East isn’t going to be Ronald Acuña Jr. again, how about Acuña’s teammate? The 2022 NL Rookie of the Year was a little overshadowed last season due to a slow start, coupled with Acuña’s historic season and the sheer amount of star power on the Braves. But Harris really turned it on after that, batting .335 with a .912 OPS, 16 homers and 15 steals over his final 100 games to finish with nearly identical numbers to his Rookie of the Year season. And his bat isn’t even his No. 1 skill — that would be his glove. Harris makes game-changing plays in center field, like his catch that started the Braves’ game-ending double play in the NLDS against the Phillies, one of the top plays of the entire postseason. The 22-year-old is already a star, and he could be an even bigger superstar in 2024.

Other candidates: Jazz Chisholm Jr. (Marlins), Kodai Senga (Mets), CJ Abrams (Nationals), Bryson Stott (Phillies)

NL Central: Elly De La Cruz, SS/3B, Reds 
Top player in 2023: William Contreras (5.4 WAR) 

De La Cruz’s talent is electric in every way. He was instantly one of the most fun players to watch in all of baseball when he debuted in 2023, from the rocket home runs to the blazing fast triples to the throws as an infielder that touched 100 mph. But when it came to actual production, De La Cruz’s numbers didn’t quite hold up to his spectacle. Though he finished with 13 homers, seven triples and 35 stolen bases, De La Cruz also struck out 144 times in 98 games and posted a .710 OPS and 89 OPS+. Still, he was just a 21-year-old rookie, and the things he can do on a baseball field are dazzling. With a step forward, the most exciting young player in the division could soon be the best.   

Other candidates: Nolan Gorman (Cardinals), Jordan Walker (Cardinals), Oneil Cruz (Pirates), Jack Suwinski (Pirates), Hunter Greene (Reds)

NL West: Nolan Jones, OF, Rockies 
Top player in 2023: Mookie Betts (8.3 WAR)   

With Shohei Ohtani joining Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, the Dodgers have three of MLB’s five most valuable players of 2023 (and that’s not even including Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who was the best player in Japan). Add Corbin Carroll to that group, and the NL West had four of the top 10 players in the Majors. But maybe the next big star out west will come from somewhere else. And Jones is a surprisingly good candidate.

You might not have noticed it, but the 25-year-old kind of had a monster rookie season. In 106 games, Jones posted a .297/.389/.542 slash line, .931 OPS and 138 OPS+, with 20 homers and 20 steals. The lefty is an all-fields hitter with no platoon weakness — Jones hit .314 with a .902 OPS in 130 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers last season — and he gets to slug at Coors Field. Those are the makings of a dangerous hitter entering 2024. And as far as tools, Jones has a trio to be an all-around star: exceptional power, exceptional speed and one of the strongest outfield arms in the Majors.

Other candidates: Jung Hoo Lee (Giants), Patrick Bailey (Giants), James Outman (Dodgers), Gabriel Moreno (D-backs), Ketel Marte (D-backs)

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