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Five MLB breakout pitching candidates: Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tarik Skubal top list

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With the start of the 2024 MLB season around the corner, I’m continuing to highlight players who I believe are prime breakout candidates this year.

Last week, I highlighted five position players who I believe are primed for big 2024 seasons at the plate. This week, we’re looking at pitchers.

Like my previous list, these five are all relatively younger players with limited MLB experience but plenty of talent that I believe makes them destined to dominate at the big-league level very soon.

Let’s dive in!

1. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Los Angeles Dodgers
2023 stats (Nippon Professional Baseball): 17-6, 171.0 IP, 1.16 ERA, 176 strikeouts, 0.860 WHIP

Yamamoto, the Dodgers’ $325 million man, will finally make his MLB debut Thursday morning as the Dodgers take on the San Diego Padres in the back half of their two-game season-opening set in Korea. He will quickly show why he is worth that massive contract. The Dodgers are counting on it. With Shohei Ohtani not able to take the mound until 2025, and past Dodgers stalwarts Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw facing major health uncertainty, Yamamoto will be tasked with setting the tone at the top of the rotation alongside fellow newcomer Tyler Glasnow

The Dodgers need Yamamoto to settle in against MLB competition as soon as possible for that reason. The good news is that the 25-year-old has all the tools to make that happen. He has a great fastball, nasty splitter and Kershaw-esque curveball. He’s the three-time defending winner of both the NBP’s equivalents of the MVP and Cy Young awards. Yamamoto’s stuff will dazzle MLB hitters, as well. I do believe there will be some early hiccups — it’s always a difficult transition to play in a different league. But I expect those bumps to get smoothed out quickly.

2. Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers
2023 stats: 7-3, 80.1 IP, 2.80 ERA, 102 strikeouts, 0.896 WHIP

Skubal has all the elements in place for a breakout 2024. He’s a left-hander whose fastball can hit triple digits. He’s been lights out so far in spring training. His advanced metrics were off the charts last year, thanks in no small part to that incredible strikeout-to-walk ratio. Unfortunately, injuries limited Skubal to just over 80 innings, but if he stays healthy this year, I believe he is a Cy Young contender. That’s how good I think he is. My Tigers need a lot to go right to have a chance to contend in 2024, and Skubal is one of their biggest X-factors.

MLB’s Seoul Series Preview: Dodgers vs. Padres

3. Grayson Rodriguez, Baltimore Orioles 
2023 stats: 7-4, 122.0 IP, 4.35 ERA, 129 strikeouts, 1.336 WHIP

This one is a no-brainer for me. Rodriguez had all the hype in the world when he debuted early last season as the Orioles’ then-top pitching prospect. But like I have already mentioned, adjustments to the MLB level can be hard, and it took a while for Rodriguez to settle in. But when he did, he showed exactly why the hype was deserved. After posting an ERA of over seven in the first half of the season, Rodriguez posted a 2.58 ERA in the second half with 73 strikeouts in 76.2 innings. Like Skubal, Rodriguez is a lefty whose fastball can hit 100 mph and he has plenty of wipeout breaking pitches to complement that. Also like Skubal, I believe Rodriguez can be a Cy Young contender this season if everything goes right. At the very least, get ready for him to become a household name.

4. Kyle Harrison, San Francisco Giants 
2023 stats: 1-1, 34.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, 35 strikeouts, 1.154 WHIP

We got a glimpse of Harrison last season, with mixed results. But as is the case with every name on this list, his potential is off the charts. Any time I see a pitcher record more strikeouts than innings pitched, that is a sign to me that this guy has excellent stuff and can thrive in the big leagues. Harrison is another left-handed pitcher with a solid arsenal of pitches and ready to take on a bigger role in 2024. The Giants will need him to step up given the uncertainty on the staff beyond Logan Webb and recently signed Blake Snell.

5. Cole Ragans, Kansas City Royals 
2023 stats: 7-5, 96 IP, 3.47 ERA, 113 strikeouts, 1.156 WHIP

The Royals getting their opening day starter in return for Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline last season looks like one of the best moves they have made in a long time. Ragans is yet another hard-throwing left-hander (yes, I have a type) who absolutely excelled when the Royals called him up to the big leagues last year, going 5-2 with a 2.64 ERA, 89 strikeouts and a 1.074 WHIP over 71.2 innings. He will become a new household name in Kansas City this season. I believe the Royals can be a sneaky good team this season, and Ragans is a big reason why.

Royals’ Cole Ragans on what it was like to get traded from the Rangers

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Ben Verlander is an MLB Analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the “Flippin’ Bats” podcast. Born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, Verlander was an All-American at Old Dominion University before he joined his brother, Justin, in Detroit as a 14th-round pick of the Tigers in 2013. He spent five years in the Tigers organization. Follow him on Twitter @BenVerlander.


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