‘Talent only takes you so far’: After MLB breakouts last season, these 4 young starters are focused on getting even better in 2024

Spend enough time around baseball lifers across the league, and you’ll eventually hear the refrain: the hardest part isn’t reaching the big leagues — it’s staying there. While this notion surely undersells the monumental achievement of garnering even one plate appearance or throwing one inning in the major leagues, there is some truth to a concept rooted in how unforgiving the highest level of our beloved game can be. And for young players looking to ensure a long career, these words of wisdom serve as valuable motivation to never get too comfortable.

For pitchers in particular, there’s no shortage of obstacles on the path to establishing yourself in a big-league rotation. There’s the constant battle of cultivating and crafting your arsenal, the increasingly expansive scouting reports preparing opposing hitters for your exact attack plan and the humbling reality that throwing baseballs at high velocities isn’t particularly easy on the body.

Even for those who find success early in their careers, there’s always another challenge around the corner — and the best hitters in the world will happily pounce if you come unprepared. This spring, Yahoo Sports spoke with four young hurlers about the lessons learned from their initial go-around as big-league starters and their biggest focus for improvement in 2024.

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Age: 26

  • 2023 stats (with Texas): 17 G, 0 GS, 24.1 IP, 5.92 ERA, 5.27 FIP, 1.397 WHIP, 22.6% strikeout rate, 13.2% walk rate, -0.2 bWAR, -0.2 fWAR

  • 2023 stats (with KC): 12 G, 12 GS, 71.2 IP, 2.64 ERA, 2.49 FIP, 1.074 WHIP, 31.1% strikeout rate, 9.4% walk rate, 2.6 bWAR, 2.4 fWAR

Few players broke out more dramatically in 2023 than Ragans did following his midseason trade to Kansas City for Aroldis Chapman. While Ragans wasn’t a complete unknown — he was Texas’ first-round pick out of a Florida high school back in 2016, and he made his MLB debut at the end of 2022 — two Tommy John surgeries during his development in the minors significantly dampened his prospect stock. By the time Ragans reached the big leagues, the Rangers had him ticketed for a bullpen role, stuck on the depth chart behind more accomplished arms.

[Join or create a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for the 2024 MLB season]

But during the winter of 2022, Ragans began to unlock some more serious velocity and a more explosive overall arsenal during workouts at Tread Athletics in North Carolina. We saw glimpses of the newfound heat during a few scattered relief appearances with Texas last season, but Ragans truly blossomed once inserted into the KC rotation.

In his first winter as a Royal, Ragans was mostly in maintenance mode.

“This year was my second year doing the Tread workouts, so I had an idea of what my stuff would look like going into the offseason,” he said. “I was more so just fine-tuning some things. I wanted to put on a little weight, I wanted to get strong and repair the best I can to get ready to come into spring training to compete and win a spot.”

Ignoring the humble assertion that a southpaw who touched triple digits in his first spring outing would need to “win a spot,” Ragans does have some things to work on entering 2024, even if he was one of baseball’s best starters in the second half last year. Among 59 starters who threw at least 70 innings from July 15 through the end of the season, Ragans’ 2.4 fWAR was tied with Tyler Glasnow, Spencer Strider and Sonny Gray for third-best, and his 2.49 FIP was second-lowest only to Tarik Skubal.

But command was an issue along the way. While Ragans’ 31.1% strikeout rate ranked sixth, his 9.4% walk rate was tied for ninth-worst, or 51st out of 59. “I still had some outings with more walks than I’d want,” he said. “First-pitch strikes obviously are very big in this game, so I’m continuing to work on that.” (Ragans ranked 47th in first-pitch strike percentage.)

“Try to get ahead, stay ahead, get guys out, you know, get deep into games. Those are the biggest things to give us a chance to win. That’s the name of the game.”

Ragans’ stuff is good enough that he could walk a Blake Snell path and dominate even with some free passes, but he seems intent on staying ahead of batters. Regardless, health permitting, Ragans’ high-powered attack is primed to give big-league batters fits for years to come.

Take it from his new catcher: “When you got a guy that throws that hard, it’s not easy to hit,” Salvador Pérez said. “Just sit in the middle, and let the ball do what it’s going to do because it’s so nasty.”

Fantasy spin for 2024: Ragans has been shooting up draft boards after hitting 101 mph during his spring debut. He should be treated as a top-25 fantasy starter, though wins could be an issue pitching for the Royals. — Dalton Del Don

Age: 25

  • 2023 stats: 25 GS, 131.1 IP, 4.32 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 1.142 WHIP, 22.2% strikeout rate, 4.8% walk rate, 1.2 bWAR, 1.9 fWAR

A reliever at Texas A&M with shaky command as recently as 2020, Miller rocketed through the Mariners system by throwing more strikes than ever before and riding a dynamic fastball that features both high-end velocity and movement characteristics that modern teams crave. With just four earned runs allowed over his first five career starts in 2023 while throwing almost exclusively fastballs, Miller made things look shockingly easy out of the gate. But reality eventually set in — somewhat.

“We were rolling, and then the league adjusted, and then it was time for me to adjust,” Miller told Yahoo Sports. “But it’s kind of hard to adjust between starts. And by the end of the year, it was obvious that I didn’t have an issue with righties — it was just the lefties that were getting me. I think there was, like, a 100-point difference in batting-average-against for righties and lefties.”

Indeed, it was 103 points, to be exact:

“Those guys learn a lot their first go-around through the league. They also learn how quickly the league adjusts to them,” skipper Scott Servais said. “He took it to heart, and he worked on a few things this offseason, adding another pitch and doing some things so he can continue to get better and take the next step.”

Over the winter, Miller became the latest pitcher to tinker with a splitter, and he broke it out with great results in his first spring training outing:

“Going into the offseason, that was my main focus: figuring out something for lefties to keep them off the heater,” Miller said. “That’s how the splitter came to be. So now I’ve got the split and throwing more of a curveball now than a sweeper. So I think it’s gonna be good. I’ll have four pitches to lefties, where, like, at times last year, it felt like I had two.”

Added Servais: “You’ve got to keep adding to your game or refining your skills. [He’s] very talented, but talent only takes you so far. You gotta continue to get better.”

Fantasy spin for 2024: Miller could be a fantasy steal while going as the SP57 in Yahoo drafts, especially if his new pitch and adjustments fix his issues with lefties. It helps to pitch in Seattle, as no park in baseball has decreased run-scoring more than T-Mobile over the past three seasons. — Del Don

“Talent only takes you so far,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “You gotta continue to get better.” (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Age: 25

  • 2023 stats: 25 GS, 142.0 IP, 2.98 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 1.176 WHIP, 24.1% strikeout rate, 7.7% walk rate, 3.6 bWAR, 3.0 fWAR

The runner-up in 2023 American League Rookie of the Year voting, Bibee flourished in his first big-league season and seemed to only get stronger as the year went on. His 2.40 ERA across 14 starts over the final three months was third-lowest among starting pitchers, behind only Blake Snell and Kyle Bradish.

Yet Bibee didn’t feel like he was at his best.

“Even though I had a good year, it was definitely a grind, and I think that it could have been smoother,” he told Yahoo Sports. “My delivery was kind of all over the place and not really where I wanted it to be. But even with me not feeling I was at my best the entire year, I still had really good results. Whether that’s me being good, whether that’s luck, we’ll never know — could be a good combination.

“But I think that, not being as comfortable and still ending up doing that, I think that gives me confidence to know that I can pitch well even in those not-as-ideal situations.”

When he was a prospect, Bibee’s stock soared as he added velocity to a profile built on the exceptional command he’d demonstrated since his days at Cal State Fullerton. When the free passes increased over his first couple of months in the bigs, he knew he had to get back to his foundation — and more success soon followed.

“I think in the first half, the command was just a little more down,” he said, referring to his 27 walks in 70 innings before the break, a palatable rate for most starters but not for one used to dominating the zone. “But in the second half” — Bibee walked just 18 across 72 frames — “I figured it out a little better. I just want to keep building on that.”

Considering how well each of Bibee’s three primary offerings — four-seam, slider and changeup — performed last season (he was in the 85th percentile for run value for all three pitches), it’s difficult to pinpoint an aspect of his repertoire that needs significant work. Instead, he’s focused on his mechanics and embarking on a fully healthy season, especially after leaving his final start of 2023 due to hip inflammation.

“I’d say improving the heater, trying to stay consistent, but that just comes with cleaning up my delivery,” he said. “I think that makes my pitches a lot better if I’m in a better position to throw them.”

Bibee’s development could be further boosted by his peers on the pitching staff. After spending 2021 and 2022 with Cleveland, catcher Austin Hedges is back with the Guardians and is ecstatic about working with the talented sophomore trio of Bibee, Logan Allen and Gavin Williams. Hedges also thinks the young guns will benefit greatly from Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie being back to 100% after injury-marred seasons in 2023.

“We have some great young pitchers, and Bibee did some amazing things last year,” Hedges said. “But at the same time, we already have two bona fide aces, in my opinion. And when those young guys are your 3-4-5, now we’re in serious business.

“I’m excited for Shane and Triston to set the tone and help those guys and show them the way, like, ‘this is how you throw 200 innings’, ‘this is how you work and prepare’. They’re healthy, and they’re feeling good. We’ve got a really good vibe here right now.”

With the veterans back atop the Cleveland rotation, Hedges sees big things in store for Bibee, Allen and Williams in 2024: “They’re not just trying to last in the big leagues anymore. Now they’re like, ‘We’re big leaguers. Let’s go win.’”

Fantasy spin for 2024: Bibee’s 2.98 ERA wasn’t supported by his 4.19 SIERA last season, so he needs to take a step forward to live up to his 2024 ADP. He’s being drafted as a top-30 fantasy starter in Yahoo leagues. Williams might have more upside and is available nearly 100 picks later. — Del Don

Age: 24

  • 2023 stats: 7 GS, 34.2 IP, 4.41 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.269 WHIP, 16.3% strikeout rate, 7.5% walk rate, 0.3 bWAR, 0.3 fWAR

Among this quartet of arms, Wicks enters 2024 with the fewest MLB innings to his name and rookie status still intact. He also isn’t guaranteed a spot in the Cubs’ Opening Day rotation, as he’s competing this spring with a slightly more experienced right-hander in Hayden Wesneski and a veteran lefty in Drew Smyly. Wicks is clearly the most likely long-term option for Chicago, but he needs to earn that No. 5 starter spot behind breakout lefty Justin Steele, veterans Jameson Taillon and Kyle Hendricks and offseason acquisition Shota Imanaga.

The 21st overall pick in the 2021 draft out of Kansas State, Wicks climbed his way to Chicago with relative ease thanks to his advanced command, a wicked changeup and a tick more velocity than he showed in college. But once he reached the big leagues, Wicks quickly realized that even his best stuff on his best day won’t always get the job done against the best hitters.

“Sometimes you’re gonna make your pitch, and they’re gonna do what they do with it, and it’s not something you can hold on to,” he told Yahoo Sports. “They’re major-league hitters just like you’re a major-league arm. … So just having a short memory and knowing that sometimes it’s not gonna go perfectly for you and moving on to the next game, next AB, next inning, whatever it is, and just continuing to start fresh.”

After six smooth outings to begin his career, Wicks’ season ERA was inflated by an ugly start in Milwaukee in which he allowed six earned runs and was chased in the second inning. Craig Counsell, his new manager, was in the opposing dugout for that game. In getting to know Wicks this winter, Counsell has gained further confidence that Wicks can make the necessary adjustments to solidify his starting role moving forward.

“He experienced some success, and then he got stuck in some starts,” Counsell said. “The success part makes you more confident, like, ‘Hey, I’m good at this, and this works,’ right? And that’s a good place to start, and that’s where Jordan is. He knows he’s got places he can improve on, as the league’s gonna continue to adjust to him.”

Over the winter, Wicks prioritized finding a dependable breaking ball that can complement his signature changeup and two different fastballs that accounted for roughly 80% of his pitches in the big leagues last year. This spring, he has emphasized the development of his slider as an additional swing-and-miss offering. While the cambio remains Wicks’ go-to, he knows he needs more weapons to neutralize opponents, and the Cubs have made strides in rounding out his repertoire.

“They’ve really helped me develop the rest of my arsenal to become a lot more of a complete pitcher, as opposed to just a one-pitch guy,” Wicks said. “They do a good job of that unique blend of putting their philosophy into me while also letting me be me.”

Added Counsell: “One thing that’s evident: Jordan is a good competitor. He’s got a really good feel for what he’s doing, and he makes those adjustments pretty quickly.”

Fantasy spin for 2024: Wicks is a deep fantasy sleeper who’s going undrafted in most Yahoo leagues. However, his low strikeout rate gives him a low ceiling. — Del Don


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