Welcome to the 2014 edition of Grantland’s annual MLB Breakouts column. Last year, I spotlighted up-and-coming stars like Freddie Freeman (yeah!), Matt Harvey (woo!), Domonic Brown (I’m the best at this!), and, um … Jesus Montero (hey, what’s that shiny object over there?).
Before I jump into this year’s batch, here are some reminders regarding the breakout player criteria:
1. A player with remaining rookie eligibility can’t be considered a breakout candidate, even if he’s already enjoyed a cup of coffee in the big leagues. That disqualifies otherwise worthy youngsters such as Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Nick Castellanos, Billy Hamilton, Kolten Wong, Taijuan Walker, and others.
2. A player who’s already made the leap can’t put up a breakout season, unless his projected numbers are so far above his previous career bests that he looks like a double-breakout star. That disqualifies many already accomplished young players who will likely continue to perform at a comparable level, including Jason Kipnis, Ian Desmond, and Starling Marte. (If Marte drops a 30/50 season, that’ll obviously retroactively count.)
3. Finally, this is about real-life value, not fantasy value. If Nate Jones thrives as the White Sox closer and saves 40 games, it won’t really be a breakout season in any realm other than your 12-team mixed league, since Jones has already been very good to excellent the past two years while pitching in a setup role that brought similar leverage situations.1 The same goes for, say, a player who moves to the cleanup spot and drives in 120 runs while putting up other numbers similar to his prior results. A bump in team-dependent counting stats isn’t the same thing as a meaningful jump in real-life value.
With those explainers out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the players poised to take off this year — and potentially give their teams a big boost along the way.
The Playing-Time Gainers
Danny Salazar, SP, Cleveland Indians: Salazar’s inclusion shouldn’t be a surprise after last week’s offseason edition of The 30, in which I drooled over his filthy fastball-slider-changeup arsenal and the 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate he posted last season in his first 10 major league starts. He’s talented enough to make a Cy Young run, maybe even as soon as this year. And while individual talent is more important than teammate contributions, Carlos Santana’s move from catcher to third base could have a hugely positive impact on Salazar and the rest of Cleveland’s pitchers. Santana is an excellent hitter who could himself see a bump in production now that he’s freed from the rigors of catching, but he was a terrible receiver behind the plate last season. New starter Yan Gomes, conversely, gets high marks for pitch framing and other catching skills.
Hey, who knows: Between that defensive upgrade, the all-around youth on this 28-and-under rotation, and the sheer talent that Salazar, Corey Kluber, and others possess, a staffwide breakout might be imminent.
Alex Cobb, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: Cobb pitched extremely well last April and May and looked poised for a breakout year. On June 15, however, a line drive struck him in the head, sending him to the DL for two months. Through that June start, Cobb posted a strong 3.01 ERA and a .233/.289/.356 opponents’ batting line. When he returned, he was even better, striking out just shy of a batter per inning and posting a 2.41 ERA in his final nine starts. He ended the season by allowing just three total runs over three must-win starts against the Rangers, Orioles, and Yankees, in the process helping the Rays sneak into a one-game tiebreaker that pushed them into the second wild-card spot.
Many compare Cobb to James Shields, which is both incredibly flattering and pretty spot-on. Cobb’s command of the strike zone, terrific changeup, and rising swing-and-miss rate bode well for a huge 2014 campaign if he can finally bank 200 innings. If that happens, the Rays will again have a true right-handed ace to complement David Price, the way they did when Shields still called the Trop home.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies: Even if Arenado never improves one iota from what he showed in 2013, the Rockies will still have arguably the best defensive third baseman in the NL. That defensive excellence will keep Arenado in the lineup even if he does slump, which he did more than once in batting .267/.301/.405 last year, weak numbers for a player who spends half the year hitting at Coors Field. The good news is that Arenado doesn’t turn 23 until mid-April, and he’s shown the kind of skills that bode well for improved offense. He displayed excellent contact skills in the minors, fanning a mere 11.3 percent of the time then and a modest 14.8 percent in his rookie season.
Granting that he played in some hitter-friendly minor league environments, it’s still tough to overlook the combined 44 doubles and 26 homers he popped in 2011 in Class A and the Arizona Fall League. Expect Arenado to improve on his 2013 numbers in his first full MLB season,2 then take another step or two forward as he matures. Remember that position players often peak in their mid-to-late twenties, and that Arenado was nearly a three-win player as a rookie almost entirely due to defensive value … and start to get excited.
Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals: Rendon might be the most popular breakout candidate among baseball nerds, and I’m not enough of a hipster to shoot him down simply for the sake of being contrarian. We’re talking about the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, a player who hit a robust .269/.408/.531 in his 79-game minor league career, then held his own at .265/.329/.396 in his first MLB stint. One of several reasons pundits are so bullish on the Nats this year is that Rendon has wrested the starting second-base job from Danny Espinosa, clearing the path for the sophomore to settle in over 162 games and put up solid numbers for a middle infielder.
The lone remaining obstacle is Rendon’s ability to handle a 162-game workload — or even a 110-game workload. Injuries limited him to just 43 games played in the minors two years ago, and he struggled a bit with health setbacks in 2013 as well. Even at full health, Rendon doesn’t seem to have the skill set to be a big slugger, but a second baseman who can hit, say, .290 and post a strong on-base percentage while handling key defensive responsibilities is still very valuable.
The Next-Step Brigade
Ivan Nova, SP, New York Yankees: I’ve been obsessing over Nova’s quirky stat lines for a while now. The 16-4 record he posted in 2011 was spectacularly lucky, buoyed by strong run support and, to a lesser extent, a relatively mild home run–per–fly ball rate for a right-handed pitcher at Yankee Stadium. Those factors combined to override a flaccid strikeout rate and a slightly generous walk rate. The next year, Nova missed a lot more bats, but he also gave up more than twice as many homers, resulting in an ugly 5.02 ERA.
In 2013, everything came together. He fanned nearly three batters for every one walk, induced more whiffs than ever before, and was stingier with the long ball — partly due to another low HR/FB ratio, but also thanks to a career-high 53.5 percent ground ball rate. Even then, however, things weren’t quite perfect: Nova got hurt and made just 20 starts, his lowest total in three years. I get the sense he’s going to put up a 32-start season sometime soon, though, and if that happens, many of his indicators point to a potential breakout campaign. If Vegas had a Nova vs. Masahiro Tanaka bet for 2014, with odds in Nova’s favor, it’d be worth serious consideration.
Andrew Cashner, SP, San Diego Padres: From last week’s column:
I think Cashner will break out. The tea leaves also look good for Jedd Gyorko, who hit 23 homers as a rookie last season despite playing his home games at Petco Park and whose .321 career batting average in the minors points to a likely improvement in that area in the majors. Another good bet is Yonder Alonso, who’s never been a big power hitter, but who makes good contact, turns 27 in April, and could be primed for a Mark Grace kind of year. If enough individual Padres break out, so could the team as a whole.
Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami Marlins: I know, it’s a bit bizarre to call a player who hit 37 homers just two years ago a breakout candidate. It’s also justified. Like many young players who’ve yet to take that next step, Stanton has impressed in certain ways in certain seasons, but has yet to put it all together. This could be the year. Stanton is just 24 years old, and he already has more than 2,000 major league plate appearances.
His power is a known commodity; in addition to those 37 bombs in 2012, he jacked 34 in 2011. He also posted an elite walk rate in 2013 (14.7 percent, which was the fourth-best in the majors despite just five intentional walks), so we know he has power and patience. Health remains a question mark; he played 150 games in 2011, but just 123 in 2012 and 116 in 2013. If Stanton can add health to his already consistent power-and-patience repertoire, MVP-caliber numbers3 could be next.
Derek Norris, C, and Dan Straily, SP, Oakland A’s: Bill James was mapping out the major league equivalents for minor league stats more than 30 years ago. Yet as fans (and media), we tend to fixate on the recent past, dinging young players for so-so big league numbers while forgetting what James taught us: substantial minor league success predated that MLB mediocrity.
In Norris’s case, if we adjust for Oakland’s offense-squelching environment, then there was actually nothing mediocre about his .246/.345/.409 line from last year; on an adjusted basis, FanGraphs puts those numbers at 14 percent better than league average. Still, there’s room for more growth. Dig the .286/.413/.513 line Norris put up at Class A in 2009, or his .394 career minor league OBP. Sure, easier competition often produces strong results, and exciting A-ball prospects sometimes struggle as they reach higher levels. Norris’s patience was visibly improving as last season wore on, however, and he’s now Oakland’s clear no. 1 catcher, which could mean the kind of reps that allow him to settle in and churn out bigger numbers.
The same principle regarding minor league lessons applies to Straily: He struck out 190 batters while surrendering just nine home runs in 152 innings across the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues in 2012, and that means he has serious potential. Norris and Straily are two of the many reasons why the A’s could win the AL West for the third year in a row despite operating a bottom-five payroll in each of those seasons.
Nate Eovaldi, SP, Miami Marlins: Thanks to the excellent TrackMan service, we’re starting to quantify something that the best scouts have known for a while: Release points, fastball spin, and other factors can matter as much as raw velocity when it comes to getting hitters to swing and miss. Still, there’s fast and then there’s fast … and Eovaldi is fast. His fastball averaged 96.2 mph last year, the fastest of any pitcher with as many innings pitched in 2013. Though he relies heavily on his heater, his slider has shown flashes of promise, particularly in 2012, when Eovaldi split the season between the Dodgers and the Marlins.
Like Cashner’s, Eovaldi’s blazing fastball hasn’t yet translated into big strikeout rates, but his strike throwing is improving, and there’s enough life on his pitches to produce lots of harmless contact, especially in tandem with Marlins Park’s pitcher-friendly dimensions. Now 24 years old, he’ll set career highs in starts and innings pitched this year (barring injury), and with 260⅓ MLB innings under his belt, he could be a prime candidate to translate early career experience into better results.
Drew Smyly, SP (and not a LOOGY, woo!!!), Detroit Tigers: Phil Coke’s injuries and Jim Leyland’s love of conventional tactics transformed Smyly from one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game over the first four months of last season into a situational lefty who still pitched well, but didn’t have nearly the same impact on his team’s games. From Opening Day through the end of July, Smyly appeared in 40 games, with just seven appearances lasting less than one inning. The results: 61 innings pitched, 65 strikeouts, 14 walks, just one home run allowed, a 1.77 ERA, and an opponents’ OPS of just .510. Smyly came up as a starter and pitched fairly well in 2012 in that role, and Leyland knew that background coupled with Smyly’s lack of terrifying splits made him an ideal candidate to pitch a full inning or even multiple, high-leverage innings without lefty-righty matchups coming into play. In contrast, over the final two months of the season, Smyly made 23 appearances, with 16 of those lasting less than one full inning, and he generated terrible results, including a 4.80 ERA and .929 opponents’ OPS allowed. There’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing at work here. I’m not even suggesting that LOOGY work made Smyly less effective. I’m saying that at best, making Smyly the new Randy Choate would be a waste of resources — and at worst, frighteningly counterproductive.
At any rate, Leyland’s gone, and Smyly’s now the team’s no. 5 starter, ready to fulfill the promise that made him a highly regarded second-round pick in 2010. Since our most complete data on Smyly come from his minor league days, we’ll point out these impressive numbers: 155 strikeouts, 44 walks, and just five home runs allowed in 143⅔ innings down on the farm. An improved Detroit defense could help Smyly’s chances this season. He’s no sure thing, and it would be nice to see him develop a quality changeup to go with his fastball-cutter–breaking ball combination, but he’ll get the chance to expand his repertoire now that the Tigers see him as a 180-plus-innings guy.