This is the breakout players piece, you probably know the drill. I picked five guys, hitters and pitchers, who look to me like reasonable bets to establish a new level of performance in the 2015 season. No rookies or players without major league experience. A breakout can be anything from a young player making an early splash, to a veteran reaching their peak performance plateau, to a resurgent comeback from the injury doldrums, to a late-career renaissance. I did pick only 22-27 year olds, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. I also tried not to pick guys who have been on too many other breakout lists, even if I agree with the pick, because a) boring and b) they probably said it better. Without further ado, my top breakout candidates for 2015.
LF Corey Dickerson, 25, Colorado Rockies
In the early going of the 2014 season, Charlie Blackmon jumped to the top of the NL leaderboards by hitting .374 with power in April. He faded as the year wore on, finishing with a respectable but comparatively modest 104 OPS+ after a second half in which he hit .264/.314/.384 with 5 homers. Another Blackmon factoid real quick: he hit .241/.269/.348 away from Coors Field in 2014. Yikes, man. Anyways, that fast start fooled a lot of people into believing early on that Blackmon had broke out and emerged as a true compliment in the Rockies lineup to players like Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. So, if Corey Dickerson posts similar hot numbers to open 2015, you wouldn’t blame people for being a little less sanguine. They would, however, likely be mistaken. Not only did Dickerson hit .312/.364/.567 in limited time last year, he also held up a .735 road OPS, which is actually pretty good for a Rockie in this day and age. He also has a track record of huge numbers up and down the minor league system that blow Blackmon’s out of the water, including a 32-homer season in A-ball in 2011. For a guy with some power, his 21.1% K rate last year is actually fairly healthy. There figures to be some regression from his .356 BABIP last year, but all the skills are there. It’s getting fairly hard to mash baseballs in the NL, but when you take into account the Coors Field effect, Dickerson’s a guy who has as good a chance to put up numbers as anyone.
LF Bryce Harper, 22, Washington Nationals
Harper had a tremendous rookie season as a 19 year-old in 2012, which everyone remembers, so he’s not exactly a secret. He’ll be 22 this year but he’s been nationally famous as a baseball prodigy for almost 7 years already. However, he’s never really gotten the chance to build upon that rookie performance three years ago. The two seasons since have been moderately frustrating ones in which he’s been plagued by injuries. It wasn’t until the last couple months of the 2014 season, and his towering moonshots in the playoffs, that we really got a chance to see what a healthy Harper can do again. This is probably the last year in which Harper will get the benefit of the doubt in regards to his health. If he can’t play more than 100 games again, his inability to do so will become a major concern that will hang over his head well into the future. But if he does play a full season of 150 games or more, there’s no doubt in my mind that he will reassert himself as one of the NL’s best hitters; it’s easy to envision a .280, 30 hr performance as being his baseline. It’s been four full seasons since a non-HGH-using NL hitter passed the 40 homerun mark and Harper is my bet to be the next one to do it (Stanton might have more raw power, but he also misses games and plays in an enormous ballpark). Don’t be surprised if 2015 is the first season in which Bryce Harper is a more valuable player than Mike Trout, because it won’t be the last.
SP Stephen Strasburg, 26, Washington Nationals
Let’s throw Harper’s Nationals teammate and fellow first overall draft pick on here for good measure. Have you seen Strasburg’s 2014 peripherals? They’re downright scary. He lowered his walk rate to 1.8 per 9, while maintaining his strikeouts at 10.1 K/9 (he’s living in Clayton Kershaw’s neighborhood now, the Dodgers’ ace was at 1.4 and 10.8, respectively). He led the league with 242 strikeouts. That he only managed a 14-11 record with a 3.14 ERA feels like a huge underacheivement. Part of that’s due to an elevated .315 BABIP against and a career-high HR/9 rate. There’s also the persistent questions about Stephen Strasburg’s mental toughness, the insinuation that his performance suffers when he finds himself under pressure. Having watched him implode against the Braves on multiple occasions, I think there may be a grain of truth to that assertion, though I see it less as some kind of intractable character flaw and more as a skill that needs to be learned through experience. Regardless, Strasburg’s underlying performance took a quantum leap forward last year, that it didn’t show up in the results is attributable in large part to luck. If things even out, he should be able to post a sub-3 ERA for the first time in his career with plenty of room to spare. If anybody is going to knock King Clayton off of his throne, I’ve got Strasburg.
1B Eric Hosmer, 25, Kansas City Royals
Is the player that we saw during the Royals’ World Series run the real Eric Hosmer? There’s a lot more reason to believe that’s the case than there is to believe that that was the real Mike Moustakas. For one, Hosmer has already demonstrated his ability to be an above-average hitter at the major league level, twice. His age-21 rookie season and his age-23 season were both extremely encouraging, mixed in with two maddening faceplants. Well, 2014 wasn’t really that bad, he was roughly a league average hitter, but his power evaporated. He’s young enough that his power stroke could still take a step forward, but that’ll never be his calling card. He might be a 25-30 homer hitter in a peak season. What he is, though, is a young player who appears to have all the key ingredients of a true .300 hitter. And he’ll need to reach that, because as a first baseman, his secondary average skills aren’t nearly strong enough to make him an above-average player if he falls much short of that mark. Having had his scheduled “down” year in 2014, maybe it’s time to see things bounce the other way for Hosmer. Until just now, it hadn’t struck me how similar a player he is to Braves’ first-baseman Freddie Freeman, who is exactly the same age. Hosmer might not have near as much power, or the on-base skills, yet, but he also doesn’t have Freeman’s strikeout problems. For the rest of their respective careers, it’s hard to say which of the two I’d rather have.
SP Odrisamer Despaigne, 27, San Diego Padres
This is called playing a hunch. There’s not a lot of data to back this one up, and what little data there is – 30 minor league innings, and 96 major league ones, all last season – don’t give us any particular reason to love Despaigne. FIP doesn’t care for him, his K-rate was pedestrian, his fastball didn’t average 90 mph, and it remains to be seen if he’ll even make the Opening Day rotation. I could be wrong about this, disastrously wrong, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more here, that there’s substantial room for growth. Despaigne is an unusual player, he signed as a free agent from Cuba in May and was pitching in the majors by the end of June. That’s not a lot of time to adjust for a guy just breaking in to American professional baseball. It’s also not a lot of time for an organization’s executives and pitching coaches to figure out exactly what they’re working with. And yet he succeeded passably well, posting a 3.36 ERA in 16 starts which was good for a 100 ERA+ on the nose. My optimism about Despaigne comes primarily from watching him pitch late last season. I absolutely love his pitch mix and pitchability. He has the fastball, a cutter, a curve, and a changeup; none of the secondary offerings stand out as being substantially weaker than any of the others. Indeed, all of his pitches got substantial play, breaking down at roughly 50/20/20/10, percentage-wise. What’s more, they all have tremendous movement, especially the changeup. With those pitches in particular, he can throw a ball that breaks pretty much any direction regardless of the handedness of the hitter. He’s not going to blow people away, but if he can improve his command just a tick, he should get substantially more swings and misses. In a homerun-dampening environment like Petco, he could be really effective. There’s a bit of Yusmeiro Petit to him, a guy who’s underappreciated by pretty much everyone except Giants fans. If the Padres don’t end up having a spot in their rotation for him (he’s not an A.J. Preller signing, after all), hopefully another team comes along to scoop him up at a bargain price.
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