Who are the players that showed some promise last season and seem poised to build on that success with even better performances? That’s what most baseball analysts mean when discussing “breakout players.” As tempting as it might be to label rookies (either first-time players or those with rookie eligibility remaining) as breakouts, immediate success isn’t quite what we’re talking about. So there’s no Billy Hamilton, Jose Abreu, Jake Odorizzi or Kevin Gausman on this list, even if those players do “break out” in 2014.
Who will be this year’s Josh Donaldson, Carlos Gomez, Matt Carpenter or Domonic Brown? Here are 10 possibilities.
Dustin Ackley, Mariners. Is this the year Ackley finally follows through on his great promise? Seattle is certainly hoping the No. 2 overall pick of the 2009 MLB Draft becomes the young cornerstone player that the franchise sorely needs. So far this spring, Ackley, 26, looks like a guy ready to break out. He’s batting .410 with a 1.093 OPS in 64 plate appearances. That doesn’t mean Ackley will hit well in the regular season, of course. But playing exclusively in left field, rather than bouncing between the outfield and second base, should provide some stability that could help his focus at the plate.
Nolan Arenado, Rockies. Arenado may have already had his breakout season last year, batting .267 with a .706 OPS, 29 doubles, 10 home runs and 52 RBI in 514 plate appearances. But the Rockies have to be excited about what he could do if he plays in 150 or more games and logs 600 PAs this season. Is Arenado, soon to be 23 years old, capable of an OPS near .800, 40 doubles, 20 homers and 100 or more RBI? He’ll certainly provide great defense at third base. Last year, Arenado was credited with 30 Defensive Runs Saved and according to FanGraphs’ UZR, he saved almost 20 runs more than the average player at his position.
Corey Kluber, Indians. Danny Salazar could be the breakout pick among Cleveland starting pitchers after his impressive showing in 10 starts last season. But the Tribe has handled Salazar carefully throughout the spring and will monitor his innings closely during the season. Meanwhile, Kluber has an opportunity to improve upon his performance last season and could emerge as the ace-in-waiting when Justin Masterson departs via free agency. Last year, Kluber went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA in 26 appearances (24 starts). His 3.30 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) shows that he was better than traditional numbers indicate. Stepping up to 32 or 33 starts and 200 innings seems like a natural progression for him as he takes Ubaldo Jimenez’s spot in the Indians’ rotation.
Anthony Rendon, Nationals. Rendon played respectably in his first year of major league action. But the Nats are surely looking for more from their second baseman in a full season. Last year, Rendon hit .265 with a .725 OPS in 394 plate appearances. With his rookie season out of the way, how will he perform with another 40 to 50 games and 200 PAs? While Rendon — who turns 24 in June — may not hit for more power, his average should increase if his many line drives land for more hits this season. More time at second base could help focus his approach as well, though the Nats will likely play him at third when Ryan Zimmerman occasionally starts at first base.
Mike Moustakas, Royals. The Royals look like a popular playoff pick in the AL this season. But Kansas City will have an easier time fulfilling those projections with a good year from its third baseman. Moustakas, 25, hasn’t followed through on his promising rookie season over the past two years. But an outstanding spring — during which he’s hit .429 with a 1.321 OPS, six doubles, four homers and 17 RBI in 61 plate appearances — is certainly encouraging. Getting away from trying to pull everything and hit the ball to right-center field instead has made the difference. If Moustakas can continue that approach in the regular season, he’ll become a force in the bottom-third of the Royals’ lineup and will likely be moved up in the batting order.
Khris Davis, Brewers. Milwaukee felt Ryan Braun’s absence just a bit less during the last two months of the season due to Davis’ impressive performance. In 153 plate appearances, the 26-year-old hit .279 with a .949 OPS, 10 doubles, 11 home runs and 27 RBI. That was enough to convince the Brewers that Norichika Aoki was expendable and Braun could be moved to right field, making way for Davis in the everyday lineup. The power isn’t a fluke; Davis hit 13 homers in Triple-A last year as well. Hitting low in the batting order could allow opposing pitchers to work around him, but Scooter Gennett (who batted .324 last season) could help Davis there.
Avisail Garcia, White Sox. Since his appearance in the 2012 postseason with the Tigers, Garcia has been on the radar for many folks as an up-and-coming player to watch. But he was arguably expendable in Detroit and had conquered Triple-A pitching (.374 average, .948 OPS), which is why he was part of the three-team deal that sent Jose Iglesias to the Tigers and Jake Peavy to the Red Sox. Garcia hit well after joining the White Sox, batting .304 with a .775 OPS in 168 plate appearances. With a starting job assured and a full season ahead, the 22-year-old outfielder is in position to be a major run producer in the middle of the White Sox lineup.
Sonny Gray, Athletics. After moving to Oakland’s rotation last August, the 24-year-old rookie provided a big boost to the team’s postseason drive. In 10 starts, Gray compiled a 5-3 record, 2.85 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 60 innings. He almost helped knock the Tigers out of the postseason with an outstanding start in Game 2 of the ALDS, allowing no runs and four hits over eight innings, while striking out nine. Detroit roughed him up for three runs in Game 5, but Gray showed he was something to watch for 2014. With injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, Gray is Oakland’s No. 1 starter, drawing the opening day assignment from manager Bob Melvin. He threw 182 innings between Triple-A and the majors last year, so taking on a 200-inning workload seems entirely feasible.
Tyson Ross, Padres. Andrew Cashner is arguably the top breakout pitcher for San Diego, as he’ll be the rotation’s No. 1 starter this year. But Ross, soon turning 27 years old, could very well have better numbers by the end of the season. Last year, the right-hander bounced between the rotation and bullpen before establishing himself as a starter in July. In 16 starts, Ross compiled a 3-5 record and 3.06 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 94 innings. Overall, he posted a 3.17 ERA with 119 strikeouts in 125 innings. With Josh Johnson expected to miss four to five weeks with a forearm injury, Ross arguably becomes even more important to the Padres, though he’s been projected as the team’s No. 3 starter throughout the spring.
Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays. Questions about the starting rotation have dogged Toronto throughout the offseason. But those concerns could be hushed considerably if Hutchison pitches like a top-three starter. The right-hander, 23, will actually line up as the Blue Jays’ No. 2 starter, providing a hard-throwing contrast between R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle in the rotation. He’s had an excellent spring, compiling a 2.79 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 9.2 innings. The question with Hutchison may be how many innings he can pitch in his first major league season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. Can he give the Blue Jays 120 innings? Will Hutchison be shut down by August? Or will Toronto try to space out his starts by skipping turns and giving him rest so he can pitch into September?