Every year, players in the MLB take their individual performances to a new level. Sometimes it’s a player who becomes a superstar, or a backup becomes an everyday regular.
Last season, players like Nate McClouth and Carlos Quentin went from relative unknowns to All-Stars with MVP upside. Chad Billingsley and Tim Lincecum established themselves as bona fide aces, while Andre Ethier and Jed Lowrie both played their way into everyday roles.
Check out this year’s breakout candidates in the AL East in part one of a six-part series.
2009 A.L. East Breakout Candidates
Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters has collected much of the Orioles publicity over the last year and he could be perhaps their biggest breakout candidate for becoming a household name over the next six months.
Beyond the catcher who is supposed to be an organization’s savior, several other O’s could break through this season.
One very bright spot in an otherwise dull scene in Baltimore over the last few years has been Nick Markakis. The face of the franchise could become one of the faces of the MLB this year.
He hit .306 with 20 homers as a 24-year old last summer, and will likely improve on ever front this year. With the ability to have upwards of 70 extra-base hits he and Wieters will form a very talented and very young duo in the middle of the Orioles lineup for years to come.
Adam Jones will also take steps towards being a go-to guy for Baltimore. He has more power coming and could push 20 homers this season. The Orioles are also primed to have one of the game’s better relief pitchers.
Chris Ray had taken steps towards being a lights out closer before needing Tommy John surgery. He’s healthy again and should start to pitch his way towards All-Star consideration.
Boston Red Sox: The Sox had some of the most impactful breakout players in baseball last year. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis became MVP-caliber players, while Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka were among the best pitchers in the American League.
This year’s class of potential breakout players doesn’t offer the same depth as the one a season ago, but quite a few names could be added to the list of impact Red Sox players before 2009 comes to an end.
The player with the most potential to join Pedroia and Youkilis (as well as a healthy David Ortiz) in MVP discussions is Jason Bay. Bay will finally get to spend an entire season on a team that hasn’t been mired in losing season since Aladdin was on the big screen and gas was $1.05 a gallon.
He will bring his career line of .282 .375 .516 to Fenway Park and hit in the middle of one of the most potent lineups in the MLB. Bay, who has never had a top-10 MVP finish, could easily put together a full season of the numbers he showed Sox fans over the final two months of 2008.
If he can produce at that level, Bay would wind up with more than 30 homer and 40 doubles. Add in over 100 runs scored and 100 batted in, and he could be the second consecutive Bostonian to capture the A.L. award.
Several others could take steps to establish themselves as household names. J.D. Drew who has shown flashes of being an elite player whose been hampered by injuries. Drew’s ability to get on-base could result in an absurd run total if he can stay healthy and would also enter the MVP discussion as a result.
Jacoby Ellsbury put together a solid year at the top of the Red Sox order last season, and should be even better this time around. Once Ellsbury puts all of his talent together, he’s going to hit .300 annually, while being near the top of the leader boards in runs and steals throughout his career.
Justin Masterson did whatever Boston needed him to last year, and will have the opportunity to spend this entire season in the big league bullpen. He flashed a fastball that was at times electric, and if the team didn’t have Jonathan Papelbon embedded as their closer, he’d be a candidate to finish games.
New York Yankees: The Yankees clearly demonstrated frustration with the lack of recent success throwing more money than Ft. Knox could’ve at CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. The team still has a few question marks that they will look to internal options to fill.
Brett Gardner looks like the team’s center fielder because Melky Cabrera refused to grab hold of the job last year. Gardner could become a prolific run-scorer and base-stealer at the major league level and as long as he doesn’t flop will begin to showcase that this year.
One other big hole the Yankees have is filling the void Joba Chamberlain left when he moved to the rotation. At some point this season, Jonathan Albaladejo could assume the pre-Rivera role. He has pitched well in brief stints in the Bronx the last two years, and could rack up K’s and holds with a regular spot in their pen.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays broke out as an organization last year as they reversed their fortunes from perpetual loser to AL Champions in just one season. It took their pitching staff and offense enjoying a number of coming out parties and several players putting together career years to do so, but the team appears to be primed for continued success.
Matt Garza will be an “x-factor” in that success. His ERA will fall a bit, the win total will go up, and he will join James Shields and Scott Kazmir as some of the best arms in the AL.
On the offensive side BJ Upton looks ready to arrive in full-force. He has flashed quality ability in the past but his playoff performance last year indicates he is on the verge of putting everything together.
Upton could be a .300 average guy, who hits 30 homers and steals 30 bases. In that lineup, he’ll also push 100 runs and RBI and his center-field defense will be above average.
Grant Balfour used a power fastball to establish himself as a very good big league reliever. It won’t be long before Rays management asks the Australian to assume the closer role at which points his stock will look like Yahoo’s.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays have a ton of talent close to making an impact at the big league level (Travis Snider, JP Arencibia, Brett Cecil, among others) but need some of the guys already their to become the players they were projected to be if the club wants to be successful in the near future.
Aaron Hill can be one of the best 2B in baseball if he can stay on the field this year. Hill will be looked to put together a similar offensive card to the one he did in 2007. If he can slug over .450 again he could score 100 runs with the Jays offense filled with plenty of guys who could knock him in from scoring position.
Jesse Carlson needs to build off last year and prove he is going to be another very reliable arm in their bullpen in front B.J. Ryan. His ability to strike guys out could make him one of the better eighth guys in the American League.
Someone has to fill the void left by Burnett’s payday. Former first-round pick David Purcey reached the show last year, and while he won’t win 18 the way the departed-Burnett did, he has the ability to begin establishing himself as a reliable big league arm.
The Blue Jays would be ecstatic if he shows signs of being a guy they could on in the front half of their rotation.
Check out the A.L. Central's players to watch coming this weekend.