Every year players in the MLB take their individual performances to a new level. Sometimes it’s a player who becomes a superstar, while others a back-up 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 A.L Central in part two of a six part series.
2009 A.L. Central Breakout Candidates
Chicago White Sox: Bobby Jenks seemed like he was arriving as a star closer when he closed out the World Series as a rookie. With three full seasons under his belt, Jenks looks primed to combine a lot of strike outs with a quality ERA.
He should use his electric fastball to return to All-Star form and by the end of the season could be in discussions among the game’s most elite closers.
Matt Thornton established himself as a solid bullpen guy for the south siders last summer, but could become a lockdown set-up man in front of Jenks. He piled up strike out after strike last year, and posted an ERA of 2.67.
He should strike out more than a guy an inning again, and could see his ERA fall towards the 2.00 mark.
Josh Fields arrived as a 24-year old two years ago by crushing 24 home runs and establishing himself as the 3B of the present and future in Chicago. That star diminished quite a bit last year as he only appeared in 14 MLB games and hit a meek .156.
The White Sox believe in him enough that they let Joe Crede walk and handed the job back to Fields. If he can get off to a decent start and stick in Chicago all year, he could easily jog around the bases 25 times or more and become a solid everyday third baseman.
Cleveland Indians: A year ago Shin-Soo Choo was able to see regular playing time at the big league level for the first time in his career last year for the Indians. As a 25-year old he hinted at becoming a budding star for the Tribe.
By the end of the season he was hitting third for Cleveland and finished the year with a very impressive .309 .397 .549 hitting line.
In 159 career games, the young outfielder has hit .291 with 17 homers. Given a full season at the MLB level this year, Choo could blossom into an outfielder who hits .300 with 25 homers and 15 stolen bases.
Choo’s future likely holds All-Star appearances and he’s going to combine with Grady Sizemore and Matt LaPorta to give the Indians one the best outfields in baseball for years to come.
Like Choo, Kelly Shoppach was able to see significant playing time for the first time in his career last summer. Shoppach appeared in 112 games and made sure he’ll see even more this season. He took advantage of Victor Martinez being hurt and swatted 21 homers.
With an increased workload this year, Shoppach could become a 25-homer catcher, something that is hard to find in baseball. He is already among the best catchers in baseball when it comes to on-base plus slugging, and with a full season under his belt now could even see improvement on his mark of .865.
Detroi Tigers: Edwin Jackson arrived in the major leagues on his 19th birthday in 2003 and quickly cemented everyone’s belief of him as baseball next big thing. After compiling an ERA of 2.45 in 22 innings that September, Jackson hasn’t been able to live up the hype that once surrounded him.
However, he did win 14 games and helped the Rays turn their franchise around last summer and will be asked to be part of something similar in Detroit this year. He has shown flashes of the brilliance once expected of him, and this year should pull his ERA under 4.00 for the first time since those first 22 innings.
He should reach 15 wins, and will establish himself as a good young starter at the big league level. Despite going into his seventh year in the big leagues, he is just 24 and still has plenty of time left to establish himself as a front line starter.
Armando Galarraga will be another starter asked to help the Tigers climb out of the mediocrity they’ve recently been mired in. Last season he was the only starter who pitched well in the motor city, and could establish himself as one of the more reliable arms in the AL with another quality season.
He allows minimal amounts of base-runners, which is why he is successful. He could surpass 15 wins while having an ERA near 3.50 this year, with All-Star appearances not out of the question in his future.
Those arms need someone to throw to, and the Tigers have a young catcher working his way through the minors that they plan on being that guy before long. Sure, they acquired Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor both this offseason, but Dusty Ryan will be donning the tools of ignorance in Detroit before this season is over.
Ryan is headed back to AAA to finish his development but once he is ready they won’t hold him back anymore. Laird is just a .255 career hitter and is merely a place holder for a better solution.
When Ryan arrives as that solution he will bring with him a rocket for an arm and a bat capable of blasting 450-foot homers on a regular basis. Ryan may never be an all-star backstop, but he will announce to the baseball world that he is going to be a starting catcher in the majors before 2009 comes to an end.
Kansas City Royals: A year ago the Royals got an offensive boost from a much unexpected source. It wasn’t one of the first round picks they’ve recently developed, but a seventh rounder that was barely a prospect before last year.
Mike Aviles first game in the majors was a lackluster 0-for-3 performance against the Minnesota Twins. The rest of his season was quite a bit better, and hitless performances became few and far between.
He batted a sweltering .325 and slugged 10 homers as the Royals shortstop en route to a fourth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. If Aviles can hit at anywhere near the clip he did from the end of May on, he’s going to be an All-Star shortstop this July and could see multiple trips to the midsummer classic.
Alex Gordon’s career in the Major Leagues has been disappointing. While it may be harsh to call any 24-year old with two full seasons at the big league level a disappointment, it would be hard to argue anything else for Gordon.
He came up as one the most highly-touted prospects baseball has ever seen, a can’t-miss phenom that has so far missed.
After 285 games with the Royals he sports a career line of just .253 .332 .421 with only 31 HR and 119 RBI. After showing signs of improvement last year though, Gordon looks primed to continue towards reaching the hype bestowed upon him even if it ends up taking longer than originally expected.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him hit .275 this year while eclipsing the 20-home run mark. He may never be the .300-35 guy scouts drooled over in college and the minor leagues, but could turn himself into a hitter with All-Star upside in his prime.
Minnesota Twins: Kevin Slowey started to showcase some of his vast talents a summer ago for the Twin Cities faithful. He knocked nearly a full point off of his ERA and finished under 4.00 (even if it was just barely under at 3.99).
He is successful because he keeps base runners to a minimum by throwing a lot of ground balls while rarely surrendering a walk. Slowey could elevate his game to front-line starter status this year, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him post an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.50 while winning 16 or 17 games.
Delmon Young has started his career in similar fashion to the aforementioned Gordon. After being a super-prospect compared to the likes of Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. Young’s career is off to a sputtering start.
After hitting just 26 round trippers in his first 344 games, Young could be ready to start circling the bases more frequently. A year older and a year stronger, Young needs to continue to have his strike out totals decrease.
If he can make more consistent contact it wouldn’t be out of line to think he could eclipse the .300 mark for batting average given that he has been within 12 points in both of the last two seasons.
Also, he would likely see a rise in RBI and runs scored and could push both totals over the century mark this year. Though the home runs may still take a few years to develop, he could ultimately hit close to 20 this year and begin to establish himself as a very viable outfielder for the Twins.
Alexi Casilla hit his way into being the everyday second basemen for the Minnesota Twins last season. Casilla could turn himself into a catalyst a top the Twins' lineup as soon as this year.
Gifted with dynamic speed, Casilla hit .281 as a 23-year old. Combine his ability to draw walks and Casilla could become a run scoring machine for years to come.
If he can continue to blossom as a hitter Casilla could regularly hit .300 and score 100 runs, which would certainly make him a lock for All-Star considerations given the scarcity of quality second basemen in baseball.
Did you miss part one of the series? If so check out the AL East.