Despite the vast amount of accomplished, veteran talent that Alex Anthopoulos and the Toronto Blue Jays have on the roster for the 2013 season, there are still a handful of younger players who appear poised for a breakout campaign this year.
In this article, I'll identify three players who appear to be on the cusp of what should be a career year (i.e. their best season to date) and could begin to enter their peaks.
Of course, it is important to understand that any player who has already produced an All-Star caliber season is not eligible as they have already broken out.
As such, last year's breakout stars, Edwin Encarnacion and Brandon Morrow, will not appear on this list. Sure, they could improve upon last season's impressive performances, but they have already made their presences felt and garnered significant attention around baseball.
This list is about the next wave of potential impact players on the Blue Jays and who will make a similar mark on the 2013 season.
Here are three players on this year's roster who could be on the cusp of breakout seasons and could make significant contributions to the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, as the franchise looks to end its nearly two decade-long playoff drought.
The first and most obvious candidate for a breakout campaign in 2013 is third baseman Brett Lawrie.
The 23-year-old righty is a former first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, but was acquired by the Blue Jays prior to the 2011 season for Shaun Marcum. He crushed his way through the minors, culminating with a .353/.415/.661 slash and 18 home runs in 69 games for Toronto's AAA-affiliate, Las Vegas, in 2011.
That performance earned him a call up late in 2011, and he has since acquired just over a full season's worth of playing time in the majors with 168 games played over the last two seasons.
The numbers haven't been very impressive, but we must remember Lawrie is still adjusting to the majors and is still only two seasons removed from a full year in Double-A. He's also been asked to learn a new position, but has settled in quite well at third base.
In 168 games, Lawrie owns a solid .278/.336/.446 batting line along with a .781 OPS and 110 OPS+ (which adjusts OPS based on the player's ballpark and where 100 is defined as league-average). He also has 20 home runs, 34 doubles and 20 stolen bases to date.
In just over 700 career plate appearances—just about a full-season's worth of work—he has already shown he can hit in the .280 range and has the look of a potential perennial 20/20 hitter.
Now going into his second full season, he appears ready to build on his solid start and looks poised to meet the high level of potential scouts see in him. Lawrie has all the tools to be an All-Star caliber hitter and 2013 could be the year those tools translate into big production on the stat sheet.
Bill James forecasts an improved campaign in which Lawrie will hit 18 home runs, score 96 runs and rack up 21 stolen bases while hitting .289. The potential is there for Lawrie to do that and more.
He may have only hit 11 home runs last season, but he also tacked on 26 doubles and battled with a string of nagging injuries—including an oblique strain which forced him onto the disabled list in August—all season long. It's very possible these nagging injuries affected his swing and could explain why he saw a sudden, drastic spike in his ground-ball rate.
As Michael Beller of Sports Illustrated notes, Lawrie's groundball rate of 50.4 percent was much higher than his usual rates and that this number appears to be an anomaly. As Beller optimistically states, "the good news is he never hit a ton of ground balls in the minors. With the information we have about him, we can safely bet that 2012 was the outlier, not 2011."
With Lawrie on track to be healthy for the start of the upcoming season and taking into account his minor league track record, we should see his fly-ball rate rise to his career average, and with it should come increased power production.
Despite a somewhat disappointing campaign, Lawrie showed some signs of improvement over last season. Beller points out his contact rate "jumped to 83.6 percent from 77.9 percent" and his swing-and-miss rate was better than league-average. Lawrie's walk rate also nearly doubled from the first half to the second half of the season.
Finally, Lawrie has shown to be a very good defensive third baseman. He still makes a handful of errors as he becomes more accustomed to handling the hot corner, but his 6.5 UZR was sixth-best in all of baseball last season and he showed great range at the position.
Lawrie has long been considered a five-tool talent and 2013 could be the year he flashes all those tools simultaneously in a breakout campaign. He has 20-plus home run power and at full health in 2013, we could see his home run total potentially double from a year ago. Add that to the fact that he has stolen 20 bases in his short career, and Lawrie could be on the cusp of a 20/20 season.
With a full year of seasoning under his belt and with better focus and health, Lawrie could be poised to move into the upper-echelon of third basemen in 2013. He has the power, speed, contact-hitting ability and defensive prowess to be one of the best in the game.
He's still only 23 and his best days may still be a few years away, but the underlying improvement last season and his minor league track record bode well for a potential breakout this season. Don't be surprised if Lawrie is an All-Star candidate this July.
A second position player who could be on the cusp of a career year in 2013 is starting catcher J.P. Arencibia.
The Blue Jays dealt away Travis D'Arnaud, who was widely considered the best catching prospect in the game, to acquire R.A. Dickey so the organization has shown it is willing to put its trust in Arencibia for the foreseeable future.
Arencibia, who just turned 27—an age in which hitters frequently have their breakout season—has already shown above-average power, but will need to improve his batting eye.
His rookie season in 2011 went well, as he slugged 23 home runs and drove in 78 runs, but only managed to hit .219 and reach base at a .282 clip. Last year, Arencibia's average bumped up to .233, but his OBP dipped to .275 as he hit 18 home runs and drove in 56 runs, despite missing about a month-and-a-half of playing time due to a fractured hand.
Arencibia will be back at 100 percent to start 2013—barring an unforeseen injury—and in his third full season, could start to see his numbers trend in the right direction. He took a step back last year, as his strikeout rate went from 27.4 percent in 2011 to 29.0 percent in 2012 and his walk rate dipped from 7.4 percent to 4.8 percent.
However, there are signs that he could turn it around fully healthy in 2013.
On the bright side, prior to suffering an injury that shelved him for over a month, Arencibia was having a fantastic month of July. In 17 games for the month, he hit .321/.345/.736 and hit six home runs while driving in 13 runs. He appeared poised for his breakout right then and there last summer.
The hand injury set him back and he wasn't the same player when he returned in September. However, he has been given months to heal this offseason and should be ready to pick up where he left off last summer prior to the injury. The fact that he was picked to be America's catcher in the World Baseball Classic is a sign that he is expected to be back at full strength this spring.
Arencibia isn't a great hitter. He's never going to post elite K/BB numbers, but as his 83 career minorleague home runs can attest to, he has tremendous power potential. In his final Triple-A season in 2010, Arencibia hit 32 home runs—albeit in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League—and slugged a whopping .626.
His power has carried over to the majors, as he is averaging 29 home runs on a 162-game basis, but there is the possibility he could flirt with 30 home runs in 2013 and be among the league leaders at the position for traditional power statistics.
Even in a season where he took a step back in some regards, his HR/FB percent improved from 14.7 percent in 2011 to an impressive 16.5 percent in 2012. Though he isn't likely to ever impress with his batting average, he has a good chance to rack up home runs and RBI this season, especially as he is expected to bat behind a very strong middle of the order.
With the organization's complete trust and in a very good lineup, Arencibia could be a strong candidate to put together a season close to 2010 performance in Triple-A. He may not have the potential of Brett Lawrie, but a 25-30 home run season with 80-90 RBI isn't out of reach for Arencibia in 2013.
He nearly did that as a rookie in 2011, but with more seasoning and back at full health, we could see Arencibia have his best season to date this year. He tantalized us with an impressive July prior to his injury and may be poised to extrapolate on those numbers in 2013.
Selecting a pitcher who could have a breakout campaign for the Blue Jays in 2013 was not an easy task, especially considering that every member of the rotation has already had their breakout moment in the past.
Brandon Morrow had his most impressive campaign to date in 2012, and while Ricky Romero should bounce back this upcoming season, he has already logged two very impressive seasons worth of work in 2010 and 2011.
Focusing on the bullpen, one name that should be particularly intriguing is Brad Lincoln.
Alex Anthopoulos acquired Lincoln from the Pirates midseason last year for the ever-frustrating Travis Snider and he quickly became a fixture in the bullpen. Prior to the trade, Lincoln appeared to be on the cusp of a breakout season in 2012, as he posted a 2.73 ERA and 1.10 WHIP while striking out 60 in 59.1 innings for the Pirates.
Lincoln didn't achieve the same level of success for the Blue Jays post-trade, as he recorded a 5.65 ERA and 1.36 WHIP, but still managed to strike out a batter per inning in 28.2 innings of work.
Those numbers aren't impressive on the surface, but a closer analysis reveals that Lincoln was actually a pretty reliable reliever for the Blue Jays. Lincoln didn't give up a run in 18 of his 24 appearances for the Blue Jays, and if you take away one ghastly appearance in which he gave up six earned runs in 0.2 innings against the Rays, his numbers were rather solid.
Minus that one performance which skewed his overall numbers, Lincoln had a 3.86 ERA in his other 23 appearances for the Blue Jays.
Lincoln is a former fourth overall draft pick and at age 27, coming off a very solid season—his first as a full-time reliever—he could have a breakout campaign in 2013.
Steve Delabar had a breakout performance in the bullpen last year after the Blue Jays acquired him, and Lincoln has the tools to have an equally impressive season this year.
He averaged a strikeout per inning last season and seemed to grow into his role as a reliever. The Pirates used him for five starts, which did not go well as Lincoln recorded a 6.08 ERA and 1.47 WHIP as a starter. However, in 47 appearances as a reliever, his ERA was a much improved 2.80 and his WHIP was cut down to 1.07.
The Blue Jays are stretching Lincoln out as a starter this spring, but it's just in case they need another starter in exhibition games. All signs point to him being in the bullpen, most likely as a long reliever, given his past experience as a starter and his ability to throw multiple innings per relief appearance.
That should give Lincoln the opportunity to continue to rack up strikeouts and post a solid ERA and WHIP in low-leverage situations while he becomes more comfortable as a full-time reliever in his second season in the bullpen. Lincoln may not ever live up to the potential of being the fourth overall pick, but he could carve out a niche in the Blue Jays' pen this season.
He has always been a good strikeout pitcher and should continue to average close to a strikeout per inning in a less demanding role in the bullpen. The Blue Jays have Casey Janssen and Sergio Santos penciled in for the back of the bullpen, but if they struggle to close out games—as relievers frequently do—Lincoln could find himself in the mix, given his pedigree and ability to miss bats.
Lincoln looks as if he has finally put it together as a reliever after being a highly-touted prospect and could really grow into the role in 2013. His impressive 2012 campaign in the bullpen bodes well for a breakout season in 2013 if Lincoln continues his development as a reliever.