Picking the Early Breakout Stars of the AL West
Last April if I told you that a prospect currently playing at Triple-A would come out of nowhere to not only win the AL Rookie of the Year award, but almost the AL MVP as well, would you have believed me?
Perhaps it wasn't a major shock to see Mike Trout win the Rookie of the Year award, but to finish second in the MVP voting?
It just goes to show that as much as we all like to think we know the game of baseball, sometimes the truth is much stranger than the fiction we believe.
Yet every year it seems that at least one player on each team has a breakout season. Whether that player is a rookie or someone who perhaps has struggled through the early stage of their career depends, but by summer it's usually clear who that special player is.
Today I figured it might be fun to try identifying which players in the AL West could emerge as the breakout stars in 2013.
Is there another Mike Trout sitting in the minor leagues waiting to take the majors by storm?
While it might seem unlikely, you never know.
Still whenever it comes to predictions of this nature, I always like to offer my patented disclaimer...
Disclaimer: All picks guaranteed wrong come the All-Star Break...or your money back!
Los Angeles Angels: Peter Bourjos, Outfield
Last year Mike Trout seemingly came from the heavens, which is no surprise given the Angels always appear to develop major league talent within their farm system.
This year though according to Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter, the Angels may not have the level of depth we've seen in years past:
Jered Weaver's broken elbow has already forced the Angels to tap into their limited pitching reserve -- Garrett Richards, a former top prospect who had a 1.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings this spring, will slide into the rotation -- but the club will be in bad shape should one its everyday regulars go down. The bench consists of a 32-year-old utilityman, Brendan Harris, who hadn't played in the majors since 2010, and three others (Hank Conger, Andrew Romine and J.B. Shuck) who have a combined 357 major league at-bats, and there won't be much help in a farm system that both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranks as the game's worst. None of the organization's top five hitting prospects, according to BA's list, has played in a league higher than Single-A before this season.
With that said, who will be the Angels' breakout star?
Could it be Garrett Richards now that he's being given the chance to pitch in Weaver's absence over the next several weeks shine after his solid performance in spring training?
Projections at Fangraphs don't seem to think so, yet I could see him being a solid contributor early on this season while Weaver recovers.
Still, if push comes to shove in picking a breakout Angel, I'd opt for outfielder Peter Bourjos instead. Given the team's aging lineup and lack of depth, this year Bourjos should be able to finally cement his spot as an everyday player.
Last year Bourjos seemed poised to do just that until he got hurt, but according to Nick Tom at RantSports.com, he should bounce back and then some:
Bourjos is as healthy as ever and has as clear a spot in the lineup as he’s ever had. He’ll get everyday at-bats because of his defense, and is settled into the nine-hole in the batting order, which isn’t that good unless, oh yeah, Mike Trout is batting lead-off.
The ballpark isn’t conducive to power, but that’s not necessarily Bourjos’s game. He’ll leg out a ton of those signature Bourjos triples, will steal plenty of bases and can score a ton of runs in front of the insanely-potent top of the Angels lineup. If healthy, Bourjos can steal you 30 bases, hit you 15 homers and give you a respectable .270 batting average. Not to mention, a guy with his speed can definitely find himself with a BABIP higher than .338.
Of course all of this comes prefaced with the usual "if healthy" statement; however, with Bourjos at age 26 I'm willing to believe he can come close to those projections, especially with Trout hitting leadoff, which should give Bourjos some decent pitches to hit.
On Deck: Garrett Richards - SP
Oakland Athletics: Jed Lowrie, Shortstop
While the Angels might be lacking depth this season, it seems the A's have an abundance at their disposal, according to Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter.
So who will step up their game this season for the defending division champs?
Over the winter I might have been inclined to go with recent import Hiroyuki Nakajima from the Seibu Lions, given his stellar play over the past decade in Japan. However, he's out on the 15-day DL with a hamstring injury, and that's after struggling through the better part of spring training.
Could the player the A's have filling in for him be this year's breakout star?
Lowrie, days away from 29 years old, would appear to be running out of time to generate much of an impact as a pro, but perhaps in Oakland with a lineup that has a little more talent than the one he played with last year in Houston he could finally find a home?
So far he seems to be off to a hot start (ESPN.com) as the A's have been virtually unstoppable since dropping their first two games of the season.
Perhaps Billy Beane has once again found another diamond in the rough?
Feel free to add Brandon Moss to that list here as well.
On Deck: Brandon Moss - OF/1B
Houston Astros: Chris Carter, 1B/OF
While it looks like Jed Lowrie might have finally found a home in Oakland, could the same be said for one of the players exchanged for him?
Similar to Lowrie, Chris Carter has quickly made a name for himself (ESPN.com) this season following a change of scenery, especially during a highly successful trip to Seattle. Against the Mariners, Carter got eight hits, three of which were homers while driving in five Astros over a three-game stretch earlier this week.
One series in Seattle may not be indicative of much, but according to ESPN's fantasy projections:
Opportunity abounds for Carter, acquired by the Astros in January after he mashed to the tune of 16 homers and a .514 slugging percentage following a midseason promotion by the Athletics, his third opportunity as a big leaguer. He is a three-true-outcomes prospect (walks, K's and homers) who is a batting-average liability in rotisserie leagues, and such youngsters often take time to fully fit in at this level. With the Astros, he has the opportunity to sneak in (near) every-day at-bats among first base, designated hitter and perhaps even left field, his power better suited to Minute Maid Park than the O.co Coliseum's dimensions. While it's a stretch to assume a player such as Carter will automatically become a 30-homer, high-on-base type given the playing time, he at the very least should help AL-only owners, as well as those in daily leagues who can exploit his right-handed power in games against left-handed starting pitchers.
While it's true that Carter still strikes out quite a bit, given the chance to play every day in Houston I can see him posting some decent numbers while helping the 'Stros as they adjust to life in the AL West.
He may not be the breakout star that Jose Altuve was last year, but he should provide fans in Houston with quite a few tape measure shots this year to enjoy if nothing else.
On Deck: Matt Dominguez - 3B
Texas Rangers: Leonys Martin, Outfield
With Josh Hamilton now playing in Los Angeles, could either Craig Gentry or Leonys Martin step up to fill his shoes?
Probably not, but I could see Leonys Martin eventually piecing together a solid season following his impressive performance in spring training.
Martin, according to ESPN, "has shown solid pop and speed and an ability to put bat on ball, so he could contribute across the board, without excelling in any one category. His counting stats might be held down, however, by batting in the bottom third of the order and not having a full-time gig."
OK, so that's not a ringing endorsement, but with top prospects Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt still at Triple-A Round Rock it's hard to find anyone else at the moment on the Texas roster capable of having the kind of breakthough that one would hope for this early in the season.
Could starting pitcher Justin Grimm with the chance to pitch while Matt Harrison is on the 15-day DL step up?
It's possible, according to the folks at Fangraphs, but for today I will stick with Martin maturing within a solid Texas lineup even if he is off to a slow start this season.
On Deck: Justin Grimm - SP
Seattle Mariners: Hisashi Iwakuma, Starting Pitcher
Last but not least we come to the Mariners. After a promising start to the season in spring training and two wins during their first two games of the regular season in Oakland, the M's have struggled.
Before the season started I might have been tempted to pencil in rookie starter Brandon Maurer here as the team's breakout star, but thus far he's looked terrible in his first two appearances.
Perhaps another young pitcher like Carter Capps could break through while coming out of the bullpen?
According to Jeff Sullivan at USS Mariner would should fall in love with him, but against Houston the other night he managed to give off some mixed signals by striking out two while giving up two homers. Besides I doubt the Mariners are going to entrust him closing games for at least another year or two.
At this point it might be tempting to pick one of the M's young offensive players like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley or Justin Smoak, but as anyone who follows the team will tell you, it's getting harder to believe in any of them with each passing day.
Sadly and perhaps a bit out of desperation, I'm feeling the urge to cheat a little here. Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt may not be ready, according to the Texas Rangers, to play in the majors, but could the Seattle Mariners get desperate enough to bring up catching prospect Mike Zunino?
So far all Zunino has done this season is hit the cover off the ball (MLB.com) at Triple-A Tacoma. While I can't picture Zunino becoming this year's Mike Trout, the time to promote the young catcher may come sooner than expected if he continues hitting at his current pace.
Of course, this won't happen, right?
I suppose for now I will go with a player that may not get a lot of hype, but before all is said and done could become one of the more underrated pitchers in the division, Hisashi Iwakuma.
Though he may not get the attention of teammate Felix Hernandez or fellow countryman Yu Darvish, Iwakuma, as we witnessed on Friday night, appears as if he might be poised to join them in the conversation. Iwakuma may not be as flashy, yet I can see him matching his win total from last year by the time the All-Star game rolls around.
On Deck: Mike Zunino - Catcher