Picking the Early Breakout Stars of the AL East
Despite the wave of information and analysis that has swept over the game of baseball, it's easy to admit that the sport is truly fun because of unpredictability.
While late game splits and career numbers are a great indicator to day-to-day success or failures, this coming summer will yield narratives that few predicted.
In October, the story is about collective units banding together to defy the short series sample size in route to a title.
From April through September, the sport is about the individuals who grind through a 162-game season to help land their team in the crap shoot that is October baseball.
Past success, projected Wins Above Replacement value, and depth are a great way to guess which teams will stand tall through the dog days of the regular season.
Of course, a few unexpected contributors can help along the way.
Here are the picks for early breakout stars in the American League East.
Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis, 1B
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
As Davis plates runner after runner for the high-scoring Orioles lineup, it's easy to wonder if he's on the verge of becoming baseball's next superstar hitter.
Even if he's not quite on the level of an MVP performer, Baltimore may have stolen a 40-homer, middle-of-the-order slugger from Texas in the summer of 2011.
As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reviewed on Monday, former Orioles general manager Andy MacPhail was adamant about receiving Davis back in a deadline deal with the Texas Rangers for top-flight reliever Koji Uehara.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels made the deal, but it wasn't because of a lack of belief in Davis' long-term potential. In fact, he compared his power and future breakout to Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz.
Through seven games in 2013, Davis has been every bit the player he had the potential to be in the Texas system. With 17 RBI, a four-to-four strikeout to walk ratio, and an OPS+ bordering .300, Davis is sizzling.
The man without a position or regular playing time could find himself at Citi Field in mid-July for the 2013 All-Star Game.
Tampa Bay Rays: Desmond Jennings, CF
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Tampa Bay's decision to allow B.J. Upton to depart in free agency was mostly a monetary-driven move to ensure a stable payroll, allow arbitration increases to a stable of young roster pieces and avoid paying a center fielder during his age 30-32 seasons.
Of course, it helps having a capable replacement in the organization.
Desmond Jennings has been predicted for breakout stardom before. As 2013 progresses, he finally looks ready to be that player.
Ignore the early .250 average and .756 OPS. Instead, focus on his approach at the plate and maturity in how he is attacking and zeroing in on every single pitch from the opposition.
Heading into 2013, Jennings had posted a .327 on-base percentage over the course of 773 plate appearances for Tampa between 2010-2012. In over 2,200 minor league plate appearances, Jennings posted a .381 OBP.
Why the stark difference, other than competition level? Plate discipline and approach.
As Jennings progresses through the early part of 2013, it seems he's back to the level of comfort he felt during his days of minor league success.
Through eight games this season, Jennings has walked in 15.2 percent of his plate appearances and struck out in only 12.1 percent. Last year, those numbers were 8.2 and 21.3, respectively.
His current plate discipline is similar to his 2009 Triple-A season in which he posted a .419 OBP and nearly slugged .500.
Jennings has arrived, Rays fans.
Toronto Blue Jays: J.A. Happ, LHP
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Toronto's demotion of former ace Ricky Romero at the end of camp was understandably the bigger story than who they picked to take his spot in the 2013 rotation: J.A. Happ.
The former Philadelphia Phillie and Houston Astro is being given another chance to succeed as a starting pitcher because of Romero's struggles, a stellar 1.90 spring ERA and the ability to miss bats on a consistent basis.
From the way Toronto manager John Gibbons spoke about him to NJ.com, it seems like Toronto thinks they have an underrated fifth starter to add to the quartet of Dickey, Morrow, Johnson, and Buehrle.
“We think he’s going to have a big year,” said Gibbons. “Him and Josh Johnson both had great springs. Happ came in determined to make the team. He said that publicly and he did it.”
Last Saturday, he did it against Boston in his first outing of the season.
Boston has scored 39 runs over seven games early on in 2013. For 5.1 innings on Saturday, they couldn't touch Happ. He struck out six, allowed only one hit and picked up the victory.
Despite the assumption of regression since his 2009 breakout season in Philadelphia (12-4, 2.93), Happ has actually become a better pitcher over the years. Last year, his xFIP (3.92) and K/9 (8.96) were the best of his career.
If the 30-year-old lefty can continue striking out a batter or more per inning, Toronto fans won't think of him as a fifth starter or Romero's replacement for very long.
New York Yankees: David Phelps, RHP
Although Phelps biggest attribute—the ability to pitch effectively in long relief, short relief, and as a starter—has become a detriment to using him in the rotation, it might not be long before Yankees manager Joe Girardi is forced to pencil in Phelps every fifth day.
His performance in the minor leagues, for the 2012 Yankees and in the spring of 2013 certainly warrants the opportunity.
As he waits and contributes out of a bullpen role, consider the factors around the Yankee starting staff and why Phelps will likely be given the opportunity to start soon:
-Andy Pettitte, dazzling in his first two starts, hasn't pitched 200 innings since 2008.
-C.C. Sabathia is coming off two disabled stints and elbow surgery.
-Hiroki Kuroda took a batted ball off his finger in his first start, nearly missing Monday's scheduled start in Cleveland.
-Phil Hughes experienced a bulging disc in spring and was expected to miss his first scheduled start before a surprise comeback.
-Ivan Nova has posted a 5.09 ERA since his breakout season in 2011.
With Michael Pineda not expected back until mid-summer, Phelps is a good bet to shine for the Yankees staff this summer.
Boston Red Sox: Daniel Nava, OF
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Nava is known more for his persistence in reaching the majors than what he actually provides Boston on the field.
If he continues to mash left-handed pitching and contribute for a winning Red Sox team, that will change quickly.
His three-run home run off Wei-Yin Chen proved to be the difference in Boston's home opening victory over Baltimore on Monday afternoon at Fenway Park.
Before a wrist injury last summer, his power was not uncommon. In fact, Nava slugged .523 from May 10 through June 22 last season.
The Boston front office believes in his potential moving forward.
"He's always been able to hit. He's hit throughout the minor leagues. We were and are very confident this guy's a big league player," said Sox assistant general manager Brian O'Halloran to WEEI.com. "He's a good big league player -- a good hitter and he's worked hard on his defense to improve significantly since we first saw him a couple of years ago.
"It's hard to say [what impact the wrist injury had on his performance last year], but we knew he was playing through some things. That in and of itself was impressive, that he was out there trying to help us when he wasn't 100 percent. ... It's impressive that he fought through it, and here he is again, showing what he can do healthy."
When John Farrell pencils him into his lineup this summer, it's likely that he will show it again.
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