Predicting a Potential Breakout Star for Every 2013 MLB Playoff Team
Having a breakout season is incredibly difficult for most players to pull off. Doing so in the playoffs, where playing time is severely limited and the pressure is on, is almost unthinkable.
Yet we've seen a handful of players do just that over the years, going from only somewhat-known prospects or mediocre veterans to playoff sensations and household names overnight.
While the full-time baseball fan will be familiar with most of the names on this list, the casual fan will not—and it's those fans who are most impacted by breakout campaigns, with formerly unknown players becoming as familiar to them as the superstars.
Let's take a look at the one player from each team who could complete that transformation in the 2013 playoffs.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Baseball-Reference and are current through games of September 25.
Boston Red Sox: Quintin Berry, OF
I know what you're thinking: "Quintin Berry? He picked Quintin Freakin' Berry to be Boston's breakout star in the playoffs? Either he's drunk or he just picked a name at random."
You'd be wrong on both counts, and I can explain Berry's selection with two words: Dave Roberts.
With Boston sitting two outs from elimination by the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, Roberts was inserted as a pinch-runner for Kevin Millar. He proceeded to swipe second base and score the game-tying run on a Bill Mueller single, turning himself into a breakout sensation and cult-like hero at the age of 32.
More importantly, Roberts' swipe set the wheels in motion for what would become one of the greatest comebacks—and collapses—in playoff history.
Like Roberts, the 28-year-old Berry is a journeyman outfielder whose biggest asset is his speed.
We saw him do his best Roberts imitation earlier this month against the Yankees, when, inserted in the ninth inning as a pinch runner for Mike Napoli, he swiped second base against Mariano Rivera, advanced to third base on a throwing error and scored the game-tying run on a Stephen Drew single.
There's no reason to think that Berry couldn't repeat that scenario during the playoffs—when a simple stolen base can change everything.
Cleveland Indians: Yan Gomes, C
Backup catchers typically don't make for legitimate breakout candidates, especially in the playoffs, when the starter behind the plate is almost never going to sit for a game.
But Yan Gomes isn't your typical backup catcher, and the rest of the baseball world may find that out as Cleveland's first playoff run since 2007 begins to unfold.
Gomes, 26, is not only a capable backstop with a strong throwing arm (just ask Houston's Jonathan Villar, the latest baserunner to fall victim to the cannon attached to Gomes' right shoulder), but he's someone with big-time offensive potential.
Over 84 games this season, Gomes has hit .289/.344/.477 with 30 extra-base hits (10 home runs) and 34 RBI—solid numbers for any catcher, especially one who doesn't play on a daily basis.
His talent wasn't lost on B/R's Zachary D. Rymer, who ranked Gomes as the eighth-best catcher in baseball in the phenomenal B/R MLB 500 series that was rolled out earlier this month, five spots ahead of Indians starter Carlos Santana.
Whether it's as a pinch-hitter or spending an entire game as a designated hitter, Gomes is going to make his presence known in the playoffs.
Detroit Tigers: Hernan Perez, IF
On a team full of superstars and well-known role players, finding a legitimate breakout candidate in Detroit is akin to searching for a contact lens in the middle of the ocean—chances are you're never going to find it.
Thankfully, Detroit doesn't sit in the middle of the ocean, making it far easier to find and tag 22-year-old Hernan Perez as the team's biggest breakout candidate heading into the playoffs.
Like Ramon Santiago, who has filled the role of primary backup infielder for the Tigers for nearly a decade, Perez doesn't bring a plethora of offensive talent to the plate. But what he lacks in a potent bat he makes up for with speed—something that Santiago simply can't provide—giving manager Jim Leyland a legitimate pinch runner to use late in games should the need arise.
Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray, SP
While the full-time baseball fan is already familiar with 23-year-old Sonny Gray and his impressive arsenal of pitches (especially his knee-buckling curveball) on the mound, the casual fan—especially those outside of the Bay Area—have no idea who Gray is.
That's all about to change.
Ranked as the Oakland Athletics' fifth-best prospect by Baseball America heading into the season, Gray has been terrific since being called up for good in August, pitching to a 3.11 ERA and 1.13 WHIP over his last nine starts, striking out 53 batters in 55 innings of work.
On the mound for Oakland's division-clinching victory over Minnesota this past Sunday, Gray figures to be Oakland's fourth starter in the postseason. While he's likely going to be limited to only one start per series, his ability to shut down opposing lineups will make people stand up and take notice.
Tampa Bay Rays: Freddy Guzman, OF
If there's one thing that the Tampa Bay Rays lack, it's a player with big-time speed.
Only two Rays—Desmond Jennings (20) and Ben Zobrist (11)—have double-digit stolen bases on the season. And with both of them entrenched in the starting lineup, skipper Joe Maddon's options are severely limited when it comes to pinch runners late in games.
Enter 32-year-old Freddy Guzman, who has stolen 587 bases in 997 career minor league games, including an impressive 129 in 170 games over the past two seasons with Ciudad del Carmen in the Mexican League.
Over parts of five major league seasons (dating back to 2004), Guzman has swiped 34 bags in 48 attempts, including one in the bottom of the 11th inning against the Texas Rangers back on Sept. 18 that saw him score the game-tying run on a David DeJesus seeing-eye single.
His ability to get into scoring position without the help of the more potent bats in Tampa Bay's lineup makes him an intriguing weapon at Maddon's disposal in the playoffs—and it could be the difference in the Rays making it out of the AL Wild Card Game against Cleveland.
Atlanta Braves: Alex Wood, SP
As we've seen with a handful of playoff teams thus far, finding that unknown commodity who can "shock the world" in the playoffs is difficult, especially on the more high-profile teams that will be playing meaningful baseball in October.
While many fans are already familiar with 22-year-old southpaw Alex Wood, that he'll be coming out of Atlanta's bullpen in the postseason gives him a chance to reintroduce himself to the baseball world as one of the brightest young power arms in the game.
Wood has been awesome in relief this season, pitching to a 2.25 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while fanning 21 batters in 20 innings of work.
Stretched out as a starter, he has the ability to log multiple innings in relief for the Braves should a member of the team's postseason rotation struggle, something that wasn't lost on manager Fredi Gonzalez, who explained his decision-making process to MLB.com's Mark Bowman and Eric Single.
"Looking ahead, I think he will be a big piece for us coming out of that bullpen," Gonzalez said.
By the time the playoffs come to an end, Wood could potentially be the biggest—and most valuable—piece of the bullpen that Gonzalez has at his disposal.
Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton, OF
Billy Hamilton has already made a major impact with his world-class speed in Cincinnati, swiping 13 consecutive bases to begin his career before finally being caught, with the Mets Juan Centeno making a perfect throw to nail him at second base on Wednesday.
We looked at how Hamilton was going to impact the NL playoff races at the end of August, and what I wrote then remains true today: The 23-year-old center fielder can be a game-changer without taking an official at-bat.
But Hamilton has proven to be more than a pair of legs, hitting .389 (7-for-18) with nine runs scored in 12 September games, showing a far more advanced approach at the plate than many expected him to exhibit considering his unimpressive .256/.308/.343 slash line with Triple-A Louisville this season.
At this point, Hamilton isn't just a threat to cause problems for the opposition when he's on base, he's become a threat at the plate as well.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Paco Rodriguez, RP
Playing in one of the biggest media markets in the world, it's amazing how little we hear about 22-year-old Paco Rodriguez.
Sure, he's a middle reliever who has been used by manager Don Mattingly for more than one inning only eight times this season, severely limiting his visibility. And the fact that he plays on a team of high-profile talent, with an All-Star at nearly every position, certainly doesn't help his case for more notoriety.
But the numbers do.
Rodriguez has pitched to a 2.21 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, averaging more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings of work. He has been dominant against batters from either side of the plate, holding both right-handed and left-handed hitters to a sub-.200 batting average and sub-.290 on-base percentage.
He owes much of that success to a deceptive delivery, one that is sure to command the attention of those fans who have not seen much of Rodriguez up to this point. He shows the batter the ball before rearing back and hiding it behind his head, making it anyone's guess as to what pitch is on the way and where it's coming from.
Whether it's his dominant stuff on the mound or the funky-looking delivery that he uses, Rodriguez has the potential to be one of the most talked-about Dodgers in the 2013 playoffs.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jordy Mercer, SS
Since replacing Clint Barmes as the Pittsburgh Pirates' starting shortstop in May, 27-year-old Jordy Mercer has been a solid contributor for what has quickly become one of America's favorite teams. Among shortstops who have had at least 350 at-bats this season, Mercer's .748 OPS ranks ninth and his .280 batting average and .331 on-base percentage 10th.
When you're putting up numbers that rank in the top 10 of your position and nobody's talking about you, it makes for a tremendous breakout opportunity on a bigger stage than the regular season provides.
St. Louis Cardinals: Kevin Siegrist, RP
While the St. Louis Cardinals' more ballyhooed youngsters like Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha and Kolten Wong have gotten the bulk of the attention this season, 24-year-old left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist has quietly put together a very impressive rookie campaign.
In 38 innings of relief, Siegrist has pitched to a 0.47 ERA and 0.80 WHIP, striking out 50 batters in only 38 innings of work. Just as Rosenthal did in last year's playoffs, Siegrist has the chance to go from unknown commodity outside of St. Louis to a household name before the 2013 postseason ends.