MLB Spring Training 2014: Every Team's Biggest Breakout Candidate
After proving that he was deserving of a bigger opportunity with a strong performance in a utility role in 2012, Matt Carpenter took full advantage once the St. Louis Cardinals handed him the starting second base job last season. His age-27 season resulted in an All-Star selection, Silver Slugger Award and fourth-place finish in MVP voting. That's what you call a "breakout performance."
While he may have put himself on the radar the previous season, his 2013 "breakout," which included a league-leading 55 doubles, placed him on a whole new level.
Here is one 2014 breakout candidate from each team, who has a chance to be viewed in a whole different light by the end of the season.
Patrick Corbin had to win the No. 5 starter spot last spring before breaking out and pitching like the Diamondbacks staff ace for most of the season. Like Corbin last season, shortstop Chris Owings (pictured) isn't guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster. But if he can beat out Didi Gregorius, he has the offensive tools to become an impact player at a premium position.
The 22-year-old had an early audition last September, and he didn't disappoint, hitting .291 (16-for-55) with five doubles, two stolen bases and six walks in 20 games. This followed his debut Triple-A season, in which he posted an .841 OPS, 12 homers, 31 doubles, eight triples and 20 stolen bases in 125 games.
His offensive ceiling is much higher than Gregorius', so he'll just have to convince the D'backs that he can make all of the easy plays on defense, and then they'll be happy to give him the job. If so, he has the potential to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases if given regular playing time.
Alex Wood (pictured) may not even start the season in the rotation—he'll have to beat out veteran Freddy Garcia—and there's a chance he could be the odd man out if Gavin Floyd returns from Tommy John surgery late in the season. But in between, he's very likely to get an extended look in the Atlanta Braves rotation, and he has all the tools to succeed.
If he can carry over his success from 2013, when he posted a 3.54 ERA with an 8.7 K/9 in 11 starts, it would be hard to take him out of the mix.
The 23-year-old is also capable of being a shutdown lefty reliever, but with Jonny Venters likely to return from Tommy John surgery by midseason to join Luis Avilan as a second lefty in the 'pen, Wood's chances of remaining in a starting role are strong.
The Baltimore Orioles may very well open the season with a second base platoon of Ryan Flaherty and Jemile Weeks. But it's doubtful that they end it with that duo or that we even get past June 1 without prospect Jonathan Schoop (pictured) taking the reins at the position.
After missing a majority of the 2013 season with a back injury, the 22-year-old Schoop would likely benefit from a return to Triple-A. But his path to the majors is clear as Flaherty/Weeks are no more than a temporary stopgap. He'll take over when the O's feel he's ready.
Schoop, who went 4-for-14 with a homer during a 2013 September call-up, isn't nearly the prospect that Manny Machado was and probably couldn't make the same impact that Machado did as a rookie in 2012, but he offers solid all-around skills and the potential to hit 15-20 homers per season.
Boston Red Sox
Jackie Bradley Jr. (pictured), like most professional baseball players, wasn't ready to make the jump from Double-A to the majors. But he began the 2013 season in the Boston Red Sox's starting lineup, anyway, and struggled badly at the plate. The 23-year-old went 3-for-31 before his first big league stint was over.
A few more call-ups during the season resulted in similar struggles, which is why the Sox felt it necessary to have a backup plan in place even though they expect Bradley to be their starting center fielder on Opening Day.
He'll have to hold off former Cleveland Indians star Grady Sizemore, who is returning from a knee injury that has kept him off the field for the past two seasons, but the left-handed hitter should feel much more comfortable this time around. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if he posted a .350 on-base percentage with 15 homers, 15 stolen bases and played Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field.
Sometimes, it just takes certain players longer to reach the level of consistency that is necessary to hold on to a regular big league job. Jake Arrieta (pictured) still hasn't gotten there. He teased the Baltimore Orioles for years before finally running out of chances when they dealt him to the Chicago Cubs last July.
The soon-to-be 28-year-old will now likely have one very good opportunity to prove to the Cubs that he can be a reliable big league starter.
If his final five starts of last season (3.03 ERA, 29.2 IP, 19 H, 10 BB, 20 K) were any indication, Arrieta has a good chance to lock down the final rotation spot in the spring. And unlike the last couple of seasons in Baltimore when it became obvious that they were ready to compete for a playoff spot, the rebuilding Cubs can offer a much longer leash, allow him to try and find his comfort zone and blossom into a very good No. 3 starter for an organization with a bright future ahead.
Chicago White Sox
Avisail Garcia (pictured) burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old late in the 2012 season and ended up playing an integral role in the Detroit Tigers' World Series run. He hit .319 (15-for-47) in the regular season before going 6-for-18 with four RBI in the playoffs.
Instead of building on his impressive debut and making a case for a starting job in 2013, he began the season on the disabled list with a bruised heel. He never got back into the groove and was back in the minors when the Tigers sent him to the Chicago White Sox in the three-team trade that brought Jake Peavy to the Boston Red Sox and Jose Iglesias to Detroit in late July.
He took full advantage of his new start, posting a .775 OPS with five homers in 42 games for the White Sox and now enters the 2014 season as the team's everyday right fielder. At just 22 years of age, Garcia is one of the young players they hope to build around in the future.
One of the top catching prospects in the game a couple years back, it appears that Devin Mesoraco (pictured) will finally have his chance for regular playing time with the Cincinnati Reds.
After two years of sitting behind Ryan Hanigan, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason, the 25-year-old Mesoraco will head into 2014 as the No. 1 catcher. And backup Brayan Pena isn't likely to eat into his playing time very much.
Now that the Reds have taken the training wheels off, Mesoraco could blossom into the 20-plus home run hitter he was projected to be as a minor league prospect. The Reds are also hoping he was paying close attention to Hanigan, who is one of the better defenders and handlers of a pitching staff in the game, and can become a terrific all-around, All-Star-caliber catcher.
Carlos Santana, who will get a full dose of at-bats despite Yan Gomes taking over as the starting catcher, is working out at third base this winter, but don't take that to mean the Cleveland Indians have soured on Lonnie Chisenhall (pictured).
They may not have the utmost confidence in the 25-year-old after he finished the season with a .688 OPS, and that's why they'll have a fallback plan or two in place, such as Santana. But it doesn't mean they don't believe the former top prospect can still be a very good big league third baseman who can give them above-average production at the plate.
It was clear that the minor leagues are no longer a challenge for the left-handed hitter as he posted a 1.132 OPS with six homers in a 27-game Triple-A stint in 2013. And he also showed some promise back in the majors late in the season when he had 12 hits, including four homers and four doubles in his last 44 at-bats. This could be his last chance to prove he belongs in the starting lineup.
There may be several candidates battling for playing time in the outfield spot that was left vacant when Dexter Fowler was traded this offseason—Carlos Gonzalez will move to center field and there is an open competition for the left field job—but it's hard to look at what Corey Dickerson (pictured) did as a rookie and think he's not the favorite.
The 24-year-old finished the season with a .775 OPS, five homers, 13 doubles and five triples in 69 games while making starts at all three outfield spots. While he did a majority of his damage at Coors Field, we can't ignore that he will be playing half of his games there and many of Colorado's hitters have similar unbalanced splits.
A platoon with Drew Stubbs is likely, but four or five starts per week could easily result in a 20-plus homer season for Dickerson, who has a career .980 OPS in four minor league seasons.
Drew Smyly's promising career as a starting pitcher was put on hold as he was sorely needed in the Detroit Tigers bullpen late in the 2012 season and all of 2013. His organization didn't forget about his 18-game stint as a rookie starter, though, when he posted a 3.79 ERA with 26 walks and 88 strikeouts in 95 innings.
Not only did they open up a spot for the 24-year-old lefty to return to the rotation, they traded away a very good starter in Doug Fister to accommodate the move. While those are big shoes to fill, Smyly should be up to the task.
A strong rookie season for Houston Astros lefty Brett Oberholtzer (pictured) in which he posted a 2.24 ERA over 10 second-half starts could be considered a breakout. He had fallen from the prospect radar, after all, in recent years and doesn't have great stuff. But that makes his small sample size of success more of a surprise and less "breakout."
If he can have a solid season and post a sub-4.00 ERA while remaining in the Astros rotation for the entire season, the 24-year-old lefty will have officially "broken through" and established himself as a solid No. 4 big league starter.
Kansas City Royals
Danny Duffy (pictured) was a breakout candidate back in 2012 when an elbow injury ended his season prematurely after just six starts. He had pitched one-hit ball over six shutout innings in his first start of the season and, although he was still an inconsistent 23-year-old just getting his feet wet in the majors, Duffy appeared close to figuring things out and cementing a spot in the Kansas City Royals rotation.
After Tommy John surgery, he returned late in 2013 and didn't waste time making a strong impression. In his second and third starts, the left-hander pitched shutout ball over 6 and 6.2 innings, respectively.
While he struggled in his last two starts to finish out the season, there is reason for optimism with Duffy expected to be at full strength and ready to show what he can do over a full big league season.
Los Angeles Angels
After bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, Los Angeles Angels right-hander Garrett Richards (pictured) will almost certainly settle in as a starter for good and may even be counted on as the team's No. 3 starter behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.
The 25-year-old rejoined the starting five in late July and helped to stabilize a much-needed area of the ballclub. In his first 11 starts, Richards posted a 2.90 ERA while completing at least seven innings in five of those games.
He may have ran out of gas as he struggled in his last two starts of the season, but he did enough to ensure he's penciled into the 2014 rotation, where he could settle in as a 200-innings-per-season workhorse.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Outfield prospect Joc Pederson (pictured) may not appear to have a clear path to the majors. But the long list of major leaguers ahead of him aren't exactly pictures of health and reliability.
Matt Kemp is returning from ankle and shoulder surgeries. Carl Crawford hasn't been fully healthy and productive since 2010. Andre Ethier is coming off of a "Jekyll and Hyde" season in which he was terrible in the first half and very good in the second half.
The 21-year-old Pederson, who posted an .878 OPS with 22 homers and 31 stolen bases in Double-A last season, could be called upon at some point in 2014, and he's talented enough to make the Dodgers' outfield picture even more complicated in the future.
With only 10 at-bats of experience above High-A, Marcell Ozuna (pictured) probably had no business getting the call to the big leagues in 2013. But he held his own, maintaining a .300 batting average through his 53rd game. His numbers had taken a dip when he suffered a season-ending thumb injury, so there's no telling if he was capable of making adjustments and getting back on track.
The Miami Marlins must believe that he would've been just fine because they expect him to be their starting center fielder in 2014.
With 70 big league games under his belt and another couple months watching from the sidelines, the 23-year-old Ozuna should have a much better idea this time around, and the tools that produced three consecutive 20-plus homer seasons in the minors could help give the Marlins one of the most productive outfields in the league.
Scooter Gennett (pictured) made a name for himself in Milwaukee with an impressive rookie season (.834 OPS, 6 HR, 11 2B in 62 games), which was enough to convince the Brewers that he should be the starting second baseman in 2014 over incumbent Rickie Weeks.
As long as he can hold off the veteran this spring, the left-handed hitting Gennett will have a chance to become a household name around the baseball world with regular playing time that could produce a .285 batting average and 12-15 homers, while helping to balance out a right-handed heavy Brewers lineup.
The future of the Minnesota Twins is center fielder Byron Buxton, who is widely regarded as the best prospect in baseball. Power-hitting third baseman Miguel Sano isn't far behind. That duo isn't likely to settle into the Twins lineup until 2015.
So why watch before then?
Oswaldo Arcia (pictured) could be one major reason as he enters his first full big league season after an impressive rookie season. While he gained little notice due to the Twins' poor season, the 22-year-old outfielder posted a .734 OPS with 14 homers and 17 doubles in 97 games.
His 117 strikeouts is alarming, but an improvement in that area is to be expected, and he should be able to reach base at a high clip as he did in the minors. For 2014, there's nothing standing between Arcia and 500 at-bats, which could result in a 25-homer season.
New York Mets
A foot injury pushed back Travis d'Arnaud's expected arrival in the big leagues, which didn't happen until August. That delayed call-up, along with a subpar hitting performance (.548 OPS in 31 games) during his short stint, has also contributed to the former top catching prospect falling off the radar as we approach the 2014 season.
The 24-year-old is still expected to take on regular catching duties with the New York Mets on Opening Day, however, and there really isn't much of a fallback plan. They'll likely let d'Arnaud learn on the job and, even if he struggles at times, his bat is good enough to where he should put up 15-20 homers and solid numbers across the board.
New York Yankees
The New York Yankees pitching staff has a "TBD" at the back of the rotation with several underwhelming candidates expected to compete for the job and an even bigger question mark at the top of the rotation after CC Sabathia's awful second half of the 2013 season. If not for Ivan Nova's steady performance (2.66 ERA, 121.2 IP, 110 H, 35 BB, 96 K from May 29 on), the state of the rotation could appear even more shaky.
Whether he can do it over the course of a full season is a major question, though. The right-hander had a 5.02 ERA in 2012 and then began the 2013 season by posting a 6.48 ERA in his first four starts before being removed from the rotation.
At age 27, the Yankees need Nova (pictured) to be a steady force if they are to compete in the AL East. A 3.50 ERA over 30 starts would qualify. With limited alternatives, he's likely to get every chance in the world to do it.
Sonny Gray's big league career got started too late for him to actually "break out." After making two impressive relief stints in July, he joined the rotation for good on August 10. Ten starts later, the right-hander had a 2.85 ERA and a place in the Oakland Athtletics postseason rotation. However, it's still too early to declare the 24-year-old Gray (pictured) a future Cy Young candidate.
If he's the real deal, though, the former No. 1 draft pick could be the team's clear-cut staff ace by season's end.
There isn't likely a bigger mystery than Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (pictured), who could be a top-of-the-rotation starter according to some scouts, or a middle reliever, according to others. The Philadelphia Phillies had initially agreed to sign him to a six-year, $48 million deal last July, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, but that deal fell through because of concerns with his elbow, and they eventually settled on a three-year, $12 million deal in August.
While no one really knows what exactly to expect from the 27-year-old Cuban, he will be in the Phillies rotation barring a disastrous spring, and there appears to at least be a chance that he can be a very good starting pitcher.
Andrew Lambo's role on the 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates remains unclear. One thing appear certain, though, and that is that the 25-year-old might not ever have a better opportunity to win a starting job.
As of now, the Pirates have Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata penciled into the first base and right field spots, respectively. Neither is guaranteed a starting job. The Bucs probably aren't even done shopping for help. Lambo (pictured), a left-handed hitter who mashed 32 homers between Triple-A and Double-A last season, should be the top competition for either spot.
If the Bucs stand pat, Lambo has a very good chance to win the majority of the at-bats in a platoon with Sanchez. Even if they do acquire a first baseman, Lambo could beat out Tabata for regular at-bats in right field and would have a fair amount of time to prove he belongs before top prospect Gregory Polanco is ready to take over.
San Diego Padres
As inconsistent as he's been throughout his career, I don't think anyone is ready to declare Tyson Ross (pictured) as having broken through in 2013 after he posted a 2.93 ERA while holding opponents to a .201 batting average in 13 second-half starts.
But if it wasn't an aberration and the 26-year-old right-hander has finally just figured things out, then opposing hitters will continue to struggle against him in 2014, and he could earn the "top-of-the-rotation starter" label by season's end.
San Francisco Giants
After having a rough time convincing Bruce Bochy to give him regular playing time over his first two big league seasons, first baseman Brandon Belt (pictured) finally earned his manager's trust. He rewarded him for everyday at-bats with a solid season in 2013 (.841 OPS, 17 HR, 39 2B) in 2013.
The question is whether the 25-year-old Belt has reached his ceiling, or can he make a Paul Goldschmidt-like jump from very good to MVP-caliber performance?
After posting an .850 OPS with 20 homers and 43 doubles in 2012, Goldschmidt broke out with a .952 OPS and 36 homers last season. Belt's pitcher-friendly home ballpark works against him—he only had six homers at AT&T Park last year—but it wouldn't be a big surprise if Belt were to jump into the MVP conversation in a season in which he could post a .900 OPS and hit 27-30 homers.
At age 21, Taijuan Walker (pictured) has a chance to break into the majors in a pitcher-friendly ballpark with a filthy repertoire of pitches. If Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez can dominate as a rookie, so can Walker.
And unlike Fernandez, who had clearly established himself as the staff ace early on, Walker will have no such pressure on his shoulders. With Felix Hernandez leading the rotation, Walker can escape the spotlight and learn from one of the best pitchers in the game.
St. Louis Cardinals
An ankle injury likely kept Oscar Taveras (pictured) from debuting in the majors last season, and his lack of playing time in 2013 could hurt his chances of making the St. Louis Cardinals Opening Day roster. They could simply want the 21-year-old to play everyday in Triple-A before they give him his first shot in the big leagues.
But if he's as good as everyone says he is, it won't be long before he knocks down the door to the big leagues. And not Matt Adams or Allen Craig or Peter Bourjos will be able to keep him from regular playing time.
Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer's solid rookie season in 2013 (3.22 ERA, 2.7 BB/9, 7.1 K/9 in 23 starts) was overshadowed by the performance of teammate Wil Myers, who was the AL Rookie of the Year.
In 2014, though, similar production from Archer (pictured) over a full season will make it almost impossible to ignore that the 25-year-old has become a top-of-the-rotation starter and David Price's potential successor as the Rays staff ace.
Jurickson Profar (pictured) may not have torn the cover off the ball as a rookie—he had a .644 OPS with six homers in 85 games—but it can't be easy for a 20-year-old shortstop to get into a rhythm as a utility man with semi-regular playing time.
That won't be the case in 2014, however, as the switch-hitter will be the everyday second baseman, and he's much more likely to come close to what he's been projected to do as a big leaguer. A .300 batting average with 10-15 homers and 15-20 stolen bases is certainly attainable.
Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman (pictured) is a long shot to win an Opening Day rotation spot for the Toronto Blue Jays. The odds are much lower, however, that the 22-year-old, who was ranked as the organization's top prospect by Baseball Prospectus, won't force himself into the big league picture at some point.
The former first-round pick appeared to be on the fast track as a potential late-inning reliever who could reach the majors relatively quickly, but his path was halted after a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant.
While he could still help in a relief role, especially if the team is in the playoff hunt and they have five starters pitching well, he has front-line starter potential and could very well find himself in the Jays rotation by June 1.
His path to the majors wasn't exactly clear, and the Washington Nationals weren't exactly in a hurry to have him switch positions—he was drafted as a third baseman but was blocked by Ryan Zimmerman—but Anthony Rendon (pictured) was the team's starting second baseman by early June, and he'll likely be there for the foreseeable future.
With a few months of on-the-job-training under his belt, the 23-year-old will head into spring training with a clear role and a much better idea of what to expect as an everyday big league second baseman. As a result, it would be a huge surprise if he doesn't make huge strides at the plate and improves greatly on his .725 OPS with seven homers in 98 games as a rookie.