Oakland A's: 3 Potential Breakout Candidates to Watch in Spring Training

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Oakland A's: 3 Potential Breakout Candidates to Watch in Spring Training
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Derek Norris and Nate Freiman meet with a chest bump.

Perhaps, the best thing about the Oakland A's spring training from a fan's perspective is watching to see who unexpectedly impresses.

In my spring training preview, I listed a few guys who could be the next breakout candidates, including Sonny Gray and Dan Otero. Specifically, I highlighted Josh Donaldson's 2012 campaign in which he catapulted from third- or fourth-string catcher to starting third baseman. Then, in 2013, with much competition for second base, Eric Sogard came out victorious.

Let's take another look.

Motivation played a large role in Donaldson and Sogard's cases. Each were "underdogs" if you will, fighting to be the hands-down starter.

So, for this article, well-known veterans who have been starters in the majors for years are thrown out. In fact, any guy whose spot is guaranteed next season doesn't qualify, either. Lastly, any guy who it wouldn't be surprising to see outhit or outpitch the rest is disqualified.

So, here's who's out: Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Jarrod Parker, Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook.

It wouldn't surprise anyone to see the above men sit atop the stat sheets in spring training. It has to be someone who you don't expect. For example, Sogard suddenly hit .444 last season in 26 games, the most of any Athletic.

So, the question is: who's left?

Looking at who needs to make the jump and has the proper motivation to do so, here's who looks ready to storm into spring training and raise your eyebrow.

 

Josh Reddick

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Fans want to see the 2012 Josh Reddick again, and are hoping not to see the 2013 version.

Yes, he's a starter. But would it surprise you to see Reddick hit over .400 in spring training?

Fans are down on the right fielder right now. After hitting .242 with 32 home runs and 85 RBI in 2012, Reddick slumped to .226 with 12 home runs and 56 RBI a season ago. To his credit, he dealt with a wrist injury that obviously hampered him.

But Reddick is healthy. He's had successful wrist surgery and the chance to rest and recover.

And now he's paid.

The A's and Reddick avoided arbitration, settling on a one-year, $2.7 million deal for 2014. Health, putting arbitration behind him and wanting to rebound should be plenty of motivation to come into spring and blow things up.

Reddick has a history of doing well in spring. In 2012, he hit .304 in 15 games; he hit .294 in 20 games last year.

Having a huge March would solidify his role in right field as a permanent, 160-game starter and quiet his doubters. And that's exactly what he's ready to do, as he told John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News: "...the wrist is fine, I feel healthy again and I'm ready to go out and try to be the player I was in 2012 and not 2013."

 

Derek Norris

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Everything about Norris has changed this offseason from his swing to his hair style.

Norris is yet another "starter" who could see a breakout performance in 2014 spring training.

Here's why it would be considered impressive: Norris is supposed to be the catcher of the future. But instead of letting him catch 130 games or so, the A's continuously bring in other guys, such as John Jaso, Stephen Vogt and Kurt Suzuki for a second time. Now, Chris Gimenez has been added to the mix.

For Norris to make all three of those guys an afterthought and earn full-time duties—legit full-time duties, not 98 games full time—would be a breakout.

Here's what happened last year: He hit .350 in 19 games, which included five home runs. He began the regular season hitting .283 in April, carrying over a great spring camp. But then he hit .164 and .160 in May and June, respectively.

Then, Norris started his breakout, via Jane Lee of MLB.com:

"One day, I told [hitting coach] Chili [Davis], 'I'm going to do something that just feels different,'" Norris said. "So, I started a little leg kick thing, and before I knew it, I just felt more balanced and we went with it."

He finished the season hitting .333 after the All-Star break.

If Norris heads into spring training with the new swing and continued success, there's no doubt he can thrive in camp. And if that happens and he expands on last year's .350 mark, he may finally be the hands-down, full-time catcher he's been expected to be.

 

Nate Freiman

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Freiman plays the hero on June 13, 2013 against the New York Yankees.

Donaldson forced the A's to give him a shot at third base. Sogard earned the starting role at second base after a strong spring. What if 2014 saw Freiman solidify his worth on the diamond?

Consider his progression:

A (short): .294
A (full): .294
A (advanced): .288
Double-A: .298
MLB: .274

He makes a jump to the next level every year and responds.

But he faces steep competition in Brandon Moss. Let's compare the two.

Both had averages near the mean in 2013, according to FanGraphs.com, but Freiman's ended 0.18 higher than Moss'. But Billy Beane is an on-base kind of guy, so that has to factor in. Both Freiman and Moss ended just about the same, with Moss' 0.10 higher. Both men's BABIP numbers are about the same, too (Moss .301; Freiman .306) .

Where they differ is in slugging percentage, walks and strikeouts.

Moss walks much more percentage-wise (9.9 percent to Freiman's 6.7 percent), while Freiman strikeouts much less (14.9 percent to Moss' 27.7 percent). Moss has the advantage in slugging percentage straight up, though (.522 to .389).

Moss is 30 years old and only really has two quality years of production. So, if Freiman, three years his junior, can continue in an upward trendstarting with this year's spring traininghe could get the wheels turning on a decision regarding the near future of first base.

After all, one guy is making $4.1 million, and the other netted less than one million. If production is close, Moneyball says to take the cheaper guy.

 

Conclusion

There are plenty of candidates for breakout stars. Shane Peterson does well annually in spring training, is entering his prime and is out of options. It's do-or-die time for Peterson. Tommy Milone needs a strong rebound this spring to find his way back into the starting rotation. Sogard may have to do it again now with competition from Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo.

There's a slew of guys fighting for the last spot in the rotation, including Drew Pomeranz, Josh Lindblom and Fernando Abad to name a few. Nothing motivates quite like fighting with a half a dozen others for one spot or putting an end to doubts whether you can be a long-term starter.

But the three guys listed above stand out above the rest.

Reddick needs this. He is clearly motivated to hush the doubters, prove he's healthy and prove he's worth the $3.2 million he requested in arbitration.

Norris came up so heavily touted that the A's were quick to ditch Suzuki, who had called pitches for A's hurlers for five-and-a-half seasons. That hasn't panned out yet. Unless he wants to be considered a bust, he'll need to break out soon.

Lastly, Freiman is in an upward trend already.

If he's taken notes from Daric Barton's career (or Brandon Allen, Kila Ka'aihue or Chris Carter), you don't get too many chances to become and remain the starting first baseman for the Oakland Athletics. You can argue it's now or never to force the team to consider him.

For how much this team appears to be set heading into spring training, a lot could change due to strong performances.

 

Who's your breakout candidate? Hit me up in the comments below and let's chat about it on Twitter.

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