The start of the Major League Baseball season, more than any other sport, brings with it an air of optimism. With the season being 162 games, things can, and often do, go any number of directions.
It doesn't matter if we are talking about a player or a team, there are going to be peaks and valleys for everyone. The trick is to minimize the damage so the peaks appear with greater frequency.
That's what separates an MVP-caliber player from a very good player and a very good player from a guy on the roster. Going over a list of potential breakout candidates for 2014, there are some familiar names ready to take the leap and be put in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Buster Posey, etc.
Here are three names to watch this season.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
If you had told me to put together this same list after Eric Hosmer's rookie season in 2011, he would've been on it. Kansas City's first baseman fell off in 2012 (.232/.304/.359) but rebounded nicely in 2013 with a .302/.353/.448 line thanks to an impressive second half (.323/.379/.473).
Normally putting stock in half of a season leads to disappointment; except in Hosmer's case, there was a tangible reason for the improvement. He worked with George Brett, who served as Kansas City's interim hitting coach last season and found a few flaws in his swing that were corrected.
Hosmer told Kathleen Gier of MLB.com last June that the biggest difference was just simplifying his mechanics to quiet a lot of excess noise that had developed.
We're just trying to simplify a lot of things in my swing, so there are not too many moving parts and just focus on a couple main parts that you've got to worry about, and it's really been helping out lately. I feel like I'm using my legs and driving the ball more. It's still a work in progress, and there's still a lot of work to be done, but right now, we're in a good spot, and I feel good and pretty comfortable in the box.
Hosmer, 24, has had superstar written all over him since a breakout 2010 season in the minors when he hit .338/.406/.571 and was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in baseball, according to Baseball America.
After some early-career bumps in the road, Hosmer has found what works for him and is ready to take the leap. His line-drive percentage last season increased by nearly four percent from 2012 (18.5 to 22.4), indicating harder contact and leading to a spike in batting average on balls in play (.335).
The Royals are going to be a very good team in 2014, possibly a playoff contender, with Hosmer leading the way. He's going to get his share of MVP votes very soon.
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta Braves
Admittedly, I am cheating with this pick because Andrelton Simmons already got enough MVP votes last year to finish 14th and is regarded as the best defensive shortstop in baseball by anyone with eyes.
Braves first base coach Terry Pendleton told Mark Bowman of MLB.com that he sees some of Ozzie Smith in Simmons.
I know they were both born to play shortstop. [Simmons] is just so fluid. It's like, 'Put me there and leave me alone, I know what I'm supposed to do.' Ozzie was that way.
Even with Simmons garnering MVP consideration last season, he's actually going to get better in 2014. That may not be easy, especially defensively, when he was worth 4.7 FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, third among qualified shortstops.
How is he going to be better?
Simmons hit just .248/.296/.396 last season, which should tell you how good his defense was to post a fWAR total as high as he did with that kind of stat line. But it wasn't as bad as it seems.
He showed plenty of power with 27 doubles, 17 homers and six triples. Simmons doesn't walk much, just 40 times in 658 plate appearances, but he also doesn't strikeout much (55 times).
Being able to make hard contact more consistently could push him into the .260/.320/.420 range. If he does that, with that glove at shortstop, Simmons is at least a 5.5-win player, possibly more.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
This is putting a ton of pressure on a rookie shortstop with just 18 games of professional experience under his belt. But you know what? It's no different than the Boston Red Sox trusting Xander Bogaerts enough to put him in the starting lineup in the American League Championship Series and World Series last October.
The Red Sox trusted Bogaerts in the biggest spot, and he never failed. Even when he wasn't getting hits, the quality of his at-bats, at the age of 21 against pitchers like Max Scherzer, was incredible.
Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe called Bogaerts "as close to a sure thing as you are going to get in big league baseball." He's not wrong.
If he doesn’t blossom into an All-Star, it means that all scouting, all analysis, and Bill James-ian projection mean nothing. ESPN has declared Bogaerts the second-best prospect in all of baseball (Twins outfielder Byron Buxton got the top nod).
There are areas where Bogaerts will get better when his body fills out, notably power, but all the ingredients are there for him to be a .300 hitter with a high on-base percentage, solid defense at shortstop and 15-20 homers.
Sometimes, making a prediction is about going out on a limb. There will be a time when predicting Bogaerts to win an MVP award, or at least get some votes, isn't outrageous. It might be in 2014.
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