30 Breakout MLB Players to Watch This Season
The 2014 Major League Baseball season is not quite here yet, but the time to dream is now. For teams hoping to take that proverbial “next step,” these 30 players will be even more critical to that success. A look now at players from each team who are poised to have a breakout season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-reference.com.
Baltimore Orioles: Nick Markakis, RF
Nick Markakis, RF (.271 AVG, 10 HR, 59 RBI, 160 G): Orioles fans have been hearing for years that Markakis is poised for a breakout season, and yet the man who was once considered the franchise cornerstone has yet to truly turn the corner. Still, a strong spring and a dedicated offseason could pay dividends for the 30-year-old, who has, if nothing else, been a model of durability in the past half-decade, playing at least 160 games in four of the past five seasons. A .292 career hitter, Markakis saw his production dip last season with a career-worst .271 average, 10 homers, .329 OBP and one stolen base. But 2014 could be a bounce-back year in a lineup that appears poised to score runs. A prototypical line-drive hitter, Markakis could add some power to his repertoire after adding about 15 pounds this offseason. His potential return to form could go a long way for the Orioles in the rugged AL East.
Boston Red Sox: Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Will Middlebrooks, 3B (.227 AVG, 17 HR, 49 RBI, 94 G): With the Red Sox, there are simply too many candidates to pick just one, but we're going with Middlebrooks. Xander Bogaerts seemed like too easy a choice while Andrew Miller and Daniel Nava were also strong contenders. But Middlebrooks needs to take the reins and supply some power at the bottom of Boston's order, as he is perfectly capable of doing. The I's—injuries and inconsistency—have killed Middlebrooks since arriving in the bigs. When he connects, however, look out. He launched 17 homers despite a .227 average a year ago in just 94 games, but showed more potential in 2012 by hitting .288 with 15 bombs in 75 games before a wrist injuries cut his rookie campaign short. The left side of Boston's infield is rife with young, powerful talent, but there is more on Middlebrooks' shoulders than Bogaerts, who has not played a full season at the major-league level. If he can play in even 120 games, Middlebrooks' numbers could be elite-level.
New York Yankees: Ivan Nova, SP
Ivan Nova, SP (9-6, 3.10 ERA, 20 GS, 139.1 IP, 116 K): “Super Nova” wowed us in 2011 in winning 16 games, but his true potential shone brightest last season, especially during the month of August when he was 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. Nova will likely slot as the Yankees' No. 4 starter, meaning his success could almost be seen as a bonus if CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka pitch up to par. But from a talent standpoint, Nova may be the best of the bunch (forget Tanaka's splitter for a moment if you can). If he stays healthy and out of his own head, Nova could duplicate the best aspects of his 2011 and 2013 seasons.
Tampa Bay Rays: Alex Cobb, SP
Alex Cobb, SP (11-3, 2.76 ERA, 22 GS, 143.1 IP, 134 K): Call this one a “Cobb-out,” if you will, because the 26-year-old has already made a name for himself as a young star in this American League. A scary injury he suffered after taking a line drive off the noggin last year cost him two months of his season, but he was outstanding down the stretch, posting a 3-0 record, 2.57 ERA and 9 K/9 IP ratio in September/October before adding a 1.54 ERA in two postseason starts. David Price and Matt Moore garner the headlines in Tampa Bay's star-studded rotation, but Cobb has been, and could continue to be, the steadiest pitcher of the bunch in 2014.
Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow, SP
Brandon Morrow, SP (2-3, 5.63 ERA, 10 GS): Morrow can be brilliant if not overly frustrating to watch. He is so full of the P-word (that's “potential,” by the way, but Morrow must be sick of hearing it by now), yet he can't seem to put it together for a full season. Overpowering at times, Morrow showed a glimmer of hope in 2012 when he went 10-7 with a 2.96 ERA in 21 starts, and in 2011, despite a 4.72 ERA, he fanned 203 batters in 179.1 innings. Is this the year everything comes together for the 29-year-old? Time will tell, but it's also running out. He won't quite be in the spotlight at the front of Toronto's rotation, but his presence and success could go a long way into making Toronto a more respectable foe in baseball's toughest division.
Chicago White Sox: Avisail Garcia, OF
Avisail Garcia, OF (.283 AVG, 7 HR, 31 RBI, 72 G): Garcia, 22, used to be seen as a “Little Miggy” in Detroit, but the 6'4”, 240-pound youngster has a massive upside. He's played in only 95 major league games, so the sample size has been small, but Garcia has plenty of pop in his bat and a chance to anchor the Pale Hose lineup for years to come. “He has plus power to all fields. ... Everybody in the organization believes he has a chance to be an All-Star for a long time,” first-base coach Daryl Boston said, via Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun Times. If Garcia does, in fact, possess any of former teammate Miguel Cabrera's qualities, the White Sox could have themselves something special, and the club could see the fruits in 2014.
Cleveland Indians: Yan Gomes, C
Yan Gomes, C (.294 AVG, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 88 G): The Brazilian-born Gomes began last season at Triple-A Columbus before an injury to Lou Marson opened the door to a successful 88-game showing in Cleveland. With Carlos Santana possibly seeing more time at third base, Gomes numbers should go up significantly in 2014. The potential he showed last season has led many to believe he could emerge as one of the game's premier young backstops.
Detroit Tigers: Nick Castellanos, 3B
Nick Castellanos, 3B (5-18 in 11 G): This is easily the stretch of this list, at least in the American League. On a Detroit team full of established veterans, both in the lineup and on the pitching staff, there are few breakout candidates. Castellanos is only 22 but has had a strong spring and will get a chance to make an everyday impact at Miguel Cabrera's old position as Miggy moves to first in Prince Fielder's absence. Castellanos is one of the game's top prospects and will have plenty of time to develop into a star. With the protection he has in Detroit's lineup, the numbers could come sooner rather than later.
Kansas City Royals: Mike Moustakas, 3B
Mike Moustakas, 3B (.233 AVG, 12 HR, 42 RBI, 136 G): “Moose” has had a hot spring, and the 24-year-old former second overall pick in the 2007 draft looks primed to give the Royals who finished last in the AL with 115 homers in 2013, a major boost. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler garner many of the headlines, but Moustakas finding his groove could be quite a boon for the Royals as they try to improve on their 86-win total. It would behoove the slick-fielding third baseman to succeed against southpaws, as he posted a paltry .196 clip against them last season. Still, in his fourth season, the confident Moustakas could be primed for a breakthrough year.
Minnesota Twins: Brian Dozier, 2B
Brian Dozier, 2B (.244 AVG, 18 HR, 66 RBI, 147 G): Dozier avoided a sophomore slump in 2013 (side note: a chic pick would have been Oswaldo Arcia, but he is facing the same challenge this year), but the second baseman still left something to the imagination with a .244 average. Still, his surprising power numbers and durability could lead to bigger and better things in 2014. Dozier also showed a knack for the clutch last year (.307, 49 RBI with RISP) while taking advantage of Target Field's spacious gaps with 33 doubles. A Minnesota offense that tied for 13th in the AL with a .242 batting average could use a strong year from Dozier.
Houston Astros: Jarred Cosart, SP
Jarred Cosart, RHP (1-1, 1.95 ERA, 10 GS): Cosart was at times brilliant a year ago for baseball's worst team, if nothing else helping the Hunter Pence trade pay dividends, albeit two years later. He allowed only 46 hits and three home runs in 60 IP, though his 35 BB/33 K ratio is somewhat alarming. Even so, Cosart is having a strong spring in 2014, and the 23-year-old could be a star in the making, something the Astros sorely need amid a miserable stretch of rebuilding.
Los Angeles Angels: Hector Santiago, SP
Hector Santiago, LHP (4-9, 3.56 ERA, 34 G, 23 GS): Santiago's core numbers will not wow you, but if you dig a little deeper, you see the potential for a solid season from the 26-year-old southpaw. Last season for the White Sox, he allowed just 137 hits in 149 innings while fanning 137 batters. His 72 walks were cause for moderate concern, but in 78 career games pitched (27 starts), Santiago has allowed just 7.7 H/9 IP. He has been outstanding this spring and could be a secret weapon for the Angels at the back end of a rotation that sorely lacked depth a year ago.
Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray, SP
Sonny Gray, RHP (5-3, 2.67 ERA, 12 G, 10 GS): Last year, Sonny gave the A's more than a chance in the playoffs with a heroic effort in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, but was ultimately outdueled by Detroit's Justin Verlander. The 2011 first-round pick has the stuff to be a certifiable ace for a long time, and he gave A's fans an early taste of that by allowing a measly 51 hits in 64 innings while fanning 67. Oakland has plenty of rotation depth around Gray, but the 24-year-old could be the shining star of the bunch.
Seattle Mariners: Dustin Ackley, CF
Dustin Ackley, CF (.253 AVG, 4 HR, 31 RBI, 113 G): Ackley was drafted second overall in 2009 as a second baseman, but things haven't exactly panned out for him the way the Mariners envisioned. Last season was a highly disappointing one for Ackley, who has been converted into an outfielder, but a sizzling spring has fans clamoring for the former star at the University of North Carolina. Ackley showed occasional flashes of that talent in 2012 (12 homers, 13 stolen bases in 153 games), but he has a chance to make great strides in 2014, especially in a lineup that now features Robinson Cano playing his old position and providing protection.
Texas Rangers: Jurickson Profar, 2B
Jurickson Profar, 2B (.234 AVG, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 85 G): It doesn't feel like there's much originality to the claim that Profar could be a star in 2014, but there has been considerable doubt after a couple of poor (albeit somewhat brief) showings the previous two years. With the Profar-for-David Price trade rumors now put aside (for the time being), the 21-year-old Curacao native can focus on being the star Texas envisioned when it shipped Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder this offseason. Profar's maturity and baseball intelligence has been highly praised, meaning his barely-legal-to-drink status belie his ability to be a star at a young age. It's not too early to say that Profar could make a significant impact in a Rangers lineup which has lost considerable pop over the last few years.
Atlanta Braves: Andrelton Simmons, SS
Andrelton Simmons, SS (.248 AVG, 17 HR, 59 RBI, 157 G): Simmons had close to a breakout season in 2013, collecting 150 hits (including 27 doubles and six triples) and drilling 17 home runs while playing all but five games. A defensive wizard, Simmons needs to find a way to get on base more consistently (.296 OBP last year), but he has the raw skills to be a star for a Braves team that has its sights set on repeating as NL East champions.
Miami Marlins: Henderson Alvarez, SP
Henderson Alvarez, RHP (5-6, 3.59 ERA, 17 GS): Do you believe in omens? If so, maybe Alvarez is onto something. After firing the franchise's fifth no-hitter in the season finale against the Tigers last season, Alvarez could be poised to blossom into the pitcher the Blue Jays thought they had before sending him to Miami as part of a massive deal that brought Jose Reyes and others back to Toronto. Alvarez's one full season in Toronto in 2012 wasn't impressive (9-14, 4.85 in 31 starts). But last year he gave up just 90 hits in 102.1 innings while walking just 27 batters and permitting a measly two home runs. Likely to be slotted as the Marlins' third starter, Alvarez, who will be 24 in mid-April, has a chance to flourish.
New York Mets: Zack Wheeler, SP
Zack Wheeler, RHP (7-5, 3.42 ERA, 17 GS): Wheeler was a first-round pick of the Giants in 2009 but now appears poised to be the fresh face of the Mets' rotation in 2014 with Matt Harvey on the shelf and Bartolo Colon pushing 41. He had his moments a year ago and has an opportunity to step up in Harvey's absence this season, with 100 innings under his belt (and only 90 hits allowed). Wheeler's numbers have been terrific in spring training, so if there is any carryover effect for the 23-year-old, he could be in for a big year.
Philadelphia Phillies: Cody Asche, 3B
Cody Asche, 3B (.235 AVG, 5 HR, 22 RBI, 50 G): Darin Ruf was a candidate here, but whether he'll get consistent playing time remains to be seen. Asche, 23, has a chance to take the reins at third base, as the 2011 fourth-round pick showed some flashes in a third of a season in 2013. He has some pop in his bat and little platoon competition (Kevin Frandsen could steal some at-bats against lefties), meaning his second-half showing a year ago could be a good primer for a solid 2014 campaign.
Washington Nationals: Anthony Rendon, 2B
Anthony Rendon, 2B (.265 AVG, 7 HR, 35 RBI, 98 G): The sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Rendon cracked the big leagues last year and had a moderate impact. In his first full year, a more polished version could result in big numbers. Including his seven homers, 31 of his 93 hits (one-third) went for extra bases, and the 23-year-old should have a leg up in his "open competition” with Danny Espinosa, who has fallen out of favor with fans after a dismal 2012 season. It may be a little ahead of schedule for Rendon, but he should improve upon solid numbers from a limited sample size a year ago.
Chicago Cubs: Junior Lake, CF
Junior Lake, CF (.284 AVG, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 4 SB, 64 G): Lake has been frigid this spring, but Cubs fan should not necessarily panic (even if that's the norm around the North Side). The speedy outfielder will be 24 by opening day and showed some impressive glimpses in his 2013 debut, even if he disappointed somewhat by displaying a little more power than speed. He will be given an ample opportunity to hold down the leadoff spot, meaning plenty of at-bats and opportunities to get on base and set the table for an offense that ranked third-to-last in the majors in runs scored and OBP in 2013. Mike Olt is another name to keep an eye on, but he will be adjusting to National League pitching after spending his (brief) career in Texas.
Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton, CF
Billy Hamilton, CF (7-22, 13 SB in 13 G): So you want speed? Hamilton's got that, perhaps in record time as a matter of fact. Hamilton's sprint time from the batter's box to first base was clocked at 3.3 seconds, as fast as some scouts have ever seen. He stole 13 bases in as many games during a brief cup of coffee with the Reds a year ago, and if he gets on base at all in 2014, his theft numbers could go through the roof. Still, it will come down to just that—whether he gets on base. A .280 career hitter at the minor-league level, Hamilton should be able to help fill the void left by the departure of Shin-Soo Choo.
Milwaukee Brewers: Khris Davis, LF
Khris Davis, LF (.279 AVG, 11 HR, 27 RBI, 56 G): Don't confuse Davis with the Orioles slugger of the same (but differently-spelled) name who also enjoyed a burst of power in 2013. Granted, this Khris Davis would have projected for only about 30 home runs had he played a full season in Milwaukee. But if manager Ron Roenicke gives him the chance to play every day—a distinct possibility with Ryan Braun now shifted to right field—Davis could approach those numbers. Milwaukee could boast a quietly strong outfield in 2014 if all goes according to plan—that is, if Braun regains his MVP form, Carlos Gomez's strong 2013 carries over, and Davis finds his groove with consistent at-bats.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Travis Snider, OF
Travis Snider, OF (.215 AVG, 5 HR, 25 RBI, 111 G, 53 GS): Blue Jays fans especially may laugh at this one, and rightfully so. The former 14th overall pick (2006 draft) has failed (somewhat miserably) to live up to expectations thus far, which is why the Blue Jays dealt him to Pittsburgh in 2012 for Brad Lincoln. Snider almost, kind of, sort of put it together in 2010 in half a season worth of games (14 HR in 82 G), but his career has been defined by racking up miles on trips back to the minors. If he can stick in 2014—and indications are he may, based on his own solid spring and miserable ones by Jose Tabata and Andrew Lamb—he has the physical tools to succeed. Snider needs to hit lefties (two hits in 22 at-bats last season), but he has never lacked power, more so just the opportunity to play consistently. Granted, this one could be a stretch. Then again, picking Gerrit Cole would be far too easy, wouldn't it?
St. Louis Cardinals: Trevor Rosenthal, RP
Trevor Rosenthal (2-4, 2.63 ERA, 3 SV, 74 GP): Of course, just as we mention a pick that would be far too easy, here's Rosenthal's name on this list. But, to be fair, Rosenthal was a 21st-round pick who didn't secure the Cardinals' closer role until late September and didn't emerge as a star until the Cardinals made a run to the World Series. It was Rosenthal's lights-out postseason performance (11.2 shutout innings in 10 games with three walks and 18 strikeouts) that cemented him in the ninth-inning slot for 2014 and made Edward Mujica, who fell out of favor with manager Mike Matheny and is now in Boston, expendable. The 23-year-old Rosenthal can touch 100-mph with his fastball and has shown the mental toughness to handle pressure, so the only question that remains is how his numbers will look after a full-year finishing games. The Cardinals should be in good hands.
Arizona Diamondbacks: A.J. Pollock, CF
A.J. Pollock, CF (.269 AVG, 8 HR, 38 RBI, 12 SB, 137 G): Pollock was not in the team's primary plans in 2013, but an injury to prospect Adam Eaton paved the way for the 2009 first-round pick to make an impact and stick around for the long haul. With Eaton now in Chicago, center field belongs solely to Pollock, as does the leadoff spot in Arizona's lineup. Pollock was a pleasant surprise, but he will need to improve upon his .322 OBP to provide more run-producing opportunities for Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo. Pollock appears primed for another productive season after flourishing down the stretch, batting .352 an posting a .432 OBP over the season's final 23 games.
Colorado Rockies: Charlie Blackmon, OF
Charlie Blackmon, OF (.309 AVG, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 82 G): This is a tough call, because Corey Dickerson is also a candidate here. But it sounds as if Blackmon may have a slight edge in his battle for an outfield spot with Dickerson due to his strong finish to the 2013 season. Manager Walt Weiss told MLB.com, “That carries a lot of weight, too.” Despite a slow start to the spring, Blackmon may be primed to pick up right where he left off, and playing half of his games at Coors Field doesn't hurt either. Blackmon stole seven bases and hit .332 combined over the final two months of the 2013 campaign, and the lefty handled southpaws quite deftly, hitting .296 with three homers. He may not post numbers quite in the range of fellow outfielders Carlos Gonzalez or Michael Cuddyer, but don't be surprised if he comes close.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Dee Gordon, 2B
Dee Gordon, 2B (.234 AVG, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 10 SB, 38 G): Gordon's stats were underwhelming in 2013, without a doubt. While recognizing the fact that the Dodgers possess an extremely short list of breakout candidates, considering Hyun-jin Ryu won 14 games last season, Gordon seems to have won the second base job and is always fun to watch on the basepaths. The Dodgers have been working with the son of former major leaguer Tom “Flash” Gordon on hitting the ball on the ground more this spring, which should help improve his pedestrian .301 career OBP. With plenty of firepower around him in the Dodgers' lineup, simply legging out more infield hits would constitute a vast improvement for the soon-to-be 26-year-old.
San Diego Padres: Yonder Alonso, 1B
Yonder Alonso. 1B (.281 AVG, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 97 G): The Cuban-born Alonso will be 27 in early April and is coming off a season derailed by a hand injury suffered on May 31 when he was hit by a pitch. A seventh overall selection by the Reds in 2008, Alonso was sent to San Diego after the 2011 season as part of a five-player trade and appeared well on his way to following up a strong 2012 campaign last season before things went south. Two seasons ago, he clubbed 39 doubles among his 150 hits in 155 games while posting a .273/.348/.393 slash line. He has yet to display much power (20 home runs in 321 career games), but he appears to be fully healthy and should at least be a viable extra-base threat for a Padres team starved for offense.
San Francisco Giants: Brandon Belt, 1B
Brandon Belt, 1B (.289 AVG, 17 HR, 67 RBI, 150 G): Belt already kind of, sort of had a breakthrough in 2013 for the Giants, but things could be bigger and better in 2014 for the native Texan, who will turn 26 on April 20. In addition to showing marked improvement in each of his first three seasons, Belt also made significant strides in the final third of the 2013 season, hitting .346 with seven homers in August and September. If you care to delve a little bit deeper into those numbers, Belt posted a .373/.424/.542 slash line against outside pitches over the final two months, according to Jim Bowden of ESPN.com (subscription required). Clearly, Belt, who doesn't project as your prototypical power-hitting first baseman but could hover around 25-30 homers, is finding his groove, even at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park. An optimistic Giants fan can look forward to continued ascension from Belt, a bounce-back year from Buster Posey and better play from a slimmer Pablo Sandoval as San Francisco may finally have an offense to complement its stout pitching.