MLB Spring Training

MLB Stars Who Are About to Reach New Heights This Season

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2017

MLB Stars Who Are About to Reach New Heights This Season

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    Starring Thor, and more!
    Starring Thor, and more!Rich Schultz/Getty Images

    Spring training is here, so you can expect to see a steady stream of articles that predict which MLB players will be breakout stars in 2017. It's that time of year.

    But what about post-breakout breakout stars?

    Ah, see, this is more of a niche. There's always talk of players who will become stars but less talk of stars who will become even bigger stars. Let's change that by looking at 10 established stars who are ready to elevate their games even further.

    For this, a certain level of pickiness is required. Here are the ground rules:

    • No Rookies: Because it's hard to call rookies "established." As a general rule, the players on this list already have two or more major league seasons under their belts.
    • No Superstars: Because they're already superstars, duh.
    • Fame Required: It's hard to measure star status, but I'm not going to throw any old player on this list. Some level of fame is required.
    • Clear Upside: There must be tangible evidence of remaining upside. The Trea Turners and Gary Sanchezes of the world probably only have downside left. The Carlos Correas and Corey Seagers of the world seemingly are what they are.

    At any rate, we'll start with the post-breakout breakout star with the least upside and progress toward the one with the most upside.

Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

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    David Banks/Getty Images

    Carlos Rodon may not be a "star" in the traditional sense of the term. But he is a former No. 3 pick playing in a big media market, and he holds a high rank in the "Better Than You Think" club.

    On the surface, there's the 3.90 ERA that Rodon has put up in his 304.1 innings with the Chicago White Sox. Most recently, he managed just a 4.04 ERA in 165 innings as a sophomore in 2016.

    But from another perspective, Rodon was the equal of the American League's Cy Young winner last season. He matched Rick Porcello's 3.89 xFIP, a stat that prioritizes strikeout and walk rates while normalizing home run rates.

    This was the lefty's reward for striking out over a batter per inning (9.2 K/9) while drastically improving his walk rate from his rookie season, going from a 4.6 BB/9 to a 2.9 BB/9. What's more, these and Rodon's home run rate improved from the first half to the second half.

    Lo and behold, the 24-year-old was a different pitcher down the stretch. His pitch selection evolved from a sinker-heavy approach to a multidimensional attack with more four-seamers, sliders and changeups.

    Rodon will look the part of a top-of-the-rotation starter if he picks up in 2017 where he left off in 2016, showcasing strong command of wicked stuff. Even better, the results should also be there.

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The pint-sized and hugely charismatic Marcus Stroman is certainly a fan favorite. They love him as much on Twitter as they do in Toronto.

    His actual "star" status is more dubious. Stroman's results in 62 appearances with the Blue Jays have been hit or miss. With a 4.37 ERA in 204 innings, his 2016 season leans more toward "miss."

    But like with Rodon, there's a case that Stroman pitched a lot better than his ERA indicates. Stay with xFIP, for example, and it shows he was a top-five AL pitcher with a mark of 3.41.

    Also like Rodon, the reasons to believe in Stroman going into 2017 include how much he improved in the second half of 2016. The 25-year-old cut way back on his sinker usage, opting for a more varied pitch mix that was heavier on four-seamers and cutters.

    The primary benefit was that Stroman's K/9 improved from 6.4 to 8.5 from one half to the other. To boot, he cost himself neither walks (2.2 BB/9) nor ground balls (60.4 GB%).

    Even more impressive is that Stroman did this while apparently not fully recovered from the ACL tear he suffered in 2015. He says that won't be a problem in 2017.

    "My knee is 100 percent now. It's stronger than it's ever been, so I'm excited for this year and I'm extremely confident too," Stroman told Dhiren Mahiban of MLB.com in January.

Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Kyle Schwarber has played in just 85 games for the Chicago Cubs. But within those, he's been a top rookie hitter, a postseason hero in 2015 and a World Series hero in 2016.

    It's safe to call him a star. And we ain't seen nothing yet.

    Full disclosure: My excitement about Schwarber's 2017 season is big enough to warrant its own article. And I have nothing more to say in this space that wasn't already said in that space.

    Fortunately, it is quite simple.

    This is a 23-year-old who's posted an .886 OPS with 21 home runs in the major league games he's played in, and the signs are there that he has upside even beyond these numbers. His swing is perfectly tailored for power, producing both a high launch angle (17.6 degrees) and plenty of exit velocity (93.2 mph). Compared to when he first broke into the league, his batting eye has also become top-notch.

    The catch with Schwarber is that hitting production is all he's likely to offer in 2017. He was a slow runner without a true home on defense even before he tore his ACL early last season. These things may be even truer now, making him a one-dimensional player in a sea of multidimensional Cubs.

    But a good enough bat can easily compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. Schwarber's bat ought to be more than good enough.

Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    We come now to a guy who has an All-Star appearance under his belt. For yours truly, that means no jumping through hoops to justify the "star" label. Much rejoicing, etc.

    Joc Pederson did fall on hard times after making the National League All-Star team in 2015, managing just a .617 OPS in the second half. That bled over into a good-not-great first half in 2016, in which he had an .804 OPS before going down with a shoulder injury.

    But the young Los Angeles Dodgers star did make strides in 2016. Pederson hit only one fewer home run despite playing in 14 fewer games and boosted his OPS from .763 to .847.

    That's enough to make it look like he's on an upswing going into his age-25 season in 2017. But just as encouraging is how he really seemed to find himself after coming back from his injury last season.

    Pederson roared to the finish with a .900 OPS and 12 home runs in his final 62 games. He became more selective, mainly attacking low pitches with his uppercut swing. And he generally crushed what he did hit. His average exit velocity went from 92.7 mph before his injury to 94.1 mph after his injury.

    Meanwhile, Pederson is a solid defensive center fielder with more speed than his 10 career stolen bases would indicate. Everything is there for him to make the leap from good to great.

Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Chris Archer got his major league career off to a strong start in 2013 and 2014 before cementing himself atop the Tampa Bay Rays rotation in 2015. He was an All-Star and a Cy Young contender.

    But in reality, that was only half of a big breakout. Archer struggled down the stretch in 2015. Like Pederson, he continued to struggle into the first half of 2016 before finishing with a 4.02 ERA.

    Archer at least maintained ace peripherals, however, striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings while walking only 3.0 per nine innings. He posted similar numbers en route to a 3.23 ERA in 212 innings in 2015.

    As such, he may only be a tweak or two away from taking off—and said tweaks may have already been discovered.

    Archer quietly dominated with a 10.2 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 in the second half of 2016, in which he posted a 3.25 ERA. He regained confidence in a slider that had previously been in the running for baseball's best pitch. He also got more consistent locating it in tandem with his mid-90s fastball.

    Even when Archer was at his best in 2015, he wasn't that aggressive with his slider or that good at locating it. What he found down the stretch last year, therefore, looks like the right method for using his exceptional stuff.

    A scary proposition, indeed.

Addison Russell, Chicago Cubs

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Addison Russell's first All-Star appearance came last year and arguably had more to do with Cubs fans' stuffing the ballot box than anything else.

    But no matter. He should have no trouble earning an All-Star appearance in 2017.

    If nothing else, Russell can be expected to keep his place in the spotlight with his spectacular shortstop defense. He and Brandon Crawford tied for the position's lead in defensive runs saved last year. Between the two of them, Russell probably appeared in more highlights.

    With defensive chops like those, may the baseball gods help the NL if Russell becomes a star hitter. And about that...well, it's happening.

    The 23-year-old went from a .696 OPS as a rookie in 2015 to a .738 OPS as a sophomore in 2016. Things really clicked after June, as he had a .751 OPS in his final 307 plate appearances.

    Look under the hood, and one thing that stands out is how Russell's strikeout rate dropped from 25.8 percent early in the year to 19.5 percent down the stretch. He also did a better job of tapping into his power, upping his fly-ball percentage (42.9 FB%) and pull rate (47.5 Pull%).

    Although none of this made Russell a star hitter in the moment, it was a prototype for a star hitter. He can realize that potential this year and turn himself into an elite shortstop on both sides of the ball.

Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins

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    Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    I know, I know. I just can't shut up about Christian Yelich. I've already raved about him here, here and here.

    Well, somebody has to rave about him. As a member of the Miami Marlins, it's hard for him to get the attention he deserves. It's a travesty that he doesn't yet have an All-Star appearance to go with his Gold Glove and Silver Slugger.

    Yelich, 25, has been one of the league's most consistent hitters. He's hit .293 with a .368 OBP in his four major league seasons, and there's been very little variation in either of those departments.

    The one thing he had been missing was power, but that's changing. Yelich launched a career-high 21 home runs last season, in which he more consistently tapped into surprising raw power. Few players hit fly balls and line drives harder than he did in 2016.

    More of that will make it harder to ignore Yelich in 2017. In moving from left field to center field, he'll also be harder to miss on defense.

    "With our outfield as big as it is, we think that he's got closing speed—that long speed. We've got a big outfield and we feel like he fits best there in center field," said Marlins manager Don Mattingly, via Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.

    The honest-to-goodness truth: If all this can't lead to Yelich's superstar breakout, nothing can.

Yu Darvish, Texas Rangers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    You can argue Yu Darvish hit his peak in 2013.

    The Texas Rangers ace had a 2.83 ERA in 209.2 innings that year, finishing second in AL Cy Young voting. He's made just 39 starts in three years since, largely due to elbow trouble.

    But going into 2017, things are looking up.

    Darvish, 30, is now two years removed from his 2015 Tommy John operation, and his impending free agency gives him plenty of incentive to have a big year. While they produced OK results, the seeds for said big year were planted in 2016.

    With an 11.8 K/9, Darvish remained as good as ever at collecting strikeouts. He also posted a solid 2.8 BB/9, thereby continuing a downward trend in that department that bodes well for 2017. The other demon he conquered was his platoon split, as he held left-handed batters to a .607 OPS.

    If Darvish carries these trends over in 2017, he won't have to deal with two big issues that plagued him in his excellent 2013 season. He's also going to benefit from having Jonathan Lucroy as his catcher for a full year. His strike-framing skills aren't what they once were but are still good.

    If he's so inclined, Darvish could also benefit from aiming higher with his high-velocity, high-spin fastball. But even if he doesn't unlock that achievement, he still stands to pitch better than ever in 2017.

Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

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    G Fiume/Getty Images

    If this article was a video, this is where there would be a record scratch.

    Freddie Freeman was indeed really, really good in 2016. His .968 OPS and 34 home runs were career highs by plenty, and he topped all first basemen with 6.5 wins above replacement.

    How the heck is he supposed to do better than that? Easy. He just has to pick up where he left off.

    Freeman's 2016 season looks even more absurd once you notice that he didn't start really hitting until June. He went from a .757 OPS through the season's first two months to a 1.068 OPS in the last four.

    It was Freeman's swing that changed. He hit just 30.1 percent of his batted balls on the ground down the stretch. He also pulled the ball just 35.3 percent of the time. Never before had he been such a lofty, all-fields hitter.

    It's no wonder he benefited like he did. More balls in the air meant more chances for him to tap into his raw power. More balls the other way helped him combat shifts. Teams threw more shifts at him than ever, but he still beat them better than ever with an .891 OPS.

    The non-nerdy way of putting it is that Freeman made himself more of a complete hitter. If just four months of production could make a season like that, imagine what six months could do.

Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Noah Syndergaard might have been the most dominant pitcher in baseball last year.

    He had a 2.60 ERA and arguably deserved better based on his strikeouts (10.7 BB/9), walks (2.1 BB/9) and contact management. With a 51.2 GB% and one of the highest soft-hit rates in the league, even balls in play off him weren't much more than moral victories.

    But he wasn't satisfied. He was a busy man this offseason, adding more bulk to a frame already listed at 6'6" and 240 pounds. And he has plans for it.

    "I've always wanted to throw harder and continue to make the game easier," he told reporters. "Last year, from my rookie season, my velocity jumped up. I'm always going to try to raise that kind of bar. Hopefully, it allows me to go deeper into games with more ease."

    Having the strength to go deeper into games would be good enough. As dominant as Syndergaard was in 2016, he averaged only 6.1 innings per start. That can get better.

    More velocity, meanwhile, is at once the last thing he needs and something that could be possible.

    He's already the hardest-throwing starting pitcher on record with average fastballs of 97.1 mph in 2015 and 98.0 mph in 2016. But as Eno Sarris noted at FanGraphs, there have been studies that have linked strength gains to velocity gains. Syndergaard now stands to validate those.

    If so, this will be the year the mighty Thor becomes even mightier.

                                              

    Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com (including WAR), FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant.

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