Every year there are a bunch of players who break out during spring training and blossom into special talents. It happens seemingly out of nowhere to the ordinary baseball fan. Last year's example was Chris Johnson, who dominated during spring training and went on to establish himself as a threat at third base throughout the regular season.
Who will be this year's breakout player? It is impossible to know at this point. However, in this article I will provide 10 players who I see becoming borderline All-Stars in 2011 and beyond. Spring training may be meaningless in some regards, but it gives baseball fans an opportunity to watch their teams' prospects and potential All-Stars. If you are looking for something to watch this spring, keep an eye on these 10 players.
Jon Jay has had very limited playing time in the major leagues thus far; 2010 was the first season in which he played a major league game. However, he did have success in 2010, hitting .300 with four home runs and two stolen bases in just 105 at-bats.
Jay has also been very successful in the minor leagues. In 2008, Jay hit .312 with 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases. He followed that up with a .281 average, 10 home runs and 20 stolen bases in the 2009 season. These are not mind-blowing stat lines, but he certainly has the potential to be a solid MLB starter.
During spring training, Jay should have the opportunity to transcend Allen Craig or Lance Berkman on the depth chart.
2011 Ceiling: .310, 80 R, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 15 SB
Duda is currently the Mets fourth outfielder. Therefore he should have plenty of playing time this season, especially this spring. Furthermore, the injury-prone Carlos Beltran should boost his playing time if he spends time on the DL this season.
Like Jay, Duda has displayed strong potential in the minor leagues. In 2010, Duda hit .304 with 23 home runs and 87 RBI in only 425 at-bats. If he is able to translate a good portion of this potential to the MLB, Duda could be a huge help for the Mets in 2011.
2011 Ceiling: .312, 75 R, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 5 SB
After losing Nick Punto, Orlando Hudson and JJ Hardy to free agency, the Twins went out and signed former Japanese player Tsuyoshi Nishioka. Nishioka has had tons of success in Japan and will have plenty of playing time to adjust to the MLB this spring. If he is able to put all the pieces together this season, he could be an All-Star candidate.
In 2010, Nishioka hit .346 in Japan, with 11 home runs and 22 stolen bases. He has had career highs of 14 home runs and 41 stolen bases. At 26, Nishioka should be in the prime of his career now. For comparison's sake, when Ichiro Suzuki was 25 (1999), he hit .343 with 21 home runs and 12 stolen bases in Japan.
2011 Ceiling: .325, 97 R, 16 HR, 84 RBI, 52 SB
The Yankees are desperate for some consistent, reliable starters heading into 2011, and Nova may be the answer.
In 2010, Nova dominated the minors, going 12-3 with a 2.86 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 145.0 innings. He did start seven games in the majors last season, going 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA. Nova started out his first major league season very well, going 1-0 with a 2.92 ERA through his first 25.2 innings. So he certainly has the potential to be the Yankees' third, fourth, or fifth starter, but he has a lot of work to do this spring.
2011 Ceiling: 15 W, 2.95 ERA, 140 K
Brantley has been one of my favorite prospects for a few years now. In 2011, he is projected to start for the Indians, which means he will have the opportunity to display his potential.
Brantley has been very impressive in his minor league career. In 2007, Brantley hit .297 with 47 stolen bases, arguably his best season. In just 273 at-bats last season, Brantley hit .313 with 13 stolen bases in the minors. He did play 72 games in the MLB last season. However, he disappointed by hitting just .246. This experience may be an advantage for him entering spring training, though. Keep an eye on Brantley, as he may solidify his spot as a starter this spring if he produces well.
2011 Ceiling: .310, 93 R, 9 HR, 75 RBI, 50 SB
The Orioles are loaded with talent at starting pitching, though their prospects all have yet to develop. One of these starters is Zach Britton, who was ranked the 19th-best prospect by the MLB earlier this year.
In the past two seasons, Britton has gone 19-13 with a very impressive 2.70 ERA in the minors, striking out 255 batters in 293.1 innings. This high inning total is a testament to Britton's durability. He now has thrown at least 140 innings in three straight seasons. With the lack of consistency in the Orioles' rotation, expect Britton to get a lot of opportunities this spring.
2011 Ceiling: 14 W, 2.90 ERA, 150 K
In 2010, Kalish burst on to the scene, hitting .300 with two home runs and eight RBI in his first 15 games. He leveled out quickly, however, finishing the season with a .252 batting average, four home runs and 10 stolen bases through 53 games.
Kalish is just 22 years old, yet he is establishing himself as one of the Red Sox top prospects. He will certainly get some opportunities this spring and likely throughout the season, with the Red Sox' injury history in the outfield. Kalish has put up very strong numbers in his minor league career. In 2010, he hit .294 with 13 home runs and 25 stolen bases in only 78 games, displaying his 20/30 potential.
Kalish is certainly a Red Sox star of the future, but he could break out as early as this spring.
2011 Ceiling: .300, 78 R, 22 HR, 85 RBI, 32 SB
Freeman is becoming a household name for baseball fans, as it is clear that he will be a strong MLB player in the years to come.
In 2010, Freeman hit .319 with 18 home runs and 87 RBI in just 461 at-bats. In a full season, that is 20-25/100 potential, not to mention that he is still 21 years old. Freeman was taken in the second round by Atlanta, and he has not disappointed thus far in his career.
Freeman is currently listed as the Braves' starting first basemen entering 2011, a bold move by Atlanta. He is certainly a player to watch this spring. If he makes significant strides forward this season, he could help Atlanta in the Braves' World Series attempt this season.
2011 Ceiling: .320, 92 R, 24 HR, 96 RBI, 11 SB
Sean Rodriguez is my No. 2 fantasy baseball sleeper this season because I can see him exploding in 2011. He will have every opportunity due to the Rays' losses to free agency and via trade this winter.
Rodriguez's most recent minor league season was 2009, in which he hit .294 with 30 home runs and nine stolen bases in just 385 at-bats. The power he displayed in 2009, if carried into the majors, would certainly warrant elite recognition.
Rodriguez played the entire 2010 season with the Rays in 2010, hitting .251 with nine home runs and 13 stolen bases in 343 at-bats. These numbers were not fantastic, but he has plenty of room to grow at age 25. He is flying under the radar this winter. However, I can see him being this year's Ben Zobrist of 2009 for the Rays.
2011 Ceiling: .292, 87 R, 28 HR, 89 RBI, 19 SB
Ka'aihue may be a surprise to see at No. 1, but I expect big things from Ka'aihue. For an in-depth analysis of Ka'aihue, click here.
The Royals are desperate for power; they have not had a legitimate power threat since Carlos Beltran departed. However, Ka'aihue has hit 88 home runs in his past three minor league seasons, despite playing just 116.3 games per season. In 2008, Ka'aihue hit .314 with 37 home runs and 100 RBI. Clearly, he has the potential to be an elite first baseman for the Royals.
Ka'aihue is an all-around phenomenal player. He hits for power, average and gets on base at an elite level. Expect big things from Ka'aihue this spring.
2011 Ceiling: .311, 83 R, 29 HR, 105 RBI, 3 SB