Fantasy Baseball Sleepers 2014: Breakout Candidates at Every Position
In fantasy baseball, breakouts happen every year, but not every breakout is created equal. That is to say that they come in different shapes, sizes and scopes.
There are breakouts achieved by rookies who take the sport by storm right out of the gate, like Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig did last year. Then there are those that come in the form of a player going from good to great, a la Chris Davis and Carlos Gomez, or ones where something finally clicks for a previously disappointing performer, like Domonic Brown and Daniel Murphy. And yet another kind is when a no-namer becomes a star, which is what happened with Josh Donaldson and Matt Carpenter.
Of course, it's one thing to use hindsight to highlight a batch of breakout performers from 2013. What fantasy owners drafting now need are players who just might break out—in various shapes, sizes and scopes—this year.
Having these breakout candidates broken down position by position, well, that's just a bonus.
Travis d'Arnaud, C, New York Mets
Travis d'Arnaud gets the nod over Mike Zunino for this spot primarily because, while the Seattle Mariners backstop position has veteran John Buck behind him, d'Arnaud has absolutely nothing blocking his way to 500-plus plate appearances—except, that is, for his injury history. The 25-year-old has played 100 games only twice in his pro career, but if he can get there in 2014, he has the bat to matter in deeper leagues or two-catcher formats.
Yan Gomes, C, Cleveland Indians
Gomes, 26, gets overlooked in most mixed leagues, but any catcher who shows he can hit for average (.294 BA), power (11 HR) and score and drive in runs (45 R, 38 RBI) in only 322 plate appearances, as Gomes did last year, needs to be monitored, if not owned, for his upside—especially now that the full-time gig is his.
Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds
It's been a long time coming, but this 25-year-old finally gets to wear his shin guards every day for Cincy. The batting average might be shaky (.225 lifetime), but with 24 doubles, 16 homers and 62 RBI in 538 intermittent at-bats over his three-year career—about one season's worth—Mesoraco could blossom.
Wilson Ramos, C, Washington Nationals (pictured)
Ramos' bugaboo has been health, as he missed nearly all of 2012 following knee surgery and most of 2013 with a hamstring problem. Still, after coming on strong in the second half last year (.276 BA, 14 HR, 53 RBI in 64 games from July 4 on), the 26-year-old is primed to break into the top 10 among fantasy catchers in 2014.
Salvador Perez, C, Kansas City Royals
OK, so Perez already broke out last year, but he's here because he's about to go from good to great as the rare catcher who hits for a high average and starts tapping even more into what could be 20-homer power. Expect him to improve on his 48 runs scored from a year ago—and even his 79 RBI too. At 23, he's only scratched the surface.
Matt Adams, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
The fact that top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras couldn't shake his injury issues this spring gives Adams, 25, a wider window to prove he can be St. Louis' starting first baseman while Allen Craig shifts to right field. There's a chance Adams' playing time gets impacted midseason if he doesn't hit, but he does have 25-homer potential.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
The Cubs are counting on Rizzo to be a foundation piece. While the lefty slugger disappointed in 2013 (.233 BA, 20 HR, 80 RBI), he's still just 24 years old and could be the kind of player who clicks in a big, big way. He's a bit risky as a starting first base in mixed leagues, but Rizzo might ascend to such a role sooner than later.
Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox (pictured)
An absolute beast in Cuba's Serie Nacional, there are, nonetheless, questions about how much contact Abreu will make in his initial shot in the bigs. What isn't in question, though, is how far the ball will travel when the 27-year-old masher does connect. If he adjusts well enough, Abreu will be in the mix for AL Rookie of the Year.
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants
It took Belt about two-and-a-half years of wandering, but the 25-year-old finally found himself over the second half of 2013: .326 BA, 34 R, 7 HR, 29 RBI in only 61 games. He may top out in the low 20s in homers, but he could make up for that with a .300-plus batting average and enough runs and RBI to keep his owners happy.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals
Like Sal Perez, his Royals teammate, Hosmer falls into the "has already broken out" category to an extent. But after hitting .302 with 86 runs, 17 homers and 79 RBI—most of which came after the break—the 24-year-old has more in there. If he continues to chip in his 10-15 steals, that only bumps him up the first base ranks even more.
Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
Among this year's rookie class, 23-year-old Kolten Wong is more safe than sexy for fantasy purposes. That just means he'll do a little bit of everything as an ideal middle infielder in NL-onlies and 12-team mixed leagues. Then again, he might be more than that if he can carry over the momentum from his .378/.439/.703 spring.
Dustin Ackley, 2B/OF, Seattle Mariners
It's sink or swim for this former No. 2 overall pick (2009), as the M's have shifted Ackley from second base to outfield. Owners who throw a dart at him late in drafts are hoping he can perform like he did in the second half after his demotion—.304/.374/.435—and could benefit from plugging him in at second base (where he's still eligible).
Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals
Given that he was only 23 and had less than a full season's worth of plate appearances in the minors, Rendon actually was pretty good in his intro to the majors. Look for his .265 average to jump; 15-18 homers and 70-plus runs and RBI are also possible so long as the injury-prone Rendon can stay healthy.
Jurickson Profar, 2B, Texas Rangers (pictured)
Although slowed by shoulder tendinitis this spring, Profar has the second base job to himself now and is ready to show why he was the consensus top prospect in the sport this time last year. Don't dare judge—or overlook—him simply because he failed to impress while receiving sporadic playing time all over the diamond as a 20-year-old.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres
Hitting 23 homers—second-most at the position—as a rook might disqualify Gyorko as a quote-unquote breakout candidate to some, but the 25-year-old is flying under the radar in fantasy because he missed a month to injury and hit just .249. Imagine, then, what this career .321 hitter in the minors might due if he doesn't miss 30 games in 2014.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston Red Sox
Don't draft Middlebrooks, 25, expecting anything north of .250 in the batting average department. If it's power you crave, though, he does have 32 homers and 103 RBI in his career, which is still only 169 games and 615 at-bats old. Plus, hitting in Fenway and amid the always potent Boston lineup is bound to help.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
The Royals have a lot riding on 2014 as a whole and Moustakas in particular, as their chances of ending a 28-season playoff-less drought could depend on whether this former No. 2 overall pick (2007) can pull off an Alex Gordon-like post-hype breakout. If his spring is any indication—.450 BA, 4 HR, 16 RBI—there's hope yet.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Speaking of strong springs, this 22-year-old is hitting .396 with a pair of homers and 16 RBI, tied for the most with Moustakas entering Friday games. Castellanos will face some growing pains, no doubt, but his ability to adjust and the opportunity to join a strong lineup could make him a Rookie of the Year contender.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
For a contact machine like Arenado, who struck out a mere 14 percent of the time in 2013, playing a full season and getting to do so at Coors Field is only going to help him improve on his solid showing as a rookie (.267 BA, 49 R, 10 HR, 52 RBI) who came up in late April last year. He could nudge up against the top 10 third basemen.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays (pictured)
Lawrie has yet to put it all together entering his fourth MLB campaign, in no small part due to spending far too much time on the disabled list. If he can stay healthy enough over 140 or so games, though, the 24-year-old has the skills to reach 15 homers and steals and flirt with 20-20. A poor man's David Wright?
Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
Owings edges out the Cubs' Javier Baez here only because he's more likely to spend most of 2014 in the majors for an Arizona club that is hoping to contend, whereas Chicago's rebuild is still ongoing, so there's no need to rush Baez just yet. Owings, 22, showed improved bat-on-ball ability while hitting .330 at Triple-A and could push double digits in homers and steals if he beats out Didi Gregorius and gets 500 at-bats.
Jonathan Villar, SS, Houston Astros
This 22-year-old is aggressive both at the dish and on the bases, meaning he might struggle to hit above .250-.260, but he also might pilfer 30-40 bases if he can get on base just enough to keep the starting shortstop job in Houston most of the season.
Brad Miller, SS, Seattle Mariners
Competing with fellow second-year player Nick Franklin, Miller is having himself some kind of spring (entering Friday): .447 BA, 13 R, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 1 SB. The 24-year-old's little-of-everything profile should make him a useful middle infield option in most leagues, and because shortstop is so shallow, he could be starter-worthy if he clicks.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox (pictured)
At worst, this 21-year-old phenom will be a fine middle infielder who contributes in batting average as well as runs and perhaps RBI given his surrounding lineup. At best? Well, let's just that say if Bogaerts blossoms in his first full season, he may well become a fantasy force who coasts into the top five among all shortstops.
Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres
Cabrera has pretty much broken out already with 44 steals in 2012 and 37 more last year, but he makes this list because his 2013 was interrupted by a 50-game Biogenesis suspension. Before that, the switch-hitting 27-year-old was showing he may be more than just a base stealer, as his .283 average and strikeout rate (15.9 percent) were much better than the prior season. A .270-average, 80-run, 50-steal season looks possible.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
The top prospect in Pittsburgh's farm system, 22-year-old Polanco was sent to minor league camp but showed this spring he's nearly ready to provide a boost to the Pirates—and fantasy owners—around midseason after his first extended look at Triple-A. He could be the organization's hitting version of Gerrit Cole this year.
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
Springer, 24, is one of the most explosive talents yet to make his MLB debut, which should happen by May considering he's already one of the best outfielders in the organization. His power-speed combo will make him a perennial 20-20 candidate (and then some), and he'll have an impressive fantasy highlight reel by 2014's end.
Khris Davis, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
There's a lot of sleeper love gathering around Davis after he hit 10 doubles, 11 homers and drove in 27 in just 136 at-bats as a rookie. The power is legit, but be careful investing too much in fantasy. At 26, he's not as young as you might expect for a guy you only heard of at the end of 2013, and his injury history is checkered.
Kole Calhoun, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Calhoun, 26, has 15-15 upside and could score plenty of runs if he hits high in the Angels' order ahead of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. There's a good amount of value in there if Calhoun can pull that off, but it's also probably his absolute ceiling.
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Minnesota Twins
The 22-year-old was rushed to the majors because of all the injuries to and ineffectiveness of Twins outfielders early last year. While there are definite concerns over Arcia's batting average if he's going to keep striking out 31 percent of the time, he also displayed extra-base power with 17 doubles and 13 homers in 351 at-bats.
Adam Eaton, OF, Chicago White Sox
One of last year's preseason NL Rookie of the Year candidates until an elbow injury cost him the entire first half, the former Diamondback is set to put his on-base skills and speed to use atop his new team's lineup. Playing home games at hitter-friendly Cellular Field could make for a 10-homer, 20-steal, 80-run season.
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins (pictured)
A top-notch prospect this time last year, Yelich jumped from Double-A to the bigs at the start of the second half and proceeded to hit .288 with 34 runs, four homers and 10 steals in 240 at-bats—at 21 years old. If he simply prorates those numbers over a full season, Yelich could be a borderline fantasy OF3 in his first full year.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
Hamilton is a no-brainer for this breakout batch, because everyone's going to be talking about and watching him, no matter whether he flounders or flies. As the sport's fastest man, the 23-year-old has legitimate category-winning 80-steal potential, provided he plays good defense and gets on base enough to stick atop Cincy's order.
Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Jennings has been a starter-worthy outfielder in each of the past two years, but the 27-year-old has yet to match the per-game production he flashed in his 2011 call-up when he hit 10 homers and swiped 20 bases in fewer than 300 plate appearances. With his above-average speed, Jennings' BABIP should be better than his career .297 mark, and with a little boost there, everything else could play up enough to make him a borderline top-25 fantasy outfielder.
Wil Myers, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Myers, 23, is here even after winning the AL Rookie of the Year, because he's got the goods to take the leap in year two. His per-162-games average based off his initial 88 games? Try .293 with 92 runs, 24 homers, 98 RBI and nine steals. Normally, those types of projections lead to disappointment, but Myers could reach, or even exceed, those numbers.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
After an unimpressive final spring outing against Team Australia Friday, which followed an even worse Cactus League start his last time out, Bradley is a long shot to make the team. Still, the 21-year-old 2011 first-rounder has incredible swing-and-miss stuff and is in an organization that could use a front-of-the-rotation arm sooner than later. Once he's a bit more polished with a month or two at Triple-A, he'll get his shot.
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals
Ventura, 22, was announced as a member of the rotation earlier this week, which means he'll be throwing his 100 mph heater by hitters right away. His slight frame (6'0", 180) and at times spotty control (3.1 BB/9 in minors) could be obstacles, but you'll be seeing wicked highlights of his even more wicked stuff soon enough.
Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
This 25-year-old's rookie season went about as well as possible (3.22 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), and he's had a nice camp too. Ultimately, whether he really breaks out in his first full year will depend on whether a guy who owns a career 5.0 BB/9 in the minors can come close to repeating his 2.7 BB/9 from 2013.
Andrew Cashner, RHP, San Diego Padres
Whether you like Cashner because the 27-year-old finally stayed healthy last year, because he gets to call pitcher-friendly Petco Park home or because, well, he was just really, really good in 2013 (3.09 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), the point is clear: You like Cashner.
Sonny Gray, RHP, Oakland Athletics
The 2011 first-rounder was phenomenal in a late-season 10-start stretch: 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.2 K/9. While Gray won't be that great all year long in his first full campaign, he does have strikeout potential and pitches half the time in Oakland.
Danny Salazar, RHP, Cleveland Indians
Salazar, 24, is one of the few starting pitchers whose fastball can rival Yordano Ventura's for sheer explosiveness, and it showed, with 65 whiffs in his first 52 frames. That'll get Salazar noticed quite a bit, but to really achieve full breakout status, this injury-prone arm needs to prove he can repeat last year's career-high 145 innings.
Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
Following the top-prospect-promoted-at-midseason arc, Wheeler was on the Matt Harvey career path, and the kid gloves should be off in 2014 after nearly 170 innings between the minors and majors last year. The 23-year-old won't take off to Harvey's heights, but if Wheeler can avoid the same Tommy John surgery fate while cleaning up his control, this could be a top-30 fantasy starting pitcher.
Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
As a 22-year-old who was drafted 19th overall only a year before, Wacha was almost literally unhittable for quite a stretch, starting with his final regular-season outing and extending into October. As long as there's no hangover from hurling 180-plus innings (including playoffs) in his first full pro season, Wacha is going to have an entire year to impress fantasy owners all over again.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees
A 25-year-old who has dominated Japanese baseball for the past handful of seasons, who comes complete with a strong repertoire and is ready-made to pitch 200 innings for a playoff contending club? That's Tanaka in 2014, for whom the range of outcomes is somewhere between good (SP4) and very, very good (SP2) in fantasy.
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates (pictured)
Of all the pitchers on this list who could realistically finish the season as a top-10 fantasy starter, this 23-year-old has the best chance. The 2011 No. 1 overall pick, not only is Cole lined up to pitch 200 innings in his first full year, he'll also pitch all of those innings in front of a team that has become one of the best in utilizing defensive shifts, and most of those innings will be in a pitcher-friendly park.
Cole's 3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 7.7 K/9 through his first 117.1 big league innings might each represent the low ends of what he can do in year two.
Rex Brothers, LHP, Colorado Rockies (pictured)
Although Brothers, 26, proved he could take care of the final three outs while converting 19 of his 21 opportunities in filling in for an injured Rafael Betancourt last year, he'll be ceding the ninth to vet LaTroy Hawkins to start the season. That hurts his immediate fantasy production but actually might make him a bargain in drafts, as a 30-save breakout is still possible.
Nate Jones, RHP, Chicago White Sox
When the Sox shipped Addison Reed to the Diamondbacks, they opened up the door for a new arm in the ninth. The 28-year-old Jones, who had a 4.15 ERA but a 2.64 FIP and whiffed 89, is the best option out of the gate. With a little better luck in 2014, he could keep the job and be a borderline top-10 fantasy closer.
Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
His role—shutdown setup man or intriguing fifth starter—remains undecided, but the 22-year-old Martinez could be a sneaky RP-eligible starting pitcher with all sorts of upside. Even if he's relegated to the late innings, Martinez is the kind of electric arm that should serve as a strikeout specialist RP3/4 in fantasy.
David Robertson, RHP, New York Yankees
Robertson can't possibly be as consistently dominant year in and year out as his predecessor (a guy by the name of Mariano Rivera) was. In some ways, though, the 28-year-old might be better in fantasy, as long as he can handle the ninth inning in New York after years as one of baseball's best setup men. Robertson's ERA and WHIP could rival Rivera's, and his strikeout total should be better.
Trevor Rosenthal, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
In becoming only the 10th reliever ever to whiff 100-plus and walk 20 or fewer—doing so in his first full season—Rosenthal broke out already, just not in a fantasy way. He only notched three saves while pitching the eighth all year. As closer on the contending Cardinals, the 23-year-old will rectify that quickly.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11