Must-Watch Potential Breakout Stars for the 2016 MLB Season

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistApril 6, 2016

Must-Watch Potential Breakout Stars for the 2016 MLB Season

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    Christine Cotter/Associated Press

    There are countless reasons why some players take time to finally reach their potential—to deliver that career-changing breakout season—but when they do, it's usually in a big way with big numbers and memorable moments.

    Without fail, it happens each and every season.

    We've looked at emerging stars and budding superstars in recent weeks, and you won't find any of those players on the pages that follow. With all due respect to the likes of Mookie Betts, Miguel Sano, Kyle Schwarber, George Springer and Noah Syndergaard, their breakout potential has already been noted.

    No, the time has come to shine the light on some different players, those who have had varying degrees of success in the big leagues but have yet to put together a full season that makes the baseball universe stand up and take notice.

    That is, until now.

Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 74 G, .249/.335/.498, 31 XBH (10 HR), 43 RBI, 3-for-3 SB

    Reading too much into spring training statistics can be dangerous, so it's wise to be leery of Jackie Bradley Jr.'s .377/.431/.604 triple-slash line, especially when he's hit only .213 over nearly 800 regular-season plate appearances.

    But all that experience seems to finally be paying off.

    “Jackie is swinging the bat very well, not only this camp but I think we’re seeing a guy who has gotten back to his normal swing," Boston manager John Farrell told the Boston Herald's Jason Mastrodonato last month. "Good plate coverage. Less holes to attack for the opposition. And a guy that’s growing in capability.”

    It's easy to forget, but that swing was nearly as highly touted in scouting reports while he worked his way through Boston's farm system a few years ago.

    Bradley showed what he can do when he gets in a groove last August, hitting .354 with 17 extra-base hits (five home runs), 23 RBI and baseball's third-highest OPS (1.163), a mark that trailed only Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion and his Red Sox teammate David Ortiz.

    While his glove has been his calling card thus far, the tools have always been there for Bradley to be a terrific all-around player. Now that he no longer has to look over his shoulder to see if someone is waiting to take his job away, 2016 could be the season when everything falls into place.

Raisel Iglesias, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 18 G (16 GS), 3-7, 4.15 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 95.1 IP, 81 H, 28 BB, 104 K

    Dismissing Raisel Iglesias' Opening Day performance because of his opponent—six innings of two-run ball with no walks and seven strikeouts against a rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies club—would be a mistake.

    Last season, during an eight-start stretch that ran from mid-July through early September, Iglesias pitched to a 2.78 ERA and 0.89 WHIP, striking out 70 batters while issuing only 17 free passes. It was a stretch filled with outings just like the one he delivered Monday and lots that were better.

    Iglesias' ability to make batters swing and miss found him among some impressive company last season. Per MLB.com's Paul Casella, Iglesias' 26.3 percent strikeout rate ranked 14th in all of baseball, while his 9.8 K/9 rate was the 13th highest all-time mark by a pitcher in his first MLB season.

    Shoulder fatigue prematurely ended his season, but he believes he's better prepared to handle a larger workload after participating in Cincinnati's shoulder rehab program. “My arm feels loose,” he told WCPO.com's John Fay. “I feel the muscles around my shoulder are stronger. I think if [I] follow that that we have been doing, I should not have any issues during the season."

    So long as there are no issues, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see Iglesias finish the year as one of baseball's 20 or 30 best starting pitchers. 

    It'd be hard to say he's not if, come season's end, he's sitting with 200-plus strikeouts, a WHIP below 1.30 and an ERA in the low-to-mid threes, numbers he's capable of hitting over the course of a full season.

    In a post-Johnny Cueto world, either Homer Bailey or Anthony DeSclafani is supposed to grab the reins as the Reds' ace. But it's the 26-year-old Iglesias who has the best chance of staking a claim to that title.

Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 153 G, .256/.320/.381, 50 XBH (9 HR), 52 RBI, 27-for-37 SB

    If Gregory Polanco were a finished product, the extension he signed with Pittsburgh—a five-year, $35 million deal that, with options and escalators could become a seven-year, $60 million deal—would be worth far more.

    "I think as he continues to mature both physically and mentally, he has a chance to be really special,” remarked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle at a press conference announcing the extension, per Today's Knuckleball's John Perrotto.

    Like Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr., Polanco's bat has yet to catch up to his glove, especially when facing left-handed pitching. But the 24-year-old has elite bat speed and both the desire and the work ethic to get himself straightened out at the plate. 

    Polanco showed improvement after the All-Star break in 2015, hitting .276/.324/.425 with 29 extra-base hits (six home runs), 29 RBI and 10 stolen bases over 67 games. Per FanGraphs, his wRC+ jumped from 81 in the season's first half to 108 in the second half, a substantial increase.

    “He’s continuing to work to get his swing in a good place,” Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Bill Brink late in spring training. “We’re trying to get him synced up a little bit where the swing’s working from back to front. Every once in a while, he’ll get a little rotary, a little corkscrew-ish.”

    As Polanco continues to mature, his plus tools—the speed, the athleticism, the power he generates as his hands fly through the zone—have a better chance of shining. It's not crazy to imagine him hitting .280 with 70 extra-base hits (10-to-15 of them home runs), 40-plus stolen bases and 100 runs scored in 2016. 

Carlos Rodon, LHP, Chicago White Sox

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    2015 Stats: 26 G (23 GS), 9-6, 3.75 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 139.1 IP, 130 H, 71 BB, 139 K

    Hardly anyone pays attention to the work a pitcher puts in on the side in between starts that gets things clicking, whether it's simulated games or long-toss sessions. It was during the latter half of last year that things began to come together for Carlos Rodon.

    At the behest of Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, Rodon incorporated a crow hop into his mechanics before releasing the ball. Suddenly, the command issues that plagued him during the first part of the season disappeared.

    "It was just a matter of getting on top and driving the ball to the catcher," the 23-year-old explained to ESPN's Mark Simon. "It made everything better. Everything was on the same plane and the same point of release. Every pitch looked similar out of my hand, whether it was a fastball, changeup or slider."

    In the first 15 starts of Rodon's career, he posted a 5.17 ERA with 46 walks and 86 strikeouts, pitching into the sixth inning only eight times. His numbers after that side session? Eight starts, all lasting into the sixth inning or later, a 1.81 ERA and only 21 walks to go along with 49 strikeouts.

    The third overall pick in the 2014 draft, Rodon's continued development has a chance to give the White Sox one of the more dominant rotation-topping trios in baseball along with ace Chris Sale and the criminally underrated Jose Quintana.

    “He can be as good as anybody, really,” Sale told CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes. “His talent is through the roof.”

Addison Russell, SS, Chicago Cubs

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    2015 Stats: 142 G, .242/.307/.389, 43 XBH (13 HR), 54 RBI, 4-for-7 SB

    Addison Russell showed plenty of promise in his first full major league season, especially in the power department. But he also posted the second-highest strikeout percentage among qualified shortstops, leading to questions about whether he'd ever make enough contact to be a consistent contributor.

    But he was a different hitter in 2015 than he is this season, and all the evidence you need can be found right here, a side-by-side look at his setup and swing from last season and this year, courtesy of Derek Florko, who goes by SaberCoach on Twitter.

    He's starting his hands lower, keeping his back arm closer to his body as he rotates and is using a pronounced leg kick rather than a toe tap. That all helps to add some loft to his swing. His hip rotation remains fairly consistent.

    "The leg kick feels it's on time now, even with runners on base," Russell told the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales at the start of spring training, noting that he began to utilize it toward the end of last season. "It's a good feeling."

    Suddenly, Russell looks like a player with a purpose at the plate, not just someone who's hacking away hoping to make contact. That point wasn't lost on the 22-year-old. 

    “I was swinging at balls,” Russell told FanGraphs' Eno Sarris. “But if I’m seeing that ball in now, I’m pretty much going to take unless I’m feeling good or it’s straight. I just want to see them up and out over the plate. That’s what I honed into late last year and here in the spring.”

    He may never reach the level of Carlos Correa at the plate, but as long as Russell sticks with his new approach and mechanics, there's no reason he couldn't become one of the better hitting shortstops in baseball—and work his way up Chicago's lineup.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus).

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.