10 Scorching MLB Starts That Could Lead to Breakout 2016 Seasons
One of the most exciting parts of any new MLB season is watching the next wave of stars arrive with breakout performances.
Whether it's a rookie making a major impact in his first campaign or an established MLB player taking that next step, there are always a handful of emerging stars each year.
The tricky part in the early-going is deciding whether a hot start over the first couple of weeks is the real deal or if significant regression will follow in the days and weeks to come.
Making that determination requires a long look into a player's track record, keeping an eye out for any major regression indicators and taking into account any adjustments the player might have made in the offseason, such as tweaking his batting stance or adding a pitch.
So with all of that in mind, ahead is a look at 10 scorching MLB starts that could lead to legitimate breakout seasons in 2016.
Expect These Scorching Starts to Cool
The following players are off to terrific starts, but for one reason or another there's a good chance they're not headed for sustainable breakouts.
OF Jeremy Hazelbaker, St. Louis Cardinals: No one is better at finding unexpected contributors in the minor league ranks than the St. Louis Cardinals, and the 28-year-old Hazelbaker is the latest. A career .264/.341/.434 hitter in the minors, he'll eventually lose playing time to Randal Grichuk once his average levels out. That said, he does have a chance to stick as the fourth outfielder, which is bad news for Tommy Pham.
OF Joey Rickard, Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles had apparently been targeting Rickard for some time prior to selecting him in the Rule 5 draft in December, and he's been a great find for a team that desperately needed outfield help. He may not be a true breakout star, but similar to Odubel Herrera in Philadelphia last season, he's capable of being a solid contributor in an expanded role for the duration of the campaign.
SS Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies: Story has been the talk of baseball for the first two weeks of the season, and his seven home runs through the first six games were incredible. He has the tools to put together a strong rookie campaign as the everyday shortstop, but his ratio of one walk to 12 strikeouts is a good indication that his approach at the plate still needs some refining. Eventually, that's going to catch up with him.
SP Ross Stripling, Los Angeles Dodgers: The 7.1 no-hit innings were terrific, but Stripling is a 26-year-old with a history of arm problems and a limited track record of success in the high minors. A breakout season isn't out of the question, but we'll need to see more than one great start before including him here.
SP Brandon Finnegan, Cincinnati Reds
A matter of months after going No. 17 overall in the 2014 draft, Brandon Finnegan was pitching in the World Series with the Kansas City Royals.
Sent back to the minors last season to continue his development as a starter, he was eventually traded to the Cincinnati Reds as part of a three-pitcher package for Johnny Cueto.
There's still some question as to whether his future lies in the rotation or bullpen, but an improving changeup has him looking more and more like a long-term rotation piece.
Here's a closer look at the pitch, via Brooks Baseball:
- 2015: 55 total changeups, 7.3 percent usage, .250 BAA
- 2016: 52 total changeups, 26.4 percent usage, .000 BAA
Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs had the following to say about his improved repertoire and approach:
Last year, Finnegan was most comfortable going to his fastball. That would’ve made him predictable. This year, so far, Finnegan hasn’t thrown too many fastballs, even in traditional fastball counts. He clearly has more faith in his change and his slider, and the fuller arsenal makes him better able to go through an order for a third time.
Finnegan struck out a career-high nine in his first start and then took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs his next time out.
That's a good beginning to what could be a breakout year for the 23-year-old, and he'll have every chance to succeed on a rebuilding Reds team.
1B Tyler White, Houston Astros
For all the attention being heaped on Trevor Story after he slugged seven home runs in the first six games of the season for the Colorado Rockies, it's Tyler White who actually put together the best start among rookie hitters.
David Schoenfield of ESPN.com explained: "White has actually outhit Story so far. That's right, White is hitting .545/.577/1.091 compared to Story's meager .333/.357/1.111 line. White is out OPSing a guy who has seven home runs in six games. In other words: Let's talk about Tyler White."
A diamond in the rough who signed for a $1,000 bonus after his senior season at Western Carolina, White was a long shot from the start.
Astros director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal spoke with Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle about the team's scouting process with White:
He didn’t have your typical athletic baseball body. Western Carolina, I’m not sure how much that’s on the radar of the scouts. I want to give kudos to the scout, to Tim, Tim Bittner, he went to Western Carolina. He saw this guy and he saw enough that he liked about him to write him up, and I don’t know how many other organizations wrote him up, but I’m sure it wasn’t unanimous.
It proved to be a great decision, as White hit .311/.422/.489 in his three minor league seasons before edging out Jon Singleton and top prospect A.J. Reed for the starting first base job this spring.
Thanks to his advanced approach—he walked more than he struck out in the minors last year—White has a good chance of holding on to the starting job all season, which would add another element to a good Astros offense.
3B Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
Let's take a closer look at an impressive series of events for the Cincinnati Reds front office:
- Dec. 11, 2014: Reds trade SP Alfredo Simon to the Tigers in exchange for IF Eugenio Suarez and SP Jonathon Crawford.
- 2015 Season: Suarez posts a .761 OPS with 19 doubles and 13 home runs while seeing extended action in place of the injured Zack Cozart. Crawford earns the No. 29 spot in the Reds farm system heading into 2016, per the Baseball America Prospect Handbook. Simon posts a 5.05 ERA in 187 innings with the Tigers before reaching free agency.
- Mar. 17, 2016: Reds sign SP Alfredo Simon to a one-year, $2 million deal.
Well played, Reds.
Following the offseason trade of Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox, Suarez took over as the Reds' everyday third baseman, and he's off to a great start in 2016.
The 24-year-old has tweaked his batting stance and improved his approach since joining the Reds, as detailed by Owen Watson of FanGraphs, and a breakout season could be in the making as a result.
SP Kenta Maeda, Los Angeles Dodgers
Kenta Maeda might have been the biggest wild card on the free-agent market this offseason, and the Los Angeles Dodgers took a creative approach in signing him to an eight-year deal.
Ken Gurnick of MLB.com explained:
Maeda said the physical exam he provided to interested clubs revealed "irregularities" in his right elbow. Neither he nor club officials would elaborate, but the strong suspicion is that he will need Tommy John reconstruction at some point.
"It's factored into the length and structure of the contract," said president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who guaranteed Maeda a minimum of $25 million that could max out at $106.2 million if Maeda is durable enough to make 32 starts and throw 200 innings each year.
The slightly built 6'1", 175-pound right-hander went 97-67 with a 2.39 ERA, 1.048 WHIP and 1,233 strikeouts in 1,509.2 innings over the course of his eight-year career with the Hiroshima Carp.
However, without the overpowering stuff of guys like Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka and questions as to how his small frame would hold up over a full MLB season, a successful transition was by no means a sure thing.
After a strong spring where he posted a 2.35 ERA over 23 innings, Maeda has twirled six scoreless innings in each of his first two regular-season starts, and he's impressed with his unflappable demeanor on the mound.
"He never loses his poise," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "I think you almost see the best of him when he's in trouble. That shows how competitive he is and how he's able to execute when he has to."
With injuries galore on the pitching side of things, the Dodgers could use a breakout season from the 28-year-old import.
RF Gregory Polanco, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates think highly enough of outfielder Gregory Polanco that they signed him to a five-year, $35 million deal in April that includes a pair of team options that could bring the deal to $61 million total over seven years.
"We are very pleased to have found a common financial ground with Gregory and his representatives," general manager Neal Huntington said, via ESPN.com. "This agreement will provide Gregory with incredible financial security and the club with the ability to build around Gregory as one of our core players for years into the future."
The 24-year-old saw the bulk of his at-bats out of the leadoff spot in the order last year, and he went on to post a respectable .320 on-base percentage and score 83 runs on his way to a 2.6 WAR in his first full season, per Baseball-Reference.com.
Now, he's moved down to the No. 6 spot in the lineup, where he can serve as more of a run producer while he continues to grow into his offensive potential.
Polanco teased what his ceiling could one day be with a huge month of August last year, hitting .330/.380/.500 in 121 plate appearances. Now, he's looking for that sort of production over a full season.
"He wants to do the right thing all the time, which is really hard," manager Clint Hurdle told Adam Berry of MLB.com. "He's got a great heart and a great passion to be the best player he can be."
SP Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox
Had it not been for a mediocre junior season at North Carolina State, there's a good chance Carlos Rodon would have gone No. 1 overall in the 2014 draft.
Instead he wound up slipping to No. 3 overall, where the Chicago White Sox scooped him up and sent him on the fast track to the big leagues.
It took him just 34.2 minor league innings to reach the majors and just three relief appearances before he joined the rotation. It wasn't the smoothest of transitions, but the left-hander eventually rounded into front-line form last year.
After pitching to a 5.00 ERA over his first 18 appearances, Rodon went 5-2 with a 1.81 ERA and 1.079 WHIP in his final eight starts to close out his rookie campaign.
Command has been the big issue for Rodon throughout his brief time in the majors, as he posted a rate of 4.6 walks per nine innings last season.
Those control problems reared their ugly head again Wednesday night when he threw six shutout innings but walked five batters in the process, and that's the one thing that could derail a potential breakout.
However, in terms of pure stuff, his fastball-slider combination is plus-plus, and his changeup is steadily improving as a third offering.
As he continues to refine his command, his status in the rotation could be the biggest X-factor for a White Sox team that is looking to make a push after a disappointing 2015 season.
"He can be as good as anybody, really," White Sox ace Chris Sale told Dan Hayes of CSN Chicago. "His talent is through the roof."
SP Aaron Sanchez, Toronto Blue Jays
Aaron Sanchez broke camp as part of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation last season but landed on the disabled list early in the year with a strained lat.
Upon Sanchez's return to the active roster, manager John Gibbons decided that he'd be better served pitching out of the bullpen the remainder of the season, and he quickly emerged as the team's top setup man for closer Roberto Osuna.
He went on to post a 2.39 ERA and 0.874 WHIP with 10 holds in 30 appearances out of the bullpen, but he's back in the rotation this season after winning the No. 5 starter job in camp.
Stuff has never been the issue with Sanchez, as his fastball sits in the mid-90s and was pushing triple digits out of the bullpen. He backs it with a solid curveball-changeup combination that gives him the necessary three-pitch repertoire to start.
It's his command and durability that have been questioned.
After packing on 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason, he looks more than ready for a big workload this year, so durability no longer seems like a sticking point.
His control is also improving.
He walked batters at a 5.0 BB/9 clip in his 11 starts last season prior to injury but trimmed that to 2.4 BB/9 after moving to the bullpen. So far this year, he's issued just three free passes in 13 innings of work for a 2.1 BB/9 mark.
The Blue Jays are counting on Marcus Stroman to step into the role of staff ace this season, but he could get some big-time support from Sanchez if he continues his emergence as a front-line arm in his own right.
RF Nomar Mazara, Texas Rangers
Nomar Mazara entered the Texas Rangers organization with plenty of hype after signing for a then-record $4.95 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic as part of the 2011 international free-agent class.
Still just 20 years old until April 26, Mazara has moved quickly through the Rangers system to emerge as one of the top prospects in all of baseball.
With a big 6'4" frame, plus power potential and a good approach at the plate, Mazara has all the tools to be a middle-of-the-order bat for years to come in Texas, and an injury has opened the door for him to show what he can do.
Shin-Soo Choo suffered a strained right calf muscle that is expected to sideline him for four to six weeks, according to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com.
With Mazara off to a 6-for-12 start with a home run in three Triple-A games, he earned the promotion and is expected to be the everyday right fielder until Choo returns.
He kicked things off with a bang, going 3-for-4 with a home run in his MLB debut Sunday.
"A memorable debut for the young man," Rangers manager Jeff Banister told Sullivan. "Three hits and a home run...that's a special day. Great poise, he walked up there in the first inning and didn't get caught up. He stayed with his approach."
If he continues to produce, the Rangers will have no choice but to find a way to get him regular at-bats even after Choo returns, but that's a good problem to have.
3B Maikel Franco, Philadelphia Phillies
There wasn't much for Philadelphia Phillies fans to cheer about during a 99-loss season a year ago, but the promising debut of Maikel Franco did provide some hope for the future.
And despite posting an .840 OPS with 22 doubles and 14 home runs as a rookie, Franco is still capable of significantly more offensively.
A fractured wrist suffered on Aug. 11 cost him all but three games the rest of the way, and with a year of experience under his belt and a full slate of at-bats, he could easily top the 30-homer mark in 2016.
He's more than just a slugger, though, as a 15.5 percent strikeout rate and 7.8 percent walk rate last season demonstrate his good contact skills and advanced approach for his age.
Already a popular breakout pick before spring training began, the 23-year-old further fanned those flames with a 1.054 OPS and nine home runs in 68 spring at-bats.
Now, he's carried that over with a hot start to the regular season, and he was at it again Wednesday night with a 2-for-3 performance that included a double, a home run and both RBI in a 2-1 win.
"I'm feeling pretty good, hitting the ball pretty good," Franco told A.J. Cassavell and Evan Webeck of MLB.com. "I want to continue to do that, continue to make adjustments on the pitches and try to be ready every single day."
If nothing else, it looks like the Phillies have at least one building block for the future in their current lineup.
SP Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
Some would say Noah Syndergaard already broke out last season, when he posted a 3.24 ERA and 1.047 WHIP while striking out more than one batter per inning in 24 starts.
The scary thing is, that's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of.
For as good as Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom are, there's a good chance that Syndergaard winds up being the best of the bunch for the New York Mets. He's already well on his way with an absolutely dominant start to 2016.
His average fastball velocity is sitting at 97.5 mph through his first two starts.
That's his average velocity. Not his peak velocity. Not one pitch. His average velocity.
After using the curveball as his out pitch a year ago, Syndergaard has relied primarily on his slider this season and understandably so. It's absolutely devastating with an unfair 91.6 mph average velocity.
Arguably the most impressive stat for Syndergaard last year was his 31 walks in 150 innings, as young power pitchers with 6'6" frames simply don't have that kind of command early in their careers.
He's been even stingier with the free passes so far this season at 1.4 BB/9 while punching out batters at a ridiculous 14.5 K/9 rate.
You don't win the Cy Young Award with two good starts in April, and the National League is stacked with terrific arms, but expect Thor to be in the mix for that award on a yearly basis going forward.
And it starts with a true breakout season here in 2016.