If you're looking for value, you've come to the right place.
Sure, you'll find it in my sleepers column as well, but the goal here is basically the same as the goal there: to identify the players most likely to outperform their draft position.
The breakouts are a little more on the radar than the sleepers and are sure to be drafted in every league, but given my expectations for them this season, they deserve special emphasis nonetheless.
It won't be the last you see of them either. I'll update this list a little closer to the start of the season, when I have a little more information at my disposal. Right now, I can only guess where players will go in drafts, so there's a chance some of these 12 might not be such great values after all.
They'll at least give you some names to circle as you begin planning for 2016, though.
So any idiot can compare Rougned Odor's first year to his second and observe that he's trending the right direction. His bargain status depends on the rest of your league doing just that.
Emphasis on the "just."
Odor's final 2015 numbers make him out to be sort of another Neil Walker, offering good pop for a second baseman but nothing else to set him apart at what's shaping up to be a fairly deep position. Forget for a minute that he's only 21, which makes anything he accomplishes at the major-league level historically significant. Most Fantasy owners are only comfortable making surface-level assessments of players, and Odor's numbers on the surface are decidedly blah.
But that's why you shouldn't only pay attention to your own players in Fantasy. If you had paid attention to Odor last year, you'd know he got off to a miserable start, batting .144 when he was sent to the minors on May 8. And you'd know that when he returned, he was an animal, batting .292 with 15 home runs -- or what would translate to about 25 over a full season -- and an .861 OPS.
Forget Walker. Those numbers are reminiscent of Robinson Cano -- and not Cano last year, but Cano in his prime, when he was routinely a first-round pick in Fantasy. Of course, Cano's prime was at age 26, 27, etc. When he was 21, like Odor, he was -- oh, that's right -- not even in the majors yet.
Since 1990, only 25 players 21 or younger hit have hit as many home runs as the 16 Odor hit last year -- when, again, he didn't really get started until mid-June. That's only one per year. And of those 25, Odor is the one and only second baseman.
Odor isn't just another viable option at second base. He's a special, transcendent talent, and I get the feeling everyone is going to know it after this season.
You just know everyone is going to be head over heels for Kris Bryant on Draft Day, reaching for him as early as Round 2. And why not? The guy had a pretty good rookie season, confirming what most of us already suspected about him.
But you know what? Maikel Franco's was better.
Obviously, I'm talking on a per-game basis because he didn't arrive until a month later and then missed more or less the final six weeks with a fractured wrist, but when he played, Franco was better than Bryant, averaging 3.15 Head-to-Head points per game to Bryant's 3.10.
The difference may be that his performance wasn't as confirming. In fact, his stock was actually down coming off a 2014, where a slow start at Triple-A left him with about half as many home runs as he hit between high Class A and Double-A the previous year. He didn't have the most consistent approach and was known to over-swing at times.
But none of that was apparent in his rookie season. What was apparent was that he made heck of a lot of contact for a player with his power potential, striking out at an even lower rate than bat-on-ball specialists Matt Duffy and Gerardo Parra. As good as he was in 2015, his .297 BABIP suggests he actually underachieved slightly in batting average, and of course, he has already demonstrated his capacity for 30 home runs.
Maybe you don't like what has become of Adrian Beltre, who you may have already noticed appeared in my busts column, but Franco is shaping up to be a similar type of player, at least offensively, providing a rare combination of power and contact hitting at the hot corner.
When he last qualified for such lists -- which was a while ago since he exhausted his rookie eligibility during a late call-up in 2014 -- Taijuan Walker was considered the best pitching prospect by many publications, and with that designation comes certain expectations. Chief among them is an ERA lower than 4.56, which is what he had in his first full season last year.
But where there's disappointment, there's also opportunity, particularly when it comes to draft value.
Truth is a cumulative ERA doesn't tell the story of Walker's 2015, because nine starts into it, that ERA stood at 7.33. He struggled to locate pitches and was getting pummeled. Then, it was like someone flipped a switch. After issuing four walks in four of those first nine starts, he issued a total of four over his next 10 and didn't issue more than three in a single start thereafter.
From that flip of the switch until right about the point when he matched his career high in innings (a span of 14 starts), he went 7-2 with a 3.33 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings -- numbers not too unlike the ones that made Noah Syndergaard such a hit as a rookie last year.
Walker stumbled to the finish line, which isn't at all uncommon for a young pitcher building up his innings, but now that he's through the growing pains and prepared to handle a full workload, he's as good a bet as any to become this year's Chris Archer.
"I need to see him do it maybe four starts in a row before I can get excited about it."
That's what I told ... someone on some form of media at some point after Carlos Rodon's best start of his rookie season Aug. 11 against the Angels, when he allowed no runs on four hits with one walk and 11 strikeouts over seven innings. I'm paraphrasing in case you couldn't tell from the lack of specifics, but you get the gist. I was frustrated with the on-and-off tendency, his alternating between starts where he showed the full extent of his potential and starts where his control issues got the better of him, and I was beginning to think those control issues would have to be a long-term project for pitching coach Don Cooper.
He ended up doing it eight starts in a row, allowing no more than two earned runs in any of them, so it's fair to say I'm sufficiently excited. But you could have guessed as much just from his inclusion here.
I should point out that his control issues aren't completely behind him. His walk rate during that eight-start stretch was still 3.5 per nine innings, and it's possible that even as the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, he never develops into more than, say, Francisco Liriano. But considering Clayton Kershaw's control issues were once just as pronounced (he issued 4.3 walks per nine innings as a rookie in 2008), you wouldn't want to set limits on a 23-year-old with Rodon's stuff.
If you're drafting him in the same neighborhood as Liriano, you're drafting him for his floor, which means he can only exceed your expectations. That's the textbook definition of an upside pick.
If you asked me on July 24, the day the world learned Michael Conforto was on his way to the majors, I would have said he was rushed, a casualty of a desperate franchise looking to placate a restless fan base. If you asked me on Sept. 24, after watching him play for two months, I would have asked you what took the Mets so long.
He was disciplined, striking out about one every five at-bats. He was balanced, hitting an equal number of fly balls and ground balls, -- and with a high number of line drives in between. He was composed, never encountering a moment that was too big for him, as we saw with his two home runs in Game 4 of the World Series. He was, quite simply, a joy to watch.
He was everything a 22-year-old shouldn't be -- particularly one who played only 45 games above A-ball, which tells me his future is especially bright. It's worth noting he was one of just two or three players ( Kyle Schwarber being another) who looked like they were on a different level from everyone else when I attended the Futures Game last summer.
I realize I'm going heavy on the eye test here, which may be off-putting to some, but understand I'm using it to validate the numbers Conforto is already putting up -- numbers with room to grow at such a young age and that, with regular at-bats, could make him the kind of hitter we keep hoping Yasiel Puig will be. Provided the Mets actually play him against left-handed pitchers this year, he's an ideal upside pick for your third outfield spot.
The Royals sent Yordano Ventura a message on July 21 last year. They optioned him to Triple-A only to recall him the very next day when Jason Vargas went on DL. He never set foot in Omaha, and yet if his performance the rest of the way is any indication, he got the message.
Maybe it was just a coincidence -- his second and third starts after returning weren't exactly the stuff of legends -- but the timing is close enough for me to presume his fakeout demotion at least refocused him. If nothing else, he began making better use of his secondary stuff, throwing his curveball nearly twice as often, and with that, the 24-year-old blessed with the 99-mph fastball finally began getting whiffs at a rate befitting his considerable stuff. The result was a 2.38 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his final 11 starts. That's compared to a 5.29 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP and 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings over his first 17.
"He throws so hard," his catcher Salvador Perez told the Kansas City Star just before the start of the postseason. "If you have to be ready for 98, 99, and then that nasty curveball ... if it's a strike, you see what happens."
Pitchers who throw hard have the potential to be great, but only if they figure out how to upset hitters' timing with their secondary pitches. If that's the step Ventura took in the second half last year, he's a bargain in the middle rounds.
Kris Bryant ended up winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 -- predictably, I might add -- but if Randal Grichuk hadn't hurt his elbow last August, he might have given the Cubs phenom a run for his money.
Believe it or not, he was the more powerful hitter of the two. His .272 ISO (which you find by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage, thereby isolating the power) would have ranked in the top 10 in baseball, ahead of Josh Donaldson and well ahead of Bryant, whose ISO settled at .213.
Of course, maybe removing the batting average gives Grichuk an unfair advantage since his high strikeout rate suggests even his modest .276 mark may have been too good to be true, but while rates sometimes lie, totals don't. If you project Grichuk's numbers over 575 at-bats, he winds up with 30 home runs and 42 doubles -- a higher combined total than Paul Goldschmidt, among others.
He's the big home run hitter the Cardinals thought they had in Matt Adams but haven't had since letting Albert Pujols walk in 2012 and great pick for anyone who needs to make up ground in home runs in Round 9 of a Rotisserie draft.
You think Tyson Ross is valuable in Fantasy? What if I told you his brother Joe does everything he does, only better.
That's not strictly factual. The younger Ross lacks the extreme ground-ball rate of the elder Ross, who needs it to navigate a high walk rate, but Joe takes care of it on the front end by not walking so many batters in the first place. Meanwhile, he has the same mid-90s fastball and swing-and-miss arsenal, profiling as an efficient strikeout-per-inning type for a contending team.
He had a 3.24 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his first 11 starts after his promotion last year, before the innings began to catch up to him, so to say he has top-20 potential isn't a stretch. The key will be whether he holds up over a six-month season.
It's amazing to me how quick some of us are to define players who are nowhere close to their developmental peak.
You know how I raved about some of Rougned Odor's accomplishments for a player his age? Well, I could do the same for Christian Yelich. He has yet to take an at-bat as a 24-year-old, and yet he already has two seasons with 30 doubles or more, a .360 on-base percentage or better and a .760 OPS or better.
You know how many other players since 1990 had two seasons like that through age 23? I'll rattle off the entire list: Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Justin Upton and Mike Trout.
Pretty impressive, right? They may not all be going to the Hall of Fame, but they were at least Fantasy royalty when they were in their prime.
If those stats seem cherry-picked to you, understand the point I'm trying to make: Yelich already has the hard part down. He's a polished hitter -- one who works the count and makes consistently hard contact to all fields. The rest is just growth. One look at the baby-faced tree branch will tell you he has more of that to do, and because he has already demonstrated he can drive the ball (that's where the 30 doubles and high-ish OPS come in), you can suspect it'll translate to more home runs in time.
It may have already if he didn't play half his game at Marlins Park, the preeminent pitcher's park of our day, where he hit just one of his seven home runs last year. The Marlins do plan to move in the fences this year, though, and left-handed hitters like Yelich could see the greatest benefit.
If he can just up his home run total to 15 this year, he suddenly doesn't rank too far behind players like Starling Marte and Michael Brantley.
The truth is I liked David Peralta as a sleeper even last year, seeing the potential for him to become a high-average, extra base-hit machine. But he blew those expectations out of the water with an .893 OPS in 462 at-bats, which makes this year -- the first in which he projects to play every day with Ender Inciarte out of the picture -- the year I go all-in.
What he did last year in a semi-regular role pretty much tells the story. He mostly surprised with his power, delivering an ISO in line with Jose Bautista's. And while it's clear he did most of his damage against right-handed pitchers, batting .250 with a .686 OPS against lefties, the extra at-bats will be worth the tradeoff in overall batting average.
If he seems a little too out-of-nowhere for your liking, keep in mind he began his professional career as a pitcher in the Cardinals organization and battled shoulder injuries for years, which explains why he's only now on the radar at age 28. He projects to bat cleanup for a team with playoff aspirations, though, which tells you how much trust he has garnered in his brief career.
Often for my breakout picks, I can isolate a stretch of the season -- normally the end -- when a player put up numbers that would completely blow your mind, but for J.T. Realmuto, the best I can offer is this: Over his final 84 at-bats, he hit .345 with three home runs and a .895 OPS.
Listen, sometimes you just have a feeling. So Realmuto never had a stretch last season when he looked like the greatest thing with two arms and legs, but he was ultimately the ninth-best catcher in Head-to-Head points leagues and the 10th-best in Rotisserie, which is something considering he started a month late and -- oh yeah -- was only a rookie.
Catchers are often slower to develop at the plate because their work behind it is so much more important, so putting up top-10 numbers as a rookie is a big deal. And the kind he put up -- striking out only one every six at-bats, showing moderate pop, etc. -- reminds me so much of Jonathan Lucroy. Compare Realmuto's numbers last year to Lucroy's in his age-24 season (2011, to be exact) and you'll see they're virtually identical.
The very next year, Lucroy became the Fantasy stud we all know him to be.
Now obviously, comparing Realmuto to Lucroy is asking a bit much, especially since he has a much tougher home park, but the point is Realmuto has the tools to stand out at a thin position.
Hunch time again! This is the year Wil Myers finally puts it all together.
The 25-year-old hasn't had a healthy season since his rookie 2013 campaign, which he began as the most buzzed-about player in the minors and ended with AL Rookie of the Year hardware.
Clearly, he was a success. The disappointment of his sophomore campaign, when he struggled to rediscover his swing after breaking his right wrist in May, was so acute, though, that I get the feeling most Fantasy owners have come to see him as a bust. A second wrist injury last year -- this time bone spurs in his left one -- didn't help, but let's not forget he was doing some serious damage before then, homering five times in 134 at-bats with an .833 OPS to emerge as a must-start Fantasy option.
Even with his struggles after returning briefly and June and, later, in September, he averaged more Head-to-Head points per game than Jason Heyward for the year -- and that's with him just now entering his prime. He still has power to all fields and a line-drive approach and has said he'll be more comfortable sticking at first base this year as opposed to moving around the outfield.