Mookie Betts didn't come out of nowhere last season, but his ascension to the ranks of the truly elite in Fantasy was by no means a sure thing. He was coming off a great season in 2015 and was on the right side of the aging curve, but still needed to take a step forward across the board to get where he ended up.
Of course, anyone who invested, say, a third-round pick in Betts last spring was handsomely rewarded with one of the best Fantasy seasons of the decade. Betts turned into a five-category monster, and has cemented himself as one of the first five players off the board in every Fantasy draft.
There will probably be another player or two who makes a similar jump, and it's worth talking about not just expectations for players, but what their potential upside might be. If you knew what Betts' best-case scenario was, you would have made targeting him a priority. Let's look for a few players who could take a Betts-like leap into the highest reaches of the Fantasy universe in 2017.
George Springer isn't quite young enough (27) to expect a huge leap forward, but it also feels like we have yet to see the best of him in the majors to this point. He has the run production potential to be one of the best in baseball, and we caught a glimpse of that last season.
He combined for 198 runs and RBI last season, and it's fair to say he could have even more upside than that. We've seen Springer trim his strikeout rate in recent years, but he may have sacrificed some power as a result, as we haven't seen him post an ISO over .200 since his rookie stint in the majors in 2014.
Springer might have a hard cap on his batting average right around .280, which could make it tough for him to jump into the first-round conversation. He either needs to hit for more power or lower his strikeout rate to realistically improve his batting average floor, and even that might not be enough. He needs to start running more too.
A Springer who hits .280 with 35 homers, 20 steals while topping the century mark in both run categories has a chance to have a Betts-type breakout, but that just might be asking a bit too much.
Like Springer, Kyle Schwarber may have a cap on how high his batting average can realistically go, thanks to his strikeout tendencies. Unlike Springer, Schwarber doesn't have 20-steal potential to help him full up the stat sheet. What Schwarber does potentially have going for him are the tools of ignorance.
Schwarber has huge potential as an offensive force, and it's not a stretch to say he could settle in as a 35-40 homer player in an everyday role. In a Cubs lineup that will be stacked top to bottom with quality hitters who get in base and hit for power, that could easily translate to run production numbers in the 200-plus range. However, while doing all that as an outfielder would make Schwarber hugely valuable, his best chance of getting into first-round consideration would come with catcher eligibility.
As an outfielder, Schwarber might just be another guy -- a very useful, valuable player, but not someone worth reaching for. However, if he can get catcher eligibility and live up to his potential, he might be someone worth reaching for.
Gary Sanchez's argument isn't very different from Schwarber's, except that he already has catcher eligibility, which is why he'll go a few rounds ahead of Schwarber in nearly every draft. Sanchez also already played like a first-round type of talent last season, clubbing 20 homers and hitting .299 in his 53-game major-league debut. If he's just that good -- heck, if he's just 90 percent as good -- Sanchez's current ADP is going to look like a huge mistake.
It's not realistic to expect Sanchez to repeat his 2015 production over a full season, so the question, which is why he's going to be drafted in the fifth or sixth round. So, the question becomes how much can he regress and still be an elite Fantasy option. Being a catcher helps, surely, because the bar is just lower to reach the elite tier.
If Sanchez can keep his average to .280 and turn into a 35-homer hitter, that might be enough to push him into first-round value at his position.
Gregory Polanco started to show signs of the elite potential we've been waiting on in 2016, though he didn't quite get there after a hot start. Polanco started growing into his power in 2016, sporting a 35.7 percent hard-hit rate en route to 22 homers. There is reason to think he might be capable of even more than that, given his age (25) and improved fly-ball potential, which makes a 30-30 season entirely possible. However, Polanco hit just .258 last season, and hasn't yet topped .260 in any of his three major-league seasons. That makes it hard to project him up to .300.
However, Polanco was a consistent .300 hitter in the minors thanks to above-average strikeout rates and huge BABIP production, two things we haven't yet seen in the majors. His strikeout rate isn't bad, per se, but whiffing in 20 percent of your trips to the plate makes it hard to see .300 as a realistic possibility. If that strikeout rate starts to dip closer to the 16 percent range he lived in during his minor-league stint, and he starts to produce more in the .340 range in BABIP, .300 starts to look like a real possibility.
Polanco doesn't have to make drastic changes to his game, but if he just takes small steps forward in his age-25 season, this could be the year he lives up to that potential.
The Red Sox did it once before, maybe the next Mookie Betts is just right under their nose. What makes Betts so good anyways? His combination of tremendous plate discipline and power explains it at the dish, his speed helps him on the base paths, and the lineup he plays in allows him to rack up run producing opportunities. Enter the next big thing in Boston, Andrew Benintendi.
Benintendi got his first taste of the majors late last season and more than held his own, hitting .295/.359/.476 in 34 games. That's a good start, especially for a 21-year-old thrown into a playoff race after just 151 minor-league games. He didn't show much over-the fence power, but he did club 11 doubles among his 31 hits, so there's room to grow here. Benintendi struck out just 9.6 percent of the time in the minors, so he might have the same kind of batting title potential Betts does. Actually, his minor-league numbers -- 20 homers, 26 steals -- aren't far off from what Betts did last year.
Benintendi may never be as good as Betts was last year, or it may take him a few years. Remember, Betts didn't put in an elite season until Year 3. But Benintendi has the pedigree and skill set to turn in the kind of season Betts just did.
If you're looking for someone with the chance to join the ranks of the elite, Benintendi's a good bet for what might only be a mid-round pick.