Oh, you were looking for sleepers? You won't find them in this column, but just stick with me for a minute. These breakouts are even more exciting. No, really. Every year, my breakout picks are the players I'm most excited to draft. They're more proven than the sleeper picks, which means nobody "sleeping" on them. But they have a chance to find another gear and become out-and-out studs.
It's another way of identifying potential value picks. These are the ones with the higher ceilings and higher floors and they still cost a little something because of it. Generally, it's a cost I'm happy to pay, though.
This being Version 2.0, I've grouped my picks based on whether or not I included them the first time around. We'll start with the newcomers.
Sometimes it's a matter of waiting for the research to catch up. Of course Nick Castellanos' decision to sign with the Reds meant moving to a more hitter-friendly park, but how much would a guy like him actually benefit? After all, it's not like his explosion after getting traded to the Cubs, which saw him hit .321 with 16 homers and a 1.002 OPS over the final two months, was simply a matter of him leaving Comerica Park.
But actually ... new research suggests it was. With a center field fence that's 420 feet away and remains deep as it starts toward the right field foul pole (see here), that venue was particularly ill-suited for Castellanos — a player whose power is largely to right-center. Castellanos himself pointed this out just a week before getting traded, so perhaps it was worthy of more dissection then, but alas, here we are. One Twitter follower, a self-described "Statcast geek" by the name of Crosby Spencer, did some research suggesting that for every 100 home runs hit by a righty to center field in an "average" MLB park, only 29 go out at Comerica Park. And only 71 go out in right-center. I wouldn't know how to confirm any of that, but simply applying a park overlay to Castellanos' spray chart would seem to tell the story:
I count a couple dozen more home runs that would have gone out in his new park compared to his old. That's insane. And looking back on it, it's not like Castellanos' quality of contact changed during his time with the Cubs, like you'd expect for a hot streak. In fact, one of the curious things about Castellanos is that his quality of contact has always been strong — on the level of someone like a Freddie Freeman, actually. Maybe his production with the Cubs really was in the neighborhood of legitimate, and maybe in a place like Cincinnati, it could go even further.
It's easy to get carried away by hypotheticals, but I'm not sure something like Nolan Arenado production is so far-fetched for Castellanos. We're talking a venue change of Christian Yelich proportions, potentially.
This one should be pretty straightforward, but it's been so long since Julio Urias was a 19-year-old phenom breaking into a a big-league rotation — the first one since Felix Hernandez, as a matter of fact — that I feel like his return there at age 23 is meeting with a bit of a collective yawn. It's been a difficult road back after having surgery to repair the anterior capsule in his left shoulder in 2017, and the Dodgers' pitching depth allowed them to ease him back as more of a multi-inning reliever last year. But the stuff was fully intact. He was throwing even harder than when we last saw him and showed the makings of a devastating fastball-changeup combo to go along with a decent slider
I think maybe even among Urias believers, there was some concern he might get pigeonholed in this new swingman role, but the Dodgers' left nothing to the imagination this offseason, declaring early on that the lefty would be part of their rotation in 2020. Granted, that organization has been known to move pitchers in and out of the rotation to manage innings and make use of depth, but innings don't need to be managed with a two-month schedule. If Urias dominates, he'll stick, and domination is certainly on the table for a pitcher with his skill set.
You know how I said the Dodgers are known for moving pitchers in and out of the rotation? Kenta Maeda is Exhibit A. The last time he made a start in September was 2017, and it's not like he was full-go in the starts leading up to his move to the bullpen last year. In fact, he averaged just 84.3 pitches in his 26 starts, wasting the potential for more wins and strikeouts. The reason? Performance clauses in his contract kick in when he reaches certain thresholds for games started and innings pitched — not so much that he'd be overpaid, really, but since the Dodgers always seem to have a surplus of arms, why wouldn't they give some of those others a turn?
The Twins are in a different boat. They have a juggernaut offense and a deep bullpen, but filling out their starting rotation has long been a challenge. Maeda would provide some stability to go along with Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi, and the truth is he seems well equipped for a workhorse role. I already alluded to his efficiency — the guy throws a ton of strikes — and with a diverse arsenal that has at times included as many as six pitches, he's actually good the third time through the order. And of course, Fantasy players have long been fascinated by his ability to miss bats. His swinging-strike rate last year would have ranked in the top 10, ahead of Shane Bieber and Jack Flaherty.
What about the high ERA? The numbers suggest he should have fared better. In fact, Statcast's new expected xERA stat pegged him for a 3.26 ERA, and as many times as he figures to face those weak AL Central lineups with the reworked schedule, he could come much closer to that number this year.
The season-long numbers tell one story for Nick Anderson, and it's a pretty good one. But here's an even better one: In 21 1/3 innings after the Rays acquired him from the Marlins last year, he struck out 41 and walked two. His ERA was 2.11, which actually seems bloated considering. His WHIP was 0.66.
You can claim small sample size or whatever, but I know this: The always cost-conscious Rays gave up a bona fide prospect in Jesus Sanchez to get Anderson and Trevor Richards, neither of whom was exactly dominating for the Marlins. They saw something, and like with Tyler Glasnow, Emilio Pagan and countless others, they got an immediate return on that something. I don't know that Anderson will be another Josh Hader, but I do know his command issues immediately disappeared the day he joined an organization known for transforming pitchers.
The question is whether, like Hader, he'll get to close, and it's a fair one given the Rays' resistance to traditional bullpen roles. But since they did finally settle on Pagan (now with the Padres) as their closer last year, there's hope. In fact, they may well have traded Pagan just to clear the way for Anderson.
Looks like Jose Urquidy is already getting plenty of love in CBS Head-to-Head points leagues, but he's still worth mentioning for all those other formats that don't seem to appreciate what an Astros pitcher has to offer in Fantasy. Or maybe they do and just can't tell them apart anymore. With that organization's embarrassment of riches, it can become a mess of names after a while, but this one is a lock to fill one of the spots vacated by Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley, which means he'll reap all the awards of a loaded supporting cast. And the win remains the most valuable stat for pitchers in traditional scoring formats.
Of course, ability is still a prerequisite for a pitcher finding success, especially since the prevalence of the home run these days can so easily neutralize ability. Urquidy demonstrates his ability in a couple ways: A special changeup that just devastates left-handed hitters (they hit .179 with a .530 OPS off him last year) and an ability to pound the strike zone that keeps his WHIP and pitch counts low. He's also battle tested, having allowed two hits over five scoreless innings in a World Series start.
He does put the ball in the air a little more than preferred, but the big parks in the AL West, where the Astros figure to spend most of their time thanks to the altered schedule, should help in that regard. I wouldn't expect a sparkling ERA, but if the Astros can leave him alone and let him go deep into games, he could become kind of a poor man's Jose Berrios.
A strikeout rate north of 30 percent used to be a death sentence for a hitter, but in recent years, guys like Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo have managed to overcome it by hitting the ball harder than anyone else. I don't just mean "hitting a lot of home runs," but delivering high exit velocities on all batted balls to the point of being just as much of a standout there as in the strikeout column. Of course, Judge and Gallo were only Nos. 2 and 3 in hard-hit rate last year, according to Statcast. No. 1 was Miguel Sano.
The case might be even more straightforward than that given what Sano accomplished during an injury-shortened 2019. Project his numbers over a full season, and he's delivering the same sort of 50-homer outcome we've come to expect for Judge and Gallo. But there may be some hesitance to buy into it because of an absurdly high 36.2 percent strikeout rate. I'm saying there shouldn't be. Sano is just as much of a batted-ball freak as those two, which makes his strikeout proclivities just as manageable.
Transitioning to the majors is always difficult, but especially for pitchers and especially for pitchers in one of the most hitter-friendly eras the game has ever known. And yet I can't recall a time when I was as confident in a pitcher's ability to make that transition as I am in Jesus Luzardo's. Yes, we've already seen him have a smidgen of success in the majors, albeit working in long relief, but I felt just as strongly about him last spring, before a strained rotator cuff took him out of the rotation competition. The big difference now is that he already has a spot to lose, provided his arm holds up.
So why am I so confident in him? Well, the biggest hurdles an up-and-coming pitcher has to clear are a lack of command and a lack of pitch variety, and he earns high marks for both. Having three pitches is one thing, but to have three that all rate as plus, generating their own swings and misses, is a huge advantage for a guy just breaking in. He may not be asked to pitch deep into games, especially coming off an injury-riddled season, but the shortened season eliminates many of the workload concerns on the back end.
Perhaps the most impressive stat line in all of baseball last year was Zac Gallen's 1.77 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 11.0 K/9 across 14 starts in the PCL, a league so warped by the introduction of MLB's drag-resistant baseballs that the average ERA was 5.48. Clearly, he was doing something right, his lowered arm angle upping the effectiveness of all his pitches, and his prospect stock soared as a result. The transition to the majors was about as seamless as they come, with his numbers split almost perfectly between the Marlins and Diamondbacks, and the crazy part is he accomplished it without the benefit of his usual walk rate.
Control was going to be the skill that put him over the top, and yet his 4.1 BB/9 were a far cry from the 1.7 he had in those 14 Triple-A starts. But we know it's a result of inexperience rather than a flaw in his delivery or some other longstanding issue, and most of the blame falls on three wayward starts anyway. Take what we saw last year, add one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in baseball, and it's easy to envision Gallen becoming an ace.
You never want to reduce player evaluation to just one statistic, but if you had to, at least for pitchers, you might choose swinging-strike rate. Dinelson Lamet would have ranked 10th in it last year, just between Shane Bieber and Jack Flaherty, if he had the innings to qualify.
OK, well maybe something like xFIP is better since it takes into account more than one skill. Lamet comes out ahead there, too, his 3.40 mark not only bettering his actual ERA but also positioning him alongside Walker Buehler and Luis Castillo.
No matter how you slice it, Lamet impressed in his long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery, fulfilling his best-case scenario after a two-year layoff by not losing any of the bite on his wipeout slider. There are some potential concerns still. He has basically just the two pitches, which might lead the Padres to limit him to two turns through the lineup most nights, as they do with Joey Lucchesi. But if ceiling is what you look for in a breakout candidate, Lamet certainly measures up.
Three numbers in particular stand out for Cavan Biggio after a mostly successful first stint in the majors. The first is a 16.5 percent walk rate that was bettered only by Mike Trout, Yasmani Grandal and Alex Bregman. The second is a 25.4 percent ground-ball rate that was bettered by Trout and Trout alone. The third is a perfect 14-for-14 success rate on stolen bases.
All three point to a strong foundation of skills for Biggio. He's an on-base machine, which we already knew from his time in the minors, and while it means he's overly patient at times, taking too many called third strikes, getting on base is nonetheless good for overall production. So is hitting the ball in the air, especially in an era of juiced balls and infield shifts. Line drives raise his batting average potential. Fly balls raise his home run potential. He delivers plenty of both.
He also runs, and if he continues to have that much success with it, he'll run all the more. A 20-20 season (or at least that sort of pace) seems like a safe expectation, then, with the possibility of even more home runs. And whatever he lacks in batting average, which itself could go up because of all the line drives, he'll more than make up for in walks.
If we subscribe to the belief that xFIP is better than ERA at evaluating how a pitcher actually pitched, then it speaks worlds of Max Fried's potential that he delivered the ninth-best xFIP among all qualifying pitchers last year, ahead of Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty and scores of others who we already classify as aces. It makes sense, too. In an era when any ball put in the air has a better chance than ever of leaving the yard, the pitchers best equipped to survive are the ones who keep the ball on the ground or miss bats altogether. And the ones best equipped to thrive do both.
Fried is one of those who does both, leaning heavily on a curveball that's not only his best swing-and-miss pitch but also a ground-ball generator of the highest order. Overall, he ranked 25th in swinging-strike rate, which is good but nothing to get Fantasy players salivating on its own. Combine it with a top-five ground-ball rate, though, and you're talking about a legitimate front-liner. Mike Soroka is the Braves pitcher getting all the buzz, but Fried is the one with the clearer path to greatness.
It's been a long time coming for Kyle Tucker, who has kept Fantasy players on the hook for so long now that some are likely to pass him over just on principle. But after two years of beating down the door at Triple-A, he's finally poised to step into at least a semi-regular role for the Astros. A strong September showing — one in which he demonstrated premium exit velocity and showed no hesitance on the base paths — makes it all but a foregone conclusion. Of course, he was confined to the bench for the postseason, but with Josh Reddick barely making a positive contribution the past two years, a changing of the guard, if only gradually, is in order.
More than anything, it's the five steals in 22 games that should have Fantasy players excited. Sure, Tucker averaged 25 steals the past two years at Triple-A (along with 29 homers and a .297 batting average), but you never know, particularly for a middle-of-the-order hitter, if he'll have the same leeway or willingness on the base paths once he reaches the majors. If it continues, Tucker will become an early-rounder, and now may be your last chance to buy in at something less.
The introduction of the DH spot to NL lineups more or less eliminates the possibility of the Mets doing something wacky like sitting J.D. Davis half the time against righties. In all likelihood, they'll do what they should have been doing all along and play the 26-year-old every day. We already have a pretty good idea how that would go. For a glorious month-long stretch last August when injuries abounded and an everyday Davis was the Mets' only recourse, the right-handed slugger hit .295 with eight homers and a .951 OPS. Scintillating stuff.
He hit .305 with an .886 OPS against righties last year, so there's no real justification for sitting him against them. In fact, there are no red flags I can see, apart from defense. The BABIP was high, but not when you take into account his line-drive tendency and all-fields approach. In fact, his .308 xBA and .383 xwOBA both suggest he slightly underachieved last season, which is mind-blowing to consider.
Willie Calhoun is sort of like Kyle Tucker in that Fantasy players may have already moved on emotionally by the time he's finally ready to contribute. "Post-hype sleepers" would be the industry buzzword. For a couple years there, it looked like he might get passed over because of a poor defensive profile, but when the Rangers finally took the plunge, making the 25-year-old an everyday player for the final two months of last season, it went about as well as anyone could have hoped. His point-per-game average during that stretch was on the level of a Kris Bryant or Michael Brantley.
Granted, he may be something of a points-league specialist as a low-strikeout guy who doesn't profile for a high batting average thanks to his extreme fly-ball tendencies, but there are worse fates than being the Mike Moustakas of outfielders. That's about how Calhoun is shaping up now that the playing-time issue is resolved. And the broken jaw he suffered in the initial spring training of course isn't a factor now.
Garrett Hampson fizzled as a sleeper pick of mine a year ago, so why does he get upgraded to a breakout now? Well, he flipped the script late in the year — very late, as in the final 2 1/2 weeks. "But come on, Scott, how could such a short period change the way anyone feels about a player?" Hey, when it's responsible for the majority of his production all year, it's worthy of dissection.
During that 16-game span, Hampson hit .343 (24 for 70) with five homers and seven steals. The power was surprising, but the BABIP was a not-so-crazy .365 and the steals were more in line with what everyone expected all along. He credits the improvement to a change in his timing mechanism, specifically ditching a leg kick for a toe tap, and considering he was a .311 hitter for his minor-league career, it's not a stretch to think something so small could be so transformative.
Obviously, Coors Field gives him huge upside in the batting average department, and because that 16-game stretch last year showed us he's willing to run when he actually gets on base, he has the makings of game-changer in the middle rounds of Rotisserie drafts — one who excels in the two most sought-after categories. Playing time shouldn't be so hard to come by either with the introduction of the DH spot.
Reason for removal: I think I presumed back in Breakouts 1.0 that not enough people would take Tommy Edman's strong finish seriously, but the desperation for stolen bases has kind of forced them to. And you can see that even in Head-to-Head points leagues, he's not exactly going for a discount. Given his questionable power profile and substandard walk rate, Edman probably peaks as a mid-rounder, and since he's already being valued as that, it doesn't make sense to label him a breakout candidate.
Reason for removal: It was a good plan until Griffin Canning hurt his elbow. "Chronic changes in the UCL" sounds cryptic, and while the Angels hope he can avoid Tommy John surgery, even clearing him to throw off a mound in May, they have a history of delaying the inevitable with UCLs. Maybe he's full-go from the start and continues to pile up swinging strikes, but the added risk is just too much for someone so unproven.