Breakout candidates come in all shapes and sizes. It’s easy to fixate on young players who have room to grow, but they aren’t the only players who can surprise you in Fantasy. Every year some established player in his mid-20’s makes the leap to stardom, and some 30-year-old comes out of seemingly nowhere to put up a career year.
So, why focus on just the young guys? They’re the easy ones to peg as breakout candidates because most are recent top prospects, which means everyone knows who they are. I want to identify some players who might be past the point in their aging or development curve but who nonetheless have breakout potential still left.
I won’t ignore the young guys, but I want to give a wider range of options. With that in mind, here are my favorite breakout candidates from every age from 21 (-and under) to 30.
It doesn’t take a lot of creativity to peg Julio Urias as a breakout candidate, considering he was a consensus top prospect who put up a 3.39 ERA in 77 innings as a 19-year-old in the majors last season. Urias struggled at times, but ultimately ended up striking out 25.0 percent of all batters faced, the second highest total ever for a teenager with at least 70 innings pitched. Urias is an elite pitching prospect, arguably the best of his age since Felix Hernandez.
Hernandez didn’t turn into an ace until his age-23 season, so there will probably be some growing pains for Urias as he enters his 20’s, especially because the Dodgers will still be looking to limit his innings. However, if you want to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing in pitching, this could be it.
My love of Andrew Benintendi is as well known to the public as to myself at this point, so I don’t really need to belabor it much more. His pedigree as the top hitting prospect in baseball is unquestioned, and he stepped into the majors and hit .298 in the majors between the regular season and postseason in his cup of coffee last season.
His command of the strike zone should make him both a batting-title contender and on-base machine, and Benintendi could be a 20-20 power-speed threat as well. Basically, if you’re looking for the next Mookie Betts, you only have to look a few steps away from Betts in the Red Sox outfield.
When it comes to closers in Fantasy, so much of their value at the end of the season will come down to who racks up the most saves, and that’s a tough thing to predict. Our preseason closer rankings may not look anything like those at the end of the season just because who racks up the most saves often comes down to randomness. While the leaders last season were pretty much all the best closers as well, things get a little dicier when you move to the bottom half of the top-10, where names like Francisco Rodriguez, A.J. Ramos, Sam Dyson and Jeanmar Gomez pop up. Saves are important, but they’re also hard to predict.
When ranking closers, then, we want to look at the other things they do. Strikeouts, run prevention, WHIP, etc., all matter more to me than whether I expect one closer to get 40 saves and another to get 48. And, there aren’t many closers I expect better things from than Edwin Diaz in 2017. In 2016, Diaz had the seventh-best FIP, third-best xFIP, and fourth-best SIERA among all relievers. He also had the fourth-best strikeout rate, third-best strikeout-minus-walk rate and fourth-best swinging strike rate as well. Diaz certainly has all of the makings of an elite closer, and he should join the ranks of Kenley Jansen, Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman this season.
If I had to put a likelihood on everyone on this list actually breaking out, Miguel Sano would be toward the bottom. There just isn’t much history of elite hitters striking out as often as Sano does. In fairness, however, there isn’t much history of any hitters striking out as often as Sano does. His career strikeout rate of 35.8 percent has only been topped by a qualifying hitter once in major-league history over a full season. The list of high-strikeout batters includes some guys who were valuable Fantasy options -- Mark Reynolds and Adam Dunn, to name two -- but the degree of difficulty is extremely high.
And yet, Sano is an obvious breakout candidate, at least in part due to his strikeout rate. He has been a productive hitter in his career in spite of his contact issues, hitting just .249 but with solid power and run production ability overall. If he can’t improve his strikeout rate, it certainly puts a ceiling on Sano, but with his unquestionable ability to hit the ball squarely when he does make contact, Sano could be just a few tweaks away from breaking into the superstar tier. It’s unlikely, but the upside is worth betting on with his price dropping on Draft Day.
Vince Velasquez has yet to get below the 4.00 ERA barrier in either of his two major-league seasons, but last year’s numbers are just a little bit misleading in that regard. Velasquez had a 3.33 ERA in his first 19 starts, before surrendering 10 homers in his final five as his ERA ballooned.
Given that he was shut down to preserve his arm, it makes sense that he might run out of steam late in the season. That could be an issue for him long term -- many expected Velasquez to end up in the bullpen at some point anyway. But it’s not out of the question that as he develops, his stamina increases and he becomes the kind of pitcher who can get through 200 innings.
With his strikeout ability, and improved control last season, Velasquez has ace upside.
We might have seen the start of Marcus Stroman’s breakout in the second half last season, when he posted a 3.68 ERA and saw his strikeout rate jump to 22.7 percent, an above-average rate. He’ll likely never be an elite strikeout pitcher, but with his elite ground-ball tendencies, he might not need to to be an ace.
The blueprint is pre-2016 Dallas Keuchel, a pitcher who was able to induce enough soft contact and groundballs to be a Cy Young contender, even without huge strikeout numbers. Stroman certainly has the pedigree to be an elite pitcher, but with a mediocre 2016 season under his belt, the Fantasy community might have soured on him. He is just the 38th pitcher off the board on average right now, but brings a nice combination of upside and safety to the table.
There’s very little chance you regret taking Stroman with your middle-round pick, and there’s a pretty decent chance he jumps up 100 spots in ADP this time next year.
It’s hard to believe George Springer is only 27, but he was a relatively old prospect, who turned 25 during his rookie season. He’s a good player already, but it’s fair to say he’s something of a disappointment with a career-high of just 29 homers, and two straight seasons with an ISO below .200.
Springer was supposed to be one of the elite power hitters in baseball, but he actually made more of an impact as an on-base threat in 2016, putting up a .359 on-base percentage while shifting into the leadoff spot for the Astros. That’s not a bad place for him to hit, as his 116 runs show, but you’d like to see more from him than 29 homers and nine steals. We might be talking about Springer as a superstar this time next year, because he’s certainly capable of a 30-30 season with elite run production numbers. However, he’s at the point in his career, where it needs to happen.
This is the last time we’ll talk about potential with Springer, one way or the other.
Like Springer, the next few players aren’t really guys I expect to take some huge step forward in their development at this stage in their careers. In Yasmani Grandal’s case, it might be as simple as just getting a bit of good luck. He clubbed 27 homers last season, and his 14.0 percent walk rate gave him a solid .339 on-base percentage, even though he hit just .228.
Grandal will never be a high batting average player, but he has elite power at the catcher position, and doesn’t need to hit .290 to be a breakout player. Even getting to .260 would likely push him into the top five if he can sustain his power from a year ago. There’s no guarantee it happens, but he was hitting .292/.400/.514 in the first 82 games in 2015 before a shoulder injury derailed his season.
The nice thing about drafting Grandal is -- with an ADP in the 150 range, ninth among catchers -- he doesn’t even need to break out to be a good value. And if he does, he could be a league-winner.
In each of his past three full seasons, Brandon Belt has hit 17 or 18 homers, with between 73 and 77 runs scored, so he seems to have pretty much settled in as the kind of hitter he is going to be. That is a hitter who is certainly worthy of a late-round pick, but hardly one worth getting excited about. However, he did make adjustments to his game last season and, if they stick, he could enjoy a career year.
Specifically, Belt became one of the most extreme flyball hitters in baseball, putting the ball in the air 46.0 percent of the time. That resulted in 182 flyballs, by far a career-high number, however, a 9.3 percent HR/FB rate kept his home run numbers down. For comparison, in 2015, 13.6 percent of Belt’s flyballs went over the fence. He would have hit 25 home runs in 2016 at that pace.
Belt plays in a tough park for left-handed hitters, but even considering that, it’s not asking too much to think he could take a nice leap forward as a power threat. Belt might be a star in another park, but even in AT&T Park, he still has a breakout season left in him.
Matt Shoemaker had a fine season in 2016, posting a 3.88 ERA in 160 innings of work before a freak injury ended his campaign in early September. Generally speaking, full-season numbers are more predictive than smaller slices with arbitrary endpoints, but I’m willing to make an exception for Shoemaker, because his endpoints actually aren’t so arbitrary. From May 16 on, Shoemaker was one of the best -- and most unique -- pitchers in baseball. Shoemaker sported a 9.12 ERA entering play on May 16, and had a 2.93 mark from that point on.
What changed? In his first five starts, Shoemaker had a pretty equitable distribution of his pitches, relying on his slider and splitter right around 20 percent of the time, with his two fastball variants getting right around 28 percent usage. That’s pretty typical for a major-league pitcher, but was a pretty bad plan for Shoemaker, who has tended to get crushed whenever he throws anything but a splitter. So, he just started throwing the splitter. All of the time.
The rate was 40.9 percent of the time, to be specific. Given that opposing hitters have managed just a .182 average on the pitch -- with a 21.4 percent whiff rate -- that seems like a pretty good plan, all things considered. He threw the splitter 150 times more than any other pitcher in baseball, and it was the fourth-best per FanGraphs.com on a per-pitch basis.
Baseball is a tricky game, and answers are rarely easy to come by or as straightforward as they seem. This might be one of the exceptions. Let’s not overcomplicate things.