By now, you’ve already drafted your fantasy team(s) and have set your lineup(s) for Opening Day. (Happy Opening Day, by the way!)
While some sites make lazy claims by promoting top 100 players as breakout candidates, I choose to dig much deeper. Heck, I’ve seen Drew Stubbs flagged as a 2011 breakout performer on several occasions.
How can a guy who hit 22 HRs and stole 30 bags last year be dubbed a future fantasy star? He’s already a top-50 player in my mind. He’s already risen from the depths of the waiver wire, just as I had predicted he would at this time last year.
In the 2010 version of the All-Breakout Team, I also called the emergence of Will Venable, Mat Latos and Chris Perez. Of course I also labeled Scott Sizemore as a breakout performer, but that’s besides the point.
With this list, I hope to highlight at least one player at every position who (like Stubbs last season) will emerge from out-of-nowhere to become fantasy relevant. Enjoy!
Matt Wieters (C—Bal)
OK, so I’m not digging too deep with this one, but many have already soured on the 24-year-old. Allow me to set you straight. Despite a regression in his batting average (from .288 in ’09 to .249 last year), the switch-hitting catcher made significant improvements with his walk (7.3 to 9.4 percent), strikeout (24.3 to 21.1 percent), and contact rates (77.2 to 82.7 percent). His above-average bat and power potential didn’t suddenly disappear. In his age-25 season, a line of 15 HRs, 75 RBI, .280 average is very realistic. (Currently owned in 91 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: John Jaso (C—TB)
Freddie Freeman (1B—Atl)
Freeman is part of a studly youth movement in Atlanta that will probably wind up producing 14 consecutive division titles. He made his major league debut last September, and hit his first home run off of Roy Halladay. The 6-foot-5, 220 pound left-handed hitter displays a smooth swing, good plate coverage and the raw power to generate 20-plus home runs annually. He’ll likely begin the season batting eighth, which won’t do him any favors. Don’t over-estimate the 21-year-old in his rookie season (first base is extremely deep), but understand that his keeper value is high. He could post a line similar to what Ike Davis did (71/19/73/.264) in 2010, perhaps with a higher average. (Currently owned in 38 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Kila Ka’aihue (1B—KC)
Danny Espinosa (2B—Was)
Espinosa hit .270/.365/.455 in parts of three seasons in the minors, including 22 HRs, 25 steals and a .268/.337/.464 slash in 481 at-bats last season between Double-A and Triple-A. The Nationals believe Espinosa has double-digit pop and speed. Bill James is even predicting 21 bombs and 19 steals from the 23-year-old (he’ll turn 24 in April). Scouts have questioned his ability to hit for average (James projects a .255 BA), but his 20/20 potential is intriguing. He’ll begin the season batting seventh, but could move up if he hits. (Currently owned in eight percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Dustin Ackley (2B—Sea) and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (2B/SS—Min)
David Freese (3B—STL)
Freese was on his way to a respectable rookie campaign last year until ankle surgery ended his season in late June. The 27-year-old (he’ll turn 28 in late April) has hit at every level. In fact, he hit .300 or better in each of his four seasons in the minors, and posted a .296 clip in 240 at-bats with the Cardinals last year. Given a clean bill of health, he’s penciled in as the Cardinals’ No. 6 hitter this season. Double-digit home runs and perhaps 75 RBI should ensue. (Currently owned in 45 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Mike Moustakas (3B—KC)
Alcides Escobar (SS—KC)
Escobar gets the nod here not because I’m particularly high on him, but because there are very few candidates at the position. Starlin Castro is younger and more equipped to help your fantasy team, but Escobar is flying under the radar after his struggles last season. The 24-year-old was sent to Kansas City this offseason as part of the Zack Greinke trade, and will likely bat seventh to start the season (opposed to eighth—in front of the pitcher—where he primarily hit last season). He maintained an excellent contact rate last season (85.6 percent) despite a paltry .235 batting average (thanks to a .264 BABIP). He should turn it around in 2011, and has the potential for 75 runs, 20-plus steals and perhaps a .280 batting average. (Currently owned in 25 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez, because they’re oh-so fun to watch!
Ryan Raburn (2B/LF/CF/RF—Det)
Raburn is one of the true draft bargains this year (current Mock Draft Central ADP: 309), while his second base and outfield eligibility offer potential monster value. Over the last two seasons (632 at-bats) he’s posted 98 runs, 31 HRs, 107 RBI, seven steals and a .285 average. Now permanently installed as Detroit’s everyday left fielder, batting sixth behind Ordonez, Cabrera and Martinez, RBI opportunities should be plentiful. A line of 80/20/80/5/.280 is well within reach. (Currently owned in 67 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Peter Bourjos (CF—LAA)
Baseball America ranked “Speedy Petey” as the Angels’ No. 2 prospect at this time last year—one spot ahead of Mike Trout. The 24-year-old (Happy Birthday!) hit .293 with 141 stolen bases in his five-year minor league career. He possesses game-changing speed and defensive ability; the former could yield 30-plus steals in his first full season with the Angels. Bourjos also has gap power, which could translate into double-digit bombs this season. Don’t be turned off by his .208 average in limited time with the Angels last season—it was caused by a freakishly-low .228 BABIP. Installed as Anaheim’s No. 9 hitter, a dynamic power/speed combo (perhaps 10 HRs, 30 steals, .270 average) could ensue. (Currently owned in 23 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Michael Brantley (LF/CF—Cle)
Mike Morse (1B/RF-Was)
Continuing the late-bloomer theme of this article (he turned 29 last week), Mike Morse checks in as the most likely right field-eligible breakout candidate. Technically, he’s the Nationals’ everyday left fielder, but he qualifies in right (and at first base) too. Morse broke out, in a way, last season, whacking 15 HRs while hitting .289 in 266 at-bats. He carried his hot-hitting into the spring, hitting nine HRs. He’s expected to bat fifth this season behind Werth, Zimmerman and LaRoche, and could approach 20 HRs, 80 RBI to go along with a .270-.280 average. (Currently owned in 41 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Domonic Brown (RF—Phi)
Jordan Zimmerman (SP—Was)
Now 20 months removed from Tommy John surgery, Jordan Zimmerman appears primed to resume his development as a frontline starter. He was hit hard upon his return last August (4.94 ERA in 31 innings), but he followed it up with a decent spring (3.91 ERA, 15/8 K/BB ratio in 23 innings). The 24-year-old (he’ll turn 25 in May) possesses four pitches with above-average potential. Before surgery, his four-seamer sat at 90-94 mph with heavy riding action. His slider and curve both have plus-potential. He also boasts advanced command, made evident by his 2.87 walk rate in 122 1/3 major league innings. The Nationals may limit his innings in 2011 to avoid the Verducci Effect, but he should offer a sub-4.00 ERA with a useful strikeout rate (career 8.75 K/9) in a pitcher-friendly park. (Currently owned in 63 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Jhoulys Chacin (SP—Col)
Craig Kimbrel (RP—Atl)
Kimbrel shined down the stretch for the Braves last year, striking out 40 batters in just 20 2/3 innings while posting a minuscule 0.44 ERA. The soon-to-be 23-year-old features a mid-90’s fastball with excellent sink and a slurvy slider, both of which are plus-offerings. He’s expected to share the ninth-inning duties with Jonny Venters this season, though Kimbrel offers greater upside. The only downside to his game is a Carlos Marmol-like command. In 151 career minor league innings, he posted a 5.7 walk rate. Expect 20 saves to go with a sub-3.00 ERA and boatloads of strikeouts in 2011. (Currently owned in 82 percent of Yahoo! leagues.)
Also keep your eye on: Drew Storen (RP—Was) and Aroldis Chapman (RP—Cin)
Image courtesy of: Adam Fagen
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