By Ray Murphy
A big part of each spring's draft preparation is spent trying to identify the next breakout player, the game-changer who will lead you to your league title.
Santana soon to bust out?
In the past we have searched for the next Carlos Gonzalez, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Pena, and (going further back) Bret Boone. In each case, the goal was to examine the subject player's season before his breakout and develop a set of criteria that might highlight some other players with a similar skills progression.
With apologies to Mike Trout (whose 20-year-old season was so unexpected that we won't find a comparable any time soon), we went looking for a subject from 2012 whose breakout performance was somewhat, but not completely, unexpected. The type of season that could reasonably be replicated by a different player in 2013. In other words, we're looking for The Next Edwin Encarnacion.
Let's refresh our memory as to what the Blue Jays' Encarnacion looked like as a player a year ago at this time, and what he did in 2012. Entering 2012, Encarnacion:
- had four seasons of over 400 AB, but had never registered over $15 in Roto value (we'll use 5x5, "only" leagues for this exercise);
- had only two seasons over 20 HR, and three seasons with a BA over .260;
- was 29 years old, but had suffered a couple of injuries that might have delayed his emergence;
- had shown a skill set (specifically, a healthy contact rate and above-average PX) that indicated still-untapped potential.
Based on all of the above, we wrote "... UP: 30 HR" at the end of his player box in the 2012 Baseball Forecaster. And of course he went out and dusted that upside projection, hitting for a .280 batting average with 42 home runs and 110 RBI, along with 13 SB. His stat line led to a Roto value of $30.
With Encarnacion's story in mind, let's set up some criteria that we can use to identify other players with similar breakout potential in 2013. Our parameters should include:
- has at least two MLB seasons of over 300 AB.
- has never returned more than $15 in Roto value.
- will be age 25-29 for 2013 (creating a range to account for the injury-related delay of Encarnacion's breakout)
- has demonstrated above-average power at the MLB level
Those broad parameters give a bunch of names, but here are 10 candidates that (mostly) meet the criteria and seem particularly compelling:
American League candidates
First baseman Mitch Moreland of the Rangers seemingly never has a clear path to playing time. When Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli left Texas this offseason, it seemed like Moreland was finally in line for a full-time shot. Then the Rangers brought in Lance Berkman to muddy up the 1B/DH situation, and top prospect Mike Olt is hanging around as well. But, BasebalHQ.com has a saying: "Buy skills, not roles." And Moreland has plenty of skills: his combo of FB%, PX, and hr/f point to a 30-HR ceiling if he gets a full-time look. To be fair, his platoon splits say he should never be a true full-timer, and his playing time ceiling therefore probably tops out at 450-475 at bats. But that's enough for this skill set to take a good run at 30 HR, similar to what Jason Kubel did in Arizona a year ago. 2013 is Moreland's age-27 season, if a breakout is ever going to come, this would be an excellent time.
Nolan Reimold of the Orioles, like Encarnacion, has suffered injuries that have interrupted what should be the beginning of his peak years. He has demonstrated plus power over half-season samples in 2009-10, and was red-hot for a trivially-small sample size in 2012 before getting shelved again. While that hot streak has no predictive relevance, it seems to have served a useful purpose: it has kept him prominent in the Orioles' outfield plans for 2013. He seems on track to open the season, and if he can get off to a good (and healthy) start and lock down the left field job for 550 AB, this is another bat with a 30-HR ceiling.
Cleveland catcher Carlos Santana owns a skill set that to date has returned less than what the individual components suggest. A 153 PX from 2011 establishes his power skill, but despite a near-elite batting eye and strong plate patience, his batting average has not exceeded the .250 range. The best news on that front is his 2H spike in ct% last year. If he can hold on to that gain, he should double his second half stat line of .278-13-37. Sprinkle in even a little bit more of that 2011 power on top of that patience, and then things start to get exciting.
Justin Smoak of the Mariners has a bunch of the same warts as Santana: he's established some power, but not enough to counteract his contact issues. That pile of strikeouts, combined with an anemic batting average on balls in play (BABIP), have kept his batting average just about intolerable. But this was once an elite prospect expected to hit for a good average to go with his power and is now 26 and primed for growth. With a cocktail of the ballpark re-alignment helping more of his fly balls clear the fence, and a little more contact and a little more success on balls in play, last year's .217-19-71 season could spike into .270-30-100 in 2013.
Davis may go deep ... a lot
Outfielder Eric Thames of Seattle is, like Smoak, fighting among a host of players for at bats. Also like Smoak, he is 26 years old and has already shown the components of a valuable skill set. Over 362 at bats in 2011, he had a .270 xBA and 139 PX. Those are building-block skills, even when paired with some of the same warts we see all over this list (especially poor contact). But strikeouts can sometimes be difficult to interpret in a part-time player, as the temptation is to get your hacks when you're in the box. Give Thames the same advantages we just projected on Smoak (shortened fences, more contact and a BABIP bump) and he could reach the identical .280-30-100 ceiling in 2013.
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters has seemingly been on everyone's breakout list since his callup back in 2009, but we are still waiting on his ascension to the top of the catcher rankings. While his skill set appears fairly stagnant overall, he is making the kind of incremental gains against RH pitching that suggest there is another step forward (or perhaps a leap) coming soon. With just a bit of a BABIP correction vs. RHPs in 2013, all other aspects of Wieters' game may finally be primed to fulfill the promise.
National League candidates
First baseman Ike Davis of the Mets got off to an atrocious start in 2012, due to rust from 2011's season-ending ankle injury, his pre-season case of Valley Fever, or both. Either way, it took until June for him to find his swing, and when he did he was terrific: .253-27-69 in 360 at bats, including a .878 on-base plus slugging (OPS) from June 1 thru season's end. Extrapolating to a full season puts Davis into the 35 home run, 100 RBI neighborhood. Interestingly, back in 2011, Encarnacion didn't hit his first HR until Memorial Day, then got hot for the final four months of the year and carried it right through to 2012. Davis looks poised to do the same thing. Davis may be the best candidate on this list for an Encarnacion-like surge into the ranks of top earners.
Another New Yorker, outfielder Lucas Duda, looks like so many other names on this list: He has demonstrated sufficient power to support a 30+ HR level, but has been plagued by contact issues. Working in Duda's favor is that he takes a walk in 10-11% of his at bats, which suggests a fundamental grasp of balls and strikes. That should give him at least a chance to spot more pitches that he can drive. Also, he has already exhibited a fly-ball bias, so more contact, if it comes, should reasonably translate directly to more power. As with the other LH hitters on this list, platoon struggles say that his AB ceiling is probably south of 500, but that's enough room for a very productive season. "Competition" in the Mets' outfield should not be a significant impediment, either.
Philadelphia's John Mayberry Jr. was a hot sleeper candidate a year ago following a productive 2011 half-season, but he flopped early in the season and his playing time opportunity evaporated quickly. Quietly, Mayberry then rebounded to flash the same intriguing skill set from May thru August. Indulging in a little cherry-picking of endpoints, Mayberry went .258-13-36 in 287 AB in the season's middle four months. That's not Encarnacion-level, to be sure, but combined with his 2011 half-season, that's 29 HR over 540 AB. If he could cram those two half-seasons into the same full-season, with just a bit more power growth at age 29, the end result would be the kind of breakout we're seeking.
Marlins first baseman Logan Morrison is perhaps a little young for this exercise, given he's only 25 this year and has already run into some injury issues. His skill set maps fairly closely to Santana above: he's shown power with a 145 PX over 462 at bats in 2011, and his plate patience (especially at a young age) suggests that he should be able to hit for a better average than we have seen. xBA strongly agrees with that assessment. Health is a concern entering 2013, but that may just drive down the bidding at the draft table. Opportunities abound in Miami, and this is a skill set worth riding to a 30-HR, .290 BA breakout.
Next week: A similar exercise for pitchers.
The Speculator is not designed to makes definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open readers' eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.
For definitions and benchmarks of BaseballHQ.com's most-used terms, see our Glossary Primer.
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