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.
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