The name of the game on Draft Day is finding value, and being able to identify players ready to take a big step forward in their development is a key to winning the game.
Being good at picking breakout players can make a big difference in how well you do and how much fun you have in the coming season. If you knew a year ago that Paul Goldschmidt, Domonic Brown and Max Scherzer were about to take their games to a higher level, you probably had an epic draft that led to a year of good times and carefree enjoyment. On the other hand, if you were convinced that Jesus Montero, Mike Moustakas and Jacob Turner were ready to bust out...well, you were enduring the drudgery of trying to dig out of a hole all season long.
What follows are the dozen players who I think have the best chance to take not just a small step for a Fantasy owner, but a giant leap for Fantasykind. Most of the players on this list have their peak years ahead of them, but even players who have moved beyond the typical growth years have a chance to break out. (Marco Estrada, who turned 30 last July, is the elder statesman of this group.)
Aside from just the typical growth that most players undergo in their early-to-mid 20s, there are a number of reasons why a player may be ready to break out from his previous levels of production. For example, a player with strong skill indicators that have not been reflected in his Fantasy stats can be a prime candidate to make a dramatic improvement. That was the case with Scherzer, who started putting up monster strikeout totals and improving his command in 2012, even though his ERA and WHIP didn't reflect it.
Other players showed potential as prospects that just never emerged during the early years of their major league career. Everth Cabrera, for example, showed us last season that he could be a very good contact hitter, even though the only previous signs of that happening occurred in the minors. And other players still have shown a full range of skills as major leaguers, but just not all of them at the same time. That was the story of Brandon Belt's first two seasons, and he broke out in 2013 when he was able to hit for average and with increased power at the same time.
Each of the players below has a chance to be this season's Cabrera or Belt, or maybe even a dramatic breakout like Goldschmidt or Scherzer. If you're thinking of drafting any of them based on what they did last year, you may want to think again. There are reasons to expect much, much more.
Matt Adams, 1B, Cardinals (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 10)
When Allen Craig needed to fill in for an outfielder or was out of the lineup himself (as he was late last season), Adams was there to fill the power void. Actually, he did far more than that, as Adams hit 17 home runs in just 296 at-bats, finishing with four more than Craig's total but in 212 fewer at-bats.
While some of that discrepancy has to do with Craig having a down year power-wise, it also speaks to how much power Adams has, and there could be more where that came from. He wasn't too far off his home run pace from Triple-A, and that was achieved with a flyball rate that was nearly 17 percentage points higher than the one he posted as a rookie. That's a staggering difference, but with even a partial recovery of his prior flyball rate, Adams could hit between 35 and 40 home runs over a full season.
He also doesn't pop up much, so despite mediocre contact skills, he could maintain a batting average close to .280. Based on an anticipated increase in playing time, now that Craig is a full- time outfielder and Adams has first base all to himself, Adams could be considered a breakout, but his rate stats could explode along with his counting stats.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 10)
In his first season, Rizzo drew lots of walks but was a flop otherwise. He followed that up in 2012 by reducing his strikeouts, more than doubling his batting average (from .141 to .285) and flashing the home run power he showed in the minors. Then last year in his first full season, Rizzo's flyball power regressed, particularly to center field, and his batting average plunged 52 points, but his line drive power helped to produce 40 doubles.
The dropoff in flyball power was concerning, but the batting average looks fluky-bad, given Rizzo had maintained similar strikeout and line drive rates from the previous year. There is no reason why Rizzo can't have better luck on balls in play (particularly grounders, on which he hit .179 in 2013) and a higher home-run-to-flyball ratio, given that he's done it before. The end result could be a batting average in the .280s with 30 homers and 40 doubles, should everything break right. Even if Rizzo falls short of that scenario, he looks ready to take a substantial leap in value.
Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves (Roto: Rd. 12, H2H: Rd. 12)
In a sense, Simmons broke out last season, as his 17 home runs were well off the spectrum of expectations set by his minor-league track record.
What we should have expected from him was a good batting average, given that he rarely strikes out and has enough speed to rack up infield hits. Instead, Simmons hit .191 on grounders (though he did get 23 infield hits) and .248 overall, despite striking out in only 55 of his 606 at-bats. Simmons may have trouble matching last season's homer total, but if he stays close and hits near his rookie mark of .289, we have the makings of a top eight shortstop. That would be a nice step forward after falling short of last season's top 10 in Roto rankings.
Brad Miller, SS, Mariners (Roto: Rd. 18, H2H: 17)
Miller had a nice rookie campaign for the Mariners, as he showed good power for a shortstop (eight home runs in 306 at-bats) and some better-than-average contact skills (52 strikeouts in 306 at-bats).
He was a little popup-prone, though, which limited him to just three hits on flyballs in play and contributed to a disappointing .265 batting average. His .318 on-base percentage was even more of a letdown, as he was not as selective as he was in the minors, averaging 3.55 pitches per plate appearance and walking in only 7.3 percent of his plate appearances.
Getting on base was supposed to be one of Miller's strengths, and at age 24, Miller is not yet at his peak and could still demonstrate that skill in the majors. Should that happen this year, Miller could provide owners with a slash line in the neighborhood of .285/.360/.435. At shortstop, that looks pretty solid alongside 15 home runs and 10 steals. Of course, Miller has to beat out Nick Franklin for the starting role, but given that he is considered to be the favorite, it's a safe move to target him, even above his current average draft position.
Jason Heyward, OF, Braves (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 9)
As with Rizzo, Heyward has showcased different parts of his skill set at various points during his four-year career, but never all of them at once. The last two seasons seem to point Heyward tantalizingly close to his potential; he demonstrated a power/speed combination in 2012, and last season he had his best year in terms of plate discipline.
Heyward's 2013 full-season stats indicate that he didn't contribute much in the batting average, home run and stolen base categories, but he picked up his pace in the first two categories after a miserable first two months of the season, due in part to an April appendectomy. From June forward, Heyward hit .294 with 12 home runs and 50 runs scored over 74 games.
Assuming Heyward remains in the leadoff spot, owners can't count on him for RBI, and it remains to be seen if he will start stealing again. He could, however, provide his second season with 25-plus home runs, 90-plus runs and his first-ever full season with a .280 batting average. That could catapult Heyward back among the top 20 outfielders, and if he returns with 20-plus steals, then he could climb even higher.
Adam Eaton, OF, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 19, H2H: Rd. 18)
During his rise through the Diamondbacks' system, Eaton looked like the ideal leadoff candidate as someone who could hit for average, get on base and steal bases. The leadoff -- and Fantasy -- potential hasn't exactly been realized in Eaton's first two seasons.
As a September callup in 2012, Eaton did his part to get on base, posting a .382 OBP, but he converted only two of his five stolen base attempts. Eaton then lost the first three months of last season due to a UCL sprain in his left elbow, and his. .252/.314/.360 slash line with five steals was a major disappointment.
Now he gets a fresh start with the White Sox, who intend to employ him as an everyday center fielder, and yes, leadoff hitter. He's also fully recovered from his elbow injury, so we may finally see the version of Eaton who flirts with a .300 average and a .400 OBP, and in turn, scores runs galore. In fact, even with a low OBP, Eaton scored 40 times in just 66 games in 2013. Whether or not he will produce steals remains a mystery for now, but a high average and OBP alone would constitute a breakout.
Oswaldo Arcia, OF, Twins (Roto: Rd. 22, H2H: Rd. N/A)
Arcia has shown some home run thump at every step along his minor league odyssey, and his 14 homers in 97 games for the Twins last year was a nice showing for a rookie.
It's particularly encouraging that Arcia sported a robust .211 Isolated Power away from Target Field, though he was limited to a mediocre .153 mark at his power-deflating home venue. As a 22-year-old with a solid rookie campaign behind him, Arcia is likely to be on the radar of owners looking for an emerging but inexpensive outfielder, but he has even more going for him than his youth and promising rookie numbers.
Arcia posted much better strikeout and flyball rates in the minors, so he has room to grow into a higher batting average and improved power and run production. He probably won't duplicate the .300-plus averages that he frequently registered in the minors, but Arcia holds out realistic potential for a batting average in the .260-to-.270 range (as opposed to last season's .251), 25-plus home runs and 80-plus RBI.
Marco Estrada, SP, Brewers (Roto: Rd. 16, H2H: Rd. 14)
Because Estrada finished last season on a hot streak, compiling a 2.15 ERA and 0.75 WHIP in nine starts after returning from a strained hamstring, he may not have much sleeper appeal, but he just might be able to live up to whatever expectations his late run created.
Even the most optimistic owner won't expect Estrada to match those late-season stats, but for the first time in his career, he could ascend into the ranks of must-starts. In each of his last three seasons, Estrada has exceeded an 11 percent swing-and-miss rate, which bodes well for a high strikeout rate, and he could make big strides in getting outs on the balls he does allow in play.
As a flyball pitcher, it's virtually unavoidable for Estrada to allow homers at a high rate, but he can keep his ERA in the low-to-mid 3.00s by allowing few baserunners. He doesn't walk many hitters, and especially if Scooter Gennett staves off Rickie Weeks for the second base job, Estrada should put his opponents' .290-plus batting averages on grounders from the last two seasons behind him. Estrada also helps himself by inducing popups at some of the highest rates in the majors.
Tyson Ross, SP/RP, Padres (Roto: Rd. 18, H2H: Rd. 10)
I'm stretching things a bit by including Ross on this breakouts list. He truly broke out after rejoining the Padres' rotation in the second half last season, and I don't expect him to take any further steps forward.
However, Ross can approximate what he did during his final 13 starts over a full season, so owners can expect a continuation of the breakout that is already in progress. From a Fantasy perspective, having Ross strike out more than a batter per inning and limit extra-base hits at an exceptional rate over 30 or so starts does represent a huge jump in value.
Out of those 13 starts late last season, Ross notched at least 10 swinging strikes and allowed two or fewer runs nine times. That's some impressive consistency, and in four of those starts he got at least 14 whiffs, so he was highly dominant at times. Ross' strong finish was no fluke, so on the chance he can sustain something close to it over the course of 2014, he could emerge as a top 40 starting pitcher.
Dillon Gee, SP, Mets (Roto: Rd. 25, H2H: Rd. 18)
Gee appeared to be on the verge of breaking out two seasons ago, as he established his ability to pitch with control and get strikeouts at a decent rate. That campaign ended with surgery to repair an artery in his right shoulder, and he was left with a 4.10 ERA that didn't reflect his progress, but he failed to strand as many as seven out of every 10 baserunners -- a slightly substandard rate.
Last season, Gee's K/9 ratio dropped 8.0 to 6.4, but most of the erosion of that ratio occurred in the second half, when he saw his rate of called strikes drop. Gee's whiff rate didn't waver, though, and neither did his sharp control. Entering 2014, Gee has a chance to rebound from his middling K- rate while maintaining his mid-3.00s ERA from last season, which did benefit from a positive swing in his strand rate to 76 percent. Even with fewer stranded runners, Gee's extra Ks should help him to increase his overall Fantasy value.
David Robertson, RP, Yankees (Roto: Rd. 10, H2H: Rd. 11)
As a newly-minted closer, Robertson shoots up in value just by virtue of getting save opportunities, but he could also get a boost performance-wise over last season.
Setting up for Mariano Rivera, Robertson was cruising along in the first half with a 12.0 K/9 ratio and 0.94 WHIP, which are elite (and closer-worthy) numbers for a reliever. He slumped to a decidedly un-elite 8.4 K/9 and 1.18 WHIP after the All-Star Break, as his average fastball velocity dropped by more than a full mile per hour. Robertson dealt with a sore shoulder for at least a portion of the second half, and it could be linked to the notable dropoff in his performance.
Judging by last year's full season stats (2.04 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 10.4 K/9), you might expect Robertson to be a good Fantasy closer, but in fact, he could very well be exceptional.
Nate Jones, RP, White Sox (Roto: Rd. 14, H2H: Rd. 19)
Like Robertson, Jones stands to gain Fantasy value just by being a closer, though he hasn't claimed the White Sox's ninth-inning job just yet. He does appear to be a strong frontrunner, though, and he could be nearly as valuable as Robertson.
In 2013, Jones had a strong but not overwhelming 10.3 K/9, even though he had the third-highest average fastball velocity (97.7 mph) among qualifying relievers (per FanGraphs.com). His 15 percent whiff rate is at an elite level, but a depressed foul ball rate may have dampened his strikeout rate.
Jones also suffered from a potentially fluky 66 percent strand rate and .346 BABIP, which inflated his ERA (4.15) and WHIP (1.22). The only thing that separates Jones from the likes of new closers Robertson and Trevor Rosenthal is a higher walk rate. Putting saves aside, Jones is a strong candidate to make vast improvements in his ERA, WHIP and strikeout total.
Putting saves back into the equation, he should be a cinch to improve on predecessor Addison Reed's 40-for-48 conversion rate from a year ago.