Welcome to Grantland's 2012 MLB Breakout Players of the Year, the first in what will hopefully become an annual tradition of semi-educated guesses on the season's biggest performance leaps.
Before we begin, let's define what constitutes a breakout. Rookie-eligible players don't count. Established players who have late-career spikes after a down period (like, say, Alex Rodriguez, who's a good bet to do just that) don't count either. We also won't count players who were called up in-season last year, had big performances, and used up their rookie eligibility. In other words, Brett Lawrie and Desmond Jennings will likely set career highs in many counting stat categories given they'll be playing every day in 2012; but their rate stats (especially in Lawrie's case) probably won't go up much, if at all.
We're looking for players with major league experience who haven't yet had their best seasons in terms of both rate stats (AVG/OBP/SLG/wOBA for hitters; ERA/FIP/xFIP for pitchers) and counting stats (HR/RBI/R/WAR for hitters; W/K/WAR for pitchers). For instance, last year that list would have included Jacoby Ellsbury (good player makes the leap to MVP candidate), and also Matt Harrison (struggling player has his first above-average major league season).
So who makes it this year? Here are my five favorites:
After five decades of existence in D.C. and in Texas without winning a single pennant, the Rangers have stormed to the World Series in each of the past two seasons. More impressively, this is a team with success that's built to last. Through shrewd drafting, scouting, international spending, player development, and trades, the Rangers built the best organization. Over the past few years, they've graduated scads of impressive young players to the majors. Yet the Rangers still have baseball's most loaded farm system, per Baseball America. When that next generation of players arrives, expert instruction awaits. When the time comes for those players to negotiate their first big contracts, the Rangers will have more than enough funds to keep the best of the bunch.
The 2012 Rangers do have a few question marks, with last year's ace leaving, several regression candidates still here, some nagging spring injuries, and the fortification of their chief rivals. But there's World Series upside on this roster. Again.
Let's get a few things out of the way first. There's a good chance Albert Pujols doesn't earn out the $240 million the Angels will pay him over the next 10 years, at least not directly. Also, one player rarely turns a merely decent team into a title contender. But Arte Moreno's big offseason splash wasn't as simple as adding one player, even if that player is one of the best of his generation. The Pujols signing greatly upgraded a lineup that badly needed it. But inking C.J. Wilson to a five-year, $77.5 million also offered a substantial upgrade, even though the top of the Angels' rotation already ranked among baseball's best. Throw in Mike Scioscia finally relenting on playing a catcher with great defensive ability and a historic ability to make outs with his bat (with the Angels trading for Chris Iannetta to take Jeff Mathis's place) and you have a roster that should be much improved over last season's edition. Given the Halos were already contenders past Labor Day last season, it's no surprise they're a popular pick to ... well, be a title contender.
They might not win much, might not score many runs, might not get much national attention. But the Oakland A's are going to be interesting this year. For that, they can thank Yoenis Cespedes.
Stick your small sample sizes in your ear: In the seven plate appearances of his major league career, Cespedes whacked a 390-foot double on a pitch at his shins, crushed a long homer to left-center (granted, on a big, fat, hanging slider from crappy reliever Shawn Kelley) and waved at approximately eleventy pitches in the dirt (granted, most of those while facing Felix Hernandez). The subject of the most incredible training video ever made (yes, we're going to keep posting and re-posting this thing until every man, woman, and child in the galaxy has watched it) is physically gifted, incredibly raw, and being given free rein by the A's to let Yoenis be Yoenis. On a team where the current 3-4-5 hitters are the legendary Coco Crisp, Seth Smith, and Kurt Suzuki, Cespedes is a delightful wild card who could become the only true star on an otherwise anonymous team, or a spectacular failure. Either way, he's worth watching.
Writing up the Mariners now might seem a little unfair, given they've already played two regular-season games. But check out these twobox scores — do they tell us anything we couldn't have guessed about this team beforehand?
Dustin Ackley has a chance to be the team's next big star; Ichiro has a chance to prove he's closer to the 4.5-WAR player he was in 2010 than the replacement-level player he was in 2011; Brandon League has a chance to save a bunch of games and make himself attractive deadline trade bait; Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero have a chance to prove they were worth trading away great pitchers for; and Felix Hernandez has a chance to throw eight dominant innings over and over, only to come away with a stack of no-decisions.
Science still hasn't developed a way to stab someone over e-mail, so last Sunday, Bill Simmons did the next best thing: "I'd like to get the band back together," he wrote, and I felt an immediate, sharp pain in my gut.
"The band" was me and his friend JackO. We're both Yankees fans, and Simmons wanted us to send some e-mails back and forth previewing the season. The last time we did this was during Game 5 of the ALDS, when the Yankees' season ended in a loss to Detroit. The result should have given Simmons all the schadenfreude he needed for the next decade or so, but now he wants us to do it again. The jinx potential is very high here, but now the stakes are an entire season rather than a single game. I couldn't say no, but my sentiments basically lined up with JackO, who had the best possible response: "I'm available, but if something bad happens to a key Yankee, then I'm taking you trampolining, Simmons."
Frank McCourt's $2 billion sale of the Dodgers to a consortium led by Mark Walter, Stan Kasten, and Magic Johnson should eventually prompt a big spending spike for a team that fell to middle-of-the-pack status in major league payroll and dead last in international spending over the past two years. It's that second issue that's more troubling: A once-proud farm system now ranks no. 24 in Baseball America's Organizational Talent rankings, after getting neglected during McCourt's final days of reckless debt accumulation.
While the new ownership group figures to be active in pursuing big-ticket talent next offseason, there's a strong chance the Dodgers mostly stand pat for now. The regular season's already under way, and even teams unlikely to contend aren't likely to sell off their best players at this stage; Andrew McCutchen and Felix Hernandez aren't walking through that door. So for now, the Dodgers are a living, breathing version of your fantasy stars and scrubs team. As I wrote earlier this week in backing the Under on the Dodgers this season:
In 2011, no team underperformed its expected record by a wider margin than San Diego. The Padres scored just 18 runs fewer than they allowed, netting an expected record of 79-83; they went 71-91 instead. With a young nucleus led by Mat Latos, Cameron Maybin, and Cory Luebke set to return and a sense that they might've underachieved last year, the Padres had a deep sleeper feel to them.
The Diamondbacks finished dead last in 2009 and 2010. Then they hired Kevin Towers as new GM and Kirk Gibson as new manager. Presto, D-Backs win the West.
Well, not quite. Going by runs scored and runs allowed, the 2010 club would have been expected to win six more games than they did; the 2011 team would've been pegged to win six fewer games than they did. More importantly, the Diamondbacks got breakout seasons from players who'd been acquired by the previous regime (in some cases, even the one before that). Justin Upton, Miguel Montero, Ryan Roberts, and Ian Kennedy all had big years, making good on the potential that many prognosticators saw in the Diamondbacks even as they languished in the basement for two years.
Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy have teamed up to assassinate the Giants' offense. The league's second-best pitching staff might be golfing in October as a result.
The $126 million contract Sabean (and his bosses) gave Barry Zito five-plus years ago has obliterated the Giants' budget — or at least given the team a handy excuse to make do with lousy lineups year after year. When Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins became available on the open market, the Giants figured, "no thanks, we're good with a guy who'd be lucky to hit like Carlos Zambrano." Bochy made matters worse last year by jerking around top prospect Brandon Belt, ejecting him from the lineup long before he had a chance to rack up a meaningful total of at-bats. He seems poised to do the same this year, with Nate Schierholtz and Aubrey Huff likely ticketed for starting roles and Belt left out of the mix again. Ironically, a rare fit of post-Zito spending has caused this problem: Had the Giants not given the nearly 34-year-old Huff a two-year, $22 million contract extension in the afterglow of the World Series, the Giants would look at least a game or two better than they do right now. In an NL West division where the young and upgraded Diamondbacks return to defend their crown, that game or two (or more) could prove costly.
Stephen Strasburg is coming back. Bryce Harper is coming soon. The Phillies might be waning. No wonder the Nationals were one of baseball's most aggressive teams this offseason, raiding the farm system for Gio Gonzalez and signing Edwin Jackson to a deal that might turn into the best bargain of the winter (one year, $11 million).
Armed with a shiny, taxpayer-funded new stadium green-lit by feckless government officials, the Marlins decided they'd finally spend some money this offseason. The plan went as follows: Get Albert Pujols, get Jose Reyes, get one of the best starting pitchers on the market, get one of the best closers on the market.
A rare personal interjection in this preview series, if you'll indulge me.
One of my annual rites of spring is to bet a few gummi bears on over/unders for MLB team win totals. Coming into last spring, I was 5-0 lifetime. Made two gummi wagers, one on the Rays over 84.5 wins (make it 6-0) and one on the Phillies under 97 wins. As I wrote at the time:
Philadelphia under 97
Another one of my favorite betting principles: Never bet on extremes. It’s really tough to win 100 games, or lose 100 games. Players, teams, and phenomena tend to gravitate toward the center, influenced by what Bill James calls the Whirlpool Principle.
We needn’t rely exclusively on fancy statistical theories for this one, though. The Phillies lost a five-win player in Jayson Werth. The latest on Chase Utley has the Phillies pondering ways to avoid surgery for a player who’s been top five in the game when at full strength. Domonic Brown broke a bone in his hand. The bullpen’s still a question mark. Jimmy Rollins's MVP season seems like forever ago. Ryan Howard is still the same beastly power hitter who’s highly vulnerable late in games against lefties and struggles defensively.
Even with one of the best starting rotations in a generation, there are too many risks here to assume an extreme season. The Phillies should still be considered (slight) favorites to win the NL East. But I’m not buying 98 or more wins.
It's sad to come into a season with the possible trade of your franchise players as the biggest question mark. But the Mets own the dreaded double curse: They're bad now, and they're likely to remain bad for the next couple years. The major league roster lacks premium talent, a few oppressive contracts remain (Johan Santana, Jason Bay), and the farm system, while showing some improvement at the low levels, remains years away from yielding top big league talent. Wright has one year left on his contract at $15 million, plus a $16 million club option in 2013. As I wrote in the Yankees preview:
Here's one wacky idea: See what the Mets would want for David Wright. He's owed $15 million this year and a $16 million club option in 2013, but won't affect the 2014 luxury tax target. Mets GM Sandy Alderson may have tipped his hand on PR matters when he let Jose Reyes walk for the sake of rebuilding (and saving his cash-strapped bosses some money). A blockbuster trade of a Mets star to the Bronx would get crucified by the media but for the right price, it could make lots of sense for the Mets. Given the massive boost the Yankees would get by sending Ibanez to Irkutsk and nudging A-Rod to DH, it certainly would make sense on their end.
For most of the past decade, the Jays have been a good team, occasionally a very good team. Yet they have nothing to show for it. The loaded AL East has suppressed the team's win totals and prevented them from cracking the postseason. That killer competition also prompted J.P. Ricciardi to overreach at times, handing monster contracts to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and hurting the organization with weak draft picks. Alex Anthopoulos, Ricciardi's successor, and his staff have overhauled the big league roster and the farm system, ditching the team's oppressive contracts, making fortuitous trades, and drafting and developing lots of promising talent. Signing some of the team's best players to favorable deals (Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Yunel Escobar) frees up money to upgrade the roster at other positions. The 2012 club is still fraught with question marks, especially in the rotation. But Jays fans should feel optimistic. If good things don't start happening now, they might very soon.