Before we take a crack at predicting this year's class of breakout players, let's first establish which players can't count as breakouts.
Anyone with rookie eligibility can't be considered a breakout, even if they've already had a cup of coffee in the big leagues. That disqualifies worthy candidates such as Dylan Bundy, Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Jurickson Profar hell, all of these guys.
A player who has already made the leap can't put up a breakout season, unless this year's numbers are so far above previous career bests that we get the equivalent of a double-breakout star. So Justin Upton isn't a great choice, because he's already got a six-win season on his ledger; he's a good bet to bounce back after a disappointing, injury-plagued 2012, but that in itself doesn't constitute a breakout. Same goes for, say, Colby Rasmus (see 2010). Mike Trout can't make the cut, either, unless he hits 114 homers and cures cancer this season. Bryce Harper can, though it would take some pretty huge numbers for him to qualify.
Finally, we're looking at breakouts in real-life value, not fantasy value. If Vinnie Pestano runs with the Indians closer job and saves 40 games, that's not really a breakout season in any realm other than your 12-team mixed league, since he's already been a very good to excellent pitcher for the past two years in a setup role that's offered similar-leverage situations. Same goes for, say, Jason Heyward getting moved to the cleanup spot and driving in 120 runs while putting up numbers similar to his excellent 2012 results. A bump in team-dependent counting stats isn't the same thing as a tangible jump in real-life value.
Got all that? Good. Here are 16 players who could deliver a big boost for their teams this year, whether due to improved play, more playing time, better health, or a combination of all those factors.
The Playing-Time Gainers
Matt Harvey, SP, Mets
Harvey made his major league debut last year, and looked dominant doing it. The soon-to-be-24-year-old right-hander made 10 starts spanning 59⅓ innings, striking out 70 batters. Before we start attributing the strikeout binge to small sample size and a first pass through the league, keep in mind that Harvey consistently fanned more than a batter an inning throughout his minor league career. He got a little good luck on the batted-ball side (.262 batting average on balls in play; league average is just above .290) and with his strand (Harvey stranded 81.3 percent of base runners; league average is in the low 70s). But if he keeps missing bats at this rate, he'll provide major league wins over 32 or 33 starts; if the Mets could deploy better defensive outfielders than Lucas Duda (like, say, this guy), that would certainly help.
Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
Rizzo's 2012 numbers look pretty solid for a player getting his first sustained crack at everyday playing time: .285/.342/.463, with a .349 Weighted On-Base Average and 15 homers in 87 games. Then you remember what he did at Triple-A before his call-up: 70 games, .342/.405/.696, 23 homers, and 43 extra-base hits in 284 plate appearances. He benefited from some friendly hitter's environments in putting up huge Triple-A stats in 2011 and 2012. Still, the scouting report agrees with the numbers: good approach, emerging power, and good defense at first to boot. Give him 600 plate appearances this year and the Cubs might get a three- or four-win performance, with upside for more as the 23-year-old Rizzo gains experience.
Salvador Perez, C, Royals
If only so Rany Jazayerli will stop e-mailing me Perez-themed fanfic every other day.1 In Perez the Royals have an extreme contact hitter who rarely walks, plays good defense, and showed improving power last year, swatting 11 homers and posting a .170 Isolated Power mark in 76 games. There were about five Royals considered for this column. As strong an addition as James Shields is to the roster, the upside of Perez and several other Royals hitters in their early-to-mid-20s is the biggest reason for fans to be optimistic this season.
Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
Does this really require heavy analysis? The Nationals shut down Strasburg after 159⅓ innings last year, and probably could have used him in the playoffs. That's over and done, and what we're left with is perhaps the most talented pitcher on the planet, freed from any major usage restrictions. He's going to get some Cy Young votes this year. Maybe the most Cy Young votes.
Chris Carter, LF, Astros
The defense might not be pretty if Houston decides to leave Carter in left field rather than DHing him. The good news is that there's not much ground to cover in left at Minute Maid Park, with the Crawford Boxes starting just 315 feet from home plate. The better news is that the righty-swinging Carter gets to take aim at the Boxes this year, rather than dealing with the hitter vortex that is Oakland's home park. Granting that park adjustments will even out some of the gains in Carter's raw numbers, it's possible that Carter could improve above and beyond a simple park-factor tweak, if he tailors his swing to his new home and gets everyday reps as expected, rather than platoon scraps. And OK, if we're going to let a little fantasy discussion sneak in there might be a 35-homer season around the corner.
The Top-Prospect Brigade
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays
It's not really going out on a limb to predict that Lawrie and the players immediately following him on this list could break out as soon as this season, not given how highly regarded they were as prospects within the past year or two. But the threat of a big season is real either way. Lawrie came up in the Milwaukee system as a big-hitting infielder who for a while had trouble settling in and succeeding at any one position. Now that he's entrenched at third base, we've learned that athleticism and instincts count for a lot, and Lawrie now appears likely to be a defensive asset for the next few years. Meanwhile, the bat's waiting to be unleashed, after Lawrie's 43-game debut in 2011 produced a .293/.373/.580 bonanza. A small-sample-size-aided feat, perhaps. But Lawrie's a good bet to improve significantly from 2012's .273/.324/.405 line. The only real question is how quickly it happens.
Matt Moore, SP, Rays
Moore doesn't have Lawrie's first-rounder status, being an eighth-rounder out of the noted baseball hotbed of New Mexico six years ago. But it didn't take the Rays long to realize they had a gem on their hands, with Moore not only flashing big minor league numbers but also getting universally lauded for bringing mid-to-high-90s heat with as little apparent effort as just about any pitcher in the game. The big strikeout numbers (8.9 per nine innings pitched) showed up as expected in his 2012 rookie season, but Moore often struggled with pitch selection and command, walking nearly a batter every other inning. The Rays have a strong recent track record of developing pitching talent, and Moore will be given every opportunity to go deeper into games this year, with Shields gone and the team needing a front-line starter to pair with defending Cy Young winner David Price. Throw in Moore dropping his second-half ERA by nearly a run and a half last year and you pencil him in as one of the best bets to make a big jump in 2013.
Desmond Jennings, CF, Rays
Just as the Rays are relying on Moore to help make up for Shields's departure, so, too, are they expecting bigger things from Jennings in his age-26 season. He hit .259/.356/.449 in 63 games in 2011,2 riding a torrid start to solidify his spot in the 2012 lineup. But Jennings's numbers nose-dived last year to .246/.314/.388, with 120 strikeouts in 505 at-bats. The blazing speed's still there to leg out infield hits and the double-digit home run power looks like it's here to stay, leaving Jennings a few plate adjustments away from becoming one of the top five or six all-around center fielders in the game.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals
He could show up in a body cast on Opening Day and probably top last season's sub-replacement-level horror show. Big power projections might be premature for the 23-year-old Hosmer. But he made solid contact and hit for high averages throughout most of his minor league career, striking out just 14.6 percent of the time in his rookie season while hitting a robust .293. The luck dragons knocked his batting average on balls in play down 59 points last year (to .255). Regression to league average alone would make his 2013 numbers look much better. Given his talent, pedigree, and track record, you hope for something substantially better than that.
Bryce Harper, LF, Nationals
This is a pure bet on talent. After a strong start to his scintillating rookie season last year, Harper looked like he might've hit a wall in July, hitting .222 with one home run that month. But he ended with a flourish, hitting .330 with 18 extra-base hits in September. We shouldn't get too cute with chopping up sample sizes. Then again, Harper practically overflows with ability, and you could see him making adjustments almost daily as he started to emerge into the terror everyone expects him to be. It's tough to beat a .270/.340/.477 mark and a Rookie of the Year award while playing at age 19 all season. It says here that Harper does it anyway.
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
It might seem like he's been around a while already, but Freeman's still just 23 years old. Baseball's age curve looks about the same as it did when Bill James studied it 30-plus years ago, with position players typically peaking in their mid-to-late 20s. Freeman's already got 1,279 major league plate appearances under his belt. His line-drive rates have been rising, he's hitting fewer ground balls, hitting for increasing power, walking more, and striking less as he matures. A big step up may be coming.
Domonic Brown, RF, Phillies
Consider this a makeup call to Andy Greenwald and other Phillies fans after that bit of unpleasantness earlier this week. Brown deserves it, though. I'm not bullish on him just because he's hit a few homers this spring — not exactly, anyway. But having Charlie Manuel finally trust him, whether due to those early spring results, adjustments in his approach, or simply that the Phillies have few to zero viable alternatives, could do wonders for a player rated the no. 4 prospect in the game by Baseball America just two years ago. Even in a best-case scenario, Brown's probably facing a platoon this year. But that would beat the hell out of getting buried in the minors yet again. Brown hit .299/.377/.504 mostly in the low minors in 2009 and .327/.391/.589 at Double- and Triple-A in 2010 before the Phillies started their annual jerk-around routine. Brown's now 25, and Delmon Young, John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, & Co. aren't nearly good enough to justify burying him again. He should play, and could play well.
Jesus Montero, C, Mariners
He's got the starting catching job to himself, 153 major league games banked, and Safeco's faraway fences moved in for this season to help his power swing. Montero's not going to win any Gold Gloves, and any walks he draws will probably be because the pitcher missed by two feet. But at age 23, a 25-homer season could be beckoning, with even better things potentially looming down the road.
The Deep Sleepers
Dillon Gee, SP, Mets
Eight strikeouts and 2.4 walks per nine innings last year, with a worm-burning 50.3 percent ground-ball rate. But Gee's a Met and isn't named R.A. Dickey, Johan Santana, or even Matt Harvey, so most people didn't notice his impressive performance over 17 starts last year. Give the guy 30-plus starts and you might have something exciting here.
Felix Doubront, SP, Red Sox
In a lost year for Boston starting pitchers, Doubront might've been the most consistent arm on the staff for the first half of the season. Faced with a career-high innings count, he faded in the second half. Still, the 25-year-old lefty throws a plus curve and changeup to go with his 93-mph fastball and occasional cutter, ended the season with 167 punchouts in 161 innings, and might be due for some positive regression after yielding a high home run–to–fly ball rate of 15.9 percent last year. You'd feel a little better about his chances if he weren't facing righty-laden lineups taking aim at the Green Monster. Still, his track record and stuff make him intriguing.
Zach McAllister, SP, Indians
The sleeper-iest of all these picks, and this one's almost entirely a bet on defense. The Indians figure to trot out an outfield that on most days will feature Michael Brantley in left, Michael Bourn in center, and Drew Stubbs in right, three players all capable of playing center field at once, with the actual center fielder a two-time Gold Glover whose ability actually warrants the hardware. McAllister's no slouch on his own merits, posting a strikeout-to-walk rate just under 3-to-1 last year, with a 64.7 percent strand rate that figures to improve going forward. He held his own in his 22-start audition as a full-time major league starting pitcher in 2012. With a little help from his defense, he could be something more this year.