Fantasy players often ask why they've already heard of the top breakout candidates in these files. Well: You might have heard of them, but do you know how good they're really capable of being?
For the players on this list, we should find out this season.
As we explained yesterday in our
Consider Stephen Strasburg. Every fantasy player and baseball fan knows the name, and he'll be drafted in the early rounds (possibly as high as No. 1 among starting pitchers). He isn't a sleeper. But if you ignore the hype and simply consider the numbers, you'll see a pitcher who has yet to win 15 games, reach 160 innings or strike out 200 batters in a season. He's yet to break out in statistical terms. But this season Strasburg can be better than he's ever been before, emerging as a true fantasy ace and the kind of top-tier starter who can carry you to a fantasy crown. That makes him a prime breakout candidate.
In fantasy, breaking out isn't about attaining name recognition. It's about posting numbers that actually match or exceed the hype.
Here's a team-by-team look at the top 2013 breakout candidates in the National League.
Atlanta's bolstered lineup positions Freeman to be one of the best RBI men in baseball. Although his talents suggest he's more of a No. 3 hitter than a No. 5, Freeman is going to benefit from hitting behind the likes of Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton. The Braves' offense is an embarrassment of riches that should make Freeman more productive than anyone truly expects.
LoMo is coming off a season few saw coming, in the bad way, and now he needs to prove worthy of being a big-league regular again. The odds are the 25-year-old (he turns 26 in August) is going to be more of a breakout than a breakdown. Consider him a solid sleeper after the top 30 first basemen and top 60 outfielders. That makes him a sleeper and a breakout candidate, a double bonus.
This stands to be a make-or-break year for the big-swinging Davis, who turns 26 in late March. He overcame an extended bout with Valley Fever and an awful start to post career highs with 32 homers and 90 RBI in 2012. If he can limit his strikeouts, draw more walks and get his average up to .270, he would enter the conversation as a must-have fantasy first baseman. We haven't seen the best of him yet, and he's just now entering his prime.
This one is a reach, but the Phillies are a veteran team with a bunch of players past their prime rather than entering it. At 27, the erstwhile prospect Young should just be getting started as a run producer. He signed a low-end deal with a team that plays in a ballpark suited to his right-handed bat. Crazy things can happen at 27, and Young can still be a viable fantasy outfielder.
Strasburg wasn't happy about being shut down last season, and he's about to take out his anger on the rest of baseball. However many innings Strasburg pitches, bank on them being the best innings money can buy in fantasy. If the Nats truly allow him to pitch "without restriction," we could see 220-plus innings, 300 strikeouts and an NL Cy Young runaway.
If you think you know what to expect from Castro now that he's an established major leaguer, you're wrong. He'll be just 23 on Opening Day, and will continue to improve as he matures physically. Throw in the improvement of the Cubs' order around him and the fact that Castro is one of the few middle-of-the-order shortstops in baseball, and you're looking at a future fantasy MVP. Castro can become a hybrid of Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes (the good versions). Don't let Castro slip out of the top 25 picks in Rotisserie formats.
Bruce has frustrated his owners in the past with a low batting average and high strikeout total, but he'll turn 26 this season and he's due for a huge breakthrough across the fantasy board. He plays in an extremely hitter-friendly park and hits in the middle of a loaded lineup, making 40 homers and 120 RBI a realistic possibility. Bruce could post the kind of numbers this season that make him a first-round fantasy pick in 2014.
The 27-year-old Gomez put it together so well last season that what was once a blurry ceiling is now becoming clearer -- and it's pretty high. If not for his prior years of struggles and disappointment, Gomez's 2012 breakthrough would have him ranked among the top 25 outfielders. As it is, many will allow a potential 20/40 outfielder to fall to a modest draft position. Last season's 19/37 campaign looks like more of a coming of age than a fluke, and Gomez can grow even more.
Alvarez's inconsistency, strikeouts and low batting average tend to mask the fact that he's a burgeoning slugging star. Coming off a 30-homer season, Alvarez is entering his prime and is a potential beast relative to his draft position. If he can move his average up to .260 (he batted .244 last year and is a career .237 hitter), he can move into fantasy's upper echelon this season.
A late bloomer, this former World Series MVP should build on his breakthrough 2012 season, in which he mashed 20 homers while batting .293. At the very least, his second full season in the majors should help him prove more consistent half-to-half after he went .294/13/51 before the break in 2012, then fell off considerably. Freese is particularly appealing this year because his potential hasn't translated into an elevated draft position, so he can be gotten at an affordable price.
The D'backs think so highly of Eaton, they traded a game-changer like Justin Upton to open up an opportunity for the youngster. That's some praise. Coming off a .381 average in Triple-A, Eaton can instantly become one of the best young leadoff men in baseball. He is one of the rare elite base-stealing threats who can actually do more than slap hit. He's a legit NL Rookie of the Year candidate.
Fowler is coming off a .300 campaign and turns 27 this March, which means there's potential for more. The steals and homers can come a lot more frequently and, if he hits .300 again, he will easily outperform his top 200 draft position. He sure looked like a beast at the break a year ago (.300/11/36/45/7) and entering his prime should help him prove more consistent late in the year.
A talent like Gordon should be able to play a role this season, but it is a bit tough to gauge where right now. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly is set on making Hanley Ramirez his everyday shortstop this season, and Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier block Gordon's possible move to the outfield. Third base may be Gordon's best potential home, and it's hard to imagine why the Dodgers would keep the likes of Luis Cruz or Mark Ellis in the way of this potential burner. If Gordon finds his way into the Dodgers' plans, look out.
Volquez hasn't been able to replicate his 2008 (17-6, 3.21) showing because he walks far too many batters, runs high pitch counts and cannot approach 200 innings. He is a lot better than he has shown over the past four years, though, and can still enjoy a breakthrough, especially in the pitcher-friendly San Diego ballpark. Watch his numbers explode if he reaches 200 innings for the first time in his career. For the first time since that '08 breakthrough, he's coming off a healthy year.
If you could paint a picture of an ideal situation for a closer, it would be this. The Giants project to pitch well and win a lot of close, low-scoring games. Romo is currently projected to be the beneficiary of that as the closer. A high-maintenance elbow kept him from replacing Brian Wilson (Tommy John surgery) for most of last season, but Romo is healthier now and lights out enough to perform like a top-five fantasy closer.