Every spring, in the service of previewing the coming season, I get asked to name a handful of breakout candidates, players who I expect to take a big step forward. Some of those choices are based on having pored over projections, others more on changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entry into the prime age range of 26-29 years old. Generally, I'm asked to offer a like number of candidates to decline for similar reasons. Usually all of these are forgotten as quickly as the preview/promotional cycle ends, but in my first spring at SI.com, I figured it made sense to go on the record, position by position, starting today with catcher and continuing over the course of the next couple weeks.
I'm not offering any hard-and-fast criteria for inclusion on these lists, no promises that their OPS will increase by at least 50 points or that they'll help you rule your fantasy league; these aren't particularly fantasy-targeted because I don't think about RBI totals or batting average very often, and I'm specifically leaving rookies out of these roundups in the service of another future cycle. These are players I've studied and have my reasons for earmarking for better or worse. I'll look back at them later in the year to see how they fared, and what there is to be learned from my own hits and misses.
Wilson Ramos, Nationals: Ramos actually broke out two years ago, hitting .267/.334/.445 with 15 homers in 435 plate appearances for the Nationals as a 23-year-old rookie. Alas, he's been through some nightmares since then. In November 2011 he was kidnapped in his home country of Venezuela and rescued after a gunfight. Then he missed out on most of the fun of Washington's NL East title last year after tearing the ACL in his right knee in mid-May; he needed two surgeries to repair all of the damage.
The Nats are optimistic he'll be ready for the start of the season, but plan to ease him back into action; he'll begin DHing in about a week and will start the year as the backup behind mid-2012 acquisition Kurt Suzuki. The two may wind up sharing the job more or less equally throughout the year, but I expect Ramos' combination of power and plate discipline will return, and the lighter early schedule will keep him fresher for the stretch run.
Derek Norris, A's: A fourth-round 2007 pick by the Nationals who was a key part of the return in the Gio Gonzalez trade in December 2011, Norris' arrival is what prompted the A's to trade Suzuki to Washington at midseason. His slash numbers in 232 PA were rather ugly (.201/.276/.349), but a closer look shows an acceptable walk rate (9.1 percent) and power (.148 ISO) for a catcher, offset by a low BABIP (.255) and a high strikeout rate (28.5 percent).
The latter has always been the knock on him as a prospect, but his considerable pop and patience made him good enough to place in the Baseball Prospectus Top 101 Prospects list three times (2010-2012), and the Baseball America Top 100 twice (2010-2011). His minor league numbers (.252/.394/.461) suggest he has much to contribute despite a low batting average. The 24-year-old righty will have to battle John Jaso for playing time, but I expect he'll prove to be the defensively superior catcher of the duo and avoid being stuck in a straight platoon.
Devin Mesoraco, Reds: A popular preseason pick for NL Rookie of the Year honors last spring, Mesoraco couldn't play his way past incumbent Ryan Hannigan and wound up hitting just .212/.288/.352 in 184 PA, a sample size reduced by a late-season concussion that opened the door for the best 73-plate appearance stretch of Dioner Navarro's career since 2008. Navarro is gone, and while the Reds have brought in Miguel Olivo via a minor league deal as a backup option, I expect the 25-year-old Mesoraco to recover some of his lost luster. After all, this is a player who has hit .282/.360/.505 in 788 PA at Double-A and Triple-A, and who ranked 16th on BA's prospect list coming into last year. He may get an early-season refresher course at Triple-A to give him extra at-bats early while Olivo stinks up Cincinnati, but I suspect that in time, Mesoraco will help make the Reds' catching tandem one of the majors' best.
A.J. Pierzynski, Rangers: For a Texas team that got a cumulative .228/.312/.397 line from their catchers last year, adding Pierzynski via a one-year, $7.5 million deal was a smart move. Nonetheless, he's here because catchers coming off career years (.278/.326/.501 with 27 homers) in their age-35 seasons aren't great bets to maintain that level of superior production at 36, particularly when they'll be playing a considerable share of their games in Texas' wilting summer heat.
Any notion of Pierzynski's numbers being buoyed by a new hitter-friendly environment should be quashed by a look at his recent home/road splits with the White Sox the past few years: .288/.331/.484 with 30 homers at U.S. Cellular from 2010-2012, .268/.302/.380 with 14 homers elsewhere. Pierzynski will earn his keep to the extent that the Rangers don't regret the deal, but I expect his final numbers to look a lot more like his career line of .284/.324/.429.
Carlos Ruiz, Phillies: Everybody loves Chooch, and for good reasons. But like Pierzynski, it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that an aging backstop can maintain a career-best-level performance that's well out of line with the rest of his body of work. As a 33-year-old in 2012, Ruiz set new standards for himself in batting average (.325), slugging percentage (.540) and home runs (16, his first time in double digits) while nearly doing so in on-base percentage as well (.394, six points off his 2010 mark). He did all that over the course of 421 PA, a season abbreviated by a five-week stay on the disabled list due to plantar fasciitis. His 2013 will be shortened as well, this time by a season-opening 25-game suspension for testing positive for a banned stimulant, Adderall. One doesn't even need to consider the effect the drug might have had on his play to know that his numbers will take a hit. His 2012 performance owed plenty to a .339 batting average on balls in play, 53 points above his previous career norm, while his .215 ISO was 87 points higher than his norm. Meanwhile, his unintentional walk rate fell from a career 8.8 percent through 2011 to just 5.5 percent. He should still be an above-average contributor for a catcher once he returns from his suspension, but the bet is that his numbers will be more in line with his 2009-2011 showing (.281/.376/.417).