Established superstars are easy to identify, and the hunt for sleepers can produce a gem or two every season. But the biggest key to any successful fantasy team is finding the players who can go from great to MVP-level talent.
With that in mind, here's a team-by-team look at the best candidates in the AL with the ability to transform your team with a career season. The list is a mix of some of the game's best young players and some overlooked players who are ready to make the leap to stardom.
Baltimore Orioles: SP Chris Tillman
2013 stats: 16-7, 3.71 ERA, 179 K, 68 BB (206.1 IP)
Tillman was one of the two top prospects Baltimore received, along with Adam Jones, in the trade that sent Erik Bedard to the Mariners back in 2006, but it's been a long climb for the right-hander. Last season was the first time in Tillman's five-year career that he'd started more than 15 games, but the 25-year-old held his own in one of baseball's toughest divisions. Tillman's biggest change was improving his fastball location, and it showed, with his strikeout rate jumping from 6.91 in 2012 to 7.81 in 2013. He still has some trouble with allowing home runs, but his strong, improving peripherals suggest that Tillman is finally ready to become the top-of-the-rotation starter he was forecast to be.
Boston Red Sox: SS Xander Bogaerts
2013 Numbers: .250/.320/.364, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 1 SB (50 PA)
Boston's top prospect going into 2013, Bogaerts demolished two levels of minor-league competition before earning a major-league call-up in late August. Despite being just 20 years old at the time of his promotion, the Aruban infielder held his own in limited at-bats, then shined in the postseason with a .296/.412/.421 line in 34 plate appearances. Bogaerts has already shown an impressive combination of plate discipline and line-drive power in the minors, and his patience and batting eye are already major-league ready. With the starting shortstop job all his thanks to Stephen Drew's departure, Bogaerts will be a heavy favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, and he'll have plenty of RBI opportunities in a loaded Boston lineup.
New York Yankees: SP Ivan Nova
2013 Numbers: 9-6, 3.10 ERA, 116 K, 44 BB (139.1 IP)
Nova has been a model of inconsistency in his short Yankees career, bombing out in a wretched 2012 season with an ERA north of 5.00 and 28 homers in just 170.1 innings. He rebounded dramatically in 2013, mainly by cutting that homer rate in half -- no small feat when you pitch half your games in the homer-happy haven that is Yankee Stadium. For Nova, the success came through a rededication to his curveball, which became his primary and best pitch. His fastball is a work in progress still, and he's been susceptible to injury, but all the tools are there for Nova to become a top-line starter this season.
Tampa Bay Rays: OF Desmond Jennings
2013 Numbers: .252/.334/.414, 14 HR, 54 RBI, 20 SB (602 PA)
The top prospect who was the heir apparent to Carl Crawford in Tampa, Jennings has had a hard time consistently living up to the hype so far in his major-league career. But 2013's peripherals suggest good things going forward for Jennings; his walk rate and strikeout rate were exactly in line with his excellent 2011 season, when he notched a career-high .805 OPS. Jennings has always been a bit of a hacker, but if his plate discipline keeps improving, he's a virtual lock to post an OPS in the low to mid-800s, especially as he enters his age-27 season. Coupled with his speed and presence at the top of Tampa's order, that makes him a very valuable piece in any fantasy outfield.
Toronto Blue Jays: OF Colby Rasmus
2013 Numbers: .276/.338/.501, 22 HR, 66 RBI, 0 SB (458 PA)
It may be a bit of a stretch to call Rasmus a breakout candidate, given his sterling 2010 season with St. Louis. But the two years Rasmus spent in the wilderness after that took a lot of luster off his shine, and last season was the first time since his sophomore year that he showed the ability that made him one of the Cardinals' top prospects. There are some warning signs with Rasmus -- his 2013 was fueled by a .356 batting average on balls in play, and he strikes out in nearly a third of his at-bats. But his power is for real, he hits the ball hard (line-drive rate of 22 percent in 2013), and he kills fastballs (.504 slugging percentage and .200 isolated power on four-seamers last season). Give him a full season, and Rasmus could easily post 30 homers with 85-plus RBI.
Chicago White Sox: SP Jose Quintana
2013 Numbers: 9-7, 3.51 ERA, 164 K, 56 BB (200 IP)
Quintana is another starter whose peripherals showed an uptick in 2013, particularly in strikeouts, where he went from 5.3 strikeouts-per-nine in 2012 to 7.4 last season. Like Tillman, Quintana took a step forward with his fastball command, and also boasts a solid curveball. His low walk rate helps keep him out of trouble as well. The home-run rate is a little high (23 allowed in those 200 innings), but at 25, Quintana is more than capable of making the leap from capable mid-rotation starter to ace, especially if he can up the strikeouts again.
Cleveland Indians: SP Danny Salazar
2013 Numbers: 2-3, 3.12 ERA, 65 K, 15 BB (52 IP)
Salazar's taste of the big leagues in 2013 was a brief one, but the 24-year-old opened eyes with some absurd strikeout numbers. His strikeout-per-nine ratio of 11.25 would've been the second-highest in all of MLB over a full season, behind just Yu Darvish. You shouldn't expect Darvish-like strikeout numbers out of Salazar just yet, but he has the tools to get hitters out, with a career minor-league strikeout ratio of 8.0. Salazar boasts a 96 mph fastball, a wipeout slider and a devastating splitter, and though he's unlikely to crack 150 innings this season, he'll still pile up enough strikeouts to make him worth your while.
Detroit Tigers: SP Rick Porcello
2013 Numbers: 13-8, 4.32 ERA, 142 K, 42 BB (177 IP)
Despite being just 25 years old, this will be Porcello's sixth season in the majors, as the Tigers' No. 1 pick in 2007 was rushed to the big leagues the same year he was drafted. It's been a rough go for Porcello in that time, only once managing an ERA under 4.00, and that was in his rookie season. But there's reason to expect 2014 to be Porcello's big year. His strikeout rate jumped all the way from 5.46 to 7.22 per nine last year, his walk rate dipped slightly, and he remains one of the league's best at getting groundballs. And with Detroit's revamped and likely far better infield defense in 2014, Porcello can expect to see a lot of those ground balls turn into outs. He posted a .315 BABIP last year; that number getting under .300 would make Porcello fantasy gold.
Kansas City Royals: 1B Eric Hosmer
2013 Numbers: .302/.353/.448, 17 HR, 79 RBI, 11 SB (680 PA)
Is Hosmer this year's Freddie Freeman? The former top prospect hasn't yet been able to translate his line-drive power into homers at the Major League level, but keep in mind that he just turned 24 this offseason and made his MLB debut after only two years in the minors. Hosmer's 2013 was a big step forward after his subpar 2012, complete with a nice rise in line-drive rate and isolated power. If Freeman can trade some groundballs for flyballs, he'll jump past 20 homers and 90 RBI with ease.
Minnesota Twins: OF Oswaldo Arcia
2013 Numbers: .251/.304/.430, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 1 SB (378 PA)
Arcia's 2013 numbers don't suggest anything special on the surface, but dig a bit deeper and there's reason to believe he could provide you a lot of value. For starters, keep in mind that Arcia will turn 22 in May and had all of 454 at-bats above High-A before being called up to the majors in mid-April. His power numbers are promising, with a .179 isolated power mark in 2013, and though his strikeout-to-walk ratio leaves a lot to be desired (117 whiffs to 23 free passes), he's maintained good walk rates in his minor-league career, and saw a perfectly respectable four pitches per plate appearance in his first major-league season. With Minnesota in the midst of a full rebuild, and top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano still a year away, Arcia will get plenty of time to showcase his worth to Minnesota. Add it all up, and you've got a solid player with lots room to grow.
Houston Astros: C Jason Castro
2013 Numbers: .276/.350/.485, 18 HR, 56 RBI, 2 SB
Castro was fantasy gold last year for owners, putting together a top-ten season among catchers in 2013. There's concern that it's unsustainable -- after all, he did have a .351 BABIP despite a strikeout ratio of 25 percent -- but Castro balanced that with a good walk rate and an isolated power of .200 in his first full season behind the dish. He's been an above-average line-drive hitter his entire career; going into his age-27 season, improvement on 2013 is a definite possibility.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: OF Cole Kalhoun
2013 Numbers: .282/.347/.462, 8 HR, 32 RBI, 2 SB (222 PA)
One of the few bright spots in L.A.'s otherwise dismal 2013, the 26-year-old Calhoun showed good plate discipline (9.5 percent walk rate), solid power (.179 ISO) and an ability to make contact. It's something he's done at every stop of the minor leagues, too. For 2014, he'll be the Angels' starting rightfielder, and more importantly, L.A.'s leadoff hitter. That means 600-plus plate appearances in front of Mike Trout. If Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton can bounce back, Calhoun will be scoring runs galore to go with a high batting average and a good OBP. What more can you ask for?
Oakland Athletics: SS Jed Lowrie
2013 Numbers: .290/.344/.446, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 1 SB (662 PA)
Lowrie is a player who doesn't get a lot of respect in fantasy circles, and it's hard to understand why. He's bumped his OPS by over 100 points over his last three seasons, he sprays line drives (23 percent of his balls in play last year were of that variety), and he's a generally patient hitter who hit his way through every level of the minors in Boston. Keep in mind that, among all qualified shortstops last season, Lowrie was third in offensive WAR, behind only Troy Tulowitzki and Ian Desmond. He's had an injury-prone label since debuting in 2008, but played a career-best 154 games last year. This will be Lowrie's age-30 season, and he's a good bet to improve on his already excellent 2013 numbers.
Seattle Mariners: 1B Justin Smoak
2013 Numbers: .238/.334/.412, 20 HR, 50 RBI, 0 SB
This year could be as much make-or-break as breakout for the once-top prospect. Last year finally offered flashes that Smoak was ready to take the next step, though the numbers were still weak. But there is cause for optimism. Smoak's walk rate, isolated power and line-drive rate all jumped from 2012 to 2013 as his OPS went up nearly 100 points in a season. With a better lineup around him, and likely hitting behind new Mariner Robinson Cano, Smoak can expect some more hittable pitches and more run-producing opportunities. An OPS in the mid-.800s isn't out of the question if he can cut down on the strikeouts and keep building on the rest. In a suddenly thin 1B market, that would make him a top-10 option positionally.
Texas Rangers: 2B Jurickson Profar
2013 Numbers: .234/.308/.336, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 2 SB (324 PA)
Once the top prospect in all of baseball, Profar got his first extended taste of the big leagues in 2013 as a utility infielder for Texas, but struggled to put up consistent numbers. That should change in 2014, when Profar will take over as the full-time starting second baseman now that Ian Kinsler is in Detroit. Profar has shown elite plate discipline and excellent power in the minors and maintained a walk rate of eight percent to go with a line-drive rate of 23 percent in 2013, and that's despite being a mere 20 years of age and receiving sporadic playing time all over the field. Entrenched as the Rangers' second baseman, expect him to put up All-Star caliber numbers in a stacked Texas lineup and one of the AL's friendliest hitting parks.
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