Fantasy baseball owners are an opportunistic bunch. They love statistics, historical trends and blending the two to get an edge in their leagues.
For the past decade or so, many fantasy owners have subscribed to the idea that a hitter entering his age-27 season has a great chance of breaking out and becoming an early-round pick the following year. In reality, there's no magic number in any category that ensures a player will exceed expectations.
Across the league, players of all ages turn in breakthrough efforts every season. Last year, we saw then-27-year-olds Adam Jones, Matt Carpenter and Chris Davis play their way into the early rounds of this spring's fantasy drafts. But we spend less time on the numerous 27-year-old hitters who didn't break out as expected -- Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Todd Frazier all took significant steps backward from the 2012 numbers posted during their shared age-26 season.
It's more accurate to say players between the ages of 26 and 28 are entering their prime, the years in which they are most likely to develop into the best kind of hitter they are ever going to be. It makes a lot of sense if you think about the maturation timeline most professional players navigate. After climbing up through the minors, many hitters start to receive sustained major-league looks at ages 24 and 25. After a year or two in the majors, they no longer have to play catch-up against superior pitching as muscle memory and instincts take over, allowing them to settle in, build confidence and refine their approaches at the plate.
The two to three full major-league seasons that process takes couples nicely with the idea that most players reach their physical peaks between ages 26-28, and the end result is the wave of breakthrough years fans watch for in players approaching that age threshold.
The calculating, logical fantasy owner understands that a birthday does not ensure a breakout performance, but he may still use the age-27 season as a tiebreaker when debating the merits of two similar players. So with those qualifiers in mind, let's take a look at this year's group of 27-year-olds to watch, from the players already hitting their prime to those worthy of a late-round flier.
This group of 27-year-olds doesn't have much higher to climb in the fantasy world. They've already had their breakout seasons, and now they're cruising in the prime of their careers.
Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants: The standout backstop born Gerald Dempsey Posey III turns 27 years old just before Opening Day and already has an MVP award, two World Series rings, two All-Star nods and a Rookie of the Year award to his name. His 2013 numbers look downright mortal next to his .336/.408/.549 effort from the year before, but Posey isn't going anywhere. A brief history lesson: The Rays passed on Posey with the first overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft in order to take shortstop Tim Beckham. The Giants snapped Posey up with the fifth pick, and he has rewarded them with 17.5 career WAR, three wins more than the combined efforts of the rest of the top seven selections in the 2008 draft.
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Coming off of two seasons with a combined 52 homers and 47 stolen bases, McCutchen earned top-five pick status in 2013 and silenced any remaining doubters with an MVP season that will have him off the board quickly in 2014. He's entering his power prime, and his speed shouldn't be expected to decline for three more years.
Jason Kipnis, 2B, Cleveland Indians: Earlier this month, Michael Beller and I debated whether Kipnis or Robinson Cano would be the better fantasy second baseman this season. While I opted for Cano in spite of his move to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, I still appreciate Kipnis' surge in fantasy value over the past two seasons. He's good for 15 homers and 30 steals, but he's at an age where we could start seeing a little more power production.
Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati Reds: Did you know that no outfielder has more total RBI over the past three seasons than Jay Bruce's 306? What's more, only Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera topped Bruce's three-year average of 32 home runs since 2011. Yet Bruce doesn't get the fantasy pub he deserves, as Joey Votto owns the spotlight in Cincinnati. Bruce's batting average could use a shot in the arm (.258 three-year average), and only three hitters have averaged more strikeouts in that span than his 166. He likely won't climb higher than his current Round 3 ADP.
Four 27-Year-Old Breakout Candidates
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates: The second overall pick in 2008, Alvarez was expected to develop a little sooner once he reached the majors. After making his Pirates debut at age 23 in 2010, he struggled in his first two seasons, but he finally started connecting in 2012 and has hit 66 home runs over the past two years. From at-bat to at-bat, you'll either walk away with four points for a home run from him or lose one point for a strikeout. His strikeout percentage (30 percent) is significantly higher than his batting average (.233), but if he develops better patience, owners could enjoy a rise in average without much of a dip in power numbers.
Austin Jackson, OF, Detroit Tigers: With the arrival of new leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler, Jackson will move to the heart of the order, batting behind Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. He might not ever reach 20 homers or return to the 20-steal form he showed in his first two years with the team, but he should see a rise in RBI this season in the middle of an explosive lineup. He also has potential for a better batting average this season, considering his BABIP last season was a career low .333. That's nothing to be ashamed of, but it's 37 points lower than the three-year average BABIP of .370 he posted from 2010-12 that led all of baseball.
Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay Rays: Touted as one of the Rays' top homegrown talents of the past decade, Jennings hasn't lived up to his minor-league billing as a power-speed threat. He came six homers shy of a 20-20 season last year, which only nine hitters accomplished in 2013, but it's his batting average that seems to keep him from being a top-100 fantasy player. While his 2013 rotisserie stats didn't seem much different from the year before, he improved his OPS by 46 points (from 0.702 up to 0.748) and drew roughly 35 percent more walks than he had in 2012. Jennings has added 10-15 pounds of bulk this offseason in the hope that his thin frame would stand up better to the rigors of a full season. That weight could affect his speed, but any dip in stolen base totals would in theory be offset by the additional power and games played. Jennings could be the type of age-27 breakout everyone points to this time next year -- like Carlos Gomez in 2013, only with half the speed.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, San Francisco Giants: Several factors point to a big 2014 ahead for the Giants third baseman. Sandoval lost 40 pounds this offseason in an effort to put together a big year at the plate and in the field. With free agency looming after this season, Kung Fu Panda could end up earning a million dollars or so for every two pounds lost if he can back his new figure up with production. Sandoval has reached the 25-home run mark once, in 2009, and he has never posted a 100-RBI season. A lighter frame should translate to more speed down the line to beat out an additional small percentage of throws, and it means more flexibility, which should allow him to play more than the 122 games he has averaged since 2011. His ADP of Round 11 means you'll get great value at the hot corner and be able to load up on other positions earlier on.
Six 27-Year-Old Sleepers
While a breakout candidate is a middle-round pick with the potential to have a huge fantasy season and vault into the early rounds next spring, sleepers may either go undrafted this season or get picked up late in mixed league drafts, only to elevate their play and end up selected in the early rounds of next year's draft.
Josh Reddick, OF, Oakland Athletics: In his first full major league season in 2012, Reddick smashed 32 home runs but hit just .242. Last year, a wrist injury slowed him considerably, limiting him to 12 home runs in roughly two-thirds as many at-bats as the year before. A healthy wrist and a high-scoring A's offense should help him in 2014.
Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners: Smoak will be the regular starter at first base again for the Mariners in 2014, and we're hoping that with age comes maturity at the plate. He hit .272 with an .803 OPS in the first half of last season before everything fell apart down the stretch. The boost the Seattle offense receives from the arrival of Cano could trickle down to several batters elsewhere in the lineup, including Smoak.
Alex Avila, C, Detroit Tigers: Avila is intriguing because he's a catcher, and catchers tend to develop later offensively. He turned heads as a 24-year-old with 19 homers in 2011 but has wrestled with injury issues and a bad batting average ever since. Grabbing him late as a second catcher isn't a horrible idea at all, given his supporting role in what will be a loaded Detroit offense.
Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians: Brantley has posted double-digit stolen base totals in each of the last four years, with a respectable .286 batting average and 16 of his 26 career home runs in the past two seasons. He also has a good eye at the plate -- only 18 major leaguers have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio since the start of the 2012 season. After bouncing around the Indians order in 2013, his RBI chances should rise as he settles into the middle of the lineup.
Chris Carter, 1B, Houston Astros: You'll notice that many sleeper candidates excel at one particular tool, such as power, speed or the ability to make contact regularly. Carter hit 32 bombs last season and collected 82 RBI on a team that didn't have many runners to bat in. Unfortunately, he's only the current leader of a group of first basemen in Houston that also includes Brett Wallace and top prospect Jonathan Singleton. He's safer for AL-only formats, but even then, he has to bring that average up from the .223 he hit in 2013.
Brian Dozier, 2B, Minnesota Twins: In Dozier's first full season in the majors, he hit .244 while striking out just under once every five plate appearances (19.3 K%). But only three second basemen hit more home runs than Dozier's 18 last season, and that makes him an interesting late-round sleeper in mixed leagues. He hit .253 in the second half of 2013, and hopefully that average stays headed in the right direction in the first half of 2014. The Twins also plan to use him as a leadoff hitter at times during the upcoming season.