March 02, 2010

Established stars get picked in the early rounds and usually provide early-round value, but it's the breakout players that bring home titles, with mid- and late-round prices that perform like early-round talent. So how do we find them?

As I see it, breakout players mostly fit into four, clean-cut categories.

First are post-hype players. These guys had experts gushing as they bashed or K'd their way through the minor leagues. Then they came up to the majors and ... not so much. Many times their slow start is your profit. This category works because of the short attention span and impatience of fantasy owners.

The 2009 example: Justin Upton. After two seasons that produced batting averages of .221 and .250, owners got Upton cheap in drafts last year. That isn't likely to happen again for a long time.

Next are under-the-radar players. Whether it was a lopsided loss total for pitchers or a perception-swaying cold streak for batters, these players were better than most think last season. This season, they will be paying off.

The 2009 example: Matt Cain. He became known more for his loss totals (30 total in 2007 and 2008) than for his solid numbers. His luck changed last year, both in wins and ERA.

Another group is what I like to call out-of-nowhere players. Sometimes players come from nowhere to become fantasy relevant. These players often didn't show anything special until they showed everything special.

The 2009 example: Ben Zobrist. Between his 2B/SS/OF eligibility and superb offense, the 28-year-old Zobrist came, wait for it, out of nowhere to change fantasy landscapes in 2009.

Finally, some players just seem to leap from solid to star. Players who have produced at a good, but not spectacular, level for two or three years often get typecast into that role.

The 2009 example: Zack Greinke. Greinke made slight improvements for three years before last season, but his rocky career start and low-profile franchise kept him off of fantasy owner's superstardom radar. He showed his Cy Young talent in 2009.

Thinking about what has defined breakout players in the past will help us pick out some guys ready for big jumps in 2010.

YovaniGallardo, Brewers, SP -- Gallardo disappointed many last year when he failed to take a big step forward. That's mostly thanks to a 4.56 BB/9 -- one of the worst rates in baseball. The positive news is he also produced one of the best K/9 rates in baseball, at 9.89.

So what changed for a pitcher that always had decent control before last season? His FS% took a big tumble from 61.4 in 2007 (Gallardo was injured in 2008 and only pitched 24 innings, so 2007 is the best comparison) to 52.6 last year. Then while his O-Swing% stayed about the same, his O-Contact% dropped from 62.3 to 51.2. That led to the spike in strikeouts.

Basically, getting behind more and pitching outside the zone more led to the increase in walks and strikeouts.

Considering his body of work, it's a good bet Gallardo will focus on getting ahead and pitching more in the zone in 2010. That should make his walks drop down closer to his 3.02 BB/9 in 2007. However, it could also take a slight toll on his strikeouts.

Gallardo has the stuff and strikeout ability to be one of fantasy's best pitchers. There's risk involved (he may not be able to reduce the walks), but the reward could be a fantasy ace.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers, SP -- Billingsley is similar to Gallardo in that he has strikeout ability and just needs to reduce walks in order to ascend to the top tier of fantasy pitchers.

The problem with Billingsley in the minds of fantasy owners is that he has failed to make big strides forward in the past three years. His K/BB in 2007 was 2.20. In 2008 it was 2.51. Last year, it was 2.08.

It's possible Billingsley has settled into what he is, a high-strikeout, high-walk pitcher who will always struggle to make it deep into games.

But it's just as likely he will take a big step forward, and fantasy owners should get on board while the price is depressed.

His cutter and curve are both developing into great pitches and he's throwing them more often. His FS% has also been steadily improving.

Billingsley will turn 26 in the middle of next season. With 634 big-league innings under his belt already, he should be entering his prime.

Ricky Nolasco, Marlins, SP -- Sure, it could be said Nolasco already broke out in 2008 when he served up a 3.52 ERA and 15 wins. However, the moment he was demoted to Triple-A and finished 2009 with an ERA of 5.06 he un-brokeout in the minds of many fantasy owners and became eligible for a re-breakout.

Here are a few of Nolasco's numbers from last season next to a fantasy ace, CC Sabathia.

Nolasco: FIP -- 3.35, K/9 -- 9.49, K/BB -- 4.43Sabathia: FIP -- 3.39, K/9 -- 7.71, K/BB -- 2.94

Looking at that comparison, Nolasco should have been the superior fantasy pitcher, right? He had better figures in three vital categories a pitcher controls, minus that pesky defense.

But in reality he wasn't close to Sabathia; Nolasco posted a 5.06 ERA to Sabathia's 3.37. Despite the fact that Nolasco's peripheral numbers were better, Sabathia was an ace while Nolasco was a disaster. That leaves one simply question: Why? Terrible luck.

Nolasco was dead last in left-on-base percentage in 2009, at 61 percent. Nolasco has two seasons before 2009 with significant, major-league action. In 2006 (140 innings) he posted a 67.8 LOB%. In 2008, it was 75.7. If he can just be league average at holding runners on base in 2010, his ERA will surely get a boost.

This is a guy with ace stuff with a back-of-the-rotation price in fantasy drafts.

Brett Anderson, Athletics, SP -- He produced a FIP of 3.68 and a K/9 of 7.70 last year when he was just 21. He showed excellent progression through the season and was one of fantasy's best pitchers in the last month.

David Price, Rays, SP -- If he can get his walks under control, he has the ability to post a K/9 between 8.00 and 9.00 with a solid ERA.

Jay Bruce, Reds, OF -- In an age where post-hype players become more and more popular targets, Bruce is a post-post-hype player, already twice teasing fantasy owners with his vast potential. At first glance, his power and .223 batting average slots him into a sort of Adam Dunn-retread role. However, smart fantasy owners don't pay attention to first glances.

Though he's been lauded for some time, remember that Bruce is just 22 (23 on April 3). He's young, he's got talent and he looks like he's about to enter a sustained prime.

Bruce showed great improvements in plate discipline last season. His O-Swing% dipped from 30.4 in 2008 to 26 last season, meaning he stopped chasing so many bad pitches. That helped him walk in 9.9 percent of his plate appearances last season, up from 7.4 in 2008.

The biggest culprit for his Dunnesque batting average in 2009 was his .222 BABIP. Considering his BABIP was .298 in 2008 and always north of .350 in the minors, that .222 figure looks like the outlier.

Another encouraging sign was Bruce's boom in ISO from .199 in 2008 to .246 in 2009. There's power potential o'plenty with the young Red. Projecting his home run pace from last season to 550 at-bats, he would've hit just over 35 home runs.

Drafting Bruce in 2010 offers a rare opportunity since injuries are the only thing that derailed his breakout efforts last season.

Elvis Andrus, Rangers, SS -- Andrus will turn 22 next August. Because he's so young, it's fair to expect a wide degree of variance in his performance. That said, if 2009 was a baseline, good things appear to be coming. Andrus hit .267 with 72 runs, six home runs and 33 steals in 480 at-bats last season.

His speed score of 8.0 ranks him right around Michael Bourn, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Those three averaged almost 64 steals with full seasons of action. If Andrus stays healthy (and makes improvements to his sub-par OBP) feel free to expect similar totals.

It would usually be folly to predict 50-plus steals for a 21-year old, but Andrus has the speed, the green light and the talent to make it happen in 2010.

Billy Butler, Royals, 1B/DH -- Butler has been a victim of his own minor-league success. People expected big things right away and he didn't deliver. His early disappointment is your gain.

Now, three years after his debut in the majors, he's still only 23 (and will turn 24 April 18). His 51 doubles, 21 home runs and .301 batting average of last season were very encouraging.

Butler compares favorably to someone like Joey Votto (though Butler is two-and-a-half years younger). Butler had 51 doubles to Votto's 38, but his ISO lagged behind Votto's .191 to .245. Both are solid power, good average first basemen. The difference is Butler is available five rounds after Votto in most drafts.

Howie Kendrick, Angels, 2B -- Ten home runs, 61 runs, 61 RBIs and 11 SBs in only 374 at-bats. His health is the only thing holding him back. Draft him and hope for 500 at-bats.

Julio Borbon, Rangers, OF/DH -- Speed score of 6.3 and 19 steals in 174 at-bats. Just 24 at the start of next season, he has 40-steal potential in him.

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