March 16, 2012

As we get closer and closer to Opening Day, I find myself thinking more and more about the teams I expect to have success this year. While this is really just a function of being a baseball fan, it can be instructive while preparing for the fantasy season. Most contending teams, especially those who weren't really competitive last season, end up having a breakout player who helps the team surge into relevance. This year's contenders, both those who are expected to compete and those who might surprise, are no different.

This week, we'll take a look at National Leaguers who fit the mold. We'll move over to the American League next week.

Devin Mesoraco, Reds -- First, let's go ahead and run through the environmental factors that make Mesoraco a desirable breakout target:

• The Reds feature a potent lineup. • Great American Ballpark is a wonderful place to hit. • He plays a position that rewards waiting until the latter stages of the draft before filling.

Now, what does he specifically bring to the table? Well, in 436 at-bats at Triple-A Louisville last year, Mesoraco hit .289/.371/.484 with 15 homers, 36 doubles and 71 RBI. And that came in the International League, not the Pacific Coast League, where guys routinely post video-game numbers. By comparison, Jesus Montero hit .288/.348/.467 with 18 homers, 19 doubles and 67 RBI with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, also of the International League, last year. Yet while Montero gets all the hype as the next great offensive catcher, no one says a word about Mesoraco. Keep it that way until you make him the steal of the draft at the catcher position.

Gaby Sanchez, Marlins -- Sanchez has turned in two eerily similar seasons in his first two years in the majors:

2010 -- 151 games, 572 at-bats, .273/.341/.448, 19 homers, 37 doubles, 85 RBI, 101/57 K/BB ratio

2011 -- 159 games, 572 at-bats, .266/.352/.427, 19 homers, 35 doubles, 78 RBI, 97/74 K/BB ratio

When you throw his age, 28, on top of that, it looks like Sanchez is who he is. However, I see signs that a real breakout is coming. First, while his strikeout total essentially remained flat, he really improved his plate discipline, drawing 17 more walks and swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone (31 percent in 2010, 28.4 percent last year). Second, he hit more line drives (20 percent vs. 17.1 percent) and fewer ground balls (35.6 percent vs. 36.8 percent) than he had the previous year. Despite all that, his BABIP fell to .287 from .299, suggesting a bit of bad luck in '11. So long as Sanchez hits the ball this year like he did last year, expect his numbers to look more attractive. Add the new ballpark and teammates into the mix, and he should hit mid- to high-20s home runs with respectable rates and 90-100 RBI.

Mat Gamel, Brewers -- With Prince Fielder now plying his trade 250 miles to the East (as the crow flies), Gamel finally gets his shot at the major league level. The Brewers couldn't hope to see any more from the 26-year old in the minors. After a strong showing at Triple-A Nashville in '10, in which he hit .309/.387/.511 with 13 homers, Gamel exploded last season, hitting .310 with a .912 OPS, 28 home runs and 96 RBI. The aforementioned Pacific Coast League may have juiced his numbers a bit, but this is a guy with legitimate power entering a league where power has dwindled over the last few seasons. What's more, he has tremendous discipline. Gamel struck out just 84 times in 493 at-bats last year, compared with 46 walks. He'll be counted on to provide some protection for Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez, but having those two hitting in front of him, along with Rickie Weeks, should provide him with ample RBI opportunities. After the first six first basemen, the position gets shallow awfully fast. Gamel will be waiting there at the end of your draft, and he wants to help. Let him.

Tyler Pastornicky, Braves -- This one is directed more at NL-only owners, but those of you in deep mixed leagues should also take notice of Pastornicky. Yes, he'll have to hold off Andrelton Simmons, but for now let's assume he can do that. After an impressive 90-game showing in Double-A, Pastornicky hit .365/.407/.413 at Triple-A Gwinnett at the age of 21. Across both levels, he stole 27 bases while getting caught 11 times. While you'd like to see the rate improve, and you'd expect it would since he just turned 22 in December, the speed is clearly there to be a threat. Moreover, Atlanta won't be counting on his bat, and he's got the glove to stick at short for a good team, meaning he should get plenty of rope from manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.

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