Carlos Carrasco's strong finish to 2014 suggests a stellar '15 season to come. Who else is a prime breakout candidate in the American League?
Who's going to bust out as a star this year, and who's simply going to bust? Before the start of the regular season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are picking ten players who appear to be headed for breakout seasons and ten players likely to be disappointments. Be sure to bookmark these articles so you can tell them how wrong they were in September. Here are your 2015 AL breakout players.
Carrasco, who will turn 28 before Opening Day, has had a long journey to this point. Signed out of Venezuela by the Phillies as a 16-year-old, he was a top-50 prospect by 20 and a central part of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Philadelphia for the first time two years later. At the age of 24, he was a member of Cleveland's Opening Day rotation for the first time, but his season ended in early August due to an elbow injury; that September, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
In his attempt at a comeback in 2013, Carrasco broke camp in the major league rotation again, but gave up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first start and was immediately farmed out to Triple A. Despite solid work in the minors that season, he went 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA in seven major league starts, finding his only success in eight relief appearances down the stretch.
Last year began similarly. Carrasco again broke camp in the major league rotation, but after going 0-3 with a 6.95 ERA in four starts, he was bounced to the bullpen, where, once again, he pitched effectively. So effectively, in fact, that he was given another shot at starting in August amid a rotation shuffle that saw Danny Salazar and Zach McAllister optioned to Triple A and Josh Tomlin moved to the 'pen. Attributing his success in relief in part to an increased emphasis on his slider and always pitching from the stretch, Carrasco continued those two habits upon his return to the rotation and peeled off a 1.30 ERA, more than ten strikeouts per nine innings and a 7.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio over ten starts to finish the season, including a 12-strikeout, two-hit shutout of the Astros on Sept. 17.
On the season as a whole, Carrasco posted the fourth-best fielding independent mark (2.44) in the majors among pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched, ranking behind only Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber and 28-year-old Cubs breakout righty Jake Arrieta. Did I mention that Carrasco was also throwing harder over those final two starts than he ever had before in his career, with his average fastball clocking in around 97 miles per hour? Carrasco will open this season as the No. 2 pitcher in the Cleveland rotation behind Kluber, and it will be interesting to see which of the two of them winds up having the better year.
There's a reason the Mariners are letting the 25-year-old Miller battle for the shortstop job this spring despite his awful 2014 performance at the plate and the solid work that Chris Taylor, who is a year younger, did as his replacement over the final two months of the season. It starts with the fact that the former second-round pick out of Clemson hit .334/.409/.516 in 999 minor league plate appearance, and his worst performance at any level was his .294/.379/.471 line in 175 PA in Double A in '13. Miller also posted a 110 OPS+ in 335 PA as a 23-year-old rookie in '13.
Given that track record, his .221/.288/.365 line in 2014 looks awfully fluky, and it seems even moreso when you look under the hood. Miller hit .265/.326/.447 with seven home runs in 242 PA from June 1 through the end of last season, so he really had only two awful months that happened to be isolated at the beginning of the season. Miller's brutal April and May comprised just 169 PA and stemmed largely from a .198 batting average on balls in play, which screams fluke. Even with those two months included, he improved his walk rate relative to '13 and hit for similar power on the year as a whole (.144 isolated slugging).
In fact, other than that brutal BABIP and an increase in strikeouts—which abated significantly after May but remains the only legitimate issue with his 2014 performance—Miller's '14 season was in line with his '13, so he should return to being an above-average shortstop this season, provided he can fend off Taylor. On that front, he's off to a good start, going 6-for-12 with two home runs and only two strikeouts in his first five games this spring.
Over the last two seasons, Quintana has made 65 starts, thrown 400 1/3 innings and posted a 118 ERA+. He's already established as a very good pitcher, but he makes this list because I don't think he's done getting better.
Still just 26, Quintana, who is entering his fourth major league season, has shown meaningful improvement in each of the last two years. He's gradually decreased his walk rate (2.8 BB/9 to 2.3, or, if you prefer, 7.4% to 6.3) from 2012 to '14 and made more dramatic improvements in his strikeout rate (5.3 K/9 to 8.0, 14.3% to 21.5) over the same span. As a result, he improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio from 1.93 to 3.42. He also posted a career-low in home runs allowed last year, giving up just 10 in 200 1/3 innings, a rate less than half the league average despite pitching his home games in a home-run friendly ballpark. All of that added up to a career-best 3.32 ERA, but his FIP was an even better 2.81, more than a full run better than his '13 mark. That's because FIP factors out luck on balls in play, and last year, Quintana's opponents hit .320 on balls in play.
Those improvements are real. Quintana has added velocity in each of the last two seasons and has adjusted his pitch selection to favor his curve and changeup at the expense of his cutter. If he continues to improve in those essential peripherals and has a bit more luck on balls in play this year, he will make the leap to stardom, something the White Sox' improved offense should help with as well—Quintana has yet to win ten games in a single major league season. He isn't going to outpitch Chris Sale any time soon, but I fully expect Quintana to have a better year than new arrival Jeff Samardzija, a pitcher four years Quintana's senior who made the All-Star team last year and seems headed for a major payday this year. Meanwhile, the contract the White Sox signed Quintana to last March is quickly revealing itself to be one of the best in baseball.
Saunders has always been a talented player: he was ranked 30th on Baseball America's top 100 prospects list prior to the 2010 season and has shown flashes of converting that talent into on-field performance in the past. In '12, he fell one home run shy of a 20/20 season, which prompted the first breakout prediction. Last year, in his age-27 season, he hit .273/.341/.450, good for a 128 OPS+. However, he also lost half the season to inflammation in his right shoulder and an oblique strain. I'm not worried about the shoulder—he hit .286/.388/.488 after returning from the disabled list stint prompted by that inflammation, and the oblique injury gave it plenty more time to heal thereafter. I am, however, compelled by the prospect of Saunders moving from offense-suppressing Safeco Field to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre.
Even just repeating his line from last year across something close to a full season would constitute a breakout, and a similar hitting performance translated to Toronto would look even better and likely result in his first 20-homer season. Injuries will continue to be a concern for the 28-year-old, who is the oldest player on this list, but the news in the wake of Saunders' late-February surgery on the meniscus in his left knee has all been positive—so much so that he might actually make the Opening Day lineup. If only the same were true for his new teammate Marcus Stroman, who was a lock for this list until a torn anterior cruciate ligament erased his 2015 season.
Semien is making the opposite sort of ballpark switch as Saunders, but what he gains in exchange is a full-time job and a long leash, something he never had with the White Sox. In Double and Triple A over the last two years, he hit .278/.393/.487, drawing more walks than strikeouts and homering at a rate of 25 per 162 games. He also stole 31 bases at an 82-percent success rate over those two seasons combined (not counting his major league exposure).
Semien wasn't nearly as impressive in his major league opportunities, but he was jerked around a lot. In his September callup in 2013, he was primarily a third baseman and never made more than five consecutive starts. Last year, he was in the Opening Day lineup, but was bounced between third and second base, then saw his playing time erode quickly in early May and spent all but one day of June, July, and August in Triple A before returning as a utilityman in September. Primarily a shortstop in the minor leagues, he has thus far made just four starts at that position in the majors.
With the A's, however, the shortstop job is his, and he's already thriving in the role, going 8-for-16 with a pair of home runs and three walks (against two strikeouts) through his first six exhibition games. With 326 major league at-bats under his belt already, Semien is ready to break out for his new team.