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 10 players (five from each league) who appear to be headed for breakout seasons and 10 players likely to be disappointments. Be sure to bookmark these articles so you can tell them how wrong they were in September.
Who will be the American League’s breakout players in 2016? Below are my five picks, listed alphabetically, who could take a huge step forward this season. Before we get to the list, though, a few quick notes on the selection process. Rookies were not eligible, as Jay already did a fine job identifying the AL’s most promising newcomers last week. I’ve also excluded 2015 rookie stars who are lined up to have their first full seasons this year. Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano and Luis Severino could all be first-time All-Stars in 2016, but no matter how good Correa might be this year, last season was clearly his breakout. Instead, I tried to identify the players whose major league track records are a little longer but less clearly pointed toward stardom whom I nonetheless expect to be impact players in 2016.
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF, Red Sox
The 40th pick in the 2011 draft, Bradley was one of the Red Sox’s top prospects in 2013 and ’14, but by last season, the large discrepancy between his performances at Triple A and in the majors had become a problem. An elite defensive centerfielder, Bradley doesn’t have to rake to be valuable, but through Aug. 8 of last year, he had hit just .188/.267/.268 in 601 major league plate appearances. Then it happened: In a span of five games, Bradley went 13 for 22 with four doubles, two triples and three home runs. That performance was capped by a 5-for-6 afternoon against the Mariners at Fenway in which Bradley collected five extra-base hits and drove in seven runs in a 22–10 Red Sox victory. When the smoke cleared, his season batting line was .250/.340/.500 (up from .203/.307/.351 prior to the game).
Fluky as that might have seemed, Bradley maintained that new line the rest of the way, hitting .248/.331/.496 over his final 45 games as the Red Sox made a late surge toward respectability. He bore some resemblance to the hitter who hit .281/.365/.451 over parts of three Triple A seasons—enough so that the Red Sox entered the off-season with full confidence in Bradley, a player they have often contemplated trading, as their centerfielder for 2016. But what makes Bradley a potential breakout player is his glove, not his bat. All he has to do at the plate is hit well enough to keep the centerfield job; his play in the field will make him a star.
Starlin Castro, 2B, Yankees
What a second: Castro is a three-time All-Star, has nearly 1,000 major league hits and led the NL with 207 hits in 2011. How does he qualify for this list? Because he posted a mere 89 OPS+ over the last three seasons combined and averaged less than one Win Above Replacement per season over those three campaigns. That cost him the shortstop job in Chicago last season and led to him being traded to the Yankees in December.
Call Castro a bounceback candidate if you prefer, but his continued stardom is hardly a given at this point. That said, he won’t turn 26 until next week, and his bat found new life after he was benched in August. Castro hit .353/.373/.588 in 143 plate appearances over the remainder of the regular season, climbing off the bench to claim the Cubs’ second base job, and he will play that lower-profile, lower-pressure position in New York, as well. Castro isn’t going to repeat that line over a full season, but he’s shown that he can hit .300 with a .340 on-base percentage when he's right, and a .450 slugging percentage isn’t out of the question as he moves closer to his prime-age seasons. Add in improved play in the field thanks to his less-demanding position, and Castro could be a four-win player for the Yankees this year, if not better.
Rougned Odor, 2B, Rangers
Just 22 years old, Odor is the next great second baseman in baseball. The Rangers rushed him to the majors in 2014, promoting him directly from Double A after trading Ian Kinsler and losing Jurickson Profar to injury. Odor held his own on talent alone but should have been at Triple A, and he was clearly overmatched to start the season. But after just a month back in Triple A (during which he raked to the tune of a .352/.426/.639 line), he came back ready. From his return on June 15 through the end of the regular season, Odor hit .292/.334/.527 with 15 home runs in 91 games. He was also an impact player in the Division Series against the Blue Jays, hitting .278/.381/.500, leading the Rangers in times on base (eight) and runs scored (seven) in the five-game series and making things happen with his bat, his legs and his head. He should be in the conversation for the AL’s starting second base spot in the All-Star Game for the next decade, at least.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Blue Jays
Big things were expected from the 5’8” Stroman after his impressive rookie season in 2014, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee nearly wiped out his '15 campaign entirely. It’s evidence of his extraordinary character that he not only refused to see his season as lost—he worked his way back for a September cavalry run for the Blue Jays’ rotation—but also used the extra time on his hands to finish his degree at Duke. Stroman’s return exceeded all expectations: He made four regular-season starts, beating the second-place Yankees twice and allowing just two runs in 22 innings in his final three outings. He then leapfrogged deadline addition David Price to become Toronto’s playoff ace, drawing the start and earning the win in the decisive fifth game of the Division Series against the Rangers (besting Cole Hamels), then pulling out another big win in Game 3 of the ALCS to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Royals.
Stroman may have to contend with an innings limit this year due to his youth (he’ll be 25 on May 1), his size, the time he missed last year and the fact that he has never thrown more than 166 1/3 innings in a single season across all levels. Still, he should be the ace of another playoff team this season, and one scout I spoke to this spring thinks he could contend for this year’s AL Cy Young award.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
What Stroman has in brains (both on the mound and off), Walker has in brawn. Possessed of a classic starting pitcher’s build, the 6’4” Louisiana native is a former blue-chip prospect with an upper-90s fastball whose emergence as a front-end starter has been slowed by injury (shoulder bursitis in early 2014) and the need for some adjustments to his mechanics and his repertoire. Things started to turn around for Walker with his final start last May, though by then he already had an ERA in the sevens that would distort his strong finish. Over his final 20 starts last year, Walker went 10–3 with a 3.62 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and a 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Now 23, he has a 170-inning season under his belt (169 2/3, to be exact) and a much improved defense behind him courtesy of new general manager Jerry Dipoto. Walker looks poised to be the front-end pitcher he’s long been expected to be.