Can Kolten Wong emerge as one of baseball's best second baseman in 2016? He's one of Cliff Corcoran's five picks to break out in the NL this coming season.
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 National 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 NL’s most promising newcomers last week. I’ve also excluded last season's rookie stars who are lined up to have their first full seasons this year. Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Schwarber could all be first-time All-Stars in 2016, but no matter how good they might be this year, last season was clearly their 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.
Jason Heyward, RF, Cubs
Heyward may not meet the traditional definition of a breakout player; after all, he just signed a $184 million contract and has been worth more than six Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) in each of the last two seasons. But the Cubs' top off-season addition will be entering his age-26 season in 2016—the beginning of his theoretical peak—and has never had a home ballpark a friendly as Wrigley Field or been in a lineup quite as stacked as that of his new team. He'll also be in a perfect spot for maximum production: second in a loaded batting order and asked only to get on base and play great defense.
The comfort of that role and of not having to play for a contract could lead to even bigger things from Heyward, who hit .309/.376/.460 from May 4 through the end of last season. More granularly, his strikeout rate has fallen and his contact rate has climbed in each of the last three seasons, and his power rebounded last season despite a spike in his ground-ball rate. Combine a few more fly balls with Wrigley's homer-friendly tendencies, and Heyward could emerge as a true superstar on the North Side.
Mike Leake, RHP, Cardinals
Here’s another young, big-money free agent with encouraging underlying trends who may have found the perfect environment for a breakout season. Leake was little more than a league-average pitcher with below-average strikeout rates in his six seasons in Cincinnati. But recent increases in his ground-ball rates and his velocity—Leake’s average fastball has gone from 89.8 mph in 2011 to 93.4 last season—have the arrow pointing up on his performance as he moves out of the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark and into pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. Add to that the Cardinals’ knack for getting great pitching from both their own homegrown arms and from veterans such as John Lackey and Kyle Lohse, and there’s good reason to expect big things from Leake in his age-28 season.
Arodys Vizcaino, RHP, Braves
It feels as though Vizcaino has been around forever—after all, he was the big prospect the Yankees sent to Atlanta for Javier Vazquez back in December 2009. Since then, the Dominican righty had Tommy John surgery in March 2012, was traded to the Cubs for deadline reinforcements that July and was then sent back to the Braves in November 2014. Called up to Atlanta last summer, he finally stuck in the major leagues, flashing 100-mph heat and closing games after a season-ending Achilles injury to Jason Grilli and the trade of Jim Johnson left the position vacant. Overall, he saved nine games and struck out 37 in 33 2/3 innings.
Grilli and Johnson are both back with Atlanta this spring, but look for the rebuilding Braves to restore Vizcaino to the closer’s role. If they do, the 25-year-old should run with the opportunity.
Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals
Jhonny Peralta’s injury may prove to be a big break for the 25-year-old Wong. After a lousy year against lefthanded pitching in 2015, Wong seemed likely to be platooned at second base with Jedd Gyorko this year, but Peralta’s injury may force Gyorko into regular duty at shortstop. That would allow Wong, who held his own against lefties as a rookie in 2014, to play every day to start the season.
Wong is unlikely ever to rake against lefties, but he’ll never learn to hit them if he doesn’t face them. Meanwhile, there were other positive indications in his sophomore season: His strikeout and walk rates improved, and he hit fewer ground balls. A mild concussion and a calf strain slowed Wong in the second half, but he hit .280/.343/.434 before the All-Star break, which isn’t a far cry from his minor-league line of .306/.367/.451. If he can hit like that over a full season, his combination of offense, speed and defense could make him one of the best second basemen in the NL.
Christian Yelich, LF, Marlins
In his three major league seasons, Yelich has put up a respectable .290/.365/.406 (115 OPS+) career line, but his power has yet to show up, as he's failed to crack single digits in home runs since his 2013 debut. He’s just 24, however, and has hit a ton of ground balls in his career to this point. That’s not who Yelich was in the minors, where he hit .320/.394/.499 in two full seasons (2011 and '12) and showed 15- to 20-homer power at the ages of 19 and 20. Enter Barry Bonds and Don Mattingly, the Marlins’ new hitting coach and manager, respectively. Those two men know something about getting power out of a quality lefthanded swing.
It’s easy to get carried away thinking about those two working with a number of different hitters, including Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Justin Bour and J.T. Realmuto. But it’s Yelich, who hit .342/.392/.473 after the All-Star break last year, who seems to have the most untapped potential in his swing.