There isn’t any one formula for discovering a breakout player. Some are rookies who immediately make their presence felt in the league, while others are early-stage veterans who find their stride. Some breakouts go from average to good, some from good to great, and still others make that career-defining leap from great to elite. First and foremost, breakout players are level-jumpers. That’s the only requirement they must satisfy.
That’s the class of players we will unveil to you in our NL (presented below) and AL breakout columns this spring. Some will come off the board early in drafts, some will be in the middle rounds, and others will still be available into the double-digit rounds. No matter when they’re drafted, however, all will make a leap this season.
Willson Contreras, C/OF, Cubs
When a team wins a World Series, a lot of what happens with that team can get lost in the shuffle. When that story happens to be the ending of the longest championship drought in American professional sports, there just isn’t oxygen for everything else. In a case like that, fantasy owners would be wise to circle back to see if anything is going underreported. This year, there is.
On many other teams, Contreras’s debut would have been one of the bright spots of the season. The 24-year-old catcher moved up to the majors in mid-June and immediately became a key part of a Cubs team that won 103 games and the World Series, slashing .282/.357/.484 with 12 homers in 283 plate appearances. He also learned a new position on the fly, logging about one-third of his plate appearances as an outfielder. Contreras’s accomplishments were seemingly but a footnote in the Cubs' magical season, but he should not be overlooked.
Contreras grinded his way through the minors, first appearing on top-100 lists at the start of last season after hitting .333/.413/.478 with eight homers in 521 plate appearances in Double A in 2015. He found another level of production last year, slashing .353/.442/.593 with nine homers and at Triple A, numbers he basically matched, adjusting for competition, once he reached Chicago. He showed impressive patience for a youngster, posting a 9.2% walk rate and an above average (but manageable) 23.7% strikeout rate. The foundation is there, and his first taste of the majors was a success. Now Contreras is ready to take the next step.
With Kyle Schwarber almost purely an outfielder, David Ross retired and Miguel Montero clearly suited to a backup role, the Cubs' catcher job belongs to Contreras. He’ll likely get some time in the outfield, but fantasy owners would take a huge chunk out of his value by playing him there rather than behind the plate. Contreras, not wünderkind Gary Sanchez, is the potential breakout catcher to buy at his respective ADP.
Kyle Schwarber, OF, Cubs
I promise this isn’t just going to be a list of Cubs starters. But did you watch the World Series? Did you see how in control of every plate appearance Schwarber was just six months after shredding his knee? He handled Corey Kluber and Andrew Miller as well as anyone in the Cubs' lineup, and he did it on the biggest stage imaginable while playing his first games since early April. I saw all I needed to see in those four games; I’m more sure than ever that Schwarber is going to be a star.
In the fantasy game, we want evidence to back up our positions; we ridicule those who come to a debate ill-prepared. But sometimes, you do just go on feel and what your eyes tell you. We all do it from time to time, and Schwarber is leading me down that path that’s typically fraught with scorn. If it means I get him at a cheaper price tag, I’ll happily take all the insults anyone wants to throw at me.
Before Contreras powered his way through his last two stops in the minors, it was Schwarber giving pitchers fits in Double and Triple A. The Cubs promoted him halfway through the 2015 season, just over a year after making him the No. 4 pick in the draft, and he posted numbers eerily similar to Contreras’s, slashing .246/.355/.487 with 16 homers in 273 plate appearances. He put an exclamation point on his rookie year with five postseason homers, a new franchise record. Two days into the 2016 campaign, his sophomore season was over, but he’s ready to make up for lost time.
If you don’t think Schwarber can break out, go back and watch the four World Series games in Cleveland. Watch how he spits on Miller’s sliders and almost instantly becomes the most feared hitter in the Cubs' lineup. Watch him rack up seven hits and three walks in 20 plate appearances. The superstar potential is there. With his knee fully sound and a chip on his shoulder, Schwarber will find that level in 2017.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
The following will be familiar to those who read our outfield primer. Still, this column would be incomplete without Polanco, so I wanted to reprint a lightly edited version of what first appeared there. Why? Because Polanco is set to be the breakout star, in either league, in the outfield.
In the interest of full disclosure, I had Polanco as a breakout player last season, and he did not disappoint. In his second full season in the majors, he slashed .258/.323/.463 with 22 homers, 17 steals, 86 RBIs and 79 runs. He was a four-category player in his age-24 season, and there’s reason to believe he can be the player who finds that extra gear this season.
Polanco was an absolute monster in the first half, hitting .287/.362/.500 with 12 homers, nine steals and 50 RBIs and earning a spot on the All-Snub team. His production fell off dramatically in after the All-Star break, and while he missed just 18 games all year, two ailments were to blame. First, he dealt with shoulder and knee issues for the entire second half and ended up slashing .220/.267/.414 from the middle of July through the end of the season. Even if it would have been a stretch for him to keep exactly on the trajectory he set in the first half, a fully healthy Polanco likely would have put up a 25–20 season with attendant increases in all his slash rates.
Second, Polanco eliminated his hole against lefties last year, upping his line to .245/.312/.469 from .190/.250/.278 without the platoon advantage. If he can eliminate nagging injuries from his game this year, he will realize his potential as a five-category player. Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts have gone from great to elite the last two seasons, and while Polanco doesn’t quite have their ceiling, he can make that same jump this year.
David Dahl, OF, Rockies
Dahl’s name has been familiar to prospect junkies and Rockies fans since he was the No. 10 pick in the 2012 draft straight out of high school in Alabama. That same first round gave us Carlos Correa (No. 1), Addison Russell (11), Corey Seager (18), Michael Wacha (19) and Marcus Stroman (22). Dahl is set to join the rest of that group fully in the fantasy world’s consciousness this season.
Dahl slowly but surely climbed through Colorado’s farm system, first appearing on top-100 prospect lists heading into 2013. He was limited to 10 games that season because of a torn hamstring but stuck on top-100 lists in 2014 and started that year just inside the top 100, then finished it as a top-25 prospect according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Then 20 years old, Dahl hit .299/.335/.492 with 14 homers and 41 doubles between two levels of A ball and appeared on the fast track to make his major league debut, but disaster struck again in 2015 when he ruptured his spleen in a collision in the outfield, an injury that nearly cost him his career.
Dahl returned last year, still considered a top-40 prospect by BA and BP, and spent most of the first half of the year in Double A, earning a promotion after hitting .278/.367/.500 with 13 homers in 332 plate appearances. He spent just 16 games in Triple A, largely because the he quickly proved to Rockies brass there was no longer a reason for him to be in the minors by going 30-for-62 with five homers and six doubles, then joined the Rockies just after the All-Star break. He instantly became a fixture in their lineup, slashing .315/.359/.500 with seven homers and 12 doubles in 237 plate appearances.
It wasn’t all good news for Dahl. He struck out in nearly a quarter of his trips to the plate and posted a mere 6.3% walk rate; he’ll have to improve in both areas if he’s going to take full advantage of his immense potential. Still, it’s easy to see the upside here. Dahl plays half his games in baseball’s premier offensive park, and he’s in a lineup that includes Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, Trevor Story, Ian Desmond and DJ LeMahieu. If nothing else, the Rockies are going to score runs. Dahl, who’s entering his age-23 season, seems a lock to be, at worst, a three-category player, and if the speed plays or his contact rate improves, we could be talking about a four- or five-category player in his first full season in the majors.
Carlos Martinez, SP, Cardinals
Martinez’s second full season in the majors was, for all intents and purposes, just as good as his first. He struck out about one batter fewer per nine innings and, unsurprisingly, saw his ERA and FIP increase as a result. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with a 3.04 ERA or 3.61 FIP, especially for a pitcher in his age-24 season. Martinez threw 20 more innings than he did the previous year and cut his WHIP to 1.22 from 1.29. It was a great season, even if there wasn’t a major statistical jump.
There’s good reason to believe, however, that the jump will come this season. Let’s start with a few key pieces of biographical information. Martinez turned 25 in September and will be in his third full season in the majors. That’s a pretty great time for any player to make a leap. He is just about set to enter his physical prime, and he has a handle of what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the game.
While Martinez traded in some strikeouts last season, he induced an even greater share of ground balls than he did in 2015. Martinez ground-ball rate climbed to 56.4% last year from 54.5% the previous season. That will happen when you have a filthy changeup to go along with a sinker that had a ground-ball rate of nearly 70% last year. Martinez again showed a knack for keeping the ball in the park, allowing 0.69 homers per nine innings, though that’s largely a function of his extreme ground-ball tendencies. When hitters did elevate the ball against Martinez, they took him yard 10.6% of the time.
Why should we believe in Martinez finding another level this season? That’s what happens when a player with enough youth for natural growth but also enough experience to understand how to attack hitters has the right repertoire for limiting hard contact. Martinez’s sinker-changeup combo is ideal for a pitcher to live down in the zone. His four-seam fastball, which averages 97 mph, is perfect for him to climb the ladder, challenge hitters and change their eye level, setting them up for the sinker and/or change. His slider is of the good-not-great variety, which is fine, given how he will attack hitters.
Like most pitchers who love their changeup, Martinez got in trouble when he got it up last season. The pitch had a 17.3% whiff rate and 64.4% ground-ball rate, but hitters managed to slug .411 against it. If I’m betting on a pitcher to improve the command of one offering in his arsenal, I want it to be the one in which he has the most confidence. For Martinez, that’s his changeup. Improved command with that pitch will trickle down to the rest of his repertoire, setting him up for the statistical leap so many believed was coming last season. At 25 years old, the time is right.