Fantasy baseball leagues are often won by those who roster low-cost or late-round breakout players in addition to the perennial studs. In 2010, winning teams rostered Carlos Gonzalez, Delmon Young, Kelly Johnson, Jose Bautista, Mat Latos, David Price, and Ubaldo Jimenez. In 2009, it was Ben Zobrist, Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Zack Greinke, Andrew Bailey, and Josh Johnson. Since everyone knows that Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Hanley Ramirez will be great in 2011, we will spend our time trying to figure out which players to target late in the draft or for minimal auction dollars, who will hopefully lead our team to a 2011 championship or at least strengthen our keeper list going forward.
Jay Bruce has been on breakout lists since before his first Major League at bat. However, he has yet to hit .300, 30 HRs, or 100 RBI in a season – and thus has yet to “break out.” It’s easy to forget that Bruce is still only 23 years old despite having played three years in the majors already. Don’t forget the immense talent he has – it really is a matter of when he hits .300 with 30 HRs and 100 RBI, not if. I also believe he will produce a couple of 40 HR seasons during his career, so if you can jump in and acquire him now you’ll have made a solid investment, especially in keeper leagues. Even if you’re playing in a re-draft league Bruce makes a good 2011 speculation based on his .300+/.400+/.600+ slash line during August, September, and October last year.
Billy Butler has all the tools to be one of the best hitters in the game. He has a discerning eye at the plate, taking a free pass whenever he isn’t given something decent to hit. When pitchers do put the ball over the plate Butler has no problem making contact. He has plenty of raw power to produce 30+ HR seasons. The primary thing holding him back is that almost half of the balls he puts in play are pounded into the infield dirt. If he can turn on a few more pitches in 2011 and hit some more fly balls, we could be looking at .300/.400/.500 production and a keeper league star in the making.
Chris Davis has burned many of us over the last few years. He’s been on these lists and failed to live up to expectations due to his Mark Reynolds-like inability to make contact. Also like Reynolds, Davis has immense power and a good eye at the plate. I’m not going to tell you to make him an early pick or to spend more than a dollar or two on him in your auction, but if everything goes right he has the ability to produce a 40 HR season with a BA that wouldn’t kill you.
Despite the fact that B.J. Upton is only 26 years old, this will be his seventh season in the majors. Upton has proven over the years that he has elite speed and knows how to take a walk. On the flip side, his power production has been inconsistent and his ability to hit for average has been subject to BABIP rather than pure skill. However, if you combine the best of his annual statistics over the years you’ve got a .300/.386/.508 slash line with 24 HRs, 82 RBI, and 44 SB. Again, he’s only 26 and has all the talent in the world. If he could ever put it all together a .300, 30 HR, 50 SB season would be the result. Relative to what they will cost to acquire in 2011, I’d take Upton over Carlos Gonzalez.
When Travis Snider was drafted in 2006, he was widely regarded as the best high school bat in the draft, and many scouts thought he’d move very quickly through the minors. They proved to be right as Snider made his Major League debut at the end of his third professional season. Snider has been slowed by nagging injuries over the years, but nothing that looks to be a concern going forward. He has a simple swing, power, strength, and great bat speed – all the tools necessary to hit for average and power. He has struggled with a high strikeout rate as a professional, but I think he will make good enough contact that his power and natural hitting ability will not be inhibited. Snider is a prime target for keeper league owners and makes a solid 2011 play as well.
As an amateur, Stephen Drew was once called “the perfect combination of baseball tools and baseball skills” by a professional scout. While he has certainly been a solid Major League contributor, I think it’s pretty safe to say he hasn’t quite lived up to expectations nor had that “breakout” season just yet. This is good news for those of us looking for a potential stud SS on which to speculate in re-draft and even keeper leagues. Drew puts over 40 percent of his balls in play into the air which, when coupled with his natural swing and bat speed, bodes well for a power breakout. Unbeknownst to most, Drew has more triples than anyone else in the NL over the last two seasons. As you may or may not know, triples are more of a speed indicator than power and as such there could be some hidden SB skills hiding in Drew’s arsenal if he gets the opportunity to run. Best case scenario for a Drew breakout would be .300, 30 HR, 20 SB.
Ian Stewart is one of those prototypical post-hype players just waiting to breakout. Most people will look at the pedestrian counting stats and par or sub-par batting averages and label him as such. But you and I are going to look beyond that and be a little smarter than those people. Stewart has a number of qualities that make him a solid bet to become a star 3B in the near future. First and foremost is Stewart’s power. He has shown the ability to hit the ball out of the park with mammoth home runs in both the majors and minors. Stewart is a fantastic athlete who runs the bases well and has the ability to swipe 15-20 bases a season even though his speed is merely Major League average. His quick bat and good eye at the plate allow him to let the ball travel deep into the zone before pulling the trigger and drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field. He also won’t hesitate to take a walk if a pitcher is nibbling. The only things that have held Stewart back from becoming a star are his low, but ever-improving contact rate and his struggles with LHP, which have eaten into his plate appearances in the majors. Stewart’s contact rate has steadily risen from 60 percent during his brief call up in 2007 to 72 percent in 2010. Despite the fluctuating contact rate he has maintained a double digit walk rate showing an even, steady approach at the plate. Patience is the key word for managers dealing with Stewart in keeper leagues. When it all comes together a .280/.370/.550 hitter will emerge and more upside/potential is there, especially if he figures out how to unlock the Coors Field magic like teammates Carlos Gonzalez (.893/.798 Home/Road Career OPS) and Troy Tulowitzki (.926/.790 Home/Road Career OPS) obviously have. Stewart’s career home/road OPS split is .795/.770 and was even worse in 2010 at .757/.802. I don’t think I need to spell this out for you, but I will anyway – Stewart is just as good of a hitter on the road as Tulo and CarGo, but for some reason he hasn’t figured out how to utilize the “Coors Effect” to his benefit. When he does, his upside equals .290, 40 HR, 20 SB (though probably not just yet).
Jordan Zimmermann missed most of the 2010 season due to Tommy John surgery but worked his way back ahead of schedule and was able to quickly make his way through four minor league levels and pitch 31 innings for the Nationals by the end of the season. Zimmermann looked less rusty than most returning from Tommy John surgery as his control was just as good as it was in 2009. On the other hand, his fastball and slider command would noticeably abandon him at times and his frustration with that was visible on the mound. Before the surgery, Zimmermann showed the ability to strike out more than a batter per inning with a good walk rate (2.9 BB/9), and a GB tilt to boot. He throws strikes and works quickly with four above-average pitches. Zimmermann will definitely go undervalued in 2011 and could be a top-five NL SP by the beginning of 2012.
Brandon Morrow’s season-ending stats don’t provide the true picture of a SP who really blossomed as the season wore on. He has always had top-of-the-rotation stuff via a mid-to-upper 90s fastball and a sharp-breaking, mid 80s slider that works as a devastating strikeout pitch. Control, on the other hand, has always been the thing holding Morrow back. However, something seemed to click in June, July, and August when he posted BB/9 rates of 2.7, 3.5, and 3.0 respectively. If he can maintain that improved control for most of the season he will be a very valuable SP in 2011 and on.
I watched Brian Matusz pitch in Double-A Bowie in 2009 and he was absolutely devastating. Most of his 2010 season was anything but. He really struggled through most of the spring and summer, but then right around the time new skipper Buck Showalter took over Matusz starting pitching a bit more like that guy I watched in Bowie. His K/BB ratio improved significantly and with it his ERA and WHIP. The O’s starting winning around that time and so did Matusz. His first 21 starts netted him three wins, but from August on he won seven of his final 11 starts. We would be wise to temper our expectations a bit because Matusz is a notorious fly ball pitcher in the hitter-friendly AL East, but I still expect a vast overall improvement in 2011 and think he’s a good bet for a sub-4.00 ERA and 170+ strikeouts.
Daniel Bard – Dominating stuff and ML results with only a declining incumbent standing between him and one of the best closing gigs around.
Gordon Beckham – Very disappointing 1st half overshadowed BIG July and August power months. 2011 upside = .280, 30 HR, 10 SB.
Coming Soon: Penetrating deeper in the player pool to find breakout candidates for Dynasty and 20-team leagues.
Fantasy baseball nut. First fantasy experience was with football...moved up to basketball in the winter, and fell in love with baseball that summer. I live in the DC/Baltimore metro area and spend a lot of time attending O's and Nats games (with the occasional Bowie BaySox’ game too boot). I typically spend my evenings listening to Angel Ashley Parker and sipping cool pineapple juice from tall, skinny glass, through an even taller and skinnier straw.
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