10 Hitters Who Could Break Out This Year in Fantasy Baseball
In fantasy baseball, the early-round picks are generally the easiest.
We all know Mike Trout is going to rake, that Andrew McCutchen is going to own, and that Clayton Kershaw is going to be bonkers. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon or a brain scientist to know those things.
Where fantasy seasons are won and lost are in the guys who come out of nowhere, the young players you take a chance on or the veteran late bloomers, guys lying in the weeds, ready to save your season.
Below are some potential break-out candidates for fantasy in 2015. These do not include some no-brainers like Chicago's Jorge Soler, who almost everyone expects to burst onto the scene spectacularly this season. Some are young players in their first or second years. Others are veterans who had a down season in 2014 and could rebound in a big way in 2015.
Jay Bruce - Cincinnati Reds (OF)
People forget just how young the Reds' Jay Bruce is. He will turn just 28 years old in April and presumably still has his best baseball in front of him. In an injury-marred season last year, Bruce hit just .217 with a .281 on-base percentage (OBP) and a .373 slugging percentage (SLG). His nERD was an atrocious -0.76, meaning a lineup full of Bruces would have generated 0.76 runs a game less than a league average player. And it was the first time his career he failed to hit at least 21 homers (he had 18) as well as the first time he failed to reach at least 30 since 2010.
However, he suffered a knee injury in May, and the month he missed likely threw him off his game. I'm expecting a big rebound season for Bruce, in the neighborhood of his career slash line of .251/.323/.467 with 25-30 home runs, close to 100 RBIs and 80-90 runs scored. Heck he may even get you 10-12 steals this year as well.
Colby Rasmus - Houston Astros (OF)
Going into last year, Colby Rasmus was coming off a season in which he hit .276, with a .338 on-base percentage and a .501 slugging percentage, with 22 home runs, 75 runs batted in, and 75 runs scored. He had also hit 23 home runs in 2012 and 2010, and slashed .276/.361/.498 in '10, with 66 runs batted in and 85 runs scored.
Then last season, he was downright terrible, hitting just .225 with a .287 on-base percentage and a nERD of 0.27. However, the reason I'm optimistic about '15 is that he still managed a slugging percentage of .448, with 18 homers in just 376 plate appearances. His home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB%) was a career-high 19.4%, which indicates he didn't lose any power last season.
Rasmus now gets a new life in Houston after signing a free agent contract with the Astros this off-season. He should fit in well with the rest of a powerful and strikeout-prone offense, and at 28 years old, the potential is there for him to be a solid fantasy outfield option this season.
Travis d'Arnaud - New York Mets (C)
After dominating at the plate during his spectacular, if injury-plagued, minor league career, Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud has started off his time in the Majors in disappointing fashion. In 533 plate appearances, he's hit just .233, with a .299 on-base percentage, a .384 slugging percentage, and just 14 home runs. Last year, his nERD was -0.02. Not too great for one of the most highly-touted prospects in the game at one time.
However, late in the 2015 season, d'Arnaud finally gave the Mets a glimpse of what he was capable of. After being sent down in early June, d'Arnaud was very solid upon returning on June 24, hitting .272/.319/.486 with 10 home runs and 32 runs batted in in 276 plate appearances through the end of the season.
d'Arnaud enters 2015 as the Mets' starting catcher and should get plenty of plate appearances to continue what was a solid end to the '14 season.
Steven Souza - Tampa Bay Rays (OF)
Steven Souza will forever be remembered in Washington, DC for that ridiculous, amazing catch that recorded the final out of Jordan Zimmermann's no-hitter on the final day of the season last year. Now with Tampa after being traded as part of a three-team deal in the off-season, Souza will get a chance to earn the starting gig in right field for the Rays. Last year, in 96 games at Triple-A, Souza hit .350/.432/.590 with 18 home runs and 26 stolen bases.
Souza isn't going to do that kind of damage in his first full season as a 26-year-old, but he has a chance to get a lot of plate appearances next year and is one of the young position players to watch in 2015. There's a lot to like about a hitter who has historically walked in 12% of his plate appearances, while providing a nice combination of power and speed.
Mike Zunino - Seattle Mariners (C)
Chances are, when you're thinking about the best catchers in the American League, the name of Seattle's backstop, Mike Zunino, doesn't leap to mind. After 2015, it might.
Zunino is an outstanding defensive catcher who, it may surprise you to learn, slugged 22 home runs in 476 plate appearances last season for the Mariners. That was tied for third-most among all Major League catchers last season.
Unfortunately, the rest of his stat line couldn't keep up with his terrific defense and gaudy home run totals. Zunino hit .199/.254/.404 in 2014, with a nERD of -0.74, striking out in a whopping 33.2% of his plate appearances, while walking just 3.6% of the time. What does he think he is? A Houston Astro?
He'll need to reverse those trends in order to see his batting average and other stat lines go up, but the soon-to-be 24-year-old has power at a premium position and should only improve in his second full Major League season.
Michael Saunders - Toronto Blue Jays (OF)
Projected to be the Toronto Blue Jays' starting left fielder in 2015, the key to Michael Saunders' break-out potential centers around staying healthy.
Saunders has always put up good numbers when on the field. In 2012 he hit .246/.306/.432 with 19 home runs, 31 doubles and 21 stolen bases in 553 plate appearances, the most he's ever played in one season. The following year his slash line was .236/.323/.397 with 12 home runs, 23 doubles and 13 steals -- but in only 468 plate appearances. Finally last year, he had only 263 plate appearances and hit .273/.341/.450 with 8 homers, 11 doubles, 4 stolen bases and a nERD of 0.43.
He has a good deal of pop, can steal a bag and, while he hasn't historically hit for a high average, does know how to draw a walk and get on base. The Mariners dumped him because they were sick of his injury issues. But if the 28-year-old can stay healthy, the Jays will have found themselves a productive player in left field. And you may find yourself a nice late-round steal in Saunders.
Mookie Betts - Boston Red Sox (OF)
As Boston's Xander Bogaerts showed us last year, being a highly-touted rookie doesn't mean you're automatically going to have success. But in the case of Mookie Betts, the odds are better than good he will.
Last season, Betts had a nERD of 0.68 and hit .291/.368/.444, with 5 home runs, 12 doubles, and 7 steals in 213 plate appearances for the Red Sox. He is the team's top prospect and has all the tools to be one of the best lead-off hitters in baseball. The only problem is playing time.
The Red Sox appear set in left field with Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo in center, and Shane Victorino in right. Anyone who drafts Betts will be doing so in the hopes that he'll supplant either Castillo or Victorino at some point early in the season. If he does, he's a high-average, high-on-base guy who can hit 10 to 15 homers per year with lots of steals out of the lead-off spot.
Brett Lawrie - Oakland A's (3B)
Traded to the Oakland A's by Toronto this off-season, Brett Lawrie could finally have a breakout year in 2015. His best season came in 2012 when he hit .273/.324/.405 with 11 home runs, 26 doubles, and 13 stolen bases in 536 plate appearances. That is still the most plate appearances he has seen in a season in his career. In '13, his numbers fell to .254/.315/.397 with 11 dingers and 18 doubles in 442 plate appearances, and last year he slashed .247/.301/.421 with 12 home runs and 9 doubles in only 282 plate appearances, with a nERD of 0.17.
However, it was encouraging to see his power numbers spike last year, and his HR/FB% jumped from 9.0% in '12 and 9.6% in '13, to 14.5% last year. If he can stay healthy, Lawrie could easily hit 25 home runs, which would put him well among the league leaders among third basemen in that category.
Lonnie Chisenhall - Cleveland Indians (3B)
It was a tale of two halves for Cleveland's Lonnie Chisenhall last year. Through the team's first 58 games he hit .368/.420/.589 with 8 home runs, 33 runs batted in, and 31 runs scored in 209 plate appearances. In the team's final 84 games, he hit .225/.294/.324 with 5 home runs, 26 runs batted in, and 31 runs scored in 324 plate appearances and finished the season with a nERD of 0.85.
So which Lonnie Chisenhall will we see in 2015? The good news is there is no one blocking his path at third base, so he should play almost every day. If Chisenhall can figure out what made him so effective in the first part of his season last year and get over that rough second portion, he can improve on his season-ending .280/.343/.427 slash line, which was actually pretty darn good for a third baseman anyway.
Chisenhall hit three homers in a game last season, so the power is there. Consistency could help him approach 20 next season.
Brandon Belt - San Francisco Giants (1B)
Last year, San Francisco first baseman Brandon Belt was out for two months with a broken thumb, and he also suffered a concussion last year, too. That likely explains his dip in production, which saw him post a nERD of 0.26 and hit .243/.306/.449 in just 235 plate appearances. That was coming off a 2013 season in which he hit .289/.360/.481 with 17 homers in 571 plate appearances and a 2012 season in which he hit .275/.360/.421 with 7 homers in 472 plate appearances.
The guy hits in spacious AT&T Park in San Francisco, so expecting a high home run total from Belt might be asking for too much, although it's fair to note he hit 12 homers in just 235 plate appearances, thanks in large part to a jump in his HR/FB% (18.2%). If he can stay healthy, it's likely Belt will return to his slash lines of 2012 and '13, with the potential for some increased power from the 27-year-old.