Where to find the fantasy baseball breakouts
Elite fantasy baseball players can first break out when they’re 19 like Bryce Harper did or at 28 like when Whit Merrifield and Tommy Pham did last season, or anywhere in between. In our search to find where the next wave of new fantasy stars will come from, we focused on age of their fantasy baseball breakout.
We took a close look at our preseason top 100 and graphed their career performance by age in OPS+ for hitters and ERA+ for pitchers and found some patterns to help zero in on where those much-treasured breakouts come from.
There’s only three catchers in the top 100 – Gary Sanchez, Buster Posey and Willson Contreras. The trio’s breakouts and peaks have all occurred between age 23-25. Throwing in the extra factor of all three having been ranked as top-100 prospects by Baseball America at some point, we’ve got a pretty specific description to find the next elite catchers. Chance Sisco (age 23, No. 68 in current BA top 100), Jorge Alfaro (24, No. 41 in BA’s 2017 list), Carson Kelly (23, No. 55 in current list) and Austin Hedges (25, No. 27 in 2014 list) each match the description, and you could throw in Francisco Mejia (22, No. 20 in current list) in case he gets in ahead of the curve this season. Sisco and Alfaro have clear shots to playing time this season and hitter-friendly home parks, but both struggled to produce in Triple-A last season. Kelly was better in Triple-A, but is blocked in St. Louis by Yadier Molina. Hedges already has three homers this spring after a power breakout in San Diego last year with 18 homers, but he was always been known as a glove-first catching prospect. If forced to pick who might bounce up the rankings the most this year, we would go with Alfaro because he’s at just No. 36 in our catcher rankings so he can be gotten for cheap. Mejia is the best bet to soon join the elite ranks at catcher, but it might be a year away from happening as there’s a bit of a logjam at backstop in Cleveland, albeit an uninspiring duo of Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes.
Of the 11 first basemen in our top 100, nine had their breakout seasons between ages 21-24. Ryan McMahon (age 23) and Dominic Smith (22) fit the description, but we’re worried that Smith is a year or two away from finding enough power to reach the top 100 and Adrian Gonzalez may leach off too many at-bats with the Mets this year. McMahon has become the front-runner for the Rockies’ first-base job, so we’re looking to Coors Field to provide us with the breakout here.
This position has the widest variance of when breakouts occur, from Rougned Odor and Ozzie Albies at 21 to Merrifield at 28. The greatest concentration of breakout or peak seasons is at age 26-27, which leaves us with plenty of choices for this season. Jonathan Villar (26), Cesar Hernandez (27), Devon Travis (27) and Kolten Wong (27) each fit the description. Villar already had his breakout season at age 24 before falling back last season, but a bounce-back could land him in the top 100. Hernandez has been trending upward, so he could be the guy. Travis has been sidetracked by injuries, but is healthy in spring training and could wind up as the Blue Jays’ leadoff hitter. Wong has taken a circuitous route to where he stands now with a tenuous grip on the Cardinals’ starting 2B job. All four seem like good bets to be undervalued, but give us Travis as the pick to break out.
This is the most focused group with breakouts from all 10 in the top 100 coming by age 24. Five of the breakouts came between ages 22-23. There happens to be a big pack of candidates that fit the 22-23 description, headed by Orlando Arcia (23) and Amed Rosario (22). As a former top prospect playing in a hitter’s park and with a nice blend of power and speed, Arcia is primed for a breakout season. Rosario is another former elite prospect who got his feet wet with 4 HR and 7 SB in 46 games for the Mets last season. The plate discipline is a concern (49 K, 3 BB in 170 PA) but big things should be just around the corner for Rosario. Others who fit the description include Adalberto Mondesi (22), JP Crawford (23), Franklin Barreto (22), Jorge Mateo (22) and Willy Adames (22). Only Crawford appears poised to break camp in the majors, so we would favor him among this group for a breakout, but keep an eye on the other four, especially in keeper leagues.
The breakouts here were spread out between ages 22-26 except for Justin Turner at 29. There are a handful of young third basemen who fit this description, including four with the inside track on a starting job coming out of spring training in Matt Chapman (24), Colin Moran (25), Brandon Drury (25) and Jeimer Candelario (24). We have Chapman predicted for 29 homers and 87 RBIs, so a near-breakout is expected, but he needs to get the average above our projected .234 to have more of an impact. Moran should open as the Pirates third baseman and is flying under the radar. Drury will need to hold off Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres with the Yankees to enjoy a full breakout. Candelario has a modest ceiling, so a top-100 breakout is unlikely, but he could still give a good return on a small investment. Nick Senzel (22) is an elite prospect with hitting as his best tool and a favorable home ballpark in Cincinnati, but he appears to be more of a midseason call-up. By next year at this time, it’s Senzel we’d be betting on to be the best of this group.
At such a plentiful position, the breakouts come from all over, but they are most abundant in the age 21-23 range. And there are plenty of candidates who match that description, starting with two closing in on the top 100 already in Manuel Margot (23) and Nomar Mazara (22). Of the two, Mazara has the higher ceiling and is the better bet for a breakout. Then comes a huge pack of possibilities in Willie Calhoun (23), Lewis Brinson (23), Austin Hays (22), Albert Almora (23), Austin Meadows (22), Brett Phillips (23), Harrison Bader (23), Magneuris Sierra (21), Clint Frazier (23), Alex Verdugo (21) and Eloy Jimenez (21). Calhoun is an all-hit prospect with an opportunity for full-time ABs in Texas – a perfect recipe for a breakout. Brinson has all the tools and a chance to win a starting job now that he’s been traded to Miami. Hays may have a harder time breaking camp with the Orioles now that Colby Rasmus was added off the free-agent pile, but he could get the call and make a big impact a la Cody Bellinger last year. Of the rest, Frazier is the Yankees’ main trade chip and could be headed to a rebuilding team around midseason for an opportunity to play. The picks to click here are the two Rangers – Mazara and Calhoun.
Out of the 22 starters in the top 100, 15 of their breakouts and 10 of their peak seasons came between ages 23-26. This leaves us with a great pack of candidates, led by Shohei Ohtani (23), Baseball America’s No. 2 prospect. It doesn’t let up from there as Luke Weaver (24), Luis Castillo (25), Jon Gray (26) and Jose Berrios (23) are all premium talents poised for breakouts. The next wave of Jameson Taillon (26), Blake Snell (25), Dinelson Lamet (25), Jordan Montgomery (25), Michael Fulmer (25) and Sean Manaea (26) are all capable of vaulting up the ranks, with Snell as a favorite from that group. Alex Reyes (23) was Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect going into last season before being lost for the year with Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals’ flame-thrower has an elite arsenal with an 80 fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale), 70 curve and 60 changeup, but will face an innings cap likely in the 140-150 range. There’s still a few deep sleepers with the talent to make a run up the ranks in Joe Musgrove (25), Jake Faria (24), Sean Newcomb (24) and Taijuan Walker (25). Besides some of the obvious picks to click at the top, we like Lamet as a sleeper coming off his unsung rookie season featuring a 10.9 K/9.
The five closers in the top 100 all have two things in common – electric fastballs and young breakouts – Kenley Jansen (age 22 at breakout), Craig Kimbrel (22), Aroldis Chapman (24), Roberto Osuna (20) and Edwin Diaz (22). Two young flame-throwers who have a chance to take over their team’s closer jobs this season and rack up high strikeout rates are the Rangers’ Keone Kela (age 24, projected 11.2 K/9) and the Braves’ A.J. Minter (24, 11.6 K/9). Kela will be battling soft-tossing Alex Claudio and retread converted starter Tim Lincecum for the closer job in Texas while Minter could be the closer of the future in Atlanta if the Braves decide to shop Arodys Vizcaino at the trading deadline since he has just one more year of team control after this season. Since it may take Minter until August to claim the closer job, we’ll pick Kela as the breakout here.