These are 10 players I like heading into the season, five position players and five pitchers. I’m calling them breakout candidates, although if you’re a fantasy player, you already know about them. You always have to be wary about projecting too much growth in a young player -- many fantasy owners have been ruined by falling prey to prospect hype -- but these are 10 young players I'd love to have in 2014.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B, San Diego Padres: He had an impressive rookie season with 23 home runs in 125 games, although a .249 average and .301 on-base percentage leaves room for improvement. Still, his season went pretty unrecognized for several reasons: (1) He plays for the Padres, and (2) it was such a strong rookie class in the National League that there wasn’t much attention left over after Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller and Julio Teheran; (3) His splits made for an odd season, as he hit .272 with eight home runs in the first half, .226 with 15 home runs in the second half.
Gyorko needs to consolidate those two approaches. Some of that difference came from a big split in BABIP -- .325 in the first half and .245 in the second half, but he did start chasing more pitches out of the strike zone in the second half (34 percent compared to 30 percent). He was a .321 hitter in the minors, so if he can reign in the over-aggressiveness just a bit I think his average and OBP will come up. He hit 13 of his 23 home runs at Petco and hit 30 in the minors in 2012, so the power is definitely legit.
Didi Gregorius, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks: When Kevin Towers acquired Gregorius from the Reds last offseason in a three-team deal, the trade was widely criticized since Arizona surrendered Trevor Bauer, the third overall pick in the 2011 draft. But Towers loved Gregorius’ defense and Bauer had worn out his welcome in Arizona. Gregorius missed some time with injuries as a rookie but showed more potential with the bat than many expected, hitting .252/.332/.372, and showing the ability to turn on some pitches with seven home runs.
He’s never going to be an offensive star, but he puts the ball in play, and if he can improve against left-handers (.200/267/.245), his numbers will look pretty good for a shortstop. If his defensive proves to be as strong as Towers sold us on them (the defensive runs saved metric had him at minus-1 run in 2013), he has a chance to be a very good player. His fantasy value may be limited by his lack of offensive skills, but I believe Gregorius can turn into a championship-caliber shortstop.
Kole Calhoun, RF, Los Angeles Angels: A big reason the Angels felt they could trade Mark Trumbo for pitching depth was the emergence of Calhoun, who hit .282/.347/.462 in 222 plate appearances. He’s older (26), so his star potential is limited. He has a decent approach at the plate and could hit 15 to 20 home runs. A left-handed batter, he has handled lefties well enough that he doesn’t necessarily have to be platooned.
Josmil Pinto, C, Minnesota Twins: You never want to count too much on a young catcher -- we’ve seen top hitting prospects like Devin Mesoraco and Jesus Montero struggle mightily at the big league level -- but the Twins are moving Joe Mauer to first base due to their confidence in Pinto. His 21-game stint in the majors was obviously impressive (.342, five doubles and four home runs in 83 plate appearances) but he has hit very well the past two seasons in the minors, including a .309/.400/.482 line between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. I like his discipline -- 66 walks, 83 strikeouts in the minors -- and his arm is solid (threw out five of 11 basestealers with the Twins). The Twins brought in veteran Kurt Suzuki, but playing him would be a mistake. Pinto needs to get 450 to 500 plate appearances as the regular catcher. I think he’ll hit enough and play well enough behind the plate to give manager Ron Gardenhire little option but to do just that.
Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals: No surprise here. Everyone has expected Rendon to hit since his college days at Rice. The big question with him has always been staying on the field. Injuries limited him to 43 games in the minors in 2012, but he stayed relatively healthy last season, playing 134 games between the minors and the majors. He may end up being more of a doubles guy with a good average than a big power hitter, but either way he’s going to provide value at the plate. Rendon has good balance, quick wrists and he walked more than he struck out in the minors, an approach that should help him improve on the .265 average he hit as a rookie. His defensive transition to second base still needs work, but he’s athletic enough to be acceptable.
With Rendon and Bryce Harper -- heck, I could have put Harper on the list except he's already such a big name -- the Nationals should score more than the 656 runs they tallied a season ago.
Nate Eovaldi, P, Miami Marlins: Among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings in 2013, guess who had the highest average velocity on the fastball? Yep, this guy. Eovaldi averaged 96.2 mph on his heater, one of just four starters to average 95-plus, along with Gerrit Cole, Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg. It's a good weapon and proved to be a fairly effective pitch for him; he allowed a lower OPS on his fastball than Zack Greinke, Julio Teheran, Anibal Sanchez, Adam Wainwright and Felix Hernandez. Eovaldi still needs to improve his command, but more importantly needs to refine his secondary pitches. He threw his fastball 1,189 times out of 1,696 total pitches, relying little on his slider or curveball. He needs to turn one of those pitches into more of a strikeout pitch. He did have some shoulder problems at the start of 2013 but was fine after that. He turns 24 in February, and with 46 career starts under his belt, he's young enough to put everything together.
James Paxton, P, Seattle Mariners: Taijuan Walker is the Mariners' rookie starter who has received most of the attention on prospect lists, but Paxton may be more ready for the majors. A lefty with good size at 6-foot-4, Paxton brings a good fastball (he averaged 94.8 mph in his four-start stint in September in which he held batters to a .172 average) along with a curve and changeup, although with a history of shaky command. His Triple-A numbers aren't impressive -- 4.45 ERA, 158 hits in 145.2 innings -- but were better in the second half. The Mariners were a terrible defensive team last year and could be again this year, especially if they end up adding Nelson Cruz in the outfield alongside Corey Hart or Logan Morrison, so keep that in mind. A shaky defense can hurt a young pitcher's confidence and force him to start nibbling at the corners too much.
Corey Kluber, P, Cleveland Indians: Kluber was pretty good in 2013 -- 3.85 ERA in 147 innings -- so this is confirmation bias as much as anything. Originally a fourth-round pick of the Padres way back in 2007, Kluber came to Cleveland in the three-way trade that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals. He finally put everything together in 2013, improving his command and cutting his walks way down. He finished with 136 strikeouts and 33 walks, a 4.1-to-1 ratio, the sixth best in the American League behind guys named David Price, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Max Scherzer. I'm not saying he's as good as those guys, but he's not just a finesse guy who lucked into a good year, as he owns a solid fastball (93.1 mph average velocity) and terrific curve. Batters hit .196 off it with just two home runs, 50 strikeouts and no walks. Here's an examination of Kluber's improvement, which even spawned the Corey Kluber Society.
Yordano Ventura, P, Kansas City Royals: He'll rank high on prospect lists heading into the season with his high-octane heater. The Royals believed enough to give him three starts down the stretch with the club battling for a wild-card spot. Ventura isn't a lock for the rotation -- James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas are locks, with Danny Duffy and Wade Davis also in the mix -- but the Royals should go with the potential upside of Ventura over Duffy or Davis. Ventura struck out 155 in 134.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A and while the curveball and changeup are still works in progress, it’s the fastball, which hit 101.9 mph with the Royals, that should make him an effective starter as a rookie.
Erik Johnson, P, Chicago White Sox: A second-round pick out of Cal in 2011, Johnson dominated the high minors, posting a 1.96 ERA and allowing just 100 hits in 142 innings. He mixes in a four-seamer and two-seamer with an upper-80s slider that neutralizes right-handed batters. He needs to improve his curveball and/or changeup to become more effective against lefties and pitching in The Cell, where the ball flies, isn't easy, so don't expect a low ERA from him. But he could develop into a middle-rotation type of starter, part of a suddenly interesting young core in Chicago that includes Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia.