It's that time of year again. We can almost feel the buzz of Opening Day and, for some, it's time to bear down on some last-minute fantasy baseball draft preparation. Whether in fantasy or reality, fans are always looking to find that breakout player, someone they can tout in the spring and brag about come fall. Who will those breakout players be in 2011? Here's one man's humble opinion...
Catcher: Carlos Santana -- CLE
I'll spare you the "Oye Como Va" cliche (wait, I just went there, didn't I?). Santana, the young Indians catcher, has all the makings of a great hitter. As a prospect, Santana showed incredible plate discipline and contact skills, drawing 332 walks to 322 strikeouts in 2,171 career minor league plate appearances. It was no surprise to see him walk 37 times and strike out only 29 times in 192 plate appearances with the Indians last season. Santana was in the midst of a slump when he fell to a season-ending knee injury. Between Triple-A and the majors in 2010, Santana hit .292/.529/.540 (no, that OBP is not a typo!) with 19 home runs in 438 plate appearances.
First Base: Justin Smoak -- SEA
Smoak has the pedigree of an excellent hitter with a track record of good plate discipline and raw power. Despite hitting line drives at a well-above average rate (23 percent) in his rookie season, Smoak only managed a .218 AVG with a .255 BABIP. It would seem like bad luck at first, but he also managed to rank fifth-worst in baseball (minimum 300 plate appearances) in infield pop-ups (18.6 percent). In 2009, Chris Young of the Diamondbacks held a 22.4 percent infield pop-up rate. He lowered that rate to 12.4 percent in 2010 and raised his average 45 points while blasting 27 home runs. The bottom line is that Smoak is just a couple of adjustments away from coming into his own. His 397 major league plate appearances are far too few to judge him on.
Second Base: Tsuyoshi Nishioka -- MIN
Not all Japanese stars find success in the big leagues, but in a lot of those cases a loss of power production is the culprit. It's fairly clear that power numbers don't tend to translate very well from the Japanese leagues to the big leagues, but speed, on the other hand, does. Ichiro is one example of that and even Kaz Mastui, injury plagued throughout his MLB career, stole 32 bases with the Rockies in 2007. Nishioka is known more for his contact, skill and speed than power, so there is a good chance his game translates to the big leagues fairly well. Nishioka hit .346/.423/.482 with 22 stolen bases in 144 games at age 25 in 2010. He's hitting .320 with two stolen bases in nine games this spring.
Third Base: Pedro Alvarez -- PIT
While Pedro Alvarez didn't set the world on fire upon his major league debut, he did give Pirates fans a taste of his potential. Alvarez only managed a .256 average, but he did hit 16 home runs in 347 at-bats, an AB/HR rate that would prorate to about 25 homers in 550 at-bats. While it may take a couple years for the AVG to come around (he has some contact issues), the power has a chance to progress even further in 2011. Hitting in the middle of an improved Pittsburgh lineup, Alvarez has a real shot at 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI.
Shortstop: Cliff Pennington -- OAK
As any fantasy baseball nut will tell you, shortstop is not the deepest position in 2011. However, there is a group of players that have a chance to surprise and Pennington is one of them. Pennington has good speed and was successful in 85 percent of his stolen base attempts in 2010 (29-for-34), which should earn him more green lights in Oakland this season. He makes good contact (86 percent contact rate and a 21.5 percent line drive rate in 2010) and doesn't chase an abundance of bad pitches. If he can lower his fly-ball rate in 2011, he could see a spike in AVG to go along with 30-plus stolen bases.
Outfield: Jay Bruce - CIN
In his rookie season, Bruce averaged one home run every 19.7 at-bats. The following season, Bruce was sitting on an even better AB/HR rate (15.7) when he fractured his wrist trying to make a play in right field. After hitting only 10 homers through July of 2010, Bruce went on a power binge hitting eight home runs in August, about a year removed from the wrist injury -- it's normal for a wrist injury to sap power for about one full year. He followed up his torrid August with seven homers in September. I guess the wrist was feeling better.
If Bruce can come close to matching his AB/HR rate from 2009, he'll be a lock for 30 homers with plenty of upside for even more.
Designated Hitter: Edwin Encarnacion -- TOR
Speaking of AB/HR rates, Encarnacion averaged one home run every 15.8 at-bats in 2010 and he already has a 26 home run campaign on his résumé. He’s E-5, as some lovingly call him, -- well, maybe not Blue Jays fans -- committed 18 errors in only 95 games played at the hot corner last season. The good thing about that? He will see most of his time at designated hitter this year. Not only does this take the pressure and mental strain of his defensive woes away, but it allows him to do what he does best -- hit the ball a long way.
In many ways, Encarnacion profiles similarly to teammate Jose Bautista (and, no, I'm not calling for 50 homers!). While Encarnacion isn't as patient a hitter as Bautista is, he does make very good contact for a slugger and tends to hit the ball in the air far more often than he puts it on the ground, both traits displayed by Joey Bats.
Health may be the only thing between Encarnacion and 30-plus homers in 2011. The last time EDH had over 500 at-bats in a season (506) he hit 26 home runs. Being a full time designated hitter could help him in the health department and lead to his first 550-plus at-bat season.
Starting Pitcher: Brandon Morrow -- TOR
In April and May of last season, Morrow pitched 57 innings, posting a great 10.42 K/9, but a poor 5.37 BB/9. From June 1 on, once he began to use his splitter more often and began to trust his fastball, Morrow pitched 89.1 innings the rest of the way and posted an even better 11.31 K/9 to go along with a greatly improved 3.23 BB/9. Not only did he gain confidence in his splitter, but he gained confidence in his other pitches as well, which helped him drastically improve his walk rate. He no longer felt the need to try and blow fastballs by opposing hitters.
If he continues to be the pitcher that showed up in the second half of 2010, then Toronto may have found a new ace.
Who are your breakout picks for 2011?
Charlie Saponara writes for the SweetSpot Red Sox blog at Fire Brand of the American League, which is part of the SweetSpot blog network. You can follow him on Twitter.