These are five guys I like for 2013. They're already good players, but I think they will take a big leap and become more than good players.
1. Mat Latos, SP, Reds. With Johnny Cueto having a Cy Young-caliber season and Aroldis Chapman dominating out of the pen, there weren't many headlines left for Latos in 2012. With Latos coming over from the Padres in that big offseason trade, some projected that he would suffer moving out of Petco Park, but he finished 14-4 with a 3.48 ERA. He did allow a few more home runs, but that's going to happen in Cincinnati -- 18 of the 25 home runs he gave up came at home. Importantly, however, he didn't let the home runs affect his approach, and he actually finished with a lower ERA at home than on the road.
Latos got off to a slow start in April -- including a blow-up, eight-run outing in St. Louis -- but posted a 3.09 ERA over his final 28 starts, losing just twice. He's a big horse out there at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds or so, and he crossed the 200-inning barrier for the first time. Although he sets up his fastball/slider/curveball arsenal with a solid 92-95 heater that he throws up in the zone, it's his slider that is developing into his key pitch. As you can see from the heat map, he gets it down and in to lefties and away from righties, exactly where you need to go. In 247 plate appearances ending with the slider, batters hit just .169 against him -- righties .161 and lefties .185.
I view Latos as a guy maturing into a staff ace and a sleeper Cy Young candidate in 2013, although it will be tough keeping that ERA under 3.00 pitching half his games in Cincy.
2. Salvador Perez, C, Royals. Keith Law had Perez 12th on his 25 under 25 list for good reason: This kid can hit, and, with his strong throwing arm and quick release -- he threw out 42 percent of base stealers, tops in the American League -- he could be a future Gold Glove winner.
You might have missed Perez's excellent sophomore campaign because his season didn't start until June 22 after he tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in spring training. He returned a few weeks earlier than expected and, in 79 games, hit .301/.328/.471. Remember, Perez is just 22 years old, which makes his hit tool even that much more special. Through 463 career plate appearances, he has an .810 OPS and 121 OPS+. Here's the list of catchers with at least 400 PAs through 22 who had a higher OPS+: Brian McCann and Johnny Bench. That's it.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system projects Perez to hit .286/.316/.422, not quite believing in his power potential. I do think Perez will outperform that; his ability to put the ball in play -- he had the seventh-lowest strikeout rate among those with 300 PAs -- should help him maintain a .300 average, even with his lack of foot speed. Perez doesn't walk much, at least not early in his career, but he isn't necessarily a wild hacker at the plate. He swung at 38 percent of pitches outside the zone, which did rank 30th (worst) in the majors, but below other accomplished hitters such as Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones and Adrian Beltre. He just looks like one of those rare hitters who can expand the zone and still make hard contact.
Here's how much I like Perez: Don't be surprised when he makes the All-Star team in July.
3. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners. I've written about Seager before, and his .259 batting average in his first full season might not jump out at you. But he slugged over .500 on the road and finished with 20 home runs overall. With the Mariners moving in the fences at Safeco Field, their hitters will have a chance to put up better numbers at home, where Seager hit just .223 with five home runs.
Never as heralded as Dustin Ackley, his college and now major league teammate, Seager has surpassed him at the plate -- he had 56 extra-base hits last year to Ackley's 36. He just does a better job of squaring up the ball and hitting it harder. He has a good approach at the plate and, considering he has played fewer than 100 games above Class A, is still developing as a hitter. Like a lot of young left-handed hitters, he's much better against right-handed pitchers, but his seven home runs off lefties shows he wasn't completely helpless against them.
You can call Seager an overachiever. I call him a hitter on the rise.
4. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants. I know, I know you're sick of hearing about Brandon Belt. Bruce Bochy finally gave Belt a chance to play in 2012 -- well, sort of, since he did start only 106 games -- and Belt hit .275/.360/.421, a solid line for AT&T Park, where home runs go to die.
If we dig into the sabermetric numbers on Belt's season, we see he grades out with a wRC+ of 116 -- in line with hitters such as Martin Prado, Curtis Granderson and Adrian Gonzalez. The odd thing about Belt's season is that, unlike most of his teammates, he actually hit much better at home -- .315/.401/.505 versus .237/.321/.341 on the road.
I'd love for Belt to get 600 PAs this year he held his own against lefties, so I think it's time Bochy sees him as more than a platoon player -- and see what he can do. He's probably not going to be a big home run guy -- especially in San Francisco -- but I see a player who can hit .290 with 15 to 18 home runs and an on-base percentage approaching .400. That will make him one of the more valuable first basemen in the National League.
5. Derek Holland, SP, Rangers. The Holland bandwagon was in full tilt after a strong second half and dominating performance in the 2011 World Series. But then the 2012 season began and he allowed 32 home runs -- in just 175 innings -- and finished with a 4.67 ERA. He also lost some time to shoulder fatigue.
I'm going to jump back on the Holland wagon. Remember, he was just 25 years old last season, still learning to pitch. Hopefully he realized he can't just rely on his mid-90s fastball to blow hitters away. Aside from that, there were still some positive signs about his season: His strikeout-to-walk ratio improved, and he had five starts in August and September when he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs, a sign that his shoulder was better.
He also pitched in some bad luck a year ago: His rate of home runs per fly ball was sixth-worst among major league starters. Some of that is pitching in Texas, of course, some of that is too many fastballs up in the zone, but some of that was bad luck. He has the power arm and stuff to adapt and lower that gopher-ball rate. I like a big comeback year, with an ERA below his 3.95 figure from 2011, and teaming with Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison to give the Rangers a "big three" starting rotation.