With 2015 around the corner, it’s easy to focus on what’s new -- new players on your teams, new rookies, new chances. But how about those guys who might be ready to ratchet up a whole new level of production? It is, as Mike Royko put it describing his joy on seeing Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston learn to lay off an outside breaking ball, part of what being a fan is all about, because you get to see someone already good enough to be one of the best players on the planet become greater still.
Diving into a list of guys who should break out in 2015, let’s set aside the rookies we know are going to make some noise. Yes, Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Byron Buxton, Jorge Soler, Rusney Castillo -- we all expect big things in what ought to be a bumper crop of first-year players, but let’s set them aside for a different conversation. Instead, think of this as yesterday’s top prospects coming into their own now that their new-guy hype has faded, while including ACTA's Bill James projections and what Steamer at FanGraphs suggest they’ll do in the season to come.
1. Manny Machado, Orioles: .747 career OPS | 2015 James .765, Steamer .758
Including Machado might seem like a bit of a gimme, considering he’s now headed into his fourth season in the majors and has only shown incremental progress, picking up a couple of points on OPS each year. But his first spin was an in-season call-up, his second featured a big second-half fade (.807 OPS before the break, .647 after) and a season-ending knee injury, and his third was slowed by his recovery (taking the field in May without spring training), then ended early by reinjuring his right knee. But for all that, the guy only just turned 22 last summer, and despite that stack of setbacks, he’s already been productive. The projections are modest, but overlook the backstory; with health and a clean start, this could be the first year of many when he cranks out 80 extra-base hits.
2. George Springer, Astros: .804 career OPS | 2015 James .854, Steamer .772
He’s sort of like putting one scoop of Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig and one of teammate Chris Carter in the same sundae, because you get the athleticism and the power to pound a league-leading tally in homers -- and strike out 200 times -- all in one baseball helmet dish. The fulcrum that will propel his career one way or another is his mastery of the strike zone, because after a swinging strike clip that’s almost twice big-league average (31.9 to 16.3 percent) as a rookie, if he sorts out what he needs to lay off of, he could go from impressive to dominant in short order.
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals: .747 career OPS | 2015 James .773, Steamer .779
There’s a decent cadre of semidisappointing first basemen to choose from, guys you might be hoping might take a big, Anthony Rizzo-level step forward, as Rizzo did last year. Yonder Alonso might be too far along and need a change of venue, while Brandon Belt has the bat but may not be durable enough. Hosmer is the guy in this group who’s younger than Rizzo, just heading into his age-25 season and into the beginning of what you’d consider to be a normal peak range for a hitter. If Hosmer’s performance down the stretch and into the postseason (.841 OPS in September, .983 in October) while working with new hitting coach Dale Sveum is any indication, he might finally start delivering in kind on the huge expectations Royals fans have piled on him for the last four years.
4. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers: .763 career OPS | 2015 James .809, Steamer .735
Between getting dealt by the Reds before reaching the homer haven they call home, missing most of 2013 with a 50-game PED suspension and a knee injury, and the general anonymity that gets slathered onto all Padres, Grandal has yet to live up to the prospect billing that made him a 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft. But he’s only just begun, hitting 15 homers last year, and has already delivered an .802 career OPS on the road. Now that he’s escaped from the bat-sapping effects of Petco Park and is headed to a friendlier power environment in Dodger Stadium and into his prime age-26 season, expect the Dodgers to come off well on their side of the Matt Kemp swap.
5. Oswaldo Arcia, Twins: .743 career OPS | 2015 James .844, Steamer .790
Did you know Arcia hit 20 homers in a partial season last year, as a 23-year-old? Or that Bill James also pegged him for 30 homers this season? Blame the flyover market, blame all the prospect maven attention getting lavished on names like Buxton or Sano (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or blame the Twins’ four-year run of losing seasons, but Arcia is going to be a big part of the reason why the Twins’ brief run of irrelevance ends soon. Add in an AL Central where nobody should be a slam-dunk pick to win 90 games, and Arcia will be the new star slugger on a surprise contender.
6. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets: .683 career OPS | 2015 James .805, Steamer .744
The Mets have been used as a punchline for so long that it’s worth remembering that some of their long-term moves are about to start delivering, starting with d’Arnaud behind the plate. Another example that youth will be served, d’Arnaud is also headed into the heart of a normal peak range with his age-26 season on tap. After settling in last year as the Mets’ regular backstop, he posted a .787 OPS in the second half despite playing with a bum elbow. Lucas Duda was last year’s breakout Met; d’Arnaud will be that guy in 2015.
7. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox: .662 career OPS | 2015 James .735, Steamer .732
No more distractions, he’s a shortstop and gets to settle in. Given that he’s already yesterday’s news while the focus switches to the excitement over adding Pablo Sandoval, Mookie Betts and Castillo to the everyday lineup, it’s going to be fun to watch as Bogaerts quietly clouts 50 extra-base hits and closes the book on last year’s front-office-driven mayhem. Last year, MLB shortstops averaged a .678 OPS, and only five shortstops (including new Sox left fielder Hanley Ramirez) posted a better OPS than Bogaerts’ projection. Skip any disappointment, his stardom begins now.
8. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins: .746 career OPS | 2015 James .804, Steamer .744
When I turned to resident projection expert Dan Szymborski for his thoughts, he tabbed Ozuna, and it’s easy to understand why. Despite essentially skipping past Double-A and Triple-A on his way to the majors in 2013, Ozuna has shown off solid growth in his first two big-league seasons, posting a .772 OPS last year while ripping 23 homers. Headed into his age-24 season, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him take a big step forward.
9. Avisail Garcia, White Sox: .722 career OPS | 2015 James .783, Steamer .743
Remember him, that top Tigers prospect of yesteryear flipped to the South Side before he’d even settled in? Well, after missing most of 2014 with a shoulder injury, he’s back, healthy and still shy of his 24th birthday. And he gets to call The Cell home? That’s Christmas 81 times a season if you’re a right-handed power prospect. Blasting past 20 homers (as James projects) in his first full season seems like a reasonable expectation; don’t be surprised if he blows by that by August.
10. Michael Saunders, Blue Jays: .685 career OPS | 2015 James .726, Steamer .748
Saunders escaped from Seattle this winter after suffering through a 74-point OPS differential in his career home/road split, although he did put up a career-best .791 OPS in 2014. Now that he’s finally out of Seattle, a Canadian headed to Canada’s team, topping that may be tough to reproduce, but he’s brought his strikeout rate down toward 20 percent while keeping his walks around 10 percent. Between the scarcity of offensive help on the market and the fact it only took fifth-starter type J.A. Happ to get him, Saunders could be one of the best pickups of the winter.
Honorable mention: Starling Marte, Pirates. I’ll admit, there’s a bit of fan reach on my part here, simply because Marte is one of my favorite guys to watch play. But only up to a point, because he delivered a huge second half (.975 OPS) when he was healthy. He’s another guy headed into his age-26 season, so take it as just my vibe that he’s got a single-season 30-10-20 line or better for doubles, triples and homers in him sometime in the very near future.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.