Every season, without fail, the MLB sees breakout performances from a handful of players who either perform at unexpectedly high levels or produce at a rate that is impossible to ignore. Breakout players come in a variety of forms; they can be top prospects, spring training stars, overachievers, or established players but one way or another at least one of these players surfaces each year for every team. To this point there is no exact science in predicting who the breakout players will be each year, however, it is possible to make educated estimations with the use of player statistics and metrics in conjunction with expert opinions on the subject. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what players from each team, broken down division by division, can be expected to deliver breakout performances in the 2017 MLB season:
Key 2016 Stat: .206 ISO
Arguably no team in the MLB boasts as much young talent in their starting lineup as the Chicago Cubs, evidenced by the fact that only two of the players starting for the Cubs on Opening Day are over the age of 27. More so, they are seemingly constantly getting younger as they are continually adding new players to their roster and allowing them the opportunity to contribute early on in their careers. Willson Contreras was one such player last season and he will be called upon to take on a larger role this season, which should provide him ample opportunity to prove that he is one of the best offensive catchers in the game.
When Contreras signed with the Cubs in 2009 his future was uncertain, he was a 17 year old kid who had a long way to go if he ever hoped to reach the major leagues. As he moved through the Cubs’ system, it became clearer how he could contribute to the organization as he developed a distinct skill set and found a position where he could stick long-term. Through his eight minor league seasons, Contreras slashed .283/.356/.433 and slowly developed a power stroke that would prove useful when he finally earned his shot at the major league level last season.
Contreras started off his major league career with a bang as he smacked a two-run home run in his first career major league at-bat, setting the tone for the rest of his season. He ended up appearing in 76 games for the Cubs in which he logged 252 at-bats and turned in a slash line of .282/.357/.488 while adding 27 extra base hits, including a career high 12 home runs. Contreras’ performance gives credence to the notion that he is developing into a legitimate power hitter, as his uptick in home runs, isolated power of .206, HR/FB of 23.5 percent, and Hard% of 32.3 all indicate that Contreras has the potential to be a dangerous power threat. The only thing that could hinder his ability to produce is his lack of plate discipline; his strikeout percentage of 23.7 and 13.9 SwStr% both need to improve but as long as he continues to make contact with the ball at a league average rate, his swing and miss tendencies should not hinder his ability to produce.
With Contreras set to take over as the every day catcher for the Cubs, he has become a popular choice to deliver a breakout performance this season. If he continues to generate consistent quality contact while further developing his power stroke and cutting down on strikeouts, even just slightly, then Contreras numbers will likely be among the best at his position this season.
Key 2016 Stat: 21 HR
The Cincinnati Reds are coming off back to back seasons in which they finished last in their division and this year doesn’t look much more promising as the roster is not built to contend right now. For this reason, the Reds front office is in a position where they need to take a closer look at each player on their roster to decide whether they are worth building around or if they are expendable. Eugenio Suárez is one player in particular who needs to put together a solid season in order to prove he is worth keeping around or he may find himself on the way out of Cincinnati at the conclusion of the 2017 season.
Suárez began his career with the Detroit Tigers when he signed as an amateur free agent in 2008 out of Venezuela. He wasted no time establishing himself as a player to watch by immediately excelling during his time in the Venezuelan Summer League, prompting the Tigers to bring him over to the United States to play for their direct minor league affiliates. After putting together six successful minor league seasons, and a successful stint in the major leagues, the Tigers dealt Suárez to the Cincinnati Reds following the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Suárez began his Reds tenure playing for their AAA affiliate, however, an injury to starting shortstop Zach Cozart opened a spot for Suárez on the big league roster and he responded with an impressive .280/.351./446 slash line through 97 games. His performance was enough to earn him a starting gig at third base last season and while his .248 batting average seems to indicate that Suárez struggled in his first full season, his advanced metrics reveal improvements in several key areas that bode well for his production going forward. Chief among these improvements was an unexpected power surge that led to Suárez jacking a career high 21 home runs, which can likely be attributed to an increase in Hard% from 28.9 to 34.9. A near doubling of his base on ball percentage from 4.3 to 8.1 is another important indicator that Suárez is improving at the plate and is adding to his already steady approach.
Despite a seemingly unsuccessful first full season as a major league starter, Eugenio Suárez seems poised to breakout in 2017 due to steadily improving plate discipline and a newfound power stroke that should add to his already impactful skill set.
Key 2016 Stat: 38.5 Hard%
The Milwaukee Brewers haven’t made the postseason since 2011 and it doesn’t seem likely that’ll change this season because of their clear roster deficiencies. However, they do possess some intriguing up-and-coming prospects that will be granted the chance to log significant playing time at the major league level this season. Out of all the young players on the Brewers roster, I would put my money on slugger Domingo Santana as the most likely to deliver a breakout performance this season.
Santana has made his way around the league a bit; he began his career with the Phillies after signing as an international free agent in 2009 and was later dealt to the Astros before ultimately landing with his current team, the Brewers, in 2015. Despite the constant movement, Santana was able to keep his numbers fairly consistent throughout his time in the minor leagues because of his ability to generate hard contact and high BABIP numbers due to his incredible raw power.
Santana’s time in the majors has proven to be much of the same, in a part time role last season he slashed .256/.345/.447 in 281 plate appearances with 25 extra base hits and a BABIP of .359 as well as an ISO of .191. His quality of contact statistics only add to the impressiveness of his season, as his 38.5 Hard% illustrate just how much power Santana possesses. The main area in which he needs to improve is his plate discipline, his 32.4 strikeout percentage and SwStr of 12.1 percent need to decrease significantly if he hopes to make strides in his development.
Ultimately, Santana is a pure power hitter who seems to have only scratched the surface of his power potential, a full season of playing time should lead to Santana producing eye-popping power numbers en route to a breakout campaign in which he solidifies himself as one of the most promising young power hitters in the game.
Key 2016 Stat: 4.1 BB%
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a team that doesn’t have many significant weaknesses but at the same time doesn’t have many clear strengths, leaving them in a spot where they are good enough to compete but not to contend. One area that they seem to be improving is their starting pitching, as four of their starting pitchers are currently under the age of 26 and all of them possess serious potential. Jameson Taillon might be the best of the group; the Pirates currently have Taillon tabbed as their number two starter so don’t be surprised when he pitches at a level that lives up to his billing as a front-line starter.
Taillon has been a prodigy since high school which is why the Pirates not only decided to take him with the second overall pick in the 2010 draft, but also chose to hand him a $6.5 million signing bonus. He went on to prove throughout his minor league career that he was as good as advertised which led him to blow through the Pirates minor league system in just four seasons. His minor league statistics are no joke; he pitched a total of 443.2 innings and posted a 3.49 ERA, 1.115 WHIP, HR/9 of 0.6, and BB/9 of 2.4 while racking up a grand total of 417 strikeouts. Everything was set for Taillon to make the jump to the big leagues but he ended up suffering a string of injuries that delayed his major league debut a few years.
Taillon’s inaugural major league campaign was well worth the wait, as he made a total of 18 starts in which he pitched to a 3.38 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 3.71 FIP while frequently putting together masterful performances that displayed why he has the potential to be a special pitcher. What was most apparent about Taillon in his rookie season was that is almost surgical with his command and he utilizes it to limit walks (4.1 BB%), keep the ball on the ground (52.4 GB%%), and prevent home runs (1.13 HR/9). These type of numbers are typical of pitchers who rely on command but Taillon is a different breed due to his ability to strike batters out at a high clip (20.3 K%) which allows him to post impressive numbers in every statistical category.
Taillon’s rare mix of command and plus power pitches make him a nightmare for opposing batters and should lead to an impressive season in 2017 worthy of possible Cy Young consideration.
St. Louis Cardinals
Key 2016 Stat: 27.2 K-BB%
The St. Louis Cardinals are coming off a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. In order to bring the team back to prominence, the organization made a concerted effort in the offseason to retool their roster and patch up several holes that they had in their roster from last season. A player who will significantly help the team in its quest for the NL Central crown is second year player Seung-hwan Oh, who will be relied upon to hold down the ever-important closer spot for the Cardinals bullpen.
Oh entered the league last season following a storied eleven year career overseas in which he pitched to a career 1.81 ERA and 0.854 WHIP while racking up a whopping 772 strikeouts through 646.1 innings. The majority of his career was spent in the role of closer which led to him converting 357 saves in his career, plus he has the distinguished honor of being the all-time saves leader in the KBO. Needless to say, Oh had nothing left to prove overseas which led to him being signed by the St. Louis Cardinals last offseason.
Oh entered the year as the setup man to veteran closer Trevor Rosenthal, but as the season progressed it became obvious that something was amiss with Rosenthal which led to him being shut down mid-season with a nagging shoulder injury. This opened the door for Oh to take over as the closer and prove that he had what it takes to stabilize the back of the Cardinals bullpen for the future. Put simply, Oh was dominant in 2016. He ended the season having pitched 79.2 innings, producing a 1.92 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, and 0.56 HR/9 while posting an unbelievable 27.2 K-BB%. Oh’s dominance solidified his spot as the Cardinals closer this season and there is nothing to suggest that his performance in 2017 will be any less impressive.
Don’t let the fact that Seung-hwan Oh was a rookie last season fool you, the 34 year old closer is a seasoned veteran with plenty of professional experience. Now that he has locked down his role as closer, expect Oh to continue to do what he does best: dominate the ninth inning.