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Breakout Candidates for 2012

Predicting big things from up-and-comers has become chic as the information age has exploded, giving everyone from the Kevin Goldsteins of the world to the Brandon Warnes of the world access to minor league statistics. It’s easy enough to find a top 100 list, and predict greatness for guys like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, or Shelby Miller, but today I’d like to take a peek at few less-than-established big leaguers who weren’t big time prospects whom I feel are good breakout candidates for next season.

Cliff Pennington – SS Oakland Athletics

Pennington is a guy I’ve been (probably irrationally) following since the Twins dealt J.J. Hardy last offseason. With shortstop depth as low as it’s been since the Rodriguez-Jeter-Garciaparra boom, it’s not unreasonable to wonder where a club’s next shortstop will come from when they inexplicably dump the current one for pennies on the dollar. Nonetheless, what I like about Pennington, and will mention about Brantley as well, is a skillset that centers around line drives, speed, and plate discipline. In the minors, Pennington was no great shakes at the plate, triple-slashing .263/.362/.358 over parts of five seasons. However, what I really liked about his line is the nearly 1:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio, and that he swiped a plethora of bags at an 83.6 percent rate. As a rule, I don’t care much about stolen bases, but I like a guy who can pick his spots and steal one when the situation dictates, and Pennington was definitely of that ilk in the minors.

The stolen base rate has fallen off for Cliff in the majors, but it’s hard to put too much stock into stolen base rates for Oakland A’s, if you catch my drift. Nonetheless, the other portion of Pennington’s game that jumps off the screen to me is his line drive rate of 25.7 percent this season – fourth-highest among qualified hitters. If Pennington can continue to combine his solid line drive rates with enough ground balls next season, I think there’s a good chance he can place himself among the best shortstops in the American League in 2012. His .324/.400/.467 triple-slash since the break certainly shows he’s capable of it.

Michael Brantley – OF Cleveland Indians

As similarly noted with Pennington, I really like the skillset that Brantley brings to the table. Brantley takes it one step further however, as he carries a top-30 groundball/flyball ratio as well. Like Pennington, Brantley flashed very good speed in the minors, swiping 162 bags at an 80.6 percent rate, and also like Pennington, has had trouble continuing that rate in the bigs. Still, what I take from the situation is that Brantley is going to be able to use his speed to his advantage a heck of a lot by smoking a great deal of line drives and ground balls. As an added bonus, Brantley showed an even more discerning eye at the plate than Pennington in the minors, with 292 walks against only 218 whiffs. Brantley slugged .377 in the minors, so I’m not optimistic he will ever hit double-digits in the home run department, but I think he’s the ideal candidate to lead off for a contender, something I think the Indians fancy themselves after this season’s surprise run, and going forward with the club’s excellent minor league depth.

Bud Norris – SP Houston Astros

There’s some level of consternation that goes with predicting a breakout for a young pitcher averaging almost a whiff per inning with a 3.61 ERA, but I’m going to do just that with Norris. That whiff rate places Norris 14th among all major league starting pitchers, placing Bud in elite company ahead of Cy Young-types Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, and C.C. Sabathia. I suppose this begs the question why no one is talking about Norris, no? That’s pretty simple, as he’s only 6-8 (love or hate win-loss records, they aren’t going away anytime soon), and he shares the relative anonymity of Houston with another very, very good starter in Wandy Rodriguez.

For a more saber-centric slant on Norris’ value, he only checks in at 1.6 WAR (tied with Rodriguez for 70th league-wide), which is likely dragged down by his propensity for the longball. One thing that could be slightly worrisome is that Norris’ fastball has consistently lost velocity the last three seasons, but with improved walk rates and better WHIPs in those seasons, it seems likely that Norris simply toned it down a bit to harness his 93.2 mph average fastball. To be clear, I’m not predicting a Cy Young award any time soon, but if Rodriguez moves on before the waiver period ends this summer, Norris will be the most underrated pitcher in the Lone Star state, if not the entire senior circuit.