Six potential breakouts

These players appear primed for a platoon role or should otherwise feature low ownership rates to start the season.

Justin Smoak

Smoak qualifies as a classic post-hype sleeper. He may also qualify as a classic case of wish-casting. He’s potentially capable of adding substantial gains to his power numbers and batting average.

It’s very dangerous to put much weight on one month of performance, but in this case, a strong September plus a very impressive spring training are encouraging. After struggling throughout the entire 2012 season, Smoak turned the corner in September by posting a 1.005 OPS for the month. He had 13 walks and 13 strikeouts. His .239 ISO was consistent with his minor league numbers. His BABIP was elevated at .357, but that’s only one or two hits on the lucky side for such a small sample.

His spring numbers are silly, but he’s been here before, so be ready to deploy your grains of salt. Through 23 plate appearances, he has nine hits, two home runs, two walks, and four strikeouts—good for a 1.335 OPS. Research suggests that .250 point increases in spring OPS can predict breakouts.

And now for the salt. Last season, his spring OPS was .966 over twice as many plate appearances, and that campaign went quite poorly.

He’s also credited with implementing mechanical changes late last season—which makes the breakout narrative more compelling (if not more probable). He’ll need to dodge competition from Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay for playing time, but so far he has the inside track on a regular role.

Brandon Belt

Belt has settled in as a reliable fantasy role player. In 2012, he was slightly below average in all five standard categories and provided some utility with his first base and outfield eligibility. He’s potentially capable of doubling his home runs per plate appearance while seeing more playing time.

The good news is that projection systems uniformly believe he will hit more home runs in 2013. That jibes with his prospect billing as a patient, mid-quality power bat. Strangely, he cut his strikeout rate in 2012 while actually whiffing more frequently. He needs a strikeout rate around 20 percent to post an acceptable average.

It’s easy to be skeptical about a power breakout from Belt. Mechanics play such a large role in generating power and loft. Belt has received criticism for swing mechanics that limit his ability to produce that power and loft. Batted ball data from 2012 supports that hypothesis (small sample alert). He posted an excellent 25.6 percent line drive rate, but his home run per fly ball rate was only 6.2 percent. Parsed to standard English, he hit the ball hard with frequency but not in a way that produces home runs.

Between first base and left field, he should play almost daily. For what it’s worth, his spring OPS is currently 1.393.

Domonic Brown

Brown was briefly the top prospect in baseball a few years ago, but now he’s forgotten by everyone outside of Philadelphia. Health has played a large role in his shaky performance to date, but he appears to finally be healthy. He has the potential to break out across all five categories.

He’s the proverbial tool shed, with speed, power, and hand-eye coordination in spades. Inconsistent mechanics caused by minor injuries to both knees, a broken hamate bone, and other leg related problems have prevented those tools from playing in-game. A strong spring performance (1.280 OPS, six walks, five strikeouts in 36 plate appearances) and good health have him in line for a starting job.

The downside is clear but also isn’t devastating. If major league pitchers are able to continue exploiting his mechanics, he’ll hover around a league average bat. That would put him in a position where he’s most useful against lesser quality right-handed pitchers.

Josh Donaldson

Donaldson was probably more interesting last season, when he had catcher eligibility and a second half hot streak that brought him into fantasy relevance. Those second half numbers have fantasy watchers naming him a cheap sleeper for average third base production.

That could be a boon for those who missed out on quality third baseman this season. A sampling of four projection systems on Fangraphs all expect an OPS between .734 and .738 (it’s worth noting that ZiPS diverges from popular opinion with a .680 projection). If he manages to start most games, double digit power numbers and a handful of steals are likely.

Conspiring against him are some poor spring numbers—two singles in 27 plate appearances—and the Athletics’ very deep roster of infielders. Continued struggles in spring training or any in-season slump will likely result in reduced and difficult-to-predict playing time.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

Lorenzo Cain

Cain is an excellent post-hype sleeper. In 2012, he was viewed as a potential five-category contributor and was heavily targeted in high-quality leagues. A variety of injuries and middling performance have calmed expectations, although he is still owned in 52 percent of Yahoo leagues.

His spring training has been slowed by a hand injury in February, but he seems to be performing well in a small sample —412/.565/.529 in 23 plate appearances with six walks and zero strikeouts. Projection systems expect league-average production with double digit contributions to home runs and stolen bases. For fantasy, he appears to be an excellent fourth outfielder or a valuable low cost center fielder.

Unlike with those above, there’s little to worry about with Cain. His combination of athleticism and polished baseball skills should result in predictably acceptable performance.

Nolan Reimold

Reimold was on fire in early 2012 before neck surgery forced him to miss the majority of the season. Health has been the bane of Reimold’s career as he’s missed substantial time for that neck injury as well as an Achilles tear. When he’s on the field, he shows an advanced approach at the plate that generates double digit home runs with the occasional steal.

His role in 2013 is uncertain. It appears he is a logical candidate to platoon with Nate McLouth. However, since Wilson Betemit appears to be the primary designated hitter, Reimold could earn a full time role split between the two positions.

If he can stay away from major injuries, he should be a useful plug-and-play option with upside for more value.

Print This Post
The critics love The Daily Grind! "Reading these every day is like watching one man's slow descent into insanity." - Thomas ..... Follow Brad on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted

I’ve been following Nolan for years and years now since we’re from the same hometown and share many mutual friends. It’s been rough seeing so much potential washed away from one injury after another. Last year was downright devastating, as he had strung together multiple home runs before going down with the Peyton Manning type injury. If he can stay even mildly healthy, I think 15-20 home runs, 8-10 SBs and an average that won’t kill you is more than possible. It’s now or never!


One guy that I’m curious about this season is Brett Wallace. Wasn’t this also a guy who did very well in the minors? Now that he has secured a full time gig in Houston, do you believe this is a late round flier worth taking a chance on?

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson

I don’t really see any scope for a breakout with Wallace. He could improve, but needs a true breakout to be relevant in standard leagues.


“I don’t really see any scope for a breakout with Wallace.” But you see a breakout in Donaldson!? (a 27-year old who is a career .275 hitter in the minors).

This needs more explanation. Between AAA and the majors last year, Wallace hit 25 HR and drove in 81 runs. It looks like 1st base is his and he’s 26-years old. Seems like a pretty nice post-hype breakout candidate to me.

I’m with you, Vince.  I’m targeting Wallace in my AL-league. At least he’s posted some dominant lines in his MiLB career (.871 OPS in 6 seasons).

Brad Johnson
Brad Johnson
I guess my response to that is fairly arbitrary. Donaldson has not shown rosterable skills but stands to potentially improve from bad to tolerable. That’s a breakout (albeit an unimpressive one). Donaldson’s highest upside might be rosterable in a standard 12-team mixed. Wallace is a more stable asset and certainly relevant in AL-only leagues. Because he doesn’t stand to see a large performance gain, there’s not much reason to watch him in 12-team mixed leagues. I could be wrong on Wallace, it will not be the first time I was wrong about a breakout, they’re inherently unpredictable. I just feel… Read more »