Friday, May 12, 2006

Overlooked Solid Starts Could Lead to Breakout Years
John Williams

Most everyone has heard about the tear Phat Albert has started the season on, or the starts Bronson Arroyo and Chris Shelton got off to. There have also been some more under the radar solid starts by talented players who may just now be taking their games to new levels. Here is my list of such players so far in 2006:

Eric Chavez: A wizard with the glove but often a slow starter with the bat, Chavez still managed to average 30 homers and 98 RBI the last 6 years to go along with a career 0.851 OPS from the hot corner. This year he has started very well, posting a 0.383 OBP, 0.627 SLG through 30 games. Projected over a full season his pace at the moment would lead to 53 homers and 137 RBI. He won’t reach either of those, but might finally start collecting some MVP votes. Maybe most importantly, his BB/K ratio of 16/17 is much improved so far from his 58/129 regression last year.

Austin Kearns: His age and career OBP/SLG (0.360/0.461) entering this year alone made Kearns a breakout candidate. Now to take into account the fact that he’s had virtually no regular playing time since 2002 due to roster jams and injuries, and that scouts have been raving about his potential for years and you’ve got yourself a player. Having unloaded another toolsy young guy, Willy Mo Pena, a healthy Kearns now has a regular spot in the Reds lineup and is raking. He’s got a 0.952 OPS and is on pace for 28 homers and 114 RBI, both numbers easily attainable for him. All he needs to do now is stay healthy and watch the numbers add up.

Casey Blake: Blake’s been around for a while and is over the hill by baseball standards. His 1.013 OPS so far this year is completely unsustainable for a guy with a career number of 0.779. It will be possible though for him to put up a few very good years late in his career in the mold of say a Melvin Mora. His plate discipline has always been excellent and his isolated power very good. Batting at the bottom of an incredibly talented Indians lineup should allow him to reach say 15-20 homers and 80 RBI.

Alex Rios/Vernon Wells: Two very similar guys with lackluster plate discipline but undeniable hitting talent. Rios has a 0.692 slugging and Wells has a 0.637 so far in 2006. Neither will last for the entire year of course, 0.550-0.575 would be more reasonable. Despite their lack of OBP skills, they should combine for 60-70 homers from the outfield for the Jays for this year and the next several, especially now that there is more lineup protection. Rios might have a higher ceiling than Wells, so we’ll have to watch if he ever goes all Sammy Sosa on us.

Brian McCann: Always a good but not great prospect, he hit decently well upon his arrival with the rest of the Baby Braves last year to the tune of 0.278/0.345/0.400. This year his OPS is up to 0.895, which makes him pretty valuable among catchers. More impressive is considering that his production has been done with a complete lack of support in the lineup spots surrounding him. Also impressive is that he’s only 22 so it’s not unreasonable to expect a very good career from him.

Nick Swisher: Damn, Beane was right again. Essentially willing to offer his family up to the baseball gods in order to draft “Nick the Stick”, as told in Moneyball, Beane has got himself quite a talent here. Although only batting 0.236 last year at age 24, Swisher’s 0.322 OBP and 0.446 SLG despite it made him somebody to watch entering 2006. There’s nothing not to like about his numbers so far this year as he is on pace for 59 homers and 146 RBI with a 0.718 SLG. Once he comes down a bit from his current pace he could still be a 35 homer threat and could very well keep getting better in the future.

Nick Johnson: Finally, at age 27, he is healthy and putting it together. Johnson entered 2006 with a career OBP-AVG of 0.118, nuff ced. It’s always been only a matter of time before he turned into a Mark Grace/Will Clark clone, so the 1.041 OPS he has so far this year is not all that unrealistic for him to keep up. If he played in a hitter’s park he could really make some headlines, but as is he’ll just keep being one of the tougher outs in baseball as he enters his delayed prime. Now just stop getting those freak injuries Nick!

Ryan Howard: Well no one is surprised that he’s on pace for 44 homers this year, but it is worth noting him because of how ridiculous it was for him to be stuck in AAA for so many years. He’s been ready to tattoo major league pitching forever and now he’s finally getting the fulltime chance with Thome moved out of town. He should give Adam Dunn suitable competition now as they both try to see how far pitched balls can actually be hit.

Also Could Breakout: Chad Tracy, Hanley Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Grady Sizemore, Josh Willingham, Jonny Gomes.

Brandon Webb: There is nothing impressive about Webb’s 36 strikeouts in over 58 innings pitched. Almost all of his other stats are very impressive however, since Mr. Webb is no ordinary pitcher. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher, and we are talking extreme. In 2005 his G/F ratio was 4.34, leaving Westbrook in the dust at #2, with a number of 3.13. Even Derek Lowe couldn’t beat 4.00 G/F back when he was a dominant starter. As important is his only having allowed about 1 walk/10 innings so far this year. Those two facts make his 2.30 ERA legitimate despite a 0.268 OBA against. He doesn’t have a lot of comparisons in the recent past so it’s not easy to project his future ability to keep not allowing homers in a time when so many are hit. I would think that for at least this year and the near future he should remain a dominant starter as he is just now reaching his prime.

Brett Myers: When Myers first came up in 2002 I swore that I had never seen a curveball like his before. Evidently major leaguers had though, since he’s never achieved the k-rates that his stuff seems to suggest. He did take a nice jump forward last year as he’s becoming more a pitcher than a thrower (cliché I know). It will be hard for him to ever put up really good numbers pitching for Philadelphia in that park but he could still improve largely on his good year last year.

Javier Vazquez: An interesting case, I think he is a good example of how talent inevitably wins out over all the labels a player can be given during his career. On the Yankees he was labeled soft and maintained a label of overrated last year in the desert. Really what he has dealt with is being a flyball pitcher in some parks where homers fly with frequency. He is still young and still has the tools to improve though, even pitching in homer friendly Chicago. His current 0.93 WHIP (2nd in AL) and 0.208 OBA (3rd in AL) are above his head and shouldn’t be expected to continue. He could win more than 15 though this year with an ERA in the mid 3s based on his potential and peripheral stats of the past few years which would definitely be a breakout for him from his previous couple more mediocre years.

Scott Kazmir: The Mets traded him for Victor Zambrano. Despite the early career diss from management, Kazmir is doing exactly what his minor league numbers would suggest. That is walking too many guys, but striking out enough to almost compensate. What’s helping him this year is avoiding the absurd walk games he had last year but mainting his strikeout rates. His current 2.94 ERA is probably above his head at this point, based on his high WHIP so look for that to increase somewhat. Even so he’s quickly becoming one of the best lefties in AL and definitely has the talent to put up big numbers in the future.

Chris Capuano: Maybe not so much a breakout candidate as a good pitcher who is having a great year so far, but his 1.04 WHIP and 2.14 OBA against are very hard to ignore. He doesn’t really have the stuff to be dominating, although he certainly has een making the most of it currently. He’s just one of the many guys on the Brewers who can easily put up numbers that would make them stars in New York, and are reasons that the Brewers are just Ben Sheets away from being a force.

Jose Contreras: A breakout year at age 34(+)? Contreras had a good year last year, but it was really just a year that fit his peripheral stats better than his ERA did in New York, though cutting down on his walk rate didn’t hurt. This year his WHIP (0.87) and OBA against (0.179) are absurdly low, especially taking into account his unimpressive strikeout numbers. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess really. His splitter and fastball combination have made him absolutely unhittable some nights this year so I wouldn’t bet against him having a very good season.

Jeremy Bonderman: He’s made my breakout candidate list for 3 years running now. He almost did it last year, but then struggled with injuries at the end of the season. Once again his ERA (4.40) is puzzlingly high for someone allowing much less than a hit per inning, doesn’t allow home runs, and who has a very good strikeout/walk numbers. That would seem to make him breakout candidate pitching in such a large park but then remember that he is still only 23 years old and it seems that greatness is inevitable. Why not this year?

Also Could Breakout: Kelvim Escobar, Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Francisco Liriano, John Patterson.

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