The concept of a last place team having the Most Valuable Player in baseball is a silly concept to me. I should say was. I didn’t understand how Andre Dawson took home the award in 1987 for a team that finished in sixth place. Was he the best player in the National League that year? I think so, but just how valuable was he for a last place team?
Enter 2016 and the Year of the Freddie Freeman. I now believe in the last place MVP.
The Atlanta Braves have been doing work since John Hart took over as GM a little over a year ago. They have traded away practically every semblance of the team they were under the Frank Wren years. The old Braves Way is gone and the new Braves Rebuild is here.
That’s why it is so peculiar that they have chosen Freddie Freeman to be the lone survivor of the old system.
I am a total fantasy geek. I drafted two 25-man rosters in the span of 48 hours last week and loved every minute of it. It’s primarily because my girlfriend watches the corniest movies in the world (Pizza My Heart) and the most bizarre T.V. shows (The Lying Game. Have you seen this show? It is a college murder mystery that was so bad that it was cancelled after two seasons AND YOU NEVER FOUND OUT WHO THE MURDERER WAS! But I digress…). This in turn leaves me a lot of time to endlessly research every last player. When the rest of my fantasy compadres are completely hammered or falling asleep in the mid to late rounds, I’m just getting started.
That being said, I have compiled a list of five breakout stars for the 2014 season. I don’t use the term sleeper anymore. That concept was created years ago when there was pretty much one fantasy magazine and these players were truly under the radar. Now there are like 50 fantasy magazines calling the same players sleepers. Then there are thousands of online sites calling that same player a sleeper. Well, how are people sleeping on a player that thousands of different sources just told them about? In this age of technology and fantasy junkie mags, the sleeper, dear reader, is dead.
You need to look for guys who are ready to breakout. What defines a breakout? Too many fantasy “experts” label breakout players as players that are simply expected to have big years. Take Freddie Freeman, for example. I think heis about to have a monster season, one that he sets new career highs across the board and takes home the NL MVP. He is not a breakout candidate, however, because last season he hit .319 with 23 HRs and 109 RBI. Do I think he surpasses all those numbers this year? I sure do. His 2013 numbers, however, already rank him pretty high amongst fantasy first baseman. He isn’t breaking out, he’s getting better and what he already does very well.
Nor should comebacks be considered a breakout season (and yes, I have seen some people do this). Albert Pujols is not a sleeper, nor is he having a breakout season if he bounces back from that God awful pile of crap he has produced the last two seasons. He will simply be Pujols being Pujols again. The same can be said for the Rays’ young hurler, Alex Cobb. Yes, his season was cut short by that frightening line drive come-backer, but last season was his breakout. If you were lucky enough to get Cobb in the mid or late rounds of your draft, please invite me to your league in the comment section below.
Simply put, a breakout star has to have a season that will rank the player in both fantasy and reality either a Top Ten position player or a Top 20 pitcher. A breakout season has to be one that either makes said player a keeper or an early round draft pick the next season. So without further ado, here are my:
FIVE BREAKOUT STARS FOR THE 2014 MLB SEASON:
5. Masahiro Tanaka, pitcher, New York Yankees. Most of you know I am a Yankee fan. Most of you also know I am the featured columnist for YanksGoYard.com. To say that I have read my fair share of Tanaka reports is an understatement. The beauty of Tanaka is that he doesn’t come with high expectations. Yankees’ GM Brian Cashman said that he projected him as nothing more than a middle-of-the-rotation type of pitcher. Then spring training started. Now, I am fully aware that spring training stats are about as reliable as an Atlanta weatherman, but Tanaka dominated. Going 2-0 with a 2.14 ERA is nice, but it’s the peripherals that are really striking: 26 Ks in just 21 innings while allowing only 3 walks, a .190 opponents batting average, and a 0.86 WHIP. That’s the stuff from which aces are made. He’s currently the 4th pitcher in the Yankees rotation which means he is going to have very favorable match-ups with a pretty stout line-up behind him.
Projections: 17-8, 3.19 ERA, 189 Ks
4. Yan Gomes, catcher, Cleveland Indians. Gomes has been stuck behind Carlos Santana and his Evil Ways at catcher for the past two seasons, but his patience has paid off. Santana has made the Soul Sacrifice and moved to third base for the 2014 season. Now Gomes will be the everyday catcher and we can all rejoice a collective Oye Como Va! (Ok, I’m done with the Santana references.) Gomes hit .294 with 11 HRs last season in only 293 at bats, so we’ve seen that he is more than capable of handling big league pitching. His biggest knock is that he struggles against righties, so his batting average may take a slight dip with more at bats, but his power is sure to increase. Expect Gomes to finish in the Top 10 of fantasy catchers this season.
Projections: .276, 21 HRs, 68 RBI
3. Michael Wacha, pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals. The question isn’t if, but when Michael Wacha will win the Cy Young Award. He is Adam Wainwright Part Deux with the luxury of having Wainwright El Uno around to mentor him. After putting up sexy numbers in his brief regular season stint (4 wins, 2.78 ERA, and 65 Ks over 64.2 innings), Wacha, like Wainwright in ’06, made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs. He ran into some trouble against the Red Sox in the World Series but still put up a dazzling 4-1 record behind a 2.64 ERA with 33 Ks over 30.2 post season innings. I am fully aware that fantasy “experts” never judge a player on such a small sample size, but Wacha did this on the biggest stage against some powerful line-ups. He is also on the St. Louis Cardinals who, in case you haven’t been paying attention, are a pitching factory that win a lot of games. Wacha has the goods to keep the Cards in ball games even on his bad days without having the pressure of being the ace of the staff.
Projections: 17-6, 2.93 ERA, 193 Ks
2. Sonny Gray,pitcher, Oakland A’s. Gray put up fantastic numbers in his first career big league stint last season. (5 wins, 2.67 ERA, 67 Ks in 64 IPs). Oakland’s Opening Day starter, Jarrod Parker, went down for the year this spring and Gray now has to step up and become the ace of the A’s staff in his first full season. Gray, mainly because of his short stature, has been compared to the likes of Tim Hudson and Roy Oswalt. It is also because, like Hudson and Oswalt, players and coaches have raved how Gray not only has the physical ability to pitch, but he is mentally years ahead of the game. Like Wacha and the Cardinals, the A’s produce stud pitchers. It’s just what they do. There is no reason to believe it stops with the GRAYtness.
Projections: 19-9, 2.87 ERA, 178 Ks
1. Eric Hosmer, first baseman, Kansas City Royals. If you read my preseason predictions, you are well aware that I believe this is the year the Royals return to baseball relevance. Their success rests largely on their number three hitter. Hosmer has teased us over the past three seasons with marginal stats for a first baseman, averaging a .277 BA, 17 HRs, and 72 RBI. This year, he is surrounded by the best line-up of his 4-year tenure and should have a lot of opportunities to put up MVP numbers. He dealt with a rotator cuff injury for most of 2012 and then the first half of last season. When he was fully healthy and adjusted his swing, he finished the season batting .323 over the second half. He has also recorded double-digit stolen bases every year of his career, which is very rare at his position. Hosmer is a patient, contact hitter with strength and his power numbers will only increase as he matures. He is in for a monster season.
Projections: .313, 31 HRs, 106 RBI
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Rendon, 2B, Washington Nationals, Brad Miller, SS, Seattle Mariners, and Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies.
I hope you got a few of these guys on your team, especially if you are in a keeper league like myself. Until next time, folks, let’s go Yankees!
It’s that time of year, folks. The bats and pitches are a little slower but baseball is back. This begins my division by division look at the National and American Leagues. Hopefully, unlike my Super Bowl prediction, I get a few things right. Even if I don’t, I’m sure I’ll ruffle some feathers along the way.
THE NL EAST:
The NL East is a two-trick pony. It doesn’t take an expert to realize that this division will come down to the Nationals and the Braves for the title with both teams likely heading for the postseason. The other three teams? Well, they do have one thing in common: the Phillies, Mets, and Marlins will all struggle to get close to .500.
5. The Philadelphia Phillies.
(Covers.com has the Phils Over/Under wins at 78. FanGraphs.com projects the Phillies to finish at 78-84.)
If they reach 78 wins, then it isn’t a terrible season though it’s not good. It’s certainly not because they don’t have the talent. It just so happens that the talent they have peaked 5 years ago.
AJ Burnett, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd, Cliff Lee, and Mike Adams are 35 or older. Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, Roberto Hernandez, and Cole Hamels are all 30 or older. Hell, the 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz has 36-year-old Wil Nieves backing him up. Every person listed above aside from Nieves is a starter in this line-up. The 2012 Yankees showed us all this is not a recipe for success.
Like I said earlier, these guys aren’t washed up bums. These are still talented veterans, guys who can still contribute and play key roles on a contender. Then how does it make sense that I rank these guys last in the NL East? I think that once they are out of contention, they will have a fire sale and start to rebuild. Rollins, Utley, and Lee are sure to go, and Papelbon leaving is a strong possibility as well. Hopefully, this leads to a late season call-up for right-hander David Buchanan, a promising starting pitcher in the organization but he also helped me move about 5 years ago, so go David! At that point it will be a lost season and the Phillies will sink to the bottom of the muck.
2014 Projected Finish: 74-88. For ticket information, check out Ticket Monster.
4. The New York Mets.
(Covers.com has the O/U at 71 games while FanGraphs has them finishing 77-85.)
I wish this team was worse than it is, especially since I think Bobby Bo is seriously still on their payroll. I love watching this team play second fiddle in the Big Apple. In fact if I had a chance to go to a Wilmington Blue Rocks game or sit front row at Citi Field, then I’m going to Wilmington. Unfortunately this team does have some talent but fortunately, it’s not enough to return to relevance just yet.
That could happen when Matt Harvey returns from Tommy John surgery in 2015 but with 41-year-old (so he says) Bartolo Colon as your ace, you could be in for a long season. David Wright is the heart and soul of this team. We continue to be told that he is still a superstar but the last few years he has done anything to prove that. He is officially injury-prone and his best years could very well be behind him.
Ike Davis versus Lucas Duda is a position battle worth watching… if you have no TV, can’t read books, and are duct taped to a seat in Citi Field. Chris Young and Curtis Granderson are upgrades in the outfield but these guys are there to mash home runs, not to change the franchise. The pitching staff does have some nice pieces as I look forward to Zach Wheeler’s second go round. Jon Neise has the goods, but he is coming off an injury-riddled campaign and is already heading for an MRI this spring. This season is about making strides for the Mets and getting ready for the future and surrounding Wheeler, Harvey, and d’Arnaud with the right pieces.
Projected 2014 Finish: 77-85. For ticket information click here.
3. The Miami Marlins.
(Covers has the O/U at 66.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 74-88.)
The consensus both in Vegas and with the “stat guys” have the Marlins finishing dead last. Well, what fun is it to go along with the masses? Especially when you know I can make a compelling case as to why you should believe me.
I went to a Marlins’ game last season and, let me tell you folks, this was a bad team. They were so bad that it was impressive that they won 62 games. It was, however, a young team that kept growing throughout the year. The starting team in September vaguely resembled the team that started in April. In that final month when rookies Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Adeiny Hechavarria finally had some games under their belt together, the Marlins put up 13 wins. That’s about 20% of all of their wins the whole season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garret Jones, and even aging Rafael Furcal are not baseball superstars but are a much needed improvement that brings veteran leadership to the squad. They should add some pop to give a healthy Giancarlo Stanton some protection and make that weird eyesore in center field light up and blow its lid a few times.
Their young pitching staff is maybe baseball’s best kept secret. Sure, the whole world knows Jose Fernandez after his Rookie of the Year campaign that put him in Cy Young talks but little is known of his cohorts. Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, and one-time Tigers’ top prospect Jacob Turner all anchored a staff with very respectable ERAs in the 3s. Like the line-up, a full season together as a staff should show vast improvement. I don’t think the Marlins have what it takes to be a sleeper playoff team, but I think they have the goods to surprise a lot of people with a nice comeback story.
Projected 2014 Finish: 80-82. For ticket information click here.
2. The Washington Nationals.
(Covers has the O/U at 90.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 87-75.)
An important mid-September series in Atlanta will probably determine the winner of this division. Like their Braves counterpart, the Nationals are stacked on both sides of the ball. What separates the two teams?
Until the Nationals can solve their injury woes, I can’t be a believer. I was all-in last season on these guys, trading a first-round pick in fantasy to get Stephen Strasburg with delusional visions of a 20-win shutdown season. The only thing shutdown about his season was Strasburg himself. Bryce Harper has endless potential but has to stay on the field this season and become the face of the NL. Ryan Zimmerman seems to always be sore or playing through pain and his bat is needed in the heart of this line-up.
If Strasburg can finally reach 200 innings and Gio Gonzalez can bounce back to his 2012 form, then this is hands down the best pitching staff in the National League and, aside from the Detroit Tigers, could be the best in the game. Jordan Zimmermann is getting better and better. That’s a scary thought coming off a 19-9 season. Doug Fister, a number two on most other teams, will be the fourth slot in their rotation. Strasburg, Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and Fister are all capable of pitching Cy Young-type seasons. If they do it all in the same year, this team isn’t just winning the NL East, they are winning it all. This team is young and has many future seasons atop the NL East. I simply don’t think their reign will begin this year.
Project 2014 Finish: 92-70; National League Wild-Card. For ticket information click here.
1. The Atlanta Braves.
(Covers has the O/U at 86.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 85-77.)
I know, I know. You picked the team in the city you live in to finish first. Homer.
If there is one thing that I have learned watching the Braves over the years, it is that you can never count them out in the regular season. That being said, I think they repeat atop the NL East.
This team won 96 games last season with three of their key pieces having career-worst seasons. There is absolutely no way that BJ Upton and Dan Uggla can be as bad as they were last season. Despite batting a horrific .179, Uggla still slugged 22 HRs. He still has his power, so he can still bounce back to at least being a mediocre second baseman. Upton managed to hit a whopping .184 and didn’t get on base which was what the Braves brought him in to do (or lure his brother into town, which in that case, he succeeded). Let’s give Upton a wash for signing the big contract and not performing under the pressure. If he could reclaim his spot atop the line-up and cause ruckus on the base paths, then the Braves line-up would benefit greatly. The key factor is Jason Heyward. I’m done hearing about what this kid is capable of or comparisons to great right fielders of yesteryear. It’s now or never for him, which is probably why the Braves only signed him to a two-year extension.
Sure, they lost Brian McCann and Tim Hudson, but they have plenty of ammo to replace them. Throw in a Top Ten starting rotation in all of baseball AND one of the best bullpens in the game anchored by the second coming of The Sandman and this team is without question playoff bound. The boldest of the predictions? Your 2014 NL MVP is going to be Freddie Freeman. BOOM. That just happened.
2014 Projected Finish: 95-67; NL East Champs. For ticket information click here.