By Bernie Pleskoff
The definition of a player that has “broken out” is in the eye of the beholder. For me, it’s quite simple. Once a player comes close to or actually reaches his potential, he has broken out.
Some players break out during the course of an entire season. Some players break out over one month and then move forward.
Some may say some of these players have already broken out. I guess my reason for including them is my opinion that they will be even louder and better. Maybe it’ll be Breakout with a capital B.
For me, potential is different than “upside”. Upside means there is still more in the tank. A player may be realizing the potential we had for him, but he can exceed that. Upside remains for each player I list below.
So today I begin to chronicle American League players I believe will come closer to reaching their potential than they have to date in their career. Next week, I’ll look at my National League candidates who I believe will “arrive”.
GREG BIRD-NEW YORK YANKEES
Having been plagued by injuries, the left-handed hitting Bird went to the plate only 170 times last year for the New York Yankees. He played in only 48 games and struck out 42 times or 25% of the time.
If Greg Bird, still only 25, stays healthy he could be a monster at the plate in his hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium home park. With a short right field porch inviting his bombs, Bird could hit 25 home runs and drive in 80 runs in only his second year at the major-league level. And, considering his limited time last season, it really will be his first full year.
Surrounded by hitters like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, Bird could fly to new heights from the first day of the season until the end.
Because of that lineup strength around him, Bird should see plenty of good pitches to hit. He could hunt fastballs and avoid troubling breaking balls as pitchers try to navigate an awesome and lethal Yankees lineup.
While I’m not convinced his batting average will soar on his power wings, I think he could end up hitting in the .250 range, which won’t be bad for a player that can deliver big hits in a terrific lineup.
AUSTIN HAYS-BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Hays, still only 22, forced his way into the Orioles lineup last year due to his Class-A Advanced time at Frederick, (.328/16/41), and his fantastic Double-A season at Bowie, (.330/16/54). Few players compiled a year like Hays. He was promoted to the Orioles to finish his season and showed power and grit in his brief 63 plate appearances that covered 20 games.
I like everything I see from Hays. I do think he will get playing time on a team that is likely not competing for a divisional championship and one that wants to evaluate their talent so they can move forward.
If he gets the type of playing time I believe that he deserves, Hays could become a 20 to 25 home run player as soon as this season. He should be able to cut down a 25% strikeout rate to something more manageable. I also believe Hays could hit in the range of .275 for the year and have more than 500 plate appearances.
The risk involved with the right-handed hitting Hays deals only with playing time as opposed to ability. As I evaluate him, if Hays plays, Hays hits. And he hits for power.
MATT OLSON-OAKLAND ATHLETICS
First base is a loaded position in baseball. Last year, the Athletics introduced us to their first baseman of the present and the future. Left-handed hitting Matt Olson came on the scene and most people would say he had a “breakout” year. But he only played in 59 games, going to the plate 216 times. He hit 24 homers and hit .259. It was a nice season. However, It served the purpose of setting the tone for this coming season. I think Olson could really have a booming, true breakout campaign in 2018.
In my view, Olson, who will be 23 in late March, is very capable of hitting 30 home runs in a park that might be considered difficult for some left-handed hitters. With his swing and with the lineup around him, for me, Olson tracks as a guy that can drive in between 85 and 100 runs. The issue will be his batting average. I am concerned that chasing home runs will result in a batting average in the .240 area. While I’d love to see more in that batting average category, I believe the home run quest will take a bit of a toll.
NOMAR MAZARA-TEXAS RANGERS
Left-handed hitting Nomar Mazara reminds me of Marcell Ozuna. Last year Ozuna broke out and had a fantastic season for the Miami Marlins. Now he will become the focal point of the St. Louis Cardinals offense.
I think this season Mazara will have the type of year Ozuna had last year. The Rangers will benefit by Mazara’s first two years on the major-league roster where he began to tease with his talent. He hit 20 home runs each of the last two years. Last year he drove in 101 runs.
This year I look for 28 homers and more than those 100 RBI from the left-handed hitting outfielder. In a very hitter-friendly home park, this should be the year we see him flex his muscles even more.
Mazara’s is a name often forgotten when power hitters are mentioned. But he is legitimate. He can rake. And even though he is still only 22, the native of the Dominican Republic should be a real leader on the Rangers and one of the guys I feel will break out in 2018 with even bigger numbers.
I know it seems Gallo broke out last year when he hit a whopping 41 home runs. But I think there’s more in that same tank. I think he’ll hit at least 45 homers and maybe even more than that. Why? Because I think the presence of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the American League will drive Gallo to hunt homers even more than he had in the past.
The 24-year-old Gallo struck out 36.8% of the time last year. Let me repeat that. Gallo struck out 36.8% of the time last year. Strikeouts are outs. They are better than hitting into a double play. They are no worse than grounding out or flying out. Unless there are men on base and the player doesn’t move the runner, strikeouts are outs. But those strikeouts kept the left-handed hitting Gallo from driving in more than 80 runs and scoring only 85 times. Perhaps less strikeouts translates to more RBIs and runs scored.
I wish I could say his strikeouts will be dramatically reduced this coming season. While I don’t see that happening, the number will be better but it won’t be a monumental difference. I do see the probability he drives in more runs in 2018. I do see him scoring more runs and stealing some bases. So I see him becoming a more complete player and an even greater offensive force on the Rangers as he becomes a first baseman exclusively and leaves third base and the outfield behind so he can concentrate on his hitting.
BRANDON DRURY-NEW YORK YANKEES
When the Arizona Diamondbacks traded Brandon Drury to the New York Yankees he got a huge break that will change his entire career. And he’s still only 25.
The right-handed hitting Drury is likely to become the regular, every day third baseman on a Yankees club that might score the most runs of any team in history. It’s possible. And Drury could be right in the middle of that run production.
Drury was not considered to be a very good second baseman by the new Mike Hazen regime in Phoenix. I can’t disagree with that assessment. In fact, Drury was on the bench during the Dbacks postseason run. Most scouts agree that Drury is a better third baseman than second baseman, but only average there at third, at best. But he can hit.
Drury has a sweet, line-drive barrel of the bat swing that should generate plenty of positive results in a lineup that is loaded with home run hitters. As I implied when discussing Greg Bird above, the Yankees lineup is to be feared.
Now given a chance to play on a regular basis, Drury should be able to drive the ball to the gaps in Yankee stadium and hit for an average that flirts with .270. I also see him driving in at least 60 runs and scoring 65 runs with about 15 home runs.
ALEX BREGMAN-HOUSTON ASTROS
Bregman is still only 23. In my opinion, he has just begun to scratch the surface on what he has available to offer his team.
Bregman played mostly third base, but he also played shortstop and second base last year for the Astros. He hit .284/19/71 with 17 stolen bases. It was a good year. He got even better in the postseason. It really was his first full season as a major-league player. He had adjustments to make and he showed he could hit big league pitching.
I think Bregman will increase his home run and RBIs in the coming season. I also feel he could steal even more bases.
Playing on a team without an obvious weakness at any position, Bregman will get plenty of plate appearances with men on base. He will be able to drive in runs and score runs.
Most Astros players cut down on their strikeouts last year as they hunted fastballs early in the count. Always a good contact hitter, the right-handed hitting Bregman struck out 15.5% of the time-a far cry from the higher numbers we see with other players. I think his strikeouts will come down again this year. And I think the Crawford Boxes in left field will be the recipient of plenty of Bregman Bombs.
JORGE POLANCO-MINNESOTA TWINS
Polanco is a switch-hitter, a good defender and a complete baseball player. He enters the season at the age of 24, and he should be able to build upon what he has started in parts of four years with the Twins.
With a bit more job security coming into the season, Polanco can be plenty dangerous at the plate. He hit .256 last year. It’s really possible he will increase that batting average by 20 points. He hit 13 home runs, and I see him doing that again in 2018. With a low strikeout rate, I see the difference for Polanco coming in the number of walks he takes and the number of runs he scores. He’s a solid player that gets overlooked at times in a solid lineup.
While Polanco may not be able to deliver the numbers we see from elite shortstops in the league, he is the type of shortstop that grinds it out every game and does what is necessary to beat the opposition.
A player that has a bit of pop and runs well, Polanco could be a very important component of a Twins team that is on the rise.
BYRON BUXTON-MINNESOTA TWINS
Those of you who have followed my work for years know that I have always said it would take until his fourth major-league season for Buxton to come close to reaching his potential.
This is Buxton’s fourth year. This is the year I believe he breaks out. This is the year I believe we will see a more consistent offensive side of his game. Buxton turned 24 in December.
The right-handed hitting Buxton is an outstanding defender. He’s fast and he takes good routes to the ball. He is reliable and confident on defense.
It has been his offensive output that has perplexed his many believers. While I always said I thought he would be good, I have never labeled him a superstar in the making. I’m not there this season either.
Buxton reduced his major-league strikeout total last year from 35.6% in 2016 to 29.4% last year. That’s a big change. That’s a big improvement. Buxton is putting bat to ball more consistently and I think that will improve a bit more next year. But I also feel he will always be a big strikeout player.
We are beginning to see a bit more confidence in his game. He is becoming more selective and walking a tad more as well. Improvement should come in virtually every phase of his game. He should be able to improve upon his 16 home run season from last year, which was up six from 2016.
We have to remember that every day of his life in the minor leagues Byron Buxton woke up in the morning reading about himself as the best prospect player in baseball. He was a “can’t miss” in a game where 90% of prospects miss. Now he can relax a bit more. It is doubtful he will be returned to Triple-A as he was last year. But beware-Byron Buxton still has two minor league options available.
I think Buxton’s at the big stage to stay. And I think this is the year he goes boom!
The Indians have invited Mike Napoli to camp on a minor-league contract. With Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso firmly in place at first base, it seems there is no role for Napoli once the season begins. I doubt he’ll play at Triple-A.
The contract was provided in discussion with manager Terry Francona who wanted to give Napoli the chance to be seen in live games by every major league team in his quest to get a big league job. In essence, Francona was giving Napoli a chance to catch on with a team and ultimately beat his Indians with his bat.
Francona’s gesture to a player that helped Francona and his Indians get to a World Series in the 2016 season is incredibly great. It shows compassion, kindness and most of all…class.
The Twins signed Logan Morrison to a contract as the team’s designated hitter and part-time first baseman. It is the role he will share with veteran Joe Mauer. Morrison could hit 30 home runs for the Twins and find himself a nice future home.
The signing made sense and it should really help both the Twins and Mauer.
On the opposite side of the scale is the signing by the Kansas City Royals of Lucas Duda. Duda should hit third in the lineup and platoon with right-handed hitting Hunter Dozier.
Frankly, the addition of the 32-year-old Duda doesn’t make much sense to me on a club that is bound and determined to get younger and rebuild. Why not let Dozier play every day and see what he can bring?
Yes, Duda will hit some home runs. However, Kansas City is a tough place to hit the ball out of the park. Frankly, Duda’s batting average, on-base percentage and other numbers won’t be very helpful to his new team.
I leave Tuesday for Florida. I will spend ten days watching Grapefruit League teams in an effort to continue to bring my readers and Twitter followers the most up-to-date information by seeing players with my own eyes. So follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff to get all my game-day information from both Arizona and Florida spring games.