By Bernie Pleskoff
Last week I highlighted some players I feel are due to break out big-time in the coming season. But as I mentioned last week, “breaking out” depends upon how one views the term. In some of the cases below, some readers may feel the player’s 2017 season was a true breakout. In those cases, I’m seeking Breakout with a capital B.
Here are the National League position players I feel will begin to reach their potential. All still have upside-improvement if you will, remaining.
ADDISON RUSSELL-CHICAGO CUBS
One can safely make the argument that Javier Baez broke out last year with his 23 home runs and 75 RBI. I agree. But I think more is on the way for Baez. He and Addison Russell form a fantastic middle-infield duo for the Cubs and both will help the team score runs in bunches.
Frankly, Russell wasn’t healthy last year and that contributed to some numbers that didn’t fit his skills. Now hopefully healthy, he should play more like 155 games instead of the 110 he played in last year.
Should Russell stay healthy, I don’t see why he can’t be a .250 or better hitter, raising his batting average at least 15 points. But I see the breakout coming in home runs and RBI. He could hit 22 homers and drive in 75 runs. He could score 70 to 75 runs as well if everything goes well.
The right-handed hitting Russell is in his age 24 season. He is still young and shouldn’t be counted upon to produce the same type of offense as Baez. Baez is a better hitter. In virtually every phase from hard contact to home runs to extra-base hits. But Russell compliments the production of the middle-infield very nicely and when viewed in tandem, Russell and Baez are a very formidable duo.
TREVOR STORY-COLORADO ROCKIES
I look at the 25-year-old Story and see a shortstop with amazing power playing in a park that with or without the humidor is a hitter’s paradise.
True, Story struck out an unbelievable 191 times last season. His 34.4% strikeout rate might have other teams looking around for a new shortstop. But there is no denying his home run power. He hit 24 last year, and I believe he is capable of hitting 30. And I think he can drive in 100 runs on a team that is loaded with hitters like Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Ian Desmond, just to name a few.
Story may eventually feel the competition of prospect shortstop Brendan Rodgers. However, I feel Rodgers will become the team’s second baseman if D J LeMahieu leaves via free agency prior to the 2019 season.
Story should be able to reduce his strikeouts, increase his on-base percentage and score more runs.
I think this is the season Trevor Story puts everything together and enters the conversation as a shortstop with a big, big home run bat that is only getting better.
AUSTIN BARNES-LOS ANGELES DODGERS
We certainly don’t hear much talk about him, but Austin Barnes can flat out hit. Last season he raised his batting average to .289 in 262 plate appearances from .156 in 37 trips to the plate the year before. In short, he gave notice that he should be in the catcher conversation with the Dodgers.
Barnes and Yasmany Grandal form a terrific one-two punch behind the plate. I wish I knew that Barnes would get 400 plate appearances. However, Grandal can hit as well. Between them, they each may form one total player.
Barnes uses the middle of the field very, very well. He can drop a single in front of the center fielder or hit a smash up the middle with hard contact. He knows his limitations. While I think some home runs will come, I am more inclined to believe Austin Barnes is content to contributing by getting on base and scoring runs. He may leave the heavier lifting-the home runs if you will-to others on his team.
Keep an eye on Austin Grandal or Yasmany Barnes. I mix their names together to form one, because they are a really, really good catching tandem for a solid Dodgers team.
ORLANDO ARCIA-MILWAUKEE BREWERS
I can’t help believe the 23-year-old Arcia has been toying with us. I find him to be a guy with an outstanding skill set that is ready to bust loose.
In a lineup that boasts Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana as power and extra-base hit resources, Arcia can be a terrific source of runs.
Last season Arcia increased his home run total from four in half a season of work in 2016 to 15 in 153 games. And frankly, I feel there are more waiting in his bat. He should hit in the .275 range and steal about 20 bases to go along with his extra-base hits and home runs.
Putting the ball in play is what Arcia does very well. He’s a solid defender at shortstop, the job seems to be his, and he can deliver consistency on both sides of the ball.
With a low strikeout rate below 10% going forward, I think Arcia will go from being a secret to more of a household name as he progresses through the coming season.
DOMINGO SANTANA-MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Santana is a big, strong 25-year-old hitter with some true power in his right-handed bat. However, he is prone to striking out by being a free swinger without much plate discipline. I get that. And a guy that hit 30 home runs and drove in 85 should qualify as someone who has already broken out. I don’t think so. I think Santana will reduce his whopping 178 strikeouts and 29.3% strikeout rate by perhaps 5% or more. If he does that, it would be huge. More balls in play means more opportunities for good things to happen.
Santana may have to fight for playing time in a crowded Brewers outfield. They have Lorenzo Cain, Christian Yelich and Ryan Braun in addition to Santana. Who sits? Or does Braun move to first base? I hope that happens. I think having all four in the lineup together would really make the Brewers one very tough offensive club. (See my note below on Braun).
Miller Park is a haven for power hitters. Actually, it is for any hitter. Being right-handed in that park adds value to Santana.
So if he plays, Santana could easily rack up doubles and home runs as well as stolen bases in excess of the 15 he had last year.
MAIKEL FRANCO-PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
I know, I know. Franco has been a huge disappointment by virtually every standard. We seem to forget that Franco hit 25 and 24 home runs the past two seasons. He also hit .256 in 2016 and dropped to .230 last year. His runs scored and RBI totals decreased last year as well.
I have Franco on my list for one particular reason. I believe the addition of Carlos Santana will make a world of difference for Franco. He will have a positive role model to learn from, as Santana is an excellent teammate and a person that gives 100% effort to his team. The presence of Santana should be able to lift Franco to his highest level ever.
Franco is a right-handed hitter in his age 25 season. This should be the time he comes into his own as a power-hitting more reliable member of a lineup that is getting better and better. With Rhys Hoskins and Santana as the anchors, I think Franco really breaks out.
JOSE MARTINEZ-ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Last year it was Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham that cashed in on their opportunities to play in St. Louis. Is there another Cardinals player waiting in the wings to bust out? I think so.
I can’t help but wonder how many plate appearances Jose Martinez will get this season. He hit .309 last year with 14 home runs in only 307 plate appearances. Can he get more at-bats or is he strictly a platoon player getting his chance against left-handed pitching.
Martinez can play the outfield and first base. If he gets hot, he may find more playing time and take at-bats away from other players.
Right now the issue is finding a place for Martinez to play. If that gets resolved somehow, Martinez can become much more a household name. He has the ability, but he just needs the chance. And that can be said for countless players waiting for their turn as they linger on minor league rosters or in big league dugouts. As of now, Martinez is an excellent spare part on a good team. That makes it tough to find at-bats.
DAVID PERALTA-ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Peralta is a very intriguing player. He had given up on baseball after a rocky professional baseball start as a pitcher in the Cardinals organization. To make a long story short, he went to independent ball and made himself into a very credible outfielder.
At age 30, the left-handed hitter is now a fixture in the Diamondbacks outfield; Peralta has a strong arm, a very good bat and plays with some speed on both offense and defense.
It is never too late to have a booming, break out season.
Somehow, Peralta is the forgotten man in Diamondbacks conversations. However, he is a critical component of their lineup. Hitting behind A.J. Pollock and ahead of Paul Goldschmidt in the batting order, Pollock should score plenty of runs and have the opportunity to knock in runs as well.
He could steal 10 bases if he gets the green light and his batting average may well exceed his fine .293 mark from last season. He can easily become a .300 hitter.
If he stays healthy and if the Diamondbacks continue to have the type of offense that generated excitement in the past couple years, David Peralta could be in the center of the action. Peralta could be staring at a break out year with bigger numbers and positive results all around.
It seems pretty evident the Brewers want to convert Ryan Braun to first base from the outfield. When he began his career, Braun played third base. Defensive woes dictated a shift to the outfield. Now, however, the team has added Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, both stellar outfielders. The team really wants Domingo Santana to play right field as I noted above. Braun is the guy to move. I’ve seen him play two games at first base. In both games, throwing has been an issue. He is able to scoop balls in the dirt. He moves well. His throws have been bad. But if either Braun or Santana aren’t traded, the potent Brewers offense will include all four of Yelich, Cain, Braun and Santana.
I got to see Michael Kopech pitch for the White Sox. I had seen him during his stint in the Fall League, but this was a refresher for me. He still looks like an outstanding prospect. His fastball sits between 95-98 with little to no effort. He can hit 100 if he wishes. However, my concern with Kopech remains the same. I think he tries to throw too hard. If he would be happy enough at 95 and not try to throw the ball through the backstop I think his command would improve. He’ll figure that out. I think Kopech will become the ace of the White Sox staff for years to come and become a really fine major league pitcher.
The overall strength of the Rangers Rougned Odor is amazing to me. He swings way too hard, but when his swing is more measured the ball simply flies off his bat. I love watching him attack the ball-as that’s exactly what he does.
Is this finally the year the Royals will turn to Bubba Starling in their outfield? You may remember he was a No. 1 draft pick and the 5th overall player taken in 2011. Starling had a future as a quarterback, but he chose to become a baseball player. He has lingered in the Royals system for what seems to be an eternity, completing six minor league seasons. The bat has never come along. I’m not sure this is his year, either. I got to see him play this spring and not much has changed. He is virtually the same player I have seen in two different Arizona Fall Leagues. The body is there, but he has not yet achieved first-round skills.
Tonight, March 11 marks our first ever ClubhouseCorner.com Fantasy Baseball auction. I’m looking forward to competing with some very motivated and exciting players.
This week I am still in Florida watching Spring Training games. I’ll keep you posted on what’s happening. Just follow my Twitter account @BerniePleskoff for my daily spring comments.