Top American League breakouts
Now conditioned as full-time starter, Phil Hughes poised to become ace
Gordon Beckham has potential to perform along lines of Dustin Pedroia
Carlos Santana may be as good as any catcher not named Joe Mauer
We have fully delved into finding players who can outperform their draft position, but it is a worthwhile exercise to review those that can make you look like a rich genius next fall.
The final piece of SI.com's fantasy baseball preview might be the most important one: Breakouts. It is players who go from good to great that make or break a fantasy season.
While a sleeper can be a breakout, a breakout cannot be a sleeper. Breakouts are those middle-to-early round picks that are already pretty darn good, but they take that next big step to dominance for fantasy owners. (They can just as easily be busts, too, as I've noted in my AL and NL Bust preview pieces.)
Every year you can look the roster of your league champion and every year it is the same: The winner of your league had the most breakthrough players.
It could have been Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto or Jose Bautista last season -- maybe even all three of them. King Felix Hernandez and Neftali Feliz were plenty important, too. Whoever had those players on your team did pretty well last season, guaranteed.
Finding breakouts isn't easy. It is hard to see something before it is right before your eyes. But we will take a shot at helping you look into that crystal ball.
We will highlight the potential breakouts team-by-team around the American League before doing the same in the NL (in predicted order of finish):
Ellsbury is entering his prime at 27 and is a great injury-risk sleeper -- two of our favorite categories for finding breakthroughs before they happen. He is also going to be arbitration eligible for the next few seasons, so it is "Go Time" for Ellsbury. It should be a banner year for an outfielder who was already the No. 2 overall scorer at his position in 2009.
Hughes is one of those third-year starting pitchers who can go from solid middle-of-the-rotation starter to Cy Young candidate. Heck, he could even be the Yankees' ace ahead of CC Sabathia this season. His ERA was a bit high, but now that his arm is conditioned for 30-plus starts and 200-plus innings, he should posts career highs across the board.
This is highly speculative, because we have to go to a rookie with an uncertain role to name a breakout candidate for the Rays. McGee is more sleeper than breakout right now, but if he proves capable of being the Rays closer, he could be the fastest riser up the Average Draft Position board during Spring Training. McGee has a chance to be this year's Neftali Feliz.
The Orioles have a few decent candidates to become stars, namely Adam Jones and Wieters. Let's single out Wieters out, though, because he was supposed to be a huge fantasy star by now. Not everyone can be as pretty as a (Buster) Posey. The rigors of Wieters' first full season in the majors caught up to him, and we saw his numbers drop from his rookie campaign. He is going to be much better this go around and could prove to be a bargain in the middle rounds at a thin position -- though he's just as likely to bust, so don't take him too early. Wieters hasn't looked like it yet, but he is entirely capable of a .300-20-80 season as a catcher.
The Blue Jays are another team with a slew of players who have yet to hit their peak: Travis Snider, J.P. Arencibia and perhaps the entire rotation. Morrow is one of the burgeoning knockout pitchers in all of baseball, posting a league-best 10.95 strikeouts per nine last season. If the third-year starting pitcher can get his innings total up to 180 or higher, he could lead the league in whiffs. Fantasy owners love strikeouts and Morrow is still a bit unheralded by the masses.
This is a talent that smacks you in the face. That same statement was used to describe Feliz going into last season, by the way. Beckham is due for a big, big year. He was a huge disappointment in his first full season in the majors, but things tend to be far easier the second time around. Beckham could be a poor man's Dustin Pedroia this season and he has even a higher ceiling long term as a .300-25-100-100-20 talent. Hitting second in front of Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn should help get Beckham plenty of pitches to hit.
Young is a one-time phenom who hasn't yet quite lived up to the hype, but you should note the strides he made a year ago: .298-21-112-77-5. He will never be the 30-plus basestealer he was projected to be, but the 25-year-old has time to grow into a .300-30-100-100 candidate -- even in a tough park for homers in the Minnesota outdoors.
While you probably shouldn't be quite sure Austin Jackson is ready to take that next big step coming off a strong rookie season, Scherzer certainly looks primed to do that. He has the stuff to win 18 games (his career high was set at 12 last season) and post a sub-3.00 ERA with more than 200 strikeouts. There are only a couple handfuls of pitchers in the majors with that kind of ceiling and Scherzer could be on the board after the top 30 starting pitchers in fantasy.
One of our elite sophomores to target, Santana has expectations and a ceiling that could carry him to Victor Martinez heights among catchers. Many are expecting great things, even if he is a catcher coming off knee surgery, but he is probably going to be worth the premium. If he hits .280-20-80, he will be as good as any catcher not named Joe Mauer.
Everyone is going to scoff at this pick, but Gordon is far too talented to be a mediocre fantasy player. He is entering his prime and is entirely capable of posting a .275-20-80 campaign. That is a far cry from his one-time .300-30-100-100-30 expectations.
Kendrick has often been referred to as a potential batting champion. It happened last year for Robinson Cano, and could for Kendrick, who is up for his age 27 season. Kendrick hit .279 in his first full season, but he is a .300-plus hitter who can post double-digit homers and steals -- maybe even .320-20-100-100-20.
As big of a breakthrough season as the Rangers enjoyed last year, they still have plenty of players capable of doing more than they did a year ago, including Ian Kinsler, Cruz, Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon. The whole pitching staff is still just scratching the surface. Kinsler is already valued as an elite fantasy player and he would have to hit .300-30-100-100-20 for him to outperform his draft position. Cruz has already hit over .300 and had a 30-homer season. He just hasn't done it in the same year. This should be the year.
It was supposed to be Anderson having the huge year last season for the A's and fantasy owners. Instead, it was fellow sophomore Trevor Cahill. Both young arms are burgeoning aces, but it is the bet here that Anderson closes the gap on his teammate, if not whip right past him. It is strikeout potential that will make Anderson go off the board for Cahill again this spring. He needs to be a 15-win, low-3.00-something ERA and 200-strikeout pitcher this season, his third in the majors.
Like so many other cellar-dweller teams, the Mariners are a breeding ground for potential fantasy surprises. Just about everyone on the roster can be better than they were a year ago. League is going to be 28 by opening day, so he is smack dab in his prime and will start the season as the M's closer. He has the stuff to keep that role from rehabbing David Aardsma for the full season, too.
Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.