Fantasy Baseball Draft 2011: Top Ten Breakout Sleepers
Breaking out is a big event in fantasy sports. And no, I’m not talking about your pimples that formed because you spent too many hours at your computer reading up on baseball stats and forgot to shower for a few days. I’m talking about young players, full of potential, promise and raw ability, putting it all together for the first time at the pro level to produce a full season of numbers they weren’t expected to, or hadn’t previously achieved. Not every player can be like Albert Pujols and start mashing like a Hall-of-Famer in their rookie season. Most players take a year or two, or sometimes more, to finally put together that special season that puts them on the fantasy map.
Predicting a breakout season can be like jumping on a bandwagon. One or two people suggest it’s coming, and the next thing you know, everyone believes it. Sometimes it works out the way you wanted, and other times it doesn’t. There is no exact science to predicting professional athletes, especially in today’s age of blockbuster trades, serious injuries and medical breakthroughs to recover from those injuries, and so on. No matter how hard you try, there will always be a few players that break out in a way that nobody expected and others that do not live up to the same kind of hype. In 2010, we saw players like Joey Votto, Carlos Gonzalez and Jose Bautista break out in a big way. That’s not to say that they were nobodies before that, but they exceeded expectations and projections going into the season. Meanwhile, other players such as Stephen Strasburg, Gordon Beckham and Jason Bay didn’t provide what fantasy managers were hoping for from them, for a variety of reasons.
Here’s my list of not-so-obvious breakout players for the 2011 fantasy season. I tried to avoid mentioning the most obvious players, such as sophomore studs looking to improve on solid rookie campaigns. Think Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton and Buster Posey. These guys generated so much hype in their debut season that a projected statistical improvement is pretty much a foregone conclusion for each of them, and this is reflected in their pre-season draft rankings. Too much hype drives up a player’s price/draft position, to the point where the breakout season’s value is reduced by how early you are forced to draft the player. Here are the guys that, in my opinion, will break out and outperform their draft slots, thrusting themselves into the fantasy limelight for 2011:
Andrew McCutchen – OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
In a season that seems surprisingly shallow for outfield fantasy talent, McCutchen is primed to take his 5-tool game another step forward. McCutchen is a speedy outfielder who also has some pop (he already has a 3-homer game on his resume). His biggest problem is that he plays for the anemic Pittsburgh Pirates. But just like the Rays did after a few losing seasons, the Pirates are stocking up on prospects that could lead them to greener pastures in the next few years. Guys like Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez are now honing their skills at the big league level and should provide some offense behind McCutchen in the Pittsburgh lineup. Expect an average around .300 with career highs across the board in runs (should top 100), home runs (18-20), RBI (65-70) and stolen bases (35+).
Elvis Andrus – SS, Texas Rangers
A mid-tier shortstop with speed, we have yet to see the best of Andrus. Still young and entering the season at 22 years old, Andrus already has over 1000 career at-bats and 65 steals to his name, not to mention a trip to the World Series. Not bad for a player that skipped from AA straight to the big leagues a couple seasons ago. Andrus won’t provide you with much (if any) power, but consistency should benefit him this year. It’s worth noting that in his first two seasons, Andrus was bounced around the Texas lineup, registering plenty of at-bats near the bottom of the order. This will be his first opportunity to begin the season near the top of a stacked lineup that includes the likes of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and Ian Kinsler. Seriously, even Bengie Molina could score runs leading off for this team. If he can improve on his batting average and on-base percentage, Andrus should be a lock for 95+ runs and 35+ steals. I expect his batting average to climb to the .280 range as well. He won’t contribute across all categories, but if you have a need for speed, you can get him fairly cheap relative to what he will provide.
Pedro Alvarez – 3B, Pittsburgh Pirates
Another bat out of the Pittsburgh lineup? Sounds crazy, I know. Alvarez doesn’t fall into the same sophomore category as Heyward, Stanton and Posey that I mentioned above because his rookie campaign was not as glamorous as theirs. He struggled to adjust to major league pitching, batting .255 or lower in each of his first three months. But then September came and he seemed to figure it all out, hitting .311 with 10 doubles, 5 homers, and 26 RBI in 27 games. Alvarez’s second half numbers in 2010 and the progression of Pittsburgh’s young prospects give me reason for optimism in 2011. He’ll hit in the heart of an order led by McCutchen and could push 30 homers and 100 RBI before all is said and done. With third base being a shallow position in 2011, Alvarez could be a golden ticket later in your draft.
Colby Rasmus – OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Rasmus improved his numbers across the board in his sophomore season, but it’s no secret that this kid has the potential to do much more. Rasmus started 2010 strongly but his playing time became erratic down the stretch after requesting a trade and not getting along with manager Tony LaRussa. If Rasmus is able to smooth things over and come into 2011 with a positive attitude, he could be poised for a big year. His 23 home runs from last year could come closer to 30 in 2011, and his 12 steals could make him a potential 20/20 candidate. He will need to improve on his hitting at home, but his peripheral numbers such as SLG% and OBP% indicate he has the maturity at the plate to do so. With Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright out for 2011 to undergo Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals will need to rely on Rasmus’ bat even more to remain competitive in the NL Central.
Max Scherzer – SP, Detroit Tigers
You could make a case that Scherzer broke out last season, but many fantasy managers that didn’t own him wouldn’t have noticed because of his horrid start. After his first 8 starts in 2010, Scherzer found himself with a 1-4 record and a 7.29 ERA. Not surprisingly, he was demoted to AAA where he discovered a mechanical flaw in his delivery. He returned in a big way, striking out 14 batters over 5.2 innings of shutout ball in his first start back. It was smooth sailing from then on as Scherzer posted a fantastic 2.46 ERA over 23 starts after his return, striking out just over a batter per inning. He finished with a respectable 3.50 ERA, a solid 1.25 WHIP and the first winning record of his career. While it’s unlikely that Scherzer can perform that well over an entire season, 23 starts is no small stretch. If he can keep it together all year, I expect him to take another big step forward in 2011. Expect about the same percentages with a few more wins and around 200 K’s. This time, whether you own him on your fantasy team or not, you’re going to notice.
Tommy Hanson – SP, Atlanta Braves
For a couple years now, Hanson has been touted as the next ace of the Atlanta Braves. He hit the MLB scene in 2009, going 11-4 in just 2 starts and registering an ERA below 3. Then Hanson experienced a bit of a sophomore slump in 2010, going 10-11. There are, however, some positive spins on his disappointing season. First of all, Hanson was second in the NL with 5 blown wins, meaning he left the game in a position to win and the bullpen blew the lead. Hanson also tied for the NL lead with 13 no-decisions. While his K-rate did drop a bit, he actually allowed fewer baserunners than in his rookie season because of a reduced walk rate and his ERA was a solid 3.33. Overall, it seems Hanson dealt with a bit of bad luck in 2010, and bad luck doesn’t follow a pitcher with his skills. The addition of Dan Uggla and the continued development of Jason Heyward should significantly help. If Hanson’s post all-star numbers are any indication (2.51 ERA, 0.98 WHIP), Hanson will be in for a big 2011. Expect career highs in wins and K’s, while his ERA and WHIP figures remain solid.
Shaun Marcum – SP, Milwaukee Brewers
I doubt many will be surprised by this selection. This past offseason, Marcum escaped the dungeons of the AL East and moved to a much friendlier setting in the NL Central with the Brewers. Not only will he no longer be facing the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays so often, but he’ll also get to face an opposing pitcher a couple times a game instead of a DH. And while the Blue Jays had a powerful offense hitting behind him, Milwaukee has their fair share of sluggers with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and others. If Marcum can put up a 13-8 record with a 3.64 ERA and 1.15 WHIP for a mediocre team in a tough division, it’s not difficult to imagine a big year in 2011. Expect similar ERA and WHIP numbers, but with more wins and a better K-rate.
Matt Wieters – C, Baltimore Orioles
Yet another post-hype sleeper, it’s too early in his career to give up on Wieters. After a solid if unspectacular debut in 2009, Wieters regressed in 2010. But after hitting .343 in A and AA ball over two minor league seasons, it’s easy to look at last year’s .249 as a fluke. His lingering hamstring injury and terrible offensive lineup around him likely contributed. But that was then and this is now, and the Baltimore Orioles made some serious improvements to their lineup this offseason. Acquiring the likes of Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds and Vladimir Guerrero should add some much-needed offense and remove some of the pressure on Wieters’ shoulders. Depending on where he hits in the order, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him approach 20 home runs and 70 RBI with an average around .280-.290. It’s a far cry from what he could do in his prime, but it should certainly turn some heads. As he was once hyped to be, Wieters could soon be the next Joe Mauer, or at least a lot closer than most people think.
Brian Matusz – SP, Baltimore Orioles
My second Oriole on this list! Now I really must be out of my mind. But then again, this is supposed to be a list of unexpected players, so where better to find them than on some of MLB’s worst teams, right? Matusz is no stranger to hype, appearing as MLB’s #20 prospect in 2009. He’s shown flashes of brilliance at the pro level since coming up at the end of that season, but has been unable to keep it together for extended periods. That may have been due in large part to improper management, because as soon as Buck Showalter took over as the Orioles’ skipper on July 30 last season, Matusz and the Orioles turned things around. He went a combined 7-1 with a 2.18 ERA and a ridiculous 1.03 WHIP in August, September and October (1 start), while the Orioles went 34-24 overall during that same stretch. With Showalter sticking around and a vastly improved lineup that will provide additional run support, Matusz is a good bet for a breakout campaign. Expect 12+ wins, a 3.50 ERA and close to 200 K’s.
Eric Young Jr. – 2B/OF, Colorado Rockies
The son of former major leaguer Eric Young Sr., the Junior version averaged over 80 steals per 162 games over two seasons in the minors, and had 17 steals in just 172 at-bats last year for the Rockies, an average of 1 per 10 at-bats. Looking at that math, it’s easy to see an improvement given 400-500 at-bats over the course of a season. While he plays at Coors, don’t expect a ton of power out of him. But atop a lineup that includes two incredible young talents in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez, Young should flourish if given the full-time job. If he gathers enough plate appearances, Young could push 40+ steals and 90+ runs scored while putting up a .265-.270 average. His projected playing time will need to be monitored more closely throughout spring training.
Honourable Mentions: Ryan Raburn (2b, Detroit Tigers), Jose Tabata (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates), Adam Jones (OF, Baltimore Orioles), Brett Anderson (SP, Oakland Athletics), Phil Hughes (SP, New York Yankees)
What do you think of our breakout candidates for 2011? Think these guys have what it takes to reach the next level in their development, or disagree with the choices? Drop a line in the comments and let us know what you project for each of them this season!
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