American League Breakout Team
As a fantasy baseball player, I know how easy it can be to go online and find a list of the Top 10 or Top 20 guys at each position. Each of those lists rattles off the same roster of guys, sometimes in a different order, but the reality of fantasy baseball is that you have no chance of getting a Top 10 guy at each position. If by some chance you have a league like that, please let me know if there is an opening because it’s a league I think I can win.
With Spring Training underway, I want to give you my own list; a full lineup of guys in the American League who are primed for breakout seasons in 2017.
CATCHER: Mike Zunino, Mariners
It was just about three seasons ago when Zunino was anointed as the next big bat in Seattle and handed a starting job. That was 2014, when Zunino hit just .199 in 438 at-bats but did show some promise of power as he slammed 22 home runs. Seattle was not willing to settle for what they got and brought in more guys to take over behind the plate. Now it’s 2017 and Zunino is the unquestioned starter for the Mariners again. This time around Zunino will be better suited to handle the pressure of being the guy and should build on his offensive performance from 2016, which saw him hit 12 bombs in just 164 at-bats. With a loaded offensive lineup, Zunino has no pressure to be anything other than himself. He can focus on his defense and let his offense take form on its own. With a second chance as the starter, Zunino should produce.
ADVICE: Zunino is probably a safe bet as your second catcher if your roster can hold one, however as a starter you are taking a pretty big risk.
FIRST BASE: Greg Bird, Yankees
This is an easy one in my mind. After a strong performance in 2015, Bird was poised to be the breakout performer at first base in 2016. An injury caused him to miss the entire season, but now he is back and fully healthy. Bird has a powerful bat that will play well into the short porch of right field in Yankee Stadium, however there is concern now that Matt Holliday and Chris Carter are both in New York and could take away some at-bats. Expect Bird to miss plate appearances against left-handed starters unless Holliday or Carter take to the injury bug. Even with the two veterans eating into his at-bats, Bird will reward you nicely for putting him in your lineup.
ADVICE: Bird is a borderline starting candidate for your team. Be aware of the starters Bird will face each week as early on he will more than likely sit against lefties. If you plan on starting him, I would make sure I had a strong guy to fill in when needed.
SECOND BASE: Devon Travis, Blue Jays
It’s almost cheating to include Devon Travis in a list of breakout candidates because at first mention of his name you think about a guy who has had lots of playing time and is already established. However injuries have prevented Travis from being an established fantasy veteran and many project him as a guy who can only help you in AL only leagues. I am not one of those guys, as I feel as if Travis (if healthy) will be one of the best lead-off guys in the American League and will have a chance to score a lot of runs from the top of a loaded Blue Jays offense. Could 2017 finally be the year that Devon Travis lives up to his full potential? If so, you will regret not having him as your guy at second base.
ADVICE: If I miss out on one of the top guys at the position, I feel comfortable starting Travis in my lineup on a daily basis. As long as he stays healthy, this guy can be what you need.
THIRD BASE: Ryon Healy, Athletics
Another easy choice at a position that has quite a few established fantasy veterans. Healy used his opportunities with Oakland in 2016 to showcase quite the offensive arsenal, not just hitting for power (13 homers in 269 at-bats) but also hitting at a .305 clip. Healy plays in a big ballpark, but he has big power to combat the environment. You could argue that his breakout season began at the end of 2016, but he should continue that into 2017 and it would not be a surprise to see Healy finish with 25-30 bombs and a .280 average.
ADVICE: I want to take this guy in every league I am participating. While I don’t consider him a top 5 target at the position by any stretch, I would take him later in the draft and start him daily with confidence.
SHORTSTOP: Tim Anderson, White Sox
It is hard to find a “breakout” guy at shortstop in the American League because there are not that many newcomers to the position. However Anderson is an intriguing prospect because of what he was able to accomplish during his 99 games with Chicago in 2016. Anderson hit at a .283 rate and had 10 stolen bases in his 410 at-bats. Naturally young guys have an adjustment period when they make their major league debut, so I would expect Anderson to have a much higher number of steals and think that his power will continue to develop as he gains more experience. For 2017, I would expect a .275 average, with 15 home runs and 25-30 steals. If you are in a dynasty league, this is a guy I would target now while you can get him relatively cheap or in later rounds.
ADVICE: I want this guy on my team, but not as my starter…. yet. He is a borderline top 20 shortstop, and so in most leagues that puts him as your second guy at the position. Stash him now in dynasty leagues.
OUTFIELD: Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox
One of the top prospects in baseball deserves to be on this list entering a season where it appears he will get an opportunity to start every day for one of the best teams in baseball. Benintendi will open the year as the starting left fielder in Boston. Last season Benintendi earned just 105 at-bats in the big leagues, but managed to hit .295 and drive in 14 runs. Ultimately Benintendi should translate into a 15-20 home run type of hitter and steal 20-25 bases each season. The ceiling is high for this guy, and entering his first full season, grab him now.
ADVICE: If I had to start Benintendi as my third outfielder, I would be perfectly fine with that. If he was my top guy or my second guy, I would not feel as confident. Once again, in dynasty leagues, take him early and he will reward you in the long run. It will be interesting to see how quickly you are rewarded.
OUTFIELD: Jorge Soler, Royals
This guy is one of a handful that I feel really good about drafting in each league I participate. Soler was a highly ranked prospect in the Cubs organization, but had nowhere to play on a loaded Chicago team. In 2015 Soler got 366 at-bats and hit 10 home runs. Soler saw his at-bats decrease in 2016, from 366 to 227, but his power was more prevalent, hitting 12 home runs. Soler enters 2017 as the starting right fielder for the Royals, but could face shared playing time early if he does not produce. If Soler is able to play on a more regular basis, Soler is another 25 home run corner outfielder that you can get relatively cheap in most drafts.
ADVICE: This is a guy that I want as my third outfielder, but if I was stuck with him as my second outfielder, I would not be too upset. I believe that with regular playing time he will provide you with a nice source of power.
OUTFIELD: Charlie Tilson, White Sox
Tilson is a reach as a breakout candidate in 2017. Not because of his ability however, as Tilson is a guy with tools to steal a lot of bases and hit for a nice average. Power will not be a part of his game, but as he grows, Tilson could find himself hitting at the top of a White Sox lineup that is sneaky powerful. Tilson is mainly a reach as a breakout in 2017 because of the uncertainty of his playing time. Tilson is slated to be the starting center fielder in Chicago, but could be part of a platoon with other veterans. If Chicago is completely committed to a rebuild, Tilson should see the majority of the time in center field, but if the White Sox are able to win some games early in a weak American League Central, Chicago could try and earn a playoff spot and could put some veteran guys in their lineup.
ADVICE: I like this guy in the future, and feel as if the future should be now for Tilson in Chicago. However I am not sold that Chicago is completely sold on rebuilding and not competing in 2017. Tilson will be a nice piece, but probably not a starter for your team as of now.
STARTING PITCHER: Blake Snell, Rays
The 2015 Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year has a big arm that puts a lot of strikeouts on his stat sheet, but lacks the command to be an elite pitcher at the Major League level. Quite simply, if Snell can improve his command to bring down his 1.62 WHIP from 2016 and improve his 98:51 K:BB ratio from last season, big things could lie ahead for this young pitcher. Tampa Bay is going to be a much better team than most expect in 2017, which should help Snell earn wins if he pitches well. Regardless of what happens with his command, Snell will be a nice source of strikeouts, as he had 98 in 2016 while just pitching 89 innings. Snell could be the future of this Tampa Bay rotation with Chris Archer always on the trading block.
ADVICE: If Snell is your third starter, you are doing really well. He will provide you with lots of strikeouts. If Snell is your second guy, I hope your first guy is Kershaw or Scherzer, because you will need more to go with him. Big things ahead for Snell though.
RELIEF PITCHER: Ken Giles, Astros
I saved this one for last, which is good for many reasons. All of you who drafted Giles early last year and had him ruin your teams from the beginning will be using words to describe both me and Giles that I probably do not want to hear. Yes, I sat here at this time last year and talked about Giles and how he could win your fantasy league for you. And yes, I drafted him and watched him crumble under the pressure of being the guy at the back end of a team with lots of expectations. Giles had a 4.11 ERA in 2016, which is more than double what he had in 2014 (1.18) and 2015 (1.80) and sported a WHIP of 1.29, higher than 2014 (0.78) and 2015 (1.20) as well. It is hard to tell what was going through his head, but entering 2016 it was never clear who the closer would be for the Astros which could have led to the poor performance of Giles. Entering 2017, the closer role is his to lose, so if things go poorly this season, it is on Giles completely.
ADVICE: Call me crazy, but I feel comfortable with Giles being my top closer in 2017. Houston is going to win a lot of games, and I think he will save 35-40 games if he is the guy all season long.