Nothing is predictable in baseball. Virtually every season, surprise teams contend for playoff spots and supposed favorites falter. As far as individual players go, established veterans can have down years and new stars emerge as key contributors.
Breakout stars are among the most intriguing players to follow, especially if they play for your favorite team. Here are 15 players who, for the most part, are not household names but have a chance to have outstanding seasons. Some of them have been around a few years or have been highly regarded prospects, and others are almost completely unknown, but all of them are players who I believe can take a huge step forward on the field in 2017.
The first group of players consists of ones who have yet to reach their full potential, but have still shown some talent in their brief time at the big league level…
Greg Bird, 1B (New York Yankees)
After missing the entire 2016 season with a torn shoulder labrum, the Yankees’ first base job is now Bird’s to lose. Any concerns over his ability to recover from that injury were quickly laid to rest after Bird abused Grapefruit League pitching, leading all of baseball in extra-base hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and finishing tied in home runs. There’s little doubt that he’ll hit for power, but if he can make improvements against left-handed pitching and cut back on his strikeouts, Bird will quickly become a franchise cornerstone for the Bronx Bombers.
David Dahl, LF (Colorado Rockies)
Although Dahl is starting the season on the DL, he’ll provide a major boost to an already good Rockies lineup upon his return. As a rookie in 2016, Dahl started hitting right out of the gate, finishing with a .315/.359/.500 slash line in 63 games. He may face some competition for playing time, but the plan was for Dahl to be the everyday left fielder and nothing will change as long as he hits the way he’s capable of. The 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft has solid power and speed that could make him an annual 20-homer/20-steal player.
Maikel Franco, 3B (Philadelphia Phillies)
In his brief big league career, it’s already obvious that Franco has a ton of power. But at age 24, the Phillies’ prized third baseman still has plenty of room to improve. Despite hitting just .255 in 2016, Franco still hit 25 home runs and struck out only 106 times, which is not bad at all for a young slugger in today’s game. He needs to find some way to get on base more in order to become a truly elite player, but don’t be surprised if Franco has a huge year and approaches 35 home runs.
Jon Gray, SP (Colorado Rockies)
Gray quietly had a very good rookie season in 2016. It’s not surprising that his 4.61 ERA failed to open many eyes, but that’s the life of a Rockies’ pitcher. Look a little further and you’ll recognize that his 1.26 WHIP is quite impressive for a pitcher who spends half his time in Coors Field. Gray also struck out 185 batters in 168 innings for a rate of nearly 10 per nine innings, good for sixth in the NL. He actually pitched better at home, leading further credence to the idea that he can succeed in Colorado and break the curse which is often placed on the team’s young pitchers.
Aaron Nola, SP (Philadelphia Phillies)
Nola, along with Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, leads a group of young Phillies’ starters who could be the key to a quick franchise turnaround. Although he faltered in the second half of the season and dealt with injuries, Nola was fantastic in the early part of the year and in his 2015 debut. One of Nola’s best assets is his ability to limit walks. In 188.2 big league innings, Nola has only issued 48 walks and has struck out just over a batter an inning. This type of control led to him being considered one of the most major league ready pitchers in the minors prior to his debut. Nola is one of a few Phillies pitchers who has a chance to take a huge step forward in 2017.
Hunter Renfroe, RF (San Diego Padres)
If nothing else, Renfroe figures to bring plenty of excitement to San Diego this season. His awesome talent was on full display during a late season call-up in 2016, highlighted by his cannon arm in right field and one memorable home run he hit on top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building at Petco Park. Renfroe hit 30 home runs in AAA last year, and should get every chance he needs to carry that over to a Padres’ team that is in heavy rebuilding mode.
Kyle Schwarber, LF/C (Chicago Cubs)
Schwarber is a very logical pick to have a breakout 2017 season, since he has already proven he can hit for power in the major leagues. Although he only had four at bats before missing the rest of the 2016 regular season, Schwarber miraculously returned in the World Series to collect seven hits in 20 at bats. It’s not known how much he will catch going forward, but Joe Maddon will try to get him into the lineup anyway possible. The slugger’s awesome power will play well in Wrigley Field and he also gets a boost by hitting in the Cubs’ juggernaut offense. He could easily reach 30 home runs in his first full season, and has the look of someone who can hit 40 when he reaches his prime. Fun fact – Schwarber actually holds the Cubs’ franchise record for most postseason home runs with five. All five of them came in 2015, where he also became the youngest player to hit that many homers in a single postseason.
Dansby Swanson, SS (Atlanta Braves)
Swanson continued the influx of fantastic young shortstops in baseball in 2016 and will attempt to take his game to new heights in his first full season. The 23-year old looks like he’ll be a fixture for the Braves for years to come and should be one of the biggest factors in Atlanta’s return to contention. Offensively and defensively, Swanson showed poise beyond his years in his debut season.
Jameson Taillon, SP (Pittsburgh Pirates)
The Pirates are relying heavily on Taillon to provide quality innings in their rotation, and they have good reason to. In 2016, the tall right-hander became the first rookie pitcher of the century to post a strikeout rate greater than 20%, ground ball rate greater than 50%, and walk rate under 5% (per ESPN). Prior to joining the Pirates last year, Taillon was just as good in the minor leagues. In 61.2 innings with AAA Indianapolis, he walked just six (!) batters in total. Taillon has long been considered one of baseball’s very best prospects, touted as a “near perfect pitching prospect” way back in his high school days in 2009 and drawing comparisons to Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. Now he gets to be part of the same rotation as Cole. His development was slowed down by the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2014 but it obviously didn’t stop him, if last year was any indication. Taillon is a special talent that doesn’t come around too often and truly has a chance to develop into a future Cy Young Award winner.
Next is a trio of guys who are slightly more well-known, since they’ve all been around a few years. However, while all three have already excelled at times in certain aspects of the game, there’s reason to believe they can elevate their games even further…
Billy Hamilton, CF (Cincinnati Reds)
Hamilton’s situation is different than the previous names on this list, as he has been an established big league player for a few years. In fact, he’s one of only six players since 2000 to have three different seasons of 50 stolen bases. But while, he is a nightmare on the basepaths for opposing teams, he hasn’t exactly been a great player. Hamilton’s baserunning ability will always give him value, but his career on-base percentage sits at a lowly .297. However, last year was Hamilton’s best offensively, and he drastically improved after the All-Star break, reaching base at a .369 clip. If Hamilton can get on base at even an average rate, he’ll be a legitimately good player rather than just a one-dimensional speedster. And if he performs like he did in the second half of 2016, he has a chance to steal north of 80 bases.
Yasiel Puig, RF (Los Angeles Dodgers)
How can someone who hit finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and started the All-Star Game the following year possibly be a breakout candidate? Well, despite these accolades, Puig has never driven in 70 runs, hit 20 homers, or stolen 12 bases. The past two seasons, he’s been in and out of the starting lineup, and even got demoted to Triple-A last August. Following his recall, however, Puig had one of his best months of the season (although he had been hitting very well prior to his demotion). Maybe getting sent down will serve as a wake-up call for a player who has been known to be unpredictable at times. There is talk that Puig may have difficulty finding a spot in the Dodgers’ lineup every day, but I don’t buy it. Puig should be in lineup regularly and will be in a great position to have his best season to date and finally get the most out of his immense talent.
Devon Travis, 2B (Toronto Blue Jays)
For Travis to have a “breakout year”, he doesn’t actually need to be any better than he’s been. The challenge, of course, is staying on the field for a full season. Because Travis has missed so much time in his first two years, his accomplishments have not been so widely noticed. In two seasons, Travis has missed just about half of the Blue Jays games, but has put up the following numbers in what amounts to the equivalent of one full season – .301/.342/.469, 19 home runs, 85 RBI, and 92 runs scored. Pair that with his solid defense at the keystone and you have a high-caliber, All-Star second baseman. If Travis can play even 130-140 games, he could place among the AL’s top second basemen, which is no small feat when you run through the other names on that list. By the way, the trade Toronto made to get Travis in the fall of 2014 goes down as a major steal; he was acquired in a one-for-one swap for Anthony Gose.
Not all successful players started out as high draft picks or can’t-miss prospects. These next two players are in their late twenties and probably not known to casual fans. Yet, both put in the work necessary at every minor league stop they’ve been to and are now getting an opportunity to showcase their talents in the majors…
Stephen Cardullo, 1B/OF (Colorado Rockies)
The Rockies have perhaps been hit harder by injuries than any team at the onset of the season. Two of the players who are starting the year on the DL are David Dahl and free agent acquisition Ian Desmond, which creates a hole in left field and at first base. The silver lining for Colorado is that Stephen Cardullo can play both positions. The 29-year old had torrid spring training, placing near the top his team’s leaderboard in nearly every offensive statistic. Cardullo starred for the Can-Am League’s Rockland Boulders from 2013-2015, earning him a minor league deal with the Rockies, where he had a brilliant season for Triple-A Albuquerque last year. If Cardullo can find a way into Colorado’s lineup on a more regular basis, he’ll reward the Rockies with his ability to make contact and collect extra-base hits.
Brock Stassi, 1B (Philadelphia Phillies)
One of the biggest surprises of Spring Training was the performance of the Phillies’ Brock Stassi who tied Maikel Franco for the team lead in home runs (6) and RBI (17). The Phillies likely didn’t plan on Stassi winning their final bench spot, but his sensational spring gave them no choice. The 27-year-old has spent the last six seasons in the minors and was understandably overcome with emotion upon hearing the good news (his reaction is a must-watch). But while it’s easy to dismiss the former 33rd-round draft pick’s chances of getting significant playing time, that may not be the case. Stassi has real skill. Across Double-A, Triple-A, and winter leagues over the last two years, Stassi averaged 34 doubles, 16.5 home runs and 91 walks per season. Plus he’s only struck out 179 times over those years, which is quite impressive, especially next to his 182 walks. The Phillies’ incumbent first baseman, Tommy Joseph, slugged over .500 in 2016 with 21 home runs, but doesn’t have anywhere close to the plate discipline Stassi does. If the left-handed hitting Stassi starts to outperform the right-handed hitting Joseph, this could quickly develop into a platoon, with Stassi eventually winning the job full-time.
Last but not least is a player who hasn’t played in the United States since 2013, but became an instant legend in South Korea over the last three years. Now he’s getting a chance to prove his recent performance was no fluke…
Eric Thames, 1B/OF (Milwaukee Brewers)
Thames is one baseball’s most intriguing players to follow in 2017. Once a promising prospect in the Blue Jays organization, Thames signed with the Brewers in November after a trio of extraordinary seasons in South Korea’s KBO. From 2014-2016, Thames hit a robust .348 with 124 home runs and 379 RBI for the NC Dinos. His 2015 season was one for the ages – 47 homers, 40 steals, 130 runs scored, 140 RBI, and a video game-like slash line of .381/.497/.790. Although the KBO is a notoriously hitter-friendly league, other players from Korea have performed well in the major leagues, and none of them came with the offensive numbers that Thames has. At age 30, Thames hasn’t played a big league game since he was 25, so it’s very possible his mid-career turnaround is the result of true growth as a hitter and not just a disparity in competition.