Though COVID-19 keeps us indoors, yearning for our favorite sports to resume play, we can use this extra time to predict breakout candidates across Major League Baseball. Based on their 2019 seasons and performance in 2020’s short-lived Spring Training, I’d like to explain my reasoning behind five different players who I believe will flourish when the 2020 MLB season finally kicks off.
- Nick Ahmed, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
One of the best defensive shortstops in the league, Ahmed won his second straight Gold Glove award in 2019. While the Diamondbacks surely value Ahmed’s work with the glove, his offensive approach made some improvements last season; his batting average jumped from .234 in 2018 to .254 last year. He drove in 12 more runs last year (82) than in 2018 (70), with only five more games played. His patience at the plate awarded him with a slightly higher OBP (.316) last year compared to 2018 (.290). Something I find interesting is Ahmed’s contact percentage on balls pitched outside of the strike zone (O-Contact%) jumped from 57.3% in 2018 to 64.1% last year, which implies that he’s doing a better job of making contact with pitches he chases or fights off.
Arizona showed a lot of confidence in the 30-year-old this offseason, as they inked him to a four-year extension that will earn him $32.5 million. With increases in metrics like Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), OPS, medium hit percentage and Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), as well as decreases in swinging strike percentage and strikeout percentage, Ahmed’s poised for a standout year.
- Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, LF/DH, Tampa Bay Rays
Tsutsugo signed a 2-year deal with the Rays worth $12 million in December, ending his tenure with the Yokohama BayStars (now the DeNA BayStars) where he was the youngest player in the team’s history to hit 100, 150 and 200 home runs. A 5-time All-Star in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league, Tsutsugo will certainly have an adjustment period to the dominant pitching in Major League Baseball, but his future is bright. Tsutsugo hit .285 during his time in NPB, and like current Ray first baseman Ji-Man Choi, is a power lefty that can provide some pop from the middle of the lineup after averaging 35 home runs in each of his last four years with Yokohama.
Tsutsugo struggled during suspended Spring Training, hitting just .179 (5 for 31) with one home run and five RBI. This is to be expected of a player adjusting to a higher level of professional play, though taking a chance on Tsutsugo in later rounds of season-long fantasy could pay off exponentially. While he might take a bit to reach his expected potential in the major leagues, Tsutsugo could be a vital component of a league-winning team down the stretch and a steal in later rounds.
- Nicholas Castellanos, RF/3B, Cincinnati Reds
An absolute doubles machine, Castellanos smacked 58 two-baggers in 2019 between the Tigers and Cubs, which led the league (Boston’s Rafael Devers placed second with 54, and Devers’ teammate Xander Bogaerts rounded out the top three at 52). Castellanos’ transition into the National League was clearly an excellent one, as he hit .273 with the Tigers followed by .321 with the Cubs – his OPS climbed from .790 to 1.002, and, despite having almost half the plate appearances in Chicago, hit 16 HR and drove in 36 RBI compared to his 11 HR, 37 RBI in Detroit.
Looking at his metrics, the 28-year old can attribute some of his success to spreading the ball around the field – his pull percentage dropped nearly 4 points, while his hits to center and right field each climbed a few. But the biggest factor for Castellanos is his increased potency against four seam fastballs, with his wFB (fastball runs above average) climbing from 11.9 in 2018 to an astonishing 24.3 between the Tigers and Cubs last year.
Freshly signed to a 4-year, $64 million deal, Castellanos will be an important piece of the Reds’ offense and should be a staple in the middle of the lineup. He should slot in at RF comfortably with Eugenio Suárez holding down the hot corner. I expect last year’s surge with the Cubs to transition smoothly to the Reds. In a full season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see 25-30 HR, 40-50 doubles, and an uptick in RBI compared to his 73 last season (assuming he bats fifth behind a combination of Eugenio Suárez and Mike Moustakas in the Reds’ order like he’s projected to).
- Ramón Laureano, OF, Oakland Athletics
Laureano delivered a strong 2019 campaign with Oakland, hitting .288 with 24 HR, 67 RBI and 79 runs scored. He was able to notch 29 doubles as well, which was a welcome addition to his game considering it was his first full season at the major league level.
Laureano’s metrics imply an aggressive shift to his approach at the plate, leading to increases in all contact percentages and swing percentages, but most notably, he struck out 123 times (an average of one per game played in 2019). Despite that number, his strikeout percentage actually shrunk from his 2018 line (25.6% last year compared to 28.4% in 2018). His approach has also led to a near eight point jump in his fly ball percentage, a tell tale sign of an adjustment with his swing affecting the launch angle upon contact.
Projected to bat second in the order behind shortstop Marcus Semien, Laureano should provide a stellar combination of power and speed to complement Matt Chapman and Matt Olsen in the heart of the order. I fully expect to see Laureano finish with 30-35 home runs in a full campaign.
- Eloy Jiménez, LF/DH, Chicago White Sox
One of many stout hitters in the White Sox lineup, Jiménez blasted 31 home runs in 2019 despite not having 15 or more in any season in the minors. Part of the success to his approach involved learning to push the ball to center field, which he did 33.6% of the time in 2019 – much more than the 25.3% at the AA level in 2018 (or the 21.1% at the AAA level in the same year). This came at the expense of hitting to the opposite field (right field for the righty), which fell from the mid-30% range in 2018 to 23.2% last year.
If Jiménez’s rookie season is any indication, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. For future seasons (ones not shortened by an infectious disease), expect 35+ HR and somewhere in the 90+ range for RBI, especially if he’s batting behind the likes of José Abreu or the newly acquired duo of Yasmani Grandal and Edwin Encarnación.
Who do you think will do damage at the plate in 2020? Leave a comment below!
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Sports writer and lover. Four-year Army veteran. Fantasy sports fanatic. Black olives disgust me.
Alumnus of Husson University in Bangor, ME, where I majored in Mass Communications with a Sports Journalism concentration.
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