As fantasy baseball managers await the landing spots of the remaining big-name free agents, they should also be using this time to look for players who will take giant steps towards stardom during the 2014 season. We have all seen the dominance of Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera over the last two seasons, but how many people saw Paul Goldschmidt going from a 2.9 WAR player in 2012 to a 6.4 WAR player in 2013? Last February, I wrote this same article and listed Goldschmidt, Matt Moore, Chris Tillman, Chris Johnson, Carlos Gomez, Salvador Perez, and Dexter Fowler, while missing on Kyle Kendrick and Ike Davis. That’s not a bad percentage if you ask me, so we’ll give it another go for 2014. Here are some names to watch in the 2014 Major League Baseball season.
2013: .248/.296/.396, 27 2B, 6 3B, 17 HR, 59 RBI
2014 prediction: .277/.332/.435, 33 2B, 5 3B, 19 HR, 67 RBI
You know, this isn’t a huge leap forward in offensive numbers in my prediction, but it is possible that Simmons becomes a lot more than that. Simmons isn’t a speed demon on the base paths like a Jean Segura or Elvis Andrus, but whatever happened with his swing in 2013 that created power could be what separates him from shortstops not named Troy Tulowitzki. Simmons is already an elite defender and when he hit 17 home runs in 2013, after having a previous career-high of six (combined in Double-A and the majors in 2012), he became quite a factor offensively, as well. When considering the counting stats that came out of Simmons with a .247 BABIP, what could he do with a league average BABIP? Then, factor in his 29 extra-base hits in 67 games in the second half, when he posted a 120 sOPS+, and you could see the evolution of his game going even further. Simmons may never become a truly elite offensive player, but his ability to put the bat to the ball will eventually lead to more balls in play, and that means more production. Is the power for real? We’ll find out this season, but if it played in 2013 with very little help in the lineup from Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward, and B.J. Upton, imagine what his counting stats could look like when he sees better pitches.
2013: .289/.360/.481, 39 2B, 4 3B, 17 HR, 67 RBI
2014 prediction: .294/.373/.521, 33 2B, 3 3B, 27 HR, 92 RBI
Belt finally received over 500 plate appearances in 2013 and he posted a 142 OPS+, elevated by his .915 OPS in the second half. He turns 26 in April and he is physically maturing into a player that even Bruce Bochy can’t bench, despite Michael Morse signing with the Giants and being an atrocious left fielder. It will be hard for Belt to duplicate his .392 BABIP from the second half of 2013, but he has managed an extremely high BABIP over his career from the minors through last season, so a full season of a .351 BABIP (the number he has duplicated the last two seasons) would likely lead to further offensive improvements. Even in a difficult home ballpark, Belt seems poised for an extreme breakout.
Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels, OF
2013: .282/.347/.462, 7 2B, 2 3B, 8 HR, 32 RBI in 222 plate appearances
2014 prediction: .275/.356/.481, 29 2B, 5 3B, 19 HR, 81 RBI
In a season that was devastated by zero pitching and very little production out of high-priced stars Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, the Angels did have a couple of bright spots – of course, Mike Trout, but fellow outfielder Kole Calhoun opened some eyes late in the year. With Mark Trumbo out of the picture, Calhoun will ever a star-studded lineup, and while he isn’t going to post numbers similar to those of his teammates, he will be quite productive. At 26, Calhoun is a little older than your typical “new prospect” entering their first full season in the bigs, but he was a college bat who moved pretty quickly through the Halos’ system, never appearing in a game in Double-A. With solid plate discipline and plenty of protection, Calhoun could improve upon the 126 wRC+ that he posted over the second half of the season, when he solidified himself as a reliable option for the Angels. Think of him as a better version of Cody Ross with a much better supporting cast.
Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins, OF
2013: .288/.370/.396, 12 2B, 1 3B, 4 HR, 16 RBI, 10 SB in 273 plate appearances
2014 prediction: .310/.375/.435, 34 2B, 6 3B, 12 HR, 71 RBI, 22 SB
Yelich may not make for an elite defender wherever he ends up, but the guy has an impressive approach and enough speed to make himself useful on the base paths. Having just turned 22 years old at the beginning of December, there could be some harsh adjustments, but Yelich has been able to adjust as he has flown through the Marlins’ minor league system, slashing .313/.387/.499 over 1,292 plate appearances. Yelich will never be a 30-homer producer, as I tend to think of him as a Mark Grace-like hitter, but Grace made three All-Star appearances and fell just short of 2.500 career hits. Yelich will be a very effective asset for Miami and fantasy teams alike…immediately. Considering that Yelich was the 30th most valuable offensive player in baseball in the second half (which is his entire career, based on FanGraphs), why should anyone think otherwise?
2013: .253/.319/.341, 18 2B, 2 3B, 4 HR, 31 RBI
2014 prediction: .285/.347/.439, 29 2B, 4 3B, 15 HR, 68 RBI
The epitome of buying low, Ackley’s career hasn’t really worked out to this point, but after he hit .304/.374/.435 in the second half of 2013 (208 plate appearances), he has earned himself another look, with the Mariners or whoever he gets traded to if Seattle signs another outfielder. The club has already re-signed Franklin Gutierrez to take some at-bats away from Ackley, but he never seems capable of staying on the field. Ackley was the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft and he still has the tools to prove that he was worthy of that pick. It’s possible that the shifting from position to position has been a challenge to him as he adjusts to life in the majors, and with Robinson Cano now at second base, and Logan Morrison and Corey Hart capable of playing first base, Ackley is now a center fielder. He has gap power, solid on-base skills, and, finally, an opportunity (barring any unforeseen trades or signings).
2013: 3-8, 3.17 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 125 IP, 119:44 K:BB
2014 prediction: 9-6, 3.34 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 165 IP, 171:52 K:BB
The Padres have a very crowded rotation, with Ian Kennedy, Josh Johnson, Andrew Cashner, and Robbie Erlin locked into rotation spots. Ross will be in a group with Eric Stults, Casey Kelly, Cory Luebke, and Burch Smith, battling for the fifth spot in the rotation, but after his solid second half, the 6’6″, 230 pound right-hander deserves the longest look. Ross has always bounced around from the bullpen to the rotation, but in his 13 starts down the stretch last season, Ross posted a 2.93 ERA and 0.99 WHIP over 80 innings, posting an 85:23 K:BB, along with a 9.6 K/9, the highest of his career. His slider became a swing and miss pitch with his mid-90’s fastball, and he could be very useful for the Padres or another club in 2014. Since he is eligible for arbitration for the first time, he is still cost effective (for the time being), but he took a large step forward in maintaining a role last season, and it would be a shame for him to lose that role after pitching so well. Keep an eye on him this spring and make sure to verify what San Diego does with him. With so many other options and the Padres success in finding bullpen arms from the depths of the world, if he isn’t starting, they need to move him for some offensive assistance.
Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies, RHP
2013: 14-10, 3.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 197.1 IP, 126:61 K:BB
2014 prediction: 17-9, 3.20 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 212 IP, 165:58 K:BB
Sometimes, to go forward, you must first step back. Chacin’s entire career has been a group of backwards steps. His fastball has lost velocity, his K/9 has gone from 9.0 in 2010 to 5.7 in 2013, and his career-best ERA is still his 2010 season (3.28). However, the fact of the matter is that Chacin knows how to pitch in Coor’s Field, he just has to stay healthy. He fell short of 200 innings again in 2013 due to back spasms landing him on the 15-day DL in April, but this is going to be the year! Chacin has cut back on the use of his curveball and change, both of which are highly affected by the thin air of Denver, instead, utilizing his slider more. He has started pitching to contact, which explains the low strikeout totals, but he seems to have enough stuff to rebound to become a useful strikeout pitcher in fantasy formats, although his average fastball dipped to 89.8 mph in 2013. The Rockies have an interesting club and a very good defensive group to assist their pitchers. If everyone stays healthy and Chacin takes his current pitching skills and combines it with how he used to pitch, he could become quite an asset, being capable of tempting the opposition to swing for contact and swing and miss whenever he wants them to.
2013: 3-5, 5.66 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 47.2 IP, 49:13 K:BB
2014 prediction: 11-9, 3.22 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 176 IP, 182:68 K:BB
Gausman, in my opinion, is the second coming of Justin Verlander, just a little smaller in stature. At 6’3″, 190 pounds, Gausman still has the size to drive towards home and get extreme velocity, which he does with a fastball that can hit triple-digits. He sits 95-98 with his fastball, he has two excellent varieties of his changeup, and a projectable slider, all of which make him capable of becoming an elite starter in the majors. The Orioles are going to contend again in 2014, and the reason for that will be a 23 year-old right-hander out of LSU whose introduction to MLB wasn’t as sexy as the rest of his career will be. It starts now.
Some Minor Leaguers/Rookie-Eligible players who could make an impact:
Archie Bradley, Arizona Diamondbacks, RHP
Robert Stephenson, Cincinnati Reds, RHP
Alex Meyer, Minnesota Twins, RHP
Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays, RHP
Oscar Taveras, St. Louis Cardinals, OF
Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins, 3B
Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates, RHP
Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays, RHP
Jackie Bradley, Jr., Boston Red Sox, OF
Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners, RHP
James Paxton, Seattle Mariners, LHP
Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds, OF
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox, 1B
Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Philadelphia Phillies, RHP
Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets, RHP
Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers, 3B
Yordano Ventura, Kansas City Royals, RHP