Baseball Beat/WTNYFebruary 08, 2006
Breakouts and Breakdowns
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

As spring training approaches, one of the most fun things to do as a fan is to project which players are the likeliest to breakout or regress in the coming season.

Let's face it, you can write down what Albert Pujols is going to do now. When it's all said and done, he's going to be right around .330/.420/.620 with 40 HR and 125 R and RBI.

If you have the first pick in your fantasy pool, take Pujols. Heck, that's a no brainer. But who should you take when rounds 11-20 roll around? Anybody can identify Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, and Mark Teixeira as the best, young hitting studs in the game. But which lesser-known players have the potential of stepping up and making a difference for their big league club or your fantasy league team in 2006?

Conversely, which well-known players have the potential of imploding, causing anguish for the owners of those teams--real or make believe?

Well, we've decided to take the plunge. Each of us is going on record by naming two players who have it in them to take it up a couple of notches plus two more who could fall off the cliff.

Rich: I'm going to stick to two players who I have already identified in the past as players I believe are going to make the greatest advances from one year to the next. My first pick is a pitcher. He's a big pitcher in stature, and I think he is going to put up big numbers as well. His name? Daniel Cabrera.

I've extolled Cabrera's virtues a few times since last summer when he began to give us a glimpse of the pitcher he is capable of becoming. If there is one combination of pitching stats I like more than any other, it is strikeouts and groundballs. Show me a guy who can whiff batters and induce grounders and I will tell you about Chris Carpenter, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Halladay, and...Daniel Cabrera.

There is no doubting the Baltimore right-hander's stuff. His fastball sits in the mid- to high-90s and has been known to reach the triple digits. In fact, Cabrera threw more pitches that hit 100 or more on the Stalker Sport radar guns than anyone else. He was second in the majors when it came to hitting 95+. Number one? Mr. Burnett, the $55 million man. Just for fun, I'll tell you who was #2 in the NL -- Carlos Zambrano.

Have you noticed a pattern here? Big, strong pitchers who can throw heavy gas tend to get their fair share of strikeouts and groundballs. And when pitchers do that, they generally don't give up very many home runs. Carpenter and Halladay have won Cy Young awards. Don't bet against either Burnett, Zambrano, or Cabrera taking home the hardware this year.

My second pick is a hitter. He just happens to play on the same team as Cabrera. Call me an Orioles fan if you'd like, just be sure not to take these two players ahead of me in my fantasy league draft.

As I wrote in Digging Deeper Into The Handbook in December, "If you're looking for someone who might take it up a notch or two next year, consider Jay Gibbons. He was the only [player other than Vladimir Guerrero] who hit more than 15 HR (26) and ranked in the top ten in lowest strikeout rate per plate appearance (.108). The Baltimore OF/1B/DH doesn't field or run all that well, but he still has further upside when it comes to mashing the ball. Consider this: Gibbons was 31st in the AL in RC/G with just a .268 batting average on balls in play. You have to go all the way down to the 63rd batter (Nick Swisher) to find someone with a lower BABIP."

Look for Gibbons to hit .280-.290 with about 40 doubles and 30-35 home runs. He'll make a nifty mid- to late-round draft selection in your fantasy draft. You can thank me after he puts up those numbers.

Bryan: Good picks, Rich. If you're right, and the Orioles have two big players break out, the AL East could be (again?) the most difficult division in baseball. And, of course, you forgot to mention that Cabrera has another plus on his resume: Leo Mazzone. As J.C. Bradbury showed on our site, the great pitching coach tends to have a positive effect on pitchers. With a little bit of the fastball control that Mazzone teaches so well, I think you're right, Cabrera should have a big 2006.

One other problem that Mazzone has to deal with is finding a closer amidst a group containing Chris Ray and LaTroy Hawkins. And they will be one of many teams shuffling between ninth-inning pitchers during Spring Training. Given the importance of saves on a fantasy team, finding a sleeper closer is much like having drafted Willie Parker in fantasy football this year. Therefore, my break out choice is Blaine Boyer of the Mazzone's old team, the Atlanta Braves.

Last year, Bobby Cox was forced to shuffle between the likes of Danny Kolb, Chris Reitsma and Kyle Farnsworth to close out games. Don't expect him to take long to make a decision this year. The candidates? Reitsma, again, Joey Devine and Boyer. Given Reitsma's lack of success in the role, Davine's lack of success in any role, and Boyer's good stuff, he should get the job. Then, watch as his 95+ mph fastball and hammer curve gains a lot of saves and a good enough ERA, WHIP and K/9. Even if he doesn't repeat a 3.11 ERA, his fantasy profile will improve that much more when he adds 25 saves.

My second pick should be a very good bench choice for keeper leaguers this year. The Padres outfield situation is very clouded this coming year, but they have shown confidence in Ben Johnson in the past. While Johnson is infamous within Padre crowds for a bad playoff performance last year, the focus should really be on Bruce Bochy's confidence to play the then 24-year-old. This season Johnson currently stands behind Dave Roberts and alongside Terrmel Sledge, but with a trade of Roberts, it isn't hard to conceive the idea of Johnson getting 500 AB.

Before the playoffs last year, Johnson had just 88 plate appearances. His .213/.310/.467 line wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, but beneath the surface, there is certainly reason for optimism. For one, Johnson's line drive percentage was an astounding 26.4% in his cup of coffee last year. The Hardball Times has done loads of research on line drives, but the general conclusion is that the more lines drives, the better. And to put Johnson's number in context, had he qualified for the NL, his mark would have ranked second overall.

Conversely, Johnson's BABIP last year was just .267. When considering his line drive percentage, it's shocking to have a BABIP rate that low, especially given Johnson's plus speed. In fact, only 37 players in the National League had LD% over twenty last year, and just seven had BABIP rates below .300. Of those seven, just two (David Bell, Mike Lowell) were under .270. So not only does Johnson's hit rates mean he should hit for increased power, but his average should go up as well.

If your league uses OBP as a statistic, Johnson is an even better selection, given his high walk rate. As is, I think Johnson is very (optimistically) capable of a batting average around .280 and 20 home runs given the opportunity. The question remains, however, will Johnson have an opportunity? Those are my far out choices, Rich. Who do you think might regress in 2006?

Rich: On the downside, I'm going to once again pick one pitcher and one hitter. Both players are changing teams this year. One is going to a more favorable ballpark and the other is going to a less favorable environment. My first choice is Jarrod Washburn. He is the opposite of Cabrera. Washburn is a lefty, Cabrera is a righty. Jarrod doesn't strike out many hitters nor induce a lot of groundballs, whereas Daniel makes a habit of doing both.

One would think that Washburn, coming off a year in which he had a 3.20 ERA and moving to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, would be a good bet to become one of the top hurlers in the game. Wrong. His stats last year were very deceiving. His DIPS ERA was 4.55. The ratio of DIPS ERA/actual ERA (1.42) was the highest in the AL. I wouldn't be surprised if he won more games this year--it would be hard not to exceed his eight victories with the Angels--but his ERA is going to top 4.00 in 2006.

I feel guilty choosing Alfonso Soriano as my hitter. It's no secret that the second baseman (outfielder?) is going from one of the best to one of the worst ballparks for hitters. But, hey, I'll take a lay-up when I can get it. No use trying to tomahawk a slam dunk just to get on ESPN when I can kiss it off the glass and into the net nice and easy.

Besides, anybody making $10M-$12M per year who hits just .260/.300/.450 with 15-18 HR (as I predict) deserves to be recognized for his ineptness as much as the general manager who traded for him. You know, the same guy who acquired Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman last year and the 36-year-old Royce Clayton a few days ago because he wants to be sure he's got a backup in case his starting shortstop goes .219/.260/.314 again.

Bryan: I'm going to stick in the middle infield with the first of my selections: Carlos Guillen. After leaving Seattle for Detroit before the 2004 season, Guillen broke out in a big way: .326/.391/.562. Last year, I was pretty sure Guillen would take a big step backwards and fall apart. I was wrong. While Guillen was injury plagued for much of the season, he did manage to hit .320/.368/.434 in 334 at-bats.

Next year, Guillen will be 30 years old. He will be coming off a second half in which he hit .255/.317/.364. He will have to deal with the rigors of not having a BABIP of .360. The signs are there: Carlos is going to regress. PECOTA, the genius prediction system of Baseball Prospectus, doesn't see a lot of optimism for Guillen next year. BP sees Guillen hitting .286 next year with nine home runs and 50 RBI in 438 plate appearances. More importantly, the Tiger is given only a 6% chance to "breakout" of those numbers against a 36% chance to "collapse." Without going into detail on what those percentages mean, I can tell you that it isn't good. Despite his shortstop eligibility, stay away from Guillen in your fantasy draft.

By signing Billy Wagner this winter, the Mets not only made themselves better, but they also worsened a division rival in the Philadelphia Phillies. With Wagner heading off to greener pastures, the Phillies looked to the next-best option available, and thus signed Tom Gordon. This move is certainly seen as a step backwards already, but I predict that in three years, it will be an atrocious trade off. After years of being among the best set-up men in baseball, I'm predicting Gordon falls apart in his first year back in the closer role.

Before joining the Yankees in 2004, Gordon was hardly a staple of health. In the five years prior, he had just two full seasons in relief, two seasons in which he pitched under 45 innings, and one more in which he was under 20 IP. With the Yankees the last two seasons, Joe Torre rode Gordon as hard as any reliever in baseball. The writing is on the wall: Gordon is not a dependable closer. Furthermore, Gordon has three straight years with a falling K/9 rate. He's moving to a smaller stadium. He has a worse team behind him. His FIP last year was 3.72. Again, don't be the one caught in drafting Tom Gordon, the results can't be good.

Do you agree or disagree with our choices? If the latter, who would you pick?


Nice picks and analysis! I've had a bad taste in my mouth ever since the Soriano trade. That you've picked him as a 2006 sinker is not encouraging, but I can't say that I disagree. For the sake of my Expos--I mean Nats--I hope we're all wrong on this one! Ditto on Daniel Cabrera.

Whoa, my comments disappeared. But here are some additional players:


Kameron Loe - P - TEX: I think Loe is wildly underrated. He's a 6'8" extreme groundball pitcher (a gb/fb ratio north of 3 in 90 major league innings last year, IIRC. That's Derek Lowe/Mark Mulder territory). His K/9 took a dive in his first year in the majors (somewhere around 4.40), but he had a K/9 of 7.99 in over 370 minor league innings. If he can get back to even near that level in the bigs, look out.


Gary Matthews, Jr. - OF - TEX: Assuming he can piece together enough playing time, I think this is Little Sarge's year. Matthews had an interesting season in 2005. Defensively, there is no reason to believe he has slipped from what both scouts and (admittedly imperfect) performance metrics seem to agree is above-average play. Offensively, while splitting time in the TEX outfield with Laynce Nix and shuttling between CF (97 games) and RF (22 games), Matthews showed signs of finally reaching the breakout season his tools (and pedigree!) had seemed to promise. Though the switch-hitting 30 year-old experienced a drop-off in LD% to 17%, after four straight seasons of encouraging increases (16%,17%,20%,24%), an xBA 31 points over his actual 2005 BA of .255 screams of bad luck. Further, he experienced a strong second-half, driven by increased plate discipline from earlier in the year (12% bb rate vs. 3% in the first half and an improved Batting Eye of .68 compared to .15 in the first half). If Matthews can continue these trends through a full '06 in a park like Arlington, it could be his breakout season.

Loe & Little Sarge. Huh. And I don't even like the Rangers.

Nice List.

Here are my predictions:

Breakout players

Jose Lopez, 2B, Seattle

This guy has flown under the radar, but he has put up great stats the past three seasons in the minor leagues, always playing against much older competition. The M's brought him up the Seattle the past two years, and both times he was a big overmatched. But his last taste of the big leagues was pretty solid. He is just 22 this year, and will have to bomb to not be the starting second baseman this year. He could have a huge season.

CC Sabathia, SP, Cleveland

The talent is obvious. He has been incredibly successful at a young age thus far in his career. Although he struggled a lot in the first half of 2005 last year, he finished strong. The Indians did well to replace Kevin Millwood with the much more reasonably priced Paul Byrd, but the Tribe is in need of an ace. I think that he could take the huge leap forward in 2006, and take a spot among the best starters in the game.

Honorable mention: Brad Wilkerson, Oliver Perez


Andruw Jones

His HR spike is strange, as the rest of his stats are completely in line with his past performances. I don't think that he will fall apart, but that he will go back to his established levels of .260/.340/.500 with 30 HRs. Since Jones plays great defense at a premium position, this is still good. But he won't match his 2005 numbers again, and definitely won't build on them.

Kevin Millwood

Millwood is a pretty good pitcher, but his peripheral stats are not excellent. Plus, he has had trouble staying healthy in the past, and is moving into an extreme hitters park. The Rangers should help him out a bit more defensively now that Soriano is gone, but they aren't nearly as good as the Indians were. I would not be suprised if Millwood pitches less than 120 innings next year. If he does pitch over 200 again, his ERA is likely to be much higher.

Honorable Mention: Randy Johnson, Adam Eaton

Good names all thus far. Let's keep them coming.

you guys took a pretty different approach to your breakout players, Rich's choices will both be midround picks in almost every league, where as both of Bryan's picks just went undrafted in my 16 team 24 man roster draft. Im concerned about my outfield so I'll keep an eye on Johnson, there, and Cabrera just got bumped up my cheat sheet for other drafts in the Hudson and Blanton range.


Some fantasy leagues are deep, so you have to do a better job of picking those marginal, fringe players. Others give a higher weight to 'saber' stats like OBP or OPS. Traditional leagues give big points for RBIs and the like.

The lay-up (P): Felix Hernandez
The Sabermetric Pick (P): Francisco Liriano (K/9!)
The Traditional Stats (P): Jason Vargas (Florida will be better than you think) and the safe pick: Barry Zito (he'll do better than 14 wins in '06).
Out of Nowhere (P):Jose Valverde (ARI 35+ Saves and big K/BB)
Injury Comeback (P): Rich Harden

The lay-up (H): Joe Mauer
The Sabermetric Pick (H): Kevin Youkilis (he'll finally get the AB's)
The Traditional Stats (H): Dan Johnson or Justin Morneau (I think each go over 30 HR and 80/90 RBI)
Out of Nowhere (H): Mike Jacobs (FLA - 1B)
Injury Comeback (H): Scott Rolen and Nomar (he'll finally stay healthy and put up good #'s even in LA).


Torii Hunter (but I hope not!)
Garret Anderson (this year he completely slides off the cliff)
Miguel Tejada

Gustavo Chacin (his stuff/control isn't that good)
Jon Garland (ditto, compared to his win total)
Brad Radke (a much improved AL Central could flip flop his FIP/ERA difference)
Jeff Suppan (a somewhat lucky year in '05?)

Eric, I was definitely going for deep, deep sleepers. I want to mention that I also considered including Sergio Mitre and Ervin Santana on the breakout list.

Jerry, great bust pick with Millwood. He was next on my list. He might not be horrible in any category, but coming off a season in which his ERA is so good, I imagine he's overvalued by the general public.

Finally, I also really like al's suggestion of Barry Zito. It's his contract year, so don't be surprised if he is Cy Young material once again.

Take care, everyone.

I handled the sleepers and busts piece for a fantasy guide I helped write for A few of mine:


Johnny Estrada - just one year removed from a .314 season.

Justin Morneau - talent is there, health hasn't been.

Doug Davis - did you know he struck out 208 last year? Improved lineup should result in 15+ wins.

Joe Borowski - not a bad year for Tampa. Leading candidate to close for Florida and could get 35+ saves.

A few hitter breakouts in no special order. One or two won't be pure breakouts because their names are already out there, but I think they have another step of development in them.

*Juan Uribe. He was hurt a lot last year, which kept his numbers down. But his strikeout and walk rates, once terrible, have shown uninterrupted progress, and he had a great September. A return to 2004 levels is likely, and he should set a full-season high in BA (previous: .283).

*Brad Wilkerson. This one is easy: So long RFK, hello Arlington. His average is probably stuck around .260, but you can expect at least 35 doubles, 25 homers and his first 90-RBI season.

*Curtis Granderson. The one advantage Nook Logan has over him is speed, and Granderson can run a little too. Craig Monroe is a convenient comp.

*J.J. Hardy. This would have come last year, but he was hurt and his swing was damaged in the first half. Back to normal in the second half, he hit .308-.363-.503.

*Edwin Encarnacion. His power last year -- 16 doubles and 9 homers in 211 ABs -- was real, and he'll top it easily this year. May settle in as a low-average slugger, but he'll be in good company with the Reds.

*Victor Diaz. Just play the guy!

I haven't spent as much time on crashes, but here's one: Ivan Rodriguez. His power is already diminished, and his average is following fast. He's still athletic enough to make it a graceful decline, but this is the year he proves his swoon late last year wasn't a fluke.

One of my biggest breakout candidates is Ryan Madson, provided that he moves into the Phillies' rotation in 2006.

An expected move to the rotation should send Madson's fantasy stock soaring this year, particularly because there's reason to believe that he'll have some success there. After posting exceptional numbers in 2004, Madson dropped off a bit in 2005, and saw his ERA increase from 2.34 to 4.14 despite the fact that his K/9 rose, and his K/BB increased to come more closely in line with the ratio he posted as a successful starter at AAA in 2003. Madson's GB%, however, fell a bit from 2004 to 2005.

What does all of this mean? Well, one possible explanation is that he worked up in the zone more in 2005, getting more hitters to chase the high strike (and increasing his K rate), while producing more fly balls. Madson's BABIP of .312 isn't ridiculous, but might point to the possibility that a weak defensive outfield allowed more of those fly balls to drop in for hits. The addition of Rowand in CF vastly improves the Phils' outfield D, and Madson could stand to benefit.

If he throws 150+ innings as a starter, I wouldn't be surprised by 10-12 wins, an ERA around 3.50, and 120+ strikeouts.

As for bats, I like Jason Michaels, a college stud who's never really gotten a chance in the Bigs; and apparently he's slotted in the #2 hole. The OBP is there, and the SLG could surprise us.

Yorvit Torrealba, who is 27 this year, and given the ultimate opportunity in Colorado. I could see him becoming a 100+ game catcher, with plus defense, who slugs 15-20 homers.

Juan Rivera. His splits v. LHPs over the last two years are what has kept his OPS low. No, he's not going to walk a lot, esp not in Mickey Hatcher's system, but if he gets a bit luckier against LHPs, he could ding 25 homers. As BP remarked last year, Bowden traded him (& Maicer) for Jose Guillen, but he *is* Jose Guillen.

Lastly, I don't like the Jay Gibbons pick. That guy can't walk to save his life. And, I take THT's interpretation of linedrives very differently. There is some consistency in linedrives among batters from year-to-year, but not enough to get overly excited about. Grounders & Flies are consistent, Liners much, much less so.

With respect to Gibbons, you're right, he has never walked much--but he has never struck out very often either. Sure, he's far from an on-base machine. However, finding a power hitter who doesn't strike out a lot is rare.

To wit, Gibbons was fourth last year in HR/SO, among players with a dozen or more home runs. The top three? Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, and Aramis Ramirez.

If Gibbons was willing to sacrifice striking out a few more times, I think he could increase both his walk and home run rate. That, coupled with his low BABIP, makes him an interesting candidate, in my judgment, to put up even better numbers in 2006 than 2005.

Well said. My personal bias is that I don't think Ks, for batters, matter that much; but HQ & its whole thing about contact-rate, has started to convince me otherwise. Nice work on the sleepers. Also, loved Bryan's prospect list, and look forward to reading more about college-ball. Take care, Azteca

Hi . . .

Just exploring your site for the first time; sorry to veer off subject, but I didn't see another easy way to contact you.

Looking through the links, I was wondering whether or not you were familiar with this site/organization --

If so, I guess maybe you consider it too frivolous to include? (I was a member last year; it's my CA-based brother who is a major supporter.)

I look forward to spending more time around what looks like a very informative site.



Ben Johnson? Were you looking over my shoulder when I was measuring the OFs?This is going to sound crazy but with Extra Base and Walks ONLY he is the number 4 OF on my list.Another good deep league sleeper (if he can get the ABs)is Ramon Castro from the Mets.It's strange that he hasn't had 500 ABs in a season anywhere.

Wow, Daniel Cabrera's performance in his start against the Venezuelan team to move on out of the second round was amazing. He was painting the corners was a fastball clocking in at 96-97 in the 4th inning according to ESPN2's gun.

4 IP, 0 hits, 1 BB, and 7 Ks. Not too shaby!!!

Not too shabby at all, Greg.