One of the keys to having a successful fantasy baseball team is to balance your team with star players who are expected to produce year in and year out with those who are "breakout" type players. These players are generally taken towards the middle to the late part of drafts and, in many cases, produce to the level of those taken at the top of the draft. Some times you, as the fantasy owner, invest in a player who you think can have that season and others that you simply luck out by having on your team.
I have put together a group of players who make up my 2014 breakout season team. It is not an All Star team, but a team of players who could not be expected to perform at the level that they did. It could be a comeback type player, but a player will not be eligible if they had a season similar prior to this season. Johnny Cueto is the perfect example. He is in the running for the NL Cy Young Award and is likely to finish 2nd to the Dodgers Clayton Kershaw. However, he has been an All Star before and just two years ago, won 19 games for the Reds.
Many of the players on this team have had expectations before, but have not been able to reach the level many thought they would. Sometimes it takes a couple of seasons for a player to reach their potential. A breakout season, in my definition, is one that takes a player from being one that was questionable to be a regular or a borderline platoon player, or spot starter or reliever, to one that is expected to be a foundation piece for their respective team going forward. This player's performance in 2014 has allowed for their team to not have to pursue an upgrade at their position where they may have been considering it going into this season. Some players may have been starters otherwise, but have now become core pieces for their teams going forward.
In addition to comeback players being left off this team, I also have to leave rookies and players in their first full season off the team. Jose Abreu and Dellin Betances are prime examples as neither had any type of resume on a MLB team prior to 2014. Abreu made his debut this past season and Betances had just 8 games pitched prior to having his unbelievable year. Some of my choices are judgement calls and are up for debate. I am free to continue this discussion in the comment section as well as my twitter account @john_pielli.
While I have studied the performances of most of the players in the game, there is a chance I could have overlooked a breakout season or two. If that is the case, please mention anything in the comment section and if I find fitting, I will edit the post and give the reader credit for what has been added. Otherwise, I'll be happy to explain my point of view of why I left said player off the list. I will go position by position, starting with catcher. Here is the 2014 breakout season team.
Catcher- Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds: The offensive production of catchers in major league baseball has been down over the past several seasons. Many of the game's better offensive catchers have seen their numbers, mainly batting average, decline over the past couple years. Of course, guys like Buster Posey and Jonathan LuCroy continue to put up great numbers each year. Looking at guys like Wilson Ramos and Derek Norris, there is some hope as far as players who should hold down these positions for their respective teams. Travis d'Arnaud had a very good second half and could breakout next season. To me, there is only one catcher who stood out in this regard. The Reds traded Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay to open up the position for Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco responded by hitting .273, 25, 80, .893- something that the Reds needed with the injury to Joey Votto and down seasons from Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce.
First Base- Lucas Duda, New York Mets: The Mets made what was the thought at the time to be a controversial move when they traded Ike Davis to the Pirates to free up the 1B position for Lucas Duda. I wasn't in complete agreement because I felt Duda got just as much time to prove himself as a regular MLB player. After all, he was the starting RF opening day in 2012 and the starting LF for the Mets in 2013. Duda proved me, as well as many others, wrong with his breakout season. He hit .253, 30, 92, .830 and has established himself as the Mets regular 1B going forward.
Second Base- Dee Gordon, Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers, coming into this season, were known for their star power. Guys like Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez left little room for a breakout type player. Guys like Alex Guerrero and Chone Figgins were expected to be in the mix to play 2B in addition to Dee Gordon. Gordon has had high expectations before and was though of to be a borderline bust for LA. He stood tall this season, leaving the Dodgers without a doubt over who their starting 2B will be going forward. He hit .289, 2, 34 with 64 stolen bases, 12 triples, 92 runs scored and 176 hits. Minnesota Twins 2B Brian Dozier hit .242, 23, 71 and will be a fixture going forward but to me, Gordon stood out more.
Third Base- Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals: I looked at third base as the only position that could have been one of two players. I look at the season that Reds 3B Todd Frazier had, .273, 29, 80, .795, 88 runs scored, and understand that a point could be made that it was an outstanding breakout season. Similar to Mesoraco, Frazier's offensive production was very valuable to the Reds, who certainly needed it. However, just two seasons ago, Frazier hit the same .273 and had been a fixture at 3B over the past three seasons. Yes, his power numbers went up and it was outstanding to see him hit 29 HR, but in my opinion, he had already established himself. Rendon came into the 2014 season with some high expectations, but no position. The Nationals initially planned to give him some time at 2B, sharing the position with incumbent Danny Espinosa. Another injury to starting 3B Ryan Zimmerman sent Rendon back to his natural position and he took off. Rendon hit .287, 21, 83, .824 with 111 RS and 39 2B. His breakout season will force the Nationals to figure out where Zimmerman will play next year.
Outfield: Michael Brantley, Cleveland Indians; Corey Dickerson, Colorado Rockies; JD Martinez, Detroit Tigers- Before I talk about the OFs on this team, I have to give an honorable mention. Rockies OF Charlie Blackmon got off to a great start and will likely be an important piece for Colorado going forward. Blackmon hit .288, 19, 72, .775 with 82 RS and 28 SB. His teammate, Corey Dickerson, went even more under the radar in 2014. Dickerson finished the season at .312, 24, 76, .931 and really had the better overall season.
A case can be made that the breakout player of the entire 2014 season is Michael Brantley of the Indians. Brantley was part of the Indians OF mix which included Michael Bourn, David Murphy, Nick Swisher and even Nyger Morgan. Brantley's 2014 numbers speak for themselves as he hit .327, 20, 97, .890 with 94 RS, 200 hits and 45 2B. Brantley went from being a member of the outfield mix to the best offensive player on the team and a borderline AL star.
The last spot went to JD Martinez, a player I thought would have broken out already. He had a handful of seasons in Houston where he got a chance to play everyday. Unfortunately, he never took off and wound up signing a free agent deal with the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers had an available spot in their OF and Martinez took it. He hit .315, 23, 76, .912 and his performance led to the trade of CF Austin Jackson to Seattle. The Tigers had a hole in LF and some other options included Don Kelly and Nick Castellanos. Martinez has made the Tigers an even more dangerous lineup as they head to the postseason.
Shortstop: Undecided: Shortstops are adequately filled positions throughout MLB or are huge questionmarks. The best are Troy Tulowitski of the Rockies, Ramirez of LA and Ian Desmond of Washington as well as Jose Reyes of the Blue Jays and Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox. What they all have in common is the fact that they have done it before and it was very difficult to find a breakout SS that a team will definitely go with going forward. Cubs SS Starlin Castro and Cardinals SS Jhonny Peralta are expected to put up very good numbers going forward as they did in 2014 and in prior seasons.
The SS I felt had the most standout season was one that had also been a regular before. Royals SS Alcides Escobar hit .285, 3, 50, .694 with 34 SB had arguably a better season for the Royals in 2012. The Marlins Adeiny Hechavarria improved his average almost 50 points (.276) from what he hit in his first season in Miami. Guys like Chris Owings (who is a rookie) and Brad Miller were underwhelming this season. And Red Sox SS Xander Bogaerts could be up for a breakout 2015 season.
If I had to put a breakout player on this team, it would be a player who spent some time at SS, but not as a regular. The Pirates Josh Harrison played 8 games at SS this year, but deserves to be on this team. Perhaps you can make him a utility player, but he would be the SS on my team. Harrison hit .315, 13, 52, .837 with 38 SB making the NL All Star team. Maybe I'd platoon Harrison with Dodgers infielder Justin Turner, who played 15 games at the position in 2014. Turner hit .340, 7, 43, .897 for LA and like Harrison, played all over the infield. Harrison is more of the utility player as he also plays the OF. My 2014 breakout SSs played a total of 22 games at the position. I am willing to listen to alternatives. Obviously, neither Harrison or Turner will be playing SS everyday for their respective teams anytime soon.
So, gun to my head, I would go with Jordy Mercer of the Pirates. Mercer finally inherited the starting job from Clint Barmes and this season, played in 149 games and hit .255, 12, 55, .693. His batting average was down from 2013, when he was a role player. However, his 2014 season fits the criteria of what a breakout season is as he is very likely to be the Pirates starting SS going forward.
Starting Pitcher- Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians: I considered several others for this spot, but it is difficult to argue with Kluber. His 18-9, 2.44, 269 Ks and 2.35 FIP put him in the discussion for the AL Cy Young. Alfredo Simon of the Reds was supposed to fill in as the 5th starter until Mat Latos came back from injury, but he secured his 2015 rotation spot with his 15-10, 3.44. 196+ inning season. Tyson Ross (13-14, 2.81, 195 Ks) did the same for the Padres and Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04) of the Pirates finally shook off the criticism of being just a 5th starter candidate. Kluber has become an ace and his performance has made GM Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona look very good after the tough decisions to let free agents Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir walk as free agents. Kluber and Carlos Carrasco allowed for the Indians to even trade top starter Justin Masterson.
Relief Pitcher- Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles traded Jim Johnson, their closer coming off back to back 50 save seasons, to the Athletics leaving them without a proven 9th inning reliever. The job was originally set to go to Tommy Hunter, but an early season injury led the Orioles to go to Britton. Prior to this season, Britton had appeared in 48 career MLB games, but 46 of them were as a starting pitcher. Britton made a successful transition into a late game reliever, going 3-2, 1.65 with 37 saves while appearing in 71 games for the Orioles.
Of course, Britton was not the only one to break out as a reliever in 2014. Mets RHP Jenrry Mejia started 2014 in the team's rotation, before becoming the closer after 7 starts. He went 6-6. 3.65, 28 saves and had 98 Ks in 93+ IP. Athletics LHP Sean Doolittle took over as the closer after a couple decent seasons as a middle reliever and went 2-4, 2.73, 22 saves and an improved K rate (89 Ks in 62+ IP). Journeyman Fernando Abad took over for Doolittle and pitched in 69 games and went 2-4, 1.57. 36 year old Mets RHP Buddy Carlyle gets the Elmer Dessens award for his 1.45 ERA in 27 games.