2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: Breakouts 1.0 highlights potential stars who come at a mid-round cost

Of the many different labels we use to describe undervalued players, the Breakouts are the most fun.

They’re often the ones I’m most excited to draft, even more than the Sleepers. For one thing, I’m more confident I’ll be right about them, and even if I’m not, they’ll still probably be pretty good. The floor for them is higher, and the ceiling is as well.

So let’s explore which of the middle-rounders have the best chance of becoming out-and-out studs.

Perhaps the most impressive stat line in all of baseball last year was Zac Gallen’s 1.77 ERA, 0.71 WHIP and 11.0 K/9 across 14 starts in the PCL, a league so warped by the introduction of MLB’s drag-resistant baseballs that the average ERA was 5.48. Clearly, he was doing something right, his lowered arm angle upping the effectiveness of all his pitches, and his prospect stock soared as a result. The transition to the majors was about as seamless as they come, with his numbers split almost perfectly between the Marlins and Diamondbacks, and the crazy part is he accomplished it without the benefit of the sort of walk rate he put together in the minors.

Control was going to be the skill that put him over the top, and yet his 4.1 BB/9 were a far cry from the 1.7 he had in those 14 Triple-A starts. But we know it’s a result of inexperience rather than a flaw in his delivery or some other longstanding issue, and most of the blame falls on three wayward starts anyway. Take what we saw last year, add one of the best strikeout-to-walk ratios in baseball, and it’s easy to envision Gallen becoming an ace.

You never want to reduce player evaluation to just one statistic, but if you had to, at least for pitchers, you might choose swinging-strike rate. Dinelson Lamet would have ranked 10th in it last year, just between Shane Bieber and Jack Flaherty, if he had the innings to qualify. OK, well maybe something like xFIP is better since it takes into account more than one skill. Lamet comes out ahead there, too, his 3.40 mark not only bettering his actual ERA but also positioning him alongside Walker Buehler and Luis Castillo.

No matter how you slice it, he impressed in his long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery, fulfilling his best-case scenario after a two-year layoff by not losing any of the bite on his devastating slider. There are some potential concerns still. He has basically just the two pitches, which might lead the Padres to limit him to two turns through the lineup most nights, as they do with Joey Lucchesi. But if ceiling is what you look for in a breakout candidate, Lamet certainly measures up.

If we subscribe to the belief that xFIP is better than ERA at evaluating how a pitcher actually pitched, then it speaks worlds of Max Fried’s potential that he delivered the ninth-best xFIP among all qualifying pitchers last year, ahead of Walker Buehler, Jack Flaherty and scores of others who we already classify as aces. It makes sense, too. In an era when any ball put in the air has a better chance than ever of leaving the yard, the pitchers best equipped to survive are the ones who keep the ball on the ground or miss bats altogether. And the ones best equipped to thrive do both.

Fried is one of those who does both, leaning heavily on a curveball that’s not only his best swing-and-miss pitch but also a ground-ball generator of the highest order. Overall, he ranked 25th in swinging-strike rate, which is good but nothing to get Fantasy players salivating on its own. Combine it with a top-five ground-ball rate, though, and you’re talking about a legitimate front-liner. Mike Soroka is the Braves pitcher getting all the buzz right now, but Fried is the one with the clearer path to greatness.

Transitioning to the majors is always difficult, but especially for pitchers and especially for pitchers in one of the most hitter-friendly eras the game has ever known. And yet I can’t recall a time when I was as confident in a pitcher’s ability to make that transition as I am in Jesus Luzardo’s. Yes, we’ve already seen him have a smidgen of success in the majors, albeit working in long relief, but I felt just as strongly about him last spring, before a strained rotator cuff took him out of the rotation competition. The big difference now is that he already has a spot to lose, provided his arm holds up.

So why am I so confident in him? Well, the biggest hurdles an up-and-coming pitcher has to clear are a lack of command and a lack of pitch variety, and he earns high marks for both. Having three pitches is one thing, but to have three that all rate as plus, generating their own swings and misses, is a huge advantage for a guy just breaking in. There will be workload limitations, especially coming off an injury-riddled season, but I expect Luzardo’s 2020 contributions to be much like Chris Paddack’s in 2019.

A strikeout rate north of 30 percent used to be a death sentence for a hitter, but in recent years, ones like Aaron Judge and Joey Gallo have managed to overcome it by hitting the ball harder than anyone else. I don’t just mean “hitting a lot of home runs” but delivering high exit velocities on all batted balls to the point of being just as much of a standout there as in the strikeout column. Of course, Judge and Gallo were only Nos. 2 and 3 in hard-hit rate last year, according to Statcast. No. 1 was Miguel Sano, whose ability to impact the baseball gave him a .234 xBA and .363 xwOBA — estimates that weren’t far off from his actual numbers.

The case might be even more straightforward than that given what Sano accomplished during an injury-shortened 2019. Project his numbers over a full season, and he’s delivering the same sort of 50-homer outcome we’ve come to expect for Judge and Gallo. But there may be some hesitance to buy into it because of an absurdly high 36.2 percent strikeout rate. I’m saying there shouldn’t be. Sano is just as much of a batted-ball freak as those two, which makes his strikeout proclivities just as manageable.

Three numbers in particular stand out for Cavan Biggio after a mostly successful first stint in the majors. The first is a 16.5 percent walk rate that was bettered only by Mike Trout, Yasmani Grandal and Alex Bregman. The second is a 25.4 percent ground-ball rate that was bettered by Trout and Trout alone. The third is a perfect 14-for-14 success rate on stolen bases.

All three point to a strong foundation of skills for Biggio. He’s an on-base machine, which we already knew from his time in the minors, and while it means he’s overly patient at times, taking too many called third strikes, getting on base is nonetheless good for overall production. So is hitting the ball in the air, especially in an era of juiced balls and infield shifts. Line drives raise his batting average potential. Fly balls raise his home run potential. He delivers plenty of both.

He also runs, and if he continues to have that much success with it, he’ll run all the more. A 20-20 season seems like a safe expectation, then, with the possibility of even more home runs. And whatever he lacks in batting average, which itself could go up because of all the line drives, he’ll more than make up for in walks. 

For most of his time filling in wherever the Cardinals needed him, Tommy Edman was easy dismiss as another Daniel Descalso-level utility player who mostly existed to steal at-bats from more interesting players. And then September happened. In that month, that glorious month, the 24-year-old took a turn for the studly, batting .350 with six homers, four triples, six doubles and six steals. It was like half a season’s production in only 103 at-bats.

So what? He got hot, right? Maybe that’s all it was and we shouldn’t expect him to sustain that kind of production over a full season, but look where it brought his final numbers. A .304 batting average? An .850 OPS? Going 15 for 16 on stolen bases in a little more than half a season’s time is enough to raise eyebrows in standard 5×5 leagues. Hard to say how many home runs he’ll hit, but he’s proven to be more than just some slap hitter. Adam Eaton would seem like a reasonable comp except it looks like Edman is going to run more. That’s a pretty handy player to have in today’s power-saturated environment.

It’s been a long time coming for Kyle Tucker, who has kept Fantasy players on the hook for so long now that some are likely to pass him over just on principle. But after two years of beating down the door at Triple-A, he’s finally poised to step into at least a semi-regular role for the Astros. A strong September showing — one in which he demonstrated premium exit velocity and showed no hesitance on the base paths — makes it all but a foregone conclusion. Of course, he was confined to the bench for the postseason, but with Josh Reddick barely making a positive contribution the past two years, a changing of the guard, if only gradually, is in order.

More than anything, it’s the five steals in 22 games that should have Fantasy players excited. Sure, Tucker averaged 25 steals the past two years at Triple-A (along with 29 homers and a .297 batting average), but you never know, particularly for a middle-of-the-order hitter, if he’ll have the same leeway or willingness once he reaches the majors. If it continues, Tucker will become an early-rounder, and now may be your last chance to buy in at something less.

There’s always a chance the Mets could do something wacky again, like sit J.D. Davis half the time against righties, but with Todd Frazier out of the picture and a new manager in the fold, it’s more likely they’ll do what they should have been doing all along and play the 26-year-old every day. We already have a pretty good idea how that would go. For a glorious month-long stretch last August when injuries abounded and an everyday Davis was the Mets’ only recourse, the right-handed slugger hit .295 with eight homers and a .951 OPS. Scintillating stuff.

He hit .305 with an .886 OPS against righties last year, so there’s no real justification for sitting him against them. In fact, there are no red flags as far as I can see. The BABIP was high, but not when you take into account his line-drive tendency and all-fields approach. In fact, his .308 xBA and .383 xwOBA both suggesting he slightly underachieved last season, which is mind-blowing to consider.

Garrett Hampson totally fizzled as a sleeper pick of mine a year ago, so why does he get upgraded to break out now? Well, as with Tommy Edman, the script was rewritten for him late — very late, as in the final 2 1/2 weeks of the season. But come on, Scott, how could such a short period change the way anyone feels about a player? Well, when it’s responsible for the majority of his production all year, it’s worthy of dissection.

During that 16-game span, Hampson hit .343 (24 for 70) with five homers and seven steals. The power was surprising, but the BABIP was a not-so-crazy .365 and the steals were more in line with what everyone expected all along. He credits the improvement to a change in his timing mechanism, specifically ditching a leg kick for a toe tap, and considering he was a .311 hitter for his minor-league career, it’s not a stretch to think something so small could be so transformative.

Obviously, Coors Field gives him huge upside in the batting average department, and because that 16-game stretch last year showed us he’s willing to run when he actually gets on base, he has the makings of game-changer in the middle rounds of Rotisserie drafts, one who excels in the two most sought-after categories.

Willie Calhoun is sort of like Kyle Tucker in that Fantasy players may have already moved on emotionally by the time he’s finally ready to contribute. “Post-hype sleepers” would be the industry buzzword. For a couple years there, it looked like he might get passed over because of a poor defensive profile, but when the Rangers finally took the plunge, making the 25-year-old an everyday player for the final two months of last season, it went about as well as anyone could have hoped. His point-per-game average during that stretch was on the level of a Kris Bryant or Michael Brantley.

Granted, he may be something of a points-league specialist as a low-strikeout guy who doesn’t profile for a high batting average because of his extreme fly-ball tendencies, but there are worse fates than being the Mike Moustakas of outfielders. That’s about how Calhoun is shaping up now that the playing-time issue is resolved.

So which breakouts should you snatch in your draft? And which undervalued first baseman can help you win a championship? Visit SportsLine now to get rankings for every single position, all from the model that called Kenta Maeda’s huge breakout last season, and find out.

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