Much like finding those diamonds in the rough late in our drafts, the other thing we fantasy players seem to be obsessed with every year is predicting (and drafting) the year’s prime breakout candidates. These are the guys who are poised to take their game to the next level, providing top tier production at discounted prices. Curtis Granderson is a perfect example from last season of what we are talking about here. He came into last season with the usual questions about his approach at the plate and batting average downside. He was one of those guys no one seemed to want to draft last year, making his eventual breakout that much more valuable to those who did take a chance. So these aren't your ordinary "sleepers". Many of the names on this list won't come cheaply in drafts this year and in fact some might not even be worth rostering at their current prices. Instead, think of this list as a map to what I think will be some of the more interesting storylines to follow. With that in mind, here’s a quick team-by-team look at my breakout candidates for 2012.
Baltimore Orioles – Adam Jones (Age 26) - Jones has shown nice growth the last few seasons and has many expecting him to take his game to the next level this year. He upped his home runs from 19 to 25 last year and it wouldn’t surprise me if he hit 30 this year. Oh yeah, he also steals bases, and I beleive he has the ability to add to those totals as well. We’re talking about a potential 30/20 player here who’s slipping to the seventh or eighth round in 12-team drafts.
Honorable Mention – Chris Davis (Age 26) – The slugging Davis will finally get a chance to show if the power he has shown at Triple-A can translate to the pros.
Boston Red Sox - Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Age 26) – Salty comes into the year as the undisputed starter behind the plate for the Red Sox. The former first rounder finally got a chance at some real playing time last year and responded by bashing 16 home runs. The Red Sox said goodbye to former captain Jason Varitek, paving the way for Saltalamacchia to eclipse last year’s power output. I predict he’ll top 20 HR’s and even get that batting average up to about .265.
Honorable Mention – Andrew Bailey (Age 27) – Bailey has saved 26,25 and 24 games the last three seasons. The 2009 Rookie of the Year has had trouble staying healthy, but if he does he could be looking at his first 40 save season.
Cleveland Indians – Carlos Santana (Age 25) – How much Santana improves this year will go a long way to determining if the Indians can make any noise in the AL Central. He’s no sleeper, as he’s already one of the first catchers coming off the board, and those taking him early are banking on increased production across the board.
Honorable Mention – Jason Kipnis (Age 24) – I am still a believer in Kipnis’ talent, but it is starting to look like 2012 will not be as big a year as some (ok – ME) were predicting just a few weeks back. He is currently slated to hit eighth in the lineup, which will hurt his Runs and RBI’s. You may have to wait a year for the real breakout.
Chicago White Sox – Chris Sale (Age 23) – Sale enters his third season poised to make his presence felt as he makes the transition to starting after working out of the bullpen the last two years. After racking up 111 K’s in 94 IP to start his career, he has an outside shot at topping 200 K’s as soon as this season.
Honorable Mention – Alejandro De Aza (Age 27) – When the White Sox plucked De Aza off of waivers from the Marlins after the 2009 season, I’m not sure they envisioned him as their future leadoff hitter and starting CF. He was very good after getting the call at the end of July and enters the year poised to be one of the bigger surprises of the year.
Detroit Tigers – Brennan Boesch (Age 26) – Boesch comes into his third season primed to make his presence felt and put to rest the questions regarding his streakiness and whether he can sustain his level of performance for an entire year. He gets to hit ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and he’s going to have to flop badly to not improve on last years numbers.
Honorable Mention: Max Scherzer (Age 27) – Scherzer quietly had a very good year in 2012. If he can cut down on the gopher balls and get that ERA back under 4.00, he could find his way to 20 wins behind this offense.
Kansas City Royals – Mike Moustakas (Age 23) – He didn’t quite hit the ground running like fellow rookie Eric Hosmer, but a blistering September showed that he was finally getting comfortable as the year came to a close. He’s going to take the next step in his development, providing nice production for those who “settle” for him after all the top options are gone.
Honorable Mention: Lorenzo Cain (Age 25) – If you haven’t noticed, Lorenzo Cain is hitting over .400 this spring. In addition, he has five home runs, two stolen bases and 15 runs scored and has just about locked up the No. 2 spot in the Royals' lineup. Our own Perry Van Hook tabbed him as someone to watch way back in December. He’ll come back to earth when the real games begin, but it’s clear he’s not just a one trick pony. There’s real upside here.
Los Angeles Angels – Howie Kendrick (Age 28) – I know what you are thinking, but I truly believe this is going to the year it finally happens. No one is going to enjoy the benefits of Albert Pujols’ addition to the lineup more the Kendrick. He should easily score over 100 runs for the first time and could make a run at 20/20 if he can sustain last season's power spike.
Honorable Mention: Peter Bourjos (Age 24) – Bourjos finished strong last year after struggling early on. He finished with 12 home runs and 22 stolen bases while hitting a respectable .271. There is more growth potential here as long as he can stay in the lineup full-time.
Minnesota Twins – Trevor Plouffe (Age 25) – The Twins had the shakiest candidates for this column, but I settled on the guy who I think has the best chance to make an impact this year if he can somehow find the AB’s. He showed some decent pop last year in limited duty, and the Twins seem committed to getting his bat into the lineup wherever they can. His SS eligibility makes him an intriguing option, even if he’ll spend much of his time in the OF.
Honorable Mention: Glen Perkins (Age 29) – Perkins has made the transition from starting to the bullpen and established himself as the top lefty out of the Twins pen last year. With Matt Capps far from a sure thing, Perkins could be closing games before you know it.
New York Yankees – Michael Pineda (Age 23) – Face it, the high-priced Yankees just don’t have a ton of candidates for this list, so we’ll go with the young gun brought in to help bolster the rotation. So much has been written about his drop in velocity, his stamina and his weight already, but the fact is he’s an exciting young pitcher heading to a perennial winner. That alone sets him up to build on last year’s debut. The bigger question is can he handle the pressure of pitching in the Bronx?
Honorable Mention – Brett Gardner (Age 28) – Gardner has put together two straight productive seasons. The question that remains is if he can take his game up another notch and truly enter the next level at his position. If the Yankees would just relent and let him leadoff it might just happen, but they will stick with the aging Derek Jeter there a little while longer. If Gardner finally got moved up the order, he could really make people take notice, I think.
Oakland A’s – Brandon McCarthy (Age 28) – McCarthy’s first start in Japan the other night, against King Felix no less, only confirmed that McCarthy looks ready to take the next step and deliver on the promise he showed in his re-emergence in Oakland last year. Hopefully, we’ve written enough about him this pre-season to make sure you’ve gotten him on some of your teams.
Honorable Mention: Collin Cowgill (Age 25) – Unlike the Yankees, there is a wealth of candidates littering the Oakland roster this spring. Cowgill has made the strongest case this spring that he is ready to make some noise. He has a nice blend of power and speed and could be a surprise 20/20 man if he can stake a claim to regular playing time.
Seattle Mariners – Justin Smoak (Age 25) – The popular choice might be to give this space to newly acquired slugger Jesus Montero. But, at 22, I’m not sure what we are going to see this year is going to constitute a real breakout. Smoak enters the year with much less hype, and perhaps an even better chance to truly “break out.” His solid spring has him slated to bat cleanup to start the year, right behind new No. 3 man Ichiro Suzuki. He’s a prime post-hype candidate worth taking a chance on late in drafts.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Seager (Age 24) – I’ll admit, Lawr’s predictions for Seager’s success get him a mention here. He’s shown the ability to hit for average in the minors and will only have to wait for Chone Figgins to struggle once again to work his way back into the lineup.
Tampa Bay Rays – Matt Moore (Age 22) – He’s one of the youngest names on the list, but I didn’t see how I couldn’t list him here. Again, he’s not a sleeper, as people seem to be tripping over each other to be the one to draft him this year. He is a strikeout machine who will get a lot of exposure playing in the high-profile AL East. If you drafted him, enjoy the ride, even if it may be bumpier than you anticipate.
Honorable Mention: Sean Rodriguez (Age 26) – I have found myself drafting S-Rod on a bunch of teams this year, usually in a reserve role. He has a tantalizing mix of power and speed and eligibility at 2B/SS/3B. That has been enough for me to take a chance that something will click and he’ll deliver on the promise he showed in the minors a few years back.
Texas Rangers – Yu Darvish (Age 25) – Darvish is going to create a buzz whenever he pitches and I think he will be successful and win the Rookie of the Year award going away. The Rangers have enough depth to help keep Darvish fresh all year long, allowing him to rack up a ton of K’s along the way.
Honorable Mention: Mitch Moreland (Age 26) – After all the big off-season moves, when the smoke cleared Moreland found himself returning for another run as the starting first baseman. He is in a perfect situation to be successful and could be a nice surprise as an under-the-radar option for your CI slot.
Toronto Blue Jays – Brett Lawrie (Age 22) – Well, kind of fitting for Lawrie to end this list, as just about everyone was already predicting big things for the youngster coming off his stellar late-season debut in 2011. A blistering spring has only increased expectations. The only question really remaining is how good will he be this year? Yes, he only had 150 AB’s last year and his draft price has gotten to the point where it almost doesn’t make sense to chase the upside anymore, but I just don’t see opposing pitchers holding him down this year. He’s for real.
Honorable Mention: Colby Rasmus (Age 25) – Rasmus is probably the guy I have the least faith in heading into the season. Still, I have gambled on him again a couple times already, simply because the price has been right to speculate on him getting his act together. I just don’t have any confidence it’s ever going to happen for this guy.
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