Making the Leap: Which Player's 2014 Breakout Should Headline in 2015?

Jose Altuve leap to turn a two, is also leaping into 1st round consideration. - Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most exciting aspects of fantasy sports competition is the ownership of a player during their ‘Leap Season’. The ‘Leap Season’ is when a player you targeted and drafted evolves beyond their early career obstacles and makes good on the potential you saw in them. An example from 2013 of such a player is Carlos Gomez. Coming into the 2013 season Carlos Gomez carried with him an ADP of 224. In 2012 Carlos Gomez finished the 108th ranked player in Yahoo!, and the 37th ranked OF overall. He was a late round speed option, who you could take as your 5th outfielder. He was coming off of a nice finish to the 2012 season, and if you owned him through your fantasy playoffs, you might have targeted him somewhere around the 20th round of your draft. In 2013, Carlos Gomez made the leap, finishing the 22nd ranked player in the Yahoo! Game, and the 5th highest ranked outfielder, launching his draft status to the late 1st-early 2nd round of 2014 drafts. Half way through the 2014 season he is the 13th ranked player overall, and has officially completed his leap to solidify himself as one of fantasy baseball’s premium talents for the foreseeable future.

Halfway through the 2014 season, who are this year’s ‘Leap Season’ players? Which players are in the middle of their break out year who appear to be prime candidates to emerge as early round (top 35) picks in 2015 fantasy baseball drafts? You keeper league players may want to consult this list in your trade packages going forward.

Anthony RizzoRizzo showed a lot of promise last season, but the overall numbers didn’t quite show up. This season, he’s come alive posting a .274/.381/.492 slash line and is solidifying himself as a top 10 Fantasy 1st Baseman. Imagine what he’ll be capable next year, as the elite talent in the Cubs minor league system begins to join him on the major league roster. As Rizzo and Castro are joined by like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, Arismendy Alcantra, Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwaber, we’ll see the RBI and Runs opportunities increase, and Rizzo should have a few more fastballs to feast on. He’s looking like a player poised to be picked in the 3rd round of next year’s draft, and should be a solid power producer entering the prime years of his career.

Jose AbreuI’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop on Jose Abreu for much of this year. Like many Cuban players before him, he’s a big time free-swinger, who home run power can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, those kinds of players also seem to strike out far too often to sustain a respectable average. Some players boast robust enough contact skills that it just doesn’t matter, however, and Abreu seems to be one of those guys. My thoughts have been along the line of, "His HR/FB rate is unsustainable. His K/BB rate is unsustainable. There is no way he can possibly keep this up." Half way through the season, I’m abandoning that. Abreu is for real. There may be some peaks and valleys along the way, but it’s clear that he’s a star in the making. Any player with the potential to hit 50 HRs while keeping up with a respectable .275 batting average is a 1st rounder. Power is just too hard to find, and too obvious for a player like Abreu who doesn’t hurt you. I thought he’d eventually be more Adam Dunn-esque, but he isn’t. The contact rate is too good. He’s a star, and he’ll be drafted in 2015 like one. He may fall to the 2nd given the peripheral stats, and expert advisors of the pre-season. But, either way, if his 2nd half mirrors his first, he’s made the leap to fantasy stardom.

Anthony RendonRendon is somehow still an underrated player, despite the outstanding season he has posted. The fact that it’s coming down to the Final Vote for him to make the all-star team, shows that people haven’t caught on to the season he’s had. Rendon is currently slashing .284/.340/.491 and is an every category contributor batting at the top of a talented Nationals line up. His emerging power reminds me of a young Robinson Cano with more speed. Last year Rendon posted a .130 ISO rate that has jumped to .207 half way through the 2014 campaign. His HR/FB rate has jumped from 7.2% to 11.4% and his BABIP has stayed in line with a sustainable .309 Average. Just 24 years old, there is still potential growth in his bat, as well. Rendon is hitting a lot more fly balls this year, that were line drives last year (about a 6.5% shift), and that shows the power trend is reliable. If his line drive rate returns we’re looking at a player that could post very similar numbers to what Cano posted through his prime as a 1st round pick. If it doesn’t the power should continue to grow as his body matures. Either way, we’re looking at a player who has emerged as a top 25 player in the game with eligibility at 2B and 3B for 2015. That’s a late 1st round/early 2nd round pick on draft day.

Dee GordonRemember when 2nd base was a shallow position? The top 3 guys on this list were all mid to late round picks in 2014 drafts, and have turned the keystone into one of the deepest positions in the game. Dee Gordon may not have been drafted at all in most leagues. The 42 steals he’s posted half way through the season, and the .300 average that has come with it has elevated him to an extremely valuable fantasy star. He’ll lose the SS eligibility next year (which is a shame), and they have a talented prospect behind him in Alex Guerrero, but with how Gordon has played, it’s hard to see him losing his spot in the line-up. Guerrero should force his way on to the roster at some point, but it’s more likely that either Guerrero or Hanley Ramirez move over to 3B, and Gordon either remains at 2B or regains his SS eligibility. A sore hip has slowed his blazing SB pace from earlier in the year, but a player with his wheels at SS, at the top of a potent Dodgers line up, has the smell of a top 35 pick on draft day. He may fall a round or two from that projection, but for a player who went largely undrafted, I think calling his 2014 season a Leap Year, is more than fair.

Jose AltuveJose Altuve might be my favorite player on this list. In a game where big bats and power have always garnered the majority of the attention, I’ve always grown up loving players like Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter, and Ichiro Suzuki who managed to make hitting a baseball look like a thing of ease. Players who can hit .330 on a regular basis are extremely rare. I honestly think what Altuve is doing this year, is the most impressive thing in baseball. His .338/.377/.436 slash line at the age of 24, is very promising, and I’m hoping he can carry the torch as Jeter and Ichiro are in the twilight of their careers. The prolific SB rate, and the emerging talent in the Astros young line up behind him, are going to make Altuve a 1st round pick in 2015, and I’m excited to watch his career continue to blossom, as both a fantasy player and a baseball fan.

Todd FrazierI really liked Frazier to have a nice bounce back season, and felt he’d be a top 12 fantasy 3B this season. I targeted him on draft day, but I cut ties with him in a few leagues where I felt I needed depth elsewhere. I figured he’d bat about .270, hit a HR a week, and chip in 10-15 a few steals with Price taking over as the manager. I did not see this coming, and dropping Frazier is the biggest mistake I’ve made this fantasy season. He has been an absolute monster halfway through the year, posting an astonishing .854 OPS with 17 HRs and 13 SBs from the hot corner. For some perspective…he’s having a better fantasy season than Miguel Cabrera. With how he’s played his 48 RBIs are actually a disappointment. If he had more guys on base in front of him this season, he might be the top ranked 3B in all of fantasy. He is playing like a 1st round pick, and if he keeps it up, he’s going to jump from late round flyer to top 20 pick in 2015 drafts.

Giancarlo Stanton This one is cheating, as I feel a 2nd-3rd round player like Stanton, who’s ADP was 26th has no place on this list. But, I wanted to make a comment on Stanton, because he is a special case. He hasn’t just been great this season. He has been dominant. The strides he’s made in hitting for average, and chipping in stolen bases has established him as a leading MVP candidate. Stanton has replaced Miguel Cabrera as the primary rival to Mike Trout’s reign on the fantasy throne.

Michael BrantleyAnother player in the Jeter/Ichiro mold this season has been Michael Brantley. On pace for a 25/20 season, with a robust .323/.387/.511 slugging percentage, Brantley is literally a 5-tool fantasy asset. He’s playing like a top 5 OF this season, and if he keeps it up he’ll be long gone by the 3rd round on draft day in 2015.

Billy HamiltonEverything I said about Abreu’s power, I can say about Hamilton’s speed. The .275 average looks like a mirage, but it’s clear that Hamilton is developing as a hitter. The abysmal OBP is likely to make him a mediocre lead-off candidate, and it’s likely to limit his potential to score runs, but his speed is game changing. I won’t be drafting him in the top 3 rounds in 2015, but somebody else will, and the buzz around him is justified. If he can make further strides in 2015, the sky is the limit for a guy with very special physical tools.

Masahiro TanakaIn what is looking like a disappointing season for Pinstripe lovers, Tanaka has been a ray of hope. The Japanese import is absolutely for real, and his splitter is downright unhittable. As he and his battery mate Brian McCann learn the American League more, I actually think Tanaka will get even better in the future. He has thrown made 16 Quality Starts in 17 games started (he was 16 for 16 before his start on July 3rd). Tanaka has been as consistent a pitcher as any out there, and he’s going to be drafted like a top 5 starter in 2015. After Clayton Kershaw, he’s on the short list for the 2nd pitcher to be drafted and has established himself as a true ace for fantasy teams.

Johnny CuetoJohnny Cueto has flashed premium talent before, but his health has been problematic to say the least. This season Cueto has been healthy and consistent, and downright dominant. He has 16 Quality starts, over 130 innings, and he’s striking out a batter per inning posting a sub-2.00 ERA and 0.87 WHIP. With so many pitchers bitten by the injury bug, it’s all coming together for Cueto at just the right time, and he has made the leap into the elite of ace fantasy pitchers. His xFIP and SIERA both indicate he’s a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher, and his success is likely to continue as long as he is healthy. Like Tanaka, expect him to be gone between the 2nd and 3rd round on draft day, which is about 10 rounds sooner than he was picked in 2014.

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