As the 2009 season came to a close, Toronto utilityman Jose Bautista finished up another nondescript, workmanlike season as a part time third baseman and outfielder, hitting .235/.349/.408. He was 28. In 2010, Bautista hit .260/.378/.617 with a major league-leading 54 home runs. Yeah...no one saw that coming.
In 2006, Prince Fielder hit 271/.347/.483 with 28 home runs in his rookie year. He was 22 (and finished just seventh in the Rookie of the Year balloting!). The following season he hit 50 home runs and posted a 1.013 OPS, surprising no one. In 2008, a 25-year-old Joe Mauer hit a league-leading .328, but with middling power. The following year, he launched 28 home runs, hit .365, and ended up having one of the best seasons by a catcher in major league history. This surprised...no one. Some things just aren't that hard to foresee.
Projecting breakouts from random veterans in their late-twenties is pretty much an impossible task. When considering a younger, former top prospect who hasn't quite reached his potential, however, a breakout is easier to believe. Every year there are talented players who have been good-but-not-great up to this point and who are just one adjustment away from taking the next step to superstardom. We saw it with Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury last year. Who will be the ones to take that big step? After the jump, my five top candidates to post monster seasons in 2012.
1. Matt Wieters
It seems like only yesterday that PECOTA opened eyes everywhere by projecting an incredible .311/.395/.544 rookie season for Wieters, with 31 home runs and a bushel of walks, to boot. That was back in 2009, and since that point Wieters hasn't exactly lived up to those sky-high expectations. After a subpar 2010 season, the dreaded "bust" word even began to be murmured in some fan circles.
There's a reason PECOTA was so bullish on Wieters, though; it wasn't just a case of BP's super-projection system going haywire (though the mental image of a PECOTA supercomputer going on a kill-crazy rampage is somewhat amusing). Wieters's power finally manifested itself at the big league level last season, and there should be more to come. What with the rigors of the position, some catchers just take longer to develop (for instance, Ivan Rodriguez didn't really develop into an All-Star caliber hitter until his fourth season; same with Jorge Posada).
Wieters's chief nemesis last season was right-handed pitching (.235/.295/.371 vs. a scalding .339/.430/.694 against lefties), but he didn't show that kind of split in his first two seasons. If he remembers how to hit righties again this year, the wreckage he causes in the American League could be biblical.
2. Andrew McCutchen
Your classic five category stud, with dreadlocks included to complete the awesomeness. McCutchen's home run totals have gone up each year that he's been in the majors, to the point where a 30/30 season is well within reach. The only concern from 2011 is the drop in average and the uptick in strikeouts, but his line drive percentage held steady and some of the average dip was a BABIP fluctuation. The increase in walks for the third straight season was also an encouraging trend.
McCutchen is on the verge of breaking through with a 100-100-100 year: 100 runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 walks. Couple that with his speed and still-developing power, and you're staring at a guy who could easily morph into the number one fantasy player in the league as soon as this season.
3. Jay Bruce
Like Wieters, another former uberprospect (can you believe he was once more highly-touted than Joey Votto?) who struggled in his first few big league seasons. Last season, Bruce had the breakout power year we had all been anticipating, eclipsing the 30 home run mark for the first time.
There's more to come. Bruce will be just 25 next year and hasn't even reached his peak yet. Bruce will probably never hit for average consistently, but I love his chances for a 40-homer breakout season. Hitting behind OBP machine Joey Votto in homer-friendly Great American Ballpark will only help his (and your) cause.
4. Giancarlo Stanton
The artist formerly known as Mike Stanton is already flashing his 80 power (on the 20-80 scouting scale) at the tender age of 21, as he mashed 34 homers last year despite playing in a park that was traditionally hostile toward hitters. The most encouraging sign (or terrifying sign, if you're an NL pitcher), is that Stanton maintained his power while upping his walk rate and slashing his strikeout rate considerably.
There was once fear that his penchant for strikeouts would eat him alive. Those fears are no more. Given continued progress in contact and plate patience, we're potentially looking at the premier slugger in the game in the near future, to the point where a 50 home run season doesn't seem like a totally loony proposition. If the Marlins' new ballpark plays any friendlier to home runs, watch out, although we may grow to hate him for exposing us to this abomination over and over again.
5. Jason Heyward
He suffered through a miserable 2011 season, even losing playing time to a long lost Seinfeld character, but nobody believes his struggles were for real. For starters, a shoulder injury screwed up his swing midseason and pretty much derailed his sophomore year. We're still talking about a 6'6'' athletic freak who drew 91 walks as a 21-year-old and came within a hair of winning the Rookie of the Year. Those of you who own him in keeper leagues will be bombarded with low-ball offers from managers looking to get him at a bargain rate after last season. Don't even think about it. Expect a rebound, and look for many big home run years to come.