Over the next few weeks I’ll be putting out quite a few lists before my divisional breakdowns and team reports.
The definition of a “breakout performance” can vary from person-to-person but the general idea is always the same: that player who takes the next step from potential star to household name.
Last season, a number of the pitchers on this list made huge impacts on their teams immediate and future prospects. I can see each of these pitchers taking that next step after having success in 2013.
Zach Wheeler, New York Mets: A word to the wise: Met misery is coming to an end. Maybe even as early as 2014? That’s a topic for another day, but kudos to Sandy Alderson for the rebuilding job he’s doing in Queens. A major part of that rebuild is Wheeler, who they got in the Carlos Beltran deal in 2012.
Wheeler, whose confidence and repertoire are reason enough for excitement, will be counted on to anchor the rotation in ’14 with Matt Harvey (an All-Star in 2013) recovering from Tommy John surgery. Why he’ll break out: He’ll cut down on his walks (4.1 BB/9 in ’13), while continuing to hone the his out pitches (7.6 K/9).
Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates: Recognize this guy? If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and I hope you are) you will remember I pegged him as one of my top-5 rookies in 2013. Well after a sensational start to his career things are about to get even better in 2014, and that is great news if you’re a Pirates fan. Why he’ll break out: Cole’s September looked like this: 4 wins (five starts), 39 K’s, 10 BB, 6 ER in 32 IP, 1.69 ERA, 1.06 WHIP. If those numbers are any indication the carry over to 2014 looks very promising.
Andrew Cashner, San Diego Padres: Cashner might have been one of the best gems of the 2013 season. While the Anthony Rizzo trade didn’t sit too well with me, the Padres did a great job in getting Cashner in return. I had the opportunity to see him pitch last season in San Francisco and he went bullet-for-bullet with Matt Cain in a duel the Padres eventually lost. He’s got Ace “stuff” and poise to go with it. Reminds me a lot of John Smoltz the way he pitches. I’m looking forward to to seeing him turn it up a notch in 2014. Why he’ll break out: Entering his pitching prime (27) he’s shown increased control (2.4 BB/9 in 2013) and cut down on his base runners allowed (1.131 WHIP). His natural progression and improved knowledge of the league should see him improve on those numbers or maintain.
Sonny Gray, Oakland Athletics: The Oakland Athletics don’t surprise me anymore. They have a plan, they execute the plan, and then they go out and make every team in baseball want to mimic the plan. Whether you agree or disagree, they’re doing it right in Oakland. Sonny Gray is a big part of continuing that trend.
Last season the Athletics went with Gray (over 2013 18-game winner and All-Star Bartolo Colon) to pitch game five against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers. If that doesn’t scream confidence I don’t know what does. Why he’ll break out: Gray’s 9.29 K/9 in the second half ranked 12th in Major League Baseball (just behind 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer). He pounds the strike zone and doesn’t allow base runners. Better put: hitters don’t make contact and when they do it doesn’t go very far (52.9% of his outs came on ground balls). Should bode well for him going forward.
Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians: The Indians were my dark horse playoff pick in 2013 and it was a good call. The Indians have been making great decisions and it continued into the offseason when they allowed Ubaldo Jimenez to walk. Salazar was the reason the Indians were able to do that. I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see Salazar pitch in 2014, but I want to make it clear I think he’s about as good a bet as you can make. Why he’ll break out: 65 strikeouts to 15 walks is a good start. The Indians had one of the best offenses in baseball last year so he should see no shortage of opportunities to pitch comfortably. Health is a concern, but barring a setback there has everything needed to assume “Ace” role for Indians.
Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals: Michael Wacha was the toast of the 2013 postseason and fewer pitchers on the planet were better then him down the stretch.
So what will he do for an encore? He’ll bust out in 2014. After winning the NLCS MVP the former Texas A&M Aggie has a lot more to show us coming into his first full season. The Cardinals have an embarrassment of riches in their rotation and Wacha is set to play the role Adam Wainwright played when he co-anchored the rotation with Chris Carpenter. Why he’ll break out: His postseason exploits now legendary the hard part is just beginning. My guess is if he can stare down the Pirates, Dodgers, and Red Sox in succession he can assume the mantle of 1-A in St. Louis. A 97 mph fastball coupled with a low 80’s change-up helps, too.