- Jim Bowden, ESPN Insider
A breakout player is someone who has always had the talent and potential, but has never been able to live up to it at the major league level. The reasons players have breakout seasons include but are not limited to: an opportunity to play full time, rebounding from injuries, making adjustments they've never made before, maturity, learning from experience, getting significant playing time, increased physical ability due to different training methods.
There are several great breakout stories so far from this 2011 season and I found it difficult to decide who qualifies. Therefore, players like Matt Kemp won't be included because he already had his breakout season, while players like Mike Stanton and Starlin Castro showed us last year what they could do. Others like Ryan Vogelsong and Phil Humber could have made list, but I wanted to limit it to five pitchers and five position players.
Cabrera has quickly become the best all-around shortstop in the American League. He can hit, hit for power and steal bases. His quick hands and feet and strong arm allow him to have above average range to both sides. His quick hand transfer from glove to release is a treat to watch. Orlando Cabrera has been a good influence, encouraging him to swing for power. Cabrera is leading the Indians in almost every offensive category and should be the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game. He is one of the main reasons the Indians have gone from pretenders to contenders.
Last year it was Joey Votto who broke out and became the National League MVP; this year, it's his teammate who is busting out. Bruce is quickly becoming one of the best all-around players and clutch hitters in the National League. Bruce is your classic five-tool player. He can run, hit, field, throw and hit for power. He also has the most important ingredient of a star player: phenomenal makeup. When he was a free agent, my scouting report said that someday he would be a Larry Walker-type player. I was wrong. I think he'll be even better. He wants to be up with the game on the line, and that's when he'll beat you.
Avila has always been a top defensive catcher. He grew up in the game and is extremely intelligent. His ability to call a game, frame pitches and stop the running game are strengths. The big question was always about his bat and power. Tigers manager Jim Leyland always believed he would hit and felt the power the he showed in batting practice would eventually be seen in games. So far, he's been right as Avila is enjoying a breakout season.
The Rays traded one of their top starting pitchers in December 2008 to the Tigers for Joyce. Joyce played in only 11 games for the Rays in 2009 and hit 10 home runs with 40 RBIs in 77 games last season. This year, with the departures of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, Joyce has been given an opportunity to play every day and has taken advantage of it, leading the AL in hitting.
The Red Sox started the spring with Marco Scutaro as their starting shortstop, but two months into the season they have a new one in Jed Lowrie. Lowrie has always hit, but throughout his major league career has been hampered by injuries and lack of playing time. However, when the Red Sox started 2-10, and their offense wasn't clicking, Lowrie was given an opportunity and he's made the most of it.
Last year, Alexi Ogando went from the Dominican summer league to the minors (for only 18 games) to helping the Rangers to the World Series as a setup reliever. Now, after only three professional starts at any level, he has been dominating the major leagues like an ace. His high-90s fastball and 86 mph hard, downward biting slider is flat-out missing bats. He's pounding the zone, going right at hitters and is not afraid. Ogando is second in the league in ERA and busting out.
Sanchez is finally reaching his potential. His complete-game shutout on Thursday was pure dominance. He commanded all of his pitches, with late movement and explosion at the strike zone. His mid-90s fastball misses as many bats as his secondary pitches. He quickly has become one of the best pitchers in the National League. When Josh Johnson (DL) rejoins Sanchez and Ricky Nolasco in the rotation, it will give the Marlins one of the best rotation trios in the NL along with the Phillies, Braves, Giants and Cardinals.
A former first-round pick in 2006, Kennedy was once a top pitching prospect with the Yankees. But before he was given an opportunity to succeed for the Yankees, Kennedy was involved in the three-way deal that sent Curtis Granderson to New York. Kennedy started to breakout last year, going 9-10, but has taken it to another level this year.
The Cardinals had a huge setback in spring training when perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery. Manager Tony La Russa quickly decided to move McClellan from middle relief to the rotation. McClellan hasn't disappointed. The Cardinals have been able to stay on the top of the NL Central thanks in part to McClellan's breakout season.
Sergio was a shortstop in the Arizona, Toronto, Minnesota and Chicago White Sox systems until 2009, when he was converted to pitcher. Pitching for four minor league teams that year, he was 0-3 with a 8.16 ERA, moving his way from Kannapolis to Winston-Salem to Birmingham to Triple-A Charlotte, where he pitched a total of five innings, walking seven with an ERA of 9.00. The next year, in 2010, he arrived in the big leagues with the White Sox, pitching in 56 games and finishing with a 2.96 ERA -- including one save. Santos has become the White Sox's full-time closer, pounding the strike zone without fear, averaging 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings. His off-the-charts makeup, competitiveness, heart and soul is evident. A great story for the White Sox and an even better story for this year's breakout players.