I'm often asked in ESPN.com chats about potential breakout candidates for the upcoming season. I consider a player to be a breakout candidate if I see a reason, from a scouting perspective or a statistical one, why his performance will improve significantly from one year to the next, to a level at which he hasn't performed previously.
Here are 10 players I'd tab as breakout candidates for 2008, as well as a handful of other names on whom to keep your eyes this season.
St. Louis Cardinals
The restoration of Adam Wainwright to his rightful role as a starter had a rocky beginning, and on June 1, 2007, his ERA stood at 5.59. A reliever moving into the rotation has to learn (or relearn) how to pace himself over 100-odd pitches. He also has to change his approach to allow him to retire the same hitter multiple times and, in the case of a pitcher with an out-pitch breaking ball like Wainwright's, to avoid a situation in which he is overusing his secondary stuff.
Wainwright improved in both areas as the season went on, showing better ability to work off his fastball, keeping that hammer curve and his above-average changeup as potential out pitches. Look for Wainwright to step up as a solid No. 2 starter for the Cardinals this year. The one warning sign is that Wainwright's workload increased dramatically from 2006 (75 innings in relief) to 2007 (202 innings as a starter), and many pitchers suffer fatigue or injury after large jumps in their innings thrown.
Finally healthy and back from an ill-considered exile to Triple-A, Weeks is about to fulfill the promise that made him the second pick in the 2003 Rule 4 draft. Weeks' main skill is his ultra-quick wrists; he lets the ball travel deep before committing and uses the middle of the field, hitting line drives into both gaps.
He's coming into his power as he gets stronger, turning on balls quickly enough to drive them out to left field and even out toward center. He works the count well, taking his walks but also fouling the ball off to get to his pitch, and he combines plus speed with strong base-stealing instincts. His batting average is primed for a big uptick this year, and he should hit 20-plus homers with an OBP near .400 and a healthy stolen base total.
Hermida, like Weeks, had his big league development retarded by a series of injuries, but credit the Marlins with never giving up on the 2002 first-rounder. Finally healthy by mid-2007, Hermida hit .324/.401/.548 after the All-Star break.
While in general I don't put much stock in second-half surges, given the weaker competition players typically face in September as call-ups get more playing time and injured veterans pack it in for the season, Hermida's post-All-Star performance was perfectly in line with his abilities. If anything, he has more power and more OBP skill to come, as he has an excellent eye and there's good lift in his clean, smooth swing. He's one of a few reasons the Marlins will not be as bad as people expect this year.
Jason Kubel, OF/DH, Minnesota Twins
Kubel was a leading rookie of the year contender for 2005, but after his monster 2004 season, he destroyed his knee in the Arizona Fall League. He missed all of '05 and struggled through '06 and even the early part of '07. His second-half surge was boosted by a huge September, at which point the level of competition starts to slip, but in Kubel's case, it looked like a return to his pre-injury level of ability.
He always has boasted a strong eye at the plate and has a quick, line-drive stroke that projects to at least 20-homer power, more if he's willing to sacrifice a little bit of contact to pull the ball more. Kubel's weakness remains left-handed pitching, and there's a chance he will end up a platoon player. But we're a few years from that point, and now that he's a full-time designated hitter, there's less chance he'll miss development time against lefties due to injury.
Los Angeles Angels
To be fair to Kendrick, the man did hit .322 last year around his various injuries, so perhaps he already has broken out or through or whatever you'd like to call it. He's here because inconsistent playing time kept his performance under the radar in 2007, but he'll vie for the batting title in 2008 if he stays healthy.
Kendrick gets the bat to the ball as well as any young hitter in baseball, and he uses the left- and right-center gaps well enough to hit 40-plus doubles over a full season. His weakness, as ever, is his unwillingness to work the count or take a walk, and while he can post strong OBPs on the back of his batting averages, he's going to have to improve his pitch selection or become a great bad-ball hitter like his teammate Vlad Guerrero.
I predicted a breakout for Encarnacion in 2007, and he responded with a putrid April and a trip to the minors. But after his return, he played more like he did in 2006. Encarnacion can hit, and will hit, both for average and for power. Given his home park in Cincinnati, he should have a 30-homer season or two before he reaches free agency.
His main trouble is defense; he consistently has been among the worst third basemen in baseball since his call-up, and there's little reason to believe he'll ever be average. Either the Reds will have to accept his poor defense at third or consider moving him to left field, assuming they decline Ken Griffey Jr.'s $16.5 million option for 2009.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers rushed Billingsley to the majors in 2006, and he struggled as a starter, mostly due to below-average control. A series of injuries to their staff led them to put him in a relief role early in 2007, and somewhere, Earl Weaver, an outspoken advocate of breaking rookie pitchers into the majors in the bullpen, nodded his approval.
Billingsley was outstanding in the pen and fared much better in his second go-round in the rotation, posting the sixth-lowest ERA in the National League after the All-Star break. (Fellow breakout candidate Adam Wainwright was third.) Billingsley has power stuff, with a four-seamer that is mostly 92-94 mph and touches 96 and an out-pitch 12/6 curveball. His changeup is improving, but he still is vulnerable against better left-handed hitters. He is in a good ballpark and should have a very good defensive outfield behind him to boost his numbers.
Drew's playoff breakout added a little polish to a disappointing 2007 season in which he showed modest improvement throughout the year but never took off or matched his 2006 half-season numbers. But it's far too early to give up on the 2004 first-rounder, who has a classic left-handed swing with good lift and bat speed, as well as excellent plate discipline.
He needs to get stronger and avoid getting on top of balls, which led him to hit into an inordinate number of groundouts to second in '07. He is selective enough to lay off the ball down if he can't lift it to the outfield. He's also below average defensively at shortstop and his reads aren't great, although he's athletic enough to improve to average given time and coaching.
Milledge, at age 22, hit .272/.341/.446 in limited playing time in the majors in 2007, which made the Mets' decision to dump him on Washington for platoon outfielder Ryan Church and non-hitting catcher Brian Schneider all the more peculiar.
Nats fans should be thrilled -- they are getting a four-plus-tool hitter who will turn 23 just after Opening Day. Milledge has one of the quickest bats in the majors and will use it to take the outside pitch to right field or to shorten up and pull balls out to left. His pitch selection is good, although he's been hurt by his own success and he never had to work the count to perform well offensively in the minors. His swing can get long and he still chases breaking balls down and out of the zone, but look for regular playing time and the lack of a spotlight to lead to a big boost in his performance.
San Francisco Giants
Lewis doesn't have the star potential of the other players on this list, but he's the best of a mediocre lot of rookies and sophomores the Giants will give playing time this year. And he has the secondary skills to be at least an average corner outfielder.
Lewis doesn't have a single plus tool that would make him stand out as a prospect, which likely has hurt his cause with San Francisco over the past few years. His best skill is his patience at the plate, running deep counts and drawing enough walks to keep his OBPs over .360 for four straight years. He has moderate power, fringy for a corner outfielder but slightly above average in center. He's an above-average runner, but neither a burner nor a plus base stealer. His best path to an everyday role is in center field, but the Giants just gave Aaron Rowand too many years and too much money to play there, leaving Lewis to fight with Dave Roberts and Randy Winn, both inferior players, for playing time in a corner. So his biggest obstacle to breaking out in 2008 isn't something he can control.
There are many other players who are less likely than the above 10 to break out into stardom but who should be significantly better in 2008 than they were in 2007. That group includes new Oakland center fielder Ryan Sweeney, who shows plus raw power in batting practice but never has been able to carry it forward into games; Texas right-hander Brandon McCarthy, whose 2007 season was an all-around disaster but who still has the fastball/changeup and control that made him such a top prospect two years ago; and Florida southpaw Scott Olsen, whose breakout potential is limited only by his personal demons. The Mariners' Jose Lopez always will be held back by his poor pitch recognition and the fact that he appears to be giving less than 100 percent, but he has a quick bat and more power than he has shown in the majors thus far.
The Yankees and Red Sox each have a pitcher in their rotation who should be back at full strength in 2008 and ready to take a step forward. For the Yankees, it's former first-round draft pick Phil Hughes, who missed most of 2007 due to a hamstring strain, then a rolled ankle, and wasn't 100 percent healthy when he returned near season's end. For the Red Sox, it's Jon Lester, now more than 18 months removed from a cancer diagnosis. Both pitchers should see their fastballs return to their pre-injury levels. Hughes should see better bite on his curveball if he can plant his front leg, and Lester should see his velocity continue to return and his ability to last through 80-plus pitches improve.
Angels right-hander Ervin Santana is a Cy Young candidate when he pitches at home, but his career ERA away from Angel Stadium is exactly four runs above his home ERA. His stuff is electric; he hits 96 mph with his fastball and throws a tight, plus slider that he can tilt at different angles. So while there's no way to tell whether he will break out in any specific year, teams will continue to take chances on him. If and when he figures it out, he will be near the front of a rotation. Felix Hernandez, of the division-rival Mariners, is always a threat to turn into one of the three or four best pitchers in baseball.
The White Sox's acquisition of Carlos Quentin stands in stark contrast to their win-now acquisitions of Scott Linebrink and Nick Swisher. Quentin started slowly in 2007 and lost his regular gig, spending most of the second half in the minors, where he hit .348/.430/.574 in just more than 100 at-bats, or on the disabled list with a hamstring strain. He's coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum and a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, so he might start slowly again. But he remains a disciplined hitter who should get on base and hit for doubles power. I'm also a big believer in Quentin's teammate, third baseman Josh Fields, who has moved very quickly for someone who came into pro ball with limited baseball experience and who has more capacity for improvement (looking specifically at his ability to make contact and at his defense) than the typical 25-year-old position player.
Finally, it's worth mentioning Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton as a breakout candidate of a different sort. Hamilton's 2007 season was largely wrecked by injuries, but he already has cleared the biggest baseball hurdle facing him: succeeding against big league pitchers despite nearly four years away from live pitching. Now, healthy again and moving to one of the best parks for left-handed power hitters, Hamilton should be in good position to carry his 2007 performance forward for a full year.
Keith Law, formerly the special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays, is the senior baseball analyst for Scouts Inc.