Breakout Candidates- AL Central

Posted: 03/01/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Time for the breakout candidates in the AL Central.

Yan Gomes, Cleveland: More than anything, this is a playing time breakout. I say that because Yan Gomes was very good last year. He just was not an everyday player, with Carlos Santana blocking his way at catcher. This year, though, the Indians have announced that Santana will be the team’s DH with Gomes serving as the everyday catcher. After playing terribly for the Blue Jays in 2012 in his first taste of the MLB, Gomes moved to Cleveland and had an excellent year last season, both offensively and defensively. After not really being in the Indians’ plans before the season, he forced their hands and ended up playing 88 games and amassing 322 plate appearances. In basically half a season, Gomes had a 3.7 WAR. Gomes, a rare Brazilian born baseball player, has actually played well at every level, with his lone bad stretch in that cup of tea with Toronto. He has a .830 career OPS in the minor leagues, and there is every reason to believe that the 2012 stretch was an outlier. Plus, Gomes is a good-to-great defensive catcher. He is by no means a finished product, and we need to temper our expectations here. The walk rate is poor, and Gomes strikes out a lot. His 2013 offensive performance might be his 2014 ceiling, but that’s fine; if Gomes had played a full season last year, he would have had about 6 WAR. It’s definitely not fair to expect that. But keep in mind that only five catchers had 4+ WAR last season, and only two (Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer, and Mauer is moving off of the position this season) had 5+ WAR. So Gomes doesn’t need to replicate last season’s offensive success to be one of the most valuable catchers in baseball. And on a talented and deep Indians offense, he’s just another piece of the puzzle. A valuable piece, at that, as the 26 year old catcher could be one of the best in baseball.
Projected Line: .290/.339/.459 with 20 home runs in 540 plate appearances. 5.1 WAR.

Danny Salazar, Cleveland: Danny Salazar has absolutely filthy stuff. He throws hard, and he has a filthy slider and changeup. He’ll also be helped by the addition of Gomes, a better pitch framing catcher than Santana who will probably get Salazar more strikes. Last year, Danny Salazar was terrific across three levels. He started in AA, where he put up a 2.67 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 33.2 innings against 10 walks in seven starts. He was then quickly moved to AAA, where in 13 starts his ERA was 2.73. He struck out 78 in 59.1 AAA innings against only 14 walks. Then he was moved to the big leagues, where he was almost as good. In 10 starts and 52 innings (he didn’t throw more innings because they were restricted), Salazar had a 3.12 ERA and struck out 65 against 15 walks. You could say that his stuff translated to the MLB. His only blemish in the MLB last year was that he gave up a lot of homers. But it was a small sample size, and that was a non issue in the lower levels. Salazar just turned 24, and I think he is one of the clearest breakout guys in the league. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Cy Young candidate as soon as this season. He might already be the ace of a Cleveland staff with Justin Masterson. Salazar is that good, and the only concern might be another innings restriction. But given that he threw 145 innings last year, Salazar could see a Jose Fernandez-esque innings limit of around 170. His stuff, in fact, is almost as good as Fernandez’s. I’m not saying that Salazar is the next Fernandez, because Fernandez is one of the best pitcher in the game, but he might well be.
Projected Line: 10-7, 3.25 ERA, 168 IP, 196 K, 50 BB, 4.3 WAR

Corey Kluber, Cleveland: I’m starting to think this could be a team wide breakout for Cleveland. Gomes, Salazar, and now Kluber. Kluber had 63 forgettable innings in 2012, but was much better in 147 innings last year. He finished with a respectable 3.85 ERA, and struck out 136 hitters. Kluber has shown some frustration in his MLB career, but it looks like he took a step away from that last season. The key was that he had better control last season, and I think his improved control is here to stay. Kluber is actually pretty comparably to Cliff Lee, a former Indian, at the same stage in his career. Many people forget that Cliff Lee didn’t become a great or even good pitcher until he was 29. He had a 4.64 career ERA coming into his Cy-Young award winning season in 2008. The difference was control. Lee went from being about average at walking hitters to being simply the best in the game at controlling his pitches. From 2002 through 2007, Lee, like Kluber, often visibly showed frustration. He had a walks-per-nine mark of 3.1 in that time. In his last six years, Lee has a 2.89 ERA and a 1.3 BB/9, by far the best in the league. He has placed top seven in the Cy-Young voting four times in that span, and led the league in BB/9 in four of those six years.

That was a big, unnecessary detour, but I just find Cliff Lee’s transformation amazing. Now back to Kluber. Kluber actually had peripherals that were better than his ERA last year, and those peripherals are usually a better indicator of future success. I think he’ll break out here, in his age-28 season.
Projected line: 13-7, 3.75 ERA, 198 IP, 187 K, 47 BB, 4.1 WAR

Salvador Perez, Kansas City: Let’s call Sal Perez the catcher version of Manny Machado. I say that because while Perez was great last year, with a 3.7 WAR, that was mostly because of his amazing defense. Perez, the rare catcher who comes up as a young player and immediately produces, was just about average last year offensively while playing tremendously defensively. His WAR jumped from 2.5 in 2012, but his offense actually got worse. The jump was because of an increase in playing time. Perez’s line was .292/.323/.433 with 105 wRC+ (100 is the average). It’s clear from that line that Perez just doesn’t walk enough, and that’s confirmed by his 4% walk rate that placed him seventh worst among all qualified players. There is room to improve there, and manager Ned Yost also thinks that Perez can start hitting for more power this year. Perez is already the Royals’ most important player. When he missed time in 2012, the team got worse. He is probably the best young catcher in the game (with apologies to the previously mentioned Gomes) in terms of two way production. He is a team leader, he has a great arm, he is a great defensive catcher, and he hits for average. If he can walk more, he could just be the best catcher in the game this year. I’d bet that he makes his all-star debut in the very near future.
Projected line: .291/.341/.478 with 20 home runs in 554 plate appearances. 5.8 WAR.

Also considered: Adam Eaton, Drew Smyly

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