In 2016, Baltimore’s Hyun Soo Kim had a season that few expected.
Well, especially after the much-hyped Korean baseball veteran’s lousy spring, where he started off 0-for-23 and would hit just .178.
It was so bad, the former KBO superstar was asked to take a minor league assignment, refused it and then was booed onto the field during the O’s 2016 home opener.
However, the stout former Doosan Bears superstar rebounded to silence his many early critics. He played in 95 games and hit .302, with 16 doubles, a triple, six homers and 22 RBI.
Kim’s was but one of a few breakout success stories in 2016.
Another was highly regarded San Diego Padres RF/1B Wil Myers. After struggling through back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015, Myers was a banger in 2016, lashing out 61 extra base hits (28 homers) and driving in 94 runs. Those numbers eclipsed everything he’d done in the previous two campaigns.
This year, there are quite a few second and third-year men who may be on the cusp of bigger and better things.
Here are 10, in no particular order.
10. Addison Russell, SS/2B – Chicago Cubs
On paper, at least, the numbers suggest that Russell has already broken out. In two big league seasons (and two games this season) with the Cubbies, the former Oakland A’s first round pick has hit .240, with 55 doubles, four triples, 34 homers and 149 RBI in 295 games. He also sports a .314 on base percentage, .404 slugging percentage, .277 BABIP and .718 OPS. Not bad for a youngster on a stacked team. However, there is room to move for Russell, who sported superior numbers in four seasons of minor league ball from Rookie to AAA. He hit a combined .301 in 244 minor league contests, and had a .377 OBP, .520 slugging percentage and .897 OPS. We see slight improvement in some areas this season (batting average) and greater gains in others (OBP, slugging). Why? This is an electrifying player who tied a major league record for most RBI (6) in a single World Series game. And, he was an all-star last year, so the sky is the limit.
9. Nomar Mazara, RF – Texas Rangers
With seven hits already this young MLB season, in just 12 at-bats, Nomar Mazara is providing a glimpse of the greatness he might achieve this season. Last year, the Rookie of the Year candidate (he finished fifth in voting) played in 145 games for the Rangers and hit very well (.266, 20 HR, 64 RBI). However, he did strike out 112 times, while drawing just 39 walks, which is why his OBP was a pedestrian .320 and his OPS an average .739. Thus, once his eye improves and he isn’t flailing at bad pitches, he’ll be able to elevate his OBP and force pitchers to throw it more into his left hand hitting sweet spot. He’s already proven to be a great spray hitter, as seven of his 20 dongs went out from center to left. Mazara was outstanding against right-handed pitching, clubbing 19 of his 20 HR against them. Once he figures out the southpaws, which will come, he’ll break out in a big way.
8. Trea Turner, SS – Washington Nationals
Had he played a full season in 2016, Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner would have likely run away with Rookie of the Year honors (he finished second). He batted .342 in 73 games, slugging 35 extra base hits (13 HR) and driving in 40 runs. He could easily have been a 30/30 man too, since he swiped 33 bases in 39 attempts. With a .567 slugging percentage and .937 OPS, he was among the best in those categories at his position. His numbers last year looked even better in comparison to his stats in 83 AAA games at Syracuse, where he hit .302 with 36 extra base hits, 33 RBI and 25 stolen bases. The fleet Turner, playing a full season in D.C. should eclipse his home run and stolen base totals in 2017.
7. Tim Anderson, SS – Chicago White Sox
The influx of great young shortstops in major league baseball can be nothing but good for the game. Like Trea Turner in Washington and Addison Russell with the Cubs (both on this list), a full season of Tim Anderson with the Chisox should bear all kinds of offensive fruit. The 22-year-old first round pick (17th overall, 2013) showed his prowess in just 99 games last year, hitting .283, including 22 doubles, six triples, nine homers, 30 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 12 attempts. Prior to being called up to the big club, Anderson tore up the International League with Charlotte in 55 games. He hit .304, slugged 16 extra base hits, drove in 20 runs and stole 11 bases. His walk totals in both leagues (21 combined), versus his strike out totals (175) were not very good. However, with work on being selective, his on base percentage and stolen base opportunities will increase measurably.
6. Joc Pederson, CF – Los Angeles Dodgers
Joc Pederson, as free a swinger as there is in the National League, made great strides to cutting down big strikeout numbers during his rookie season in 2015 (he whiffed 170 times), striking out 130 times in 2016. Conversely, his batting average went up 36 points to .246. That is not good news for NL pitchers, heading into the 2017 campaign. The solidly built centerfielder hit for more power in 2016, too, pounding out 26 doubles and 25 homers (he had 19 doubles and 26 homers in 2015), elevating his slugging percentage from .417 to .495. Despite all the strikeouts, Pederson has a pretty good batting eye, having walked 92 times in 2015 and on 63 occasions in 2016. A continued shrewd approach at the plate should see Pederson pile up more extra base hits in 2017. Of note, he already has a grand slam home run this season.
5. Alex Bregman, 3B – Houston Astros
What makes Alex Bregman so valuable to the Astros, besides his robust bat, is his versatility in the infield. However, the fact he can also play at short and second won’t be our focal point. In 49 games last season, Bregman became the third horseman in an apocalyptically good infield that already featured SS Carlos Correa and 2B Jose Altuve. The 23-year-old second overall pick in the 2015 draft pounded out 24 extra base hits (8 HR) and drove in 34 runs in those 49 contests. Extrapolate those numbers to a 162-game campaign and 60 extra base hits along with 100 RBI isn’t far outside the realm of possibility. Bregman’s meteoric rise through the Astros minor league system was a harbinger of things to come. He played in just 146 games at all levels (Rookie through AAA), amassing 35 doubles, six triples, 24 homers and 95 RBI. He hit a collective .300 and had an OPS of .891. This kid is going to be great.
4. Gregory Polanco, RF – Pittsburgh Pirates
Polanco is one of the older hands in this group, as he is 25 and heading into his fourth season in the bigs. Yet, the big Dominican slugger (6’5″, 235 lbs.) is just now coming into his own. He has improved year over year since getting into 89 games in 2014, to the point he lashed out 60 extra base hits in 2016, which included 22 home runs — which easily surpassed the 16 he hit in 242 contests between 2014-15. He also drove in 86 runs, doubling his career output, and stole 17 bases in 23 tries. Polanco is a five-tool player, in that he has wheels (58-for-80 in stolen bases), an outstanding bat as we’ve detailed above and is a good defensive player with a decent arm (.976 fielding percentage and 28 assists in 367 games). He’ll be one to watch as the 2017 season progresses.
3. Devon Travis, 2B – Toronto Blue Jays
Is this the year Devon Travis finally stays healthy? If the answer is yes, it can only mean very good things for the Jays, who look to make the playoffs for the third straight season. Travis, 26, is in just his third season, but has displayed a fantastic stroke in his first two campaigns. However, a host of nagging injuries saw him play just 163 games (one over a full season) between 2015 and 2016. His career batting average, through 165 games (including two this season) is an admirable .301. He has tremendous gap power, as he has smacked 46 doubles, a triple and 19 home runs. As the team’s lead-off hitter this season, the only thing he could improve on is drawing walks, since he’s taken just 38 free passes since breaking in. The middle infield, including SS Troy Tulowitzki, is scary good.
2. Kyle Schwarber, LF/C – Chicago Cubs
Kyle Schwarber is back. National League, be warned. An early season collision in 2016 that tore the ACL and LCL in his left leg, limited Schwarber to just two games and then spot hitting duty in the World Series. He did go 7-for-17 in the Fall Classic with two RBI to help the Cubbies end that long, long championship drought. Now healthy, the brute hitter should terrorize senior circuit hurlers for some time to come. Schwarber debuted in 2015 and displayed the power that was behind his fourth overall selection in the 2014 draft. In just 69 games in 2015, the then 22-year-old smoked six doubles, a triple and 16 homers, driving in 43 runs. While his batting average was a pedestrian .246, he drew 36 walks to put his on base percentage at a healthy .355. And for a stocky guy (6’0″, 240 lbs.), Schwarber showed pretty good speed, stealing three bases in six attempts. That sneaky speed has the brawny slugger hitting lead-off this year, which is very interesting, to say the least.
1. Greg Bird, 1B – New York Yankees
The Bronx Bombers, for the first time in forever, have a slew of great young arms and bats in their starting line-up. While young catcher Gary Sanchez announced himself loudly to the world last fall with 20 homers in 53 games last year, it’s a boon to the organization that slugging first baseman Greg Bird will take over capably for Mark Teixeira. Now, neither have hit the hide off the ball through the Yanks first series this year, but there is no reason for alarm as 159 games remain. The reason we are putting Bird here, instead of Sanchez, is that the young catcher can’t possibly hit homers at a better clip in a full season (we think it’s an anomaly as his highest minor league HR total in any one season was 18). Bird, for his part, showed great promise at the plate in 46 games last season. He smacked nine doubles and 11 homers, while driving in 31 runs. In a full season and taking advantage of that friendly right field porch at Yankees Stadium, 30 homers is reachable.