Brendan Tuma’s Breakout Players (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
I can’t always get behind the verbiage we use for fantasy baseball, particularly when we’re discussing breakouts, sleepers, and busts. Then there’s “overvalued”, “undervalued”, players to fade, etc. It becomes easy to just lump certain players into multiple categories, which I think leads to readers missing the point.
The below names are players who I believe could see a serious boost in production from years prior, whether due to a skill change or increased playing time. Generally these are younger players, but that’s what a breakout is to me. This logic differs from hitters who look like screaming values according to our consensus ADP (think Nick Castellanos, Yoan Moncada, Giancarlo Stanton, etc.) Those hitters have already broken out and have become draft targets for various other reasons.
Lastly, I linked to some recent player analysis / draft strategy articles below, as I view them as supplements to this breakout list. Now let’s dive in.
The ADP referenced below is courtesy of FantasyPros consensus average draft position data
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (1B – TOR) ADP: 54
My love for Vlad Jr. is well documented. At the start of the offseason I wrote a piece on the former hitting prodigy about how fantasy managers should handle him in dynasty leagues moving forward. The main point of the article was that although Vlad had been “disappointing” to begin his big league career, it wasn’t as if he had been dreadful – or even bad. Guerrero’s career 109 OPS+ entering 2021 means that he has been 9% better than league average through his age-21 season.
I also pointed out that Guerrero doesn’t need to overhaul his swing in order to live up to the hype he received as a prospect. His 54.6% ground ball rate from 2020 was the 10th-highest in MLB, but we’ve seen superstars such as Juan Soto and Christian Yelich live with GB rates north of 50% in recent years. The grounders really only become an issue when hitters don’t do damage on balls in the air. It’s fair to say that Vlad hasn’t maximized the efficiency of his hard-hit balls through his first two seasons. I theorized that “Vladito” could benefit from re-committing to his craft.
Guerrero talked candidly about the fact that he wasn’t in shape at the start of summer camp. He still went out and played in all 60 games for the Blue Jays, and he immediately got to work once the playoffs ended. By late-February Guerrero said he had lost 42 pounds. This is a young kid who’s still learning life lessons. I’ll admit that the “getting in shape” narrative might not be enough of a selling point for strictly data-driven fantasy players, but it’s still a piece of the puzzle. I’m willing to risk being early on a generational hitting prospect who could finally be coming into his own.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having quite the spring
Entered today hitting .385 with a 5:2 BB:K ratio
He's now 2-for-2 with two doubles on the day
???? THE SKINNY VLAD BREAKOUT IS COMING ????
— Brendan Tuma (@toomuchtuma) March 16, 2021
James Karinchak (RP – CLE) ADP: 98
Let’s start by acknowledging that Cleveland hasn’t yet named Karinchak the closer. The assumption is that the flame-throwing right-hander will get the majority of save chances in 2021, but it isn’t technically official. In my latest update of the FantasyPros Closer Report, I tagged him with “medium” job security. This has everything to do with manager Terry Francona not officially naming a ninth-inning guy. It has nothing to do with Karinchak’s skills.
That’s because the skills are pretty darn special. “Special K” has always been able to record strikeouts, but he took it to another level in 2020. The Baseball Savant page is blood red, highlighted by 100th percentile finishes in K%, xBA, and xSLG. I guess this means Karinchak has technically already broken out, which means the reason he makes the list is due to the projected opportunity of being Cleveland’s primary ninth-inning man.
The one concern with the 25-year-old is the walk rate, which ranked in the bottom 5th percentile last summer. They’ve also been a bit of a problem this spring as he has allowed five free passes in just 5 1/3 innings. Still, neither the walk rate nor the Indians’ unwillingness to name him as their closer has me shying away. Karinchak has the upside to finish as the No. 1 fantasy reliever in 2021.
Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B – PIT) ADP: 137
This just makes no sense. Typically when a young prospect breaks through at the major league level the fantasy community goes nuts over it. Look to Bo Bichette or Randy Arozarena for recent examples. Sure, Hayes was always deemed a “glove-first” prospect, but the youngster hit .376 in a 24-game cup-of-coffee last September.
The most recent scouting reports on Hayes detail that he’s a different hitter than he was early on in his minor league tenure. It was a small sample, but his 2020 Statcast numbers back it up. Hayes’ 92.8 mph average exit velocity and 55.4% hard-hit rate both would’ve ranked within the top-15 in MLB if he played enough to qualify. Yet despite all the improvements, the 24-year-old is barely going inside the top-140 picks. Taking Hayes is reasonably safe at this ADP, but he’s also talented enough to make another leap and wind up as a big-time value pick.
Ke’Bryan Hayes does it all pic.twitter.com/A6o9FnMTt4
— Brendan Tuma (@toomuchtuma) February 28, 2021
Andres Gimenez (2B/3B/SS – CLE) ADP: 192
It seems as if Gimenez is in line to be Cleveland’s starting shortstop in 2021. After initially being thrust into a crowded infield situation, Gimenez has emerged as the favorite to replace Francisco Lindor for the Indians. Fantasy managers should be excited as the former Met is suddenly a fantastic source of late-round steals. As explained in the SPSB strategy (linked above), the reason to draft starters and steals early is because they’re so hard to find once you reach the double-digit rounds of your drafts.
Then the Fantasy Gods gave us Gimenez, a 22-year-old speedster with multi-position eligibility and a prime opportunity to be an everyday player. In a part-time role with the Mets last year he went 8-for-9 in stolen base attempts. Combine that with a sprint speed that ranked in the 94th percentile last year, and Gimenez is a player I want to roster regardless of whether or not I get my steals early.
Aaron Civale (SP – CLE) ADP: 197
The third and final member of the Indians to make this list, Civale hasn’t been bad to start his major league career. The 25-year-old has posted a 3.69 ERA through his first 22 starts following a 2019 debut. Things worsened last summer, though, and it led to him making a change this offseason.
Civale came to spring training with a new, shortened arm path in his delivery. He also ditched his changeup in favor of a split changeup. The shortened arm path route is the same evolution Lucas Giolito took en route to his 2019 breakout campaign. For Civale, the early spring returns have been promising – six innings of one-run ball with a 4:0 K:BB ratio. Who are we to doubt Cleveland pitchers at this point?
Alex Kirilloff (OF – MIN) ADP: 237
The last time we really saw Kirilloff for a sustained stretch was the 2019 minor league season. As a 21-year-old in Double-A Kirilloff put up a .756 OPS, which was a big letdown from the .970 mark he posted the year prior. With the knowledge we have now it’s fair to surmise that a wrist injury was sapping his power that season. Now healthy, Kirilloff was reportedly raking at the alternate training site last summer – before making his major league debut in Game 2 of Minnesota’s Wild Card Round postseason matchup.
We know that by deploying him in the playoffs last year that the Twins think he’s ready. It still isn’t a guarantee that he begins the season with the big league club, but there’s at least a chance. Even if it isn’t Opening Day, fantasy players should expect to see Kirilloff within the first few weeks of 2021. This is an advanced bat with an extremely strong hit tool. Kirilloff can use the whole field, turn on pitches with authority, and is able to handle both breaking pitches and velocity. He’s a priority late-round target in drafts.