Boston Red Sox vs Seattle Mariners in Seattle

In a division packed about as tightly as a can be, the emergence or decline of a single player can mean the difference between a playoff berth and an early end to the season.

With the AL Central race as wide open as any division in the MLB, each team will be counting on the contributions of every player on the roster – and praying for the breakout of their sleeper prospects. And, when it comes to those, there is certainly no shortage of potential breakout players.

Cleveland Indians

SP Justin Masterson: Though we could have gone with OF Matt LaPorta here, it just wouldn’t have been as fun as picking the home-grown talent.

Everyone in the Boston metro-area familiar with Masterson – or “Monsterson,” as some like to call him – and his impeccable set of offerings. The 6-6, 250 lb behemoth was the centerpiece that brought Victor Martinez over the Sox, paired with stud reliever Nick Hagadone.

A hefty price tag befitting of the elite catcher, Masterson now turns his sights toward the AL Central as the Indians’ number three starter.

Though many will point to Masterson’s 4.52 ERA as a telltale sign of mediocrity, he was really a very effective pitcher this past season. Registering a 4.04 FIP ERA, the groundball machine also has some nasty swing-and-miss stuff, totaling 8.28 K/9 while also inducing a contact percentage of 79.2. Though the walks are a bit disconcerting, at 4.18 BB/9, it pales in comparison to Masterson’s achilles heel – his struggles against lefties.

At the moment, Masterson is primarily a two-pitch pitcher. Featuring a low-90s fastball and mid-80s slider, he lacks any semblance of a third-pitch to combat batters of the opposite hand. Though he does possess a changeup, he lacks any real confidence in the offering and hasn’t shown much ability to succeed with it either – throwing it just 3.0 percent of the time.

In essence, when he faces lefties, Masterson becomes a one-pitch pitcher, relying predominantly on the fastball to induce outs – which are few and far between.

In 2009, southpaws lambasted Masterson to the tune of a .372 BABIP and 5.29 BB/9. Though it is difficult to say exactly how far over .300 that BABIP should be, it goes without saying that, if hitters can sit on one pitch and one pitch only, they are going to have an easy time at the plate. Even if the BABIP normalizes to .300, however, he’s still looking at a 4.70 xFIP ERA on the season – an unacceptable number for such a talented arm.

For 2010, Masterson will have to look to harness his changeup – either that or develop a curveball – or else he may be destined for bullpen duty long-term. There seems to be no adjustment needed on his other offerings and no urgent need to refine his command – when facing righties he struck out 9.23 batters per nine and walked only 3.12 per nine.

What it comes down to is the need to refine his changeup – a goal that seems to be a very long way from fruition. When he does, however, watch out! The turn will be fast and furious as Masterson morphs into a true frontline starter – possessing the rare combination of groundball-inducing, strikeout stuff.

Kansas City Royals

3B Alex Gordon: When times are hard and your team hasn’t seen a winning season in what must feel like eons, you have find hope somewhere and hold on as tightly as possible.

At one time, Gordon was the very player to whom Royals’ fans could pin their hopes. Unfortunately, he hasn’t worked out the way many had hoped – becoming just another disappointment in a long line of Kansas City letdowns.

Still, as hope springs eternal, so does Alex Gordon. Even so, every year its getting harder and harder to see an All-Star career out of Gordon and, at this point, Royals fans would probably settle for a league average starter at third.

Remember, just three seasons ago, this team hailed him as the next George Brett, the one who would pull the team out of the black morass and lead it to the promised land.

Nowadays, its difficult to see what anyone saw in him. Sure, his 2006 in AA was superb as he showed excellent power, good speed, and a polished approach at the plate. In 2010, however, its as if that all disappeared.

Is he a cautionary tale against promoting players too aggressively to the Majors?


But there’s just no good explanation what happened. Other than an OK year in ’08, he’s been terrible. Everything about him is below average: he chases lots of pitches (24.8 career O-Swing percentage), doesn’t make particularly good contact (76.0 career Contact percentage), doesn’t hit for much power (9.1 career HR/FB percentage), and can’t even stay healthy.

But all is not lost. First off, he’s at least got a reputation going for him. This may sound sarcastic, but, pitchers don’t like throwing him strikes, shown by his 45.2 Zone percentage last season. This low number is usually a sign of respect from pitchers, reserved for elite power hitters or big-time hackers. I’m not sure why they throw so few pitches in the zone to him as he doesn’t fit into either category, but, the number may be there because the scouts like him. Either way, it helped him post a walk total of 11.1 percent last year – a pretty good number.

He’s also got tools – and plenty of them. Going beyond the statistics, there is only so much that past performance can dictate. If a guy has tremendous strength and batting practice power, he often only needs to refine his approach at the plate to capitalize on this latent talent. Take Nelson Cruz for example. For years, pundits projected a breakout season from him, which never came until just last season – his fifth in the bigs at age 29.

Nearly impossible to predict, these meteoric climbs happen every season, are relatively unpredictable, and are a big reason why baseball is so exciting even if Dan Shaughnessy thinks that statistics are sucking the fun out of the game.

Call it what you will but, like Old Faithful, Alex Gordon will perpetually be a potential explosive force until that well runs dry and the tank is empty. He’ll be 26 this season – younger than many before him who have had considerable breakouts – and is just a tweak or two away from putting it all together.

He’ll have to drop that O-Swing percentage first, but when he does, he’ll hit 25 home runs, hit .280, and be one of the better third basemen in the American League. He’s got a good flyball percentage working for him (45.1 percent), a pretty swing, and a great pedigree. No matter what, he’ll always have his supporters – and this year is no different. Whether he puts it together or not is anyone’s guess, but it will be one big, bright light in the sky when it happens.

Detroit Tigers

SP Rick Porcello: Now this is a fun one.

Drafted with the 27th overall pick in the 2007 June draft, many teams passed him up due to signability concerns. Detroit refused to be intimidated and inked him to a $3.58 million bonus.

Barely two seasons later, Porcello’s an animal and one of the best pitching “prospects” in the league. Though he’ll be just 21 this season, he’s already got one great season under his belt to go along with the tools to get far, far better.

Having pitched just one season of minor league ball prior to his debut, many wondered why a hurler with stuff as tremendous as his would fail to miss bats. The trend continued in 2009, as the tall starter struck out just 4.69 batters per nine.

Even so, he walked only 2.74 per nine, induced a 54.2 percent groundball rate, and drew swings in 25.1 percent of his offerings out of the zone. An excellent start to what will be an excellent career, if he can miss a few more bats along the way, he’ll be among the league’s elite.

For 2010, the list is very simple, albeit somewhat difficult: lower that contact percentage. If his contact percentage continues to stay at 84.8 percent, he’ll never reach his potential. Still, it’s rare that batters post an O-Contact percentage of 69.3 percent – especially against stuff as good as Porcello’s. Therefore, plan for an increase in Ks this year, though don’t expect the young hurler to move mountains. He’s still feeling out pitching at the pro level – and that takes time. With a couple more years of coaching and development, he has what it takes to be a frontline starter in the MLB.

Then again, this could be the year. It just takes that one “click” and he’ll be at the top of AL leaderboards.

Minnesota Twins

SP, Carl Pavano: Few pitchers give me more joy than Carl Pavano. He’s underappreciated, he’s got underwhelming stuff, and he consistently underperforms. Maybe that makes him an underdog. I don’t know. But, whatever it is, I love it and can’t help but root for him.

2009 was a rough year for Pavano. Though he turned in a season with very good secondary indicators – a 1.76 BB/9, 3.77 K:BB ratio, and 3.96 xFIP ERA – he just couldn’t get the job done on the field, posting a 5.10 ERA in 199.1 innings pitched.

It’s hard to say what happened. In essence, everything out of his control that could have gone wrong did go wrong. His BABIP was an abysmal .335. His strand rate was just 66.1 percent. He kept the HR/FB rate in check, at 10.7 percent, but that wasn’t enough. He got tagged when he needed outs the most and, in baseball, that’s what people remember you for.

For 2010, he just needs to repeat what he did in 2009, albeit with better timing. If he can post average strikeout rates while throwing in his usual impeccable command, he’ll be great as the Twins’ number three starter – and that should be more than a doable task.

With Pavano’s ’09, its funny. In every way, it was a career year, except where it mattered – ERA and wins. The underlying stats were all there, but the results weren’t.

Hey, such is baseball. Here’s hoping he and the Twins have better luck than last year.

Chicago White Sox

OF Carlos Quentin: This guy became a sleeper even before last season ended. Out of contention and out of the lineup, all Quentin could do was look forward to 2010 and hope for better.

A Jose Canseco doppelganger, Quentin mashes just like his evil twin. With a patient approach and some of the best power in the AL, the only thing standing in the way of Quentin and superstardom is his plantar fasciitis. If he can overcome it, he can repeat or exceed his 36 homer, .965 OPS season from ’08. If not, he’ll repeat his disappointing 2009.

The White Sox’ pennant hope rest firmly on Quentin’s shoulders. “Whither without you,” don’t expect Andruw Jones or Mark Kotsay to fill the void left if Quentin stumbles. Though they have a great starting lineup – one capable of winning the division – this team has virtually no depth, which will inevitably become a problem down the stretch. Kenny Williams may need a lesson in team building, but Quentin would be doing him a big favor if he could slide into the lineup for 140+ games this season. Still, that’s a big if and the White Sox are just as big a question mark to make a bid for the playoffs.