This article is intended to be the first in a series where we will focus on players with the potential to have breakout performances at the Major League level in 2016. For each organization, we will examine a few candidates. These players will be at different points in their career paths and their ceilings vary, but the fortunes of organizations can be altered greatly by unexpected success or progress from players like these. Indeed, every season features playoff teams who were driven by such performances. In other cases, breakout players can provide fuel for the rebuilding efforts of teams who are further from contention. In any case, this is a favorite topic of mine and it should provide for some interesting off season discussion.
We will begin the the Oakland Athletics. Coming off a 68-94 season, their worst record since 1997, Oakland has much work to do to return to contention in the near future. Interestingly enough, the current roster is packed with players who merit at least some consideration for this exercise. Between their major league roster and the upper minors, Oakland has a number of players who could see their respective stocks rise in 2016.
Top Candidate: Marcus Semien. Semien is, in many ways, a classic example of what we look for in potential breakout players. Heading into his age-25 season with 927 plate appearances under his belt at the Major League level, Semien has a solid foundation upon which to build. In fact, there is a pretty good chance he is already a little better than most people realize.
Semien has a career wRC+ mark of 94 making him nearly a league average hitter up to this point. Playing in the middle infield, even an average bat can be very valuable. For all the criticism his glove work at shortstop has received, he made notable improvements as the season progressed and it is no longer inconceivable that he could remain at the position while playing roughly average defense for the near future. Even if he eventually moves to second base where many observers feel he fits best, his potential for offensive improvement is truly intriguing.
As our own John Sickels recently noted, Semien owns an impressive offensive track record in the upper minors. Despite being a relatively unheralded college draft pick, Semien was a consistently well above average performer in the minors. At times during his rise through the White Sox system, Semien had the look of a dynamic, multi-dimensional offensive force.
The biggest difference between Semien the big leaguer and Semien the prospect appears to be in the area of plate discipline. His major league strikeout and walk rates are both a bit worse than we might have expected based on his minor league numbers. If he can consolidate his skills as he moves into what should be his prime, Semien could still be a difference maker for the A's. Given what we know about his work ethic, I am inclined to bet on him.
Dare to Dream: Brett Lawrie. It is difficult to believe that Lawrie is still just heading into his age 26 season. With over 2,000 plate appearances under his belt at the big league level, it feels like he has been around forever. Oakland famously acquired Lawrie in their much-criticized November 2014 deal that sent MVP candidate Josh Donaldson to Toronto. Anyone who could muster the courage to defend the deal from Oakland's point of view very likely hinged that defense on Lawrie becoming the player he appeared to be when he burst onto the scene in 2011. While it has not worked out so far, there is reason to hope.
Lawrie provides a fairly unique blend of experience, youth, and pedigree to go with a broad base of offensive and defensive tools. He is the quintessential post-hype sleeper candidate. The shine has worn off due to years of failure to realize his potential. Injuries and a hack-tastic approach have been the most significant culprits. As a younger player, Lawrie showed a better ability to control the strike zone than he has recently. He also made it through 2015 healthy, playing in a career-high 149 games. I don't feel nearly as good about him as I do Semien at this point, but there is enough here that we can #daretodream on the realization of his upside as a consistent, above-average regular.
Rookie Watch: Sean Manaea. It has not exactly been an easy climb for the lefty who was once a candidate to be the top overall pick in the 2013 draft. A hip injury during the spring of his draft year at Indiana State caused him to fall to 34th overall where he was scooped up by the Royals and given money more in line with his top-of-the-draft potential. Manaea was healthy in 2014, pitching to a 3.11 FIP on the strength of 10.8 K/9 in High-A. Although an abdomen strain held him back early in 2015, Manaea was excellent in Double A after coming over in the Ben Zobrist trade maintaining a superb 10.76 K/9 mark while beginning to cut into a walk rate that was a cause for concern heading into the year.
At this time last year, it was not unreasonable for Royals fans to hope Manaea would be factoring into the current post season picture. While Royals fans have been thrilled with the contributions of Ben Zobrist, it will be A's fans who will enjoy Manea's contributions well into the future-- a future that should begin in 2016. With a major league rotation that lacks in experience or pure stuff behind Sonny Gray, Manaea's ascension will be of the highest importance to Oakland's future.
Final Notes: Players who spent significant time in the majors this past year such as Mark Canha, Billy Burns, and Josh Phegley each have a chance to exceed their relatively modest expectations. Each of them has been respectable in their first pass through the major leagues and has enough juice in their respective minor league track records that they could still surprise people to some degree or another. Top prospects Matt Olson (132 wRC+) and Chad Pinder (135 wRC+) each gave A's fans reason to eagerly await their arrival with strong seasons at Double A Midland.
In the big picture, the outlook in Oakland does not look exceptionally bright at the moment. The lack of established, above-average major league players does not make optimism easy in the short term. Any progress by players such as these would be a welcomed sight as the A's look to rebuild.