With opening day roughly a week away, here are 10 pitchers poised for a breakout season. For those with fantasy teams, draft or keep an eye on these future all-stars. Power pitching is what it’s all about, and today’s game has plenty of it.
Lance McCullers, Astros: Still only 23, McCullers could breakout in a big way if health in 2017. Over the past two seasons he’s combined to throw 206 IP, with 235 K’s and a 3.22 ERA. His WHIP at 1.32 is high, but his exceptional ability to keep the ball in the park allows him to minimize the damage despite walking close to 4/9IP. He increased his SO/9 IP last season to 11.8, so there’s no reason he couldn’t have a 200+ strikeout season. Unlike most strikeout artists, McCuller’s throws his curve almost 50% of the time, and opponents hit an embarrassing .137 off it last year. At 6’1, McCullers is one of the smaller pitchers on this list and lacks a consistent 98 MPH fastball, but could have the most dominant season of anyone if he harnesses his control a bit more. I think he puts it all together in his third season and forms a dominant top of the rotation with 2015 AL CY Dallas Keuchel. Prediction: 188 IP, 219 K’s, 2.98 ERA, 1.20 WHIP. Bring on the strikeouts.
Vince Velasquez, Phillies: Velasquez, acquired from the Astros in the Ken Giles deal, not only skipped AAA, but made only six starts in AA before sticking in the majors. Despite being rushed to the big leagues, he’s held his own, and could have a monster season in 2017. In 2016 he showed flashes of brilliance with a complete-game shutout, and averaged a gaudy 10.4 SO/9. However, he struggled with consistency, and finished with a 4.12 ERA and 1.32 WHIP over 131 IP. Velasquez allowed 1.4 HR/9, which is a rate he can improve on to get his ERA comfortably below 4. He’ll pitch half the season at age 24, and if healthy, could have a monster breakout season. He reminds me of a blend between former Cub Carlos Zambrano and former Philly top prospect, Carlos Carrasco. His ability to dominate with power stuff could make 2017 the year he puts it together. Prediction: 185 IP, 212 K’s, 3.65, 1.17 WHIP.
Kevin Gausman, Orioles: It’s tough not to consider Gausman’s 2016 a breakout year, but he may only be scratching the surface of his potential. With Buck Showalter closely managing the health of Chris Tillman’s shoulder, Gausman will be the Orioles opening day starter at age-26. He went 9-12 last year with a 1.28 WHIP, but also posted 8.7 SO/9 with a 3.61 ERA over 179 IP. He sported an above-average 3.70 SO/W ratio, and his 95+ MPH fastball will continue to get plenty of whiffs. I had a front row seat to him consistently dominating the Yankees last year, posting a 1.09 ERA over 41 IP, while only walking six batters and striking out 35. The former 1st round pick will undoubtedly cement himself as the Oriole’s ace this season. Prediction: 202 IP, 195 K’s, 3.15 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.
Julio Urias, Dodgers: Despite being a 20-year old lefty out of Mexico who sports rec-specs, Urias has the pure stuff to finish as a Top-10 NL CY candidate. He has a devastating fastball/change/curve/slider arsenal that helped him rack up 9.8 SO/9 in 77 big-league innings last season as a teenager. That’s right, he was 19. His 3.39 ERA was abnormally low given his below average 1.45 WHIP, but allowing only five long-balls in 15 starts kept his ERA down. His fastball can approach triple digits making his well-above average changeup even more effective. With some tutelage by 3-time NL CY Clayton Kershaw, the only thing holding Urias back is an innings limit. Given his age and the Dodgers legitimate chances of playing into October, Urias’s innings will be monitored closely and he initially could be left out of the starting rotation. Prediction: 170 IP, 194 SO’s, 2.93 ERA, 1.28 WHIP.
Tyler Glasnow, Pirates: At an imposing 6’8, the 23-year old righty only has 23 IP in his brief career, but if he continues to develop his command, Glasnow could become a potential frontline starter. In 500 career minor league innings, he’s averaged 11.61 SO/9, while allowing a miniscule 5.3 H/9 and 2.03 ERA. His fastball consistently sits in the high 90’s, which he compliments with a power curve and developing changeup. By the time he releases the ball it’s like he’s almost halfway to home plate. He’s experienced success and demonstrated an ability to dominate, so his first full season in the big-leagues could see him throw approximately 180 IP with 190 K’s and an ERA around 3.20. In two years, he could pass 2011 #1 pick Gerrit Cole as the Pirates staff ace.
Sean Manaea, A’s: Traded from the Royals to the A’s for Ben Zobrist at the 2015 trade-deadline, Manaea could make this trade a win for both sides. A physically imposing 6’5, 245 pount lefty, Manaea only made three starts at AAA before being rushed to the big-leagues in 2016. He initially struggled out of the gate, , but over his final 112 IP posted an impressive 2.97 ERA. With Sonny Gray currently having a 15.75 spring ERA and disastrous 2016 season, Manaea, the 2013 former 1st round pick, could anchor this A’s rotation for several years until inevitably becoming trade bait. Prediction: 204 IP, 162 K’s, 3.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP.
Jameson Taillon, Pirates: Pittsburgh, your future is bright! The second Pirate to make this list, Taillon was taken 2nd overall in the 2010 draft, only to have his career derailed by Tommy John. After missing both 2014 and 2015, the 6’5 Taillon rebounded by excelling at AAA, earning a promotion to the big league club and holding his own. Taillon might not rack up the strikeouts that Glasnow will, but he’s shown he can hold his own by posting a 3.38 ERA and 1.12 WHIP in 104 big league innings. With his elbow issues seemingly behind him, and a hammer 12-to-6 curveball at his disposal, Taillon could approach 200 IP with around 165 K’s and an ERA around 3.60.
Jon Gray, Rockies: The Yankees drafted Gray in the 10th round in 2011, only to have him not sign and become the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 draft. Gray finished 6th in the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year voting, after going 10-10 with a 4.61 ERA in 168 IP. The 25-year old also finished with an impressive 9.9 SO/9, and managed to keep the rocky mountain air from claiming too many bombs.
There’s increased optimism for the Rockies this season, and Gray is a large part of it. At 6’4, 235 LBS, he can dial it up consistently to 95+ with a power slider that sits around 86 MPH. If the Rockies are going anywhere as a franchise, it’ll start with the development of Gray. Prediction: 190 IP, 202 K’s, 4.10 ERA, 1.18 WHIP.
Aaron Nola, Phillies: Nola will play half the season as a 23-year old, and looks to realize his potential after injuries cut his 2016 season short. Nola, a former 1st round pick in 2014, blew through the minors and has since logged 188 IP while posting a 4.29 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. He’s also averaged 9 SO/9 in the majors, while sporting an above average 3.94 SO/W ratio. Nola throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park, allowing only 10 HR over his 20 starts last year. If his arm is back to full strength, Nola is poised for a breakout season, and could finish with a line close to: 200 IP, 195K’s, 3.45 ERA, 1.19 WHIP.
Taijuan Walker, Diamondbacks: The Mariners threw in the towel with Walker, trading him this offseason to the Diamondbacks for a package highlighted by SS Jean Segura. Another physically imposing pitcher at 6’4, 235 LBS, the Diamondbacks hope a change of scenery can finally unlock the 24-year old’s potential. Walker’s achilles heal has been the long-ball, giving up 52 HR over his past 54 starts. Chase Field’s power alleys are slightly shorter than Safeco’s, but center field is deeper at Chase Field. Walker will need to make the adjustment and keep the ball in the park if he’s going to take his game to the next level. If he can do so, he has frontline starter ability, noted by him averaging 8.1 SO/9 and a 1.21 Whip over 357 big league innings. He’s higher risk than Glasnow and Taillon, but the potential is there for a breakout season. Prediction: 190 IP, 175K’s, 3.73 ERA, 1.17 WHIP.
Eduardo Rodriguez, Red Sox: The 24-year old southpaw is entering his third season as a Red Sox after a knee injury shortened his 2016 campaign. Acquired when the Sox traded Andrew Miller to the Orioles in 2014, Rodriguez at times has shown glimpses of a future all-star, and other times has looked lost. If he can harness some consistency and build on the above average 8.4 SO/9 IP he posted last year in 107 IP, Rodriguez could throw some very meaningful innings for the Red Sox in 2017 – especially with the questionable status of David Price’s elbow. Prediction: 170 IP, 165 K’s, 3.85 ERA, 1.21 WHIP.