Because breakout performances are the biggest reason a team’s fortunes can change in a matter of months.
They can take a franchise with outside-looking-in expectations in April and turn them into a surprise contender by July.
LHP Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
A highly-regarded prospect coming into last year, Snell didn’t disappoint in his age-23 season, spinning 89 innings for the Rays, resulting in a 3.54 ERA. While it was far from perfect — Snell walked 5.16 batters per nine — the gangly 6-foot-4 southpaw struck out 24.4% of the men he faced. He’s on track to be an ace as soon as he can rein in the free passes.
LHP Matt Moore, San Francisco Giants
Moore is a perfect example of how finicky pitchers can be. In 2013, Moore went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA for the Rays, setting himself up for what was expected to be a a long run of sustained success. Then Moore broke, succumbing to TJ surgery on his left elbow not long after. Traded to the Giants last year at the deadline, Moore is in the perfect spot — a pitcher’s park with zero pressure in a veteran rotation — to finally get back to his previous career arc.
LHP Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics
This is the prospect the Royals were forced to ship to the West Coast in order to acquire Ben Zobrist and seal up a World Series ring in 2015. The 6-foot-5 lefty just started scratching the surface of what he’s capable of last season, pitching to a 3.86 ERA in 144.2 innings in his first taste of the Major Leagues. He’s got a friendly home ballpark to help him out, as long as he can solve his problems against right-handers, who launched 17 homers off him last year.
RHP Robert Gsellman, New York Mets
No one outside of Queens and maybe his hometown of Santa Monica, Calif., knew who Gsellman was a year ago. As a 13th-round draft pick in 2011, he was just another minor league arm with OK stuff. Then the velocity ticked up a notch — he averaged 93.7 mph on his fastball in a highly successful 44.2-inning big league stint late last year — and, thanks to his flowing locks, he’s now being compared to another recent out-of-nowhere story the Mets produced in Jacob deGrom.
RHP Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
Instead of stepping into the role of ace as he had hoped, it was his (former?) pal Aaron Sanchez taking up that mantle last year, while Stroman filled the role of mid-rotation starter who flashes more. After a troubling two-month start, the undersized righty turned it on, making more guys swing and miss and eventually accumulating 3.6 wins above replacement (WAR). His elite ground ball rate (60.1%) gives him a nice floor, but missing even more bats is next on the agenda.
LHP Daniel Norris, Detroit Tigers
This list wasn’t supposed to become six degrees of Price separation, but the key piece in the deal that brought the lefty to Toronto for a brief period of time is on the verge of paying dividends on the other side of the trade. Norris’ tantalizing four-pitch mix started actualizing last season, as 23-year-old was finally healthy and finished out the season with a 3.04 ERA in 56.1 innings down the stretch.
RHP Taijuan Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks
According to FanGraphs, only 44 pitchers have thrown at least 250 innings over the last two years and had hitters swing and miss at more than 10% of their pitches. Walker is one of them. The stuff is there, but command has set him back, in addition to a foot injury that needed off-season surgery. Traded to the desert from Seattle in the off-season, the ballpark isn’t a great fit but the NL West is pitcher-friendly, overall. There’s absolutely ace potential here.