Luis Castillo, Ozzie Albies Among National League Fantasy Breakout Candidates
Breakouts are the third and final leg of the Staples Series tripod. They’re similar to sleepers, but they are different for one key reason: Sleepers are essentially just undervalued players. Breakouts are possible superstars. Even if they fall short of that threshold, one trait characterizes breakout players: They all have career years and establish a new baseline level of expected performance.
We used an average draft position range of 50 and 175 to find our breakouts. We also did what we could to balance likelihood and meaningfulness of a breakout with each player’s prior performance. Did Andrew Benintendi, for example, already break out? What about Carlos Martinez? They could definitely ascend to another level, but, for the purposes of our breakouts columns, we considered players like that ineligible.
Luis Castillo, SP, Reds (ADP: 94.55)
Castillo was one of the few bright spots in Cincinnati last season, giving the Reds hope that they already have a frontline starter on the roster. He spent about three months with the big league club last season, totaling a 3.12 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 98 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings. In addition to the strong numbers across his extended cup of coffee, he was dominant in multiple starts. Castillo logged three starts in which he allowed one run on four or fewer hits with at least six strikeouts in at least seven innings.
What made Castillo’s run all the more impressive was that he skipped the Triple-A level on his way to the majors. He spent the first half of last year at Double-A Pensacola, amassing a 2.58 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 81 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings. His FIP and xFIP were both one-tenth of one run within his ERA, so he earned every bit of those impressive rates. Castillo gave the Reds front office confident he could make the jump straight to Cincinnati from Double-A, and then he proved himself capable across 15 major league starts.
Of course, when you have Castillo’s stuff, it’s a lot easier to make that leap. Castillo’s four-seam fastball averaged 97.9 mph last season. He throws a filthy changeup that enjoyed a 23% whiff rate last season. What’s more, the pitch is so good that he’s comfortably throwing it against righties, offering it 16% of the time against same-siders. His slider is a weapon against righties and lefties, as well, totaling a 15.8% whiff rate and 71.4% ground-ball rate. Castillo is just 25 years old, and he already knows he has three plus-pitches at the major league level. It’s no surprise, then, that he fanned 27.3% of the batters he faced last year.
Castillo may not be able to match last year’s rate stats while spending the full season in the majors. Still, he should manage a mid-3.00s ERA and a WHIP around 1.20 with a strikeout per inning. His stuff, however, gives him the ceiling to equal, if not exceed, in 180 innings what he did in 89 innings a year ago. He’s a game-changing starting pitcher at an affordable price.
Raisel Iglesias, RP, Reds (ADP: 105.3)
We’re not done in Cincinnati. Just like Castillo has the stuff to develop into a legitimate ace, Iglesias has the stuff to develop into a multi-season, high-end closer. His repertoire includes a four-seamer that sits at 96–97 mph, a power slider that gathered a 22.8% whiff rate last season, and a developing changeup that helped him improve his performance against lefties last season. In 2016, lefties hit .264 with a .446 slugging percentage against Iglesias. Last year, those numbers were down to .256 and .349, respectively. That’s the sort of growth we want to see from any young player, especially one in a new role, as Iglesias was last season.
All of that added up a stat line that suggests Iglesias can be one of the best closers in the league. He finished with a 2.49 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 92 strikeouts in 76 innings, converting 28 of his 30 save opportunities. He kept the ball on the ground, getting 1.3 grounders for every fly ball, and in the yard, allowing fewer homers per nine innings than Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Corey Knebel.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves (ADP: 125.29)
Just like teammate Ronald Acuña, Albies brings to the table an enviable package of excitement, talent and youth. His career got off to a strong start in his 57-game stint with the Braves last year, hitting ./286/.354/.456 with six homers, nine doubles, five triples and eight steals. He was nearly as good at Triple-A Gwinnett before his promotion, slashing .285/.330/.440 with nine homers and 21 steals in 448 plate appearances.
Albies unquestionably benefitted from a small sample last year, but there are reasons to believe in him going from Triple-A Gwinnett at this time a year ago to a legitimate breakout player.
The first is his age and pedigree. Again, Albies is 21 years old, and both Baseball America and MLB.com rated him as the No. 11 prospect before last season. Baseball Prospectus wasn’t quite as high, but there’s nothing wrong with being the No. 35 prospect in your age-20 season. Second, we can be pretty confident that Albies is going to get on base enough to put his speed to work. He had an 8.6% walk rate with the Braves last season, and 9.3% walk rate during his time in the minors. With solid plate discipline and a tendency to hit the ball on the ground, fantasy owners should expect somewhere in the neighborhood of a .330 OBP floor for Albies. From there, he can turn on the jets and be the type of player who makes a fantasy team relevant in steals, a category where it’s harder than ever to find reliable contributors.
Albies won’t need to stretch his skills to be a .290/.350/.430 hitter with 12 homers and 30 steals. He could instantly become one of the best fantasy second basemen in the league in his first full season.
Ian Happ, 2B/OF, Cubs (ADP: 129.98)
Happ shined for the Cubs in his rookie season, making himself so indispensable to the Cubs present that the front office refused to trade him. He was a big part of the team’s second straight NL Central championship, hitting .253/.328/.514 with 24 homers and 68 RBI. The Cubs were among the league’s streakiest offenses last year, but Happ was a consistent presence.
Joe Maddon loves Happ’s versatility, and that is key to his playing time. The Cubs have arguably the most flexible roster in the majors, with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo the only players guaranteed a spot in the lineup every day. Between the outfield and second base, Happ could join them this year. At the very least, he should easily get 500 plate appearances. He’s a natural infielder, but played league-average defense in center field thanks to his impressive athleticism. The switch-hitting Happ was better as a righty, slugging .529 and posting an .863 OPS from that side of the plate. Still, there’s nothing wrong with his .476 slugging percentage as a lefty, especially for a rookie in his age-22 season. That makes him a viable starter against righties and lefties.
Happ struck out too often, fanning in more than 30% of his trips to the plate, but he also had a 9.4% walk rate. He earned a free pass in 10.5% of his plate appearances after the All-Star break, showing substantive growth at the plate. That should not only keep him in Maddon’s good graces, but should have him hitting at the top or in the middle of a lineup that is expected to score more than 800 runs this season. Indeed, Happ has been leading off regularly in spring training, and looks like he’ll get the first crack at being the team’s regular leadoff man against righties. He could be a drag on your rate stats, but he’ll contribute everywhere else, and could surpass 30 homers.