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March 24, 2005

Five Players to Watch in 2005

Who Will Break Out?

by Jonah Keri

Prognostication is a perilous science. If anything, it's even trickier when it comes to baseball. We at Baseball Prospectus possess the latest in analytical tools, and we pride ourselves on carving out that edge over the competition in our predictions - but there's always the risk of taking a header.

Still, one area where we do particularly well is in forecasting breakout players. Baseball Prospectus's projection system, PECOTA, combines weighted three-year statistical averages of player performance with such biographical information as age, height, and weight to produce a range of likely outcomes for more than 1,500 major league and minor league players every year. Last year's success stories included Cincinnati's Wily Mo Pena and Adam Dunn, and Minnesota's Johan Santana.

Now we're back for another round, combining PECOTA's forecasts with a dash of common sense. In compiling this list of five breakout players to watch for in 2005, we incorporated players ranging from several categories. Some are established major leaguers ready to take the next step toward stardom. Others are younger players, getting their first shot at a full year of starting duty. Still others are complementary players, lesser-known but skilled commodities ready to step in and do the dirty work.

Pitchers are shown below with raw component stats as well as Equivalent ERA (EqERA) - ERA, adjusted for league and ballpark effects. Hitters are shown using Equivalent batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average, which likewise adjust BA, OBP and SLG for league and park effects (EqBA, EqOBP, EqSLG). Projections are PECOTA's weighted-mean forecasts, combined with updated projections on Baseball Prospectus's Depth Charts.

The envelope, please:

5 Heath Bell, RP, Mets
2004 24.1 IP, 3.47 EqERA
2005 proj. 60 IP, 3.84 EqERA

Though far from a glamour name, the 27-year-old reliever projects to give the Mets a lift where they sorely need it - in the bullpen. Lacking big-name relievers to support closer Braden Looper, many have fretted that the Mets may struggle to bridge the gap between the starters and the ninth inning this season. Bell, along with fellow no-name Bartolome Fortunato, has the performance record to portend success - if used in regular roles.

While Bell is expected to crack the Opening Day roster,he's likely to be low on Willie Randolph's initial pecking order due to his limited big-league experience. While GM Omar Minaya and Owner Fred Wilpon deserve credit for landing the free-agent market's two marquee players in Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez, support players like Bell figure to play a pivotal role in determining the team's success this season.

Bell's projected breakout is earned through the jump in his playing time as a full-time member of the pen. His ability to miss bats - he fanned 122 batters in 102 Triple-A innings in 2003 and 2004 - and throw strikes (just 31 walks in those same 102 innings) translated well to the majors late last year, and figure to do so again in 2005. With a good mix of a low-90s fastball, darting slider, and a change-up, he's got the repertoire to succeed. Possible warning sign: five homers allowed in 24.1 innings with the Mets last year.

4 Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
2004 280 AB, .273/.345/.556
2005 proj. 582 AB, .280/.351/.519

Like Bell, Morneau doesn't figure to improve dramatically on his rate stats in 2005, but instead to double his playing time and his value to the ball club. A lefty swinger blessed with lighttower power, Morneau needs to improve his pitch selection to take the leap to stardom. He's nearly there already, despite being a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday: His .536 unadjusted slugging average last year ranked third among AL first basemen, behind bombers David Ortiz and Mark Teixeira.

Morneau is functional with the glove and durable, which should further ensure his job security. With the job all to himself, expect 35+ homers and a place among the elite for Morneau.

3 D'Angelo Jimenez, 2B, Reds
2004 563 AB, .276/.369/.402
2005 proj. 611 AB, .274/.355/.409

Analysts have found that hitters tend to peak between the ages of 25 and 29; 27 has thus been adopted by many as the hot-button age to watch for a hitter's breakout. Jimenez turned 27 in December, and this may well be the year he takes the next step.

One of the steadiest players in baseball, Jimenez has posted nearly unwavering rate stats in each of his four years in the major leagues. Once regarded as an all-world prospect with the Yankees before a serious neck injury set him back, Jimenez has started to show flashes of his power potential, including a career-high 28 doubles and 12 homers last season.

Secure in the leadoff spot in the Reds lineup, he's a prime candidate to score 100 runs this season, with a shot at 20 homers to boot. Don't be surprised if he tops his PECOTA projection, clocking in somewhere around .285/.370/.450.

2 Dan Haren, SP, Athletics
2004 46 IP, 4.50 EqERA
2005 proj. 160 IP, 4.41 EqERA

Forget building for the future for a moment. In snagging the 24-year-old Haren as part of the three-player package from the Cardinals for Mark Mulder, A's GM Billy Beane may have found a pitcher who'll outperform his departed co-ace. Haren has posted gaudy strikeout totals throughout his minor league career, a principal indicator of success for a pitching prospect. Combine Haren's strong performance record with Mulder's injury concerns and diminished performance last season, and this may be an instant upgrade.

Better still, Haren will cost millions less, allowing the A's to spend elsewhere. The so-called rebuilding project in Oakland will happen much quicker than many think; the A's could be playing meaningful baseball this September, especially if Haren comes through on his immense potential. With a humming fastball he regularly throws for strikes (150 K, 33 BB in 128 IP last year at Triple-A Memphis) and good enough off-speed stuff to keep the ball in the park, he could be huge in '05.

1 Josh Beckett, SP, Marlins
2004 156.1 IP, 4.23 EqERA
2005 proj. 180 IP, 3.83 EqERA

While some might point to Beckett's 2002 season as his breakout year, the big Texan righty threw only 107.2 innings that season, then made his mark as a playoff and World Series hero on an unlikely Marlins championship team.

The Fish have the sleeper feel to them again this season, and Beckett will play a huge role in determining how far they go. The blister problems that plagued him constantly early in his career have dissipated, and Beckett's inning counts have climbed steadily the last few years.

While PECOTA's still hedging, Beckett figures to have escaped the injury nexus that surrounds developing arms in their early 20s. Look for the soon-to-be 25-year-old to butt up against 200 innings, striking out a batter per inning and posting an ERA in the low 3s (Pro Player Stadium is a pitcher-friendly park, hence the adjustment upward in EqERA vs. ERA).

HONORABLE MENTION

Jorge Cantu, 2B, Devil Rays
Roberto Alomar's retirement opens the door for this 23-year-old to make his mark, with some of the best raw power of any second sacker in the game. Needs to improve his plate discipline, but there's no denying his talent.

Hee Seop Choi, 1B, Dodgers
The Marlins dealt this 26-year-old power threat away after a big first half. Scouts fret over supposed holes in his swing, but Paul DePodesta, Jim Tracy, and company will give him every chance to break through.

Kazuo Matsui, 2B, Mets
The focus has been on his shift to second base, but the 29-year-old Japanese import will garner the most attention with improved year at the plate; namesake Hideki doubled his home run total in his second year stateside - expect similar improvement.

Jeremy Reed, CF, Mariners
A top-10 Baseball Prospectus-rated prospect the last two years, Reed brings excellent on-base ability and good speed to the Mariner lineup as he enters first season as starter. Rookie of the Year front-runner.

This article originally appeared in The New York Sun newspaper. Baseball Prospectus contributes two articles a week to the Sun throughout the season. You can read those and other articles at daily.nysun.com.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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