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1. Xander Bogaerts
If you ignore that he is young, healthy, and a major league baseball player, things didn't work out for Xander Bogaerts in 2014. Slated to be both the starting shortstop and an instant star after helping the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013, Bogaerts failed at both counts. He did hit for the first two months of the season, finishing May with an .835 OPS, but then the wheels fell off the (bo)caert(s). The star shortstop was moved to third base to accommodate the return of Stephen Drew, then stopped hitting. The Red Sox season went similarly well as a team picked to return to the post season finished last.

Despite all that, Bogaerts is still just 22 years old. The skills are still there and after an off-season spent dedicating himself to improving his agility, Bogaerts has looked better in the field. There will be no moving off of shortstop, at least this season (oddly, it was Drew who moved off shortstop this season, moving to second base with the Yankees). Perhaps more importantly Bogaerts has been hitting again, posting a .261/.364/.457 line this spring with two home runs and more walks (eight) than strikeouts (six).

PECOTA sees a 2.2 WARP season from Bogaerts with a TAv of .268. That's hardly a breakout or the star turn the Red Sox are hoping for, but it would be a big improvement on last season. And for the record, I'll take the over on that. —Matthew Kory

2. Jimmy Nelson
Although Nelson didn't impress last season during his 14-game cameo, don't write him off just yet. Nelson is a large mammal, listed at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, and has an exciting profile. In addition to a high-quality fastball-slider combination, he's shown the ability to consistently throw strikes and coerce a high rate of ground balls. Nelson's command and third pitch will get questioned, but there's enough here to think he could follow in Wily Peralta's footsteps and have a much-improved third stint in the majors that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation fixture. —R.J. Anderson

3. Carlos Rodon
Carlos Rodon is something of a college baseball legend, even if he's less than a year removed from pitching at N.C. State. At times, he was so dominant, so developed, that the consensus was that he could pitch in the majors that very moment. Not like Mike Leake, whose readiness was more of a product of his extraordinarily advanced pitchability than a dynamite repertoire; Rather, Rodon could cut throughlineups like a chainsaw with basically two pitches, one of them as good as anything ever seen at that level of baseball.

His fastball, lively and sitting low-to-mid-90s, was good enough, but Rodon's slider was (is) simply transcendent. The movement was so sharp and so late, like a cutter with turbo-charged tilt, that hitters could only wave at it. It looked like it was shot out of the air just before reaching the hitters' bat.

Performances like that in the 2013 ACC Tournament semifinals against North Carolina, when Rodon struck out 14 and allowed just one hit over 10 innings, and his 11 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings later that summer for the Collegiate National Team against Cuba, added to Rodon's lore. Some doubts arose about his profile, like how heavily his arm had been taxed in college, or some stiffness in his delivery, or his difficulties establishing a solid third pitch, but the never called his raw stuff into question.

Rodon isn't in the majors yet, cursed to the same service-time manipulation that is causing widespread consternation this spring, but he's ready. And when he comes up, he will astonish, because not that many people watch college baseball, so they aren't quite aware of just how special that slider is. The only ones unhappy with the arrangement will be opposing hitters. —Ian Frazer

4. Mike Zunino
As a rookie, Mike Zunino had 44 extra-base hits in 476 plate appearances, and was worth a shade over 20 runs as a pitch framer and receiver. That’s about all the good things one could say about him. He struck out in almost exactly a third of his plate appearances. His 17 HBPs were impressive, but might have been more so, if he had drawn even that many unintentional walks (he only took 16). He did virtually all of his damage to his pull side:

and managed just a .248 BABIP, partially because of that.

This spring, though, Zunino worked with Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon to more fully load his hands early in his swing, the better to keep them back and drive the ball to all fields. It might come to nothing—to trust every adjustment upon which a player expounds during camp is to invite trouble—but Zunino seems a candidate to take a big step forward, anyway. He got only 505 plate appearances as a pro before busting into MLB—and that’s if you count his 86 trips to the dish in the 2012 Arizona Fall League. He’s a former top pick and top prospect for a reason, and although he’s a more than capable catcher, his defense isn’t supposed to have to carry the bat so bravely. It says here that, starting in 2015, Zunino’s bat will do more than pull its weight. —Matthew Trueblood

5. Manny Machado
In our season predictions, I picked Manny Machado as my third-place AL MVP, which, considering that left him behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, might be viewed as a stretch by some. The reality though is that Manny is still growing into one of the best players in baseball, and the numbers are there to prove it.

As a rookie in 2012 Machado came up much earlier than many fans expected, despite his high rankings on prospect lists. He held his own as a rookie, performing about three percent worse than the average MLB hitter while becoming one of the best defenders in baseball at a position he had scarcely played before. The following season, his first full season in the big leagues, Machado his 51 doubles and 14 home runs en route to a .325 wOBA. As a 20-year-old, Machado was an above-average hitter while putting in what was arguably the best defensive season by a third baseman in the history of baseball.

Last year, Machado's reoccurring knee problems surfaced again both delaying and cutting short his season. Still, Machado his home runs at a higher rate last season than ever before in his career. He posted a career best .332 wOBA, while still putting up solid defensive numbers at the hot corner.

There's been a lot of talk about "when Machado's doubles turn into home runs, he's going to be a monster". Well they already are, he just hasn't been healthy enough to show that over a full season. It seems like Manny Machado has been around the game forever, but consider that only four players last season were his age or younger. A 25-homer season (Machado's pace from last year), with a solid batting average, improving on-base skills, and elite defense from a 22-year-old sounds like the makings of a breakout to me. —Jeff Long

6. Travis d'Arnaud
Few players had a starker first half/second half split than Travis d’Arnaud last season. In the early part of the year, he stayed patient at the plate—bordering on passive—but had trouble turning on pitches and rarely tapped into his impressive raw power.

After a brief demotion in early June, d’Arnaud returned a new man. He homered in his first game back, ushering in a torrid second half of the season that saw him hit nine more dingers while spraying hard contact all over the field. Numerically, the two halves of his season looked like this:

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

BB%

SO%

BABIP

PA

Pre-Demotion

0.180

0.271

0.273

3

11.03%

17.24%

0.200

145

Post Demotion

0.272

0.319

0.486

10

5.79%

14.13%

0.287

276

d’Arnaud was more aggressive, clearly, but it also appears that he hit the ball harder. An overview of his spray charts from last year confirms that last point while demonstrating another interesting trend:

(Thanks to Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman on the chart)

The difference in pull side power jumps out right away. In the first part of the season, d’Arnaud pulled almost nothing in the air. He didn’t elevate anything down the left field line and only one fly ball to the left of the shortstop even reached the warning track. In the second half though, the twenty-six year old pulled the ball much more frequently and effectively, bashing over a dozen extra base hits to the part of the field he practically ignored in the first half.

d’Arnaud didn’t make wholesale changes to his approach: he stepped a bit closer to the plate — which certainly could help a hitter pull the ball better — but felt that the biggest changes he made were mental, citing a clearer mind and a more optimistic mentality as the driving forces behind his resurgence. While it’s tempting to pay lip service to a player discussing confidence, there may be something to it with d’Arnaud, a young player who hadn’t had much major league success prior to last June. if nothing else, it’s encouraging that he was able to put his early season difficulties behind him as soon as he came back to New York.

Mental adjustments aside, d’Arnaud demonstrated that his power can translate to big league games. Maybe it’s because he’s a catcher—catchers peak later than players at other positions—but I’m far more encouraged by his minor league power numbers and mid-season improvement than I am worried by his early major league struggles. With the fences moved in, a few pesky injuries in the rearview mirror, and the Triple-A-to-MLB adjustment period hopefully out of the way, d’Arnaud is well-positioned to build off of his second half numbers and make 2015 a breakout campaign. —Brendan Gawlowski

7. Ryan Rua
Ryan Rua broke out in 2013, amassing 32 home runs between Low-A Hickory and Double-A Frisco. With a little over 500 at-bats that yea,r it seems he started polishing off the raw yet refined ability most Northeasterners bring to the table. By 2014, after hitting above .300 in Frisco and Round Rock with a combined 18 home runs, he earned himself a spot with the big club in September. Rua showed that he belonged and became a valuable contributor for a woeful Rangers club. Rua may be just the type of player the Rangers need right now with his ability to play both outfield and infield. He’s not too much of a liability in the infield and shows good arm strength in the outfield. His swing mechanics and approach are very relaxed and looks at ease at the plate. I’d consider him a utility type player in the long run, being able to give a day off to the corner infielders and outfielders. For right now though, he’s going to get his shot as the everyday left fielder. He’s not going to wow you with any plus tools, but he’s developed consistency over the past couple of seasons. With Leonys Martin and Shin-Soo Choo locked down in the outfield, Jake Smolinski could push him for playing time. If he can provide quality at-bats and a steady glove, Rua could find himself as a valuable asset to the Rangers if they were to trade Adrian Beltre to a contender. —Colin Young

8. It's a Trap!
It's a trap! You want me to name a breakout candidate, but it’s a trap: Practically nobody is really going to break out! Or, a few will, but they’ll be totally unexpected. The guy who is most likely to break out is probably, oh 20 percent, which means I could nail this assignment and still have a four-in-five chance of failing. So screw you: I’m going to tell you four guys who will not break out. Four guys who will, in other words, not be the next J.D. Martinez:

Write it down: No breakouts there. No 23-homer, .912 OPS seasons out of those four. Probably won’t get 500 MLB at-bats between them. Why’d I choose those four? They’re the four guys with J.D. Martinez as a top PECOTA comp. But J.D. Martinez was incredibly unlikely to do what he did, and being “like” J.D. Martinez is almost as damning today as it was a year ago. So forget it. I’m not falling for it. I’m not giving you a name. Though I did draft Steven Souza in every league I’m in, just in case. —Sam Miller