You're likely familiar with Brandon Belt, the 27-year-old first baseman for the San Francisco Giants. If you've heard or read his name used in a sentence before, then statistically there's a 69% chance that sentence also included the words "break" and "out". Folks, this cat's been breaking out for 5 years:
Compare those nearly 800,000 results to "Bryce Harper breakout," which returns less than 200,000, and you'll see just how earnestly and for how long the baseball media has been enamored of Belt's potential. Fantasy baseball players and Twitter dot com users especially will recall the millions of gallons of digital ink that have been spilled on Belt's behalf as a break out candidate since his brief 2010 debut. In honor of the perpetually breaking out first baseman, I created the Belt-O-Meter™, a very scientific scale on which to measure the breakout potential of various Brewers players. Working with fellow Brew Crew Ball writer Kyle Lesniewski, we selected five guys we think have the potential to make big leaps in production for the big league club in 2016.
RHP Jimmy Nelson
I had Jimmy Nelson as a breakout player last year, mostly just based on his career trajectory: beginning in 2012 when he split time between High-A Brevard County Double-A Huntsville (blast from the past!), Nelson split every season through 2014, taking a slight step back at the higher level only to completely dominate it the following season. After spending half of the 2014 season in the big leagues with a lackluster 4.93 ERA in 69.1 innings, I was hoping for a nice bump in his production last season. Instead, Nelson was only marginally better in 2015, if at all. His ERA dropped to 4.11, but his FIP spiked to 4.10, up from 3.78. A small bump in his strikeout rate (from 18.3% to 19.7) was accompanied by a bigger bump in his walk rate (from 6.1% to 8.6%).
However, there are signs that continue to point to a big breakout for Nelson in his second full season in the majors. Nelson will be in year two of using his knuckle curve, which he added to his arsenal last season. In 2014 he was basically a two-pitch guy, using his fastball 72.8% of the time and his slider 24.9% of the time. In 2015, he used the curve 18.4% of the time, dropping his fastball usage to 60.7% and the slider to 19.8%, while nearly eliminating his below-average changeup. Below we see the slider and the curve, to show the difference in movement between the two off-speed pitches (the slider is on top):
As you can see, the slider breaks more horizontally and away from right-handed hitters, while the curve has big vertical movement, almost like a 12-6, and breaks in toward righties a bit. This is very good, and he should keep doing that in my opinion. If he can develop the knuckle curve into a bona fide out pitch, he'll really have a terrific three-pitch mix. Nelson was better in the second half last season (his FIP dropped from 4.32 to 3.76), and after a whiplash-inducing May in which a fluky 18.4% HR/FB resulted in seven dingers, he was able to keep the ball in the park relatively well. Jimmy is a breakout candidate for the second consecutive year, which really rates highly on the Belt-O-Meter. -TS
Belt-O-Meter: 4.5 out of 5 Belts
OF Rymer Liriano
Slingin’ Stearns has rolled the dice on a few post-hype prospects so far this winter, and perhaps the most interesting is outfielder Rymer Liriano. After falling victim to a new front office regime and a crowded outfield in San Diego, the former top-60 overall prospect found himself DFA’d earlier this winter and Stearns jumped at the chance to bring the soon-to-be 25-year-old into the organization.
Liriano’s career was slowed by Tommy John surgery that cost him all of 2013, but he’s shown terrific tools and promising results at every stop he’s made in the minor leagues. Last year the right handed hitter posted a .292/.383/.460 slash with 14 home runs and 18 stolen bases in AAA. He’s got a solid hit tool with power potential and a good eye at the plate, and his above-average arm strength (even post-surgery) plays well from any outfield position. With his speed he is capable of manning center field, and that will be his best avenue for regular playing time as a member of the Brewers.
Liriano struggled in a brief 38 game stint at the big league level in 2014, and with a 24% career strikeout rate in the minor leagues there are some concerns about whether he’ll make enough contact at the big league level. He is out of options so he’ll have to make the team in spring training or Milwaukee will have to expose him to waivers, but given his prospect pedigree the Brewers will likely give him every chance to succeed. He’s still young enough that it’s not hard to imagine him hitting his ceiling as a solid regular in the bigs. -KWL
Belt-O-Meter: 2 out of 5 Belts
RHP Corey Knebel
Most of the Brewers blogosphere has given the closer's job (which is not a real thing) to Will Smith, but before we hand the ninth over the the Fresh Prince, you might want to Pump Ya Breaks a bit, because Corey Knebel also has the stuff to Get Jiggy Wit the role as well. Knebel has a big fastball that tops out at around 97 MPH and a nasty knuckle curve that he can spike in the dirt for swinging strikes.
As Ryan Romano (who wrote the Brewers essay in the 2016 Baseball Prospectus Annual) of BP Milwaukee pointed out, however, Knebel really hit his stride in September of last year, when he stopped burying the curve in the dirt and started pounding the zone. He raised his Zone% from 47.8% to 56.7% in September, and saw his strikeout rate spike even as he was inducing more contact as he piled up the backwards Ks.
While he is only 24, Knebel certainly has the stuff to be an elite high-leverage reliever. Whether he has the mindset of a guy who can get big outs consistently remains to be seen: of his 50.1 innings last season, 41 of them came in what FanGraphs calls "low leverage situations." However, in a very small 4.2 inning sample size in high leverage situations, Knebel held opposing batters to a .143/.250/.214 batting line, allowing just two hits and two walks against five strikeouts. If Knebel is locked in as your "closer," it also frees up Smith to be used more strategically against left-handed hitters. -TS
Belt-O-Meter: 3 out of 5 Belts
RHP Junior Guerra
Junior Guerra was one of the more intriguing players in all the minor leagues in 2015. The 31-year-old didn’t pitch in affiliated ball from 2008 until last season, when he signed a minor league deal with the White Sox and came out of nowhere to put up some eye popping numbers in AA and AAA. All told, he posted a 3.13 ERA in 83.1 innings pitched, covering 31 games (11 starts). He struck out a ridiculous 31% of batters he faced and posted a 48% ground ball rate. He even made his MLB debut last June and pitched in three games for Chicago, capturing the attention of Fangraphs’ editor Cason Cistulli who deemed him as the "30 year old pitching prospect."
Guerra’s fastball sits in the 92-94 MPH range and he’s capable of maintaining that velocity deep into games, giving him the capability of either starting or relieving. He also throws a cutter and changeup. His best pitch, however, is his knee-buckling split-finger.
Junior was GM David Stearns first acquisition with the Brewers, and the fact that he has kept his spot on the 40 man roster all winter long despite his relatively advanced age certainly bodes well for him getting a chance at the big league level this coming season. The fact that he still has minor league options remaining could work against him as he tries to make the team in spring training, however. Guerra may have been a candidate for the fifth starter role before the acquisition of Chase Anderson, but his best shot to make the team now is likely going to be as a swingman out of the bullpen. He’s shown that he has some terrific stuff and can get plenty of whiffs, and if he’s given the opportunity he could be a surprise breakout performer at the big league level this year. -KWL
Belt-O-Meter: 2.5 out of 5 Belts
3B/OF Garin Cecchini
Cecchini, like Liriano, has an impressive prospect pedigree: in 2014 he was rated among the top 100 prospects by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and Baseball Prospectus, and big things were expected from him at Triple-A Pawtucket. He struggled a bit there, with a .263/.341/.371 battling line that was good for a wRC+ of 99, but he acquitted himself well in a brief cameo with the major league team, recording a 130 wRC+ in 36 plate appearances. The Red Sox sent Cecchini back to Triple-A hoping for a bounce back year last season. Instead, the bottom fell out, as Cecchini hit just .213/.286/.296 in 469 PA. Boston waived Cecchini in December, and the Brewers acquired him in a trade for cash considerations.
Cecchini may find himself on the outside looking in in regards to the Opening Day roster, given the realities of roster building. Barring further trades or injuries Chirs Carter, Scooter Gennett, Jonathan Villar and Aaron Hill are locks to break camp with the team, and Rule 5 draft pick Colin Walsh is very likely to find himself in Milwaukee on April 4th as well. Cecchini will be fighting for the last infield bench spot with Will Middlebrooks, Hernan Perez, Yadiel Rivera and Jake Elmore. Cecchini and the latter two both still have options remaining, while Middlebrooks and Perez are out of options, though neither is currently on the 40-man roster.
If he does get a chance at some point this season, Cecchini still has all the tools to make himself a solid major league starter. FanGraphs rated his potential hit tool at 60 last season, along with 50 raw power, most of which he should be able to get to in games. However his production at Triple-A, especially last season, doesn't match up. After two full seasons in Triple-A, the time for Cecchini to make good on his potential has arrived. -TS
Belt-O-Meter: 1.5 out of 5 Belts
All stats via FanGraphs