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7 Cleveland Indians players who could break out in 2017

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It might require bending the definition of “breaking out,” but several Indians players are on the verge of being really interesting.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Finding breakout candidates for a team coming off a World Series run is surprisingly difficult.

For the Cleveland Indians, it’s made even more difficult by the fact that most of the team over-produced last season and most positions are either locked down by established players, or populated by players who probably are not going to break out. Because of this, I’m going to stretch the definition of “break out” for this post for a bit.

I don’t anticipate any of these players being another 2016 Jose Ramirez, because honestly not a lot of players can be. Following that same train of thought, none of these players are in the same position as Ramirez was last season.

Prior to 2016, The Angry Hamster showed signs of a bright future with his great contact numbers and low BABIP in 2015. But he never had consistent playing time he never had a chance to establish himself. Anyone even paying even half their attention to the Indians probably could have called Jose Ramirez breaking out last year. Maybe not to the extent that he broke out, to almost a five-WAR player with peak Michael Brantley contact numbers, but his ascension into something was easy to spot as a breakout candidate. No such player exists this season.

At least not on the surface.

Erik Gonzalez

Erik Gonzalez, aka Jose Ramirez-lite, aka The Mildly Upset Hamster, probably will not get much of a look on the Indians this season. He did not last year, either, but he looked capable in his limited 21 games; most of which were late-game defensive swaps. The shortstop turned anything-but-shortstop-because-Francisco-Lindor-exists finished 2016 5-for-17 with a couple of runs scored.

Gonzalez projects to be essentially a lighter version of what Francisco Lindor was supposed to be: A solid defensive shortstop with limited offensive output. While Gonzalez is unlikely to turn into Lindor 2.0, I think he can easily outperform the .245/.276/.369 slash line projected by ZiPS and the .252/.285/.365 slash projected by Steamer. At least enough to be a competent shortstop.

If he can thoroughly outshine his projections, he probably will not be on the Indians long. Gonzalez has already garnered trade interest in the past, and that will only grow if he gets playing time and handles it well with the Indians.

Mike Clevinger

While on a much smaller scale, Mike Clevinger could end up being the pitching equivalent of Jose Ramirez.

Clevinger showed flashes of the great stuff that made the Indians glad they dealt away Vinnie Pestano for him in 2014, but the control just wasn’t there last season. His fourseam fastball in the mid-90s as well as a change-up, slider, and excellent curveball combination had him occasionally fooling batters last season, but he’d inevitably collapse for an inning like many frustrating young pitchers.

Clevinger is no spry young pitcher at 26, but with more starting time under his belt, and more developed control, I can’t help but be excited about his breakout potential this season. Manager Terry Francona already said in spring training the Indians don’t plan to use Clevinger out of the bullpen, so maybe they see it, too. And, I like me and all too, but I’d much rather take the Indians’ word for it.

It may take a major injury or a really bad couple of weeks from Josh Tomlin, but Clevinger should get much more of a look in 2017 than the 10 starts he had in 2016.

Besides, that glorious mane deserves to be on a star player. Anything less is a disgrace.

Shawn Armstrong

In terms of raw potential and strikeout ability, few bullpen arms in the Indians system are as exciting as Shawn Armstrong. The 26-year-old struck out 13.22 batters per nine innings for Triple-A Columbus last season, but walk issues continue to stunt his ascension to the majors.

The lowest walk rate of his career at any level past rookie ball was 2014 when he walked 3.35 batters per nine innings. Other than that, he normally walks close to half-a-dozen opponents per nine. That won’t work in the majors.

Following the 2015 season, MLB.com’s Bernie Pleskoff had nothing but glowing reviews for Armstrong, saying he has “a lot of Cody Allen in him” and he could very well succeed as an eighth-inning setup man or a closer in the majors.

Pleskoff, and many Indians fans, thought 2016 would be the breakout year for Armstrong but it never came. His poor control got poorer and he appeared in just 10 games for the Tribe; mostly in August and September. He never flashed his strikeout potential in the majors, with just seven K’s, and he walked five of the 44 batters he faced.

I feel no hesitation in calling this another potential breakout year for Armstrong. Until he completely loses the strikeout stuff that he so clearly has, or until he’s well into his 30s still grinding away in Triple-A, I’ll still be waiting for his big breakout season.

Tyler Naquin

“Now, wait a minute mister bad writer man, Tyler Naquin broke out last season. Get him off this list and go back to writing video game satire that no one likes, you hack,” is what you are probably saying to Naquin being on this list, and is also the gist of what my internal voice says to me every day.

But no, I don’t think Tyler Naquin broke out last season. He broke out for half a season, sure, but 2017 is the year that Naquin can prove he can adjust to opposing pitchers and truly break out as a great player.

Just a quick glance at the box score and you may be fooled into thinking Naquin is already an established hitter. He finished 2016 with an incredible .296/.372/.514 slash, 14 home runs, and 2.5 wins above replacement in a mere 116 games.

Oh, wait... he had a .411 batting average on balls in play.

Oh, wait... he struck out 30 percent of the time.

Oh, wait... he hit ground balls 46.4 percent of the time.

Oh, wait... he can’t hit any kind of fastball up in the zone and everyone knows it.

Once opposing teams discovered these weaknesses in Naquin’s game, namely the inability to hit high fastballs, they exploited him. Hard. The picture on him could not be any clearer based on his heat map; his batting average plummets on any pitch up in the zone and he is spectacular on low breaking balls.

There is still a lot of good going on for Naquin too, though. For one, he was making a lot of hard contact last season. If he would have passed the threshold to be a qualified batter, his 38.5 percent of hard-hit balls would have been ranked No. 23 in the majors last season — 0.2 behind Kyle Seager and ahead of great hitters like Justin Upton, Nolan Arenado, Edwin Encarnacion, and Christian Yelich.

Naquin also did a phenomenal job spreading his hits around the field, which could explain one reason why he had such a high BABIP, and why he had such a high BABIP through his whole minor-league career. I’m not saying he will sustain having a BABIP over .400 his whole career, but when he success will be easier when you pull 37.6 percent of the time, hit to center 35.7 percent of the time, and oppo 26.8 percent of the time.

Even if his box score looks worse next season — because, realistically, I don’t think he can be 2016 good over a full season — Naquin could be considered a breakout if he continues to show a powerful swing that spreads the ball over the field and can manage to hit high fastballs.

Roberto Perez

THIS IS THE YEAR, BOYS.

Brandon Guyer

Barring any surprise trades, 2017 will be Brandon Guyer’s first full year in a Cleveland Indians uniform. More importantly, it will be the first full year of him platooning, which is something he should have been doing his whole career.

Over the past two seasons, only 10 batters in the entire league have been better against left-handed pitching than Brandon Guyer, according to wRC+. Guyer’s incredible 157 wRC+ against lefties is tied with that of Miguel Cabrera, and ahead of Jose Altuve, Adrian Beltre, Kris Bryant, and many, many others.

Guyer has hit .288/.390/.469 over his career against lefties, but a pedestrian .236/.308/.338 against right-handed pitchers. Despite this, his previous team, the Tampa Bay Rays, did not strictly platoon him. He finished 2015 with 159 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and 226 against left-handed pitchers.

Since joining the Indians, however, Guyer was pretty strictly platooned. He faced opposing righties in just 27 plate appearances between August 3 and the end of the regular season, compared to 69 plate appearances versus southpaws. Because Lonnie Chisenhall is already established as the left-handed side of the outfield platoon, Guyer can easily slot in on the right side. Without the added at-bats against right-handed pitching, I can’t wait to see what his bat looks like at the end of 2017.

Richie Shaffer

Richie Shaffer’s incredible, and incredibly weird, journey this winter took him from Tampa Bay to Seattle to Philadelphia, to Cincinnati, and finally to Cleveland, all without playing a single game. Through a series of DFA’s, the versatile 26-year-old batter found himself emotionally yanked around the league, even if he didn’t have to travel every time he was dropped.

The Indians DFA’d him as well, but were able to keep him on the team and in the minor-league system when no one else claimed him. He was given a chance in camp as well, competing for a spot at third base or in the outfield, wherever the Indians might need him, but he was informed he wouldn’t make the major-league roster over the weekend.

Like almost every batter who wants to make an adjustment this season, Shaffer is trying to hit everything into the air more than ever. The analysis has come back, the math has been run, the spreadsheets have been tabulated — hitting the ball in the air is good.

Shaffer buys into this radical new thinking of ball in air equals good, and he worked on it during the offseason. He was even nice enough to provide us (read: the internet) with a slow-mo video of the his new swing in action

A post shared by Richie Shaffer (@rshaff8) on

While the Indians have reassigned Shaffer to Triple-A for now, the door is absolutely not shut on him. Shaffer’s two primary positions, third base and outfield, just so happen to be the two the Indians need the most depth at, assuming they move Jose Ramirez to second to cover for Jason Kipnis.

One bad injury or a string of bad games from someone, and Shaffer will get his call. He has already proven his power in the minors (26 home runs in 2015), and his revamped swing could help him with the Tribe. If it does, it’s another fantastic, small signing for the Indians a long string of them.