Identifying potential breakout players is a fun way to enjoy the optimism of a brand new season. But, what about those players who already took a big step up the year before? Are they a sure bet for a repeat performance, or ideal candidates for regression? At the risk of being too pessimistic, below are three players with similar career trajectories who are facing heightened expectations after final having their breakout season in 2011.
Matt Kemp – Los Angeles Dodgers (2011 WAR: 10.0; 306% higher/PA than previous career rate)
Since his debut in the majors, Matt Kemp has been widely considered a star in the making. In his first four seasons, Kemp made gradual progress toward fulfilling those expectations, but after turning in an impressive 2009, the Dodgers’ center fielder took a big step backward in 2010. With questions about his attitude and commitment swirling around, 2011 was viewed as a pivotal year for Kemp, who finally made good on his potential…and then some.
Considering his talent and track record, Matt Kemp’s future seems bright. However, it will be hard for the center fielder to live up to his double-digit WAR season. Although he should continue to be a very productive player, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain his status as one of the best players in the game. Judging by the eight-year, $160 million contract extension he signed over the winter, the Dodgers are, quite literally, banking on Kemp being able to do it.
Jacoby Ellsbury – Boston Red Sox (2011 WAR: 7.2; 233% higher/PA than previous career rate)
Jacoby Ellsbury has had a roller coaster career in Boston. In his rookie season, the speedy outfielder followed up a hot September with a torrid World Series, leading to heightened expectations entering 2008. However, Ellsbury’s next two campaigns were relatively mediocre, causing some to doubt the extent of his potential. Then, after an injury riddled year limited him to 78 plate appearances, some even began to doubt his “toughness”. In 2011, Ellsbury proved all of those skeptics wrong.
In many ways, Ellsbury’s 2011 was just like Kemp’s. Not only did both centerfielders have the chance to quiet whispers about their commitment to the game, but each earned a gold glove, silver slugger, All Star selection, and second place finish in the MVP voting for their efforts. Now, like Kemp, Ellsbury will also have to do it again in order to be fully accepted as one of the game’s elite. However, unlike his Dodgers’ counterpart, Ellsbury doesn’t yet have the comfort of a long-term contract.
Alex Gordon – Kansas City Royals (2011 WAR: 5.9; 369% higher/PA than previous career rate)
After being selected with the second overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft, great things were expected of Alex Gordon. Instead, the can’t miss prospect struggled in the field and at the plate, averaging less than one win above replacement over his first four seasons. Eventually, the Royals’ patience started to wear thin, and Gordon was optioned back to the minors on two occasions. However, Gordon never gave up, and perhaps more importantly for the Royals, neither did General Manager Dayton Moore.
During last Spring Training, Gordon made adjustments to his swing that led to a renaissance in 2011, and the rest is history. Well, at least that’s what the Royals hope. Gordon’s improvement over his previous two seasons was so dramatic, it’s only natural to want to see him do it again. Perhaps that’s why the Royals haven’t yet made a big effort to sign the third baseman turned left fielder to a contract extension? After all, Kansas City is in the “Show Me” state. Of course, if the team waits too long, it could effectively be showing Gordon the door.
Every year, there are several players looking to build upon breakout success in the season before. Last year, Jose Bautista was the poster boy for this class of players seeking to cement their reputations, and he came through with flying colors. Will Kemp, Ellsbury and Gordon do the same in 2012? A lot, in terms of wins and dollars, could be riding on the answer.