For me, as an avid follower of the Indians minor league teams, one of the most anticipated things is to see which prospects will have over-the-top performances this year. So many publications and 'experts' give us so much information on these guys that some guy coming out of nowhere is much less likely than when I was a kid growing up. Still, there is room to dream about which guys in the Indians' system will have the biggest and most significant breakouts this year. Here are my guesses on who those guys might be and why.
Bradley Zimmer - I think he has a lot to prove and I perceive a little chip on his shoulder. I just can't see anyone except for Michael Brantley on the Indians' roster standing in the way of Zimmer once he is ready. Every other outfielder is a journeyman (or journeyman in the making in Tyler Naquin's case). Not that these guys are bad, mind you. It is just that they are expendable in the face of a quality talent like Zimmer. I think Zimmer has learned his lessons and is focusing on filling the holes in his game. When he is ready, as I think he will be this year, Zimmer will break down the door to the majors and have a Lindor-esque rookie season.
Nolan Jones - It is hard to say a guy will have a breakout season when he starts it in extended spring training but that will be my feeling for a couple of guys on this list. Jones only has to show his hit tool to break out this year but I think he will show even more plate discipline and some power in addition to his defense as he starts to move up the ladder. Hey, many people think we got a bargain (in terms of draft slot) with Jones. I think this year that bargain will loom even larger as he starts to put performance with promise.
Dylan Baker - This is almost a comical prediction but the guy has shown he can be dominating. If he is truly healthy this year he will be the breakout prospect in the Indians' system.
Matt Esparza - A popular pick for breakout status, I just see him becoming the next Adam Plutko which, to me, is his upside. Given where we drafted him, Plutko-like contributions would be a real plus. I think Esparza shows he can do that, any maybe a little more, this season at Lynchburg and, eventually, Akron.
Ulysses Cantu - All the I read about this guy tells me he is so much better than the .200 AZL hitter he was last year. I think he breaks out this year, albeit with the AZL Indians or Mahoning Valley, or both.
Ka'ai Tom - If he is truly healthy he will be Greg Allen Part Deux and will likely shoot up the minor league system as his approach at the plate is refined and he is just a solid player who will overmatch the low minors forcing his way up to at least AA by the end of the year.
Justin Garza - Here is a guy who is a polished college pitcher who missed time due to TJ surgery. I think he fully recovers and is sensational in the low minors, maybe even surpassing Bieber and Civale on being the closest of the three to the major leagues.
Luke Wakamatsu - I see him breaking out this season but, like Cantu and Jones, maybe only at rookie ball levels. He is just too solid a prospect to not make a big jump if he stays healthy this year.
Mike Papi - No one talks about this guy and I know why. His swing looks so weak a lot of the time that his last name could be Mendoza (as in the line). There is no way that this guy is this bad with as polished a player as he was coming out of college. Hey, 20 years ago, before analytics and advancements in video and college competitive levels I would have say he could have fooled the scouts. No way he did that. Papi, if healthy this year, might even be able to impact the Indians' major league team given his potential and the fact that he came in with Zimmer meaning he SHOULD be on the same development path. If he accelerates his movement up the minor leagues this year he may even catch up to Zimmer in the majors (but Papi would probably only, at best, get a September cameo).
Louis Head and Cameron Hill - Late round draft picks like these guys seldom 'break out'. However, if things break, right these guys could pull a Joseph Colon and come out of nowhere to play a little ball in Cleveland this season. They are 6th/7th inning guys in the majors, at best, but I think they will be solid in the minors and be available if the opportunity exists in the Cleveland bullpen.
My hope is that all these guys and about a half-dozen other minor leaguers have breakout seasons this year. If they do our farm system will truly become one of the deepest in the game, something a small market team like the Indians truly need.
Next up: early predictions about guys making their major league debuts this year and the 2017 draft and international signing period.