10 players who quietly broke out

November 7th, 2017

Awards season arrives as memories of another terrific postseason crystallize.

But there are always great performances that won't be rewarded with hardware or the chance to step onto the stage in October -- players who keep their teams close but don't get 'em into the postseason, others who generate excitement on rebuilding teams.

Here are 10 of those players who had breakout seasons in 2017:

Tommy Pham, LF, Cardinals

Like National League Rookie of the Year Award finalist , Pham started the season at Triple-A Memphis and wound up as a key player for a St. Louis team that is getting younger. Pham is no baby, of course. He'll be 30 when the 2018 season begins, and he just missed being arbitration-eligible. Pham, who put up a .306/.411/.520 slash line over 530 plate appearances this season, had hit enough in the past to stay on the Cardinals' radar -- but who saw a 20/20 season coming (23 homers, 25 stolen bases)? He just missed being in the top 10 among Major Leaguers in OPS+ (144) and was third overall in Defensive Runs Saved in left field (+10), per FanGraphs.

, C, Reds

No longer is this switch-hitter a place-holder as the Reds await the emergence of a healthy -- Barnhart surprised by being the one evolving into the top tier of catchers. More heady than athletic, the 5-foot-11 Barnhart led NL catchers by throwing out 44 percent of runners attempting to steal (earning +21 DRS, which led all catchers) while hitting .270 with a .750 OPS. He didn't hit for much power, but he struck out only 16.1 percent of the time, and he ended the year with a four-year, $16 million contract extension.

Whit Merrifield, 2B, Royals

Seven years after his 11th-inning single gave the South Carolina Gamecocks a title at the College World Series, Merrifield elevated his status from utility man to solid regular. He showed himself to be a complete player, ranking eighth overall among second basemen with +5 DRS while hitting .288 with a .784 OPS. Merrifield is not a blazer, but he led the American League with 34 stolen bases in 42 tries.

Steven Souza Jr., RF, Rays

It took three seasons, but Souza demonstrated why Tampa Bay was excited to acquire him from the outfielder-heavy Nationals in the three-team deal that sent to Washington. Souza still has room to grow as a hitter, but he homered once every 20.6 plate appearances, hitting 30 home runs to help generate an .810 OPS from a .239 batting average. He was strong defensively, ranking seventh among qualifiers with +7 DRS.

, 2B/3B, White Sox

Sanchez wasn't entirely a different player in 2017, but he flashed unexpected power (12 home runs) to raise his OPS to .733. The switch-hitter was best from the left side of the plate, allowing Rick Renteria to sit Matt Davidson against many right-handers as he continued to play after arrived. Sanchez has always been strong defensively (+8 DRS at second, behind only DJ LeMahieu).

, RHP, Angels

You never know when it's going to click with pitchers. Parker debuted with the Cubs in 2012, as a 26-year-old, but didn't establish himself until this year, in his age-32 campaign. He earned a spot in Mike Scioscia's bullpen in Spring Training and finished the season as the closer. Parker appeared in 71 games and had an 0.832 WHIP. The key was a spike in velocity -- his four-seam fastball averaged 94 mph -- and a split-finger pitch that replaced his curveball as his secondary pitch. Opponents hit only .156 off that split, which he threw almost one-third of the time.

, RHP, Orioles

When you get to the Major Leagues as a 19-year-old, a lot is going to be expected from you. That's been true for Bundy, who was the fourth overall player taken in the 2011 Draft. There's nothing wrong with the Orioles that a couple more arms like Bundy and couldn't fix. In his age-24 season, Bundy was 13-9 with a 4.24 ERA, showcasing his four-pitch mix in a one-hitter over Seattle on Aug. 29. The 75-87 O's were 16-12 in Bundy's starts.

, RHP, Brewers/White Sox

Like Parker, Swarzak emerged as a force in his age-32 season; unlike Parker, he can use that breakout performance to market himself as a free agent this season. The White Sox were the fourth team in four seasons for Swarzak, who began his career with a long run in Minnesota, and benefited greatly from his average fastball gaining one mph in velocity for the second year in a row. Swarzak was locating 97-mph fastballs in stretch-run games after the Brewers traded for him. He finished the year with a career-low 2.33 ERA in 77 1/3 innings. Swarzak struck out 91 and walked only 22.

Mitch Haniger, RF, Mariners

While infielder was the headliner going to Seattle in a trade with Arizona last November, Haniger was hardly a throw-in. He showed why in a rookie season that looks even more impressive considering he was beaned in the face by a 95-mph fastball from in late July. Injuries were an issue, as Haniger was also sidelined with a strained oblique in May, but he hit.282 with 16 home runs and an .843 OPS in 96 games while playing very well in the field. He was worth +8 DRS, which ranked seventh among all right fielders.

, LHP, Pirates

Few closers were as effective as the 25-year-old, who benefited from spending two seasons in setup relief for the Nationals and Pirates. Rivero was 21-for-23 in saves while compiling a 1.67 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. His fastball averaged almost 99 mph, but it's his changeup that's the real killer (.163 opponents' batting average).