5 hitters poised to break out in 2016

January 12th, 2016

The 2015 season gave us a wide-eyed glimpse into the future. Young hitters across the sport put forth breakout campaigns to emerge as the newest superstars -- a group that included A.J. Pollock, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and Dee Gordon.

Now we head toward the 2016 season, and it's hard to imagine we'll see a crop of breakout stars like the one we saw last year. But there is clearly a fair share of players with the tools to help them burst into the national consciousness. 

Here are five batters who appear poised to break out this season:

Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers

Seager's time in the big leagues at the end of the 2015 season was brief, but he proved himself more than capable of handling big league pitching. He batted .337/.425/.561 in 27 games (113 plate appearances). Obviously, Seager isn't going to post numbers like those, as big league pitchers will eventually figure him out a bit. But his fluid-yet-compact left-handed swing doesn't seem to have many flaws.

Seager is currently ranked as MLB.com's No. 2 prospect, and it's easy to see why. Regardless, he won't keep that title for very long -- because he won't be considered a "prospect" for very long. The Dodgers are ready to hand Seager the keys at shortstop, and he already appears to be the favorite for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox

OK, OK, projecting Betts as a "breakout offensive player" is cheating a little bit. After all, he batted .291/.341/.479 last season, and there wasn't really an aspect to his game that he struggled with. Betts is already one of the better young outfielders in the American League.

But Betts, who turned 23 this offseason, should graduate from "great young outfielder" to "great outfielder, period," in 2016. He hits for both average and power (18 homers, .188 ISO), he has great speed (21 steals) and he plays above-average defense (10 defensive runs saved) in a ballpark that necessitates it.

Only five players in Red Sox history have been worth 6 WAR in their age-23 seasons -- Ted Williams, Fred Lynn, Nomar Garciaparra, Carl Yastrzemski and Tris Speaker. That's an elite list for a franchise that has existed for 115 years, and Betts (4.9 WAR last season) has a serious chance to join it in 2016.

Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Orioles

The 2014 and '15 versions of Schoop were night and day. In Schoop's rookie season ('14), he batted just .209 and finished the year with a dreadful OPS+ of 65. Although his walk rate didn't go up much in '15, he did a much better job swinging at the right pitches. It showed in the results, as Schoop batted .279 and launched 15 homers in 86 games.

If Schoop can piece together a full season in 2016, expect it to be the season in which he puts his name on the map as one of the game's best young second basemen. The 24-year-old Curacao native owns one of the most potent bats in baseball. Schoop's average exit velocity of 90.8 mph puts him in the 84th percentile (right above Andrew McCutchen), and he launched the third-longest home run in 2015 -- a mammoth 484-foot shot off Johnny Cueto.

Clearly Schoop has the tools necessary to become a superstar. His game is still a bit raw, and he needs to do a better job of reaching base. But second basemen with Schoop's kind of pop simply don't come around every day.

Greg Bird, 1B, Yankees

The obvious risk with putting Bird on this list is the fact that he might not get enough playing time to merit his inclusion. The Yankees have Mark Teixeira at first base and Alex Rodriguez at designated hitter, meaning Bird figures to open the season in a bit of a platoon role.

But given what Bird accomplished down the stretch last season, the Yanks simply need to find a way to get him some at-bats. The 23-year-old has the plate discipline of a 15-year veteran, and when he unloads, he hits the ball hard. Bird's 94.3 mph average exit velocity ranked eighth among the 453 players who put at least 50 balls in play. Plus, his 16.5 average launch angle -- seventh highest in the Majors -- plays perfectly at Yankee Stadium.

It's early in his career, but it already appears as though Bird will be a staple in the Yankees' lineup for years to come. With A-Rod and Teixeira both aging and somewhat injury-prone, there's a good chance Bird will get plenty of hacks in 2016.

Michael Conforto, OF, Mets

What's the common theme with most of these young hitters? They all hit the ball hard. Conforto is no different. His average exit velocity of 93.5 mph -- in a smaller sample size, of course -- sandwiches him between Josh Donaldson and Paul Goldschmidt at No. 14 in the Majors. If, indeed, the Mets choose not to re-sign Yoenis Cespedes, they'll be handing a full-time outfield gig to Conforto in 2016.

That means the left-handed-hitting Conforto must figure out how to hit left-handers. The Mets permitted him only 14 at-bats vs. southpaws in 2015, and he managed just three singles. That's clearly too small a sample size on which to judge Conforto against left-handers. His Double-A splits from '15 tell a different story:

Vs. right: .303/.388/.508, 59 plate appearances

Vs. left: .333/.414/.490, 138 plate appearances

Might Conforto struggle against some of the tougher left-handers at the big league level? Sure. Most young lefty hitters do. But he clearly has the tools to be able to pound Major League pitching, as evidenced by his .317/.405/.603 slash line last August.