Sleeping giants: 4 on verge of breakouts

Fielder, Jones, Tulo, Heyward are hoping to get going as soon as possible

May 11th, 2016

Sometimes clubs surge in spite of their stars and not because of them. Running down -- all the way down -- the list of league leaders in run production, there are some notable names with long track records who find themselves near the bottom of the barrel. And yet their clubs find themselves above .500.

So an argument can be made that a few good clubs could be even better if these sleeping giants awaken.

All stats are through Wednesday night's games.

Prince Fielder, Rangers

.198/.260/.298, 2 HR, 7 2B, 20 RBIs

To be brutally honest, Fielder, much like Alex Rodriguez, is having the kind of season I expected of him in 2015, not '16. As with A-Rod, a long layoff in '14 made '15 a mystery. And for Fielder, the recovery from a complicated neck procedure made it an open question as to whether he'd ever regain his old All-Star form at the plate.

Fielder responded with, yes, an All-Star season, a year in which he had an .841 OPS, 23 homers, 28 doubles and 98 RBIs to help lead the Rangers to a surprising American League West division title and edge A-Rod for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Fielder's numbers did tail off a bit in the second half (.264/.348/.294), but not to the degree that you would expect a 2016 free fall. Yet that's just what's happened in the early going. Though Prince has a handful of extra-base hits, he's been almost invisible on a Texas team that has still managed to post strong enough offensive numbers to spar with a surging Seattle squad in the AL West. Manager Jeff Banister had little choice but to drop Fielder to fifth in his lineup earlier this week, the first time in nearly a decade that Prince batted in that spot.

Actually, Fielder's issues aren't especially difficult to diagnose. While there's no denying he's a year older (and aren't we all?), the problem is he's swinging at more pitches outside the zone (37.8 percent in 2016 vs. 33.8 percent last year) and generating less contact on those swings (62.3 percent in 2016 vs. 66.9 percent last year).

Adam Jones, Orioles

.238/.298/.362, 3 HR, 4 2B, 14 RBIs

The Twins' decision to pitch around Manny Machado to face Jones in the ninth inning Tuesday night told us a lot about the state of both players, didn't it?

Well, it didn't work. Jones ripped a two-run single off Kevin Jepsen to break the tie and send the Orioles on to a 5-3 win.

Alas, such big hits have been surprisingly few and far between for Jones this season. This is a guy whose aggressiveness lends itself to streakiness, but we're not accustomed to seeing him streak southward for such a prolonged period.

So the O's, whose offense has been very good but perhaps not the league-leading force they want and expect it to be, had to be heartened to see Jones' huge night in Minneapolis (he homered earlier in the game). That performance was especially welcomed in a week in which he was struck out by the A's backup catcher, of all people. If Jones re-establishes himself as a viable threat, that could lead to more pitches to hit for Machado, and it's scary to think about the kid getting even better.

Jones suffered some sort of oblique injury in the first series of the season, and though he missed a few games, he never went on the disabled list. Issues involving the trunk have been known to mess with swing mechanics in this rotational sport, so that could explain why Jones has seen his line-drive and homer-to-fly-ball rates tumble.

Troy Tulowitzki, Blue Jays

.172/.275/.336, 6 HR, 2 2B, 16 RBIs

For the longest time, the formula was pretty simple: If Tulowitzki was healthy and on the field, he was one of the best players in baseball.

But now, at age 31, Tulowitzki is presumably healthy and definitely on the field and the production is not great or even average. His whiff percentage on fastballs and offspeed pitches has shot up, and his strikeout rate has jumped along with it. Then-GM Alex Anthopoulos' motivation for acquiring Tulo was as much about the defensive improvement he'd provide over Jose Reyes as anything, and the defense is still strong. Still, it's got to be at least a little concerning for the Blue Jays, now under a new regime but tied to Tulo through 2020, to see such a steep offensive decline.

Tulowitzki cracked his shoulder blade early in his Toronto tenure, and that injury had an understandable effect on his input with his new club. Though this is nothing more than speculation, one wonders if the Bartolo Colon pitch that struck Tulo's hand late in what had been a very strong Spring Training for him has had any impact in the early going.

The Blue Jays have an underrated and improving rotation, and that's helped them stay in the hunt in the AL East after a slower-than-expected start. Their offensive output is a shadow of what it was in 2015, and Tulowitzki's track record insists he can improve that effort -- if and only if he stays healthy.

Jason Heyward, Cubs

.216/.321/.259, 0 HR, 5 2B, 13 RBIs

As you know, the Cubs didn't give Heyward an eight-year, $184 million contract solely because of his bat. So much of his value was tied into his range and instincts in the outfield, attributes that have placed him near the top of the WAR leaderboards in recent seasons.

Still, you don't get nine figures solely because of your defense, and Heyward's age (26) provided hope that he's got more power production in the tank or at least will continue to provide his excellent on-base skills.

That just hasn't happened so far. The Cubs, as a team, obviously haven't suffered any ill effects from the lackluster output of their most expensive offseason acquisition, but imagine if Heyward starts contributing more consistently from the two-hole.

Heyward has played through a nagging wrist issue suffered in the second series of the season, so it's easy to understand why his hard-hit percentage has dropped nearly 10 percent, from 29.1 to 19.8. If he can get back to his level from 2012-15, when he averaged an adjusted OPS 12-percent better than the league norm, a crazy-good Cubs team could be even better, scary as that sounds.