We've focused on the negative here this year, looking at players who are far worse than expected, and whether or not they can return to their previous levels. This time around, though, we're checking out a few players who, nearly halfway through the season, might be in the midst of their breakout campaigns.
James McDonald, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
McDonald has been productive before 2012. After the Dodgers traded him at the 2010 deadline for reliever Octavio Dotel, the right-hander tossed 64 innings of 3.52 ERA ball, striking out 8.6 per nine -- two-and-a-half times more than he walked. That promising start to his Pirates' career didn't carry over, though, as McDonald posted a 7.66 ERA in April that kept many from noticing that for the rest of the year, he was mostly real good (3.63 ERA in 146 frames, 7.8 strikeouts per nine, 2.0 K/BB, but 1.2 homers per nine).
He's built on that season; with his first 14 starts in 2012. McDonald has thrown 90 innings, and shown better, more consistent command of his stuff while doing it, giving him a career-best 3.5 K/BB. He won't have his 2.19 ERA forever, but his 2.65 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) suggests the truth of his season isn't far off from that. He's missing bats, keeping the ball in the park, and limiting walks. Even if the homers start coming -- and they likely will a bit, as he's not a groundballer -- he has plenty of cushion to maintain a real breakout season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Boston Red Sox
You can probably guess which catcher is leading the majors in home runs based on this narrative device, but before getting to this sentence, did you know it was Jarrod Saltalamacchia? The switch-hitting backstop went deep 16 times in 103 games and 386 plate appearances in 2011, his first full year in the majors, but his 59-game encore has already seen 14 long balls.
Salty has an on-base percentage that hovers around .300, and he strikes out over 27 percent of the time, but whenever he makes contact, things tend to go boom. He's hitting .254/.301/.539, good for a 122 OPS+ and .285 Isolated Power, good for seventh and first among backstops with at least 150 plate appearances in 2012. Walks are important, but they aren't the only way to create runs.
With the pads on, Salty has allowed just three passed balls in a Tim Wakefield-less world, whereas in 2011 he led the majors with 26 -- the second-worst was Josh Thole, with 10 fewer. Maybe it's taking less of a beating behind the plate that's helping him out when it's his turn to bat, but either way, he looks like he's finally becoming the player prospect gurus believed he could be more than a half-decade ago.
Jason Hammel, SP, Baltimore Orioles
It could be (and was!) argued that Jason Hammel was the inferior pitcher to Jeremy Guthrie when the two were dealt this off-season. Guthrie's had a tougher go in Coors Field than even the most pessimistic could imagine, though, while Hammel's return to the AL East has only disappointed opposing lineups and fans. Hammel missed some time in May due to a cartilage injury in his knee, but otherwise, his season has been flawless: 14 starts, 89-2/3 innings, what would be a career-high in strikeout rate at 8.7 per nine, and a career-best 155 ERA+.
Coors always inflated Hammel's batting average on balls in play in the past, but with the O's, he's done more than just lose that. As his BABIP climbs and his strand rate drops, his ERA will inflate a bit, but as his 3.13 FIP can attest, he's still doing fine. As long as Hammel can stay healthy -- a problem in the past, as he's never thrown more than 177 innings in the majors -- then the Orioles acquired their first great pitcher in a long time.
Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres: Cabrera possesses an odd career history as a professional. He signed as a 19-year-old out of Nicaragua, and at the end of 2008, the then 21-year-old middle infielder had never played above High-A. That's the expected portion of his career, but then things get out of hand, as Cabrera was selected by the Padres in the Rule 5 draft, and kept on their major-league roster for 103 games and 438 plate appearances. It was believed Cabrera could be a useful player at some point -- Baseball America had ranked him #24 in the Padres' system heading into the year -- but he was shockingly good in his time as a rookie thrust into the majors by Rule 5 rules: .255/.342/.361 with just 20 percent strikeouts and 11 percent walks, fresh out of High-A ball.
It's not an eye-popping campaign, but given his inexperience, youth, and the fact he was a shortstop dealing with Petco Park half of the time, that's a hugely encouraging start to a career. Injuries and ineffectiveness limited him the next two seasons, though, and he spent most of his time in the high minors -- for the first time -- trying to recapture 2009's magic. Between his strong start at Triple-A in 2012, and the awful play of starting shortstop Jason Bartlett, Cabrera worked his way back to the majors, and has justified the move by hitting .266/.345/.411, good for a 114 OPS+.
He's walking nine percent of the time, and striking out too often at 27 percent, but he's shown some pop and an ability to make good contact when he manages to put bat to ball. The bar is low at shortstop, and Cabrera has managed to vault over it. The strikeouts might keep him from staying there as his BABIP slips, but even a little regression would still make this a productive campaign, his first in years.
Allen Craig, 1B/OF, St. Louis Cardinals: Craig has hit in the majors before, but it always seems to be quietly. Even his former manager, Tony La Russa, who limited him to just 75 games and 219 plate appearances in 2011, didn't seem to realize just how much the big righty could mash. He's reiterating his worth this season, though: even as injuries have kept him out of the lineup, Craig has put together a .311/.389/.585 line with nine homers.
Over parts of three seasons, the now 27-year-old Craig has appeared in 154 games, amassed 500 plate appearances, and owns a line of .295/.355/.528 with 24 homers 32 doubles, strikeouts in under 20 percent of his plate appearances, and more than enough walks to get by. Minimum 500 plate appearances since 2010, Craig ranks #17 in OPS+ at 140, behind teammate Lance Berkman, and ahead of stars like Robinson Cano, David Wright, Mike Napoli, and Giancarlo Stanton. He's shown he can hit before, but more consistent playing time is letting everyone finally notice.