Fantasy owners need the players they draft in the early rounds to live up to their rankings, but one of the most important aspects to winning a fantasy baseball championship is hitting on players who break out and become key performers for your team.

There are going to be misses along the way, but if we can hit on a couple, it would go a long way to remaining competitive throughout the season.

Oakland Athletics Pitcher Jesus Luzardo

One of the top pitching prospects in recent seasons is ready to take the next step in the big leagues. Luzardo flashed at times in 2020, but I believe 2021 is when he will settle in as one of the better fantasy pitchers. At only 23 years of age, Luzardo has pitched in the majors in 2019 and 2020 despite totaling only 71 innings.

Last season, Luzardo finished with a 4.12 ERA but had an impressive 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings. In the minors, that number was at least 10.0 in every season, so there’s room for that to grow which makes him more appealing.

The left-hander is currently being drafted as the 37th pitcher and 103 overall. If Luzardo improves at all — which is the expectation given his age and talent level — he will easily help fantasy owners in 2021.

Chicago White Sox Outfielder Luis Robert

Unfortunately, there’s no draft-day value with Robert, as he is currently being drafted as the 27th hitter and 40 overall according to FantasyPros.com. However, we have yet to see a breakout from Robert, who was formerly a top-five prospect in all of baseball. In his rookie campaign, the 23-year-old finished with 11 home runs and nine stolen bases in 56 games. Robert only hit .233, but we saw the tools that made him an elite prospect.

In 2019, Robert hit 30 home runs and stole 30 bases as a minor leaguer. In an era in which it is difficult to find players who can steal and hit for power, Robert has the potential to be a fantasy star. Even with the low batting average, Robert would have surpassed 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases as a rookie with a full season.

I would consider 20-20 to be the floor in 2021 given Robert’s experience and expected growth as a player. The fantasy community realizes this, and that is why he’s being drafted where he is. We’re just looking at breakout players, and Robert is certainly in line to break out and be talked about this time next year as a player we’re targeting in the first couple of rounds.

Los Angeles Dodgers Pitcher Julio Urias

The next two breakout candidates carry a little more risk than the previous two. It seems like Urias has been around forever and has yet to live up to his prospect hype. The left-hander is only 24 years old, but he made his debut back in 2016 at the age of 19. Urias has dealt with ineffectiveness and injury throughout the years, preventing him from truly breaking out.

The risks are well-documented. He has had shoulder surgery and has yet to throw 100 innings in a big-league season. As of now, Urias is in the rotation, but that could change depending how his spring training proceeds. Even if he doesn’t make the rotation, the innings he would accumulate as a reliever still makes him a viable option. I’m banking on him remaining in the rotation.

Urias currently has an average draft position of 115 and is the 43rd pitcher being taken. The pitcher was dominant in the 2020 postseason, as he struck out 29 in 23 innings pitched while only allowing three earned runs. The Dodgers are once again one of the best teams in all of baseball, so Urias should be positioned to rack up the wins as well. This could finally be the season Urias puts it all together.

Overall, Urias checks all the boxes we are looking for in terms of a breakout without having to spend too much to acquire the pitcher.

Toronto Blue Jays Outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Gurriel most likely would have had his breakout last season, which makes this difficult. However, since he hasn’t played a full season yet in his three-year career, I feel he can still be included. The outfielder hit 20 home runs in only 84 games in 2019 and 11 in 57 games last season.

As I mentioned in the draft guide when analyzing 2020, it could be smart to look at the last 162 games. Throughout the last two seasons, Gurriel has hit 31 home runs in 141 games. The power is legit and it’s not hard to think Gurriel can reach the 30 mark in 2021.

Gurriel has nine stolen bases during that span as well. I think it would be a little aggressive to project double-digit steals, but he should chip in with close to that. On the flip side, he is in a very talented lineup. That should be great news, but it’s unknown where he will be slotted. I can see him batting in the middle of the order or all the way down toward the bottom.

Regardless, the outfielder should be able to help in multiple categories as a player that is being drafted in the seventh round according to FantasyPros.com. Gurriel is also second-base eligible on Yahoo! Sports, and there are reports he could play other positions to keep his bat in the lineup on a consistent basis with the depth the Blue Jays have this season.

We already know Gurriel has a high floor, but we have yet to see his ceiling, which I think can be strong — and there’s a chance he will help at multiple positions.

Phil Backert

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