Unless you paid attention to short-season Lowell in 2012, chances are good you weren't aware of who Mookie Betts was prior to 2013. The 2011 fifth-round draft selection had not done much of note in his professional career to that point, and was so young as to be almost entirely made up of potential tools rather than actual ones. Early on in 2013, though, things came together for the second baseman, and perception of him changed entirely: Betts broke out at Low-A Greenville, and continued said breakout at High-A Salem, and is now believed to be moving to Double-A to begin 2014 at the tender age of 21.
Betts was a breakout that many did not see coming, unlike lefty Henry Owens, who improved as 2012 went on and took a leap forward that was expected out of him -- maybe not in 2013 specifically, but with his skills, it seemed inevitable. Breakout players aren't always who you expect, and sometimes, the ones you believe will bust out and make a name for themselves never do. Figuring out just who will take things to the next level can be difficult, but there is reason to believe these six players will see jumps in their performance in 2014.
Manuel Margot, CF
Margot is already recognized as a quality prospect with a potentially bright future, but he hasn't had that campaign that puts him on the map yet. The 18-year-old batted .270/.346/.351 at short-season Lowell, however, and while that doesn't look like much, this is a good time to recall that the average age of a New York-Penn batter was 21, and their line .242/.313/.338.
It's expected Margot will develop more power as he ages and develops -- he's all of six feet tall and 170 pounds right now -- to go with his plus-plus wheels and what should be above-average defense in center. He should move to Low-A Greenville for his first taste of full-season ball in 2014, and at that level, we might see him shine. He's younger than Garin Cecchini or Jackie Bradley Jr. were on their first trips to Greenville following promising Lowell campaigns -- Betts, too -- but he's also shown as much results-wise as they did at that stage of their career. Maybe 19 is too young for him to break out, and he needs more than a little time at Low-A to get going, but there is enough talent and maturity here already to see him shoot up Boston's prospect list by this time next year.
Brian Johnson, LHP
It might seem odd to single out a pitcher who posted a 2.54 ERA across two levels in 2013 as needing to break out, but the problem with Johnson to this point has been how little he's managed to pitch. The performances have been there, but not in the mass quantities needed to push him as more than what he's recognized as. In 2012, the year he was drafted, a combination of the College World Series and a line drive to the head limited his professional output, and this past summer, an undisclosed shoulder injury limited his playing time. He came back strong to finish the season, though, and might not see very much of High-A Salem in order to get him back on schedule.
Johnson is in a good position, as a polished lefty with a variety of pitches, to take the leap at Salem and find himself at Double-A before too long, just two summers after he was drafted. So long as he's healthy, there is little reason to believe Johnson will be less-loved following 2014 than he is coming into it.
Cody Kukuk, LHP
Now, I'm not saying Kukuk is Owens 2.0 or anything like that, but there are parallels between the two. Both are left-handed, and made their debuts at age 19. Kukuk and Owens both have trouble walking people, something Owens has seemingly mostly gotten over by, if nothing else, striking out everyone he isn't walking. Kukuk hasn't had that kind of counter moment yet, but he did improve his walk rate in the season's second half: Kukuk walked 43 batters in 46-1/3 innings to start the year, and dropped that to 38 in his final 60-2/3 frames. That's still not good, as it's over five walks per nine, but it's a hell of a lot better than what he was doing when he started the year at Low-A.
Kukuk will be 21 shortly in to 2014, and will likely be bumped to High-A Salem. He has youth and talent on his side, and like Owens, could see a significant jump in his performance as a follow-up to an improved second half. Again, this isn't the same thing as saying he's going to repeat Owens' breakout pitch-by-pitch, but Kukuk has plenty of his own promise, and could start to fulfill it as soon as this summer.
Corey Littrell, LHP
You might be noticing a trend here. Southpaw Littrell was Boston's fifth-round pick from the 2013 draft, and he succeeded in his brief, 31-inning stint with Lowell -- most encouragingly, even when facing right-handed hitters. Of course, he was already 21, with college experience, and only in the New York-Penn, and that's without bringing up the sample size, but when the alternative is a fifth-round pick getting hit around in his debut, you take what good is available.
He's the kind of arm that can move through the system quickly, especially if the mid-90s velocity he flashed in college creeps back into his game. The Red Sox might be aggressive with Littrell and pop him into High-A Salem for 2014, leaving Greenville's rotation for the younger and less experienced of their 2013 Lowell arms. He's polished enough that he could justify their decision quickly and effectively, and that would help get him the recognition that he just doesn't possess yet.
Henry Ramos, OF
Ramos has shown flashes of being a better player than he's been in sum. That's not surprising, as he's a former soccer player who devoted himself to baseball full-time upon going pro, and will be all of 22 years old in 2014. This means that his approach, while promising, is raw, his power is nowhere near its ceiling yet, and his defense is still a work in progress, albeit one that should be productive when completed. He's more athleticism than anything at this point, making him the perfect candidate for a breakout once his natural abilities meld with experience.
His walk and strikeout rates are already in a good place -- 10 and 18 percent, respectively -- considering that his selectivity hasn't peaked, and his .252/.330/.416 line looks better when you remember that offense was not the Carolina League's forte: as a whole, the league batted .254/.332/.380. Ramos still has a long way to go before he becomes a prospect anyone outside of Boston sports notices for very long, but there is potential for a player who will end up better than his minor-league numbers here.
Justin Haley, RHP
Haley was drafted in the sixth round of 2012's draft, and found immediate success at short-season Lowell. His 2013 was more of a mixed bag, though, even with his quality 3.68 ERA. That's because Haley had serious walk issues at the beginning of the year, and while his numbers otherwise looked good, it was the kind of thing that could eventually blow up in his face. In his first 16 games, Haley tossed 69-2/3 innings and walked 55 batters, or over seven per nine innings. Over his last 10 appearances, though, he recorded 55 innings with just 19 walks, for a much more reasonable 3.1 free passes per nine.
He also struck out over a batter per inning in that stretch, and limited opponents to two runs or fewer in seven of the 10 starts, and three runs or fewer in nine of 10. Unlike the rest of the pitchers listed here, Haley is likely a future reliever. If he can continue with the run he had to close out his tenure at Low-A after his promotion to Salem, though, the likelihood of a big-league career becomes far more believable, and he'll become someone Red Sox fans are more familiar with.