Bruce, Hudson lead breakout players to watch in 2011
In 2010, Jose Bautista hit an astonishing 54 home runs, the most of any player in the majors since 2006 and 41 more than his previous single-season high. It represented the largest increase in baseball history, not bad for a guy whose only previous claim to fame was being on five different teams in less than two months back in 2004. Indeed, what made Bautista's transformation from journeyman outfielder to superstar slugger so amazing was that it was entirely unforeseen.
Or was it? Reevaluating his 13-home run campaign of 2009, one statistic in particular stands out: 10 of his longballs came in the final month of the season. At some point, Bautista figured it out. He retooled his plate approach, and as Toronto limped to another fourth place AL East finish without much publicity, Bautista was finding the swing he would use the next season to shock the baseball world.
Bautista was only the most obvious recent example of how under-the-radar success is often a precursor to a player becoing a breakout star. While the 10 players listed below may not make as dramatic a leap as Bautista did, they are nonetheless poised to elevate their games in 2011 and draw some more attention in the process.
After an underwhelming sophomore effort in 2009, the much-ballyhooed Bruce finally showed signs of springing to life in 2010. He finished with a .281 average, 25 home runs and 70 RBIs and was most impressive in September. He hit .346 with seven homers over his final 18 games, including a walk-off blast that cemented the Reds' first postseason berth since 1995. Bruce was rewarded with a six-year contract extension. He turns 24 in early April and will once again team with NL MVP Joey Votto to form a potent middle-of-the-order tandem and the core of what should once again be one of the best offenses in the National League.
No one was campaigning for Hudson to win a Cy Young award last year but his second half compared favorably to eventual winners Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez:
Hudson went at least seven innings in nine of his final 11 starts, tallying seven wins for an Arizona team that won just 27 games following his acquisition from the White Sox on July 30. His success made the oft-injured Brandon Webb disposable, and though Hudson will be just 24 on Opening Day he could be the ace for the rebuilding Diamondbacks.
Beckham struggled mightily at the start of his sophomore season in 2010, batting just .209 from April through June, gaining widespread criticism and a brief benching from White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. Yet from July through September he hit .308, tops among AL second baseman, though he missed time late in the year with a hand injury.
Perhaps most telling is Beckham's production per spot in the order. He hit .286 when batting ninth but just .186 when slotted second, a number that should improve with the insertion of Adam Dunn in the lineup. Now that Beckham has a full season in the majors under his belt and a more settled spot in the lineup, expect him to start living up to the hype that made him the eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Murphy is a perfect candidate to make the jump from good to great in 2011. He's averaged just shy of 15 homers despite never playing more than 138 games in a season, and his .291 mark in 2010 was the highest of his career.
When eventual AL MVP Josh Hamilton got hurt in early September, Murphy was brilliant, batting .341/.404/.529 with 16 RBIs the rest of the season. Don't expect a Bautista-like power jump, but with additional playing time, a 25 homer campaign in the Rangers' homer-happy lineup isn't far-fetched.
Still only 21 years old, the Florida phenom is already a legitimate threat to hit 40 home runs. He led all NL rookies with 22 home runs despite not joining the Marlins until June 8, and his 16.3 at-bats per homer ranked fifth in the NL behind just Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn, Joey Votto and Mark Reynolds. In fact, Stanton's rookie statistics compare favorably to those of the Phillies' Ryan Howard, who won the Rookie of the Year in 2005 and the NL MVP in 2006.
Stanton's problem is that he strikes out even more than Howard did at the same point in his career. While Howard continues to rack up strikeouts he also has impressive slash stats and is a premier run producer. Stanton's challenge will be to increase his contact rate without sacrificing the power stroke that has made him one of the Marlins' top prospects.
With Andy Pettitte not yet committed to returning for a 17th season and A.J. Burnett erratic as ever, the 24-year-old Nova may be the Yankees third most trusted starter behind CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes. Nova was brilliant in flashes last year, showcasing a mid-90s fastball and a devastating change in starts against Toronto, Chicago, Tampa Bay and Boston.
The big question is Nova's stamina. He habitually cruised into the fifth and sixth innings before breaking down:
Overall, the 187 innings (major and minor league) he pitched last year were a huge jump, almost 40 more than he threw in 2009 and nearly 50 more than his previous single-season high in professional ball. If he can learn to go deeper into games without faltering, he could lessen the impact of New York's failure to sign innings-eating star Cliff Lee this offseason.
Which NL East second baseman ranked in the top 10 in both batting average and runs scored last year? It's Prado, the Venezuelan native who batted .307 with 15 home runs and 66 RBIs despite missing a number of games with hip pointer and torn oblique injuries.
Prado should play a major role in Atlanta's run at a second straight playoff appearance. He's also a Phillies' killer: he hit .286 with three homers against Philadelphia in 2010 and maintains a. 314 career average in 35 at-bats against Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.
Of all the decisions Twins manager Ron Gardenhire made in 2010, perhaps none was more significant than replacing Nick Punto with rookie Danny Valencia at third base. For the season, Valencia hit more than 70 points higher than Punto did (.311 to .238), and he was crucial in the Twins' late-season surge to another AL Central title, hitting .310 in September.
Valencia was a monster at home, batting .386 at Target Field but he'll need to improve his performance on the road, where he hit just .251 in his debut season. Still, his overall line -- .311, 7 home runs, 40 RBIs in just 85 games -- suggests that a .315/15/85 line in a full season is a real possibility.
Often overshadowed by fellow rookie Stanton, Sanchez compiled quite a first year himself. His 37 doubles ranked 11th in the NL and he finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting.
With the departure of Dan Uggla to the Braves, Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez will be asked to carry the brunt of the offensive load. Though Sanchez garnered far less attention, his stats were nearly as good as Ramirez's. Ramirez batted .300 with 21 home runs, 76 RBIs and an .853 OPS, compared to .273, 18, 85 and .789 for Stanton, whose numbers should only improve with a year of experience.
Few players were hotter than Raburn was last September and October. He torched opposing pitchers for a .358 average -- third in the AL -- and five home runs to raise his season total to 15. With Brennan Boesch and Magglio Ordoñez struggling, he became the primer power threat for an offense that finished just 8th in the AL in home runs.
Raburn's best attribute is his versatility. He played every position but pitcher, catcher and shortstop last season and should serve as a super utility man for Jim Leyland's club in 2011.