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NL East home to several top breakout candidates to watch for

Last week I looked at how five of last year's breakout players are likely to fare in the coming season. This week, I turn my attention to five (non-rookie) players who could emerge as breakout stars in 2012. Four of the best, coincidentally, hail from the same division.

The 6-foot-6 Mayberry has always had big-time power, but last year he refined his swing, took a big step forward in terms of plate discipline and finally stuck in the major leagues at the age of 27 as a fourth outfielder and pinch-hitter. This year, thanks in part to Ryan Howard's Achilles injury, he'll open the season as a starter and, depending in part on how Domonic Brown plays at Triple-A and how quickly Howard heals, Mayberry should have ample time to lock down his spot. Mayberry, who has hit 21 homers in just 369 major league plate appearances, has obvious 30-homer potential as well as the ability to steal a base and play all three outfield positions and first base. Given the decline of the Phillies' offense in recent years and Howard's recent setback in his recovery, Mayberry could be a very important player for Philadelphia this season.

Niese made headlines in February when he arrived at Mets camp with a new nose that was, ultimately, paid for by former teammate Carlos Beltran. Niese's rhinoplasty proved to have more than a cosmetic benefit, however, as it also fixed a deviated septum. According to Niese, that has greatly improved his breathing, which has had a noticeable effect on his endurance. Niese already looked like a breakout candidate coming out of last season given his career-best strikeout and walk rates (7.9 and 2.5 per nine innings, respectively, for a 3.14 K/BB) and poor luck on balls in play (.344 BABIP), but now that he has been able to step-up his conditioning and will literally breathe easier on the mound, his outlook for his age-25 season is even brighter.

Acquired with Hanley Ramirez in the November 2005 trade that sent Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to the Red Sox, Sanchez made headlines in 2006 by throwing a no-hitter late in his rookie season. However, a series of shoulder injuries limited him to just 32 starts over the next three seasons. He finally stayed healthy in 2010, and in 2011 posted career-best strikeout and walk rates (9.3 and 2.9 per nine innings, respectively). However, he received little support from the Marlins' lineup (just 3.28 runs per game), which saddled him with a weak 8-9 record, and a bit of bad luck on balls in play actually increased his ERA from 3.55 the year before to 3.67 last season. Still just 28, the Venezuelan righty should get more support from a Marlins lineup that has added Jose Reyes, and could have a breakout season with a small shift in luck.

By all rights, Santana should already be a star. He's a catcher who has hit .244/.362/.469 with 33 homers and 101 RBIs in 850 major league career plate appearances, but a gruesome leg injury suffered in a collision at home plate ended his rookie campaign in 2010 short of 200 plate appearances, and his 27 homers and 97 walks last year were undermined by a .239 batting average. Santana was a .290 hitter in the minors and hit just .266 on balls in play last year, so look for his batting average to improve significantly in his age-26 season this year, leading to what should be the first of many All-Star selections for a player who should rank among the best catchers in the game.

All of the attention in Nationals camp is on Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, and for good reason, but Zimmermann could have an even bigger impact on the Nationals' season than either of those former No. 1 overall picks.

Zimmerman struck out 92 men in 91 1/3 innings as a rookie in 2009, but Tommy John surgery interrupted his progress, which finally resumed late in 2010. Last year, his strikeout rate was down a bit, but he walked just 1.7 men per nine innings and posted a 3.18 ERA. However, he missed qualifying for the ERA title (he would have been 10th in the NL) by two outs due to the 160-inning limit imposed on him by the Nationals, and was just 8-11 due to a mere 3.2 runs per game of support from the Nationals' offense.

This year, the 26-year-old righty will be allowed to pitch a full season, should received better run support both due to a correction in his luck and what should be an improved Washington offensive attack, and should see his strikeout rate climb as well. With Strasburg limited to 160 innings this season, don't be surprised to see Zimmermann finish the season as the Nationals most valuable pitcher.

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