Rare National League talents like the Arizona Diamondbacks' Justin Upton, only 22, were ticketed for success long ago; reaching elite form is a mere formality, and their fantasy stock is already high.
Not all who are ready to blossom are so obvious, and some even fall by the wayside, but growth doesn't come about in the same manner for everyone. Players break out at different stages of their careers. Will they hit their ceiling? Are they about to bust through it? Will they take the down elevator?
This right-hander has completed the journey to setup man with dominant stuff. Madson's rise in velocity toward the end of 2008 carried into 2009 and was evident in his 9.08 K/9 last season. Refocusing on control has elevated his status. Mental makeup is a different story, but his skills say back to the future closer. Madson, 29, has a new baseline, but vast improvement seems unlikely.
Bourn, 27, improved his batting eye by taking more walks, a requirement to avoid hearing the dreaded "You can't steal first" drum year after year. You can't take the strikeout out of the less skilled hitter, though. His contact rate didn't go up, so sustenance (aka avoidance of the Willy Taveras Syndrome) depends on that 20-plus line-drive percentage and effective bunting.
It might seem like Stewart needs to keep a high home run-per-flyball rate going to post a respectable average, much like the Arizona Diamondbacks' Mark Reynolds. However, Stewart, 24, has displayed ability to drive the ball and could easily bump up that average on balls in play, more like the Texas Rangers' Chris Davis can. Full-time duty provides intrigue.
Teams always inquire about Escobar, 27, because it's coming: 20-plus homers to go with that .300 batting average, from a 6-foot-2, 200-pound middle infielder. Escobar is criticized for his lack of focus, but the skills are evident: climbing flyball rate, homer-per-flyball rate, isolated power and, slowly but surely, rate of home runs. That last aspect could boom any day.
Some might say Cain, 25, has arrived, but his growth in 2009 was the result of a break from so much dependency on his fastball and improved control. His K/9 fell to 7.07. His BABIP against (.268) may scream luck, but the rest of his peripherals say he has hit a new height. When he moves back toward his rookie season 8.45 K/9 and maintains his approach, he will approach elite status.
The right-hander was incredibly hard to hit in the second half, yet his average against on balls in play was a normal .290. Jimenez, 25, saw his K/9 and BB/9 head in opposite (and good) directions in the same season. A low flyball rate really aids him at home. Now, can he maintain - no, reduce - that control rate? Consistency is a big step for this youngster.
Jackson, 26, reached new heights by reaching a sub-3.00 BB/9 for the first time in his big league life. The righty's velocity and slider remain lethal, but the lack of a third pitch stunts his growth. His control and abnormal hit rate against swung the other way in the second half. This former Los Angeles Dodgers prospect demonstrated progress, regardless. This is a transition year for Jackson: Will a high flyball rate derail him in his new home?
On the cusp
Lost in Soto's disappointing 2009 (.218 batting average, 11 homers in 331 at-bats) was his modest positive move in walk-to-strikeout ratio. He drove the ball a fair amount but was a bit snake-bitten. As long as he applies what he learned last season, he should bounce back with a more than respectable hit rate and that same 20-homer power that dazzled in 2008.
Often, backstops are late bloomers at the plate. Ruiz, 30, could be a prime example. A steady rise in his batting eye (1.21 in 2009) has put the 5-foot-10, 204-pounder in position to make a batting average leap. A power spike looms, too, judging from the indicators. Ruiz has appeared more alert in the second half of the past two seasons; full-season focus brings new heights.
St. Louis has brought him along slowly, which should pay dividends in the long run. Despite a drop in his fantasy numbers in the second half, Rasmus' batting eye improved. As long as the Cardinals become more willing to play him against southpaws, which weren't a problem for him on the farm, this 23-year-old will begin to bloom quite beautifully.
A sub-.230 batting average overshadowed a mild rise in walk rate and a decline in strikeout rate. Gomez also drove the ball more frequently. A poor bunt hit percentage is partially at fault for the low average. He has essentially been handed a job. Additional maturation in said facets, even modestly so, could equal breakout for the thrifty Gomez, 24.
PETCO Park isn't the friendliest of homes - if you're wielding a bat, anyway. Headley's increased grounder percentage is disheartening, but he began to display plate discipline reminiscent of his minor league days. Take note of how he put it to use in Act 2009, Scene 2: .293 batting average, .421 slugging percentage. A flyball rate approaching 40 percent means continued growth for Headley, 25.
A mid- to upper-90s velocity hasn't translated into a high strikeouts-per-nine-frames rate. Continued erosion of his control is cause for concern. Look closer: a glimmer of hope. Opponents hit .342 on balls in play against him. Lindstrom, 29, posted a 61.6 percent strand rate. The righty dealt with a sprain in his elbow and took awhile to regain his velocity. He also worked on his mechanics and arsenal. It was a humbling year, but Lindstrom walked only four in his final 18 1/3 innings of 2009. Don't write him off yet.
About Nicholas Minnix
Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.
The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570. Follow @NicholasMinnix
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