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?
Ryan Madson, relief pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies
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.
Michael Bourn, outfielder, Houston Astros
Power breakout in store for Yunel
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
Ian Stewart, third baseman, Colorado Rockies
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.
Yunel Escobar, shortstop, Atlanta Braves
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.
Matt Cain, starting pitcher, San Francisco Giants
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.
Ubaldo Jimenez, starting pitcher, Colorado Rockies
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.
Edwin Jackson, starting pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks
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
Geovany Soto, catcher, Chicago Cubs
Destination known? Rebound for Ruby Soto
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.
Carlos Ruiz, catcher, Philadelphia Phillies
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.
Colby Rasmus, outfielder, St. Louis Cardinals
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.
Carlos Gomez, outfielder, Milwaukee Brewers
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.
Chase Headley, outfielder, San Diego Padres
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.
Matt Lindstrom, relief pitcher, Houston Astros
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.
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.