MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Players Headed for Breakout Seasons

Evan Walker@@EvanTheJetCorrespondent IMarch 21, 2012

MLB Predictions 2012: 10 Under-the-Radar Players Headed for Breakout Seasons

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    With the first day of spring finally upon us and the sweet, seductive melody of Tim Kurkjian's voice teasing our eardrums to the point of insanity, it is finally safe to say: Baseball is back.

    The harsh, cold offseason of 2012 was a memorable one for baseball fans around the world.

    Miami went through an extreme makeover, while "The Machine," Albert Pujols, took his talents to that Los Angeles team that isn't the Dodgers...or are they in Anaheim?

    Prince Fielder followed in his daddy's monstrous craters of footsteps right to Detroit, while Yoenis Cespedes and Yu Darvish caused Newt Gingrich to have a heart attack because "they stole hard-working Americans' jobs." *

    It was a hectic winter, to say the very least.

    The 2012 MLB season is all bout new faces in new places, but let's not forget about those players who didn't make it on the SportsCenter sidebar. Never lose sight of that kid in gym class who quietly trains all winter so he can stop getting dunked on by the jocks. That kid can be dangerous.

    Which under-the-radar players are planning a sneak attack on the baseball world? It's impossible to know for sure, but it's acceptable to make a few guesses.

    * Not a real quote....or is it?

Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

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    Not only does Alex Gordon have the coolest cross-armed, smug pose in the MLB, he can swing the bat, too.

    Sure, Gordon had a really good year for the Royals in 2011 (.303 / 23 HR / 87 RBI)—some might even call it his breakout season—but something in the outfielder's poker face tells me that Gordon has a lot more in his hand than he showed us in 2011.

    With a steadily improving lineup beginning to give Gordon the necessary protection to take his game to the next level, it might be time for Royals fans to re-think those Melky Cabrera jerseys (trust me) and start practicing those "MVP" chants for their leadoff hitter, because he is capable of having that great of a season.

    He's not a traditional leadoff man, and at some point in time, Ned Yost might have to move the surprising slugger to a more potent spot in the lineup, but Gordon is likely to reach his peak in 2012.

    Prediction: (.317 / 29 HR / 104 RBI)

Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners

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    This one was easy.

    Jesus Montero, along with everyone else on the planet, may never understand why his beloved Yankees shipped him as far away as possible in order to acquire a mediocre Michael Pineda, but one thing is for sure: They are going to regret it.

    On the flip side of that coin, the Seattle Mariners have finally found the second coming of Jesus. The first being Ken Griffey Jr., of course.

    Finally, Ichiro can pass the torch to a newcomer and hang up the cleats without feeling guilty for leaving his team to die a slow, painful death.

    And finally, Jesus Montero can play a full Major League season in the hitter's paradise that is the DH spot without hearing Jorge Posada whine about how "nobody loves him."

    Montero is going to be a stud. Hopefully, in the years to come, the Mariners build around Montero and give him a little more protection, but until then, he'll just have to do it all himself.

    Prediction: (.298 / 34 HR / 97 RBI )

Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

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    A little job security can go a long way.

    Now that Jason Motte has the comfort of knowing exactly what he'll be used for in 2012, he can walk with a little more swagger in his step, a little more hip in his hop, a little more...yeah, you get the point.

    He's got the stuff. He's got the kick-ass beard. He's got the World Series Kodak moment. All he needs now is to befriend Charlie Sheen, and we'd be looking at Brian Wilson II, without the spandex.

    Motte has been steadily improving over the past few years, with his strikeouts increasing and ERA falling. With an improved pitching staff to set the table and an offense that is still capable of winning games, the ride to the top should be a smooth one for Motte.

    Now is the time for the converted catcher to establish himself as one of the top closers in the game.

    Prediction: (2.99 ERA / 42 Saves / 82 K)

Martin Prado, Atlanta Braves

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    Describing Martin Prado is sometimes painfully cliché. It's nearly impossible to talk about the Venezuelan without mentioning his work ethic, sportsmanship, dedication, penmanship and undeniable charm with the ladies.

    Unfortunately, Prado's stat line did not reflect his true baseball ability in 2011.

    Sidelined by a staph infection for 31 games, Prado was never able to get back the swing that made him a household name in Braves country. In case you forgot, the 2010 All-Star came in ninth place in the NL MVP voting.

    With the way Prado is swinging the bat in spring training, I'd bet on him knocking that chip off his shoulder and right out of the ballpark.

    Prediction: (.318 / 25 HR / 89 RBI )

Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Did the cover photo give it away?

    Yovani Gallardo, at 25 years old, has been a picture-perfect image of what a team's No. 2 starter should look like. He eats innings like Ryan Braun eats HGH, he maintains an above-average ERA and WHIP for an entire season and he's dependable in the postseason.

    In 2011, YoGa got off to a shaky start in his first seven games, but after those first few outings, the Brew Crew pitcher was lights out with a 2.87 ERA and striking out 177 batters over 166 innings.

    2012 could be the year that Gallardo puts it all together and gives teammate Zack Greinke a run for his money (and probably a panic attack) by making his case for the title of "team ace."

    Prediction: (2.39 ERA / 212 K / 20 wins)

Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Brandon Morrow, the Stephen Strasburg for baseball hipsters, has quietly become one of the best strikeout pitchers in the major leagues.

    In 2011, Morrow's 4.72 ERA was far from pretty and he walked far too many batters, but if he can keep making batters whiff and cut down on on the walks, we may be looking at a future superstar.

    No, Morrow probably won't turn the world upside down with a Cy Young-caliber season in 2012, but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to predict a significant drop in ERA and WHIP while keeping that K/9 rate above 10. The Canada kid is 27 years old, he's in his baseball prime and he's ready to pull off that breakout season that we've been predicting for the past three years.

    Prediction: (3.19 ERA / 1.19 WHIP / 225 K)

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    This prediction may be more of a stretch than others, but 2012 will be Chris Young's 30/30 season.

    Young was one of the few players on the 2011 Diamondbacks who saw a dip in production during their remarkable season; in fact, his numbers got worse in just about every batting category known to man.

    In 2010, Young came just a few homers and stolen bases short of a 30/30 season, but, following in his own footsteps of 2007, he followed that All-Star season by laying an egg the next year.

    Newly-acquired Jason Kubel and fellow breakout candidate Paul Goldschmidt should be huge helping hands in Young's pursuit of a 30/30 season.

    I know, I know, spring training stats mean very little, but I'm just saying...take a look.

    Prediction: (.269 AVG / 31 HR / 33 SB)

Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland Athletics

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    Usually, the only imports from Cuba that are guaranteed success in the states are expensive cigars and cheap narcotics.

    That was before Yoenis Cespedes.

    Yes, he's going to strike out a lot in his first season in the MLB, but it's hard for me to imagine a scenario where Cespedes doesn't hit at least 30 bombs in 2012.

    Don't make eye contact with the centerfielder, because you're bound to turn into stone. The Oakland Athletics have a bona fide beast on their hands, and no, it is not Manny Ramirez.

    Prediction: (.273 / 30 HR / 86 RBI)

David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Technically, David Freese had his breakout campaign in October of 2011, while he helped the Cardinals trample over everybody in their path to a world championship.

    However, even after his insanely dominant playoff run of last season, there are still some people who obviously have terrible cable service, because they're calling the third baseman's record-setting run a fluke.

    If Freese can stay healthy over the course of a 162-game season, he will solidify himself as a household name and one of the game's next superstars—plain and simple.

    Prediction: (.305 AVG / 21 HR / 80 RBI)

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

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    He can hit. He can run. He can field. He can walk on water. He can cure—wait...I'm getting ahead of myself.

    We've heard the same story of Jason Heyward's awesome rookie campaign followed by an injury-riddled sophomore slump a million times, so let's cut to the chase.

    I don't buy into the fact that Heyward, the kid that the legendary Hank Aaron knighted the savior of baseball, can have one lousy season and disappear forever. There's no doubting the height of the ceiling for the 22-year-old right fielder; all we can do is sit back and wait for the J-Hey Kid to reach that ceiling.

    Let's not forget, Heyward is still a few years away from his prime, so he has plenty of time to perfect his swing and become the superstar that he is capable of being.

    Based on testimonies from coaches and fellow players, 2012 is starting to look like the first great year of a great career for Heyward, but even if that statement proves false, I'm sure he can find success in some other career...because Jason Heyward can do anything.

    Prediction: (.297 / 27 HR / 89 RBI)

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