Well, spring training is upon us, and if your like me, your looking at your favorite team right now and wondering if No. 99 can have any chance of becoming your team's number one this year.
While the answer to that question many times is a short and abrupt no, each year there are surprises and players who improve their game to become breakthrough stars.
That being said I would like to offer up my selections for the pre-season breakout team.
(Before reading, keep in mind these are players who have not taken that big step towards becoming superstars, and even in some cases solid players, which will make this list all the more debatable).
The starting lineup
Howie Kendrick, second base (Angels)
Adam Jones, center field (Orioles)
Jesus Flores, catcher (Nationals)
Joey Votto, first base (Reds)
Mark Reynolds, third base (Diamondbacks)
Alexi Ramirez, shortstop (White Sox)
Chase Headley, left field (Padres)
Shin-Soo Choo, right field (Indians)
Zack Grienke, starting pitcher (Royals)
So there is the starting lineup, and these are the reasons why I think each one of these players will have breakout seasons this year.
Jesus Flores (Nationals): Flores suffered through an injury-plagued 2008 season, but despite only playing in 90 games, he still finished 11th overall in runs batted in for catchers.
Flores also had 18 doubles last season. All of those project to a breakout year for the Nationals backstop, especially if some of the talent around him (Lastings Milledge, Ryan Zimmerman) can also have breakout seasons.
Joey Votto (Reds) : Votto got his first real taste of big league action last season, appearing in 158 games for Cincinnati. Votto posted a solid rookie year, hitting over 20 home runs, while driving in 84.
Most impressive about him, however, was his .284 batting average. If he can continue to figure out major league pitching this season, the average and RBI should go up and Votto should start to anchor the Reds offense.
Howie Kendrick (Angels): Kendrick had a great minor league career in the Angels organization, even winning a batting title, but the results for the big club have only been OK so far. However, he has hit .300 in parts of two big league seasons, which should lead to him getting his first real chance to play regularly this year for the Halos.
Look for Kendrick to keep his average near the .300 clip, but look for his biggest contribution to be in the extra base hit category. He has a combined 50 doubles in 180 games over the last two years, so getting a full season under his belt should give him a good chance to get around 40 or so this year, which i'm sure the Angels would love to see.
Mark Reynolds (Diamondbacks): Reynolds supplied power to an Arizona squad that did not have much last season, leading the team in both home runs and RBI (if you subtract the mid-season acquisition of Adam Dunn). Reynolds is still a relatively unknown man outside of Arizona however, but I think this will be the year he changes all of that. If he can cut down on his strikeouts (he set the league record last season) and raise his average, that in turn should make him a more complete player, and the centerpiece of the Diamondback lineup in 2009.
Alexi Ramirez (White Sox): Assuming he actually does make the switch from second base to shortstop, Ramirez has as much potential as anyone on this list. After surprising pretty much everyone in the White Sox organization in 2008, hitting 21 home runs and posting a respectable .290 average.
Another year of experience in understanding major league pitching should help Ramirez post even better numbers, though his potential adjustment to shortstop will be interesting to watch from a defensive perspective.
Chase Headley (Padres): In a season without many bright spots, the debut of Padres top prospect Headley was a welcome addition for many San Diego fans in 2008.
Although he will have to cut down on his strikeouts before he may make a huge impact, Headley is primed to have a breakthrough season. On a Padres team lacking top talent, he should get a chance to contribute early and often, so look for Headley to end the season around the 20 home run 80 RBI range.
Adam Jones (Orioles): Jones, the former Seattle Mariner prospect, got his first full year of big league action under his belt in 2008. After struggling early in the season, Jones like the Orioles team posted a solid second half and finally seemed to be turning a corner.
Jones has also come into spring training this season having added 25 pounds of muscle, so he obviously means to improve his home run and rbi totals, which I think he can do. Look for Jones to emerge this season as a solid building block for the Orioles future.
Shin-Soo Choo (Indians): See-Saw Who you might ask? Choo flew under everyone's radar last season with the Indians, despite having a solid 2008 campaign, hitting 14 home runs, while batting .309.
Although it may be a stretch to see Choo improve on his power numbers, hitting .300 with twenty or so home runs is not unreasonable for the fifth year player. So let's make this pick my smoking gun special, or whatever you want to call it, it's still not to late to jump on this Choo Choo train.
Zack Grienke (Royals)
Jesse Litsch (Blue Jays)
Edwin Jackson (Tigers)
Yovani Gallardo (Brewers)
Scott Baker (Twins)
All of these pitchers are young, and are coming off solid seasons in which they all won at least 10 games (with the exception of Gallardo, who would of stood a good chance if he were not hurt). The key for all young pitchers is the same.
Can they be consistent and stay away from the injury bug that has taken so many Sandy Koufaxes and turned them into Mark Priors? I believe all of these pitchers will make big strides forward in 2009.
Closer: Kerry Wood (Indians) It's hard to believe someone who has been around as long as Wood would be on a "break out" list but I believe he will establish himself as one of the major's better closers by seasons end.
After doing a decent job in the role last season for Chicago, I believe he will only get better with another year of experience under his belt.