Once again, the NL East is stacked with talent from the top teams. Despite the complete overhaul of the Miami Marlins after the disappointing 2012 season and the trade of Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets, this is still arguably one of the toughest divisions there is top to bottom.
The Washington Nationals have made a prominent rise to the top, winning the division last year through an incredible core of young pitchers and hitters, most notably 3rd-place Cy Young candidate Gio Gonzalez, fellow star pitcher Stephen Strasburg, and All-Star shortstop Ian Desmond.
Much like the quick rise of these stars, here are five players who will break out in 2013:
Ruggiano mid-swing in a game August 19, 2012. Ruggiano went 2 for 4 with a double.
Justin Ruggiano is the center fielder of the future for the Miami Marlins, at least according to Justin Ruggiano.
In late November, Ken Rosenthal, a baseball insider, tweeted that the Marlins need a center fielder, to which Ruggiano replied back “no we don’t. I got this.” Rosenthal loved it, and it clearly showed that confidence is not lacking in this player.
In 91 games as a role player last season, Ruggiano hit .313 with 13 home runs and a .374 OBP. One would think the addition of Juan Pierre would cut into his playing time significantly, but Ruggiano has experience at all three outfield positions and will assuredly play himself into one of the starting positions.
Ruggiano had an OPS of .909, which theoretically, if he had more at-bats, would have placed him 11th in the majors. That’s a higher OPS than big names such as David Wright and Albert Pujols.
He will turn 31 early in the 2013 season, which means he has the veteran experience to be playing in his prime, but is not yet old enough to be on the decline.
Although the Marlins’ season ultimately may not be so successful, expect big things now that Ruggiano will have a full season to showcase himself.
Harper in the dugout during a mid-September game.
After being called up to the majors with immense publicity, the 19-year-old showed off his incredible talent at times, but also struggled with his composure and consistency. Much to his credit, Harper always displayed incredible hustle, almost to the point of recklessness at times.
But by the end of August,his batting average stood at .254, following a low point of .245 on August 15.
However, Harper was a new man by September 1.
He seemed to finally settle in and get over the exhausting publicity, hitting .330 with seven home runs on the month to bring his end-of-season batting average to a respectable .270.
Harper approached a 20-20 year last season with 22 home runs and 18 stolen bases. With the rookie butterflies gone and nearly a year of experience, expect Harper to potentially approach a 30-30 year for the dangerous Nationals.
Ruf in dugout during game on September 25, 2012. Ruf had two hits including a home run.
The Philadelphia Phillies missed out on B.J. Upton this offseason, as he signed with the Atlanta Braves. With the trade of Hunter Pence last season, Philadelphia desperately needs a right-handed power hitter.
Yet the answer to their problem is already on the team.
Darin Ruf is the definition of raw power. The 6’3”, 220-pound Nebraska native is primed for a huge year as the starting left fielder for the Phillies. Last season, the 26-year-old won the Jim Bauman Trophy for leading the minors in home runs, with 38. He also won the Paul Owens Award as the top minor league position player in the Phillies’ farm system.
In the 33 major league at-bats he earned last season, he was also able to hit .333 with three home runs. He batted .317 in the minors last year, as well.
Ruf is a natural first baseman and must learn how to play left field. But regardless of his defensive capabilities, Ruf can hit for average and power. Thus, he will hit himself into the Phillies’ starting lineup this year, and likely for years to come.
Minor mid-motion during a game on September 29, 2012. He pitched 6.1 shutout innings.
Mike Minor, the 25-year-old for the Atlanta Braves, is already an experienced starting pitcher, and has already had quality major league experience.
However, he is on the verge of becoming one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball.
On paper, his first full season last year was decent, as Minor finished with a moderate 11-10 record and 4.12 ERA. But this does not tell the story of just how good of a pitcher he can be.
The Mike Minor of the first half of last season had a 5-6 record and 5.97 ERA, as well as a 1.42 WHIP. Conversely, the Mike Minor of the second half was 6-4 with an incredible 2.16 ERA and 0.87 WHIP.
Most pitchers tend to tire and decline in the second half of the season. Not only did Minor not decline but he also bounced back from a paltry first half to produce those great numbers, showing his true confidence and mental toughness. By the end of the year, his BAA was a formidable .232.
Minor is a healthy, consistent 175-inning pitcher. The one caveat against him is that he gave up 26 home runs last season. It is unusually high for him based on previous seasons, and he must cut that number down if he wants to maximize his success.
If Minor can keep up with the ridiculous form he had in the second half of last season, he could have an amazing year.
Wheeler pitching at the 2010 XM All-Star Futures Game. He pitched one shutout inning.
Zack Wheeler, the highly rated prospect whom the New York Mets acquired in a straight trade with the San Francisco Giants for Carlos Beltran in July 2011, is finally ready to make his major league debut.
The 6’4”, 22-year-old phenom has a very long, lean pitcher’s body. He mixes a high-90s fastball with a very good curveball. Beginning the year in AA and ending in AAA, Wheeler posted a total of 148 strikeouts in 149.0 innings, as well as allowing a mere four home runs all year.
He also posted a 3.26 ERA in AA and a 3.27 ERA in his brief AAA stint, which is as close to consistent between levels as one can get.
However, it should be noted that if Wheeler did make the opening day roster, which GM Sandy Alderson subtly hinted is a very slight possibility, he would be eligible for Super Two arbitration three years down the road.
To put as simply as possible, players file for arbitration after being in the majors for between 3-6 years. Super Two arbitration means that if Wheeler is in the majors for two years and 86 days, then if other very likely clauses occur, he can still file for arbitration.
Quite simply, the cash-strapped Mets aren’t willing to let that happen, and will likely wait until the first possible day beyond that deadline to call him up. This will buy them an extra year of Wheeler’s services before they worry about his arbitration eligibility. They did the same thing last year with Matt Harvey.
Regardless of when it happens, Wheeler should get called up at some point this season and prove why he is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.