Every year players in the MLB take their individual performances to a new level. Sometimes it’s a player who becomes a superstar, while others a back-up becomes an everyday regular.
Last season, players like Nate McLouth and Carlos Quentin went from relative unknowns to All-Stars with MVP upside. Chad Billingsley and Tim Lincecum established themselves as bona fide aces while Andre Ethier and Jed Lowrie both played their way into everyday roles.
Check out this year’s breakout candidates in the N.L. East in part four of a six-part series.
2009 N.L. East Breakout Candidates
Atlanta Braves: While many 23-year old professional baseball players will be bussed from city to city as they climb through the minors, the Braves Jair Jurrjens will be pitching this one in Atlanta as something of a veteran.
With 38 starts at baseball’s highest level under his belt already, Jurrjens could catapult himself into elite-starter status with a solid 2009 campaign. After winning 13 games and posting an ERA of 3.68 as a 22-year old in the A-T-L a season ago, Jurrjens looks primed to improve on both of those already admirable stats as he has already been through the rigors of an entire season.
Seeing his ERA fall under 3.50 and his win total upwards of 17 are both very real possibilities. Results such as those would surely help him find his way towards All-Star consideration as well as give the Braves a big boost they could severely use.
The Curacao native won’t be the only young player on the roster to take steps towards becoming a household name this season. Atlanta fans could also be delighted with what they see in on-field performances from young talents Martin Prado, Casey Kotchman, and Yunel Escobar.
All three have intriguing offensive upside, while both Kotchman and Escobar could also become elite defenders. Escobar could establish himself as one of the game’s premier shortstops with any kind of a power surge (something that isn’t unreasonable considering he hit 10 homers last year while playing the entire season at just 25).
Florida Marlins: When Jeremy Hermida launched a ball into the right field seats with the bases loaded for a grand slam in his first MLB at-bat, he became the first and only player in modern baseball history to do so.
Such an incredible event seemed to yell to the world that a great player was about to burst onto the baseball scene.
Instead of the promise of greatness that that hit delivered, Hermida has spent the first few years of his career being closer to mediocre than great. Sure, he posted some sweltering numbers as a 23-year old in 2007 when he slugged over .500 but his overall performance has been something of a let down.
Despite that high slugging percentage, he still only managed 17 home runs after being hampered by injuries.
Had he been able to build off of that performance in 2008 he would already be among the league’s most recognizable up and coming talents, instead of someone the Marlins considered trading this off season. After a disappointing year in which he hit just .249, Hermida needs to re-establish himself as an effective bat this year.
The Marlins decided to show their former first rounder some faith and instead dealt away Josh Willingham, his only real in-house competition in left field. Hermida has now had a little pressure lifted off his shoulders as a result.
Now consider that he’ll be entering his fifth Major League season and will spend the whole year as a 25-year old and there is no reason to think he can’t put things together and thrive in an already solid Marlins lineup. Hermida should eclipse 20 dingers for the first time, while also pulling his average up to a more acceptable mark.
Hermida isn’t the only Marlin who has yet to live up to advanced billing created by an inaugural big league campaign. Josh Johnson flashed brilliance early on in his big league career, and a couple years later still hasn’t become even a regular starter.
The only thing holding Johnson back is the injury bug, something he has yet to be able to shake. Johnson would be the ace of a staff as he has more electric stuff than any of the other arms in Florida.
After a successful September debut in 2005, he’s been limited to just 42 starts the last three seasons. When he has been healthy during that time he’s looked the part of an All-Star, posting an ERA as low as 3.10 when he made 24 starts in 2006.
Like Hermida, Johnson will play this season as a 25-year old. As last year came to a close it seemed like Johnson had put the injury issues behind him. If that is indeed the case Johnson will shine in the sunshine state, compiling in an ERA among the league’s best while easily winning at least 15 games in a tough N.L. East.
New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey powered his way through college relying mostly on an electric fastball. In fact, he used that very same speed ball to rocket his way through the minor leagues. Upon arrival in Queens though, his fastball wasn’t enough to survive anymore.
After refining command and off-speed pitches in the minors following a rocky start in 2007, Pelfrey returned to the Mets last year and provided them with a sound pitching option all season long. At just 24 he amassed more than 200 innings, won 13 games, and posted and ERA if 3.72.
Those numbers showed vast improvement and he was essentially still learning how to pitch as he’d never been truly challenged before reaching the MLB. With a full year under his belt Pelfrey could be primed to take another big step forward.
His strike out rate was very low last year, especially for a pitcher with his stuff, and he could start inching closer to striking out a guy an inning this summer. With an improved K rate his ERA and whip will both fall too, giving the Metropolitans one of the best one-two punches the National League can offer.
The Mets will also look to at least one other young player to bolster their roster. Daniel Murphy was toiling away in the minor leagues at this time last year, and now is the starting left fielder for a team many think can win the N.L. Pennant.
In a brief late-season showcase, Murphy showed Mets fans a glimpse of what could come as he posted a batting line of .313 .397 .470 in 49 games last year. He has a knack for getting on base and rarely strikes out which means he should be able to jump right in and help out the big club.
Had Murphy not exceeded rookie status by 6 at-bats he’d be a front runner for Rookie of the Year honors, but could still make his presence known to the entire baseball world by season’s end.
Philadelphia Phillies: Jayson Werth is probably best described as a late-bloomer. He is still a relative unknown, especially to those who don’t closely monitor Major League Baseball but Werth has become a player interwoven with Phillies success.
He originally debuted in the majors at just 23 but showed little to warrant being there over parts of the next four seasons. It wasn’t until he signed with Philly as a free agent that he began his ascent up the baseball ranks.
In two seasons in the city of brotherly love, Werth has put together a solid .282 .379 .483 resume and swatted 32 home runs in 228 games. Last year he posted a career high with a slugging percentage of .498 after crushing 24 homers- also a career high- all while appearing in 134 games.
The way Werth has produced for the world champions in his seasons there has earned him a starting role. Barring injury Werth will likely appear in more games this year. If he can reach 150 it wouldn’t be unthinkable for him to also reach the 30-HR plateau as he continues to demonstrate improvement.
Washington Nationals: Washington’s roster is littered with young talent on the verge of breaking out. While much of the talent won’t peak for a year or so, Lastings Milledge is one player who could make leaps forward this season.
The center fielder turned 24 on Apr. 5, and was able to more than hold his own in his first full-year last season. He’s going to continue to get better and learn to trust his skills more as he matures which could result in fits for any Nats opponents.
Fourteen home runs, 23 stolen bases, 65 and 61 runs and RBI all hardly seem like scary numbers at the big league level. Consider though that Milledge put those numbers together while many players his age were just a year removed from college ball.
That coupled with his already impressive to get on base indicates all those numbers are on the rise. He has showcased the ability to reach base at a clip 60-70 points better than his average, something many young hitters simply can not do.
Realizing that he is still mid-development makes those numbers from last year appear as a big warning sign of things to come as opposed to just mediocre MLB stats.
Milledge could bust out this season and show the world why he was a first-rounder in 2003, while making the Mets regret dealing him away at the same time.
If he can improve his average as he matures it is very possible that he could hit 20+ balls over the fence annually, while swiping 30 bases and becoming a threat to drive in and score well over the century mark.
Very few players have the ability to impact each of those categories so significantly and Milledge could begin to show the world that he can be comparable to the likes of Grady Sizemore and BJ Upton.
The Nats have another potential budding star who could shine a bit more brightly this season. Joel Hanrahan has electric stuff out of the pen, and has taken the closer’s role in Washington.
Hanrahan uses his mid-90s heat and wipe out slider to pile up strike outs. He K’ed 93 batters last year while working 84.1 innings. Hanrahan will reach at least 30 saves this year, and will make the All-Star team if he improves on control that allowed 42 walks a season ago.
He’ll likely see a lesser amount of innings as his role has been shifted to the back of games but if he starts pummeling the strike zone could become a reliever in the mold of Brad Lidge, capable of striking out over 100 guys annually.