MLB Power Rankings: The Top 50 Most Improved MLB Players of 2011

Dmitriy Ioselevich@dioselevSenior Analyst IIIMay 11, 2011

MLB Power Rankings: The Top 50 Most Improved MLB Players of 2011

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    Watching young players grow from contributor to superstar is one of the best parts of being a baseball fan. We read the hype, we watch them struggle, and finally, when it seems like all hope is lost, they bust out and become ingrained in our memories.

    The players on this list aren't superstars yet, and many of them still have a long way to go to realize their full potential, but they're certainly headed in the right direction.

    I've taken a look at 25 up-and-coming pitchers (sorry Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez) and 25 position players (sorry Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Upton) who have improved this season.

    To qualify players must:

    • Be 26 years old or younger. Sorry, but if you're 27 you're not a prospect anymore.
    • Have appeared in a major league game this season. Tough luck Dominic Brown and Mike Moustakas.

Trevor Cahill, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    Everyone knew Cahill was good. Everyone even knew he was an ace in the making. But few could have expected the 23-year-old righty to evolve into not just the best pitcher in Oakland, but into one of the best pitchers in the game.

    After two consecutive seasons of at least 30 starts and an All-Star appearance last year, Cahill has raised his game to another level. He's undefeated at 6-0 and leads the AL with a 1.72 ERA. His strikeouts are up (4.5, 5.4, 7.7 SO/9 IP) and his walks are down (3.6, 2.9, 2.8 BB/9 IP), and hitters can't seem to find a way to beat him.

    Cahill is the early favorite for AL Cy Young. 

Jair Jurrjens, SP, Atlanta Braves

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    Jurrjens, 25, was a valuable part of the Braves rotation, tossing over 500 quality innings over the last three seasons. But this year he’s been pitching like the ace of the staff.

    He leads all of baseball with a 1.50 ERA and is still undefeated in five starts. Atlanta has bigger-name pitchers, but none is pitching better than Jurrjens right now. He’s making that 2007 trade to the Detroit Tigers for Edgar Renteria look like a steal.

Jamie Garcia, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Hard to imagine that a candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2010 could get better in his sophomore season. But that’s exactly what Garcia has done this season.

    Helping to fill in the void left by the injured Adam Wainwright, the 24-year-old Garcia is undefeated in seven starts with a 1.99 ERA. He’s posting more strikeouts and less walks than his rookie campaign, and has once again given the Cardinals an incredible 1-2 punch atop the rotation.

Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle Mariners

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    The big-name pitcher in Seattle has always been Felix Hernandez, but people might want to start paying attention to the 22-year-old Pineda.

    The Mariners signed the rookie as an amateur free agent in 2005 out of the Dominican Republic. He’s currently 4-2 with a 2.84 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 44.1 innings, and is an early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year.

Tommy Hanson, SP, Atlanta Braves

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    Hanson, 24, was always regarded as the long-term solution to the pitching void left by Atlanta greats Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009 and was nearly an All-Star in 2010, but he just keeps getting better.

    The big righty currently has a 2.63 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, and has upped his strikeouts to one per inning. He doesn't get as much attention as the Josh Johnsons and Stephen Strasburgs of the world, but if he keeps pitching like this, he will.

Max Scherzer, SP, Detroit Tigers

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    Scherzer, 26, was a big-name prospect after getting drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the 11th overall pick in the 2006 MLB draft, but inconsistency and a lack of offensive support prevented him from dominating the way everyone thought he would.

    He joined the Detroit Tigers last season as part of the big Curtis Granderson trade and had a solid year, making 31 starts and compiling a 3.50 ERA. This year, however, he’s rivaling teammate Justin Verlander for ace status. He’s tied with Trevor Cahill of the Oakland Athletics for the best record in baseball (6-0) and has lowered his ERA to 3.20.

Justin Masterson, SP, Cleveland Indians

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    The Indians thought they were getting a No. 3 or 4 starter when they acquired Masterson from the Red Sox last season in the Victor Martinez deal. But lately, the tall, lanky 26-year-old has been pitching like an ace.

    He’s undefeated at 5-0 and has a 2.11 ERA that easily eclipses his career high of 4.50. What’s he doing that is making him so successful? The righty has only issued 13 walks in 47 innings, a far cry from when he was walking a batter almost every two innings.

Josh Tomlin, SP, Cleveland Indians

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    The Indians weren’t supposed to have enough pitching to seriously contend this season, but Tomlin wasn’t supposed to be this good.

    The 26-year-old is having a terrific season and has already nearly surpassed his numbers from his rookie season last year. In 46.2 innings in 2011 Tomlin has a 2.70 ERA and a microscopic 0.86 WHIP that is second only to Dan Haren of the Los Angeles Angles. He’s not a power pitcher, but if he keeps up his current rate of 1.7 BB/9, he’s going to be successful for a long time. 

Gio Gonzalez, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    The Athletics were thrilled to get their hands on Gonzalez in 2008 after the lefty was bounced around from Chicago to Philadelphia and back to Chicago again. He was tremendous in 2010 in his third season in Oakland, throwing 200.2 innings with a 3.23 ERA in 33 starts.

    Gonzalez, 25, has been even better this year. In seven starts he has a 2.68 ERA and has lowered his walk totals, traditionally the problem area for a pitcher with terrific stuff.

Jhoulys Chacin, SP, Colorado Rockies

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     Chacin, 23, came out of nowhere last season to make 21 starts for the Rockies in addition to seven appearances out of the bullpen. He was modestly successful, with a 9-11 record and a 3.28 ERA.

    The Rockies decided to give Chacin a permanent spot in the rotation and he has rewarded them handsomely. In 47 innings this year he has a 2.68 ERA and a shutout to his name. Chacin has stopped trying to strike everyone out and is focusing on just getting hitters out in any way possible. The results speak for themselves.

Brett Anderson, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    It’s tough to keep track of which young Oakland pitcher is really the best, but Anderson is definitely making himself a candidate with the way he’s been pitching and is justifying why scouts were slobbering over him in the 2007 Dan Haren trade.

    The 23-year-old lefty has picked up where he left off in 2010 and is currently 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 53.1 innings. He's on pace to have a career year if he stays healthy.

Zach Britton, SP, Baltimore Orioles

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    The Orioles have been waiting a few years for their top pitching prospects to hit the show. Britton, 23, is at the top of that list and is making Baltimore fans giddy with his performance so far this season.

    As a rookie he is 5-2 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Britton is still very raw and could conceivably become the ace of the Orioles staff if he keeps pitching like this. He’ll get consideration for AL Rookie of the Year.

Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves

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    You could have a lively debate over which Atlanta Braves pitcher is having the best season. But check out what Beachy, probably the least well known of the five Braves starters, has been doing this year.

    The 24-year-old righty leads the team with 45 strikeouts and is third with a 2.98 ERA. His 0.97 WHIP is fifth among all NL pitchers. After being used mostly as a spot-starter in 2010 there’s little doubt that Beachy is now in the Atlanta rotation for good.

Wade Davis, SP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Davis, 25, may not be the main pitcher keeping the Rays in contention, but his contributions can’t be underestimated.

    After making 29 starts last season, the righty has lowered his ERA to 3.07 (from 4.07) and is doing a better job of getting out of jams. He’ll never be an ace, but he’s a quality No. 2 or 3 who is signed through 2017.

Bud Norris, SP, Houston Astros

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    Roy Oswalt may be gone, but that doesn't mean the Astros don't have any quality pitching. Norris, 26, is the best of the bunch.

    In one short season he's made the transition from a back-of-the-rotation starter into a potential ace. He leads Houston in strikeouts (52), quality starts (five) and ERA (3.16), yet is somehow fourth in innings (42.2). The Astros are likely being cautious with their most prized pitching possession, who is under team control through at least 2015. 

Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    The main reason the Rays were willing to trade Matt Garza, a solid pitcher in his own right, is because of this guy right here.

    Hellickson, 24, was the most highly regarded pitcher in the Rays system and made his major league debut last season, appearing in 10 games and making four starts. This year he has a permanent place in the rotation and is 3-2 with a 3.72 ERA and 1.38 WHIP. The scary part is that he hasn’t even begun to approach his potential.

Rick Porcello, SP, Detroit Tigers

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    Porcello, 22, met all expectations during his rookie season in 2009 when he finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, making 31 starts and compiling a 3.96 ERA. However, he struggled last season with his ERA ballooning to 4.92 and injuries limiting him to just 162.2 innings.

    This year the righty is back to pitching like the ace everyone thought he would be. In just seven starts he has a 3.67 ERA and is striking out batters at a career-high rate of 5.8 SO/9 IP. 

Kyle McClellan, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

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     McClellan, 26, was a serviceable bullpen piece for the Cardinals the last three years, making 202 appearances and recording six saves. But a season-ending injury to Adam Wainwright pushed McClellan into the rotation and he’s making St. Louis coaches wonder why he wasn’t moved there sooner.

    In six starts he’s undefeated (5-0) and has a 3.30 ERA in 43.2 innings. The righty has changed his approach to hitters and his peripherals show a pitcher who is more concerned with getting hitters out than piling up strikeouts.

Chris Perez, RP, Cleveland Indians

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    It’s hard to win when you don’t have a closer, and Perez is a big reason why the Indians have been able to stay in so many games.

    The 25-year-old righty already has 10 saves in 17 appearances and has pitched well with a 2.81 ERA. It’s his second season as Cleveland’s full-time closer and Perez looks like he’s only getting better. Don’t be surprised to see him lead the league in saves.

Ian Kennedy, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Yankees didn’t wait long enough for Kennedy to develop before they traded him away in the Curtis Granderson deal in 2009. Brian Cashman might want a mulligan on that one.

    Kennedy, 26, is having another outstanding season for the Diamondbacks. He’s 3-1 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 53 innings. The biggest change for the right-hander is that he’s cut down his walk totals (2.5 BB/9 in 2011 vs. 3.2 BB/9 in 2010) and has kept the ball in the park (0.5 HR/9 in 2011 vs. 1.2 HR/9 in 2010).

Drew Storen, RP, Washington Nationals

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    Storen, 23, wasting no time making it to the majors after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. He was a spot-closer as a rookie in 2010, recording five saves in 54 appearances.

    This year he’s taken over closing duties full-time and is next to unhittable. The righty has surrendered just one earned run all season in 19.2 innings (0.46 ERA) and has already topped his 2010 total with eight saves. This may be one of the best young closers in the game. 

Jonny Venters, RP, Atlanta Braves

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    The Braves rode Venters to the tune of 83 innings over 73 appearances last season, and the 26-year-old lefty rewarded his coaches with a 1.95 ERA and 10.1 SO/9 IP.

    This year Venters is back in a set-up role for teammate Craig Kimbrel and is just as unhittable, dropping his ERA to 0.92 and his WHIP to 0.66. He's only walked two batters all season.

Mike Dunn, RP, Florida Marlins

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    Leo Nunez, who would've been on this list if he wasn't 27 years old, may get all the saves, but it's Dunn who does all the dirty work.

    The 25-year-old lefty is quickly becoming one of the best relievers in this game. In 14.1 innings Dunn has a 1.26 ERA and 17 strikeouts. His WHIP is 0.98.

Jordan Walden, RP, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    The Angels’ search for a closer didn’t last very long as Walden ran away from the competition.

    The 23-year-old righty has a 2.20 ERA in 17 games with six saves. Walden has incredible stuff and may make Anaheim fans forget about K-Rod if he keeps pitching like this.

Jordan Zimmerman, SP, Washington Nationals

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    Stephen Strasburg will always be the headline pitcher in Washington, but Zimmerman is pretty good in his own right.

    The 24-year-old righty has made 30 career starts in a Nationals uniform and, though he still has a long way to go, he’s beginning to look like a quality No. 2 or 3. He’ll have to lower his 4.10 ERA by not pitching to contact as much, but the talent is there. 

Matt Kemp, Of, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Hard to believe that Matt Kemp is only 26 years old, but then you realize that he’s been in a Dodgers uniform since 2006 and is getting better by the day.

    In 2011, Kemp seems to have taken the next step into superstardom. His .336/.415/.543 batting line is downright Pujolsian and he’s on pace to break all his offensive career-highs, including stolen bases.

Mitch Moreland, 1B, Texas Rangers

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    The Rangers gave up Justin Smoak, their first baseman of the future, partly because they really wanted to get Cliff Lee, and partly because they knew how good this guy was.

    Moreland, 25, has been solid as an every-day starter for the Rangers. His .302/.378/.547 line has helped offset the loss of Josh Hamilton, and he has a surprising amount of power with five home runs and nine doubles in just 106 at-bats.

Justin Smoak, 1B, Seattle Mariners

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    Smoak, 24, was considered one of the hottest prospects in the game when he was taken with the 11th overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft. But after batting just .209 with a .353 slugging percentage in 70 games for Texas, scouts began to wonder what was wrong.

    One year later and Smoak is the centerpiece of the Mariners offense. His .291/.398/.524 line is consistent with the best first basemen in the game and he has a strong shot at finishing with 30 home runs and 30 doubles.

Ike Davis, 1B, New York Mets

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    For Mets fans, there’s not much to cheer about these days, but it’s not Ike’s fault. The young first basemen has followed up on his strong rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season.

    Davis, 24, is batting .302 with a .925 OPS and already has seven home runs and eight doubles on the season. He’s also done a terrific job cutting down his strikeouts from a gaudy 139 in 2010 to just 31 so far in 2011. He’s going to have to carry a large part of the Mets offense in the future, but it looks like he’s more than capable.

Alex Avila, C, Detroit Tigers

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    Avila, 24, was stuck in a backup catching role for the Tigers, playing in just 133 total games from 2009-10. He’s taken over full-time now and, if he keeps hitting like this, he’s not going anywhere.

    He has an impressive .282/.336/.553 line and has almost equaled his career-high in home runs (seven) in about a third of the at-bats. If there’s one part of his game that Avila needs to work on, it’s his patience. He’s drawn just nine walks so far.

Matt Joyce, Of, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Joyce, 26, is a former utility player who came over to Tampa Bay from Detroit as part of the Edwin Jackson trade in 2008. He was pushed into a full-time role this season with so many Rays starters playing elsewhere, and he hasn’t disappointed.

    He leads the AL in hitting with a .356 batting average and has flashed a nice combination of power, speed and defense. He’s playing like an All-Star right now, but can he keep it up?

Brett Wallace, 1B, Houston Astros

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    Wallace, 24, was traded three times in the span of little over a year, finally ending up in Houston at last year’s trading deadline. With the way he’s been hitting this year it’s a wonder any team let go of him.

    The first basemen has a smooth .336/.400/.466 line and slowly developing power. He has just two home runs on the season, but odds are a few of those nine doubles will start flying deeper once Wallace masters his stroke.

Billy Butler, DH, Kansas City Royals

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    Butler isn’t exactly a prospect, per se. He has more than 500 games under his belt and a career line of .298/.361/.455. But although he’s no where near to reaching his career-highs of 21 home runs and 51 doubles set in 2009, he’s improved one very important part of his game this season: plate discipline.

    Butler’s on-base percentage has gone up each season and he’s currently sitting at .390 despite only batting .285. He’s only struck out 16 times and if he keeps it up he’s going to set a career-low in strikeouts and a career-high in walks.

Neil Walker, 2B, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The Pirates suddenly have some good, young players and they're playing like they want to have the franchise's first winning season since the 1980s. Walker is not the most well-known of the bunch, but he's having a solid season manning second base for Pittsburgh.

    Walker, 25, has an impressive .789 OPS and should shatter his career-highs in home runs (12) and doubles (29) if he stays healthy. He's also regarded as an outstanding defender and has the best range factor in the NL at his position.

Peter Bourjos, Of, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    Bourjos, 24, was something of an afterthought for the Halos last season, filling in for Juan Rivera when the outfielder went down with an injury and pinch-running in tight games. But he’s established himself as an everyday player this year.

    He’s hitting .291 with a .794 OPS despite not being regarded as a particularly good hitter. He’s already matched his career-highs in hits, doubles and triples, with more than 100 games to go. The only cause for concern is that the speedster is just 3-7 in stolen base attempts.

Matt LaPorta, 1B, Cleveland Indians

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    LaPorta, 26, was supposed to be the next big thing when he was taken with the 7th overall pick in the 2007 amateur draft. He struggled in the minors and was eventually traded to Cleveland in the C.C. Sabathia megadeal. Now, nearly four years later, the slugging first basemen is showing why so many scouts were drooling over him.

    He’s upped his offensive output to a .263/.348/.475 line, all well above his career averages, and has cut down on his strikeouts. The power still has a long way to go, but if LaPorta keeps getting the bat on the ball, good things will happen.

Mark Trumbo, 1B, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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    Trumbo, 25, wasn't supposed to see much playing time this season. But with Mike Napoli gone and Kendry Morales still out, the first base job fell to him. To his credit, Trumbo seized it.

    After recording only one hit all of last season, Trumbo is batting .270 with a .797 OPS. He has six home runs and surprisingly decent speed for someone of his size (6'4", 220 pounds).

Emilio Bonifacio, Of, Florida Marlins

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    Like so many other names on this list, Bonifacio made a living as a utility man. The 26-year-old has played all over the diamond for the Marlins, except for first base and catcher. Usually that means limited playing time, but Bonifacio is playing as much as any starter in the majors and playing well too.

    Suiting up predominantly in left field, Bonfiacio is hitting a career-high .301 and getting on-base at a high clip. He has no power to speak of, but his speed and defense make him a key part of the Marlins lineup.

Brennan Boesch, Of, Detroit Tigers

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    Boesch, 26, came out of nowhere last season to have a big year for the Tigers and finish fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. Detroit was impressed enough to hand the left-handed slugger a starting spot, and Boesch has just kept mashing the ball.

    He’s raised his batting average to .298 and, most impressively, has severely cut down on his strikeouts. Once he gets his power back he’s going to be a very dangerous hitter.

Darwin Barney, 2B, Chicago Cubs

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    When you name your son Darwin Barney you know your kid is either going to end up being a punching bag or a professional athlete. Lucky for Darwin’s parents, this guy turned out to be a pretty good athlete.

    Barney, 25, has taken over at second base for Ryan Theriot and is hitting a team-high .331. He may not have much power, but the 5’10” righty makes up for it with speed and strong defense.

Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs

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    Castro was billed as the next great shortstop, and so far the 21-year-old has lived up to that billing. He finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting and now has his eyes set on All-Star campaign.

    Castro is hitting a clean .306 and already has four steals on the season. Not bad for the youngest player in the entire league.

Jonathan Herrera, 2B, Colorado Rockies

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    Herrera, 26, struggled to claim his spot in the Rockies lineup, spending 2008-10 moving back and forth between the minors and the big club. But in 2011 he finally entrenched himself as the starting second baseman, and he's hitting like he doesn't want to go anywhere.

    His .748 OPS is good for a middle infielder and he has enough speed (four steals) to keep it up. He's also seen some time at shortstop and can play third base if needed. 

Michael Brantley, Of, Cleveland Indians

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    Brantley, 23, was a bit of an afterthought in the Sabathia-LaPorta trade, but the Indians will happily take him if he keeps producing like this.

    The left-handed outfielder is batting .294 and is already close to matching his career-high in nearly every offensive category. He's also a pretty good outfielder and may make Grady Sizemore expendable over the next two months. 

Andrew McCutchen, Of, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    McCutchen, 24, is a superstar in the making and we're in year three of his development. So what has the slick speedster learned lately?

    He's struggled to hit the ball so far this season, but one encouraging sign is how much more power he has. In 2009 he hit 12 home runs and 26 doubles. In 2010 he hit 16 home runs and 35 doubles. So far in 2011 he has seven home runs and six doubles. Looks like he's trending in the right direction.

Drew Stubbs, Of, Cincinnati Reds

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    Stubbs, 26, is another multi-talented player who's still trying to bring everything together. He had his first full major league season last year and rewarded the Reds with 22 home runs and 30 steals.

    In 2011 he's doing more of the same (six home runs, 11 steals), but has become a more efficient hitter with a .266/.350/.446 line. Strikeouts are still an issue, but Stubbs is starting to look more and more like a perennial All-Star.

Carlos Gomez, Of, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Gomez, 25, has already played for three different major league teams, but it looks like he's finally found a home in Milwaukee. He's back in center field for the Brewers and is beginning to show everyone why he was once the centerpiece of the package that netted the Mets Johan Santana back in 2008.

    Speed and defense have always been Gomez's two biggest strengths, but he's developed into a pretty decent hitter too. His OPS is up to .660 (career .644) and he's displayed some power with 10 extra-base hits already this year.

Dexter Fowler, Of, Colorado Rockies

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    Fowler, 25, is very similar to Gomez as a player. Lots of speed and defense and not much else. But Fowler has evolved into a pretty capable hitter this year.

    His OPS is up to .746 and, despite still waiting for his first home run of the season, he already has 11 doubles and two triples. The strikeouts (43) are concerning though.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves

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    Freeman, 21, is the new full-time first basemen for the Braves and at 6'5" and 225 pounds he certainly looks the part. But how is he at the plate?

    Freeman looked lost in his 24 plate appearances in 2010 and only managed four hits, but he seems to have found his groove in Atlanta. He's up to .241 at the plate and has a respectable .732 OPS. He's also managed to launch four home runs even though everyone says he has a long way to go to reach his power potential.

Allen Craig, Of, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Hard to tell what position Craig plays, but the easy answer is all of them. He has four starts in left field, one in right and two appearances at third base. In other words, he's the prototypical utility player.

    That's not necessarily a bad thing, however. The 26-year-old is hitting .293 with a robust .822 OPS, numbers that are too good to keep him out of the lineup. He's also quick and has not been caught in three steal attempts. 

Melky Cabrera, Of, Kansas City Royals

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    If you're wondering why Melky Cabrera is on this list well, believe it or not, he's actually 26 years old. Plus, sometimes it takes seven seasons for a player to reach his potential, in Kansas City of all places.

    Cabrera is having a career year with the Royals, sporting a .282/.303/.456 line as well as good power and defense. If he maintains this level of production he'll set new career highs in virtually every offensive category and be in line for a big contract at the end of the season.