Justin Upton and 15 NL West Youngsters Ready to Explode
MLB's National League West is a division stocked with raw, unripe talent ready to flourish in 2012.
From the minor leagues to those coming off the disabled list to several youngsters who have already put up great numbers in the big leagues, the next generation of youngsters is in prime position to storm into the national spotlight.
The following list contains the top 15 NL West youngsters—three from each NL West team—poised for success in 2012, 2013 and beyond. Because each youthful candidate brings his own unique approach to the sport and to his team, this list is ranked by age from oldest to youngest.
For the purposes of this article, a "youngster" is defined as a player who is currently no older than 25 years of age.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw (Honorable Mention)
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Born: 3/19/1988 (23 years old)
2011 Stats: 2.28 ERA, 21-5, 248 K
Honorable mention for an NL West youngster ready to explode goes to Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.
He won the 2011 NL Cy Young, completed the NL Triple Crown, was named an All-Star and won a Gold Glove—how can Kershaw possibly follow that with an even better 2012?
When Kershaw won the Cy Young Award, he admitted that when he made his big league debut in 2008 at the age of 20, he wasn't ready for prime time.
It showed, as Kershaw struggled through 2008 with a 5-5 record and 4.26 ERA.
In 2011, however, Kershaw finally broke free. He did just about everything a pitcher can do, including leading the league in WHIP with 0.98 and batting average against with .207.
However, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has confessed there is still at least one more part of Kershaw's game that can be improved even more.
Honeycutt was referring to the off-speed pitch, noting that although Kershaw has improved that pitch remarkably since 2008, there is still some work that can be done.
Imagine Kershaw with even nastier sliders.
Kershaw also pitched 2011 in a turbulent environment. Imagine what he'll do in a stadium of tranquility.
The only pitcher in Dodgers history to win multiple Cy Young Awards is Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
Can Kershaw make it a repeat performance?
Colorado Rockies: Dexter Fowler
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Born: 3/22/1986 (25 years old)
2011 Stats: .266 AVG, 5 HR, 45 RBI
Since breaking into the big leagues in 2008, Colorado Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler's selling point has been his speed. He makes running grabs after diving catches in the vast Coors Field outfield and stole 27 bases in 2009.
However, Fowler has had a tough time turning the corner and really making himself into an incredible player. Though he was routinely selected to minor league All-Star teams and the 2008 Futures Game, he hasn't yet stood out at the major league level in the same way.
Though Fowler led the league with 14 triples in 2010 and finished in second place with 15 triples in 2011, his stolen-base count dropped to a career low of 12, having been caught nine times, his worst stolen-base percentage since joining the major league Rockies.
Even though his play hasn't exactly been stellar, he recorded his lowest ground out/air out ratio in 2011, improving to a career-high slugging percentage and demonstrating an increased ability of controlling where his hits end up.
In some ways, Fowler is similar to 2010's Matt Kemp, experiencing a down season after a better performance in years past.
We all know how Kemp's 2011 turned out.
San Diego Padres: James Darnell
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Born: 1/19/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .222 AVG, 1 HR, 7 RBI
San Diego Padres third baseman James Darnell suffered a season-ending shoulder injury on September 16, ultimately sidelining him from his planned participation in the 2011 Arizona Fall League.
He underwent surgery on September 20 to prevent a similar injury from occurring again and is expected to be ready for spring training.
Though how a player recovers from surgery is never entirely predictable, Darnell demonstrated his ability in 2011, recording 10 hits and his first career home run in 45 at-bats.
He also recorded his first career stolen base during his 18-game big league stint last season.
With the Padres coming off another NL West-worst season, expect them to take some gambles by mixing up the lineup.
That includes playing Darnell, who is eager to show he can play at the MLB level.
San Francisco Giants: Buster Posey
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Born: 3/27/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .284 AVG, 4 HR, 21 RBI
Coming off an NL Rookie of the Year Award-winning 2010 season, Giants catcher Buster Posey was on the verge of giving a repeat performance.
Unfortunately, Posey suffered a severe injury during a collision at home plate that sidelined him for the majority of 2011.
Posey is expected to be in playing form by spring training, making him a high risk-high reward fantasy pick for sure.
He is also a high risk-high reward pick for the youngster most likely to have a breakout season.
How Posey responds to the rehab process will dictate how he fares in 2012 and if he can come somewhat close to his 2010 numbers.
Posey was an incredibly exciting rookie for San Francisco, and the fans have never stopped enjoying their young catcher.
Though it will be a difficult process, expect Posey to return to pre-injury form at some point during the 2012 season.
San Diego Padres: Cameron Maybin
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Born: 4/4/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .264 AVG, 9 HR, 40 RBI
With Padres center fielder Cameron Maybin recording 40 stolen bases in 2011, some would say Maybin has already broken out.
He still has something left to show, and that will come out in 2012.
When Maybin joined the Padres in 2011 after leaving the Florida Marlins—Miami Marlins—franchise, he responded well to playing a career-high 137 games.
Maybin finished the season on a high note, batting .400 (4-for-10) with two RBI in the Padres' series finale with the Chicago Cubs.
With 40 SB, Maybin tied for second place in the National League, and with eight triples Maybin tied for seventh.
There is no question Maybin is fast, a great quality for any center fielder to possess. Because the Padres are desperate to climb out of the NL West cellar by manufacturing runs, expect Maybin to remain the team's leadoff hitter in 2012.
Expect more bunts for base hits, stolen bases, hit-and-runs and other gimmicks suited for a hustle player like Maybin.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Gerardo Parra
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Born: 5/6/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .292 AVG, 8 HR, 46 RBI
Arizona Diamondbacks left fielder Gerardo Parra may be otherwise known as the guy who got Dodgers Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw ejected in September, but he also happens to be a very key piece in Arizona's lineup.
In addition to improving his batting average by 31 points since 2010, Parra showed he can also play defense, winning his first career Gold Glove Award earlier this offseason.
Parra is a speedster, having hit eight triples in his rookie season of 2009 and once again in 2011. He hit six triples in 2010.
In 2011, he posted career highs in batting average, on-base and slugging percentages, stolen bases and total bases. He also earned a career-high 43 walks in 2011, proving he has become a more mature and patient hitter.
Parra will again prove valuable for Arizona in 2012, with all signs pointing to his best performance yet.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Justin Upton
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Born: 8/25/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .289 AVG, 31 HR, 88 RBI
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Arizona's Justin Upton is the brother of 27-year-old B.J., center fielder for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Though B.J. Upton hit for the cycle in 2009, brother Justin has had no problems racking up the awards and honors.
In addition to his two All-Star appearances (2009, 2011), Upton received his first Fielding Bible and Silver Slugger Awards this past season. He was also named MLB.com's 2011 Diamondbacks Player of the Year.
In 2011, Upton played in a career-high 159 games after being forced to miss around 20 games in 2009 and 2010 with a strained right oblique.
With a 2011 OBP of .369 and OPS of .898, Upton is a true threat on offense, stealing 21 bases in 2011 and legging out five triples. His 39 doubles in 2011 were second highest in the NL, while his 105 runs scored were third highest.
In the 2011 NL MVP race, Upton finished in fourth place.
Look for a healthy Justin Upton to have a breakout year in 2012.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt
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Born: 9/10/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .250 AVG, 8 HR, 26 RBI
Paul Goldschmidt may be less than a month younger than Diamondbacks teammate Justin Upton, but Goldschmidt is a rookie with only 48 games under his belt in 2011.
Goldschmidt rose through the minor leagues at blazing speed, jumping from Class A Visalia in 2010 to Double-A Mobile in 2011, picking up MVP awards (2010, 2011), All-Star selections (2010 [twice], 2011 [twice]) and a Futures Game selection along the way.
In his first Division Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, Goldschmidt put an incredible two home runs and six RBI during a .438 (7-for-13) campaign. In Game 3, he became just the third rookie to hit a grand slam, keeping Arizona alive in the postseason.
Goldschmidt made his MLB debut on August 1, 2011, recording a base hit during his first plate appearance and hitting a home run off the Giants' Tim Lincecum the next day.
Because the upstart Goldschmidt hasn't yet had time to shine, you can expect big things out of him next season, when the Diamondbacks will likely name him their starting first baseman.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Jerry Sands
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Born: 9/28/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: .253 AVG, 4 HR, 26 RBI
Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Jerry Sands received his first taste of the big leagues in 2011, playing in 61 games and providing Dodgers fans a glimpse of what a post-Manny Ramirez left field might look like in Los Angeles.
With the Dodgers securing Juan Rivera to handle left field next season, expect Sands to play backup outfielder early in 2012.
Sands was a 2010 minor league All-Star (once in Chattanooga and a second time in Great Lakes) and contributed some key hits and putouts for Los Angeles in 2011.
In addition to playing left and right field, Sands played first base for the Dodgers in six games last season. Though Sands experienced the occasional positioning hiccup, he was an impeccable fielder in 2011, committing zero errors over 218 chances for a fielding percentage of a perfect 1.000.
Sands is ready to shine next season, having gained his MLB bearings in 2011.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Kenley Jansen
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Born: 9/30/1987 (24 years old)
2011 Stats: 2.85 ERA, 2-1, 96 K
When Kenley Jansen made his MLB debut with Los Angeles in 2010, he recorded an improbable 0.67 ERA with 41 strikeouts over 27.0 IP.
In 2011, the league had already seen Jansen's work, so he predictably fell off his debut pace but still finished with a very respectable 2.85 ERA.
When Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton suffered a season-ending injury in May, Jansen, Hong-Chih Kuo and other relievers stepped up to fill the void. Jansen contributed five saves in six chances, earning a win instead of a save in that last instance.
Even though Jansen did give up more runs in 2011 as the league began to figure out how to score against him, he maintained a dominating 1.04 WHIP and held the opposition to a mere .159 batting average.
Jansen's most impressive 2011 stat might very well be his strikeout rate of 1.8 K per inning pitched, proving the young Dodgers hurler can still bring it.
Expect Jansen to pitch even better in 2012 now that the Dodgers must contend with Broxton's free agency and the uncertain state of their bullpen.
San Diego Padres: Mat Latos
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Born: 12/9/1987 (23 years old)
2011 Stats: 3.47 ERA, 9-14, 185 K
Despite his impressive strikeout total, Padres starter Mat Latos recorded a 9-14 record in 2011 in 31 games pitched.
Latos pitched a career-high 194.1 innings in 2011 and even hit a home run as a batter.
Still, Latos pitched a terrific second half of 2011, giving up an opposing batting average of just .190 with a WHIP of 0.97 in August and pitching a sizzling 1.96 ERA in September. His September WHIP was 0.90.
Partially because of his strong finish in 2011, expect Latos to bounce back and become one of the Padres' strongest pitchers in 2012.
Colorado Rockies: Rex Brothers
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Born: 12/18/1987 (23 years old)
2011 Stats: 2.88 ERA, 1-2, 59 K
Colorado Rockies pitcher Rex Brothers made his big league debut on June 6, recording an impressive 12-appearance performance beginning on June 20 that featured an opposing batting average of just .194 with 15 strikeouts and zero runs allowed.
He ended the 2011 season with 48 appearances, averaging 1.45 strikeouts per single inning pitched in his 40.2 innings of work. His WHIP was 1.30, and his opposing batting average increased from .194 to .217.
Brothers recorded 11 holds and one save this past season.
He is strictly a relief pitcher at this point, having replaced beleaguered Rockies hurler Matt Daley, who landed on the disabled list in 2011 for the second consecutive season.
Manager Jim Tracy has previously mentioned he is "pleased" with Brothers' work and would like to see him continue his success next season.
Expect some more quality work from Brothers next season.
San Francisco Giants: Brandon Belt
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Born: 4/20/1988 (23 years old)
2011 Stats: .225 AVG, 9 HR, 18 RBI
Now that Giants first baseman Brandon Belt's rookie nerves are out of the way, expect him to settle down and come up in a big way when called upon in 2012.
He has demonstrated that he can hit for power, as was the case with titanic splashdown No. 60. As a lefty, playing in San Francisco isn't such a terrible thing either.
Belt stole three bases in 2011 and homered in three straight games in mid-September.
Belt has the potential to win a starting job in 2012, but he will need to perform well during spring training for that to occur.
If he can pull that off, expect Belt to settle down and start consistently producing. He is a talented first baseman that has the ability to do very well.
All he needs is consistent playing time.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Dee Gordon
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Born: 4/22/1988 (23 years old)
2011 Stats: .304 AVG, 0 HR, 11 RBI
The first thing you'll notice about Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon is his size. Gordon is 5'11" yet weighs only 150 pounds. He is extremely lean, which makes his durability all the more impressive.
Expect two things from Gordon in 2012.
First, expect him to continue receiving regular playing time in the wake of Rafael Furcal's midseason trade to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Second, expect Gordon to bulk up over the offseason and in spring training. With a 2011 slugging percentage of only .362, Gordon hit only nine doubles and three triples, with several of those hits being ordinary singles that the speedy Gordon managed to stretch into doubles.
Speaking of speed, Gordon stole 24 bases over 56 games in 2011. His speed also allowed him to make some remarkable plays at shortstop and helped earn him MLB's Rookie of the Month prize, an honor he received for his work in September.
With Gordon expected to gain some muscle mass, expect this skinny Dodgers shortstop to hit for slightly more power while maintaining his present ability of getting on and stealing bases.
San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner
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Born: 8/1/1989 (22 years old)
2011 Stats: 3.21 ERA, 13-13, 191 K
San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner is a lot like the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in that he made his big league debut before he was ready.
Bumgarner pitched in a career-high 33 games last season, fourth-most of all NL pitchers. His 191 strikeouts were 11th in the National League, while his 3.21 ERA ranked 10th. Still, he only earned a .500 winning percentage due in part to poor run support.
Bumgarner proved he belongs in 2011 by throwing up impressive numbers and finishing the season on a high note.
After the All-Star break, Bumgarner was 9-4 with a 2.52 ERA.
If he is able to replicate his second-half success in 2012, expect Bumgarner to have a breakout year.
Colorado Rockies: Nolan Arenado
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Born: 4/16/1991 (20 years old)
2011 Stats: .298 AVG, 20 HR, 122 RBI (A+ Ball)
Sleeper alert. He might be the youngest of the bunch, but he is also the least known.
Since joining the Rockies' farm system in 2009, Arenado has earned promotions from rookie ball to High-A Modesto. His 2011 season at Modesto was somewhat of a breakout year in of itself; his home run and RBI counts were very impressive, even for a High-A league.
Most notably, Arenado was recently named Arizona Fall League MVP after batting .388 with six homers and 33 RBI and recording an OPS over 1.000. Out of 29 games played, Arenado collected a hit in 26 of them, leading the league in hits and doubles.
Much like Paul Goldschmidt was plucked from minor league fast-track obscurity to fill a void at the major league level, Arenado might do the same for the Rockies, especially if injuries continue to plague the MLB squad.