MLB Spring Training 2012: Every Team's Biggest Breakout Candidate

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2012

MLB Spring Training 2012: Every Team's Biggest Breakout Candidate

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    Sometimes, it takes years before something finally clicks and it all comes together.

    Sometimes, it only takes a player getting a chance to play to prove themselves.

    Sometimes...well, you get the idea.

    There are countless reasons why some players take time to finally reach their potential, but when they do, it's usually in a big way with big numbers and memorable moments along the way.

    Without fail, it happens each and every season.

    So who is primed to take the next step in 2012?

    Lets take a look.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Paul Goldschmidt

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    A big body that packs big power,  Paul Goldschmidt and his 6'3", 245-pound frame will be manning 1B for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012 and beyond.

    Goldschmidt saw limited playing time with the Diamondbacks in 2011, appearing in 48 regular-season games, hitting .250 with eight home runs and 26 RBI. In the ALDS against the Milwaukee Brewers, the 24-year-old hit .438 with two home runs and six RBI, including a grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 3.

    Some have compared Goldschmidt to a right-handed version of Carlos Pena, mainly because of his penchant for striking out—he struck out 58 times in 156 at-bats in 2011, nearly 34 percent of the time.

    Those comparisons are premature. Goldschmidt has the talent and ability to be a far more productive, all-around player than Pena has been in his career.

Atlanta Braves: Jason Heyward

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    Many are quick to point to one of the Braves' young pitchers, namely Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, Brandon Beachy or Mike Minor, as their most likely breakout candidate.

    They may be right. But we are still waiting for Jason Heyward to have his own breakout season.

    And it's coming to a field near you.

    A heralded prospect entering his third full season in the majors, the 22-year-old RF has yet to produce at the level most believe he is capable of. Coming off of a dreadful 2011 that saw him battle injury en route to hitting .227 with 14 home runs and 42 RBI, Heyward is poised to silence the doubters.

    "All of us got here by doing what we know how to do, whether it’s mentally, physically, what have you,” Heyward said to reporters last week. “You want to stay as close to that as possible. Keep having fun, keep trying to get better. I’m 22 years old, and I didn’t get here this quickly by not making adjustments, by not learning on the fly, by not handling pressure situations, by not knowing how fans or media might take things. I’ve done a lot of things the right way, and that’s why I am who I am and part of the reason why I’ve been successful.”

    Heyward has a sweet swing and power to all fields. Coupled with a keen batting eye that saw him post a .393 on-base percentage in 2010, Heyward has all the tools necessary to make the jump from young prospect to young stud.

Baltimore Orioles: Brian Matusz

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    Arguably the most talented pitcher in contention for a spot in the Orioles' 2012 rotation, 25-year-old Brian Matusz is just trying to get back to the basics.

    "Getting back to where I was as a younger kid and things that worked well for me," Matusz told reporters at spring training. "Last year was tough, a really tough year. A feeling I don't want to feel again."

    Tough might be an understatement. In 2011, Matusz posted a 1-9 record, 10.69 ERA and 2.11 WHIP over 12 starts. His battery mate, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, could tell that Matusz was battling throughout the year.

    "He was just feeling for it all year and just couldn't quite get in a groove where it just felt like he was pitching," Wieters said.

    But 2012 brings new hope, and for Matusz, a fresh start: "I feel like that old form is coming back. Just having confidence on the mound and just being athletic and just letting the ball come out and having a lot of conviction behind the ball," he said.

    If Matusz can keep it together on the mound, he could become the pitcher that many expected him to develop into and give the Orioles a bona fide stud at the front of their rotation.

Boston Red Sox: Mike Aviles

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    Two weeks ago, I sat down with Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to discuss a number of things, including who he thought was going to break out in 2012. I was surprised by his response.

    "For us, either Mike Aviles or Nick Punto, whoever wins that job," Gonzalez said. "They will have a chance to just be themselves."

    While it's certainly odd for 30-year-old players to break out, who am I to question Adrian Gonzalez?

    Entering his fifth season, Aviles has already shown that he can hit when given a chance, posting a .286 average for the Kansas City Royals over parts of four seasons.

    Boston manager Bobby Valentine thinks that Aviles can do the job as the team's everyday shortstop:

    I wanted to express to him that I'll have an opinion whether or not he can grasp the ideas and execute things after I see him. The first look of him catching and throwing a ball, it looked very good. Yup, very good.

    If given a chance to play everyday, Aviles could easily surpass his career highs in nearly every category and add another weapon to an already deep and talented Red Sox lineup.

Cincinnati Reds: Devin Mesoraco

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    When the Cincinnati Reds shipped catching prospect Yasmani Grandal to the San Diego Padres as part of the package that bought back starting pitcher Mat Latos, they sent a clear message: Devin Mesoraco is our catcher of the future.

    Mesoraco, 23, struggled with his first taste of big-league pitching when he was called up this past September, hitting .180 with two home runs and six RBI in 50 at-bats over 16 games.

    But don't let the numbers fool you—Mesoraco has a quick bat that makes solid contact and generates power. As he told, he understands what he needs to do to succeed at the next level:

    You have in and day out...go out there and try to get better in all aspects of the game. People can tell you all they want, and give you all the teaching they can, but you have to do it yourself.

    With his natural talents and a mind that is focused on the task at hand, his performance can only be aided by becoming a regular in a lineup that includes former NL MVP Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce and Scott Rolen.

Chicago Cubs: Bryan LaHair

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    Sure, he's already 29 years old, but Bryan LaHair is set to get his first real shot at succeeding in the major leagues after nine years in the minor leagues.

    Named MVP of the Pacific Coast League in 2011, hitting .331 with 38 home runs, 109 RBI and 303 total bases, LaHair is assured of being the starting 1B for the Cubs in 2012.

    While Theo Epstein went out and acquired Anthony Rizzo from the San Diego Padres in the offseason, Cubs manager Dale Sveum says that Rizzo would be best served by another full season in Triple-A:

    Right now it's a concrete plan to just let Rizzo have another season in Triple A and let him be comfortable instead of moving him up and down and all that stuff...It's Bryan LaHair's job. It's not his to lose.

    With the knowledge that he likely does not have to look over his shoulder in 2012, LaHair should be at ease and able to provide pop in the middle of the Cubs lineup.

Chicago White Sox: Dayan Viciedo

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    Signed by Chicago prior to the 2009 season, Dayan Viciedo has had just over 200 at-bats in the majors over parts of the last two seasons, hitting .282 with six home runs and 19 RBI.

    Now that Carlos Quentin is no longer taking up a spot in Chicago's outfield, there is nobody standing in his way, and he will get regular playing time from the start for the White Sox, though manager Robin Ventura has yet to decide if it will be in right field or left field.

    Viciedo doesn't care where Ventura puts him; he just wants to play baseball.

    "I can play anywhere,’’ Viciedo told reporters last week. ‘‘Wherever they want me to play, I’ll play."

    Aside from needing more experience against big-league pitching, the only noticeable flaw in his approach at the plate is patience—it took him 82 at-bats before he drew his first major league walk.

    With a full season ahead of him, Viciedo is ready to put up big numbers for the White Sox in 2012.

Cleveland Indians: Jason Kipnis

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    Indians manager Manny Acta fully expects Jason Kipnis to be the Tribe's starting 2B in 2012. On Monday, Acta revealed that he has Kipnis slotted into the seventh spot in Cleveland's lineup, behind 1B Casey Kotchman.

    Acta continued:

    We like the kid, but we don't want to put that much pressure on him when we have everyone healthy...Choo is healthy. Hafner is healthy. The rest of those guys are healthy. They're going to be hitting in front of him.

    The fact that the Indians want to be cautious with Kipnis is understandable. In 136 at-bats in 2011, Kipnis hit .272 with seven home runs and 19 RBI. His first major league hit was a game-winning single against the Angels. He became the first Indians second baseman to hit a home run in four consecutive games—and the first Indians rookie to accomplish the feat since Al Rosen did it in 1950.

    If he stays in the seventh spot, Kipnis will likely come to the plate with runners on base. There is also a chance that he could see time in the leadoff spot if Michael Brantley struggles there.

    Regardless, Kipnis has a sweet swing, power and speed. The only thing he lacks is experience, and he is sure to get a ton of it in 2012.

Colorado Rockies: Dexter Fowler

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    It seems as if we've been waiting for Dexter Fowler to have his breakout season forever.

    2012 will be the year that he finally puts it all together.

    Fowler finally started to show his considerable talents in the second half of 2011, hitting .288 with five home runs, 27 RBI, 22 doubles, 10 triples and 10 stolen bases.

    He spent this offseason working out with Jason Giambi, Troy Tulowitzki and a personal trainer, arriving in camp 13 pounds heavier than last year but with four percent less body fat.

    “He looks better physically than he’s ever looked since he signed his name on a sheet of paper to become a professional player,” manager Jim Tracy said to reporters when players arrived to spring training.

    Added Fowler: “I believe things happen for a reason. My ability has always been there. It’s just a matter of clearing my head and going on from there.”

    With a clear head, a new-found maturity and starting camp in the best shape of his life, the only thing stopping the soon-to-be 26-year-old from becoming a star is himself.

Detroit Tigers: Brennan Boesch

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    Since making his major league debut in 2010, Brennan Boesch has been a solid contributor for the Detroit Tigers, hitting .269 with 15 home runs and 60 RBI on average.

    But Boesch, who turns 27 in April, is capable of gaudier numbers, and 2012 will be the season that he shows it.


    His spot in Detroit's potent lineup.

    Boesch will be hitting second in Detroit's lineup—behind Austin Jackson and in front of two guys that you may have heard of: Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

    Teams are going to have to pitch to Boesch because they certainly don't want to pitch to the two behemoths behind him, and Boesch has the talent to make pitchers pay when they leave one in the strike zone.

Houston Astros: J.D. Martinez

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    It's understandable if you've never heard of J.D. Martinez, considering the state of the Houston Astros these days.

    But that only means you haven't been paying enough attention to what's going on deep in the heart of Texas.

    After the midseason trade of Hunter Pence last year, Martinez, 24, was called up from Double-A, where he was hitting .338 with 17 home runs and 72 RBI.

    Upon his arrival in Houston, he continued to swing a solid bat, hitting .274 with six home runs and 35 RBI in 53 games.

    Like other young players still acclimating to life in the big leagues, Martinez will have his ups and downs.

    But he has a smooth swing, good batting eye, power and plate discipline—all the tools that he needs to make the rest of baseball take notice in 2012.

Kansas City Royals: Mike Moustakas

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    Eric Hosmer's debut and Alex Gordon's breakout season in 2011 were the big stories in Kansas City, but another important piece of the rebuilding process, third baseman Mike Moustakas, made his debut as well.

    Moustakas struggled through his first two months in the majors, hitting .199 with one home run and 10 RBI through the end of July. But he seemed to settle in and become comfortable once the calendar turned to August, hitting .316 with four home runs and 20 RBI the rest of the way.

    He explained to what changes he made to get ready for his first full season in the majors.

    "I tried to get myself in better shape to play, tried to cut down some pounds and cut down the fat and add some muscle. That's kind of what we did and I feel pretty good about it," he said.

    Royals Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, who knows a thing or two about achieving success in the majors, thinks quite highly of the 23-year-old:

    "Moose has a chance to be a solid, everyday Major League baseball player. He's got tremendous skills; he's got great baseball awareness."

    With a full season ahead of him batting in the heart of a young but talented Royals lineup, big things are in store for Moustakas in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Mike Trout

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    Mike Trout has had quite a ride since being drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2009.

    He's been ranked as one of the best prospects in all of baseball every year.

    He's been the victim of a prank by his teammates, namely Angels ace Jered Weaver.

    And now, in 2012, he's poised to show the rest of baseball that he's the real deal—even though he is likely to start the season in Triple-A due to the Angels' crowded situation both in the outfield and the designated hitter spot.

    But at some point this year, Mike Trout will arrive for good in Anaheim. When he does, expect him to live up to the hype.

    Trout has all the tools necessary to be an All-Star in the Angels outfield for the better part of the next decade.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Dee Gordon

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    Dee Gordon is fast. Really fast. Twenty-four stolen bases in only 56 games for the Dodgers in 2011 to go along with a .304 average.

    He's not your prototypical leadoff hitter, simply because he doesn't walk—he only took seven free passes in 224 at-bats last year.

    Gordon is confident that it's not an issue:

    Would you mess around with me and walk me? No, the pitchers come right at me, they aren't hitting corners...they feel they can knock the bat out of my hands. In reality, I can hit. So it helps me to be ready to swing and not look for a walk. I could always hit the ball. I'm fine with walking, but it's called hitting, not walking.

    Dodgers manager Don Mattingly thinks those that harp on the issue are blowing things out of proportion:

    Maybe it's just that he didn't chase a bad pitch, so his at-bat lasted long enough for him to hit a better pitch. He might not have walked, but he had a better at-bat. I'm not worried about Dee. It'll come with experience.

    With Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier batting two and three spots behind him, respectively, Gordon will be a threat to score anytime he's on base.

Miami Marlins: Logan Morrison, LF

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    Logan Morrison has a personal goal that he plans on reaching this season—30 home runs and 100 RBI.

    But reaching his goals isn't enough for the 24-year-old Marlins left fielder:

    Once I get there, once I reach those numbers, I don’t want to be satisfied because there is still more baseball to be played. My goals are to go out and play hard everyday, be in the lineup everyday and be healthy.

    He was bothered by a partially torn patella tendon throughout much of 2011—and along with a bizarre demotion to the minor leagues that saw him file a grievance against the Marlins, Morrison wasn't at his best. While he managed to go deep 22 times last year while driving in 72 runs, Morrison struggled at the plate, posting a batting line of .247/.330/.468/.797.

    With his knee and pride fully healed and an influx of talent added to the team this offseason, Morrison is primed to bust out in a big way once the regular season starts.

Milwaukee Brewers: Mat Gamel

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    Since being drafted by the Brewers in 2005, Mat Gamel has spent parts of four seasons with the big club, hitting .222 with five home runs and 23 RBI—a stark contrast from his minor-league numbers, which include a 2011 where he hit .310 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI in Triple-A.

    With the departure of Prince Fielder, the 26-year-old Gamel, a converted third baseman, is being given every opportunity to play on a daily basis at first base.

    His struggles in the major leagues can be attributed to a number of things, but in 2012, he will have something that he's never had before: time to get comfortable both in the field and at the plate.

    Brewers GM Doug Melvin says that the difference in Gamel from his previous stays in Milwaukee to the Gamel he sees today is significant:

    "He's looking like a ballplayer, instead of taking things for granted."

    While Corey Hart could take some playing time away from him, Gamel is going to see the majority of the time at first base. A full season should allow Gamel to produce closer to his minor-league numbers than what he's shown thus far in the majors.

Minnesota Twins: Ben Revere

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    Every time I see Ben Revere's name, I can't help but start singing the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere" in my head.

    Maybe Twin Cities resident Prince (or whatever he's calling himself these days) can pen a "Ben Revere" tune for the speedster as his walk-up song.

    But I digress.

    Ben Revere broke onto the scene in 2011, flashing exceptional speed and defense in center field for the Minnesota Twins.

    While he broke onto the scene, Revere didn't exactly break out at the plate, hitting a pedestrian .267 with a .310 OBP while never really maximizing his greatest asset—his speed.

    Revere has been putting in a lot of work on his bunting skills, and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire took notice:

    It's not encouraging, it's imperative. He has to do that. That's part of his game, he has to bunt, he has to drop bunts down, he has to work on it, get better at it. That's the natural progression here, as you grow as a player. I mean, we've got one of the best bunters in the game in Rod Carew standing right here, talking to him. Jerry White does a super job of teaching bunting, so he should learn to take advantage of it.

    With a new dedication towards maximizing his speed and laying down bunts whenever the opportunity presents itself, Revere should find his numbers across the board go up significantly.

    Once he's on base, he is a threat to cause chaos and mayhem when he takes off running.

New York Mets: Ike Davis

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    I flip-flopped on this one for quite some time, because I think that Mets outfielder Lucas Duda is going to break out as well, but Mr. Davis won out in the end.

    Ike Davis was well on his way to a breakout 2011 campaign with the New York Mets when he collided with Mets 3B David Wright and suffered an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for the rest of the season.

    Through the season's first 36 games, Davis was hitting .300 with seven home runs, 25 RBI and an improved approach at the plate.

    While the focus on the Mets has been their financial woes and the loss of Jose Reyes, a healthy Davis is in line for a big 2012 at the plate, especially with the fences at Citi Field having been significantly altered.

    Mets manager Terry Collins is excited at what a healthy Davis means to his club:

    I’ve only seen this guy for a little over a month and that was enough to convince me that, with 550 plate appearances, he can’t help but walk into 30-40 (home run) fastballs. Ike being back now is like getting an All-Star first baseman out of nowhere.

    Those would be big power numbers for a player who, for all intents and purposes, is entering his second full season in the majors.

    But they are attainable numbers for the 24-year-old, and if he can stay healthy, Davis will prove that his hot start in 2011 was no fluke.

New York Yankees: Michael Pineda

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    Two weeks ago, I interviewed Yankees ace CC Sabathia and Red Sox 1B Adrian Gonzalez in New York City. One of the things that we spoke about was breakout players: Who did they have their eyes on for a big year in 2012?

    Like Gonzalez, Sabathia stayed close to home and did not single out only one player.

    "Our rotation. We have a lot of good arms and it's going to be a good competition," he said. "Pitching is the strength of our team and we all need to be at the top of our games."

    While CC didn't want to name anyone specifically, I will: Michael Pineda, the newest addition to the Yankees starting rotation.

    Pineda started hot out of the gate for the Seattle Mariners in 2011, earning an All-Star berth before fading down the stretch. He finished 2011 with a 9-10 record, 3.74 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 171 innings pitched over 28 starts.

    With Seattle, Pineda pitched for a team that scored 556 runs last season, the fewest in all of baseball.

    With the Yankees, Pineda will be pitching for a team that scored 867 runs in 2011, second only to the Boston Red Sox, who beat them out by eight.

    Granted, pitching in Yankee Stadium is drastically different than pitching in Safeco Field, so Pineda is sure to pay for his mistakes—but he has one of the best lineups in baseball to help atone for those mistakes.

    The only thing that can stop Pineda from having a breakout 2012 is Pineda.

Oakland A's: Jarrod Parker

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    Acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in December as part of the Trevor Cahill trade, 23-year-old Jarrod Parker is fully recovered from 2009 Tommy John surgery and ready to burst onto the scene in the American League.

    Parker is arguably the most talented pitcher that the A's have in camp this spring, and it's conceivable that he not only makes the team out of spring training, but that he overtakes veteran Brandon McCarthy as the team's ace by the time Memorial Day rolls around.

    He has command of each of the four pitches in his arsenal, and his fastball sits in the mid-to-upper 90's on a consistent basis.

    While there is no doubt that the league will adjust to him as the season goes on and he will go through his struggles, Parker is poised to have a big season for the A's in 2012.

Philadelphia Phillies: John Mayberry, Jr.

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    Wait, didn't he break out last season?

    Sort of.

    In 2011, Mayberry, Jr. came to the plate 296 times, hitting .273 with 15 home runs and 49 RBI, a solid season for sure.

    But in 2012, he will be starting on an everyday basis, and his numbers across the board will improve.

    Slotted as the Phillies' starting left fielder, he can also play some first base, which he likely will do on occasion until Ryan Howard returns from injury.

    Is a 20 HR, 100-RBI season feasible for the 28-year-old junior Mayberry?


Pittsburgh Pirates: Pedro Alvarez

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    Pirates fans have been waiting patiently for Pedro Alvarez to put it all together, and 2012 could be the year that he does.

    Alvarez, selected second overall in the 2008 MLB draft—ahead of players like Buster Posey, Eric Hosmer and Ike Davis—has been a general disappointment in Pittsburgh thus far. In 74 games last season, Alvarez hit .191 with four home runs and 26 RBI

    Casey McGehee is now a Pirate, and he is legitimate competition for Alvarez's job at third base, something the 25-year-old never had before.

    For what it's worth, Pirates GM Neal Huntington is encouraged about the former first-round pick's chances heading into the season.

    "I'm not sure I've seen him in a better spot mentally, physically, fundamentally or personally," said Huntington.

    Alvarez is in good shape to prove his critics wrong in 2012, and I expect that he will.

San Diego Padres: Yonder Alonso

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    Acquired as part of the trade that sent Padres ace Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds in December, 24-year-old Yonder Alonso is ready to show that he is every bit as good as the hype that has surrounded him since the Reds made him a first-round pick in 2008.

    Not your prototypical power hitter, Alonso is going to be playing his home games in PETCO Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in all of baseball.

    He thinks that plays right into his strengths: "You can get a lot of hits. It's not so much the power game, but the simple game. It's something I feel like I can do. It makes you more of a hitter than a power guy."

    Padres GM Eric Byrnes thought that Alonso was an excellent fit for PETCO:

    Alonso can produce a lot of line drives. Obviously, Petco will show you in a hurry if you're hitting too many balls in the air. We feel like over time he's shown he can hit the ball hard from line to line, and a lot of line drives, and those are where the hits are.

    Alonso knows what he has to do to succeed, and there is no reason to think that he won't produce for the Padres in 2012.

San Francisco Giants: Brandon Belt

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    Brandon Belt knows what he has to do to capitalize on his considerable talent. "When I'm aggressive, I'm a lot better," Belt told reporters as he arrived in spring training.

    Belt spent 2011 riding the shuttle back and forth between San Francisco and Triple-A Fresno, and while he sometimes questioned what the Giants had in store for him, he thinks he is better for having experienced it:

    Yeah, I'd like to know that sometimes. Where do I stand? But I kind of figured out the past couple of years, you go out there and compete, and if you compete well, you win a spot. That's what I plan to do this year.

    There is no arguing that Belt looked overmatched at the plate in 2011, and his numbers confirmed it: In 63 games, Belt hit .225 with nine home runs and 18 RBI with a .306 OBP. While minor-league statistics are generally not a great indicator of future success, it should be noted that Belt's OBP in two years of minor-league baseball was an out-of-this-world .457.

    While Giants manager Bruce Bochy is known for letting his veterans have their chances, Aubrey Huff should not be a large hurdle for Belt to get past.

    Brandon Belt is the future at first base for the San Francisco Giants, and the future should start in earnest this season.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero

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    Ah, the New York hype machine. That's what many attributed the buzz surrounding Jesus Montero to until he finally got a shot to play with the New York Yankees last September.

    All Montero did was tear the cover off of the ball, hitting .328 with four home runs and 12 RBI in 18 games. I watched every at-bat that Montero took, and even his outs were impressive.

    Now a member of the Seattle Mariners, Montero is confident that he can be the Mariners' everyday starting catcher:

    Most catchers don’t hit but they control the game, they know how to catch. Sometimes you have to give something away so you can catch or you can hit. But if you can do all that together you can be amazing like Posada, you know? If I see a big example in front of my face, it was Posada. I want to be like him. We were together a lot. He taught me a lot.

    After getting knocked out of Saturday's exhibition game against the Oakland A's after getting hit in the face twice by foul balls, he may find himself as the most exciting designated hitter the Mariners have had since the days of Edgar Martinez.

    One way or another, the Mariners will get Montero's bat into the lineup on a daily basis—and Montero will reward them with a big season, perhaps even taking home AL Rookie of the Year honors.

St. Louis Cardinals: David Freese

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    How can the 2011 World Series MVP be a breakout candidate?

    When he's not played in more than 100 games in any of his three major-league seasons, that's how.

    David Freese is coming off of an incredible run during the World Series. While he is 28 years old—no longer a prospect for sure—Freese is poised to capitalize on his success in the playoffs last season.

    The only thing standing in his way is himself—and a little bit of luck. His 2010 and 2011 seasons were derailed by injuries, and the odds are stacked against him of being able to avoid the injury bug again in 2012.

    Or are they?

    New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is both optimistic and cautious at the same time.

    "If you look at him, he looks in as good a shape as I’ve ever seen him,” Matheny told reporters at the beginning of spring training.

    Matheny elaborated:

    How can we keep him right is the question. Do you handle somebody with care? Whenever there is a flag, that caution flag, you've got to stop and say, "What do we do here?" You don't just want to throw him into the mix ... when maybe you should be a little smarter.

    Freese is focused on the goal at hand—defending the championship:

    I haven’t come through every time. Nobody does. I know what I can do, I know my potential and so do the Cardinals, and hopefully I reach that. We’ve got some pretty big dogs in this lineup and I just want to do my part.

    If he can stay healthy, Freese will definitely do his part in 2012.

Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Moore

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    Believe it or not, pitching phenom Matt Moore is no sure thing to start the season in Tampa Bay's starting rotation.

    Rays manager Joe Maddon acknowledged as much to reporters earlier in spring training:

    Everybody's expecting the moon out of this guy. I just want him to go out and be "Matt Moore: Left-Handed Pitcher," and to get ready for this season. Of course, his name has not been etched in the five-man rotation yet. I have him still competing.

    To Moore's credit, he wouldn't have it any other way:

    He's saying that because he means it, There's that guy, [prospect] Alex Cobb, right there and everybody else who had time last year as a starter is very capable of filing any of those positions that open up in the rotation. Absolutely it's a competition.

    Moore was impressive in the small sample size people saw of him last year, going 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 15 strikeouts over 9.1 innings pitched in the regular season.

    Over two games in the ALDS, Moore was even more dominant, going 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA, 0.60 WHIP and eight strikeouts in 10 innings of work.

    Currently sidelined with a slight abdominal strain, the Rays will be cautious in their approach with Moore in 2012. But there is no denying that he is the most talented pitcher they have at their disposal.

    It is not a matter of if, only when, Maddon finds a permanent spot for him in the 2012 rotation.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish

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    It had to be Yu.

    Yu, as in Yu Darvish, the 25-year-old Japanese import who is set to take Texas and the baseball world by storm in 2012.

    To say that his numbers in Japan were impressive would not do them justice. In five seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish went 76-28 with a 1.72 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 1,083 strikeouts over 1,024.1 innings pitched.

    So far this spring, Darvish has only faced his teammates in an intra-squad matchup, but they all left impressed with the righty.

    After striking out Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus with a sinker, Andrus said, "It's going to be a great pitch for him this season."

    Ian Kinsler would not want to have to face Darvish on a regular basis:

    "I'm glad he's on our team, no doubt about that," said the All-Star second baseman.

    For all of the accolades that his teammates have lauded upon him, Darvish was not pleased with his performance:

    "At this time every year my fastball quality and the feel is not good. I still have a month to go, but my fastball life and the quality is not even close to game form yet."

    The rest of the American League is on notice—Yu Darvish has arrived.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brett Lawrie

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    When nearly 50 percent of your hits go for extra bases, that's impressive.

    When nearly 50 percent off your hits go for extra bases and you are a 21-year-old getting his first taste of life in the major leagues, that's amazing.

    But that's exactly what Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie did in 2011. Over 46 games, Lawrie hit .293 with nine home runs, 25 RBI, eight doubles and four triples. That's 21 extra-base hits—and Lawrie had 44 hits in total on the season.

    "There's always work to be done. I'm working every day just to get ready for the 162-game grind. I'm just going to try to be smart. It's about being healthy, what I can do to keep myself healthy," Lawrie told reporters last week.

    Blue Jays manager John Farrell had a noticeable twinkle in his eye when he talked about his 22-year-old third baseman to reporters earlier in spring training:

    When he doesn't chase off-speed pitches out of the strike zone, he is as dangerous a hitter (as there is) I think in the American League. That's a pretty strong statement. But in a short period of time, we saw an explosive player.

    While it's unlikely that Lawrie will produce at the pace he did in 2011, with a full season ahead of him in 2012 should come some very impressive numbers—numbers that will put him amongst the best in the game at the hot corner.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper

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    Some people might say that Bryce Harper has a bit of an attitude problem.

    Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson remembers the first time that he spoke to Harper:

    “I talked to him when he was 15. He was cocky then — and he’s cocky now.”

    Harper, only 19 years old, has been the talk of baseball since the Nationals selected him first overall in the 2010 draft.

    We know that some players like having fun at their teammates' expense, and the Nationals are no different. They replaced the nameplate above his locker with “Joe Namath, No. 12" after Harper made comments saying that he wanted to become a cultural icon like Namath did for the New York Jets in the 1960's.

    Whether or not Harper will be a member of the Nationals when the regular season begins remains to be seen, but Harper plans on being a big part of the Nationals this year.

    “I want to make that decision hard for them. I don’t want to be in the minor leagues. That’s always been me. Everybody knows that. I want to be up in the big leagues — and I want to stay there," Harper stated.

    Harper is too great a talent for the Nationals to keep him in the minors for long, and we can expect big numbers from him once he officially arrives.