1. Jon Niese
Now 25, Niese is nearing the age where he needs to make good on his promise, or otherwise be labeled a fourth starter for good. Niese, a big lefty with the stuff to pitch inside to righties and get ground balls, improved on his peripherals in 2011 but saw his earned run average worsen. Assuming Niese’s abdominal strain doesn’t become an issue again, this could be the season he posts an earned run average better than the league average. —R.J. Anderson
â€‹2. Brandon Belt
Brandon Belt's minor-league credentials speak for themselves. In 825 plate appearances, his line stands at a ridiculous .343/.457/.596. He was highly regarded coming into 2011, but played for a manager who hasn't been comfortable with rookie hitters since being burned by George Arias and Ruben Rivera many moons ago. At age 24, Belt might not have star potential, but .280/.370/.480 is within reach, which is something most guys in the Giants' lineup cannot claim. —Geoff Young
3. Ryan Lavarnway
Much like Shaquille O'Neal, who you will recall claimed to have won at every level "except college and the pros," Ryan Lavarnway has hit at every level. Except, he actually has. Since starting his pro career in Low-A, Lavarnway hasn't posted an OPS below 869 at any stop on the minor-league ladder. At 23, he'll probably start the year in Triple-A, but he posted an OPS of 1.002 in 264 PAs in Pawtucket last season so barring injury, there are significant at-bats in Boston for him this season. His good plate discipline and right-handed power will push him into the Red Sox' lineup, and by the end of the season he'll be a Rookie of the Year candidate. —Matthew Kory
4. Fernando Martinez
Fernando Martinez has averaged fewer than 300 plate appearances per season since coming to the U.S. as the Mets' $1.3 million bonus baby in July 2005. Despite leg injuries that have rendered him a below-average runner, Martinez still shows flashes of the ability that made him the Mets' top hitting prospect from 2008-2010. In January, after spending parts of the last three years in Triple-A, Martinez signed with Houston as a six-year minor-league free agent. I believe the Astros will find a way to keep Martinez healthy, and that the 23-year-old post-hype sleeper will handily outplay his competitors (Brian Bogusevic and Jack Cust) to earn regular playing time in right field. —Bradley Ankrom
5. Colby Rasmus
There are a number of factors that could be converging for Rasmus this season. He’s the unquestioned starter at a premium position on a rising team that actually wants him. He's coming off an injury that wrecked his 2011 numbers and has lots to prove. He’s 25 years old, turning 26 in August, which to me is a great age for a center fielder. I think he’s going to not only recover the numbers he had in his last full season in St. Louis, but in fact blow by them. It’ll help if he can walk more than once every 28 plate appearances, which is what he did after being traded to Toronto. —Bradford Doolittle
6. Dexter Fowler
The 26-year-old Fowler might seem a curious breakout choice, given that he is coming off a 4.8 WARP season. But Fowler compiled the bulk of his 2011 value through plate discipline and defense which, while valuable, are only two components of a much deeper skill set. The Rockies demoted Fowler after a DL stint in June because, at the time, he was batting a lowly .238/.340/.352. Fowler's walk rate was certainly impressive, but he had notched just 18 extra-base hits (0 home runs) in 247 plate appearances, which was not enough to warrant staying in Jim Tracy's starting lineup.
My choice for this week’s Lineup Card is one that will make Twins fans cringe and Nationals fans stay optimistic about their team’s ability to make a playoff run sooner rather than later. Wilson Ramos only ended up being traded to Washington because Joe Mauer blocked him behind the dish in Minnesota. Last year, as a 23-year-old rookie, Ramos hit .267/.334/.445 (.332 wOBA) in 113 games. Those are impressive numbers for any rookie, much less one at the most demanding defensive position in the sport.
Ramos will not only be asked to continue to improve offensively this season, but also defensively, as Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez join the rotation and Stephen Strasburg returns to it. He has shown to be up to the task defensively, but his relationship with the arms in the 2012 rotation will be crucial to the team’s hopes to compete in the loaded NL East. While PECOTA expects a slight dip for Ramos at the plate, it is not beyond reason to expect him to improve on his stellar rookie campaign. As long as he doesn’t get overworked defensively at catcher, his offensive numbers should continue to shine at the bottom of a lineup filled with young talent. It rides on a lot more than just his contributions, but if Ramos is able to continue his success both at and behind the dish, the Nationals could surprise their way into contention. —Sam Tydings
8. Rick Porcello
At age 23, Detroit Tigers RHP Rick Porcello has already started 89 big-league games. He has also won 14 games twice, started a one-game playoff, and seen his strikeout total rise to over 100 (104 in 2011), all the while increasing his WARP from 0.1 (at age 20) to 1.1. To expect more from Porcello is to expect him to begin to live up to the potential that made the Tigers draft him with the 27th overall pick in the 2007 draft (he carried a top-10 projection but fell due to signability), and give him a four-year major-league deal worth $7.285 million plus club options for 2011-2012.
Porcello has had those 14-win seasons through sheer talent, and he'll break out in 2012, harnessing that raw talent into a veteran presence. Look for Porcello to win 17-20 games, bring his ERA below 4.00, and increase his WARP. —Adam Tower
9. Mat Latos
There’s perception and then there’s the reality. The “perception” is that Mat Latos, dogged by shoulder issues and maturity questions struggled through an unproductive 2011 season, leading the Padres to deal him to the Reds for a haul of prospects and a former All-Star in Edinson Volquez.
A closer look at those numbers suggests plenty of reason for optimism. The Moose was hitting an anemic .182/.237/.227 through his first 53 games and 217 plate appearances when he began a 15-game hitting streak that included eight multi-hit games. He hit a searing .379/.412/.564 over his final 148 PA, and while much of that came against second-division clubs, we are talking about a player in the AL Central, where four of the five teams (besides the Royals) finished below .500. He's not going to match those late-season numbers, and PECOTA isn't exactly gushing with optimism (.267/.304/.433 for a .260 TAv), but I'm picking him to be a player who breaks out in 2012. —Jay Jaffe
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