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National appeal

Marlins rookies highlight top 25 NL breakout players

Posted: Wednesday September 6, 2006 12:16PM; Updated: Thursday September 7, 2006 8:46AM
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Florida has a pair of stars in the making with its middle-infield combo of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez.
Florida has a pair of stars in the making with its middle-infield combo of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez.

Even though it's about as down a year as can possibly be in the National League, it's still a decidedly up year for rising rookies and superb sophomores in the not-so-Senior Circuit.

Youth rules here, providing hope that the NL may not always be the inferior league.

Today's list of the biggest breakouts and breakthroughs in the National League is heavy on rookies, particularly Florida Marlins. There was a temptation to fill half of my Top 25 list with Marlins, whose own roster is half-filled with rookies making the minimum salary of $327,000. And I did manage to squeeze seven Marlins onto my Top 25 by finding room for 28 names (though there could have been even more Marlins; Mike Jacobs, for instance, narrowly missed).

The top two spots are reserved for non-rookies and non-Marlins, but they are a pair of players in the Marlins' division who made the rapid move from promising to elite and could yet be tagged with baseball's two very precious words ... most valuable.

25. Josh Willingham, OF, Marlins. The first of many Marlins. If Florida's scouts are reading this, they need to stop now and take a bow.

24. Jeff Francis, P, Rockies. He cut his ERA by two runs and batting average against from .311 to .236. This is a star in the making.

23. Adam LaRoche, 1B, Braves. Fifteen of his 28 home runs have come since the break, during which he's raised his average from .245 to .293.

22. Alfonso Soriano, OF, Nationals. He raised his slugging percentage 87 points (from .512 to .599) despite going from cozy Ameriquest Ballpark to spacious RFK Stadium, which is really like a 200-point gain. By percentage, his free-agent haul will increase by even more than that. He's made himself a mint, but it'll still be a big surprise if he cashes in in Washington.

21. Matt Holliday, OF, Rockies. He looks to be on the verge of becoming a star, something the Rockies need more of.

20. Duaner Sanchez, RP, Mets. Before he was involved in an unfortunate late-night cab accident, he was the best setup man in the National League. The Mets stole him from the Dodgers for Jae Seo.

19. Chris Young, P, Padres. An Ivy Leaguer (Princeton) who is thriving out west, the 6-foot-10 right-hander has been the No. 2 pitcher San Diego hoped for when it sent Adam Eaton to Texas; a .236 batting average against indicates that more good things lie ahead.

18. Eric Byrnes, OF, Diamondbacks. A longtime backup and fourth-outfielder type who played for three other teams in 2005 and began the year as a starter, his 21 homers are more than Luis Gonzalez (14) or Shawn Green (11) managed.

17. Carlos Beltran, OF, Mets. Whether it's a matter of improved health or because he has now adjusted to the move to New York, he's a viable MVP candidate in his second season in Queens. However, he still looks a little more comfortable away from Shea (.225 batting average at home, .342 on the road).

16. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. It's not just the good stats in a tough park, it's the number of big hits for a rookie. Yet another big star in the making.

15. Bill Hall, utilityman, Brewers. Anyone who knew enough to grab this 30-homer hitter in their fantasy draft should be in a baseball front office.