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Players to watch

These are likeliest breakout success stories in the NL

Posted: Tuesday February 13, 2007 8:28AM; Updated: Tuesday February 13, 2007 1:12PM
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The Mets are still expecting big things from promising 25-year-old lefty Oliver Perez.
The Mets are still expecting big things from promising 25-year-old lefty Oliver Perez.
Al Tielemans/SI
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Justin Verlander went to Tigers spring training last season with two games of major-league experience. Scott Proctor had been rather useless over two seasons with the Yankees thanks to his ERAs of 5.40 and 6.04. Frank Thomas reported to Oakland's camp having played a total of just 108 games over the previous two seasons. Each of those players, however, became key contributors for playoff-bound teams.

As spring training begins this week, every camp has the potential for at least one breakout player who, as far as the contenders are concerned, just might make the difference toward playing or golfing in October -- be they rookies, late-blooming journeymen or veterans trying to bounce back from injuries or poor seasons.

Who are the Verlanders, Thomases and Proctors of 2007? Only time will tell, but as you follow the intense battles for backup catching jobs, get your annual fill of stories about players' new and improved winter workouts, ponder the overly serious criticism devoted to bullpen sessions and two-inning exhibition outings by veteran pitchers and gladly digest the often banal coverage of glorified baseball practice, keep these players in mind: the players to watch in each National League camp. I'll take the same tour of the players to watch in American League camps in next Tuesday's column.

East

Braves: Scott Thorman, 1B. The Braves felt confident trading Adam LaRoche after his 32-homer breakout season because they believe Thorman, 25, is ready. A former first-round pick out of Canada, Thorman may someday draw comparisons to Justin Morneau, but first he has to prove he can hit lefties. If not, Craig Wilson is on hand as his platoon partner.

Marlins: Henry Owens, P. Is this your next Bobby Jenks? Owens is much older, turning 28 in April. But he will be pitching for his third organization -- the Mets traded him in a deal for lefty Jason Vargas -- and has the minor-league strikeout numbers (12.3 per nine innings) to suggest he can win the Marlins' closer job with a big spring. Owens went 9-for-9 in save chances in winter ball with a 0.79 ERA.

Mets: Oliver Perez, P. What's all the fuss? Perez is 30-43 with a 4.67 ERA and a statistical profile at his age most like Pete Falcone, according to baseballreference.com. Well, sure, but he's still only 25 years old -- he's a year younger than Boston's Jonathan Papelbon -- and his statistical doppelganger entering last year was Sandy Koufax. Maybe a full spring tanning with Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson will unlock the inner Koufax in Perez. More likely, he'll continue to alternately inspire and frustrate his clubs.

Nationals: Nick Johnson, 1B. Five months after surgery to repair a broken femur, Johnson still isn't ready to play baseball. Scar tissue in the leg limited his mobility and required additional surgery. The club will watch him closely in spring training, but an Opening Day appearance grows increasingly unlikely. Indeed, the Nationals may be looking at a month or more of giving at-bats to (gulp!) Travis Lee. Hmm, Felipe Lopez, Cristian Guzman and Lee in the same infield? One hundred losses, here we come.

Phillies: Jon Lieber, P. Does anybody want a soon-to-be 37-year-old pitcher coming off the worst season of his career as a starter, a groundball specialist who doesn't throw enough groundballs any more? We'll find out in spring training, when Lieber, the sixth starter in a five-man rotation, would seem to be auditioning for other clubs.

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