Top National League breakouts
Jason Heyward has skills to produce season similar to Carlos Gonzalez in 2010
Colby bRasmus should benefit hitting in front of Albert Pujols in a contract year
Matt Cain's conditioning should allow him to avoid postseason hangover
Finding breakouts isn't easy. It is hard to see something before it is right before your eyes. But after taking a shot at helping you look into that crystal ball in the AL, we turn our gaze to the NL, in predicted order of finish.
Hamels finally struck out 200 batters last season, but he has yet to win more than 15 games or post an ERA below 3.00. This could be the year he puts it all together, especially at age 27. Hamels will also be going into his final season of arbitration next year, so he will be pitching for his first big-time contract. He will fly under the radar behind aces Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt, but he is talented enough to outpitch all of them.
The Braves ooze with young talent such as Heyward, third-year starting pitcher Tommy Hanson and a slew of Rookie of the Year candidates. Hanson is an easy pick to have his best season yet, but Heyward is a potential Rotisserie monster. His numbers as a 20-year-old were pedestrian, but a full healthy season could make him a .300-30-100-100-30 beast among all beasts. He should be this year's Carlos Gonzalez.
Speaking of early 20-something outfielders with astronomical ceilings, Stanton hit 22 homers in 100 games after early June. That pace makes him a 30-plus homer threat in his first full season. If he hits even .260, he is going to be one of the best young sluggers of fantasy. Heyward might be more multidimensional with the speed, but Stanton is a monster in the all-mighty power categories.
The Mets with a breakout? They are more known for their breakdowns, Reyes included. Well, Reyes is a 27-year-old, injury-risk sleeper who is in a contract year. There are just too many reasons why we should expect Reyes to be better than ever. He won't steal 78 bases again or hit 20 homers, but he should be a threat to go .300-15-80-120-50 in a contract year. It is time for him to become a gazillionaire.
You might pick Jordan Zimmermann to break through, but he is more of a sleeper as a late-round pick and as a young starter still working his way back from Tommy John surgery; he will be limited to around 160-180 innings. That makes it tough to be an ace, especially one a young non-contending team. Storen is the better bet to breakout of the closer's spot, assuming he earns the role in Spring Training. He could be the next Chad Cordero. Remember the year Cordero had in 2005 in his first full season as a closer: 47 saves, 1.82 ERA and 0.97 WHIP.
The Brewers added a front-line starter in Zack Greinke this winter, but they are going to realize they have two of them with the development of Gallardo into a lock-down Cy Young candidate. He is going to finally get above the 200-innings mark, win 17-plus games and post an ERA in the low 3.00s, if not sub-3.00. We have yet to see the best out of this 25-year-old.
Hitting second in front of the best slugger in baseball is the coziest spot in baseball. That would be Rasmus, who will be followed in the order by the incomparable Albert Pujols in a contract year. It should help Rasmus take that next huge step into superstardom. A lot of people are fully expecting his breakthrough this season, so you're going to have to draft him far higher than his modest numbers to date suggest. Here is a vote of confidence in saying it will be worth it. He could go .280-30-80-120-20.
The Reds enjoyed a banner season in 2010, but there should still be more improvement coming for Drew Stubbs, Johnny Cueto and Bruce. It is Bruce who could go the latest of the trio and make the largest splash. In his ballpark and lineup, he could be a candidate for 40 homers. He has to hit 30 first, but that will come this year, along with 100 RBIs and 100 runs.
Garza won 15 games a year ago, but there were stretches of last season when he pitched like a Cy Young candidate. A move to the NL -- at least away from the AL Beast Division-- tends to make things easier on a pitcher, so Garza could post an ERA around 3.00 and strike out 200-plus batters for the first time in his career.
Norris is a poor man's starting pitcher for fantasy owners. He is going to go for a $1 in some auctions, but rarely do you get a 200-strikeout pitcher for that. He needs to cut down on walks and high pitch counts, but 200-plus innings will make him a candidate for the lofty 200-strikeout plateau. He figures to be a real bargain.
McCutchen was consistent -- no, identical -- with his average and on-base percentage from his rookie season to his first full season in the majors. This will be a year of significant increases in the power categories. He could be a 40-plus basestealer, too. This is a real talented 24-year old just scratching the surface.
Stewart is one of those elite prospects that comes with mostly mid-level production, but something tends to click after the age of 25. Stewart is going to be 26 this April, in his prime and ready to take off as a mixed-league fantasy option. He still has the pop to be a mixed-league fantasy star along the lines of .270-30-100.
If you watched the postseason closely, you already witnessed Cain break through. He didn't allow an earned run in three playoff starts, 21 1/3 innings. Cain, though, has only won as many as 14 games once in his career, despite boasting that 20-win stuff we saw in the postseason. It is tough to deal with the World Series hangover, but Cain has conditioned his shoulder very well the past five seasons and should be able to handle it better than most. At age 27, he is going to be a good value after the top 15 starting pitchers are off the board.
The Dodgers have some great breakout candidates in Andre Ethier, Kemp, James Loney and Chad Billingsley. We are assuming you already consider Clayton Kershaw having broken out as a third-year starting pitcher a year ago. All of these players can still be even better, but none have the fantasy ceiling of Kemp. Many have expected Kemp to have the year the Rockies' Gonzalez had a year ago: .330-35-110-100-25. Turning 27 later this season could make it happen now. He has reported to camp 15 pounds lighter, too.
Here is where we try to play both sides of the fence. If you read our preview on potential busts, you will notice the name Latos featured prominently. He is at risk with the Verducci Effect, an innings total a bit too high from one year to the next. But what if Latos avoids injury and hits 200-plus innings? Well, he could be a breakthrough. We warn of the risks, but there are always exceptions to every rule, and Latos thus far has looked like an exceptional young ace.
It is as hard to believe this Upton is just 23 years old as it is to realize he hasn't had a truly spectacular season yet. Don't be down on his woefully disappointing numbers from a year ago. Heck, older brother B.J. still hasn't reached his peak. Upton did get paid last spring, which could be a reason for his mediocrity, but he is too good to not be his best yet at 23 this season.
After reading the names on this list, a lot of them look obvious. That will make them a bit tough to get on draft day. Hyping and targeting breakouts tends to be more of a function of surprise, though, which is why we will point you back to our six-part series on finding breakouts before they happen.
Hype can guide you, but it guides us all. Sometimes the best things come from places no one expects it.
Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.
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