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Players to Watch in 2005

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It's been a while since I've done anything of significant importance for this website. While I have thrown out a random comment here or there, I've been relatively non-existent for the past three months. This leave of absence is compliments of a 23 unit school load in which I submitted just under 100 pages of text over a span of 10 weeks. Not to mention a full-time job, that as Jeff indicated, had me in LA for a couple days this week.

But enough about me, this quarter is over and the baseball season is right around the corner. I'd like to take step away from the norm and talk about a couple players that I feel are primed for break-out seasons, rebound seasons or career years. Last year, I posted a similar post on my old blog which has been pirated and replaced with a very awkward Greg Colbrunn injury update website. Names on the last years list were Sean Casey, Travis Hafner, Wily Mo Pena, Adrian Beltre (never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate anything close to the extent of what he actually accomplished), Morgan Ensberg, Sean Burroughs, Jose Reyes, Jake Peavy, Kip Wells, Randy Wolf, Gil Meche, Brad Penny and Rafael Soriano.

I would like to make it clear that the following names are based strongly on my opinion. There is analysis in statistical trends, but they shouldn't be viewed as projections and use the information however you see fit (i.e. fantasy drafts).

Offense:

Garrett Atkins - The 25 year old third baseman is finally getting a chance to play everyday for the Rockies. Atkins has performed well as he moved up the organizational ladder, showing a good eye and gap power and is going to be playing in the league's best offensive environment. 2004 was Atkins best year as a pro as he hit .366/.434/.578, walking 57 times while striking out only 45 times, (hitting in the offensive friendly Security Service Field). The biggest concern about Atkins is his glove, but as long as he hits, he should keep the hot corner warm until Ian Stewart is ready.

Michael Cuddyer - Cuddyer is finally getting a chance to play everyday, replacing Corey Koskie at third base. Cuddyer has an impressive minor league resume, highlighted by his 2001 (30 HR) and 2002 (20 HR) seasons. His minor league power hasn't translated to the minor leagues yet, but I fully expect that in his first season as a regular the power numbers will begin to return. He has a decent eye and good enough speed to swipe a couple bags as well. Cuddyer will make the Twins fans forget about Koskie sooner rather than later.

Shawn Green - Unlike some of the other players on this list, Green has peaked. But that doesn't mean he won't be a useful player for the D-Backs. Last season, Green was two different players. In the first half he was the anemic Green that we have come to know, hitting .253/.335/.399. In the second half, Green seemed to wake up from his slumber, hitting .281/.371/.529. Green is going to be playing half his games at the B.O.B., where he has been successful during his career. He admits his shoulder is finally healthy and he is in a line-up with more protection than he had in LA. While I don't expect him to relive some of his best years, 40 HR's and 100 RBI's isn't out of the realm of possibilities.

Kaz Matsui - Matsui arrived to the big leagues last season with high expectations and promptly fell flat on his face. Much like the other Matsui in NY the year before, Kaz didn't fulfill the lofty expectations that were placed upon him. This season, Matsui is shifting from SS to 2B and with human vacuum cleaner Doug Mientkiewicz manning first base, his defense should improve. Offensively, Matsui should improve on his numbers from last year. Hampered by injuries and seeing many pitchers for the first time, Matsui struggled at times, but was able to post a respectable .272/.331/.396 line for a rookie. If Matsui can avoid injury problems in 2005, he could flourish hitting at the top of the Mets line-up.

Kevin Mench - Injuries have caused Mench to miss significant chunks of time the past three seasons. Last season, Mench illustrated the power potential that everyone was waiting for. He absolutely mashed left handed pitching last season and took full advantage of the hitter friendly environment in Arlington. He is currently penciled in as the everyday left fielder for the Rangers and if he can stay healthy for 140 games, he should put up some nice numbers.

Austin Kearns - Kearns has always been on the cusp of breaking out, but injuries have plagued him the past couple of seasons. Despite his middle aged fragility, Kearns is only 24 and as long as he can stay healthy, he is primed for a big season. A patient hitter with a pretty good eye, he has the ability to put up some stellar numbers in the bandbox known as The Great American Ball Park. Last year it was Wily Mo Pena who took center stage for the Reds. This year, it's Kearns turn.

Pitchers:

A.J. Burnett - There are a few variables that make Burnett the top pitcher on my list. First of all, he is a year removed from Tommy John surgery. Historically, pitchers take between 8-12 months to fully recover from the now common procedure. Secondly, he will be pitching half of his games in the pitching friendly atmosphere of Pro Player Stadium. Factor into the equation that he is a year away from free agency, Burnett is primed for a career year. After returning last season, Burnett struggled in June and into part of July and then dominated over the rest of the year. He is a quintessential example of a pitcher who is effectively wild. Burnett has a fastball that touches the upper 90's and can hit 100 MPH on occasion. He compliments his fastball with a 12-6 curve that keeps hitters off-balance. Burnett knows that a big payday awaits him in the off-season and he will do everything in his ability to make sure that he adds a few more dollars to the pile of cash he will inevitably receive.

Javier Vazquez - Much like Jeff Weaver before him, Vazquez arrived to NY and stunk. In the first half of the season he performed like the pitcher the Yankees thought they were acquiring. But after making an appearance in the All-Star game, Vazquez fell a part, a la Freddy Garcia circa 2002. There were some concerns about arm troubles, but tests failed to reveal anything structurally wrong. Whether it was stage fright or mechanics, Vazquez just struggled. Returning to the NL and pitching in front of the Arizona fans will help. It was only a season ago that Vazquez was considered one of the best pitchers in the league and I definitely see a Jeff Weaveresque rebound in 2005.

Dan Haren - One of the key pieces of the Mark Mulder trade, Haren will be stepping into the Oakland A's rotation where he will be asked to fill some pretty big shoes. The 24 year old right hander put together an impressive minor league resume, minimizing walks and striking out just under a batter an inning. Pitching in front of a pretty good defense will help as well. This year, he could conceivably win 14-15 games with respectable strike out numbers. He might be on this list a year early, but he has the potential to put up some terrific numbers in the rebuilt A's rotation for years to come.

Jeremy Bonderman - From a Billy Beane acquisition to a Billy Beane castaway. The 22 year old Bonderman has a plus mid-90's fastball and a plus slider. His change-up is still raw, but he made progress with it in the second half of last season and the results were evident. In the first half of 2004, Bonderman had a 6.03 ERA, 83/45 K/BB ratio and a .271 BAA. The second half of the year, Bonderman was a different pitcher, posting a 3.70 ERA, an 85/28 K/BB ratio and a .211 BAA. Pitching half of his games in one of the biggest ballparks in baseball can only help. Bonderman is well on his way to becoming one of the better pitchers in baseball.