Every season, the first week holds a mystical excitement, a throbbing urge to anoint many young players as breakout stars. However, each season holds a bag of tricks and treats, and more than not are tricks. This season, just like the rest, there are many new faces making their newly arrived presence felt in the majors. These players hold a major key to many of their teams’ seasons.
The Tigers had two of these prototypes last season. And, fittingly, they had one of each kind. Justin Verlander’s flame throwing domination persisted, while April home run king Chris Shelton dropped off of the box score and eventually off of the big team. Other surprises included the Braves relief pitcher Oscar Villarreal and outfielder Ryan Langerhans. Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon assumed a the closer role in the second game of the season and the domination never let up. However, Villarreal’s 8 wins in April were more than he would have the rest of the season. Langerhans temporarily batted in the three spot, but his production tapered off dramatically his second time through opponents and teammate Jeff Francouer emerged as the breakout player.
Technically, there is no way to forecast this, but there are some tricks. Most breakout players that are going to stick around are going to have a reason behind their sudden success, whether it be a new role that suits them better or a tweak in a part of their game that has solved a problem. Busts such as Chris Shelton are characterized by blind luck that leads to a mini streak. Shelton hit 5 home runs in the team’s first five games. That is a lucky, unexplainable feat for even the best hitters.
After watching many of these performances, I have gathered a list of players that are making the most of the early season, and these are the players who I deem the real thing.
Orlando Hudson (Arizona 2B)– He has had a hit and a run in every game this season. Batting .412 with 4 RBIs and a homer, Hudson has been placed in the meat of the Diamondback order, with Eric Byrnes setting the table nicely. Hudson’s offense was discounted in Toronto and he was hindered by hitting low in the lineup. His defense has been and will be stellar. I think he will finally show the offense he has to go with it.
Curtis Granderson (Detroit CF)– Many are skeptical of the speedy leadoff hitter’s sudden improvement in average and power, however, this guy’s new numbers are for real. He was noted for a massive amount of strikeouts last season, his first as a major leaguer, but ESPN’s Baseball Tonight revealed why he will continue his success. He made a major adjustment in his swing during the spring, eliminating the backward motion of his hands. He now keeps them back so his swing is a one direction movement, helping him stay with the pitches that were formerly strikes and also improving his power.
Ian Kinsler (Texas 2B)- His rookie season was thrown off track by injury, but he has picked up his production where he left off. Even though he is often stuck at the bottom of the Rangers order, he has shown above average power for a second baseman and definitely has the ability to crank out doubles and hit for a high average.
Elijah Dukes (Tampa Bay OF)- I am not quite so positive about this one. He will not be a consistent starter. He will be a fourth outfielder/DH, but will probably still play in more than half the games barring injury. His temper and personal problems are apparently in the past, thus he is in the majors. In his first two games, against the Yankees no less, he had two home runs. He is the only person in major league history to do that in his first two games against the Yankees. Dukes is scouted as a five tool player, with plus power, base stealing ability and a good arm. If he can keep his head on straight, he will earn his playing time.
Felix Hernandez (Seattle SP)- Just in case he didn’t break out enough last season, King Felix thoroughly dominated in his first start. He is the ace of the Mariner staff and appears to be a younger Carlos Zambrano with better control. I included him because he is sometimes forgotten about due to his team’s inferiority and its west coast location.
Salomon Torres and Ian Snell (Pittsburgh Pitchers)- I clump these two together because both have been impressive and carry any hopes of the Pirates being competitive this season. Torres is the newly anointed closer, after Mike Gonzalez was traded. Although he has never been a closer before, he led the league in appearances last season, pitching in 94 games. Yes, that is 94 out of 162 games, more than many position players. So far, he is perfect in save opportunities. Snell is just a pure strikeout pitcher. He sat 11 down in his first appearance. He is the ace of the staff in my opinion. With Cy Young potential, Snell will be the best starting pitcher of the Buckos this year, and if Zach Duke can come on, this team has a shot in the NL Central.
John Maine (Mets SP)– One of two young guns the Mets are leaning on early this season, the Fredericksburg, VA native tossed a one hitter against the Cardinals. He hits bats, but does not get hit hard. He matured and learned greatly from his stint in the majors late last year. Maine appears poised for a big year.
Daisuke Matsuzaka (Boston SP)– I really do not think I should have to include him in this. It is unfair to the young guys in the American League that he is technically a rookie. He is past that stage. That is an unnecessary honor. I am not getting this all from an impressive start against the Royals, in which he struck out 10, making the baseball look like a wiffleball on a windy day. His myriad of breaking pitches are too many to name for now. There is no gyroball, just to clarify, it is his changeup, thrown with the index finger lingering on the ball until the last possible second, giving it a different motion than any American pitch. Matsuzaka has dominated major leaguers in the World Baseball Classic, done the same in spring training and now he will do it again all season long. Some compare him to Pedro Martinez, but he really is a different breed. He is collected, animated, apparently brilliant, learning English very rapidly, and seems to be teasing people with his pitches. His work ethic may revolutionize the way pitchers are worked in this country and his breaking ball first mentality is stupefying to hitters. Don’t compare him to anybody. If anything, he is the pitching form of Ichiro, and he could be your AL Cy Young winner.