MLB 2011: Breakout players and contract years

Jeremy Hellickson.

3 Breakout Players

1 Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Tampa Bay

Few youngsters are coming into this season with better pedigrees than Hellickson: The Des Moines, Iowa, native was the USA Today and Baseball America minor league player of the year last season.

Now that he’s Tampa Bay’s confirmed No. 5 starter, big things should come from Hellickson. He looked seasoned in 36.1 big-league innings last year, fanning 33 batters and walking just eight.

All signs point to this kid becoming Tim Lincecum’s heir apparent as the best young pitcher in baseball … then leaving Tampa Bay for a $200 million contract with the Red Sox or Yankees before the decade is out.

2 Gordon Beckham, 2B, Chicago White Sox

With Chase Utley hurt, there’s a top-three spot in the pantheon of second basemen open for grabs.

Look for Beckham to stake his claim before 2011 is out.

Even after a disappointing 2010 (.252 BA, .317 OBP, .378 SLG, .695 OPS), Beckham is looking at the No. 2 spot in the White Sox’s order and an unquestioned starting spot on a $125 million team.

The pressure is off Beckham to carry much of the load in a lineup that includes Adam Dunn, Paul?Konerko, Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios. That should be all Beckham — a 24-year-old native of Atlanta — needs to improve on the kind of numbers he posted in his rookie season:?.270 BA, .347 OBP, .460 SLG, .808 OPS.

3 Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pittsburgh

Alvarez made an immediate impact during his lengthy rookie-year stay in the majors last year, batting .256 with 16 home runs and 64 RBIs.

The sky’s the limit for his second campaign, especially since he’s reportedly been putting in long hours in the cage during spring training.

“I’ve been making some strides, though I still have a little work to do before the season starts,” Alvarez told MLB.com. “I think it’s gone pretty well.”

The one issue with the kid from the Dominican Republic:?strikeouts. He fanned an impressive 119 times in 347 at-bats last season. That’s a lot like the rate of prodigious K-man Adam Dunn (199 in 558 at-bats last year).

3 Contract Years

1 Albert Pujols, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals

The most talked-about contract of the 2010-11 offseason wasn’t one signed during that span. No, it was Albert Pujols’, which is set to expire this fall after negotiations broke down during spring training. Everyone knows what Pujols can do with the bat — he’s a .331 career hitter with a stunning 172 OPS+, after all. The question is where he’ll be slugging come next year … or maybe even this August.

2 Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers

Lost amid the Pujols talk during the hot stove season was Fielder (who, by the way, has an amazing middle name in “Semien”). The soon-to-be 27-year-old has made himself one of baseball’s most feared power hitters in Milwaukee, and is all but certain to end up elsewhere in 2012.

Consider this season little more than a free-agency audition for Cecil’s boy.

3 Jose Reyes, SS, New York Mets

With the Mets figuring to be far out of contention by the trade deadline, Reyes could prove to be a difference-making prize for someone down the stretch. But that, of course, depends on whether his upcoming free-agent status inspires the speedster to reach the heights he saw in years like 2008, when he hit .297 with a .358 OBP, an .833 OPS and 56 stolen bases.


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