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Who is poised for a breakout in 2008?

Who is poised for a breakout in 2008?

Even if the first step seems easy, the first leap rarely is.

Though it's difficult enough to break into the Major Leagues, it remains tougher still to crack baseball's hallowed fraternity of superstardom. Many try. Most fall short. And only a select few each season, through some combination of skill and good fortune, manage to muscle their way into baseball's elite.

Identifying that next batch of stars, however, remains far from a science. Some splash onto the scene as rookies and never look back. Others take years to fulfill promises of seemingly endless potential. And still others just plain pop out of nowhere.

What's clear is that there's no singular path to stardom -- the following players span the spectrum of possibilities as to how anyone might climb that high. Perhaps all of them will make a leap this season. Perhaps none of them will. But if any Major Leaguer has a chance to enjoy a breakout summer, he's an awfully good bet to be among these six.

Rickie Weeks
The city of Milwaukee was enamored with its Brewers last summer, and for good reason. After years of falling short -- sometimes way short -- of their goals, the Brewers charged out to the league's best record and sparked new interest where before there was none. The fact that Milwaukee ultimately missed out on the postseason surely stung, but back in May and June, these Brewers were kings.

Lost in that shuffle was Weeks, one of the most talented Brewers of all. Still not quite recovered from wrist surgery the summer before, Weeks stayed away from the field for chunks at a time -- and when he did play, his hitting seemed strained.

"Rickie is such a tough kid," manager Ned Yost said in June. "He plays through pain. It's hard to get him to admit the degree of pain that he had."

Once Weeks found his health, everything changed. First, his batting stroke returned -- he hit .327 in August -- then his power followed. Nine home runs over the final month were reminder enough that this former first-round Draft pick has yet to play a full season in the Majors. He has yet to prove all that he can do.

James Loney
In some ways, Loney already has arrived. He was good last year -- so good, in fact, that the Dodgers shuffled veteran Nomar Garciaparra across the diamond to ensure Loney regular at-bats. Playing two or three games per week wasn't good enough. The team wanted, and perhaps needed, much more.

That's not the end of his story, or so the Dodgers hope. There's plenty room to improve for a first baseman who hit .380 at Triple-A two years ago, and who followed that effort with a .331 mark in the Majors last summer.

There's room for more power. There's room for more consistency. And in what will be Loney's first full season in the Majors, there's time for him to achieve both.

"This guy can hit," former manager Grady Little said last year. "He has a good approach up there, a knowledge of the strike zone. He doesn't get fooled much on pitches. He's shown production with people on base. He's pretty much productive any time."

Jeremy Hermida
There's an expectation that comes with being a first-round Draft pick, a tag slapped on a player from his first days as a pro. If nothing else, these guys are supposed to be good. Real good.

So when Hermida struggled through each of his first two seasons in the big leagues, the criticism was inevitable. Forgotten were the injuries or the fact that he was just 21 years old when he broke into the Majors. All that mattered were results.

"It definitely didn't turn out like everybody expected it to," Hermida said last spring. "But all that stuff ... it's in one ear and out the other in my book."

He was right. Though still hobbled by a knee injury in the early part of 2007, Hermida rebounded with a .340 average and 10 home runs after the All-Star break. And with all those expectations now rekindled, there's little reason to believe he can't do it again.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia
The foul balls, the collisions, the constant crouch -- most catchers break down long before they ever break out. But Saltalamacchia is different. He's something of a prodigy, and the Rangers know it. That's why, despite having all the depth they could ever need at catcher, they're intent on letting Saltalamacchia mature behind the plate.

"There were a couple of things at play there," general manager Jon Daniels said. "One is his passion; that's what he wants to do. That's also where his value is greatest. He's a switch-hitting catcher who is capable of hitting 20 to 25 home runs.

"Not many teams have that."

Nor do many teams have a catcher who, at 22 years old, has already proven himself among the position's elite offensive players. In an abbreviated Major League stint split between the Rangers and Braves last summer, Saltalamacchia slugged 11 home runs -- a total that more than half the game's current starting catchers couldn't match all year.

Zack Greinke
He wasn't even supposed to be a baseball player, much less stand on the cusp of stardom. Yet, two years after leaving the Royals for personal reasons -- and intending perhaps never to return -- Greinke has blazed a path to that exact spot. Whatever demons haunted him at the start of his promising career have only made him stronger.

"I think the great thing about Zack's situation is that he has turned it into a positive, which is good to see," general manager Dayton Moore said. "We all learn from circumstances that we go through."

Greinke's newfound optimism -- not to mention his newly refined skills -- produced a 7-7 record and 3.69 ERA in 14 starts and 38 relief appearances last season. That line was punctuated by his final home start, in which he struck out 10 White Sox over eight innings of shutout ball. And at just 25 years old and now expected to help anchor a young but promising staff, his potential, once tempered, has since regained all of its luster.

Scott Kazmir
It was billed as the coup of the century back in 2004, when the Rays grabbed Kazmir from the Mets in exchange for veteran starter Victor Zambrano. And though time confirmed that trade as a success for Tampa Bay -- Zambrano lasted just two injury-riddled seasons in New York -- Kazmir has yet to fulfill his once extraordinary potential. Perhaps until now.

His second half of last season included a mechanical tweak, a 2.39 ERA and a whiff of the greatness that might still lie ahead. Make no mistake -- Kazmir is already a dominant starter. But a full season at that rate of success would redefine him as one of the top pitchers in baseball.

"I think this is the best we've had," Kazmir said of the rotation that he now anchors. "Seriously, as guys get more and more familiar with the big leagues, they get better and better."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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