Which players might break out in 2008?

Which players might break out in 2008?

We've seen glimpses of what they can do, hints of future stardom. For dozens of players with more potential than track record, the chance of a breakout season is always there, though it seldom arrives when expected.

With the season about to get under way, there are a number of such players who might be ready to break out to budding All-Star status.

These 20-something talents have already enjoyed some success at the Major League level. Their learning curves are on the upswing based on factors like their second-half performances last season and projected playing time for 2008.

Will it be Washington's Ryan Zimmerman, who had a very good season (.266, 24 HR, 91 RBIs) in 2007, but should put up even better numbers now that the Nationals have moved out of cavernous RFK?

Another young third baseman, Cincinnati's Edwin Encarnacion, struggled early last year and was sent to the Minor Leagues. When he returned, Encarnacion hit well, including a .309 average in his last 67 games, with 10 homers and 40 RBIs. Reds manager Dusty Baker, noting that Encarnacion had 74 RBIs despite spending a month in the Minors, plans to hit him behind Adam Dunn.

Now many players had a better second half at the plate than Florida outfielder Jeremy Hermida, who hit .340 with 10 homers after the break, and .296 with 18 homers for the season. But injuries limited him to 123 games, and now he is healthy.

What about Atlanta's Yunel Escobar? Escobar, who turned 25 years old in November, played three infield positions last season while hitting .326 with five homers and 28 RBIs in 319 at bats.

Escobar's emergence convinced the Braves they could part with shortstop Edgar Renteria, who was dealt to Detroit in October. Now the starter at shortstop and likely the No. 2 hitter in the batting order, Escobar appears ready to break out for the Braves.

As intriguing as those candidates are, here's five who appear to have the most going for their breakout 2008 campaigns:

1, Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals. The second overall pick of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Gordon was given the starting job at third base last year and hit .184 with three homers and eight RBIs during the first two months of the season.

Over the next three months, Gordon started to put it all together. He figured out what adjustments needed to be made, and began to show improvement as the season progressed. He batted .284 with eight homers and 39 RBIs from June 1-Sept. 1 and has given every indication he is ready to take off in 2008.

2, Yovani Gallardo, RHP, Brewers. Gallardo, who went 9-5 with a 3.27 ERA in 20 games (17 starts) helped keep the Brewers in contention.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

Gallardo missed three weeks of Spring Training because of knee surgery, but has resumed throwing and is expected to be ready to go by Opening Day.

Just 22 years old and expected to be No. 3 in the Brewers rotation between Jeff Suppan and Carlos Villanueva, you wonder what a healthy Gallardo will do given 30-35 starts and a solid offense behind him.

3, Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers. He's missed 75 games over the last two seasons due to injuries. The rest of the time, Kinsler has averaged a .274 batting average, 17 homers, 58 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.

This year, we might get to see what Kinsler will do in a full season, and that prospect has the Rangers and their fans very excited.

Only 25 and with nearly 1,000 Major League at-bats, Kinsler is beginning what are typically the peak performance years for most Major Leaguers.

4, Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers. Fans have been waiting for Weeks to break out since he finished sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2005 after batting .239 with 13 homers and 42 RBIs. Last year, Weeks hit .235 with 16 homers and 36 RBIs and a career high 78 walks, but he struck out 116 times in 409 at bats. The Brewers sent Weeks down in August.

He came back and wound up hitting .273 with 11 homers in his last 197 at-bats. Although he hasn't hit well in the Cactus League this spring, the 25-year-old is healthy and should put together a breakout season.

5, Rich Hill, LHP, Cubs. Hill was a surprise early last season, going 4-1 with a 1.73 ERA during his first six starts. After that, Hill was inconsistent, though he did finish 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA.

Hill, expected to be fourth in the rotation, has been working on quickening his delivery to hold baserunners better. And the changeup Hill began working on last year is much improved. Hill allowed 27 home runs last year, but surrendered fewer as the season progressed.

With the Cubs picked to contend again in '08, Hill's stock is poised to climb even higher.

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