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Five players ready to 'make the leap' this year

Five players ready to 'make the leap' this year

Five players ready to 'make the leap' this year
Baseball fans are well-known for their love of the past, but no sport embraces its future in quite the same way, either. Thanks to the Minor Leagues and Spring Training, baseball always has one eye on what's to come.

With that in mind, here is an examination of five players who have already produced in the big leagues but whose brightest days should be still to come. These five are poised to "make the leap," from the productive, effective level they already inhabit to true stardom.

Starlin Castro, Cubs: Castro is growing into one of the most exciting profiles in baseball: the young, talented veteran. When a player has significant experience already at a young age, and has great talent to go with it, that's reason for great optimism. Castro has already played nearly two full seasons, yet he's entering his age-22 campaign. He has tremendous tools, though at least on defense his performance has yet to meet his skill level.

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As is the case with many young players, Castro hasn't quite mastered the task of being consistent. It's not due to a lack of desire or effort; it's just that it's a difficult assignment.

"Castro is a good kid, he's got a great future ahead of him," Cubs Minor League hitting coach Mariano Duncan said recently, "but he has to understand what we're trying to teach him and make him do it. We believe he has a chance to be an All-Star shortstop all the time."

The right-handed hitter could control the strike zone better. He could flash more power. He could be more consistent defensively. But he's 22, he has more than 1,000 Major League plate appearances, and he's already an excellent player. The future is bright.

Eric Hosmer, Royals: There's are several Royals who could be considered for this group, but Hosmer is the one most clearly on the verge of stardom. He has the pedigree, he has the performance and he has the skills.

Pretty much everything we know about Hosmer screams stardom. He was a No. 3 overall Draft pick as a first baseman, something that just about never happens unless a player's bat is just that good. He tore up the Minor Leagues in parts of four seasons, and then did more than hold his own as a 21-year-old in the Major Leagues last year.

The most similar player to Hosmer at this point in his career, according to Baseball-Reference.com? Try Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. And maybe the most encouraging thing thus far is this: After a bit of a slow start in his rookie year, Hosmer torched the American League in the second half, putting up a .313/.349/.493 line after the All-Star break.

Hosmer is the surest thing in Kansas City's impressive youth movement, and if there's anything to worry about, it's the pressure of being the face of a hoped-for renaissance in a city desperate for baseball relevance. He handled that pressure with aplomb as a rookie, though, and there's every reason to think the young slugger keeps advancing in 2012.

Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays: All of these players have hype surrounding them. All of them have expectations. Only Lawrie, though, is his nation's baseball hope. A native Canadian, the pressure on the Blue Jays third baseman is unique. Fortunately, so is his talent.

Lawrie is a pure hitter, a smart hitter and a confident hitter. He abused American League East pitching in his 2011 debut, putting up a .293/.373/.580 line that would be good for MVP consideration if he were to do it over a full year. Lawrie, a top prospect long before he turned pro in 2009, has hit at every level.

The next step for him will be to respond successfully when the scouting reports get out. Opponents will have more video and more information on him this time around, and while he'll also have more experience, the onus will be on Lawrie to counteract the adjustments pitchers make against him.

"The one thing that he showed in the 150 at-bats he had with us last year was pitch recognition," Blue Jays manager John Farrell said. "When he stays with his strike zone and doesn't chase out of the strike zone, that's when he can be a hitter with some impact in the game. That's why I think at the age he is, and with his production even in a short glimpse, he's got a chance to be pretty special."

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: Of the players named here, McCutchen is by far the most established, and maybe the one with the least "leaping" still to be done. He's already been an All-Star, already is the face of the Pirates, already is one of the best players in the National League. He's also only 25 years old.

McCutchen has nearly 2,000 Major League plate appearances under his belt, and he has yet to enter what should be his prime years. His power and walk rates both took nice steps forward in 2011, and he's become an excellent center fielder. The pieces are there for McCutchen to be not just a star but an MVP candidate. It seems he's been around a while, but there's plenty of room for growth remaining. And, most exciting for Pirates fans, he's going to do it while wearing black and gold, thanks to a long-term contract he signed this month.

"This was a commitment the organization was willing to make because of the person he is, the player he is -- and the player we believe he is going to become," Bucs general manager Neal Huntington said when the deal was signed.

That is to say, the Pirates love the player they already have. But they're still dreaming about the player McCutchen may yet become.

Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins: If you like power, this is your man. Nobody in baseball, young or otherwise, rates higher on the power scale than the Marlins' mountain of a slugger. Best of all, that's not all he does.

Pretty much every indicator for Stanton trended in the right direction in 2011. His isolated slugging (a measure of power) went up. His walk rate went up and his strikeout rate went down. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage all went up. He's 22, loaded with skills, and he's getting better.

At this point, it appears that the only thing that could slow him down might be the Marlins' new downtown ballpark, which may play as a rather pitcher-friendly facility. Then again, so did the old place, and it didn't contain him.

Stanton also seems to have the right mindset. He's not aiming for a home run total or an RBI total. Those numbers are going to be there. He's working to refine the rest of his game.

"[The goal is] just to be solid all around," he said. "Don't give up at-bats or give away situations. Understand situations. Be a smarter player overall. You put those pieces together, everything else is going to work."

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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