With the end of June fast approaching we’ve got a large enough sample size to draw some conclusions about the 2007 baseball season. Alex Rodriguez and Josh Beckett have inside tracks on the American League MVP and Cy Young awards while the Senior Circuit races are a little more wide open. All of the players vying for those awards were known commodities entering the season, however, and our focus today is on the breakout players who have spent the past three months making a name for themselves in the major leagues. Included are the front-runners for each league’s rookie awards, some faded prospects who are finally blooming and some established players who have reached a new level of success. But there are also the bolts from nowhere who make this and every baseball season so exciting. So, without any further ado, your 2007 Breakout All-Star Team.
C - John Buck, Kansas City
At a position dominated by familiar faces like Jorge Posada and Victor Martinez, Buck has come into his own after a couple of false starts with the Royals. He’s posted an 887 OPS with 13 homers, behind only Posada among catchers, while his club continues its agonizing attempt to climb out of the cellar. His long-awaited breakthrough, coupled with Mark Teahen’s good play, makes the Royals a definite winner in the Carlos Beltran trade of 2004 even as they remain mired in the cellar three years later. His defense could be better but he’s already set a career-high for longballs and is nearing one in walks which means Buck’s moving to the front of the class of big league backstops.
1B - Casey Kotchman, Anaheim
Kotchman gets the nod over Carlos Pena, because Pena’s flopped too many times to take his strong half seriously, and Prince Fielder, because everyone expected big things from him. Kotchman, on the other hand, is a lot like Buck. He’s been a prospect for several seasons but injuries stopped him from making good on the hype. He’s been out for a week with a concussion so those problems may not be totally behind him but there’s no denying that he’s arrived as a hitter. He’s tied for seventh in the AL in batting, sixth in OPS and gives the Angels a big bat behind Vlad Guerrero in their quest for a playoff spot.
2B – Dustin Pedroia, Boston
Pedroia was handed the Red Sox second base job this spring with little competition and it looked like a disastrous decision in the early going. He hit just .182 in April but the Sox were playing well enough to afford him a learning curve. Their patience has paid off. He’s batting .372 since May began and has moved into the second spot in the batting order where he’s scoring runs in front of the heavy lumber that makes up the middle of Boston’s order. He’s a leading contender for the AL Rookie of the Year and could be in the mix for a batting title if he keeps up his play across the second half of the season.
SS – J.J. Hardy, Milwaukee
Hardy was always expected to be the Brewers shortstop but after a subpar 2005 was beaten out by Bill Hall as the starter last season. He got the job back when Hall moved to the outfield this year and has made the most of his chance by slugging 17 home runs and helping the Brewers to the top of the NL Central. That power spike helps him eke out the surprising Brendan Harris of Tampa Bay as the shortstop on our breakout team although both men have gone a long way toward securing their big league features in the first half of the 2007 season.
3B – Jose Bautista, Pittsburgh
Third base might be the deepest position in the major leagues and the marquee names haven’t disappointed this season. Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright and Chipper Jones are all enjoying exceptional campaigns. Ryan Zimmerman is making the strides expected of a Rookie of the Year and veteran mainstays Troy Glaus, Mike Lowell and Casey Blake are turning in good years at the plate. Ty Wigginton and Brandon Inge had good 2006 seasons and are turning in reasonable facsimiles while Brewer prospect Ryan Braun hasn’t been up long enough to say anything more than he looks as promising as predicted. That leaves us with Bautista who doesn’t quite rank with the elite of the position but gives the Pirates a reliable bat and that’s something they can’t find enough of in Pittsburgh. That he can't field very well and isn't exactly All-Star material is a problem for another day. This team needs a third baseman though and Bautista gets the nod.
LF – Reggie Willits, Anaheim
When Juan Rivera broke his leg during the winter the Angels were fearful of the impact his absence would have on the offense. They signed Shea Hillenbrand as a free agent but they needn’t have bothered since Willits was already in the organization. Given a chance to play the 27-year old has seized a regular spot at the top of the lineup with his .439 on-base percentage. Throw in 18 steals in 20 attempts and Willits has infused the Angel lineup with speed and made things easier in front of the mighty Vlad Guerrero just as Kotchman has helped guarantee him good pitches. The two members of the breakout team have conspired to help the Halos to an eight-game bulge in the West.
CF – Hunter Pence, Houston
Pence hasn’t been with the big league team long enough to qualify for the batting title but he’s been there long enough to ensure himself a spot in Houston’s long-term plans. He’s got a ridiculous 26.4 VORP, best among all rookies, and is slugging .609 for the otherwise moribund Houston offense. Those numbers better the efforts produced by Andruw Jones, Vernon Wells and Johnny Damon to name three. A leading contender for the National League Rookie of the Year, Pence is just about the only reason for optimism on an Astro team that was allowed to get old in their futile pursuit of a World Championship over the last decade. He needs to learn some patience at the plate but that can come with time. Special kudos go to Josh Hamilton of Cincinnati as well for beating his drug addiction to start making good on the tools that made him the first overall pick of the 1999 draft.
RF – Shane Victorino, Philadelphia
You could probably tab Corey Hart and his sunglasses for this spot but we’ve already got one Brewer and Victorino is a real feel-good story. In a Phillie season that’s been marred by bullpen failures and the continued struggles of Pat Burrell, Victorino has become a fan favorite with his balls to the wall style and productive bat. He’s stolen 22 bases in 24 tries, plays a terrific rightfield and has earned his own bobble-head doll. Fittingly the doll pays tribute to his Hawaiian roots if not his long odyssey from a sixth-round pick in 1999 to everyday player in 2007. For Phillie fans accustomed to disappointment, Victorino has provided a surprising reason to smile.
DH – Jack Cust, Oakland
His history and 52 strikeouts say that the end may be around any corner but his 11 homers and overdue chance as an everyday player have made him a cult hero and earned him a place on this team.
SP – Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore
Picked up on waivers from the Indians in the offseason, Guthrie has proven to be one of the savviest pickups in recent memory. He’s made nine straight quality starts since being moved into the rotation full-time and only the woeful Oriole offense has kept him from winning more than three of those games. He’s garnered some support as a Rookie of the Year candidate and while that might not happen for him he’s rapidly become a part of the rebuilding plan for whoever manages the Orioles for the rest of this year and beyond.
SP – Ian Snell, Pittsburgh
Yes, he needs to be more careful while preparing salad but if he can keep his mound focus with him in the kitchen he should avoid any further injury interruptions to his breakout year. Snell did win 14 games last year with the Bucs but did it in spite of a 4.74 ERA and 29 homers against. This time around he’s got a 2.92 ERA, a VORP of 29 and has been touched for just seven longballs. He and Tom Gorzelanny give Pittsburgh hope for the future on the mound and if Bryan Bullington, the long-gestating first overall pick in 2002 keeps up his strong AAA work there might soon be reason to smile in Steel City.
SP – James Shields, Tampa Bay
Shields flashed strikeout ability in 21 2006 starts but he couldn’t keep the opposing team off the scoreboard. This year, though, he’s cut down on his walks, shaved more than a run off his ERA and thrown quality starts in 10 of his 15 turns on the hill. He ranks eighth in the league in Pitcher Runs Created, a stat that measures how many runs a pitcher’s saved, and teams with Scott Kazmir to give the Devil Rays some certainty in their never-ending search for quality pitching.
SP – Fausto Carmona, Cleveland
Carmona made headlines last summer when he was handed the closer job after Bob Wickman’s trade and immolated to the tune of three straight blown saves and four losses. He returned to the rotation after that but if not for an injury to Cliff Lee probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance in the early going this season. But he did and he’s made the most of it with an 8-3 record and 3.21 ERA. His walk and strikeout rates forecast rougher sailing ahead but he’s just 23 and has shown resiliency thus far in his career. If Justin Germano keeps up his performance through eight starts with the Padres he could slip into this or another spot by season’s end.
RP – Hideki Okajima, Boston
Daisuke Matsuzaka was the Japanese import that had Boston tongues wagging this winter but Okajima’s done a better job to this point of the season. He’s the highest ranked reliever by Pitcher Runs Created and allows less than a runner per inning pitched making him a key part of the path from starter to Papelbon in Boston. He’s also notched four saves when Paps hasn’t been available, proving himself steely under pressure and making him a Fenway favorite from the get-go.
RP – Kevin Cameron, San Diego
Like Okajima Cameron is a case of the rich getting richer. Already blessed with Cla Meredith, Scott Linebrink and the indomitable Trevor Hoffman in the bullpen, Cameron has come in and outpitched them all so far in 2007. He’s got a miniscule 0.36 ERA in his 24 and two-thirds innings of work and has stranded 96.8% of the runners that reached base against him. Extremely small sample size warning here but Cameron is shortening games even more in the pitcher's paradise of Petco Park.
CL – J.J. Putz, Seattle
Putz nailed down 36 saves in 2006 but wasn't known for much beyond a name that led to sophmoric giggles when you read it. That's why his performance this year has still been an eye-opener. He’s converted all 21 of his save chances and his late-game brilliance has helped the Mariners to a 39-33 start and into the thick of the Wild Card race. He’s striking out more than a batter per inning and leads all closers in both VORP and Pitcher Runs Created, shifting from the guy who got the ball at the end of Seattle games to just The Guy in the process. There’s no smoke and mirrors with Putz, he just blows the other team away and will be in San Francisco for the All-Star Game because of it. And it's pronounced Puts.