Ready to take it to the next level
Harden, Drew top breakout candidates for 2007 season
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Baseball's 2006 was The Year of Rising Surreptitiously. The season's individual giants all emerged from behind a curtain of relative anonymity, reaching the highest ceilings from a ground-floor start.
The honor roll reminded us anew that the beautiful game's long season is a wonderful kingmaker, an even playing field on which those with a checkered past, or no history at all, can rise above the crowd to go shoulder-to-shoulder with the elite.
It was a season that certainly reaffirmed baseball's reputation as a democratic game. If you play it well and hard, the spotlight finds you.
Joe Mauer began the season with 166 games of Major League experience and won an American League batting title. His Minnesota teammate, Justin Morneau, reigned as the MVP after nearly matching the cumulative power numbers of his first three seasons.
Freddy Sanchez came off the end of the Pirates' bench to wear the NL batting crown. Brandon Webb started the season with a career record of 31-37 and took home the NL Cy Young Award.
One never knows where the lightning of greatness will strike.
Who are the candidates for similar breakouts in 2007? We glimpse five who fit the mold, having covertly but assuredly honed their game to toe the threshold of stardom.
The ground rules are simple: They must be established Major Leaguers, not rookies -- they have their own thresholds and ceilings.
5. Casey Kotchman, Angels: The high expectations have long faded, but the 24-year-old first baseman is set to make his mark six years after being a No. 1 draft pick (13th overall). He has regained his strength after a season-long battle with mononucleosis, and a solid spring attests that his fluid left-handed swing is intact. This is a guy who compiled a cumulative .342 Minor League average prior to his first callup in 2004 -- and he is poised to return to that level for the offense-hungry Angels.
4. Aaron Harang, Reds: The 28-year-old righty has had more trouble with recognition than with results. He led the NL in strikeouts last year while tying for the league lead with 16 wins, yet was ignored in the vote for the Cy Young Award. After dramatically lowering his ERA in each of the past three seasons, Harang is ready to become an every-fifth-day sensation everyone will notice. Maybe enough to turn him into Cincinnati's very first Cy Young pitcher.
3. Erik Bedard, Orioles: He "got it" a lot earlier than do many late-blooming left-handers, setting him up for a breakthrough into his prime. Bedard, who turned 28 earlier this month, was consistently lights-out during another dark season in Baltimore. He went 15-11 for a team that was 26 games under .500 with anyone else starting, and his ERA was 1.49 runs lower than the overall staff's. An amazing 10 of his wins followed Orioles losses. And Bedard went 10-5 after mid-June. He's on the catapult to stardom.
2. J.D. Drew, Red Sox: He is hardly a stranger, but this nine-year veteran is more associated with off-field news than with on-field performance. He's the guy who wouldn't sign with the Phillies and, more recently, the guy who walked out on the Dodgers. But for all the notoriety, Drew has collected more than 27 homers only once and had never driven in more than 93 runs until last season. He is in the perfect town and in the perfect lineup to break through infamy to the other side of that coin: Fame.
1. Rich Harden, Athletics: Both his time, and his turn, have come. The 25-year-old right-hander with the frightening stuff has been taking the dry air out of the Cactus League, striking out 25 of the 53 batters he has faced. Harden has been healthy for only 28 starts the last two seasons, meaning he has lots of saved bullets. This is where the A's get their payoff for not rushing him back from a strained elbow ligament during last summer's division race. A worthy successor to the line of Oakland aces.