Like any fan of the game, right now is an anxious time for me. We’re under 30 days away from 7 months of stolen bases, double plays, and diving catches. Three weeks from a first look at new rookies and to reconnect with familiar faces, some in different uniforms.

By February, I’m out of hibernation and thinking and reading about baseball all through out the day, just to have something to snack on until April. Most of the time, the same names pop up: Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, and for some reason, Ozzie Guillen. The current media storm is in perpetual motion, swirling over the same stories as it awaits results, any results at all, from baseball. But I’m just not interested in how much more monopoly money Mr. Pujols will have dumped in his back yard come payday, since negotiations aren’t even currently in progress. Instead, how about turning up the hype on a fresh batch of players who could be ready to make headlines on the diamond in the next couple of months?

Last year, I spotlighted a couple players in my mind, researching their statistics from the following year and looking ahead to how their 2010 season may develop.

Here was my list, in no particular order, of players I wanted to keep an eye on:

Lind & Hill in Toronto

A. Jones & Markakis in Baltimore

Ubaldo Jimenez

Evan Longoria

Shin-Soo Choo

Franklin Gutierrez

Sean Marshall

Ryan Theriot

As we now know, Choo, Longoria, and Marshall put up another solid season. Jones & Markakis were more or less static (more on that later). Ubaldo seemed poised for a 20+ win season, only to fizzle in the second half and wind up a win short. After that, though, the list was a bit disappointing. Lind & Hill both dropped off considerably in batting average and couldn’t approach their powers numbers from 2009. Gutierrez’s numbers regressed, and Ryan Theriot left for LA, and then came back to the NL Central on what he called the “right” side of the rivalry (Whatever. It’s spelled “Ryne” by the way, Mr. Redbird.)

The closest to a breakout season in 2010 was Ubaldo. By July last year, he was the hands-down pick for Cy Young. After that, it varies across the board, and you could get into a range of debates as to how the 2010 season fits into each player’s overall career. Personally, I just wanted to remember some guys playing for teams who were likely to miss the playoffs. If these players have breakout seasons, and everything clicks, they could begin to reverse that general assumption for the organization. Or they just put up another good year, and need to be recognized for it, a la Shin Soo Choo.

Obviously my list has changed going into 2011. I had to accommodate some rookies who pounced on the 2010 season, as well as give veteran status to the guys who were earning it (Yep, that eliminates Longoria, Marshall, and Choo). I’m also excluding no-brainers like Buster Posey, Carlos Gonzales and Aroldis Chapman because I know they’ll be applauded (if they’re good) or exiled (if they struggle) by the media on a daily basis.

First off, I’m keeping Adam Jones & Nick Markakis in mind again because they’re the closest to gaining vet status, or at least a better idea of what to expect from them. The last two years, they have each put up an exceptional season. From here, it’s either break out in 2011 and go from good to great in batting average & run production, or produce another consistent season. Either scenario works for these two, but I’m sure Baltimore would like to know what they have in their outfielders so they can figure out how they can build their young team around them.

Tyler Colvin & Andrew Cashner

Attention Cubs fans- these two are potentially dangerous. They hit the scene in 2010 with surprisingly good numbers, and played like they deserved to be in the bigs. But don’t go betting all of your marbles just yet- it’s possible they’re still a year away from a breakout season, and sophomore year can be a tough one. For these two, 2011 is more a question of whether or not to consider them as potential superstars. Will 24 year old Cashner venture in to the rotation after going 2-6 from the pen in 2010? Will Colvin receive more at bats, and if so, can he match his slugging percentage (.500) from last year? And by the way, Starlin Castro may have gotten his breakout season out of the way already, even though I’ll still be paying close attention to how much he improves on defense.

Jason Heyward

He didn’t waste any time last year, lighting up the Cubs on opening day if I remember correctly. What stood out to me was the sound the ball made coming off his bat and a sweet swing that seemed to resemble Ken Griffey Jr.’s. He was a sure fire runner up for rookie of the year, with 18 knocks, 72 runs driven in and a robust OBP (.393), even while sustaining a minor injury. Heyward is my pick for this year. I don’t think he’s going to waste any time in putting up elite Major League numbers, as long as he stays healthy.

James Loney

I still resent Loney for what he did to the Cubs in 2008, but you can’t ignore his talent. He represents the middle of a young Dodger core, just about at the same level as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier as they steadily produce runs. Loney contributed with 88 RBI last year, but his batting average dipped to .267. If Ethier returns to 2009 form, and Kemp and Loney can raise their averages, the Dodgers have a reliable trio on the right side of the field.

Ike Davis

Davis was fun to watch in 2010. Amidst a full bloom of NL rookies, Davis played stellar defense in his first full year; He also produced on offense with a .791 OPS, even chipping in a couple times in the clutch with some walk-off hits. The problem- Davis plays for the Mets. He seems an obvious cornerstone candidate for a rebuilding franchise, but will instead have to silently play as his team crumbles around him. Above anything else, I’m rooting for Davis to get traded to, well, any other team. Unfortunately, it’s still highly unlikely he changes uniforms, even though the Mets are imploding going into 2011.

Mike Leake

Similar to his NL Central counterparts on this list, the question is a matter of how seriously to take Mike Leake. He put on some brilliant clinics from the mound last year, making hitters look foolish with Greg Maddux-like poise and control. This only amounted to 8 wins for the Reds in 2010, but each one seemed a masterpiece. Those kinds of pitchers, if they can maintain in the pros, have long, solid careers, and that’s no easy feat. At 23, Leake was somewhat rushed to the Majors, and his impressive numbers could just be a reflection of hitters being ambushed by his potent arsenal of pitches. He’s at least worth keeping tabs on in 2011 and could have a high ceiling in the coming years.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz may be a bit of a throw-in, since he’s already well established in the majors. He finally shined in 2010 with an all star selection and a playoff performance worth noticing. The question for Cruz in 2011 is whether or not he can carry a team. Cruz failed to crack 80 RBI for the second year in a row, but improved his OBP (.374) and SLG (.576) while cutting down on strikeouts. As we saw in 2010, the time to win in Texas is now. Will Cruz rise to superstar status and push them over the brink? If he evolves into a .300/30/110 player, the departure of Cliff Lee and impending loss of Michael Young will sting a little less as the Rangers defend their AL crown.

Ditto to: Jeremy Hellickson, Kurt Suzuki, Mike Napoli, Gaby Sanchez, Shaun Marcum, Cody Ross, & Mat Latos

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