C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
In his age 27 season, Salty finally started to make good on the promise that made him a highly regarded prospect with the Braves and Rangers. The switch-hitting backstop posted a .232 ISO and crushed 25 home runs, a number topped only by A.J. Pierzynski and Wilin Rosario among big league catchers. No longer splitting time with Jason Varitek, Saltalamacchia settled in as Boston's everyday catcher and set career highs across the board. Incredibly, 24 of his 25 dingers came at the expense of righthanded pitching, which leads me to wonder why he doesn't bat from the left side every time.
1B Edwin Encarnacion
The 29 year-old finally broke out--Jose Bautista style--after teasing the baseball world with his power stroke for years. E-5 posted the best AB/HR rate in the American League, finished third in slugging (.557) and RBI (110) while his 42 big flies placed him fourth. Amazingly, he provided all that power without striking out 100 times. On an injury-riddled Blue Jays squad, Encarnacion was one of the few bright spots. Surely he would have placed higher than eleventh in the MVP race had Toronto won more than 73 games. As it is, I just can't get over the fact that he didn't make the All-Star team in a year when he was more valuable than Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones and Derek Jeter according to bWAR.
2B Jason Kipnis
The second-year second baseman tailed off in the second half but still finished his first full season with 14 home runs, 31 stolen bases and 3.7 bWAR. Kipnis isplayed good patience by drawing 67 walks to help compensate for his .257 batting average. He established himself as one of the better defensive keystones in the league, too. At 25, he's just coming into his prime and should be one of the league's best players at the position for years to come.
3B Kyle Seager
Seattle's second-year third baseman slugged 20 home runs, belted 35 doubles and knocked in 86 runs, leading the Mariners in all three categories. He also chipped in 13 steals and held his own at the hot corner, more or less replicating the annual value Adrian Beltre provided during his underwhelming seasons with the M's.
SS Alcides Escobar
After back-to-back disappointing seasons as an everyday player, Escobar broke out in his second year with Kansas City. The slick-fielding shortstop batted a rock solid .293 and went 35-for-40 in stolen base attempts to make up for his lack of power (.390 SLG). The Royals need him to carry his weight on offense if they're going to have any shot at competing this year.
OF Austin Jackson
One of the most underrated players in the game last year, Jackson (5.2 bWAR) led the league in triples, batted a career best .300/.377/.479 and scored 103 runs while providing plenty of RBI opportunities for Prince Fielder and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera. Miggy plated Jackson with 38 of his 139 ribbies (27.3 percent) while Cecil Fielder's son drove Detroit's leadoff man home 22 times (approximately one-fifth of Fielder's 108 RBI). Since Jackson knocked himself in 16 times via the long ball, the Tiger center fielder can attribute 69 percent of his team-dependent runs total to the dynamic duo. With RBI machine Victor Martinez returning to Motown's top-heavy lineup this year, Jackson should rank near the top of the league in runs scored once again.
OF Alejandro De Aza
Carried over his strong finish (.920 OPS) to the 2011 season and had a good year hitting leadoff in Chicago's lineup. Posted a .349 OBP, stole 26 bases and scored 81 runs while setting the table for Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and Alex Rios.
OF Josh Reddick
Was blocked by J.D. Drew in Boston but took off in Oakland after Ben Cherington traded him for Ryan Sweeney and Andrew Bailey. Reddick teamed up with rookie Yoenis Cespedes to supply the firepower in the heart of Oakland's lineup. Helped lead the A's to the division title by slamming 32 home runs, stealing 11 bases and accumulating 4.5 bWAR. To top it off, he won his first Gold Glove on the strength of his terrific glovework and powerful throwing arm in right field. Another score for Billy Beane, who nabbed the long-haired outfielder just in time for his prime years.
DH Chris Davis
Much like Alex Gordon, Crush endured his share of disappointment in the majors before finally busting out in his fifth big league season. Picked up the slack for slumping infielders Mark Reynolds and J.J. Hardy by cranking 33 home runs and batting a respectable .270 despite fanning 169 times. To read more about his breakthrough, go here.
SP Chris Sale
Sale (5.7 bWAR) was nothing short of phenomenal in his first season in Chicago's starting rotation. After spending two years in the White Sox bullpen, the 23 year-old made a smooth transition to starting and formed a dominant 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation with Jake Peavy. Sale etched his name into the AL leaderboards, ranking among the league's best in nearly every category. Made his first All-Star team, finished sixth in the Cy Young voting and helped keep the Sox atop the AL Central for most of the summer before they collapsed during the season's final two weeks.
SP Brandon Morrow
A strained oblique sidelined him for most of the summer, but in his 21 starts the budding ace compiled a 2.96 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and trimmed his walk rate for the third year in a row. If he stays healthy next year, he could wind up in the Cy Young discussion, but it's going to be difficult for him to stand out in a retooled rotation headed by Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
SP Scott Diamond
Diamond was dismal when Minnesota brought him up for a cup of coffee in 2011 but emerged as the rotation's only bright spot last season. He began the season in Triple-A and didn't make his first start until May 8th, which he won by outdueling Dan Haren and shutting out an Angels lineup featuring Albert Pujols, Torii Hunter, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout. He blanked the Blue Jays in his next turn and was off and running. He wore down a bit during the dog days of summer but still led the Twins staff in wins, ERA, starts, and innings pitched in hist first full season. Diamond succeeded in spite of his paltry 4.7 K/9 rate by posting the lowest walk rate in the league and keeping the ball in the park, which isn't too difficult when you make half your starts at Target Field.
SP Chris Tillman
Came into 2012 with 36 starts under his belt, a 5.58 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and more than twice as many losses as wins in his first three seasons. To his credit, he did show signs of improvement in 2011 by cutting his home run rate in half, trimming his walk rate from and striking out more hitters. Even so, he began the year in the minors and spent the first half of the season there, but pitched well enough to get another shot with the big club. Tillman proved to be Baltimore's best starter down the stretch, going 9-3 with a 2.93 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in his 15 starts. His Kris Medlen-esque impact helped the Orioles survive the loss of Jason Hammel (who was well on his way to a breakout year of his own) and get back to the postseason for the first time since 1997.
SP Max Scherzer
Has been up and down during his career, but there's no denying his ability to dominate hitters on any given day. Last year he strung enough of those performances together to develop into a reliable number two starter behind Justin Verlander. Scherzer's 231 strikeouts placed second to Verlander's league leading total of 239 but his 11.1 K/9 rate ranked first in the majors. He's always going to strike out batters in bunches, but his inconsistency and inability to pitch deep into games (he's never gone the distance in any of his 133 career starts) stand in the way of acehood.. Nevertheless, with Anibal Sanchez back on board for 2013 the reigning American League champs have a formidable trio at the top of their rotation.
RP Jake McGee
Rebounded from a poor 2011 to become an elite reliever, limiting opponents to a .168/.213/.239 batting line. The Tampa Bay Ray maintained a sparkling 1.95 ERA and 0.80 WHIP over his 69 appearances. More impressively, he racked up 73 strikeouts while walking only 11, good for a ridiculous 6.64 K/BB ratio. Unfortunately Fernando Rodney's historic season overshadowed McGee's outstanding relief work.
CL Jim Johnson
In his seventh season working out of Baltimore's bullpen, Johnson emerged as one of the best finishers in the Junior Circuit despite his anemic 5.4 K/9 rate. He entered the season with just 21 saves to his name but Buck Showalter handed him the closing gig in the wake of Kevin Gregg's disastrous 2011 season (1.64 WHIP). Johnson shocked the baseball world by leading the majors with 51 saves, becoming just the tenth player in MLB history to record at least 50 saves. He bookended his marvelous season with an awesome start and even better finish, allowing just two earned runs in his first 23 innings and only one earned run in his final 25 innings. For his efforts he was selected to his first All-Star team, received the AL Rolaids Relief Man award, placed seventh in the Cy Young voting (ahead of Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison) and earned more MVP shares than Pujols, Joe Mauer and Ben Zobrist combined.
To see the American League 2011 breakout team, go here.