A look back at some of the top breakouts in the National League from 2011. Rookies are ineligible, so you won't find the likes of Bryce Harper, Wade Miley, Todd Frazier or Kris Medlen below. For the most part, I tried not to include guys who were already established big league stars that took their games to new heights, a la Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, and Matt Cain.
C Carlos Ruiz
The first time All-Star was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing year for the Philadelphia Phillies. At the ripe old age of 33, Ruiz rode a monster first half to a career year highlighted by his .Mike Piazza-esque 325/.394/.540 batting line. There were stretches early in the season when it seemed like he was the only Philly inflicting any damage with his bat.
1B Allen Craig
Craig's potential was on display during his injury-shortened 2011 season and again throughout the Cardinals' championship run. He missed more time in 2012--all of April and two weeks in May--but when healthy he was one of the better hitters in the National League. In just 119 games he belted 22 home runs, knocked in 92 runs and batted .307 while manning first base in place of a wounded Lance Berkman. Also gave some thought to Paul Goldschmidt here.
2B Jose Altuve
The diminutive second baseman makes Dustin Pedroia look big, but his lack of size didn't stop him from batting .290 and making his first All-Star team at the tender age of 22. Houston's leadoff hitter was also aggressive on the basepaths, stealing 33 bases to help make up for his lack of power (.399 SLG). The speedy keystone is a great building block for the 'Stros as they rebuild their team around young talent.
3B Chase Headley
Headley put together a monster offensive season not seen in San Diego since Adrian Gonzalez. The switch-hitting third baseman entered 2012 with just 36 home runs and a .392 slugging percentage to his name before morphing into Chipper Jones. Produced a six-win season on the back of his 31 home runs and league-leading 115 RBI. Won his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger on his way to a fifth place finish in the NL MVP voting. If he could just get out of Petco (.695 OPS there compared to .836 everywhere else) he'd be a star. Honorable Mention goes to Pedro Alvarez, who launched 30 home runs in his first full season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
SS Ian Desmond
After a pair of disappointing seasons in 2010 and 2011, Washington's shortstop busted out this year. His power--25 circuit drives and a .511 SLG, both figures topped the position--developed to supplement his already solid defense and baserunning. Was one of three shortstops to go 20/20 this season, along with Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez. Expect another strong performance in 2013, his age 27 season. Jed Lowrie was headed for a breakout year as well before a sprained ankle cost him two months of games post-All-Star Break.
OF Garrett Jones
The quintessential late bloomer, Jones appeared in his first major league game at the age of 25 and didn't play his first full season until he was 29. While he's been a steady source of power during his time in the bigs, low batting averages and high strikeout totals cut into his value. In 2012 he managed to cut down on his whiff rate and boost his average to .274 while smacking a career high 27 home runs and tying his personal best with 86 RBI. Those numbers remind me of a typical Adam LaRoche season.
OF Andrew McCutchen
'Cutch had already flashed the tools that alluded to his Matt Kemp potential, but he finally put them all together this year with an MVP caliber season. His 194 hits, 269 times on base and 7.5 Offensive WAR paced the NL, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. He ranked second in runs scored, total bases, batting average, and OPS+ while rating third in OBP and SLG, all while playing Gold Glove defense in center and keeping the Pirates in the playoff picture for most of the summer.
OF Dexter Fowler
Colorado's center fielder took a big step forward in 2012 when he batted a career best .300/.389/.474 with double digit totals in doubles, triples, homers, and stolen bases. Statistically speaking, he was the NL's equivalent of Austin Jackson (minus the superlative defense). Not as good as Carlos Gonzalez, but turns 27 this spring and could be in line for another strong season.
SP R.A. Dickey
Sneaky good in 2010 and '11 but became a household name and Cy Young winner in 2012. Made his first All-Star team following a dominant first half reminiscent of Ubaldo Jimenez's 2010. Matt Cain started the Midsummer Classic even though Dickey was 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.93 WHIP at that point. Predictably, he leveled off a bit in the season's final three months, but still pitched well enough to finish with outstanding overall numbers. He won 20 games while pacing the league in innings, shutouts, complete games, and strikeouts. Most impressively, the 38 year-old knuckleballer entered the season with a career 5.5 K/ rate but whiffed nearly a batter per inning in 2012 and fanned almost as many hitters as he did in his previous two seasons combined. It will be interesting to see how he fares against American League competition in 2013.
SP Gio Gonzalez
After a couple solid seasons with Oakland, Gonzalez emerged as one of the NL's top pitchers in his debut with the Washington Nationals. He finished third in the Cy Young race behind Dickey and Clayton Kershaw after leading the majors with 21 wins and his 0.4 HR/9. He also posted the best strikeout rate in the NL, outpitched Stephen Strasburg and helped lead the Nats to the best record in baseball.
SP Jonathon Niese
Was overshadowed by rotation-mates Dickey and Johan Santana, but was clearly the team's second best starter behind Dickey. Trimmed a full run of his 2011 ERA (4.40 to 3.40), posted a 1.17 WHIP and struck out more than three batters for every walk. With Dickey in Toronto and Santana in decline, look for Niese to step up and lead the rotation in 2013.
SP Lance Lynn
In his first year in the St. Louis Cardinals' rotation, the 25 year-old helped fill in the void left by Chris Carpenter by winning 18 of his 29 starts and making the All-Star team. Had 180 strikeouts in 176 innings, but will have to fight to keep his spot in a crowded rotation next season.
SP Homer Bailey
After several disappointing years, the former first round draft pick finally emerged as a reliable mid-rotation workhorse. He made all 33 starts, surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career and maintained a 3.23 K/BB ratio. Was overshadowed by Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, but he looks like a solid frontline starter for years to come.
RP Craig Stammen
His career got off to a rough start, but the Nationals reliver rebounded with a strong 2012. Struck out almost a batter per inning and went 6-1 out of Washington's bullpen with a 2.34 ERA.
CL Jason Motte
Tony LaRussa's retirement opened the door for Motte to be the Cardinals' regular closer, and he did not disappoint. Besides leading the National League with 42 saves, Motte posted a 0.92 WHIP and a 5.06 K.BB ratio in Mike Matheny's first year at the helm. Had all of twelve career saves prior to 2012.
CL Aroldis Chapman
Cincinatti's flamethrowing southpaw stepped into the closer's role to replace the departed Francisco Cordero. After two years of teasing the baseball world with his superhuman velocity, the Cuban Missile polished his shaky command (6.5 BB/9 rate entering the season) and challenged Craig Kimbrel for the title of baseball's best closer. Chapman dominated opponents, holding them to a .141 batting average and fanning 122 of them in his 68 appearances. The first time All-Star saved 38 games with his tidy 1.51 ERA and 0.81 WHIP while also picking up MVP and Cy Young consideration. He's the Justin Verlander of relievers.
To see last year's NL breakouts, go here