C Miguel Montero (4.5 bWAR)
Arizona's backstop has had trouble staying on the field, but as he showed last year (his age 27 season) he can be a top five catcher when totally healthy. He led all full-time catchers with 86 RBI in 2011, banged out 55 extra base hits and posted a 121 OPS+ as he set career highs across the board and sustained the potential he flashed in 2009, when he batted a career best triple slash line of .294/.355/.478 with 16 homers in 128 games. The first time All-Star also received some MVP consideration for his contributions to the division winning Diamondbakcs. He's the second best hitter behind MVP candidate Justin Upton in the Snakes' lineup and figures to be a poor man's Brian McCann if he can hit his 20-90-.290 ceiling.
1B Michael Morse (three bWAR)
Morse came out of nowhere to surprise the baseball world last year, but if you had been watching the Nats closely in 2010 you probably could have seen a breakout brewing on the horizon. After four wasted years in Seattle and another in D.C., Morse put together a .289/.352/.519 line with 15 home runs and a 133 OPS+ in just 98 games two years ago. He became a full time outfielder after the All-Star break, and like teammate Jayson Werth he appeared to be a late bloomer. "The Beast" moved over to first base after free agent acquisition Adam LaRoche landed on the DL, and in his first full season (at the ripe old age of 29 no less) he put up some big time numbers with 36 doubles, 31 long balls, 95 RBI, a .303/.360/.550 line and a 147 OPS+ to earn some down ballot MVP votes. The high batting average seems unsustainable given his ugly 126/36 K/BB ratio last year, but the power looks legit.
2B Neil Walker (2.8 bWAR)
Aside from teammate Andrew McCutchen, Walker was the only substantial threat in Pittsburgh's lineup last season. Although his rate stats significantly regressed from 2010, when he finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting, all of his counting numbers soared because the rugged second baseman played in 159 games last season and piled up 596 at-bats. The Pirate keystone provided some solid power figures, too, by whacking 52 extra base hits and knocking in 83 runs. 2011 was a rough year for NL second basemen, so I more or less picked Walker by default.
3B Ryan Roberts (3.4 bWAR)
Coming off a 2010 campaign in which he batted just .197/.229/.348 in 36 games for Arizona, the 30 year-old utilityman didn't seem to have much of a future until he rebounded with the best year of his career in 2011. Replacing slugger Mark Reynolds at the hot corner was no easy task, but Roberts proved himself as an above average everyday player with his power-speed combo (19 home runs, 18 steals) and his versatility (made appearances at every spot in the batting order except cleanup and spent time at second base, shorstop, and left field). And while his .249 batting average was nothing to get excited about, he displayed an above average batting eye but drawing 66 walks and posting a .341 OBP.
SS Starlin Castro (2.2 bWAR)
The 21 year-old shortstop was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise disappointing Chicago Cubs squad. Despite his brutal defense, offensively he continued to build on his impressive 2010 rookie season by tripling his home run total and stealing twice as many bases. Firmly entrenched as the Cubbies leadoff hitter, the durable youngster paced the Senior Circuit with 674 at-bats and 207 hits, made his first All-Star team, earned some MVP consideration and even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. With his .307 batting average, he became just the second shortstop (along with Arky Vaughan) to compile a pair of .300 seasons before his 22nd birthday, and Alex Rodriguez was the only other under-22 shortstop to finish with more hits in a season. I know it's much too early to start making such bold predictions, but his success at such a young age has certainly put himself on the right track to a 3,000 hit career.
OF Emilio Bonifacio (2.4 bWAR)
Outside of a brief hot stretch to start the 2009 season, Bonifacio had never done enough with the stick to merit consistent playing time until last year, when the 26 year-old jack-of-all-trades played in 152 games and set career highs across the board. For the first time in his career, he rated as an above average hitter with a 107 OPS+ thanks to a rock solid .296/.360/.396 line. Granted, his batting average is empty nad he strikes out way too much--129 times last year--for someone with a .348 career slugging percentage, but at least his walk rate improved and he made an impact on the basepaths with 40 steals. He'll be hard-pressed to find 565 at-bats in a much deeper Marlins lineup this season, but since he can play shortstop, third base and the outfield I'm sure Miami will have some use for him.
OF Giancarlo Stanton (5.7 bWAR)
As a rookie the 6'5", 235 pound monster with light-tower power attracted a lot of attention when he went out and crushed 22 homers and slugged .507 in exactly 100 games. As a result, many hyped him up as a future home run champion and projected big things for him in 2011. The 21 year-old slugging sophomore didn't disappoint; he exploded last season by drilling 69 extra base hits--34 were of the long ball variety--posting a 141 OPS+ and putting up an enormous .275 ISO. And while his batting average jumped up just three points from .259 to .262, he added 30 points to both his OBP and SLG. Because he fanned in nearly a third of his at-bats last year he's unlikely to hit for high batting averages, but a 40 home run season could be within his grasp in 2012. After receiving MVP consideration last year, he should be a mainstay on the ballot for years to come.
OF Cameron Maybin (2.9 bWAR)
After struggling mightily in limited playing time with Detroit and Florida, the 24 year-old finally found a home in San Diego last year and played well as the Padres' everyday center fielder, setting career highs in pretty much everything while posting a 103 OPS+. Like Bonifacio, he struck out far too often (125 times) for an outfielder with a sub-.400 slugging percentage, but also like Bonifacio Maybin has wheels and swiped 40 bags last year. Petco really suppressed his numbers last year--his road OPS was 188 points higher on the road--but the folks over at ESPN thinks he could have an Alex Gordon kind of breakout in 2012. I'm not sold on the power, but the former first round draft pick still has room to grow.
SP Ian Kennedy (5.5 bWAR)
Once a highly coveted young pitcher in the Yankees organization, Brian Cashman traded him to Arizona as part of the three-way trade that brought Curtis Granderson to New York to replace Johnny Damon in center field. He performed well in his first full season as a starting pitcher, going 9-10 with a 3.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 168 strikeouts in 194 innings, but there was little indication that he was about to blow up into an elite starter. The 26 year-old finished fourth in the Cy Young balloting and 14th in the MVP race after leading the league with 21 wins (tied with Clayton Kershaw) and an .840 winning percentage while posting a 2.88 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. Some of his success can be explained by the fact that he improved his two-seam fastball, knocked a full batter off his BB/9 rate and served up fewer home runs. He got plenty of support from Lady Luck, too, given his high 79.2 LOB%, low .270 BABiP, 3.22 FIP and 3.50 xFIP. Kennedy's due for some regression in 2012, but he should still be one of the better hurlers in the league.
SP Daniel Hudson (2.6 bWAR)
Hudson's Doug Fister-esque second half in 2010--7-1 record with a 1.69 ERA and 0.84 WHIP in eleven starts with the Diamondbacks after the White Sox traded him for Edwin Jackson--made the 24 year-old a popular breakout pick for 2011. But while Kennedy received all the attention and became the Tim Lincecum to Hudson's Matt Cain, Hudson settled into his role as the staff's number two starter and won 16 games, completed 222 innings, and won a Silver Slugger in his first full season as a slugger. I think he has a chance to be even better in 2012, and will step up as Kennedy regresses to the mean.
SP Bud Norris (1.3 bWAR)
Plenty of people got excited about Norris as a sleeper candidate last year because he struck out more than a batter per inning in 2010, but Houston's deterioration into a 106 loss team kept his improvements under the radar. The third year starting pitcher earned just six wins in his 31 starts (a consequence of zero run support combined with an inability to pitch deep into games) but made a step in the right direction by trimming his BB/9 rate from 4.5 to 3.4 without sacrificing many strikeouts, though his K/9 rate did dip from 9.3 to 8.5. He cut his WHIP from 1.48 to a more acceptable 1.33 and slashed more than a full run off his ERA (4.92 to 3.77). Like Brandon Morrow he wastes too many pitches and needs to become a more efficient pitcher if he wants to harness his full potential, but 2012 could be the year he punches out 200 batters.
SP Ryan Vogelsong (3.7 bWAR)
Vogelsong had been a full time starting pitcher just once before, with the Pirates in 2004, and let's just say it didn't work out too well (6-13, 6.50 ERA and 1.62 WHIP). The 33 year-old hadn't even made a big league appearance since 2006 before last season, and his stellar season truly came out of nowhere. Career bests across the board included posting the best ERA and win total of a vaunted starting rotation and led to his first All-Star selection and an eleventh place finish in the Cy Young award tied with rotation-mate Madison Bumgarner. He did get incredibly fortunate, though, with his 80.4 LOB% (fourth highest in baseball) and his 3.67 FIP was nearly a full run higher than his sterling 2.71 ERA. You always have to be skeptical when an athlete enjoys their best performance, by far, in their 30s, and Vogelsong is no different. He will come back to Earth in 2012, and is more likely an average pitcher at best.
SP Jordan Zimmermann (2.9 bWAR)
The Nats limited his innings in his return from Tommy John surgery, but that didn't stop the third year starting pitcher from enjoying his best season to date. He slashed his walk rate, an already low 2.9 BB/9 in each of his first two seasons, down to a miniscule 1.7 BB/9. If you can bring yourself to look past last year's mediocre 8-11 record, you'll also find a 3.18 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and four strikeouts for every walk. Those are some darn good numbers, and you can bet that he'll be better than Stephen Strasburg next year, because in 2011 he was basically Matt Cain-lite. The 25 year-old is a key ingredient in the Nats' young, talented nucleus, and figures to play a prominent role in the franchise's revival.
RP Tyler Clippard (3.4 bWAR)
The Yankee Clippard had already been a top notch reliever in 2009 and 2010, but last year he took his game to another level and was practically unhittable (opponents batted just .162/.228/.307 against him). Serving as a shutdown setup man for Drew Storen, the first time All-Star was a perfect 3-0 with a 1.83 ERA, good for a 210 ERA+. He struck out four batters for every free pass he issued and posted a 0.84 WHIP, easily the best of his career. For the year in a row he punched out over 100 batters, and for the third consecutive season boasted a double digit K/9 rate. He was like the NL equivalent of David Robertson last year, and 2012 is his age 27 season.
CL Joel Hanrahan (2.9 bWAR)
Hanrahan and Evan Meek competed during spring training for the open closer's role last year, and Hanrahan once emerged victorious he kept a stranglehold on his job the whole season. Coming off a career year the season before, when he fanned 100 batters and recorded 12.9 whiffs per nine innings, he was clearly the most deserving candidate. Despite never saving more than nine games in any season, the 29 year-old developed into an elite closer by ringing up 40 saves, maintaining a 1.83 ERA (209 ERA+) and 1.05 WHIP. He allowed just a single home run in his 70 appearances, and while his K rate plummeted by nearly five batters per nine innings he compensated by reducing his BB/9 rate from 3.4 to 2.1. Expect plenty of saves and success from the Pirates fireman in 2012.