Viva La Vidro Presents: Baseball’s Breakout Stars of 2011.

Jhoulys Chacin (SP-Colorado Rockies): Although many observers consider Ubaldo Jimenez the “crown jewel” of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff another gem is emerging in the Mile High City who may shine even brighter than his All-Star teammate…that man is Jhouyls “of the Nile” Chacin. Lost in the midst of Jimenez’s stellar season and Charlie Sheen’s 47 84 109th trip to rehab, Chacin put together a solid 2010 campaign, posting a 9-11 record with a 3.28 ERA and 138 K’s in 137 innings (a strikeout rate higher than that of Jimenez). Still just 23, the native of Venezuela has plenty of room for growth and could see his ERA dip below three with improved control and some help from his defense. If Chacin gets better run support in 2011, he’s got a legitimate shot at a top five Cy Young finish…and that’s not just whistling Dixie.

Reid Brignac (SS-Tampa Bay Rays): Buried beneath a glut of middle infield talent in Tampa (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Sean Rodriguez) former second round pick Reid Brignac hasn’t had the chance to flash his all-star level talent yet, but with Bartlett now in San Diego and Zobrist shifted to the outfield, 2011 will be the year that the Bayou Bomber finally takes center stage. Brignac managed to get 300+ plate appearances in a utility role last season, and while his plate discipline leaves something to be desired (77 K’s/20 BB’s), he showcased the power (8 HR’s, 13 2B’s, 45 RBI’s) that had the Rays thinking future star when they drafted him out of high school. With a retooled lineup (so long Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza; hello Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) hoping to stay afloat in the always competitive AL East, Tampa Bay will be counting on Brignac to produce big in 2011; the Cajun Crusher will prove that he is more than up to the challenge.

Jordan Zimmerman (SP-Washington Nationals): With Stephen Strasburg on the mend (which we all hope goes better than Barbaro’s “recovery”) the coveted title of Washington Nationals’ staff ace will be passed to Jordan Zimmerman for 2011 (unless John Lannan’s horse tranquilizers finally kick in). Zimmerman returned from Tommy John surgery in 2010 and while the results weren’t great (1-2, 4.94 ERA, 27 K’s in 31 innings) the fact that he showed no ill effects from the operation bodes well for his prospects in the coming year. The hard throwing right-hander breezed through the minor leagues (16-7, 2.60 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) and has the raw stuff (that phrase out of context would sound awful) to contend for a Cy Young award one day. Throw in the fact that a comparable pitcher returned from T.J. surgery and dominated the NL in his second year back (Josh Johnson) and the stars are aligned for Jordan Zimmerman to have a breakout year in 2011. You heard it here second.

Jay Bruce (OF-Cincinnati Reds): Joltin’ Jay Bruce ended 2010 with a bang, sending Cincinnati to the playoffs with a walk-off home run in the season’s waning weeks. The home run was a fitting finish to a superb second half for Bruce (.306-15 HR-34 RBI’s-.951 OPS) who appears ready to team up with Joey Votto to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the middle of the Reds’ order. Bruce has some troubling home/road splits (19 HR’s at home vs. 6 on the road) but as long as he continues to play half his games at the Great American Ballpark (which is just a little hitter friendly) that should prove to be a moot point. The powerful left-hander is also a stellar fielder (he ranked fifth in the NL with a 1.6 defensive WAR) and if he plays as well in all of 2011 as he did in the second half of 2010, the Cincinnati Reds might just have back-to-back MVPs.

Michael Saunders (OF-Seattle Mariners): I can’t get away without plugging a hometown kid can I? Well, even if I could, I wouldn’t (the fact that I have a giant stash of his cards does not influence my decision whatsoever) because Michael “The Condor” Saunders is finally going to live up to his enormous potential in 2011. The young lefty got a chance to play everyday in 2010 and made dramatic improvements at the plate (most notably drawing more walks and hitting for more power) after struggling mightily in his brief call-up to Seattle in 2009. Saunders possesses all the physical tools to be an above-average fielder and hitter, and with the Mariners expecting him to produce this year, the Condor will deliver like Newman…large and in charge.

Stay tuned for a Seattle Mariners season preview coming soon!

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Yankee Fans Continue To Insult Intelligence of General Populous: Derek Jeter Named Hank Aaron Award Winner

The AL's best offensive performer? Well, not really.

The American League’s best offensive player? Sure, in bizarro world.

In a postseason rife with egregious umpiring mistakes and base-running gaffes it was perhaps the fans who turned in the worst performance of all, selecting Derek Jeter as the American League’s Hank Aaron Award Winner. Now, if this award was given to the third or fourth best Yankees’ player every year that wouldn’t be an issue, but the Hank Aaron Award is supposed to be given to the best offensive player in each league.

The award is voted on by fans at MLB.com who narrow down a field of 90 players to the final two recipients, but judging by the shocking results, B.C.S. computers must have been involved somehow. How else could a player who had the worst OPS (on-base plus slugging) of any Yankee infielder win the award for best offensive player?

It’s not like Derek Jeter was bad in 2009 as he finished the season with a .334 average, 18 HR’s, 66 RBI’s and 30 SB’s. Jeter ranked 3rd in the AL in both batting average and OBP, while finishing 4th in runs and 7th in SB’s. Those are fine numbers for any player, but perhaps a bit magnified by the spotlight that always shines on the New York Yankees (it wouldn’t be the first time something Jeter did was blown wildly out of proportion).

To put Jeter’s stats in perspective his Hank Aaron Award counterpart in the NL, Albert Pujols, finished with the following stat line: .327-47 HR’s-135 RBI’s-16 SB’s. Sure it’s apples and oranges, but clearly Jeter’s numbers (which he posted while playing for the game’s best offense) weren’t that overwhelming.

In a perfect world Joe Mauer would have won the 2009 Hank Aaron Award. Of course in a perfect world, there wouldn't be Yankees fans.

In a perfect world Joe Mauer would have won the 2009 Hank Aaron Award. Of course in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be Yankees fans.

In fact, here is a list of the players who finished ahead of Derek Jeter in OPS: Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeria, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, Adam Lind, Kendry Morales, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Jason Kubel, Carlos Pena, Michael Young, Evan Longoria, Shin Soo-Choo, Jason Bartlett, Justin Morneau, Hideki Matsui, Torii Hunter and Robinson Cano.

That’s right, Jeter was fifth on his own team in OPS and couldn’t even crack the league’s top-20. Granted OPS isn’t the only way to tell how effective an offensive player was, but it is a good indicator of a batter’s combination of power and plate discipline. So, the league’s “best offensive player” finished behind J.D. Drew, Jason Bartlett and Shin Soo-Choo…well that just doesn’t quite add up.

But if Derek Jeter wasn’t the AL’s best hitter, then who was? It could have been his teammate, Mark Teixeria, who after a slow start, hit .292 with 39 HR’s and 122 RBI’s. Or, it could have been the upstart Ben Zobrist, who despite 130 less at-bats, finished with more HR’s, RBI’s, extra-base hits and an OPS 70 points higher than that of Jeter (not to mention his 17 SB’s, 91 walks and ability to play at multiple positions).

Any number of players could have laid claim to being the AL’s top offensive performer, but one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. A man revered for his sideburns, sweet swing and love of all things American. A man who breaks more hearts in day than Mola Ram does in a lifetime. A man named Joe Mauer. While that  kind of hyperbole is normally saved for Jeter, the season that Mauer had was nothing short of historic. The 26-year-old catcher hit .365 with 28 HRs and 96 RBI’s, even though he missed the first month of the season with back problems (suffered while. Joltin’ Joe led the AL by a wide margin in batting average, slugging, OBP and OPS, all while playing Gold Glove caliber at the game’s most physically taxing position.

Joe Mauer had one of the best offensive seasons of the past few decades, and arguably the greatest ever by a catcher, but failed to garner an award he rightly deserved because of the media’s (and dimwitted Yankees’ fans) never-ending love affair with Derek Jeter.

It’s not all that surprising, but let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen when it comes time to hand out the MVP.

Ben Zobrist: Baseball’s Swiss Army Knife

Zobrist is ten feet all, weighs a ton, and breathes fire.

Zobrist is ten feet tall, weighs a ton, invented electricty and breathes fire.

Tampa Bay All-Star second baseman Ben Zobrist came into 2009 with little fanfare and even less chance of getting steady at-bats. After all, the Rays already had two solid middle-infielders in Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura and an outfield that featured B.J. Upton, Carl Crawford and the Gabes (Kapler and Gross) platooning in right-field. Zobrist had shown good pop in a limited trial during 2008 (12 HRs in 198 ABs), but the utility man didn’t figure to play more than a few times a week for the reigning AL champs.

Yet despite all these hurdles, Zobrist kept hitting whenever he got the chance, and as luck would have it the Gods of Baseball decided to give the former Astros farmhand a chance to shine. When Iwamura went down with a knee injury in late May, Zobrist became the Rays’ everyday second baseman and quickly proved that he had deserved a starting role all along; the legend of “Zorilla” was finally born.

The 28-year-old, who once got more recognition for his wife than his play on the field, is now one of the game’s rising stars and a favorite in fantasy baseball circles. Zobrist is capable of playing second and shortstop as well as any of the three outfield positions, making this jack-of-all-trades nearly indispensable to Tampa Bay. In addition to his versatility, Killer-Z also wields a mean stick at the dish.

Coming into the All-Star break Zobrist was hitting .297 with 17 HRs and 52 RBIs in only 246 ABs. The switch-hitter also shows a keen eye at the plate, drawing 49 walks against 55 Ks, leading to his robust .414 OBP. Zobrist has even developed as a base-stealer, swiping 11 bags while only getting caught three times. The pride of Eureka, Illinois is second in the league in SLG (.598), third in OBP and second in OPS (1.012). Is there anything on a baseball diamond this guy can’t do?

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

The grass is always greener on the other side, unless Zorilla has been there. In that case the grass is most likely soaked in blood and tears.

As the season progresses, this former 6th-round pick continues to develop into one of the best all-around talents in the game. The addition of Zobrist to the everyday lineup has reignited the Rays, helping them recover from a slow start and stay in contention in the brutal AL East. At 48-41, Tampa Bay is only 6 1/2 games back in the division and 3 1/2 games behind New York in the wild card race.

The Rays, already one of baseball’s deepest teams, continue to show that they have one of the best farm systems and scouting departments in the game today. Last year’s World Series runner-ups are even better this season with baseball’s biggest surprise leading the charge.

If Zobrist can prove that the first half of the season was no fluke and return the Rays to the post-season he will likely find himself in the AL MVP discussion at the end of the year. Not bad for a guy that once got traded for Aubrey Huff and came into the season with a career .222 average.

The Zorilla strikes again.