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The Sophomore Curse

Every year the dreaded sophomore curse rears its ugly head. Not even star shorstop Troy Tulowitzki of the Colorado Rockies was immune from its influence. His sophomore season was the only time in his five-year career that he dipped below 5.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) – and it was a big dip to 0.9 WAR.

With the 2012 Major League Baseball season about to begin there is understandably a lot of excitement over some of the 2011 rookies who appear poised for a true breakout year. Let’s try and sift through some of the names and see who might be in for a big year and who might be in for a big… disappointment.

Value Heading Up

Henderson Alvarez, RHP, Toronto: I have to admit that I thought Toronto was crazy for calling up Alvarez when they did in 2011 but he did not implode as expected. The 21-year-old hurler made a successful jump to the Majors with just 88.0 innings of experience above A-ball thanks to a fastball that can tickle the upper 90s while inducing a plethora of ground balls. Alvarez survived his first tour of duty in The Show with basically a two-pitch mix (fastball/changeup) and he’s working hard to improve his slider. If he can get the third pitch working, while also improve upon his command within the strike zone, Alvarez could see a big jump in his strikeout rate.

Greg Holland, RHP, Kansas City: Holland’s name was on this list even before the severity of Joakim Soria‘s injury came to light. With the Royals’ incumbent closer out for the season due to his second Tommy John surgery the stopper gig could very likely fall into Holland’s lap, although he will receive competition from Aaron Crow and Jonathan Broxton. Holland deserves to be the top high leverage reliever in the Royals ‘pen after an outstanding rookie season in 2011 that saw him hold opposing hitters to a .174 batting average while also posting a strikeout rate of 11.10 K/9. His repertoire is absolutely nasty.

Kenley Jansen, RHP, Los Angeles NL: Jansen features some of the nastiest stuff in the Majors so it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t been handed the mantle of closer for the Dodgers. For now, though, the club will go with Javy Guerra as the ninth inning guy but beyond that there is not much standing in Jansen’s way to eventually claim the closer title. The hitter-turned-pitcher dominated opponents in 2011 by posting an eye-popping strikeout rate of 16.10 K/9 thanks to a mid-to-high-90s fastball and cutter. His walk rate of 4.16 BB/9 shows that he still has some work to do but he could be down right scary if he develops even average control.

Juan Nicasio, RHP, Colorado: The mere fact that Nicasio is back on the mound is reason enough to celebrate. The right-hander suffered a fracture in his neck after being struck by a line drive last season and there was some doubt at the time over whether or not he would be able to resume his career. Nicasio has been throwing very well this spring and could be a key contributor in the Rockies’ new-look rotation in 2012. The right-hander has an intriguing mix of mid-90s velocity and above-average control.

Mark Trumbo, 3B/1B, Los Angeles AL: You’d think the acquisition of the National League’s most consistently dangerous hitter – who just happens to play Trumbo’s position – would put a crimp in the sophomore’s value. However, Trumbo has made huge strides in his defensive work at third base and could see significant time at the hot corner in 2012, while also backing up first base and spending time as the designated hitter. Trumbo slugged 29 home runs (.223 ISO) in his rookie season with Los Angeles and could produce even more power if he learns how be more selective (4.4 BB%).

Value Heading Down

Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston: The diminutive Altuve was another good story in 2011 as he hit like a mad man in the low minors and even showed unexpected pop given his 5’5” (approximate) stature. His numbers, though, were aided by high BABIPs, as well as the potent hitter’s leagues that he played in. Altuve could continue to hit for a decent average at the big league level but he probably won’t show nearly as much power. As well, he’s displayed average-at-best patience throughout much of his career. Add all those things together and it’s the recipe for a hollow-batting-average hitter – which is exactly what he was during his rookie campaign.

Brandon Beachy, RHP, Atlanta: Beachy was an amazing story in 2011 as a former non-drafted pitcher signed out of an independent baseball league. But he may have also set overly high expectations that he won’t be able to reach again. The right-hander has good stuff, but his success comes more from a deceptive delivery and superb command. His fastball averages 92 mph and he’s mostly a two-pitch pitcher with his changeup coming in as a distant third pitch in terms of quality. As the scouting reports circulate through the league and hitters become more comfortable facing Beachy, the right-hander will likely settle in as a solid No. 3 starter. Don’t expect him to keep pitching like an ace.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona: Goldschmidt was one of those minor league slugging first basemen that every scout knew about as he chewed up minor league pitchers and spit them out – but few felt he’d develop into an impact bat at the big league level. After his rookie season many Arizona fans seem to disagree with the early assessments, but I have to issue a word of caution. Goldschmidt had a decent big league debut but his strikeout rate just shy of 30% is a huge red flag. The scouting reports suggest a decent, but not great, prospect. The minor league numbers, although, impressive, come from leagues that favor the hitter, and the prospect has limited experience above A-ball.

Vance Worley, RHP, Philadelphia: Worley flew under the radar for quite a while in a system that boasted hard-throwing prospects such as Jarred Cosart, Brody Colvin, and Trevor May. The right-handed Worley isn’t nearly as flashy – his fastball sits around 90 mph – but he has had success in the Majors quicker than any of those other three hurlers. However, Worley succeeds thanks to above-average command and control of a four-pitch mix. His control hasn’t been quite as good as it was in the minors and he’s also a fly-ball pitcher. A good number of Worley’s strikeouts at the big league level came from hitters taking a called third strike so I have a feeling that he’s due for some regression once teams start to get a good read on him.