Jeremy Hellickson burst onto the scene as a rookie for the Rays in 2011, posting 117 strikeouts while going 13-10 with a 2.95 ERA. His feats catapulted Tampa Bay into the postseason and earned him the American League Rookie of the Year award.
The 2011 National League Rookie of the Year winner, Craig Kimbrel, dazzled in his own right. As Atlanta's closer, the 23-year-old converted 46 saves — a major-league record for rookies — and finished with a 2.10 ERA and 127 strikeouts through 77 innings.
So who will step up this year and surprise? Here are some candidates to keep an eye on:
Jesus Montero, C, Mariners
The ex-Yankees prospect was initially tapped to be Jorge Posada's heir apparent. Instead, he was shipped to Seattle in exchange for Michael Pineda. But in a brief major league stint in 2011, Montero was raking, hitting .328 with four homers and 12 RBIs. Montero's last two years in the minors — where he unloaded 39 homers and 142 RBIs — prove he's a polished product.
Matt Moore, P, Rays
Moore turned heads in the postseason, tossing a complete-game shutout over the Rangers despite just one career major-league start. It shouldn't come as a surprise considering the numbers he posted in the minors. In nine starts in Triple-A, Moore went 4-0 and owned a miniscule 1.37 ERA. He became the first pitcher since Francisco Liriano to eclipse the 200-strikeout plateau in the minors. And he did it twice.
Yu Darvish, P, Rangers
During three of his four seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, Darvish has developed into a strikeout machine, fanning at least 200 batters. In 2011, he went 18-6 with a 1.44 ERA and 276 strikeouts through 232 innings. Sure, it was against overseas competition. But if Darvish can replicate that success in the United States, he's a surefire candidate to contend for the award.
Yonder Alonso, 1B, Padres
After being traded from Cincinnati to San Diego — for Mat Latos — Alonso will likely inherit the starting spot at first base. The Cuban has been crushing pitchers in the minors, hitting .296 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs in each of the past two seasons (yes, identical numbers for two straight years). He walloped five home runs and 15 RBIs in his 47-game stint with the Reds in 2011.
Julio Teheran, P, Braves
In three years, the Colombian ascended from Rookie Ball to Triple-A, and is knocking on the door at the majors. With a blazing fastball and strong changeup, Teheran tallied a 15-3 record in Triple-A Gwinnett with a 2.55 ERA. Although he endured rough patches in his five appearances for the Braves last year, the experience should prepare him for 2012.
Devin Mesoraco, C, Reds
Mesoraco will finally have a chance to compete for the starting spot at catcher. In 2011, he clubbed 15 homers and 71 RBIs to go with his .289 batting average, but the 23-year-old truly showed his potential in 2010. Splitting time at Single-A advanced, Double-A and Triple-A, he hit 26 home runs and batted .302. His bat could definitely come in handy in Cincinnati.