NL East: Hitting Their Upside

A talented crop of young hitters throughout the division promises a bright future for offense in the National League East.

There is little doubt that the story in the NL East this season has been pitching.  Eight of the National League’s top pitchers in wins come from this division, four of the top eight in ERA come from this division, four of the top six strikeout leaders come from this division, and in all likelihood the CY Young Award winner will come from this division.

But this may not be the story for long.

Even though many of the division’s most recognized names (like Chipper Jones, Ryan Howard, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Jayson Werth) might be having down seasons here are a batch of youngsters with whom you might want to get acquainted.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves – The only reason this 21 year-old (almost 22) slugger might not win the NL Rookie of the Year is because his rookie teammate Craig Kimbrel leads the majors in saves.  Freeman leads all National League rookies in: home runs, RBI’s, batting average, slugging pct., OPS, runs scored, and lists of accomplishments.  He also happens to have a stellar glove, a powerful arm and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until he rescues some kids from a burning orphanage.  Chipper Jones has already declared Freeman to be the next face of the Braves franchise.  Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Freeman’s rookie achievements is that he’s done it all after getting off to a terrible start.  In April, Freeman hit just .225 with 3 HR’s, 8 RBI’s and a handful of skeptics.  However, strong showings in May and June erased much of the early-season doubt and a terrific July (.362/6/18) has turned just about everyone into a believer.

Mike Stanton, OF, Florida Marlins – An opposing minor league manager once described Stanton by saying, “He looks like a 15-year-old playing on an 8-year-old’s Little League team.”  Now, this manchild is threatening to lead the National League in home runs in only his second major league season.  Entering Thursday’s games, Stanton had hit a home run in four straight games, giving him 29 on the season and placing him one long ball behind NL leader Albert Pujols.  The 21 year-old (almost 22) outfielder will likely hit at least 35 HR’s this season.  That would put him in a group with Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Robinson, Hal Trosky, Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews as players with 35 HR’s at the age of 21. If he happens to make it to 40 HR’s this season, he would join Hall of Famers Ott and Matthews as the only players to hit that many before turning 22.   Even if Stanton falls short of these accomplishments, he has already done enough in his first 700 major league at-bats to suggest that fans will be enjoying his tape-measure shots for years to come.

Lucas Duda, OF-1B, New York Mets – From the moment Lucas Dude dons his uniform and walks onto the field, he just looks like a pro ballplayer.  His size and his swing look like elements of a slugger that could give opposing pitchers a handful of sleepless nights.  However, his early returns had anyone outside of the Mets organization sleeping easy.  A September callup in 2010, Duda had just 1 hit in his first 33 major league at-bats.  He followed that up, however, with 13 hits, 5 doubles, 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s in his next 37 at-bats.  His 2011 story wasn’t all that different.  Duda started off with just 4 hits in his first 20 at-bats, being used primarily (and unsuccessfully) as a pinch-hitter.  However, as injuries to Ike Davis, Angel Pagan and other Mets starters began to mount, Duda’s opportunities increased.  He took advantage, hitting a solid .283 in June and reaching .300 (with a .912 OPS) for the month of July.  When the Mets traded Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants, the door was open for Duda to audition to be a part of the Mets lineup of the future.  While some may have feared that the added playing time may have exposed some of his weaknesses, Duda has seized the opportunity and shown an impressive ability to make adjustments.  Once deemed by scouts as having 5 o’clock power (power that impresses during batting practice but is gone by gametime), Duda is leading people to believe that he just might be ready for prime time.

Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia Phillies – This has been an odd year for the talented rookie outfielder.  The Phillies organization has done a terrific job of building the farm system in the past few years.  However, many of those players found themselves on other teams by the time they made it to the majors, having been dealt for important pieces in the Phillies pennant and postseason pushes.  The one player who has continuously survived that fate has been Domonic Brown.  While the Phillies starting pitching may have been much of the focus coming into this season, the most anticipated member of the everyday lineup could easily have been the rookie.  In an early Spring Training game, Brown broke a bone in his right hand, an injury that would require surgery and delay his ’11 debut until late May.  Brown got off to a pretty hot start but cooled off terribly in June.  In July, Brown began to show the promise and the consistency that had been expected of him, batting .296 with 6 HR’s and 12 RBI’s for the month.  As this year’s trade deadline neared, Brown’s name showed up regularly as potential trade bait.  However, GM Ruben Amaro said repeatedly that he had no intentions of trading the talented youngster.  When the Phillies finally acquired All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence from the Astros they chose to move four of their talented farmhands instead of including Brown in the deal.  While this kept Brown in the organization, it didn’t keep him with the big league club.  Brown was sent down to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to make room for Pence.  While this may seem like a demotion, it’s actually an opportunity for Brown to play every day (as opposed to sitting on the Philadelphia bench) while learning how to play left field.  An outfield featuring Brown and Pence in the corner spots with Shane Victorino in center is a scary prospect for the rest of the division.

Wilson Ramos, C, Washington Nationals – Most conversations about the future of the Nationals revolve around their pitching.  Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Brad Peacock and Drew Storen are just a few of the talents giving hope to the historically unsuccessful franchise.  However, the one constant for all of these arms will need to be a dependable battery mate.  In his first full major league season, Wilson Ramos has given reasons to believe that he’ll fit that bill.  His stats may not be as impressive as the other young hitters on this list.  A .246 batting average with 9 HR’s and a .709 OPS is little more than pedestrian, even for a catcher.  But at just 24 years-old, Ramos is described by teammates and coaches as being beyond his years.  Ramos strong arm behind the plate has been evident since his time in the minors.  This year he’s thrown out about 35% of attempted base stealers, an impressive number to begin with, and likely to improve with experience.  Ramos will likely benefit from having catching legend Ivan Rodriguez as a teammate and mentor.

Pitching may be the magic word for the 2011 National East but these young hitters are already making a statement of their own.

Shai Kushner is a Senior Writer for  Email Shai at:  Follow Shai on Twitter at: @BD_ShaiKushner.