Young primed to hit the stratosphere

The idea here is to identify the next Derrek Lee. Good luck on that.

If we take every element of Lee's rise into stardom in 2005, we might as well search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. There aren't many who ever come as far as the Cubs' first baseman did last year.

Entering the season at age 29, with eight years and 1,027 games of experience, Lee had never been an All-Star. He had never driven in 100 runs nor scored 100 runs. He had never won a batting title. He had never hit 40 home runs. He had certainly never received MVP consideration.

He did all of those things last season, entering September with a legitimate shot at winning the first Triple Crown in 38 years. He elevated his game from productive to great. Who among the current hitters is poised to follow that example?

Initially, I set out to see which veterans seemed ready to step forward after being positioned like the 2005 version of Lee in only three categories: (1) never before being an All-Star; (2) never having driven in 100 runs; and (3) never finishing in the top five in MVP voting. But that proved impossible. So I relaxed the standard to identify guys who meet two of those three criteria. It remained a short list.

Here's a look at who's ready for a breakout season:

Michael Young

Very much like Lee, the Texas shortstop has gotten a little better every season he has played. His OPS has climbed steadily -- .690, .785, .836 and .899 over the last four years -- as he has grown more comfortable with his approach and ability to drive the ball. He enters 2006 at age 29 and as the reigning American League batting champ, having raised his batting average every year of his career -- most recently to .331 from .313 in 2004 and .306 in '03. His plate discipline has also improved; his on-base percentage jumped by 32 points last season.

Young, who appears to have benefited from the time he spent playing alongside Alex Rodriguez, is a right-handed hitter in a park that better suits left-handed hitters. He has learned to hit the ball the other way, driving many home runs into the bullpen in right-center during his career.

Hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo is a valuable asset, constantly pushing Young to get better. He is a consummate pro who hasn't lost his focus in the second halves of many lost seasons with the misfiring Rangers. It will be interesting to see how big of a lift he gets if he ever gets to play in a serious playoff race.

David Wright

Because he's only 23, Wright might not quite fit. But he is a star in the making, and if the Mets knock off Atlanta this season, it would probably have more to do with his production than that of his teammates with huge salaries, namely Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado.

A first-round pick in the 2001 draft, Wright advanced steadily through the Mets' system before arriving with a bullet in 2004. He hit .293 with 14 homers and an .857 OPS in 263 at-bats. Had this been a fluke, he would have immediately declined in 2005, but he was even more productive as he settled into the league, batting .306 with 27 home runs (in a tough place to hit homers) and a .912 OPS.

Scouts love the way the right-handed hitting Wright works pitchers and extends at-bats. His plate discipline improved markedly in 2005, when his ratio of strikeouts to walks dropped from almost 3-1 to about 1.5-1.

Most of Wright's at-bats came in the fifth spot last season, but his totals could explode if manager Willie Randolph opts to hit him third and use Delgado as protection. He could hit 30-plus home runs and drive in 120.

Lyle Overbay

An excellent hitter with emerging power, the 29-year-old Overbay was traded to Toronto to open up first base for Prince Fielder in Milwaukee. It is the second move of his career, so it shouldn't cause too big of an adjustment.

That's especially true because the Rogers Centre will continue his career trend of playing in retractable roof stadiums. While Miller Park is also a good hitter's ballpark, the Rogers Centre suits left-handed hitters a little better.

Overbay is driven; his batting average actually dropped 25 points in 2005, perhaps because he was looking over his shoulder at Fielder. He could play with a clear head this season and will hit in a good spot next to Vernon Wells and Troy Glaus. He's expected to be a complementary player, but he has the tools and patient approach to emerge as the cornerstone piece, just as Lee did with the Cubs.

Joe Mauer

Like Wright, it's probably too early to put Mauer on this list. He'll turn 23 on April 19. But much has been asked of the Minnesota catcher before his time, so it would not be a huge surprise if he had a breakout season.

The key for Mauer in 2005 was getting past the problems with his left knee that limited him to only 35 games in his rookie season and threatened to force him to deal with a position change. "He's healthy now,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "His knee got checked out at the end of the year. No problems. It looks great. Everything is fantastic. He's a stud. … This young man is a real deal.''

Mauer played in 131 games last season, including 116 behind the plate, but did not deliver the kind of impact that had been expected of him. He soon will, perhaps in 2006.

A left-handed hitter, Mauer has hit .297 with an .811 OPS in his first two seasons despite the bumpy ride. That's an impressive base to build on in difficult times. AL pitchers are told repeatedly that Mauer is the guy in the Twins' lineup that they can't let beat them. But he could benefit from Torii Hunter's return to health and better production from Justin Morneau, the power-hitting first baseman who slumped in 2005.

If Mauer is going to drive in 100-plus runs and put together numbers to get on an MVP short list, he'll have to convince Gardenhire to use him as the designated hitter when he's not catching. For that to happen consistently, Mauer will have to improve against left-handed pitchers. He batted .225 with no homers in 142 at-bats against them last year. So maybe it is too soon to include him on this list.

Carl Crawford

With a wealth of experience before his 25th birthday, the speedy Crawford is the one Devil Ray who is coveted the most by the 29 other teams. Think of him as the guy with the best chance to be Rickey Henderson. He's a fly guy -- leading the AL in triples the last two seasons -- but is developing power as he ages.

Crawford has jumped his OPS from .671 to .800 in two years, and no one believes he has come near his potential. He still has a very limited understanding of the strike zone and managed to hit .301 last year despite consistently chasing breaking balls in the dirt. When he learns to spit on that pitch, he will become one of the most respected hitters in the AL.

Don't be surprised if this is the year that happens. New Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon is an excellent choice for the task of getting through to Crawford. He worked with many young talents as the bench coach in Anaheim, but perhaps none with Crawford's combination of skills and experience at this age. With the likes of Jorge Cantu, Jonny Gomes, Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young in the 2006 lineup, Crawford should be ready to get to work when he reports to spring training.

Nick Johnson

Scouts are just about unanimous in proclaiming Johnson as an All-Star in waiting. Many felt it would have already happened, but he's only 27.

Johnson came to the big leagues as a skilled hitter with the 2001 Yankees, when he was only 22, and was considered a steal for the Montreal Expos in the Javier Vazquez trade. But injuries (back and a broken cheekbone) limited him to 73 games in 2004, so 2005 was his first major-league season with 400-plus at-bats. He bounced back to the form he had shown with the Yankees -- his yearly OPS the last three seasons is .894, .758 and .887 -- and he should be ready to build on that in 2006.

RFK Stadium is known as a tough park for hitters, but it suits the left-handed hitting Johnson better than his right-handed teammates. It takes imagination to picture an MVP candidate on the Washington Nationals, but Johnson could put up big numbers if he gets the 650 plate appearances he should have coming his way. His totals could really jump if teammates like Alfonso Soriano, Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro and 21-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman also have good years.

These players don't qualify, but they fit:

Paul Konerko

The White Sox first baseman had his coming-out season in 2005, earning MVP honors in the American League Championship Series and then nailing down a $60 million contract after the season. But he's a good bet to keep growing as he heads into his 30s, and you'd be foolish not to consider the possibility that he could put himself on the short list for league MVP honors with a monster season. Konerko has always been his own harshest critic but should open 2006 as a very confident hitter. He made things easier on himself by not jumping to the Los Angeles Angels, and he should get good pitches to hit working in tandem with new teammate Jim Thome.

Victor Martinez

The switch-hitting Indians catcher raised his batting average by 22 points last season but didn't hit for quite as much power as he had in 2004. The next step in his learning process should find him hitting over .300 with increasing power. He could also benefit from the Coco Crisp trade, as the acquisition of power-hitting catcher Kelly Shoppach has manager Eric Wedge considering sometimes using Martinez at first base. He needs to be in the lineup every day and should gain in stature if Cleveland follows up on a promising 2005 with a playoff run in 2006.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.