Editor's Note: Mike Stanton was named NEXT for the Jan. 9, 2012 issue of ESPN The Magazine. You can read more about him here.
If and when Yu Darvish is posted by the Nippon Ham Fighters this off-season, the natural inclination will be to compare him to disappointing countryman Daisuke Matsuzaka. That will be entirely unfair. The 6'5" Darvish is taller than the six-foot Matsuzaka, which may make him more durable. In eight seasons in Japan, Matsuzaka never had a sub-2 ERA; Darvish hasn't had an ERA above 2 since 2006, his first full year in the Japanese league, when he was just 19 years old. From ages 20 to 24, Darvish has struck out a remarkable 1,083 hitters, including 276 in 2011. Now consider the likelihood that Darvish is better suited to deal with the lights and flash of the big leagues. Matsuzaka has somewhat shied from media attention since signing with Boston in 2006. Darvish, who is married to a popular Japanese actress, is as likely to be on the cover of a gossip magazine as on the cover of a sports magazine. In the end, there is no comparison -- and no reason to think Darvish won't be an MLB star.
The greater the hype, the bigger the backlash. That's the lesson Bryce Harper learned this season. Yes, the outfielder struggled initially after being called up to Double-A Harrisburg in July after tearing through the Class A South Atlantic League for Hagerstown. Then, of course, there was the infamous kiss. After hitting a home run in a game against Greensboro in June, Harper taunted the opposing pitcher by blowing him a kiss as he neared the plate. Many scouts questioned whether the teenager was mature enough for the big leagues; whatever the case, the fact remains that there is no better hitting prospect in the minors than the first pick of the 2010 draft. "All first-year players learn a great deal throughout the course of the year," Washington's director of player development Doug Harris says. "Like others, Bryce learned how to prepare daily for the grind of a full season, balancing nutrition, strength training and the rest. Each individual is different, and it's a process finding that balance until you actually go through it." If there's any lingering doubt about Harper's forward trajectory, his final combined line in the minors should put it to rest: 17 HRs in 387 ABs with a .894 OPS. As an 18-year-old. The hype is real.
Given Tampa's financial limitations, it was no surprise that the Rays kept top pitching prospect Matt Moore in the minors for most of the season, despite fighting for a playoff spot. They wanted to delay his free-agency clock. When the Rays called up Moore with just three weeks remaining in the regular season, it was assumed that he would pitch out of the bullpen in long relief. The Rays surprised everyone and made the playoffs, then included Moore on the postseason roster; the common thought was that Moore would be used as a situational reliever, similar to how the team used David Price in 2008. Instead, the Rays named Moore the team's Game 1 starter in the ALDS against the Rangers. "Just reflecting back, David's command of his fastball wasn't this good even at that particular time in 2008," Rays manager Joe Maddon said in explaining the move to reporters. "We just think probably that Matt may be a little bit more polished, a little bit further along as a pitcher right now. We think he's capable of handling this moment emotionally." In seven shutout innings, Moore showed the baseball world why he had been lauded for so long. The lefty has a fastball that tops out at 98 mph, a drop-dead curveball and an elusive changeup. Regardless of the financial implications, Moore will likely be in Tampa's rotation to start next year. He's just too money.
The first time then-Angels scouting director Eddie Bane watched Mike Trout play in high school in 2009, the outfielder popped out in his first three trips to the plate. "Let's go," Bane told Jeff Malinoff, the Angels' crosschecker. Malinoff assumed Bane's reaction meant that Trout's audition had been a disaster. But while driving away, Bane told Malinoff that if the kid was available in the first round when the team's selection was up, he was going to pick him no matter what. Malinoff could hardly believe it. "I had done some research and knew that Mike had an absolutely incredible background," Bane says. He noted that Trout had immense talent, yet he played as if he were a scrappy infielder. Bane believed that attitude came from Trout's parents: Jeff, a career minor leaguer with limited ability and an intense work ethic; and Debbie, who was a tough but loving caretaker. Sure enough, the Angels selected Trout with the 25th pick of the first round in 2009. In three seasons in the minors, Trout had a .930 OPS before earning a call-up this season with the Angels. Bane still believes Trout's attitude is even more impressive than his talent. After Bryce Harper's infamous blown-kiss home run, Bane received a text message from Debbie Trout that read, "If Mike ever blew a kiss at anyone on the baseball field, I would be in the dugout so fast that it would spin Mike on his bottom." Says Bane now, "I thought that just about summed up the way Mike Trout and his family approached professional baseball."
When Mike Stanton hits home runs, they go far. Very far. Of the 34 long balls the Marlins outfielder hit this year, 27 of them traveled more than 400 feet, including a 474-foot blast against Kevin Millwood in Colorado in August. The average distance of Stanton's home runs this year was 417 feet, well above the league average of 396. ESPN Home Run Tracker lists Stanton with 15 "no doubt" home runs, the most in the NL this year. So yes, Stanton is a pretty strong guy. He may be the best young home run hitter in the game. And at 6'5", 235 pounds, the 22-year-old slugger looks more like a linebacker; he was even recruited by several schools, including USC under Pete Carroll, to play wide receiver in college. Stanton's game still needs improvements: His .261 batting average and .344 OBP mean he makes too many outs. But nobody can doubt Stanton's power. He could be the first 50-homer hitter to emerge from the post-steroid era.