Buzzing on Yahoo Sports:

Coming of age: 25 to watch

Brad Evans
Yahoo Sports

Imagine it's your 10-year high school reunion.

With the classic sounds of the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy/Puffy/P-Diddy/Diddy thumping in the background, you mingle with familiar faces, reflecting upon that disgusting time you convinced the cheerleading captain your plastic bottle partially filled with Skoal spit was actually Jack Daniels.

Ah, memories.

After being overexposed to bland conversations about children, jobs and nostalgia, you scurry to the bar to numb the monotony.

As you approach the alcohol oasis you notice a tall, voluptuous brunette standing at the bar. Puzzled, you strain your eyes in the darkness in an attempt to make out what's scribbled on her nametag, but to no avail. For several seconds, you desperately try to seek her identity in your cobweb of memories.

Suddenly, a light bulb turns on.

That drop-dead gorgeous woman is Gina. You know, the all-star math-lete from your sophomore biology class. The same gangly, pock-faced, four-eyed Gina you mindlessly tortured for three years by nicknaming her "The Giraffe."

Evidently, LASIK surgery, Proactiv creams and years of yoga classes had turned the once detestable Olive Oyl into a jaw-dropping Giselle Bundchen. And because your cold, insensitive words from high school still resonate negatively with her, your chances of legging out a bedroom triple are virtually non-existent.

You change your Heineken order to a double-shot of Jager …

Whether it's the people seen at your high school reunion or players picked in your fantasy baseball draft, previously perceived ugly ducklings occasionally morph into beautiful swans.

Conventional wisdom tells us hitters who turn 26 or 27, typically, springboard forward in plate maturation. Last year alone, stars Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon Phillips, Curtis Granderson, Matt Holliday, Brad Hawpe, Corey Hart, Shane Victorino and Alex Rios exploded at these ages.

Why the performance spike?

For most experienced mid-to-high level talent, two-to-three years of quality big league at-bats translates into the confidence and discipline needed to sharpen power and contact skills. Although the late-mid 20s doesn't guarantee zenith totals, it gives fantasy followers insight into a player's career path. By grasping this concept, it helps owners target batters on the brink – a key asset to future drafts and opponent domination.

Excluding headline-grabbers Gonzalez, Crawford, Phillips, Granderson, Hart, Victorino, Rios and Justin Morneau, here are 25 peak performers poised to surge forward and turn a profit for your team in 2007.

Maturation Meter
Player Team POS RNK ADP RD
Kevin Kouzmanoff
3B 1 274.9 23
Lowdown: During the first 45 days of the '07 season, Kouz was more frigid than a handshake exchange between Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush. However, after May 14, the Cosmonaut exploded into the cosmos racking up a .310 BA, 17 dingers and 65 RBI. Equipped with a blue collar work ethic, the free-swinging third baseman should build on his sizzling post-May performance hitting third ahead of pitcher pounder Adrian Gonzalez. An insane bargain in mixed-league drafts, he will be a fringe top-15 three-bagger, who will be a consistency king flirting with .300.
Fearless Forecast: 550 at-bats, .301 BA, 25 HR, 91 RBI, 79 R, SB
Ryan Garko
1B 2 180.4 15.0
Lowdown: Earning nearly full-time duty after the All-Star break, Garko had a fantastic finish to his '07 campaign totaling 21 bombs and a .289 BA in 484 at-bats. The Cleveland slugger is a prototype line-drive hitter with a quick, smooth swing whose fly-ball percentage spiked last season – a tell-tale sign of increased power. If he can improve his deplorable 6.6 BB% and generate more loft on his swing, 25-30 homers is attainable. Expected to bat behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez in the fifth spot, Garko could eclipse the century mark in RBI. He'll be more valuable than James Loney, who's going roughly 60 picks earlier.
Fearless Forecast: 540 at-bats, .279 BA, 27 HR, 99 RBI, 76 R, SB
Nick Swisher
1B, OF 3 92.0 7.7
Lowdown: The marquee piece of the A's-ChiSox swap back in early January, Swisher will be an enraged animal playing in the Cell. A switch-hitter with tremendous raw power, Swisher's numbers diminished last year due to numerous injuries (shoulder, hammy) and lazy jabs at outside pitches. Now playing half his games in the Coors Fields of the American League, the Sox center fielder should recapture the 35-homer magic of 2006. Eligible at 1B and OF, Swisher is a cheaper version of Adam Dunn.
Fearless Forecast: 540 at-bats, .265 BA, 34 HR, 98 RBI, 102 R, 3 SB
Ian Kinsler
2B 4 69.7 5.8
Lowdown: Despite missing 24 games due to a fractured left foot, Kinsler remarkably was one of three second basemen (B.J. Upton and Brandon Phillips the others) to join the 20-20 club last year. Mentally tough, Kinsler is a hard swinger with enormous gap power, evident in his dramatic rise in HR/FB% last season ('06: 8.8, '07: 11.0). The talent-rich Ranger was also more disciplined at the plate, increasing his BB% by 2.8 percent from '06. If he can show more consistency away from Ameriquest Field (.215 road BA in '07) a 30-25 season isn't unfathomable. Sporting a nearly identical ADP as Robinson Cano, Kinsler will be significantly more valuable than the hyped Yankees turn-man.
Fearless Forecast: 520 at-bats, .275 BA, 23 HR, 76 RBI, 100 R, 22 SB
Josh Hamilton
OF 5 177.4 14.8
Lowdown: Before numerous nagging ailments (stomach, wrist, hammy) overwhelmed him, Hamilton's Roy Hobbes-like "Natural" talent skyrocketed him into man-crush territory. In 298 plate appearances, the sweet-swinging lefty launched a homer once every 15.2 at-bats. Extrapolate that output over 550 at-bats and Hamilton would have finished with the same number of homers as Matt Holliday. Now a Texas Ranger, the ridiculously gifted outfielder could see his power numbers increase substantially, given the diluted American League pitching he'll face and expected everyday at-bats he'll rack. If, and that's emphasized, Hamilton can avoid the injury imp 35-40 homers is a certainty. Some fantasy pundits believe his value is over-hyped, but with a 177.4 ADP, he's really under-appreciated.
Fearless Forecast: 430 at-bats, .299 BA, 28 HR, 76 RBI, 79 R, 5 SB
Wily Mo Pena
OF 6 321.4 26.8
Lowdown: Soon Wily Mo will be known throughout the world as "El Elefante." Seemingly 35-years old based upon the hype that's surrounded him since he entered the league at age 20, Pena's beastly batting practice sessions will finally translate into on-field power success. Although he earned his degree at the Vladimir Guerrero school of hitting (32.5 K% in '07) and struggled mightily against righties (.203 BA) last year, his torrid September (94 at-bats, .319 BA, 4 HR, 15 RBI) is exemplary of his upside. If he can fend off Elijah Dukes in spring training and start Opening Day in left, there's a 25-plus homer player waiting for you in the midnight hour of your draft.
Fearless Forecast: 430 at-bats, .273 BA, 21 HR, 68 RBI, 58 R, 2 SB
Jason Kubel
1B, OF 7 327.7 27.3
Lowdown: By season's end, Twinkies fans may name one of Minnesota's 10,000 lakes after Kubel. Healthy for the first time in his Big League career, Kubel posted a dynamite .303 BA with six homers and 28 RBI after the break last year. With upward trending fly-ball and line-drive percentages and projected to cement his role as the Twinkies' primary designated hitter, Kubel's peripheries forecast a numbers spike. He has the capability of smacking 20-25 homers given his discerning eye and overall plate discipline. Another last-round gem, Kubel's steady production will be invaluable as a utility player in 12-team and deeper head-to-head leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 430 at-bats, .280 BA, 18 HR, 71 RBI, 62 R
Rocco Baldelli
OF, DH 8 253.2 21.1
Lowdown: Always in bed with the injury imp, Baldelli hasn't showcased his multi-faceted talents over a full season since 2004. After being sidelined for much of '07 with a hamstring injury, the D-Rays will likely cement Rocco as their DH to prevent a setback. He's always possessed five-tooled fantasy skills, but will have to prove his durability to the fantasy masses this spring. If he can silence his doubters, a 20-12 season is achievable. Based on his 253.2 ADP, consider Baldelli a medium risk-high reward player.
Fearless Forecast: 450 at-bats, .277 BA, 15 HR, 66 RBI, 72 R, 12 SB
Conor Jackson
1B 9 316.2 26.4
Lowdown: With Chad Tracy's tender knee ailing after microfracture surgery and veteran Tony Clark seeking a change of address via free agency, this may finally be the year Jackson becomes a viable shallow-league contributor. Described as a pole-to-pole line-drive hitter, Jackson possesses the attributes to be a middle-of-the-order producer. Last season, he sliced nearly three percentage points off his K% and notched an 18.2 homer/at-bat mark after the break. Jackson could post sensational numbers out of the gate with Tracy expected to push for at-bats by June. His power ceiling is 20-25 homers, but his palatable average potential is enticing.
Fearless Forecast: 500 at-bats, .294 BA, 19 HR, 80 RBI, 70 R, SB
Scott Hairston
OF 10 335.4 27.9
Lowdown: Hairston has always had a spot in my T-Mobile Fave 5. A former Arizona Diamondbacks minor league player of the year, Hairston has always possessed the skills and pedigree to be a perennial 25-plus home run thumper. However, untimely injuries and prolonged big league slumps have stunted his baseball growth. Finally in a position to accumulate 400-plus at-bats, Hairston must continue to exude plate patience and channel the player that posted a .471 batting average, three homers and eight RBI in early August. If he can keep Chase Headley at bay, he definitely has a chance at tapping into his once boastful potential. Hairston's average could be repulsive, but he'll be a profitable power supplier in deep mixed and NL-only leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 400 at-bats, .266 BA, 22 HR, 74 RBI, 56 R, 2 SB
Aaron Hill
2B, SS 11 198.9 16.6
Lowdown: Hill is one of the primary reasons why values at second base are abundant this year. Indicative of his soaring fly-ball and strikeout percentages, Hill developed a mean streak at the plate last season, tallying new benchmarks in homers (17), RBI (78) and doubles (47). His surge in doubles is especially mouth-watering as it proves his gap power is peaking. Given his hard-working approach and solid peripherals, 20-25 homers are on the docket. Speak of him in the same breath as Jeff Kent, but keep the 100-pick ADP disparity a secret.
Fearless Forecast: 580 at-bats, .289 BA, 21 HR, 80 RBI, 89 R, 4 SB
Nate McLouth
OF 12 278.1 23.2
Lowdown: McLouth's ascending power last season was completely unforeseen. Known as a speed-oriented player with average gap strength, the Buckos centerfielder slapped 13 homers in 329 at-bats. Not surprising, McLouth's fly-ball percentage rose dramatically from 35.4 in '06 to 52.4 percent last year. With his BB percentage also upward bound ('06: 6.3, '07: 10.6), he's a very real 15-25 candidate. However, he'll have to fend off Speed Racer Nyjer Morgan this spring to rubber stamp a starting spot.
Fearless Forecast: 490 at-bats, .268 BA, 16 HR, 51 RBI, 72 R, 23 SB
Kelly Johnson
2B 13 177.5 14.8
Lowdown: Abandoned by hundreds of owners after being forced into a platoon with Yunel Escobar in June, Johnson rewarded those who offered their loyalty, racking a .356 batting average, four homer and 16 RBI July. Now with over 800 major league at-bats under his belt, Johnson is primed to reach his 20-25 homer ceiling in '08. His marvelous 13.2 BB%, hard-nosed personality and double-digit power/speed potential will vault the Braves two-bagger into top-10 contention at second base. Anticipate him to be a more viable fantasy force than Dustin Pedroia, Orlando Hudson and Placido Polanco – all of whom are going some 10-40 picks ahead of Johnson in early drafts.
Fearless Forecast: 580 at-bats, .278 BA, 19 HR, 73 RBI, 98 R, 8 SB
Mark Teahen
OF, 1B 14 310.9 25.9
Lowdown: After blasting 18 homers in 393 '06 at-bats, the KC outfielder saw a sharp decline in power numbers last season, reaching the bleachers just seven times in 544 at-bats. Owners willing to invest in this former A's top prospect hope the Tea leaves project a favorable forecast. Much of Teahen's failures last season were attributed to mentally adjusting to a new position. Unfortunately, Trey Hillman plans to move him to another new position, first base, this season. If he can conquer the mental roadblock and find his comfort zone a 15-15 campaign isn't out of the question.
Fearless Forecast: 500 at-bats, .287 BA, 14 HR, 70 RBI, 76 R, 11 SB
Chris Duncan
1B, OF 15 299.5 24.9
Lowdown: Despite being bothered by a sports hernia for nearly two months, Duncan remarkably produced copious power totals in '07 totaling 21 homers in just 375 steps to the dish (HR in every 17.9 at-bats). His line-drive percentage and HR/FB splits plummeted last season, but healthy and expected to earn more regular playing time, those numbers should rebound close to his '06 totals. Historically, Duncan has mashed righties, but has struggled immensely versus southpaws, notching a detestable .213 average against them in 80 at-bats last year. If he can conquer his weaknesses and avoid occasional platoon time, 30 homers aren't inconceivable. He's a superb buy in the beer-fogged hours of your draft.
Fearless Forecast: 450 at-bats, .278 BA, 25 HR, 72 RBI, 62 R, 2 SB
Hank Blalock
3B 16 232.3 19.4
Lowdown: Blalock suffers from a classic case of split fantasy personality. Traditionally, a player that rockets out of the gates, Blalock's disparaging second half performances have labeled him a teeter-totter. After a shoulder injury sidelined him for four months last season, hammerin' Hank is expected to start the season at full-strength. If he can recapture the vigorous OBP (.358), BB% (9.2) and FB% (45.9) numbers he racked early last year, a return to the glory days of '04 (.276 BA, 32 HR, 110 RBI, 107 R) is achievable. Based on his 20th round ADP in 12-team leagues, he's a minimal risk who could pay Texas-sized dividends.
Fearless Forecast: 500 at-bats, .274 BA, 21 HR, 79 RBI, 71 R, 3 SB
Jayson Nix
2B 17 334.7 27.8
Lowdown: Nix has "shocker special" tattooed on his forehead. Thankfully, Jayson didn't inherit the baseball inept genes of his older brother Laynce. In 439 at-bats at Triple-A Colorado Springs last season Nix accumulated an eye-catching line: .292 BA, 11 HR, 58 RBI, 80 R, and 24 SB. Furnished with surprising strength, quick wrists and adequate gap power, the former first round pick has the capacity of being a Kelly Johnson-like fantasy contributor. Despite the Marcus Giles signing, Clint Hurdle recently commented that the "road is paved" for Nix to emerge the starter, and if he does, he'll be a top-notch middle infielder in 12-team and deeper mixed leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 430 at-bats, .262 BA, 12 HR, 56 RBI, 55 R, 18 SB
Jhonny Peralta
SS 18 174.9 14.6
Lowdown: Jhonny was on-the-spot in '07, rebounding from a horrific sophomore slump a season before. Peralta is one of the finest fastball crushers in the AL, but his inability to lay off pitcher's junk has labeled him an untamed whiffer (25.4 K% in '07). His HR/FB percentage returned close to his '05 level, but until he learns to take more pitches a significant leap in power numbers is a pipe dream. Similar to Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy, Peralta is a slightly above average producer at his position who will tease you with spurts of greatness.
Fearless Forecast: 570 at-bats, .272 BA, 22 HR, 79 RBI, 90 R, 3 SB
Ryan Doumit
C, OF 19 308.4 25.7
Lowdown: Doumit's catcher eligibility could make him the prized hidden jewel of deep mixed and NL-only drafts. That is, if he can avoid the locker-room spa. Doumit, a walking, breathing eggshell, has logged a whopping 146 DL days in his brief big league career. Despite his fragile physical state, he's a reputable fantasy option given his 15-20 homer pop and ability to hit for average. Before the break last season he tallied an impressive .303 BA with six homers and 21 RBI. Only six catchers comprised the .270 BA-12 HR club last year. If Doumit can stay healthy, he'll be a club member in '08. Look for him to split time with Ronny Paulino behind the plate and net additional playing time as Xavier Nady's backup in right.
Fearless Forecast: 330 at-bats, .277 BA, 12 HR, 48 RBI, 43 R, 2 SB
Mike Napoli
C 20 278.3 23.2
Lowdown: Although Napoli's batting average in '07 was uglier than Don Mattingly's estranged wife, his gorgeous .351 OBP and 13.1 BB% are flashing signs his average could surge upward. In order for that to occur, his contact rates must continue to climb. Trimming five percentage points off his K% and boosting his LD% by 4.8 percent a season ago are two additional pieces of evidence he's growing as a hitter. This could be the year he sheds the "David Ross of the AL" stigma.
Fearless Forecast: 330 at-bats, .253 BA, 17 HR, 53 RBI, 49 R, 5 SB
Rajai Davis
OF 21 330.1 27.5
Lowdown: Davis, one of the few Giants players not on a regular Metamucil drip, is an intriguing low-dollar purchase for speed-minded owners. Coming over to San Francisco from Pittsburgh in the Matt Morris deal, Davis' sticky glove, ability to get on base (.361 OBP) and blazing speed (190 at-bats, 22 SBs) caught the eye of many owners late last season. Entering spring training, he's forecasted to split time with the ancient Dave Roberts in left and backup Aaron Rowand in center. But given his versatility, defensive prowess and Roberts and Rowand's vulnerability to nicks, Davis could see regular playing time at some point this season. If he accumulates 400-plus at-bats, he's a shoo-in for 35-40 steals.
Fearless Forecast: 400 at-bats, .278 BA, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 59 R, 39 SB
Jason Botts
1B, DH 22 341.2 28.4
Lowdown: Ripping through inferior pitching in the minors for the past three seasons, Botts finally earned a shot at regular playing time with the senior club in August. Unfortunately, his prolific hitting didn't translate (.240 BA in 167 at-bats). He's always possessed the skill set to rack a .300 average and 18-22 long-balls annually, but until he dramatically improves his 35.3 K% at the big league level, he'll continue to impede your team's production. Ron Washington plans to platoon the switch-hitting Botts at first base with Ben Broussard. However, if Botts sizzles this spring he could earn additional playing time in the outfield. For now, he's merely a $3-$5 player in AL-only leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 325 at-bats, .266 BA, 11 HR, 51 RBI, 50 R, SB
Jose Bautista
3B 23 333.3 27.8
Lowdown: With top prospect Neil Walker still developing his hot corner defense in the minors and Jose Castillo sloughing it in Miami, Bautista has little competition. His susceptibility for prolonged statistical recessions makes him unbearable to own at times, but his improved contact rates and dip in K% last season proves he's become more disciplined. However, don't anticipate a major leap in power production – a slight ascension in batting average and homers seems more likely. Considering the Grand Canyon depth at third base this season, Bautista's value will be limited to NL-only leagues. Unless Walker becomes an offensive and defensive juggernaut, Bautista will be a dependable $8-$12 corner contributor in Senior Circuit leagues.
Fearless Forecast: 500 at-bats, .260 BA, 17 HR, 68 RBI, 70 R, 5 SB
Jerry Owens
OF 24 292.2 24.4
Lowdown: Owens is similar in style and substance as groundball slap-hitters Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre. A contact hitter with non-existent power, Owens uses his gazelle-like speed to generate hits and swipe bases. In 356 plate appearances last season, he posted an uninspiring .324 OBP, but managed to steal 32 bags. If he can draw more walks (7.1 BB% in '07), he could become the featured lead-off man on the South Side. Ozzie Guillen was impressed with his defense last season, but unless Carlos Quentin suffers a setback in his recovery from shoulder surgery Owens will start the season as a utility outfielder. Like Rajai Davis, healthy stolen base totals are a definite if he can compile 400 at-bats.
Fearless Forecast: 390 at-bats, .269 BA, HR, 16 RBI, 61 R, 35 SB
Dallas McPherson
3B 25 336.7 28.1
Lowdown: By now, McPherson was supposed to have made several All-Star appearances, signed lucrative endorsement deals and slept with throngs of beautiful women. Unlucky for him, vomit-inducing strikeout totals and abundant injuries have turned his major league dreams into nightmares. Signed by Florida for the price of two McDonald's Fillet of Fish in late January, McPherson gets one more shot at fantasy fortune. He's always had 30-homer upside, but coming off back surgery and playing a majority of his games in a pitcher's park does cast a shadow on his potential resurgence. He'll most certainly earn everyday duty over once cherished contributors Jorge Cantu and Jose Castillo with a terrific spring.
Fearless Forecast: 350 at-bats, .251 BA, 16 HR, 60 RBI, 48 R, SB

POS = Qualified Yahoo! position eligibility
ADP = Mock Draft Central average draft positions through Feb. 5
RD = Equivalent round value based on ADP in 12-team mixed drafts

Other notable 26ers: Brian Anderson, Wilson Betemit, Shane Costa, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, Ben Francisco, Kevin Frandsen, Sam Fuld, Corey Hart, Omar Infante, Mike Morse, Matt Murton, Angel Pagan, Brendan Ryan, Scott Thorman, Brandon Watson, Ben Zobrist

Other notable 27ers: Russ Adams, Rob Bowen, Jose Castillo, Nelson Cruz, Jonny Gomes, Curtis Granderson, Brendan Harris, Macier Izturis, Garret Jones, Fred Lewis, Jeff Baker, Nyjer Morgan, Justin Morneau, Brandon Phillips, Ryan Raburn, Jason Repko, Alex Rios, Jeff Salazar, Reggie Willits, Josh Wilson.