Who's that? Willits, Shields performing without the hype
It's tough to perform well in the majors and remain anonymous these days, given the rampant media saturation in the game. When Twins reliever Pat Neshek can attract a die-hard following through his Weblog, it's a sign that times are truly changing.
But if you're a major leaguer with a desire to live an autograph hound-free existence, here are some surefire ways to avoid attention:
• Play for a perennial loser (e.g., the Pirates or Royals).
• Play for a team with a lower average attendance than your typical "Star Trek" convention. A Florida address typically helps in this regard.
• Play in Canada.
• Play on a roster filled with bigger names.
• Play on the West Coast, when a sizable portion of the viewing public has drifted off to rapid-eye-movement land.
Which brings us to this week's "Starting 9" -- a tribute to major leaguers making significant contributions with no hype. We've monitored the news reports, and while J.J. Hardy, Jack Cust, Kevin Youkilis, Takashi Saito and Francisco Cordero have been terrific, they fail to make the cut for one notable reason: You might actually recognize them if you passed them on the street.
As a public service, here's our list of All-Witness Protection All-Stars. Red Sox, Yankees and Cubs need not apply.
How much is Willits enjoying life in the majors? After a night game with the Dodgers Friday, he arrived at the park at 9 a.m., signed autographs and worked with kids at a clinic for several hours. Then he went out and led off the game with a single, stole second and scored on an error by Jeff Kent.
An American League scout describes Willits' swing as "rigid" and "ugly," but the kid has a knack for being in the middle of things. After the Angels signed him as a seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2003, Willits posted on-base percentages of .410, .374, .377 and .448 in his first four minor league stops.
"It's tough to say we saw him as a big league regular," said Angels scouting director Eddie Bane. "But when somebody shows they can walk the fine line of aggressiveness and working the count, then you have something."
Bill Stoneman, the Angels' old-school general manager, calls Willits a "real smart, gritty and talented player" with a knack for energizing an entire lineup -- a la David Eckstein. It remains to be seen whether he's more than a good fourth or fifth outfielder over the long term.
Willits has been so productive in the leadoff spot, the Angels shifted center fielder Gary Matthews to cleanup. Garret Anderson is almost ready to come off the disabled list, but manager Mike Scioscia is determined to find ways to keep getting Willits regular at-bats.
The Tampa Bay roster is full of guys who are quietly off to productive starts. Former phenom-turned-discard Carlos Pena has rediscovered his home run swing. Brendan Harris is hitting .320 since taking over as the team's regular shortstop, and 37-year-old Al Reyes has been borderline untouchable as the Rays' closer.
But no one has had a bigger impact than Shields, whose performance is trumping his previous claim to fame. Nobody's referring to him as Aaron Rowand's cousin anymore.
Shields has always had a premium changeup, but he's now complementing it with an effective curveball. He's been a reliable innings eater while Scott Kazmir continues to pile up big pitch counts and put strain on an undermanned Tampa Bay bullpen.
Gorzelanny and Ian Snell have been the backbone of manager Jim Tracy's rotation while Zach Duke and Paul Maholm sport ERAs above 5.50 and former first-round picks Bryan Bullington, Sean Burnett and John Van Benschoten try to get it together in Triple-A Indianapolis.
Gorzelanny, a left-hander, has an above-average fastball, an improving slider and a changeup that he'll throw at any time in the count. In his last 17 starts, Gorzelanny has an ERA of 2.47. He ranks second in the majors to the Padres' Jake Peavy over that stretch.
Snell, a righty, throws a fastball in the mid-90s and is a superior athlete. Unlike Gorzelanny, a second-round draft pick who came highly regarded, he had to buck the odds as a former 26th-round choice.
"They've both been spectacular," said Pirates GM Dave Littlefield. "They're moving up into another category as this season has gone on."
Everybody knows that $47 million closer B.J. Ryan is on the shelf with an elbow injury. Few people realize how effective the Toronto bullpen has been in his absence.
Accardo, acquired from San Francisco last July in a trade for the disgruntled Shea Hillenbrand, is getting ahead of hitters with a mid-90s fastball and putting them away with his splitter. And he's received plenty of help from set-up men Casey Janssen and Scott Downs. They've helped Toronto's bullpen post a 3.40 ERA, third best in the American League behind Boston and Seattle.
Padres general manager Kevin Towers has a sixth sense for unearthing bullpen gems, whether it's claiming Scott Linebrink off waivers from Houston or stealing Cla Meredith from Boston in a deal for Doug Mirabelli.
He appears to have scored another coup in Bell, who came over from the Mets with Royce Ring in a trade for outfielder Ben Johnson and reliever Jon Adkins in November. Towers has credited his scouts and front-office assistants Paul DePodesta and Jeff Kingston for recommending Bell.
Bell throws a mid-90s fastball and a power breaking ball, and exudes confidence on the mound. "He's got a forkball from hell," teammate Doug Brocail told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I'm jealous."
Bell's arrival has made a deep San Diego bullpen even better while giving Towers the option of trading a reliever, possibly Linebrink, if a desperate suitor blows him away with an offer before the July 31 deadline.
While Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta remain the focal point of the Cleveland offense, Garko is giving manager Eric Wedge some consistent thump from the right side.
The Indians knew Garko could hit when they selected him out of Stanford in the third round of the 2003 draft, but his defensive liabilities behind the plate made it likely he would wind up as a catcher-first base-DH hybrid in the majors.
Garko's main attributes are power and plate discipline. "Because of his low-maintenance approach, I think he'll always have a chance to hit .300 with a lot of extra-base hits," said Cleveland scouting director John Mirabelli. With 500 at-bats a season, Garko has the potential to be a consistent 20-homer man for the Indians.
Willingham, nicknamed "Hammer" by his teammates, is painfully slow and defensively suspect, but he can crush a fastball. He's an updated version of Jeff Conine, who endeared himself to Marlins fans as a consistent .300 hitter and 20-homer, 90-RBI guy in the mid-1990s.
Last year Willingham hit 26 homers, drove in 74 runs and fell right through the cracks. He finished in a three-way tie for fourth among Marlins in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting.
So far this season Willingham has more RBIs than Carlos Beltran, a higher on-base percentage than Chase Utley and a better OPS than Jeff Francoeur, Adrian Gonzalez and David Wright. The numbers are particularly impressive given that he's hitting .167 against lefties.
We'll give Bergmann the slight nod over teammate Shawn Hill, because: (a) National League hitters are batting .162 against him; and (b) this is the first year he's been a full-time starter since 2004 in Savannah.
Bergmann's first inning was a 50-pitch ordeal against Arizona, and he failed to record his first win until carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning against Atlanta last week. But there's a reason: The Nationals have averaged only 2.57 runs per game in his eight starts. Bergmann is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation and is expected to return in early June.
Hill was equally impressive before going down with a shoulder injury. After he beat the Phillies in late April, the Philadelphia hitters compared his sinker to Brandon Webb's. That's as nice a compliment as a ground ball pitcher can get.
With four of his five starters on the DL, Washington manager Manny Acta is using a rotation of Matt Chico, Micah Bowie, Jason Simontacchi, Mike Bacsik and Levale Speigner. All things considered, the Nationals' 17-29 record could be worse.
He has a name reminiscent of an Impressionist painter, and his 5-foot-10 height in the media guide might be stretching it. But Gaudin, along with Joe Kennedy, has helped the A's surmount a barrage of injuries and the loss of Esteban Loaiza and Rich Harden to the disabled list. He earned a healthy chunk of his $400,000 salary when he beat Barry Zito 15-3 on Friday.
There are some red flags with Gaudin. Lefties have a .308 average against him over five seasons, in part because his changeup hasn't been good enough to neutralize them. "He attacks hitters and he's confident," said a scout, "but every time I see him, lefties seem comfortable in the box."
Scouts habitually ticket undersized righties for the bullpen, so that might be where Gaudin eventually lands. But teammate Eric Chavez recently referred to him as Oakland's "silent unsung hero." Not a bad designation for a former 34th-round draft pick of the Devil Rays.
Mark Teahen, Royals: Teahen, who made the switch from third base to right field to accommodate rookie Alex Gordon, has a .403 OBP and is tied for the major league lead with eight outfield assists. He beats out catcher John Buck (seven homers) as the most overlooked Royal.
Kelly Johnson, Braves: He's been fine at second base and has an .893 OPS out of the leadoff spot. Johnson has helped the Braves amass the second-highest run total in the NL despite a rough stretch for Andruw Jones.
Jose Valverde, Diamondbacks: "Papa Grande" can be an adventure, but he's tied with Francisco Cordero for the major league lead with 17 saves.
Joe Smith, Mets: Yes, we know he's a Met. Feel free to raise your hand if you knew he was averaging 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings.
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