Commentary

Highlighting the biggest overachievers of '08

Originally Published: July 2, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

In baseball, or any other sport, one man's "overachiever" is another's opportunist.

Lots of people might find it surprising to look at the major league leaders and see White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin near the top in homers and RBIs. But we're talking about a former first-round draft pick who was rated as Arizona's top prospect as recently as 2005. All Quentin needed, it appears, was a change of scenery and a clean bill of health.

The move to a new organization also has done wonders for Quentin's teammate, Gavin Floyd, who is blossoming in Chicago at age 25. And we can't forget Cleveland's Cliff Lee, who looks a lot more like the guy who went 46-24 over a three-year span than the stubborn, exasperating pitcher who was banished to Triple-A Buffalo last summer.

As the All-Star Game approaches, a lot of players are performing better than their track records or perceived talent levels might indicate. Are they overachieving or simply taking advantage of playing time to reach their full potential? The answers might go a long way toward determining how far their teams progress after the break.

In this week's installment of "Starting 9," we recognize big leaguers who've continued to surprise us in a very positive manner. Let's call them the Sons of David Eckstein.

Brad Ziegler

Ziegler

Justin Duchscherer

Duchscherer

Oakland's pitching staff

1 Joe Blanton (4-11) might beg to differ, but the Oakland staff is having a much more gratifying season than people expected after the Athletics traded Dan Haren to Arizona. The Haren-less A's rank second in the major leagues in ERA, and they've helped Oakland overcome an offense that's 25th in the game in OPS.

Rich Harden is healthy, dominant and fueling talk of a trade war as a potential C.C. Sabathia alternative. Greg Smith and Dana Eveland have taken advantage of their opportunities, and it'll be a shame if Justin Duchscherer doesn't make the All-Star team (along with his 1.91 ERA).

"Duke has been telling us for three years that he could start," said Oakland assistant general manager David Forst. "We finally took the hint."

The bullpen has been superb, with Santiago Casilla, Andrew Brown, Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler mixing well with veterans Alan Embree and Keith Foulke. Ziegler, 28, was released by the Phillies in 2004, pitched for the Schaumburg Flyers in the Northern League, suffered a fractured skull when he was hit by a line drive in the minors, fractured his skull a second time when he was struck by a thrown ball at a youth clinic, and reinvented himself as a submariner with the help of coach Ron Romanick. Now he's working on a streak of 15 straight shutout innings.

A lot of the credit goes to pitching coach Curt Young, who operates in a publicity vacuum that was never inhabited by his Oakland predecessor, Rick Peterson.

"Curt really has a feel for individual guys," Forst said. "He knows what each guy needs, and it's not just a formula he applies to the entire staff. His background and playing career allow him to relate to different kinds of pitchers."

Jim Johnson

Johnson

George Sherrill

Sherrill

Baltimore's bullpen

2 After spending $42 million on free-agent relievers prior to the 2007 season and failing to get the desired results, the Orioles hit upon a more cost-efficient plan for '08: Make a couple of astute trades, resurrect a formerly promising arm in the system and watch the entire production take off.

If you're looking for an explanation for Baltimore's surprising start, the bullpen is a pretty good place to focus. Orioles relievers are 15-13 with a 3.28 ERA, compared to 24-35 and 5.71 last season. After going 13-31 in one-run games a year ago, the O's are 17-12 this season.

Closer George Sherrill, acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard deal, can be an adventure at times. But he has converted 27 of 32 save chances through a combination of good stuff, better deception and even better intestinal fortitude. Sherrill has become a fan favorite in Baltimore, which could complicate matters if general manager Andy MacPhail decides to dangle him at the trade deadline.

MacPhail acquired two power arms from Houston in the Miguel Tejada deal. Dennis Sarfate is averaging more than a strikeout an inning, and Matt Albers also pitched effectively before going down with a torn labrum in his right shoulder last week.

The big revelation has been Jim Johnson, a former fifth-round draft pick who never quite cut it as a starter. Johnson lengthened his stride in the minors with the help of pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt -- and presto -- his power sinker is suddenly unhittable. He has allowed 26 hits and posted a 1.17 ERA in 46 1/3 innings.

Jerry Hairston Jr.

Hairston

Jeff Keppinger

Keppinger

Cincinnati's shortstops

3 Reds shortstops rank fifth in the majors with a .770 OPS -- better than Jimmy Rollins and Derek Jeter, among others. And that number would be even better if the light-hitting Paul Janish hadn't filled in for two weeks because of a rash of injuries.

Alex Gonzalez, who was supposed to be Cincinnati's regular shortstop, has missed the entire season with a compression fracture in his knee. Jeff Keppinger filled in brilliantly, then missed 36 games with a broken left kneecap before returning last week.

When the Reds signed Jerry Hairston Jr. to a minor league deal in March, it looked like a case of manager Dusty Baker's recycling one of his former Cubbie favorites. After Hairston appeared in the Mitchell report for allegedly buying HGH from former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski, potential suitors weren't exactly waiting in line.

But unlike Corey Patterson, who signed with Cincinnati the same day, Hairston has been a major contributor from day one. He's hitting .331 with 13 stolen bases.

Baker's biggest challenge at the moment is figuring out where to put everyone. Keppinger has played some short and third, Hairston has appeared at short and center, and it's become apparent that the manager will have to exercise some ingenuity to keep everyone productive.

Todd Wellemeyer

Wellemeyer

Ryan Ludwick

Ludwick

Pick a Card

4 The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols for two weeks with a calf injury. Adam Wainwright is out with a sprained finger. Chris Carpenter isn't close to returning from Tommy John surgery and Mark Mulder finally returned from a shoulder injury with a relief appearance Monday. So how in the world are they 11 games over .500?

Maybe it's the slugging output of Ryan Ludwick, the former hotshot college hitter who has finally busted out at age 29. Or the versatility of Skip Schumaker, who has played all three outfield positions, batted .299 out of the leadoff spot and done his best to prove he's more than a scrappy fourth outfielder.

Perhaps it's the pitching of Todd Wellemeyer, the latest Dave Duncan reclamation project, or the unexpected contribution of Kyle McClellan, a hometown boy who has 17 holds in 44 relief innings. And we can't forget Aaron Miles, who has hit .327 at second, short and third and pitched an inning of shutout relief.

Manager Tony La Russa and Duncan justifiably get a lot of credit for steering the Cardinals through hard times, but GM John Mozeliak also deserves a nod for his contribution. Kyle Lohse, who signed a one-year, $4.25 million deal in mid-March, is 10-2 and making a strong case for the All-Star Game. And it was Mozeliak, then Walt Jocketty's assistant, who signed Ludwick as a six-year minor league free agent in December 2006.

Marcus Thames

Thames

Marcus Thames, Tigers

5 Thames hasn't stopped to spend a lot of time conversing with opposing first basemen this year. His 43 hits include 16 homers, six doubles and only 21 singles.

The Tigers knew Thames had masher potential after he hit 44 homers during the 2006 and 2007 seasons (combined), but he's taken it to a whole new level this year with his .638 slugging percentage. Thames recently homered in five straight games to tie the Tigers' club record shared by Hank Greenberg, Rudy York, Vic Wertz and Willie Horton.

"The truth of the matter is, a few people in the organization thought he'd put up good power numbers if he got the at-bats," said Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila. "I can't say it's a complete surprise. But he really deserves credit for working so hard to improve his overall game."

Thames' playing time increased when the Tigers released Jacque Jones in May, and he's worked to make himself less of a liability in left field and at first base. Manager Jim Leyland also is adept at finding ways to use him.

After sensing that Thames was putting too much pressure on himself to hit for power, Leyland inserted Clete Thomas in left field for two games last week. Thames returned to the lineup Saturday against Colorado and has since gone 8-for-17 with two homers.

Jonathan Sanchez

Sanchez

Jonathan Sanchez, Giants

6 If someone told you San Francisco's top two starters would be a combined 17-5 with a combined 216 strikeouts in 211 2/3 innings, you'd think Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were having a heck of a season. You'd be only half right.

Sanchez, a former 27th-round draft pick out of Ohio Dominican University, has been a savior for a San Francisco staff that needed bolstering when Noah Lowry went down with a forearm injury in spring training and Barry Zito's career continued to go into a free fall.

While Sanchez was touted as a hot prospect moving up the San Francisco chain, some scouts wondered if he had the "pitchability" and command necessary to be a consistent winner in the majors. In the course of going 5-1 with a 3.10 ERA in June, Sanchez threw strikes more consistently and avoided the big early pitch counts that plagued him in April. He has also worked on improving his pickoff move and adding a two-seam fastball to his repertoire.

Still, Sanchez has a 4.64 ERA away from pitcher-friendly AT&T Park, and he's averaging more than four walks per nine innings. One West Coast scout, who thinks Sanchez might be best-suited for a bullpen role long-term, wants to see the lefty pound the strike zone for more than a month before he's completely sold.

"I love the fact he misses bats," the scout said. "But guys who have erratic command better have serious stuff if they want to start. Maybe I'm wrong, but I still think his tool set might profile better in short stints."

Ryan Doumit

Doumit

Nate McLouth

McLouth

Pittsburgh's lineup

7 The Twins and Pirates -- surprise -- both have scored more runs than Detroit and the Yankees. But Minnesota, unlike Pittsburgh, has the advantage of a designated hitter in its lineup, and the Twins' offense is fueled on many nights by golden boy Joe Mauer and former American League MVP Justin Morneau.

Pittsburgh's former batting champion, Freddy Sanchez, is hitting .229, and first baseman Adam LaRoche has a lower OPS than the terminally maligned Richie Sexson.

So how are the Pirates doing it? They lead the majors with a .291 batting average with runners in scoring position and two outs, they're tied for seventh in doubles, and they're getting some nice production from corner outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.

Nate McLouth, who had to wait his turn while Tike Redman, Chris Duffy and Nyjer Morgan got a crack at the center-field job, is thriving as the new everyday guy. McLouth hit .214 in June but still ranks high among big league center fielders with 15 homers and 53 RBIs. He is second to Josh Hamilton with a .523 slugging percentage.

"If you look at his approach, it's very simple in terms of how he sets up," said Pittsburgh hitting coach Don Long. "He doesn't have to do a lot to be in position to hit or recognize what to hit. That's why he's been able to be so consistent."

Ryan Doumit's bat has always been intriguing. But the Pirates weren't quite sure where to put him in the field, and he missed time with injuries to his elbow, hamstring, wrist and ankle. Now Doumit has settled in at catcher, and he's putting up impressive numbers (.337/.383/.602) thanks to an approach that Long calls "aggressiveness under control."

"He's not worried about hitting with two strikes, so he's more apt to work himself into a good count to hit," Long said. "He's being selective in the zone and attacking pitches that he can drive."

Mike Aviles

Aviles

Mike Aviles, Royals

8 Sure, it's only 25 games and 99 at-bats, but Aviles has had a significant impact since the Royals summoned him from the minors to replace the light-hitting (to put it mildly) Tony Pena Jr. The Royals were 23-37 when they inserted Aviles at shortstop, and they've gone 15-9 since.

Aviles, the nephew of former Phillies infielder Ramon Aviles, certainly fits the overachiever profile. He played college ball at Division II Concordia College in New York and received a $1,000 signing bonus as a seventh-round pick in 2003. He hit .296 with 17 homers last season to win Kansas City's Minor League Player of the Year award, but the Royals left him off their 40-man roster and made him available to the other 29 clubs in the Rule 5 draft in December. Nobody bit.

Since his arrival in Kansas City, Aviles has picked up his first big league hit before friends and family in the Bronx, hit a game-tying homer off the Rangers' Eric Hurley at Kauffman Stadium, and enjoyed a four-hit game in a 12-3 rout of Arizona.

Aviles is not known for his defense, and it remains to be seen whether he's more than a temporary solution. As Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star points out, Angel Berroa, Neifi Perez, Rey Sanchez, Felix Martinez, Mendy Lopez, Andres Blanco, Desi Relaford, Ray Holbert, Shane Halter and Luis Rivera all received extended looks at shortstop for the Royals over the past decade. Aviles doesn't have to be the second coming of Freddie Patek to make a positive impression.

J.P. Howell

Howell

J.P. Howell, Rays

9 Howell, a former first-round pick out of the University of Texas, is not a big radar-gun guy. His fastball generally tops out in the 86-88 mph range.

But it's hard to argue with the results. Excluding the grand slam he served up to Josh Hamilton in late May, Howell has a 1.17 ERA. He ranks second in the American League to Minnesota's Brian Bass in relief innings, and his six wins tie him with San Diego's Heath Bell and Florida's Kevin Gregg for most by a major league reliever. Not bad for a guy who entered this season with a career 5-14 record and 6.34 ERA.

Hitters tended to get comfortable the second or third time around against Howell when he was a starter, but his stuff seems better-suited to the bullpen. He's been so good that manager Joe Maddon calls him the Rays' MVP and is pushing him as an All-Star candidate.

Tampa's bullpen, infinitely better than last year's model, needs all the depth it can get. Closer Troy Percival just went on the disabled list for the second time with a hamstring injury, so it will be up to Howell, Dan Wheeler and the new-and-improved Grant Balfour to keep up the good work at the back end.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer