Commentary

The many unexpected performers

Tigers' Brennan Boesch and Braves' Martin Prado among several first-half surprises

Originally Published: June 30, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Lots of spring training scenarios have played out according to expectations in April, May and June. The Yankees, Rays and Red Sox are duking it out at the top of the American League East. Stephen Strasburg is as good as advertised. And although no one could have predicted that Ubaldo Jimenez would be 14-1 with a 1.83 ERA, everybody knew the kid was for real.

These storylines can all be filed under "What else is new?"

But several other developments have seemingly come out of nowhere. Milwaukee outfielder Corey Hart, regarded by many as a non-tender candidate this past winter, is tied for the National League home run lead with 18. Adrian Beltre, acquired by Boston in large part for his defensive acumen, is hitting .349. We've seen no-hitters by Jimenez and Edwin Jackson, perfect games by Dallas Braden and Roy Halladay and a third perfecto by Armando Galarraga ruined by a bad umpire's call. Umpire mea culpas have suddenly become fashionable as the debate over expanded use of instant replay continues.

As the All-Star Game approaches, the division standings and statistical leaderboards feature their share of surprises. In this week's Starting 9, we take a look at nine team and individual storylines that no one could have foreseen. Can they persist through September? Learning the answer will be the fun part.

San Diego Padres

Surprise division leader: San Diego
(Three-game lead in the NL West)

Here's something to keep in mind as everybody ponders how shocking it is to see the Padres in first place: They went 19-11 in the final month last year, so they got a little taste of winning in September and October.

When ESPN.com polled 36 Internet and TV analysts in March, not a single one picked the Padres to win the NL West. Even the Reds, Tigers and Mets -- other clubs that have defied spring training conventional wisdom -- were regarded as potential postseason candidates if a lot of things went right.

The lack of a supporting cast for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was a source of concern in San Diego, and it has proved to be well-founded. But pitching and defense can mask a so-so batting order. San Diego's rotation has been solid with the exception of Kevin Correia, and closer Heath Bell and the bullpen have been terrific. Setup man Luke Gregerson is turning into the Cliff Lee of relievers, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 51-to-4.

Although Petco Park helps the overall numbers, the Padres are 22-14 with a 3.26 ERA in away games. That's the best road ERA in the majors.

"I can promise you this: When our guys are on the mound looking in for a sign, they're not thinking about what park they're pitching in," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley said. "It never enters their minds."

Brennan Boesch
Boesch

Surprise rookie sensation: Brennan Boesch, Tigers
(.333 BA, .609 slugging pct.)

Boesch led the Double-A Eastern League with 28 home runs for Erie last season. But Baseball America ranked him as only the 25th-best prospect in the Detroit chain, in part because of a "stiff, mechanical uppercut swing" with its fair share of holes.

Big league pitchers are having a tough time finding those issues with his swing. Boesch didn't arrive in Detroit until April 23, but he leads AL rookies with 12 homers, 45 RBIs, 30 extra-base hits and a .991 OPS. Six of his 12 homers have traveled an estimated 420 feet or longer. Detroit fans are so smitten, one local radio station is holding a contest to come up with a suitable nickname for him. (Brennan Bash, anyone?)

Boesch, 25, is more mature than the average rookie. His father is an attorney, he played three years at Cal-Berkeley and he's bonded with Miguel Cabrera and his other Latin-American teammates by speaking Spanish with them.

Boesch played in the Dominican Republic this past winter, then hit the weight room and put on 15 pounds. The Tigers took notice of his professional approach in spring training, and he's continued to impress them with his attentiveness to the little things. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, Boesch runs out balls with sufficient fervor that opposing second basemen can't afford to lollygag on routine grounders.

"Last year a couple of us here kept saying, 'We're surprised he doesn't get more attention than he does,'" Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said. "He's a solid outfielder, he runs well for his size and he uses the whole field as a hitter. But nobody would have anticipated him coming in and putting up the numbers he has this year. When you watch him play now, he's a threat in the middle of the lineup. When he comes up, you expect something to happen. He's got that type of bat."

Martin Prado
Prado

Surprise batting leader: Martin Prado, Braves
(.334 batting average leads the NL)

Prado hit .300 in the minors and .307 in his first 258 games with Atlanta, so he clearly knows his way around a batter's box. But he spent a lot of years convincing scouts and the Braves' front office that he was more than just a good utility player.

Prado signed out of his native Venezuela at age 17 and spent four years in the Atlanta system before denting Baseball America's list of the organization's top 30 prospects. Prado peaked in 2006 at No. 17.

Four years later, he looks like a budding Placido Polanco. Prado leads the National League with 37 multihit games, and he notched his 100th hit this year in 69 games, becoming the fastest Braves player to reach that milestone since Ralph Garr did it in 62 games in 1974. Philadelphia's Chase Utley leads National League second basemen in the All-Star balloting, but now that he's on the disabled list with a thumb injury, it enhances Prado's chances of starting for the NL squad.

Many baseball people use the word "fearless" to describe Prado. His competitive mindset was on display Sunday against Detroit, when he saw eight straight fastballs from Justin Verlander to lead off the first inning, then took No. 9 -- a 98 mph heater -- and grounded it to right field for a single.

Prado, Eric Hinske and Troy Glaus have helped carry the Braves this season while Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Jason Heyward, Yunel Escobar, Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz have either underperformed or missed time with injuries.

"I don't know if he's going to hit .300 every year," a National League executive said of Prado. "But he has really good at-bats, he'll give you a ton of doubles and he'll play his butt off for you. He's the heart and soul of that team right now."

R.A. Dickey
Dickey

Surprise rotation savior: R.A. Dickey, Mets
(6-1, 2.98 ERA)

Two days before Christmas, the New York Yankees strengthened their rotation by acquiring Javier Vazquez in a trade with Atlanta. That same day, Mets GM Omar Minaya added some organizational inventory when he signed Dickey to a one-year, $600,000 deal.

The New York papers were underwhelmed. "Mets Make Move, Too!" read the headline in the New York Daily News.

Little did they know. Dickey, summoned from Triple-A Buffalo in late April, has combined with Hisanori Takahashi to help salvage the team's season in the absence of Oliver Perez and John Maine. He turned in his worst outing of the season Monday against the Marlins in Puerto Rico, but the Mets will take six quality starts in eight appearances.

Dickey's background makes him one of baseball's inspirational stories for 2010. He was an Academic All-American at Tennessee with a 3.35 GPA in English literature. The Texas Rangers offered him an $810,000 signing bonus as the 18th pick in the 1996 draft, then cut his bonus to $75,000 when team doctors discovered he had no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. When back problems sapped the remaining life from Dickey's fastball, he turned to the knuckleball and spent years trying to master it during stops in Milwaukee, Minnesota and Seattle.

Time will tell whether Dickey has a late-career, Tim Wakefield-caliber run in him. He's already a big reason you're not hearing the words "Jerry Manuel" and "hot seat" in the same sentence anymore.

Miguel Olivo
Olivo

Surprise hitting savior: Miguel Olivo, Rockies
(.308 BA, 11 homers, 38 RBIs)

McCann, Yadier Molina and the other usual NL catching suspects are having below-average years at the plate. Olivo, meanwhile, has a .909 OPS -- which puts him 100 percentage points ahead of Joe Mauer. On merit alone, he should be starting in the All-Star Game.

Olivo averaged 17 homers per season with Florida and Kansas City from 2006 through 2009, but he also struck out 434 times and drew 49 walks. He was making Bengie Molina look like a monument to patience by comparison. The Rockies had initially planned to bring back Yorvit Torrealba on a two-year deal this season. When the negotiations stalled, GM Dan O'Dowd signed Olivo to a one-year, $2.5 million contract, and the Rockies penciled him into a time-share arrangement with Chris Iannetta behind the plate.

"We felt very strongly that he was a good fit, and in the right environment he would perform well," O'Dowd said. "He's an unbelievable teammate who brings energy every day to the park."

Olivo's time keeps increasing because of his clutch hitting and knack for bonding with a pitching staff. When Zack Greinke gave his Cy Young Award acceptance speech in January, he spent a chunk of it praising Olivo for his handiwork behind the plate. Olivo became a more diligent defensive catcher in Kansas City with the help of Royals pitching coach Bob McClure, and he's had a positive impact on Jimenez this season.

Olivo is 31 years old and playing for his seventh professional organization. Some players in his position might be touchy over the "journeyman" designation. He's not.

"People say, 'Why have you been with so many teams?'" Olivo told Jim Armstrong of The Denver Post. "I look at it in a good way. Because if nobody wants me, I wouldn't be with anybody."

Vladimir Guerrero
Guerrero

Surprise career revival (hitter): Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers (16 homers, .923 OPS)

If Guerrero were at the top of his game, the Rangers wouldn't have been able to snag him for one year and $6 million on the free-agent market. The words "old," "slow" and "decrepit" made the rounds on Vlad a few times during the offseason.

Maybe "proud" should have made it as well. Guerrero's self-esteem took a hit when the winter market was so slow, and he dedicated himself to getting in better shape and re-establishing himself as an elite player. It also helps that he's healthier than he's been in recent years.

"When Vlad was at his best, nobody had more fun playing baseball," said Thad Levine, Texas' assistant GM. "I think he's recaptured that enthusiasm and love for the game. We told him early on, 'You're our cleanup hitter come hell or high water,' and he really was able to relax, settle in and enjoy the game again."

Guerrero has been energized by Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz and the other young Latin-American players in the Texas clubhouse. When Guerrero hit for average in April, the scouts were dubious about his lack of power. Then he started driving the ball with authority, and he's already surpassed his 2009 total with those 16 home runs.

Guerrero isn't the only pleasant surprise in Texas. Colby Lewis, 7-5 with a 3.28 ERA, has revived his career after returning from Japan. Josh Hamilton has been on a rampage since a slow start. Darren Oliver and Darren O'Day have been huge factors for one of baseball's most effective bullpens.

Jamie Moyer
Moyer

Surprise career revival (pitcher): Jamie Moyer,
Phillies (9-6, 4.30 ERA)

If you predicted that Moyer and Halladay would have matching win-loss records in late June, feel free to collect your Phillie Phanatic T-shirt at the door.

Things didn't look too good for Moyer when the Phillies pulled him from their rotation to accommodate Pedro Martinez last August. Moyer came across as less than gracious when he summoned reporters in Chicago and complained about being "misled" by Phillies management. The $6.5 million the Phillies owed him in 2010 was starting to feel like an albatross.

But Moyer's resourcefulness and accrued pitching wisdom allow him to continue to defy age and keep picking off museum pieces. Moyer passed Eppa Rixey and Bob Feller to move into 36th place on baseball's career list with win No. 267. With his next victory, he'll tie Jim Palmer for 35th.

Subtract a recent one-inning, nine-run debacle against Boston, and Moyer's ERA is more than respectable. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3-to-1, owns complete-game victories over Atlanta and San Diego and has as many quality starts (eight) as whippersnappers like Mark Buehrle, Cole Hamels, Jackson and Phil Hughes.

Moyer made changes to his slider to better complement his 81 mph fastball and changeup this season.

"I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks," Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "It gives him an added dimension and helps him use another part of the plate. It tells you a lot about Jamie as a pitcher. He's been making adjustments for years, and he continues to make them."

Even the negatives look like positives these days. When Moyer gave up a home run to Toronto's Vernon Wells this past weekend to break Robin Roberts' record of 505 career gopher balls, it was considered a badge of honor for a guy who's become the Julio Franco of pitchers. With 103 victories after his 40th birthday, Moyer is proving that age -- like radar gun readings -- is all relative.

Arthur Rhodes
Rhodes

Surprise bullpen stopper: Arthur Rhodes, Reds
(1.13 ERA in 32 innings)

Rhodes has been a solid, reliable pitcher for a long time. With nine more appearances, he'll have 825 big league outings and move past Tug McGraw for 39th place on baseball's career list.

That said, Rhodes is 40 years old, three years removed from Tommy John surgery and pitching his best baseball since 2002, when he went 10-4 with a 2.33 ERA in Seattle. He logged 33 straight scoreless appearances to tie the major league record shared by Mark Guthrie and Mike Myers before giving up three runs Tuesday night against the Phillies.

"There's a very outward, visual, palpable confidence that Arthur has," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "It's not like an arrogance or anything. But he's built this strong expectation that he's going to win the matchup. That's the one ingredient in any great pitcher -- they always anticipate coming out on the winning end."

Rhodes always has had exceptional command for a hard thrower, and he still gets his fastball up there at 92 to 93 mph. He's generally economical with his pitch counts, and manager Dusty Baker has resisted the temptation to overuse him. Rhodes has pitched three straight days only once this season, and he's logged 20 or more pitches in only seven of his 36 appearances.

"He's 40 years old, and we have to appreciate the wear and tear we've put on him," Price said. "We can't ask our guys to do more than we're capable of doing or we're not going to have them in August and September. It's not going to be a workload issue with Arthur."

Toronto Blue Jays

Surprise home run factory: Toronto

Home run totals are down this season. Whether it's just a small sample-size blip, a reflection of great pitching or a byproduct of baseball's drug-testing program remains to be seen. But it's a bit of a jolt to look at the home run leaders and see names like Hart, Paul Konerko and Scott Rolen.

And your No. 1 slugging team in the majors: Cito Gaston's Toronto Blue Jays with 115 long balls.

"If you told me that would happen at the beginning of the year, I'd say, 'Wow, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill are probably MVP candidates,'" an American League executive said. "They're doing it from everyone but those two guys."

Basically, yes. Wells is having a big comeback year, and Jose Bautista, Alex Gonzalez and John Buck have hit a total of 47 home runs. Lind and Hill have combined for 20 homers, but they're also hitting an aggregate .196.

The Blue Jays rank 28th in the majors with a .306 on-base percentage, and they're third in slugging percentage at .440. According to FanGraphs, they're swinging the bat a major league-high 48.6 percent of the time.

"They like to hit fastballs," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel told reporters before a series with the Jays this past weekend. "They hunt fastballs, and they like to hit the first pitch. They like to ambush you. They'll hit 3-0. They get up in the count. And Cito's an old hitting coach -- he turns 'em loose."

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer