Top 10 best-kept secrets ... and then some
They're players you know but maybe not well enough, like the Twins little-known ace Kyle Lohse.
They say there are no secrets in baseball anymore. But even the CIA would tell you that some people are still a lot more secret visible than others. So it's time to reveal our 10 Best-Kept Secrets in Baseball. Sshhh. Don't tell anybody.
1. Best Secret Left-Right Rotation Tag-Team
Kevin Millwood and Randy Wolf, Phillies: OK, Millwood by himself isn't under anybody's radar screen anymore. But you could win a lot of bets down at your favorite sports bar by asking which team's left-hander/right-hander duo has had a better calendar year, Wolf-Millwood or Randy Johnson-Curt Schilling.
Here are their respective numbers, through Wednesday, since last June 1:
Millwood 22-4, 2.74 Schilling 16-9, 3.38 Wolf 13-9, 2.76 Johnson 16-6, 2.80 Total: 35-13, 2.75 Total: 32-15, 2.90
"I'd take all four of them," Phillies pitching coach Joe Kerrigan laughs. "But I'll say this. It's only May, but our two guys have probably pitched as well as any twosome in baseball."
Kerrigan on Wolf: "As much as anybody I've been around, he understands the weapons he has and uses them to the best of his ability. He really knows how to pitch."
Kerrigan on Millwood: "He's a true No. 1 because he's got it all. Some No. 1's are No. 1 because of their ability, but they don't have that No. 1 personality. This guy has the whole package."
2. Best Secret AL East Superstar
Vernon Wells, Blue Jays: All right, raise your hands if you know that Wells drove in 100 runs last year. Now raise them again if you know he's second in the league in RBI this year, not to mention tied for second in extra-base hits. At age 24.
"He's really matured as a player," general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "And the exciting part is that he still has room to go. Once he becomes a little more selective at the plate, that's when he becomes a true superstar. But the really nice thing about Vernon is that, as good a player as he is, he's a better person. He's just a pleasure to be around."
3-4. Best Secret Setup men
Guillermo Mota, Dodgers and Brad Lidge, Astros: Here's how dominating Mota has been. From May 1-14, he faced 36 hitters -- and two reached base (one hit, one walk, no runs, 12 strikeouts). "This guy," one scout said, "has been throwing lights out all year."
Lidge, meanwhile, has been scored on once in the last month, has a 1.21 ERA, has held opposing hitters to a ridiculous .155 batting average and has given up six hits all season with runners on base (6-for-34). "With him, (Octavio) Dotel and (Billy) Wagner in the seventh, eighth and ninth, they're untouchable at the end of the game," one NL scout said. "If they end up trading Wagner, I could see either him or Dotel closing."
Which Devil Ray has hit the most home runs in the big leagues in May? Aubrey Huff (10). Which Devil Ray has more extra-base hits than A-Rod? Aubrey Huff. Which Devil Ray is on pace to account for a higher percentage (37) of his team's home runs than any player has over a full season since Jack Clark for the '87 Cardinals? Aubrey Huff.
"The best compliment I could pay this guy," a scout said, "is that he could play for just about anybody's team."
Biddle can be a little adventuresome, but he has blown only one of 15 save opportunities. Which ain't too shabby for a guy who wasn't even supposed to be the closer. "He'll walk some people," said one scout. "But he's got that big hammer curveball. I'd say he's got about the hardest curveball I've seen in the league all year."
Borowski, meanwhile, is a 32-year-old baseball nomad who has pitched for seven organizations, the Newark Bears and the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League. And not only is he somehow closing for one of the deepest pitching staffs in the league, but the only closer in either league who has held hitters to a lower batting average (.148) than Borowski is Eric Gagne. "He's a great example of how makeup separates pitchers," one NL executive said. "Kyle Farnsworth should be their closer, based on stuff. But this guy has the job because he's fearless. He's not afraid to make that big pitch."
Best Secret Ace
Kyle Lohse, Twins: Last year, he was the least-known 13-game winner in baseball. This year -- on a staff on which just about everybody is a bigger name than he is -- it's Lohse who leads the Twins' rotation in ERA, and ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts and opponents' batting average.
"Everybody knows (Brad) Radke, (Joe) Mays and Kenny Rogers," one AL scout said. "But Kyle Lohse has the best stuff in that rotation, hands-down."
9. Best Secret Rockie
Preston Wilson: Just as we all expected, a guy who plays half his games in Denver is leading the league in RBI and extra-base hits. Just as we didn't all expect, that guy is Preston Wilson, not Todd Helton or Larry Walker. But the reason Wilson makes this list is that his road numbers (.301, 6 HR, .581 slugging pct.) are just about as good as his Coors Field numbers (.306, 6 HR, .602 slugging pct.).
"He's a classic case of a guy who needed a change of scenery," one scout said. "It's perfect for him to go to a park where it's difficult to throw quality breaking balls repeatedly. Plus, there's not a lot of pressure on him there. He's not the lead dog, with Walker and Helton around. And he's made some changes in his swing. This is what you call a good career move."
Best Secret No More Mr. Bench Guy
Raul Ibanez, Royals: It's very rare to see a player spend all or parts of 10 seasons in the minor leagues, get very little attention or playing time, and then somehow transform himself into Chipper Jones overnight, at age 30. But that's essentially what Ibanez did last year.
His .294 batting average, 103 RBI and .537 slugging percentage topped Jeff Bagwell's (among others) in all three categories. He's off to a slightly slower start this year. But he's still sixth in the league in multi-hit games.
"I just think it's the approach he brings to the ballpark every day that's made him a good hitter," GM Allard Baird said. "He used to have some lift in his swing. But he returned to keeping the bat above his hands. He shortened his stroke a lot. And he got back to having good plate discipline, to just letting the game come to him. And it's all clicked. I think he's for real. He's no flash in the pan. And the real indication of that is that you're seeing his ability come out in big parts of the game. This guy gets a lot of big hits for us."
Second-Best Kept Secrets
Sorry. Couldn't name everybody. So apologies to ...
Brendan Donnelly, Aaron Boone, Bobby Kielty, Eric Byrnes, Melvin Mora, Austin Kearns, Orlando Cabrera, Rheal Cormier, Michael Young, Mark Ellis, Bill Mueller, Zach Day, Cory Lidle, Shawn Chacon, both Alex Gonzalezes, Jay Gibbons, Gil Meche, Hank Blalock, Milton Bradley and the oldest secret in baseball, Benito Santiago.
One More: Best Secret Managing Job
Lou Piniella, Devil Rays: Yeah, sure. It's hard to qualify as a "secret" when you're one of the most recognizable, and best-paid, managers alive. But for a guy managing a team that's in last place, nobody has gotten less acclaim for doing more this year than Piniella.
This team, after all, has already won seven games that it trailed by three runs or more. And that tells you all you need to know about where the manager has set the bar.
"I really like what Pinella is doing with a mix of veterans and kids," one AL scout said. "He's not accepting poor performance just because it's disguised as growing pains. He's not afraid to send guys out and mix it up. There's no more instructional-league type play there at the major-league level."
This team has a long, long ways to go to catch the Yankees. But there's hope now, a blueprint for the future and nine innings worth of effort every night. And most of that starts with the manager.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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