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Better than advertised in 2004



Special to ESPN.com

May 23

Wilson
C. Wilson

Wilson
J. Wilson

Admit it. One morning you woke up, saw J. Wilson and C. Wilson in the National League Top 10 in hitting, figured you'd slipped through one of those W.P. Kinsella cracks in time and it was supposed to read Waner (i.e. Paul and Lloyd), not Wilson.

Joe Kennedy? To paraphrase the song, if he can't make it in Tampa Bay, he can't make it anywhere. And for all of us who agree with Barry Bonds that "everything comes from on-base percentage," where were Vinny Castilla and Brandon Inge -- whose 2003 on-base percentages added together were less than Bonds' in 2004 -- figured to hit this season?

One quarter of the way into the season, 50 people in baseball -- from coaches to scouts, front-office executives to writers -- were polled on the question: What player or players have turned out to be much better than you expected? Now, we all know that such thoughts change from series to series, sort of like any of the 31,233 definitive Bush v. Kerry polls that are announced between the Iowa Caucuses and Election Day, which is farther on down the road than the seventh game of the World Series.

All polls come with qualifiers. Two were offered from voters:

1. "I want to revisit this on Labor Day" and ...

2. "Take me to the station/and put me on a train/I've got no expectations/to pass through here again." Indeed. Chris Richard might have made this list once.

The winners:

Lyle Overbay
Lyle Overbay is third in the National League with 61 RBI.

1. Lyle Overbay, Milwaukee (15). That he is such a surprise is in itself a surprise. After all, he did hit .342 in his minor league career, and while he isn't an imposing sort, power is the last thing to come. Is he the next Sean Casey? We'll see. If he is, he's going to be a very good player.

2. Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh (14). "He always had a good swing. He's finally realizing it. Good things sometimes need to happen for a player to get the self-esteem that breeds confidence."

2. (Tie) Joe Kennedy, Colorado (14). He was 3-12 with a 6.13 ERA for the Devil Dogs last season. This season he's 3-1, 2.97 ERA at Coors; 4-2 and 2.82 overall. Dan O'Dowd has done a boffo job collecting cheap help in Kennedy, Shawn Estes, Royce Clayton, Jeromy Burnitz, Vinny Castilla, et al., all of whom give O'Dowd time as a rich farm system progresses toward Coors Lite.

4. Cliff Lee, Cleveland (10). "Confident mound presence, aggressive demeanor, excellent tempo. He has a good four-pitch mix that keeps hitters off-balance and pitches inside effectively." Of all the future prospects, having two left-handed top-of-the-rotation starters may be Cleveland's greatest strength.

5. Ryan Drese, Texas (9). Orel Hershiser gets the Cy Young Pitching Coach Award for 2004. This is a guy who had no command of a fastball that ran everywhere and once had Steve Blass Disease with his heater & 6.10 lifetime ERA with 382 baserunners in 220 innings. "He's changed everything, accepted the fact that he had to learn to pitch, is sinking the ball in the strike zone and getting hitters out showing signs of control." Hey, Drese is very smart, and he has passion for pitching.

5. (Tie) Ronnie Belliard, Cleveland (9). He once could hit, but slipped to .211 in Milwaukee two years ago, and .277 in the Colorado air last season. The Indians have had very good production at the top of their lineup. If they could find some way to stop things at the end of games, they'd challenge.

7. Trevor Hoffman, San Diego (8). "He's back where he was five years ago, throwing his fastball at 88 and his changeup anytime, anywhere and at any speed."

7. (Tie) Chone Figgins, Anaheim (8). He's played short, third, center. He's a good leadoff hitter. "He's on base when he hits the ball on the ground, but he hits pitches you don't think he'll hit because he's got surprising bat speed." Going into Sunday's game, Figgins, Robb Quinlan, Jeff DaVanon, Jose Molina and Casey Kotchman were hitting between .286 and .375.

Matter of trust
Catchers whom pitchers trust most, in no particular order:

Jason Varitek
Mike Matheny
Brad Ausmus
Dan Wilson
Ramon Hernandez
Paul Lo Duca
Mike Piazza
Johnny Estrada

9. Vinny Castilla, Colorado (7). His three previous seasons, Castilla's on-base percentage was a combined .295. This season .395. "It's as if he's a 25-year-old who figured out that if he gets his pitch, he's going to be that much better a hitter."

10. Brandon Inge, Detroit (6). Look at his career/2004 splits: batting average (.198/.295), on-base percentage (.284/.365), OPS (.599/.856). "He, Figgins and Ryan Freel are the most valuable utilitymen in the game. Inge is an excellent third baseman, can play short, has been Detroit's best center fielder and their best throwing catcher. He has the best release of any catcher in the game today."

10. (Tie) Hee Seop Choi, Florida (6). The rap on him was that he had a slow bat, a long swing, whatever, and that he couldn't hit an above-average fastball. Marlins hitting coach Bill Robinson got Choi out of his crouch and started early. While he hasn't hit for average, he's on a 40-homer pace.

12. Johnny Estrada, Atlanta (4). "He has had really good at-bats in tough situations (he even saw 22 pitches, with 13 foul balls, in the Randy Johnson perfect game) and he can really handle pitchers. He reminds me of a young Ted Simmons." John Schuerholz took some heat on the trade for Kevin Millwood, but he had to move Millwood. When the Red Sox wouldn't deal Casey Fossum for Millwood, he took Estrada. Great move.

12. (Tie) Paul Wilson, Cincinnati (4). "Tough, competitive starts every time out, using whatever he has." Good things sometimes happen to great people.

12. (Tie) Braden Looper, Mets (4). He'd be No. 1 on my list. The Marlins didn't think he could pitch the ninth inning, so they went and got Armando Benitez. Trading places has worked for everyone. Lopper's 7-for-8 in save opportunities, three walks, and an 0.76 ERA in New York.

Receiving three or more votes: Aaron Sele, Lew Ford, Joe Nathan, Scott Schoeneweis, Victor Martinez, Brooks Kieschnick, Scott Hatteberg and Mark Bellhorn.

No-name Angels getting it done
Figgins has been a surprise, as has been the entire Angels bench. So has Kevin Gregg, who they think has starter stuff but right now is replacing Brendan Donnelly setting up for Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival. Rodriguez and Gregg allowed 33 hits, six earned runs and struck out 61 in their first 48 2/3 innings. Everyone thought the Angels would be good, but to have the best record in the league with Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad and Donnelly all hurt?

Anderson
Anderson

Anderson now may be back by July, but surviving all the other injuries hasn't been easy. "Our depth has been a tremendous part of our success, as have the contributions of Jose Guillen and Vladimir Guerrero," says GM Bill Stoneman. "But Mike Scioscia and his staff do a great job preparing for each day. It's been something to watch."

There is a reason that Kotchman was brought in from Double-A, but not slugging third baseman Dallas McPherson. "Casey was brought up in baseball," says Stoneman. "I remember going through Boise every year, and there'd be (his father) Tom, working Casey out every day, throwing BP to him. Casey Kotchman was raised around pro baseball."

MacPherson is a wonderful prospect, but he is still considered a ways away, and while he is hitting .296 for Arkansas, his 43/18 K/BB ratio shows he needs at-bats. Kotchman was hitting .368 with a 7/10 K/BB ratio. Kotchman also looks to be a potential Gold Glove defender.

Tilt of the cap
C.C. Sabathia does it, as do Pokey Reese, Dontrelle Willis and Juan Pierre. They all wear their hats slightly to the side. "Everyone on my high school team did it, and it became a good-luck thing," says Sabathia. But the Blue Jays have told Orlando (O-Dog) Hudson that he cannot wear his cap like those other players. "Pokey was all over me about it," says Hudson. "But they tell me I have to wear it straight on. We wore it that other way in little league, high school. It's not disrespect, it's a love of how much fun we have playing baseball."

It hasn't affected Hudson's defense. "He's worked really hard to become a defensive star," says Jays infield coach Brian Butterfield. "With Reese at shortstop, Orlando has the most range of any second baseman in the game."

Expect Lowe to battle back
Even with David Ortiz signing an extension that keeps him out of the free agent market, the potential for the Red Sox to lose Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to free agency continues to be a ongoing media subject.

Lowe
Lowe

In Lowe's case, his numbers are horrific: 6.02 ERA, 20-18 BB/K ratio, .855 OPS, 81 baserunners in 40 1/3 innings. But Varitek, who goes back with Lowe to their minor league days in the Mariners organization, believes Lowe will be back. Soon. "He just needs something to go right," says Varitek. "I'm tired of hearing what's wrong with him. His stuff is better than it was two years ago. His body language is better than last year. He's not quitting, like some people say; he's competing hard, and last year sometimes he did throw his arms up. Derek's going to come back and pitch some great games."

Varitek does not speak unless he means something. He is one of the most trusted, as well as respected, players in the game. He cares about the pitchers he catches, a prerequisite for greatness behind the plate.

Lowe himself maintains that turning down the three-year, $27 million offer has not weighed on his mind. And even if he does turn it around, one cannot blame Theo Epstein for asking Billy Beane if he were interested in a Lowe-Barry Zito deal when Zito was struggling. Nyet.

As for Garciaparra, this past weekend he still couldn't sprint without his Achilles' bothering him, and with the quick movements necessary to play shortstop, it makes no sense to try to play and risk a serious injury. "It's really frustrating," says Garciaparra. "But I think I tried to come back too quickly from the wrist injury, and it hurt the team."

Between conflicting diagnosis' and all the trade flap during the winter, it has been a rough seven months for Garciaparra. But he is standing up well, a testament to the strength of the support from his remarkable wife, Mia.

When Garciaparra comes back, the Red Sox might try their first hit-and-run of the season.

Keep your eye on
Some minor league items of note:

  • Xavier Nady is hitting .392 with a 1.049 OPS in Triple-A. "He's going to be a very good hitter," says Kevin Towers. The question is when and where.

  • The White Sox want more left-handed balance, and Jeremy Reed has climbed all the way to .292 in the leadoff spot and Joe Borchard had 14 RBI and 12 hits in six games this week for Charlotte.

  • Anaheim's Ervin Santana, sidelined in spring training with shoulder problems, earned his first win Saturday night with a five-inning, one-run, five-strikeout outing in Double-A. It's not out of the realm of possibility that he ends up helping the Angels this season.

    Big Unit staying put
    There's been too much speculation already about Randy Johnson being traded, and if you listen to talk radio in New York or Boston, it's a matter of who moves first: the Yankees with Jose Contreras, the Red Sox with Bronson Arroyo or the Mets with Jae Weong Seo. Come on, come on.

    Jerry Colangelo has Johnson's $16 million salary written into his 2005 budget. He doesn't want to trade the symbol of his franchise: four Cy Youngs, their first Hall of Famer, the man who won six postseason games en route to the world championship. Johnson would have to demand his way out, and Colangelo is going to do anything to make him happy. The D-Backs have been ravaged by injury, and the latest Richie Sexson setback is a serious blow. But they have gotten a lot of help from their underrated farm system.

    As Tracy Ringolsby points out, they have 10 players 25 or younger, more than the Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, Padres, Astros and Mets combined.






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