David Aardsma has already moved ahead of Hank Aaron, which until this season was going to probably be his biggest claim to fame as a major leaguer.
The righty was listed first in the Baseball Encyclopedia, which is nice alphabetically, but statistically he was third worst in the majors during the 2007-08 seasons with a 5.89 ERA (minimum 70 appearances). He was perilously nearing the prototype of the hard-throwing reliever who was going to be given a lot of chances because of the speed of his fastball and blow them all relatively quickly because of an inability to harness that heat -- a disease known as either Eric Plunk-itis or Acute Farnsworth.
On Jan. 20, Aardsma was traded from the Red Sox to the Mariners for minor league lefty Fabian Williamson. It was the fourth time he had been traded since 2005. Seattle was about to become his fifth organization in six years. He had never spent more than one season in the majors with any of those teams. Have fastball, will travel.
The Mariners lost 101 games in 2008 and so they were the latest team in need of talent who saw Aardsma's arm and essentially said, "Why not?"
After all, Aardsma was a first-round pick in 2003 by the Giants, selected 22nd overall, two spots ahead of Chad Billingsley. He was still only 27. And as GM Jack Zduriencik said, "You are always interested in that kind of arm."
Zduriencik believes that Aardsma was helped from the start by simply knowing that the Mariners were committing to him as part of their major league bullpen. Seattle had traded closer J.J. Putz in the offseason and then early in the year tried (and failed) to close with Brandon Morrow, Mark Lowe and Miguel Batista. So Aardsma, who had registered the first major league save of his career on April 10 in Oakland, became the full-time closer in May. And finally the results were honoring the arm.
For the season Aardsma has 17 saves in 18 tries, a 1.41 ERA and a .165 batting average against. Since June 1 he has appeared in 13 games, going a perfect 9 for 9 in saves with no runs allowed in 13 innings and four walks against 22 strikeouts.
"I think our coaching staff has helped, especially having an experienced, excellent major league closer in John Wetteland as a bullpen coach," Zduriencik said. "But I think this is just really about a kid's maturation."
That maturation has helped propel Aardsma -- first in the Encyclopedia -- to the closer's spot on SI.com's 2009 All-Unexpected Team. Midway through the season, here are the guys who have gone from nowhere to, at the least, half good:
CATCHER: Ryan Hanigan, Reds
The season began with two general managers who attended Division II Rollins College (Colorado's Dan O'Dowd and Washington's Jim Bowden) and just one major leaguer. In fact, the connection probably helped. Bowden was the Reds' GM in 2003 when Hanigan was signed out of the Cape Cod League before his senior year at Rollins.
Never viewed as much of a prospect because of his lack of power, Hanigan nevertheless climbed through the system because he could catch and throw, and because he could hit and had a good eye. Still, the Reds traded for veteran Ramon Hernandez in the offseason because they did not trust that Hanigan could handle the full-time job. But Hanigan has started nearly half of Cincinnati's games. He still has little power (one homer), but he's hitting .333 in 138 at-bats with that good eye (22 walks vs. 12 strikeouts). His .422 on-base percentage is the best of any rookie with at least 100 plate appearances. Also, among all catchers who have started at least 30 games, Hanigan has the third-best throw-out percentage, nailing 44 percent of runners (11 of 25).
FIRST BASE: Russell Branyan, Mariners
Kind of the hitting version of Aardsma, right down to finding his best success as a major leaguer in Seattle. Branyan had flitted through five organizations over the previous three years because he was a left-handed Rob Deer: Awesome power, awful batting average, too many strikeouts. But he did hit 12 homers in 132 at-bats last year for Milwaukee at a time when the Brewers assistant GM was Zduriencik. So when Zduriencik became the Mariners GM, he thought it was worth the low-cost ($1.4 million) risk to add power to a team that needed it badly, and he made Branyan the first free-agent signing of his administration.
It was a risk worth taking. Branyan is still striking out a bunch, but he has toyed with a .300 average and his 21 homers are already the second-best mark of his career. Zduriencik saw awesome power, and as if to prove it Branyan became Bunyan: He's the first man to hit the Mohegan Sun Bar at the new Yankee Stadium.
SECOND BASE: Ben Zobrist, Rays
What if you had a guy who could produce at about the level of Justin Morneau while being a one-man roster-saver capable of starting at second, short, third, left, center and right? Well, you would have Zobrist in 2009. A jack-of-all-trades and a master of most. Unless you were a fantasy baseball devotee or a member of the Zobrist family, you might have missed that the switch-hitter actually hit 12 homers in 198 at-bats last year.
But even if you knew that, nothing would have prepared you for Zobrist to sock 16 homers in his first 227 at-bats this year while drawing 46 walks (five more than Morneau in about 100 fewer plate appearances) and stealing nine bases.
SHORTSTOP: Marco Scutaro, Blue Jays
It would be easy to pick Zobrist's double-play partner Jason Bartlett. After all, who anticipated a .276 career hitter morphing into Ichiro Suzuki? But Bartlett has been a starting shortstop for a while. Scutaro has been mostly a utility player who has transformed into a starter with more runs (62) and more walks (56) than any Yankee.
THIRD BASE: Brandon Inge, Tigers
He was a .205 hitter last year trapped between being a catcher and a third baseman. This season, liberated from the tools of ignorance, Inge has 19 homers. His .267 average might not sound staggering, but at .223 he had the fourth-worst average in the majors over the 2007-08 seasons (minimum 750 plate appearances).
LEFT FIELD: Raul Ibanez, Phillies
This falls into the "we knew he was good, but not this good" category. He has been so good, in fact, that he recently got the ultimate backhanded compliment, speculation that this had to be chemical rather than natural. At a time when teams were being both conservative with dollars and cautious in signing older players, Philadelphia gave $30 million over three years to a player who would turn 37 in June. He has not played since June 17 (strained left groin) and yet his 22 homers are still fifth in the majors.
CENTER FIELD: Juan Pierre, Dodgers
Technically Pierre did his best work in left, but he still has played about 10 times more games in center in his career. In the 50 games that Manny Ramirez was suspended, Pierre went from overpaid fourth outfielder to essential, helping to keep the Dodgers at a high level during the absence of their No. 3 hitter. In those 50 games, Pierre hit .318 with a .381 on-base percentage and 21 steals.
RIGHT FIELD: Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Before this season Cruz had 22 homers and six steals in parts of four seasons. The wonder was whether he was just a minor league monster who would never have the consistency to hit in the majors. But given a full-time opportunity in a home stadium that enhances his power, Cruz is tied with Jermaine Dye for the most homers (20) by a right fielder and trails only Bobby Abreu and Ichiro Suzuki for most steals (13) by a right fielder.
STARTING PITCHER: Jason Marquis, Rockies
There are some interesting choices here, including Houston's Wandy Rodriguez and Seattle's Jarrod Washburn. But the pick is Marquis, who is leading the majors in wins (11) after being traded to Colorado as a salary dump by the Cubs. That means he already has won 11 or more games for a sixth straight season. An opponent recently said, "I don't know what has gotten into Marquis but his ball is diving more than ever before to both sides of the plate."
He has 12 quality starts -- the same amount as Johan Santana and Matt Cain -- and has been central to the Rockies' from-the-dead run into playoff contention. He is also the rare player who is not overwhelmed by Coors Field. He has started there 12 times in his career and is 8-2 with a 3.31 ERA.