In a year of individual and team surprises, no one has surprised more folks than Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista. In no time at all, he has turned into an offensive monster. His improvement is so stark that it has triggered a bit of unfounded Internet suggestion. All we know is that this guy has suddenly become one of baseball's biggest threats, leaving the anonymity behind. Here is my list of biggest positive surprises, followed by some that are not so positive.
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays OF. Thought to be nothing more than a useful utilityman, he had never before hit more than 16 home runs in a season. But he is this season's runaway homer leader with 46. That's seven more than anyone else (Albert Pujols has 39) and 10 more than any AL hitters (Paul Konerko has 36). A bit of it is connected to Toronto's Rogers Centre, where Bautista has hit 30 of his home runs. But he has gotten even better in the second half; after posting a very nice .903 OPS before the All-Star break, he has put up a 1.155 OPS since. He was on the block at the trade deadline, but no one wanted to pay the seemingly steep price, which was one or two talented young players (with the Yankees it would have been Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlain). Turns out, he may have been worth it. In the post-steroid era, this is an incredible story.
2. Padres. Their playoff position looks a bit iffy today. But to even be in this position with expectations nearly as low as anyone in the majors is still downright amazing.
3. Andres Torres, Giants OF. Out of nowhere, he's turned from journeyman to extra-base machine. The 32-year-old has 64 extra-base hits this season after having just 31 in his previous eight. His absence (he just had an appendectomy) should hurt San Francisco in one of baseball's tightest races.
4. R.A. Dickey, Mets SP. The 35-year-old right-hander remade himself and found a home in the Mets rotation. He has a 2.91 ERA after posting ERAs of 5 or higher in six of seven previous seasons. Nobody on the Mets expected anything close to this when he was originally promoted out of desperation.
5. Reds. This young team has been about as consistent as anyone this year, posting a winning record in each of the first five months and confounding most experts.
6. Joaquin Benoit, Rays RP. He's having a huge year in Tampa's pen, with a 1.58 ERA, a 0.66 WHIP and 65 strikeouts.
7. Omar Infante, Braves IF. Both he and another unheralded Braves infielder, Martin Prado, made the All-Star team, surprising baseball aficionados. Infante's now hitting .341 so it's not like he's slowed down.
8. Trevor Cahill, A's SP. He's developing into one of the best pitchers pitching coach Curt Young, has quietly done a nice job.
9. Angel Pagan, Mets OF. The life-long extra has earned a spot as a starter with an excellent all-around game. He showed flashes in the second half last year but still began the season splitting time with Gary Matthews Jr. Pagan is doing it all now, including stealing bases (33). The Mets' most consistent offensive performer all year.
10. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox SP. He's put up a big year worthy of an ace with a 15-7 record and 2.53 ERA. Always had talent but he's exceeding the expectations of even his admirers. The Red Sox turned down several trade opportunities involving him last year and look smart for doing so.
11. Jaime Garcia, Cardinals SP. Garcia, who is 13-7 with a 2.69 ERA, could steal the Rookie of the Year from the more heralded Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and others.
12. Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers DH. He returned from a down year to more than justify a $5 million free-agent deal with the Rangers and already has 104 RBIs to go with his 26 homers and .304 batting average.
13. Aubrey Huff, Giants 1B. He signed for $3 million as a free agent after Adam La Roche turned down the Giants for more money, and he's put up fairly big numbers (24 HRs, 81 RBIs, .291 BA) after many had soured on him.
14. C.J. Wilson, Rangers SP. He's become an excellent starter (14-6, 3.25) after previously toiling as the team's closer.
15. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins 1B. His play has been on par with more heralded rookies, with 17 home runs, 76 RBIs and a .279 batting average. As Nyjer Morgan can testify, he's also proficient at the clothes-line tackle.
16. Jered Weaver, Angels SP. The surprise isn't that he's pitching well, it's that he's among the league leaders with 211 strikeouts despite a low-90s fastball. Also has a 1.09 WHIP and 3.06 ERA to go with his 11-11 record.
17. Mat Latos, Padres SP. His major league-record 15 consecutive starts allowing two runs or fewer was snapped Sunday. But he still leads the NL in several categories, including ERA (2.21) and WHIP (0.96).
18. Max Scherzer, Tigers SP. Demoted early in the season, he's returned to have an excellent year. Has almost one strikeout an inning (162 K's in 175 innings). The three-way trade with the Diamondbacks and Yankees that brought him to Detroit was panned by some, but the Tigers appear to have come out best, considering Austin Jackson has played a very good center field and hit well, too.
19. Matt Capps, Twins closer. After a brutal 2009 season in which he had a 5.80 ERA as Pittsburgh's closer, he's put up 38 saves with a 2.73 ERA for the Nats and Twins. Washington made the most of his signing by using him well in the first half, then sending him to Minnesota for catching prospect Wilson Ramos.
20. Marlon Byrd, Cubs OF. He sparkled in the All-Star Game and has played well all season long (.301) for the disappointing Cubbies.
1. Chone Figgins, Mariners 2B. Had an absolutely brutal year in Seattle after getting a $36 million, four-year free-agent deal. Not that he's a power hitter, but that .294 slugging percentage is indicative of how poor his season has been. Has scored 55 runs, normally a half-year total for him.
2. Angels. Although neither Figgins nor John Lackey has sparkled in their new digs (though Lackey's been much better than Figgins), the perennial playoff team has been mediocre from start to finish, allowing the Rangers to run away in the AL West.
3. Jonathan Broxton, Dodgers RP. He was an All-Star this year before losing velocity and ultimately his closer's job. His WHIP was 1.07 in the first half and has been 1.74 in the second.
4. A.J. Burnett, Yankees SP. Deserves a pie in the face for this effort, and not to celebrate anything. It's not easy to go 10-13 with this Yankees offense, but he's earned every bit of it with his 5.15 ERA. His numbers are actually slightly worse than those of Javier Vazquez, but the Yankees have three years to go with Burnett, who's also considered slightly more talented.
5. Carlos Pena, Rays 1B. Batting just .201 in his walk year, he's hurt his chances for the big contract he was expected to get.
6. Dan Haren, Angels SP. Has underperformed in two locales, slightly damaging his rep as an ace. That 9-12 record and 4.23 ERA is a big dropoff for him. The Angels made the bold surprise deal for him, and the surprise turned out to be on them (though he wasn't doing any better with the Diamondbacks).
7. Rick Porcello, Tigers SP. The sophomore jinx seems to have gotten him and some others (Gordon Beckham is another example). He's back after a trip to the minors, but an ERA around of 5.10 tells the story.
8. Josh Beckett, Red Sox SP. Hurt early, he hasn't been himself since returning (4-4, 5.91). Certainly doesn't appear worthy of the $68 million extension he signed at the start of the year.
9. Brandon Wood, Angels 3B. They had high hopes for him to start the season but were concerned about his offense. Turns out, there was reason to worry. He never got started and buried himself early, hitting .162 before losing his job.
10. Jason Bay, Mets OF. He isn't the first to struggle in his first year in New York, batting .259 with only six home runs before unfortunately suffering a concussion crashing into the wall at Dodger Stadium. He has the mettle to withstand New York, but will have to show it next year.
11. Jose Lopez, Mariners 3B. Another of the underperforming Mariners, he's at .236 with seven homers. Not good. Was the other half of the spring infield switch with Figgins. Neither has played well.
12. Pablo Sandoval, Giants 3B. After a huge 2009, he has slumped all this year, batting .268 with 57 RBIs. Quite a comedown for him after he hit .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBIs last season.
13. Mariners. They sure overachieved last year. But they were an offensive nightmare this year and never threatened after creating an offseason buzz by acquiring Figgins and Cliff Lee (not to mention Milton Bradley, who's certainly no good luck charm).
14. Upton brothers. The talented brothers didn't live up to the hype. Justin hasn't justified his new $51 million contract, hitting .275 with 17 home runs and 68 RBIs. And B.J. has had another off year offensively (.239) and angered teammates with a play or two
15. Diamondbacks. Their young nucleus didn't deliver, leading to the surprising firing of well-respected GM Josh Byrnes.
16. Matt Kemp, Dodgers OF. GM Ned Collettii called him out early for questionable baserunning and defense. The offense hasn't been so great either (22 HRs, 74 RBIs, .252 BA). Several teams have shown interest in trading for the multi-talented center fielder, but it's hard to imagine L.A. giving up on him.
17. Cardinals. A team that seemed to have no weaknesses has imploded lately, creating negative headlines and losing more games than anyone expected, defying experts.
18. Jason Bartlett, Rays SS. He's up to a not-embarrassing .253 now but he has not been close to the offensive performer he was in past years.
19. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs 3B. He hit just .207 before the All-Star Game. While he's rallied to bat .295 since, the Cubs have long been buried.
20. James Shields, Rays SP. It's amazing how well Tampa Bay has played considering there are four Rays on this list. Shields' ERA has hovered around 5.00 this season; he's better than that.
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