Before spring training kicks into full gear, I want to get down my early-early-early predictions for who 2006's out-of-nowhere surprise players will be. The great thing about playing this sort of game, of course, is that it's a no-lose proposition. If you guess wrong, well, these guys were bums anyway and no one really expected them to do much. If you hit on one or two, however... ah, why then your prognosticative genius will ring down like the clearest of bells throughout the ages. Or at least whenever you bring it up at your fantasy auction.
Generally speaking, surprise players fall into three categories: prospects people have all but given up on for one reason or another (John Patterson is a decent example from last season); the guy who's produced in the minors but never really gotten a break in the bigs (Emil Brown, for instance); and, in the immortal words of Sherwood Schwartz, "the rest" -- the players who just schlumped around the majors for a while without doing much of anything, before 'inexplicably' putting it all together (see: Loaiza, Esteban, 2003).
Please note the following: The scientific method was not used in the creation of this list. Numbers were studiously not crunched; rosters given no more than the most cursory of glances to look for obvious job openings. These are pure, unadulterated hunches.
Eddie Gaillard, Flo -- 'Round about this time last year, Gaillard was a super-sneaky closer sleeper among rotisserati. He had a solid arsenal of stuff and had signed with the Rockies, a team in need of a bullpen stopper, after a number of successful seasons closing in Japan. Unfortunately he battled through a few nagging injuries in spring training (nothing too serious, just things that kept him off the mound and unable to make a strong impression) and the door opened for Brian Fuentes to eventually seize the job.
Well, here it is 2006, and Gaillard is once again in camp with a team needing a closer, only this one plays in an environment that's a little friendlier to pitchers. And he only has to beat out Joe Borowski, Matt Herges and about eighty-seven unproven kids to win a key role in the Florida bullpen. That's not exactly the Nasty Boyz he's trying to break in with there. He has to stay healthy first, of course, but if he shows anything at all who knows what could happen? This year's Marlins will have nothing to lose by giving him a chance.
Ben Hendrickson, Mil -- Once upon a time, Hendrickson was part of a group of Brewers prospects with Ben Sheets and Nick Neugebauer who were expected to bring a golden age of strikeouts to Miller Park's mound. As Mets and A's fans (among so many others) could have told them, things never work out that well. Neugebauer blew out his arm and is out of baseball entirely, while Sheets has actually turned out pretty well, although he too has had problems staying completely healthy. Hendrickson's case is trickier. He's had no real career-threatening injuries, but regressed badly in his performance last season, nearly dropping off the prospect radar in the process. He still has that wicked curveball though, and if he ever figures out how to use it he could easily re-emerge as a potentially dominant major league pitcher. My gut is telling me he'll be closing for the Brewers in the second half this season, and could evolve into a Tom Gordon/Gregg Olson-style late inning reliever, but Milwaukee isn't exactly loaded in the rotation either so that path is still open to him too. If he can put things together.
J.R. House, Hou -- Whaaaa... ? Yes, House is back after his one-season stint as West Virginia's backup QB, and after Fox stole his name for a hit show. He's surrounded by a blizzard of question marks (can he throw a baseball well enough to stick behind the plate? How rusty is his swing? Etc.) but if he answers most or all of them, the Astros might be the perfect organization for him. Brad Ausmus turns 73 this year and can't hold together much longer, and there isn't an obvious heir apparent in the system behind the plate. If House can't hack it anymore as a catcher, though, first base is equally devoid of upper-minor prospects to replace Jeff Bagwell. House did hit fairly well in his last crack at Triple-A with Pittsburgh, so really all he has to do to win a job is prove he's more useful than someone like Luke Scott. If he can still function as a catcher at all, that shouldn't be a tough bar to clear.
David Kelton, Atl -- My noisy gut is insisting that some ex-Cub outfield semi-prospect will finally break through in the majors this year. Unfortunately it can't decide which one it will be. Kelton, to me, is in the best situation. The Braves don't have a set third starting OF next to Andruw Jones and Jeff Francouer yet, and are an organization that will be more forgiving of Kelton's potential OBP issues than some others might be. He'll have to make a big impression in camp, but if he does he could finally get the chance in the majors he never got in Wrigley.
Brett Tomko, LAD -- Oh heck, why not. Tomko has put more grey hair on pitching coaches heads' than any other hurler of his generation. Dodger Stadium can be a magic place for pitchers though, and every once in a while someone will find what they lost out on that mound, or even something they never had before. Remember Nomo's revival in his second stint in blue, after years in the wilderness? There's no reason (other than the obvious 10,000 reasons that go along with him being Brett Tomko) it can't happen again here.
Honorable Mentions -- Dewon Brazelton, SD (too obvious); Ramon Ortiz, Was (sometimes, no ballpark in the world can help you); Jack Wilson, Pit (this year's Felipe Lopez?)
Esteban German, KC -- The whole "solid vets as place holders while we spin our wheels organizationally" thing just never seems to work out. I have a bad feeling about the Grudzy, Minky and Reggie signings; I don't think the Royals are going to get more than 700-800 plate appearances from the lot of them. If Grudzielanek does indeed go down, German is nicely situated to get his first crack at a full-time gig in the majors. Kansas City has already been down this road with Brown. German's upper minor league track record is really pretty darn good, and there's no discernible reason why he can't get the job done in the bigs. The best part here is that the Royals don't have a great 2B prospect behind him, and German is still young enough to build a nice career for himself if he can just get that first foot in the door.
D'Angelo Jimenez, Tex -- Right now, wunderkind prospect Ian Kinsler is the projected favorite to win the second base job for the Rangers, but how perfect would the irony be if Jimenez ended up being the one who took over for Alfonso Soriano instead? Jimenez is probably on his last chance to earn a big league paycheck here, so he's got all the motivation in the world to not just produce but be a model citizen for Buck Showalter. And if he does get the job, his ability to take a walk and get on base will be very useful among all the big bats in the Rangers lineup.
Joe Kennedy, Oak -- Tampa Bay, to Colorado, to Oakland. I hope Kennedy appreciates what he's got right now. The A's rotation seems pretty set, aside from Rich Harden's injury concerns, and Kennedy is just one of many candidates to step in if a hole does open up, so he'll have some work to do in camp to establish himself as the clear "sixth starter". I think he's up to it though; his numbers last year were the best he's put up since his first season in the bigs, before he got dragged down by the psychic toll of being a Devil Ray and Rockie. It's almost like he hit the reset button on his career in 2005; now he has a chance going forward of achieving at least some fraction of the success people envisioned for him in the first place.
Orber Moreno, Bal -- For a while, I weaned myself off irrational attachments to "closers of the future". They almost never pan out, after all, and are just immensely frustrating to follow. Then, the worst thing possible happened; Rafael Betancourt got to the majors and started doing well. You see, Betancourt was the very first prospect I "discovered" for myself. Back when I first started paying attention to the minors, I noticed this kid in the Red Sox system who posted the single most insane K/BB ratio I'd ever seen in my life (52/2 in 32 innings for Low-A Michigan back in '97). I was hooked; surely, no matter how poor the competion was, anyone who could do something like that had a bright future in the bigs. Thus started my addiction to closers of the future; Betancourt, Henriquez, Matt Anderson, it didn't matter, I took a shine to them all, and got my heart broken every single time. Moreno was one of my favorites though. He had everything going for him as the future Kansas City closer (heavy, hard fastball, nasty breaking stuff)... everything, that is, except health. I'd managed to put him out of my mind when he resurfaced in the Mets system in '04, but with the example of Betancourt (doing well in the Indians 'pen) sitting there in front of me, all the old feelings came rushing back and I started rooting for him to keep it up and push aside the clearly inadequate Braden Looper.
Inevitably, Moreno got hurt. Again. Now here he is once more, off the operating table and on a mound, and have I learned my lesson? Of course not. Chris Ray hasn't established anything yet, dammit. There's still time, Orber! You can do it!
Tim Redding, ChW -- After working miracles with Jon Garland last season, White Sox pitching coach Don Copper will have a similar project on his hands in Redding, a pitcher whose numbers have always fallen far short of what scouts expected from his stuff. Like Garland pre-2005, Redding has been too hittable and not dominant enough throughout his career. Cooper's approach isn't going to change the latter, but if Redding buys into the program in the spring and carves out a role for himself on the big league roster, the Sox's infield defense should take care of the former just as they did for Garland. It all depends on getting onto the Sox staff in the first place though, which might require a Jose Contreras trade, a move that would push Brandon McCarthy into the rotation and open up the long man spot in the 'pen.
Honorable Mentions -- Jason DuBois, Cle (see Kelton); Scott Dunn, LAA (the Angels pull a useful reliever out of thin air every year, so if it's not Dunn it'll be Dustin Moseley or Chris Bootcheck or...); Jesse Foppert, Sea and/or Clint Nageotte, Sea (the attention and pressure will all be on Felix)