One Player from Each MLB Team Who Will Become an Unlikely Hero in 2012
Each year in MLB, a player seemingly emerges from the shadows to the shock and surprise of many baseball fans. In 2011, San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, who hadn’t won a game in the majors since 2005, posted a 13-7 record and 2.71 ERA, making the All-Star team and even earning some votes in Cy Young Award balloting.
In 2010, San Francisco Giants outfielder Cody Ross, who had literally been dumped by the Florida Marlins in late August, joined the Giants in a waiver-wire transaction for the final month of the season, and was the hero of the NLCS, belting three home runs to help the Giants upset the favored Philadelphia Phillies.
In 2002, Anaheim Angels reliever Francisco Rodriguez pitched in just five games at the end of the season as a September call-up, yet his five victories in the postseason were a major factor in the Angels capturing their first ever World Series championship.
Vogelsong, Ross and Rodriguez are all shining examples of players who literally came out of nowhere to become key components for their particular teams.
Who could become unlikely heroes for their MLB team during the 2012 season? Let’s take a look.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Last August, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Toronto Blue Jays swapped vastly underperforming second basemen, with Kelly Johnson moving on to the Jays and Aaron Hill, along with John McDonald, going to the desert.
Hill won the Silver Slugger Award in 2009 with 36 HR and 108 RBI, but hasn’t been able to come anywhere close to those numbers since. In essence, the two second baggers clearly needed a change of scenery, as the D-Backs patiently waited for Johnson to turn around a miserable season to no avail.
Now, armed with a two-year, $11 contract, Hill will look to continue the momentum he gained after joining the D-Backs, hitting .315 after the trade. Hill could very well find desert life to his liking, and the D-Backs will certainly welcome a revitalized Hill.
Atlanta Braves: Jack Wilson
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
When shortstop Jack Wilson signed a one-year, $1 million to remain with the Atlanta Braves, he fully realized that his role with the team would be to serve as a backup and mentor to young 22-year-old prospect Tyler Pastornicky, who will likely take over the everyday duties at short after the departure of Alex Gonzalez.
However, Wilson will likely provide more than just an example to Pastornicky. With his versatility in the infield, Wilson could play a huge role for the Braves in 2012.
With Chipper Jones aging and constantly susceptible to aches and pains, and with the growing pains that Pastornicky will likely suffer, Wilson could very well provide a very nice cushion for manager Fredi Gonzalez.
Baltimore Orioles: Wei-Yin Chen
Photo courtesy mopupduty.com
Baltimore Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has always been known as having a keen eye when it comes to evaluating international talent, so it was hardly a surprise that Duquette signed Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen to a three-year, $11.3 million contract.
Chen, 26, amassed a 36-30 record and 2.48 ERA over the last four seasons for the Chunichi Dragons of Japan’s Central, capturing the ERA title in 2009.
With a low-90s fastball and sharp-breaking slider, Chen could very well turn out to be a delightful surprise for the O’s, who are in desperate need of any kind of nice surprise.
Boston Red Sox: Ryan Kalish
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
When the Boston Red Sox sent Josh Reddick to the Oakland Athletics for closer Andrew Bailey, it opened the door for 23-year-old prospect Ryan Kalish, who was already familiar to Red Sox fans with his impressive major-league debut in 2010.
Last season, Kalish fell victim to a crowded Sox outfield, and with newcomer Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron and J.D. Drew in place, the Sox sent Kalish to Triple-A Pawtucket in order to play everyday rather than wasting time on the bench.
Unfortunately, Kalish hurt his shoulder and neck in a violent collision in the outfield in mid-April and underwent surgery in November to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Kalish likely won’t be available until mid-to-late May.
However, he could very well impact the Sox roster at some point in 2012.
Expect Kalish to be the option in right field for new manager Bobby Valentine once he’s healthy, as Bobby V will no doubt tire quickly of the platoon of Darnell McDonald and Ryan Sweeney.
Chicago Cubs: David DeJesus
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Somehow, the title to the hit 1996 Sheryl Crow song, “A Change Will Do You Good,” comes to mind when thinking of new Chicago Cubs right fielder David DeJesus.
After eight seasons with the Kansas City Royals during which he hit .289, the cavernous confines of Oakland-Alameda County Stadium ate DeJesus up last season, suffering a career-worst .240 batting average.
Hitter-friendly Wrigley Field will be much more conducive to DeJesus’ offense, and he will likely be more than a pleasant surprise for Cubs fans.
Chicago White Sox: Brent Morel
Brian Kersey/Getty Images
Chicago White Sox third baseman Brent Morel certainly went through some growing pains in his first full season in 2011. However, in September, Morel showed off his power, with 8 HR and 19 RBI after hitting just two home runs in the first five months of the season.
Add to that the fact that Morel will be aided by new manager Robin Ventura, who was a six-time Gold Glove Award winner at third during his career. Ventura loves what he sees from Morel, and is anxious to work with the 24-year-old.
“He’s a good, young player, and I’m excited to see him,” Ventura said. “Obviously in the future you get better and grow.”
If Morel can mature and display better plate discipline, he very well could be the perfect complement at the No. 2 position in the batting order.
Cincinnati Reds: Sean Marshall
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
On Dec. 23, 2011, the Cincinnati Reds could very well have received an early Christmas present, with new reliever Sean Marshall being the main gift.
Marshall, who was traded by the Chicago Cubs to the Reds for Travis Wood, Dave Sappelt and minor leaguer Ronald Torreyes, has made a very successful transition from starter to reliever, posting a nifty 2.45 ERA in 158 appearances over the last two seasons.
Marshall has become a workhorse out of the bullpen, and along with new closer Ryan Madson, the Reds now have two excellent arms that can be counted on in late innings.
Cleveland Indians: Grady Sizemore
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Cleveland Indians center fielder has missed a grand total of 276 games over the last three seasons. He has undergone four surgeries in the last two years and been robbed of his once-envied speed that allowed him to roam center field with the grace of a gazelle and earned him two consecutive Gold Glove Awards.
However, while Sizemore may not possess his burning speed any longer, he does still possess a potent bat, and if Sizemore can somehow avoid the disabled list, his $5 million contract might just turn out to be a bargain for the Indians.
Colorado Rockies: Juan Nicasio
Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
When Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Juan Nicasio was felled by a line drive to the side of the head off the bat of Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond last Aug. 5, few people at the time believed that Nicasio could fully recover.
The line drive that hit Nicasio caused a fracture of the C-1 vertebrae in his neck, requiring instant surgery literally just to save his life. If not for the quick work of Rockies trainer Keith Dugger to stabilize Nicasio at the time, the baseball world would be bemoaning the loss of someone with great potential rather than marveling at his speedy return.
However, that’s exactly what has transpired, as Nicasio started throwing to live hitters in the Dominican Republic last week, just five months after his devastating injury. Nicasio is not only on track to make a full recovery, but could very impact the Rockies’ starting rotation on Opening Day.
Considering the quality of arms currently compiled by the Rockies, Nicasio’s return would indeed be welcomed.
Detroit Tigers: Brennan Boesch
Leon Halip/Getty Images
With the news on Tuesday that Detroit Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez is likely lost for the season following a torn ACL suffered in workouts, attention now turns to exactly who will be called upon to step up in his absence.
Brennan Boesch would be the likely candidate. Boesch, coming off an injury that derailed his own 2011 season, was on the verge of a 20 HR season before a right thumb injury that had been bothering him since the All-Star break finally put him on the shelf for good in late August.
Boesch will be a huge lift for Jim Leyland and the Tigers with his return to full health, especially now in the wake of the news concerning Martinez.
Houston Astros: Bud Norris
John Sommers II/Getty Images
On a team that looks more like a Triple-A roster, the Houston Astros could literally have any number of candidates who could turn out to be unlikely heroes. However, one in particular could very well step up and be a leader: starting pitcher Bud Norris.
Norris is currently the No. 3 pitcher in the starting rotation behind Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers. However, considering the persistent trade rumors swirling around both, Norris could very well find himself at the top.
New Astros GM Jeff Luhnow will clearly continue to look to improve his roster for the long term, and while Rodriguez and Myers could be in camp when spring training starts, Norris is under team control until the end of the 2015 season.
Norris made huge strides last season, improving on his BB/9 rate and WHIP, showing more command of the strike zone in the process.
With Rodriguez, Myers and Carlos Lee seemingly out the door at the very moment the opportunity presents itself, Norris could be thrust into a leadership role. My hunch is that he’ll be ready.
Kansas City Royals: Lorenzo Cain
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
With the trade that sent center fielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants, the door is now open for 25-year-old prospect Lorenzo Cain, and he appears ready for the challenge.
Cain was one of the players brought over by GM Drayton Moore in the trade last season that sent pitcher Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers. Cain impressed at the major league level with the Brewers in 2010, hitting .306 in 43 games.
Last season, Cain further honed his skills while biding his time, hitting .312 in 128 games for Triple-A Omaha with 16 HR and 81 RBI.
Cain will now have his chance to show the Royals faithful that he can more than make up for the loss of Cabrera, and considering his body of work thus far at the major league level, Cain could absolutely rise to the occasion.
Los Angeles Angels: Jerome Williams
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
When Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jerome Williams won his first start last season on Aug. 21, it was his first victory in the majors since 2005 with the Chicago Cubs.
Over six starts, Williams was brilliant for the Angels, with a 4-0 record and 2.31 ERA. Williams was rewarded with a one-year, $820,000 for his efforts.
While much of the focus will be on the Angels’ stellar front four in the rotation (Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren, Ervin Santana), Williams could play a crucial role by the time all is said and done.
As a fifth starter option and long relief man, Williams could prove to be a valuable asset for manager Mike Scioscia.
Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Much debate has ruled the web over the value of Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman James Loney, and if his season had ended in July of last year, that debate would be even uglier.
However, over the last two months of the regular season last year, Loney hit .357 with 8 HR and 32 RBI, doubling his production over the first five months of 2011. While his critics railed against his lack of power, Loney simply drowned them out, went about his business as usual, and ultimately turned his season around.
Now, armed with a new one-year contract for $6.375 million, Loney will enter his final season before free agency ready to once again silence his detractors.
The bet here is that he will be successful.
Miami Marlins: Carlos Zambrano
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
I know, call me crazy, but I actually like this deal a lot.
While Cubs fans are happy to see Carlos Zambrano gone, he may now be working for the one manager in Ozzie Guillen who can rein him in and get him back on the straight and narrow.
A change of scenery was clearly what Zambrano needed, and for the Miami Marlins, a $3 million investment may turn out to be chump change in the long run.
Milwaukee Brewers: Alex Gonzalez
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
When the Milwaukee Brewers set about making plans for the postseason, they obviously had to deal with the expected loss of first baseman Prince Fielder to free agency. To be sure, it certainly looks like Fielder will be gone.
GM Doug Melvin set about working on replacing the offense left behind by Fielder’s departure, and in doing so, completely reconstructed the left side of his infield, acquiring third baseman Aramis Ramirez and shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
While Ramirez will likely add plenty of punch, Gonzalez is coming off a season with the Atlanta Braves in which he posted a slash line of .247/.291/.399, certainly not gaudy numbers.
However, Gonzalez was still his usual sure-handed self, committing just 12 errors in 149 games.
Gonzalez may be a year older, but his glove still saves runs. With an offense that will largely be fueled by Ramirez, 2011 MVP Award winner Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, Gonzalez will provide a steady hand on defense and just enough with the bat to make his presence worthwhile.
Minnesota Twins: Ryan Doumit
J. Meric/Getty Images
The Minnesota Twins are coming off their worst season since 1999, and lost two major chunks of their offense in Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel.
The Twins signed Josh Willingham to make up for part of the difference, however, one player could emerge as a key factor in the 2012 season—catcher Ryan Doumit.
Doumit’s signing made complete sense for a team who was beset by major injuries to two of its franchise stars, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer. Doumit’s presence and solid bat in the lineup allows manager Ron Gardenhire to proceed cautiously with both Mauer and Morneau. He can rest Mauer’s knees on occasion by having him DH or play first, and use Morneau as DH with Mauer at first and Doumit behind the plate.
Doumit is also coming off an injury-filled season in which he appeared in just 77 games, and has also seen more than his share of time on the DL during his career.
However, if Doumit can manage to stay healthy, he could very well be the answer in helping to extend the seasons for both Mauer and Morneau.
New York Mets: Lucas Duda
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
Over the course of the past 12-15 months, there hasn’t been much for New York Mets fans to get excited about.
With the pending lawsuit facing owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz expected to go to trial in March, there has been a pall cast over the franchise. With the team bleeding cash, shortstop Jose Reyes left for greener pastures, David Wright could be next, and no credible free agents have ventured anywhere near Citi Field.
However, next season, outfielder Lucas Duda just could put a smile back on the faces of Mets fans. In his first full season of action, Duda hit .292 with 10 HR and 50 RBI in 100 games, and will certainly be aided by the renovation at Citi Field which will shorten its overall cavernous dimensions.
Duda is a rising star, and at 6'4" and 250 pounds, should continue developing a power stroke that will add more punch to an offense that desperately craves it.
New York Yankees: A.J. Burnett
Leon Halip/Getty Images
I know, you will once again think I am totally nuts.
However, don’t think for one second that New York Yankees starting pitcher A.J. Burnett hasn’t heard the grumblings about his inconsistency. In 2012, Burnett will be loaded for bear, with something to prove.
I honestly believe that Burnett will respond in 2012 with a solid season. He has seen the Yankees bring in Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, and has heard the cries that the only viable starting pitchers prior to last week’s moves were C.C. Sabathia and Ivan Nova.
Look for Burnett to come back with a vengeance.
Oakland Athletics: Brandon McCarthy
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
One phrase comes to mind when looking at the transactions involving the Oakland Athletics over the offseason—put a tent around that circus.
With general manager Billy Beane trading off his two best starting pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill), his closer (Andrew Bailey), a solid veteran bullpen arm (Craig Breslow), another starting pitcher with promise (Guillermo Moscoso) and unable to sign their best hitter (Josh Willingham), that’s certainly what the A’s have looked like.
While fans, experts and pundits will debate the transactions and argue that the move to San Jose is necessary, the A’s still have to attempt to compete.
Sitting at the top of the starting rotation now is 28-year-old Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy showed that he is capable of becoming a leader with a 3.32 ERA and 4.92 K/BB rate in 2011. While McCarthy was slowed at various junctions of his career by a spate of injuries, he took a major step forward last season.
While the A’s are still subjected to the cavernous confines of Oakland-Alameda County Stadium, McCarthy should continue to reap the benefits and press on forward.
Philadelphia Phillies: John Mayberry
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
When Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard grounded out to end Game 5 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, it not only ended the Phillies season, but it also cast a pall on the beginning of next season.
Howard’s Achilles tendon tear that was the result of the ground ball was indeed painful to watch, and while Howard’s recovery thus far has been smooth, he is not expected to be ready until at least late April/early May.
The Phillies brought back Jim Thome to help add depth. However, a current player on the roster could be more than ready to fill in and add value—John Mayberry.
Mayberry was terrific off the bench for the Phillies in 2011, hitting .273 with 15 HR and 49 RBI in just 267 at-bats. Mayberry’s versatility in the field gives manager Charlie Manuel clear options while Howard continues his recovery, and the combination of Thome and Mayberry will be a welcome sight in Philly.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Alex Presley
Bob Levey/Getty Images
When outfielder Alex Presley got the call to the majors last year, he instantly made an impact for the Pittsburgh Pirates, going 2-for-5 in his first start against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Presley never really slowed down, hitting .298 for the rest of the season despite missing close to a month with a left thumb injury.
Presley figures to be the starting left fielder for the Bucs with the departure of Ryan Ludwick, and the Pirates should benefit from Presley’s presence in the lineup for a full season.
San Diego Padres: Mark Kotsay
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The San Diego Padres have undergone an extensive retooling this offseason, losing veterans Heath Bell, Mat Latos and Wade LeBlanc, along with promising rookie Anthony Rizzo.
New general manager Josh Byrnes will fill the void with a mix of veterans and prospects, and one particular addition could prove to be very beneficial—outfielder Mark Kotsay.
Kotsay, in his second go-around with the Padres (2001-2003), brings veteran leadership and terrific clubhouse presence that will be welcomed on a team loaded with new faces.
While veterans Huston Street, Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett will be present as well, Kotsay brings a great bat off the bench as well as an upbeat personality that will serve as a great example to a team learning to get to know each other.
San Francisco Giants: Brett Pill
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The San Francisco Giants are desperately trying to fix an offense that scored just 570 runs last season—good enough for dead last in the National League.
The acquisition of Melky Cabrera will help, but no other significant moves have been made thus far, unless of course you honestly believe that Angel Pagan will be a savior.
While GM Brian Sabean is banking on Buster Posey and Freddie Sanchez to return to full health and magically restore his anemic offense, help will need to come from other sources as well, and one of those sources could very well be Brett Pill.
Pill, 27, has proven to be a late bloomer, coming alive at the Triple-A level last season with 25 HR and 107 RBI, and hitting an even .300 with two homers in a late-season call-up for the Giants.
With left-handed hitters at a clear disadvantage at AT&T Park, Pill could have a serious impact for the Giants, especially if Aubrey Huff continues his decline, giving Pill an opportunity to play every day at first base.
Seattle Mariners: Justin Smoak
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
When Seattle Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik traded Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers in 2010, he insisted that the Rangers include first-base prospect Justin Smoak in the deal. Zduriencik believed Smoak to be the linchpin in the deal at the time.
The 2011 season was miserable in many respects for Smoak, who dealt with a series of nagging injuries along with the death of his father. In September, however, Smoak finally started to turn things around, hitting .301 with 3 HR and 13 RBI in 22 games.
Here’s betting that Smoak can indeed be the power-hitting presence that Zduriencik envisioned when he dealt for him.
St. Louis Cardinals: Daniel Descalso
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
In his first full season with the St. Louis Cardinals last season, utility infielder Daniel Descalso proved to be invaluable for manager Tony LaRussa, using Descalso often as a late-inning defensive replacement and providing value with his flexibility.
This coming season, Descalso will again be counted on to provide that same versatility and value. Rafeal Furcal and David Freese are set on the left side of the infield. However, both have struggled to remain on the field full-time.
Descalso will once again answer the call in 2012.
Tampa Bay Rays: Luke Scott
J. Meric/Getty Images
When the Tampa Bay Rays announced that they had signed former Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luke Scott to a one-year, $5 million deal with an option for 2013 to be their full-time designated hitter, it was a sign that the Rays were not going to fold tent and concede anything to their AL East rivals in 2012.
Scott was limited to just 64 games last season after season-ending surgery in July to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. However, from 2008-2010, Scott averaged 25 HR and 71 RBI, an upgrade over the numbers last season posted by Johnny Damon (16 HR, 63 RBI as DH).
Scott, who will arrive at spring training fully healthy, also gives manager Joe Maddon flexibility in the outfield.
Texas Rangers: Craig Gentry
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
By all accounts, Texas Rangers outfielder Craig Gentry had a very successful rookie season, hitting .271 with 18 stolen bases in limited action.
Gentry started 38 games, primarily against left-handed pitching, but Gentry proved he could hit right-handers as well, hitting .282 in eight starts.
Gentry will no doubt have competition in spring training from both Leonys Martin and Julio Borbon. However, with the confidence boost he received from his stellar play last season, expect Gentry to be a key contributor in 2012.
Toronto Blue Jays: Kelly Johnson
J. Meric/Getty Images
Much like Aaron Hill for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kelly Johnson will continue to experience the fact that change is sometimes necessary and good.
Johnson, who was absolutely abysmal at the plate for the D-Backs in 2011 before the swap to Toronto for Hill, hit .270 in 33 games following the trade. With a new one-year, $6.38 million contract in place, Johnson has a team in the Blue Jays that believes in him returning to his 2010 form that saw him hit .284 with 26 HR and 71 RBI.
Washington Nationals: Mark DeRosa
Tony Medina/Getty Images
I know, I know. Once again, you’re thinking that I am totally off my rocker.
However, signing 36-year-old utility player Mark DeRosa to a one-year, $800,000 contract is a lot more palatable than what the San Francisco Giants signed him for two years ago (two years, $12 million).
Provided DeRosa can stay healthy, and that’s a big if, he gives the Washington Nationals great flexibility and a solid bat.
DeRosa has played six different positions during his career, and can be used to spell Adam LaRoche at first, Ryan Zimmerman at third and Michael Morse in left field.
Doug Mead is a featured columnist with Bleacher Report. His work has been featured on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SF Gate, CBS Sports, the Los Angeles Times and the Houston Chronicle. Follow Doug on Twitter, @Sports_A_Holic.