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15 MLB Players Whose Surprising Starts We Never Saw Coming

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2013

15 MLB Players Whose Surprising Starts We Never Saw Coming

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    Each season, a handful of players come out of nowhere to get off to unexpected hot starts, making far greater contributions than anticipated to kick off the season.

    Whether it's an aging veteran star enjoying a return to prominence, an unheralded journeyman making the most of an opportunity, a player thriving in a new role or a young player taking an unexpected step forward, there are a number of causes for an unexpected hot start.

    Here is a look at the 15 MLB players whose surprising starts we never saw coming, and a brief overview of their playing history coming into the season.

     

    *All stats courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.

C Nick Hundley, San Diego Padres

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    Stats: .325/.352/.542, 9 2B, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 12 R

    After a solid 2011 season in which Nick Hundley posted an .824 OPS and hit nine home runs over 281 at-bats, the Padres signed him to a three-year, $9 million extension.

    However, they relegated Hundley to the bench following the acquisition and eventual call-up of top prospect Yasmani Grandal.

    With Grandal suspended for the first 50 games of the season following a positive PED test, Hundley is back in the starting lineup, if only for the time being. He's made a strong case for playing time with his early-season performance, though, and if nothing else could be a solid trade chip at the deadline.

RP Brett Cecil, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Stats: 14 G, 1-0, 1.15 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 19 K, 15.2 IP

    The Blue Jays used Brett Cecil as a starter his first three seasons in the majors, and in 2010 he went 15-7 with a 4.22 ERA over 28 starts as a 23/24-year-old.

    After Cecil struggled early last season, Toronto relegated him to the bullpen, and he found himself on the roster bubble this spring, as he was out of minor league options.

    He wound up earning a bullpen spot, and he has been fantastic so far as the team's most reliable middle inning arm. He's still relatively young at 26, and it looks as though he's reinvented himself as a useful left-handed bullpen arm.

3B Conor Gillaspie, Chicago White Sox

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    Stats: .319/.368/.522, 3 2B, 3 HR, 5 RBI, 7 R

    A first-round pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft, Conor Gillaspie spent all but 21 games of the past two seasons playing at Triple-A Fresno.

    With a question mark at third base, the White Sox acquired Gillaspie this spring for 22-year-old relief prospect Jeff Soptic as an insurance option for free-agent acquisition Jeff Keppinger.

    The 25-year-old Gillaspie has continued to get the bulk of the at-bats even with Keppinger healthy, and he could wind up being the long-term answer at the position if he can keep playing like he has.

SP Justin Grimm, Texas Rangers

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    Stats: 4 GS, 2-1, 2.28 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 24 K, 23.2 IP

    Last season, Justin Grimm went a combined 11-6 with a 2.81 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. He also made five big league appearances and posted a 9.00 ERA over 14 innings of work.

    The 24-year-old opened the season in the minors, but Texas called him up to replace Matt Harrison on April 11, and he has been terrific in three starts so far.

    He doesn't have overpowering stuff, with a 7.5 K/9 mark during his time in the minors, but he doesn't hurt himself with walks either. If he keeps it up, he has a chance to land a long-term spot in the team's rotation.

3B Yuniesky Betancourt, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Stats: .270/.302/.551, 4 2B, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 13 R

    After Corey Hart and Mat Gamel went down with injuries just before the start of the season, the Brewers signed Yuniesky Betancourt to a one-year, $900,000 deal with the Brewers.

    As an everyday player in 2010 and 2011, Betancourt averaged 14 home runs and 73 RBI while hitting a passable .255 before taking a bench job with the Royals last year.

    He has seized the starting first base job and has already hit as many home runs in 89 at-bats this season as he did in 215 at-bats last season, and his 22 RBI tie for the team lead.

RP Edward Mujica, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Stats: 12 G, 7-for-7 SV, 2.25 ERA, 9.75 K/9

    The Cardinals acquired Edward Mujica from the Marlins at the deadline last season, and he posted a 1.03 ERA and 7.2 K/9 over 29 appearances.

    With Jason Motte on the disabled list to open the season, the Cardinals turned to Mitchell Boggs to close, but he opened the season with a 12.66 ERA and two blown saves through 14 appearances.

    Mujica relies as heavily as anyone in the game on the split-finger fastball, and when it's working, he has the stuff to be a dominant reliever, as he has this season.

C John Buck, New York Mets

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    Stats: .264/.296/.593, 3 2B, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 R

    Veteran catcher John Buck was traded twice this offseason: first from the Marlins to the Blue Jays as part of the fire-sale deal that shipped Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio to Toronto, then from the Blue Jays to the Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal.

    He got the starting catcher job with the idea being that he would keep the position warm until top prospect Travis d'Arnaud, also added in the Dickey deal, was ready to take over.

    Between Buck's hot start and the fractured foot d'Arnaud suffered in mid-April, it looks as though the job is his at least until the deadline, at which time the team could opt to move him.

SP Nick Tepesch, Texas Rangers

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    Stats: 5 GS, 2-2, 3.54 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 18 K, 28 IP

    A 14th-round pick in 2010, Nick Tepesch went 11-6 with a 3.67 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 162 innings of work between High-A and Double-A last season.

    After Martin Perez went down with a fractured ulna this spring, Tepesch seized the opportunity and captured the team's No. 5 rotation spot out of camp.

    For a 24-year-old who had never pitched above Double-A prior to 2013, he has more than held his own to this point and has helped turn starting pitching into a strength for the Rangers.

LF Vernon Wells, New York Yankees

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    Stats: .298/.362/.532, 4 2B, 6 HR, 13 RBI, 14 R

    Vernon Wells entered the season with $42 million remaining on his contract, and after hitting .222/.258/.409 in his two seasons with the Angels, he was arguably the most overpaid player in the game.

    With their roster decimated by injury, the Yankees took a chance on him, with the Angels picking up $28.1 million of his remaining salary.

    Thus far, he's been a godsend hitting out of the No. 3 spot in the Yankees order, and he's actually earning the $11.5 million the Yankees will pay him.

SP Kevin Slowey, Miami Marlins

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    Stats: 6 GS, 0-2, 2.15 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 29 K, 37.2 IP

    The Marlins brought right-hander Kevin Slowey to camp as a non-roster invitee this spring, and he won a rotation spot out of camp with a solid spring.

    He went 35-20 with a 4.36 ERA from 2008 to 2010 but posted an 0-8 record with a 6.67 ERA in 2011 and spent all of last season in the minors.

    Slowey, who turns 29 on May 4, has been a capable starter in the past, and if he keeps it up, the Marlins may be able to flip their low-cost investment and turn him into a solid prospect.

SS Jean Segura, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Stats: .347/.398/.531, 3 2B, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 14 RBI

    The Brewers acquired Jean Segura as part of the three-player package they got from the Angels for Zack Greinke at the deadline last year and plugged him in as their starting shortstop down the stretch.

    In 148 at-bats, he hit .264/.321/.331 with 14 RBI and seven steals in 44 games, and it looked like he would need some time to develop before reaching his offensive potential in the majors.

    He announced himself as a top prospect in 2010, when he hit .313/.365/.464 with 46 extra-base hits and 50 steals in Single-A. He has the potential to be an impact offensive player, and it appears he's tapped into the potential sooner than expected.

SP Tony Cingrani, Cincinnati Reds

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    Stats: 3 GS, 2-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 28 K, 18 IP

    After going 10-4 with a 1.73 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in his first full season in the minors last year, Tony Cingrani earned a late-season call-up and made three appearances out of the Reds bullpen.

    He entered the season as the team's top pitching prospect, but without a vacant rotation spot, he started the season in Triple-A, where he struck out 26 and allowed just three hits in 14.1 scoreless innings.

    When Johnny Cueto hit the disabled list with a strained lat, the Reds turned to Cingrani to fill his rotation spot, and he has been good enough that he should be able to keep his spot once Cueto is healthy.

LF Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Stats: .321/.387/.491, 6 2B, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 21 R

    After hitting .332/.370/.500 as a 22-year-old in Double-A back in 2011, Starling Marte immediately became one of the top outfield prospects in baseball.

    The Pirates gave him a 47-game audition last season, and he hit .257/.300/.437 with 73 total bases and 12 steals, which was enough for the team to give him the everyday left field job and leadoff spot in the lineup to kick off the season.

    There was a question of whether the 24-year-old would be able to hit enough to stick in the leadoff spot, but he has been the Pirates' best hitter to this point and a terrific table-setter.

SP Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Stats: 5 GS, 3-0, 1.91 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 25 K, 33 IP

    Heading into spring training, the Diamondbacks' plan was to give the No. 5 rotation spot to top prospect Tyler Skaggs.

    However, when he struggled this spring, the team instead opted to go with Patrick Corbin as its fifth starter, and that move has paid off in a big way over the season's first month.

    Corbin made 22 appearances (17 starts) last season and went 6-8 with a 4.54 ERA and 7.2 K/9. The 23-year-old has teamed with fellow lefty Wade Miley to lead the Diamondbacks staff in the early going.

DH Travis Hafner, New York Yankees

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    Stats: .304/.429/.638, 3 2B, 6 HR, 17 RBI, 14 R

    Once one of the most feared sluggers in all of baseball, Travis Hafner has not topped the 400 at-bat mark since 2007, as he has battled shoulder problems among a number of injuries.

    He hit just .228 with 12 home runs over 219 at-bats last season while earning $13 million, and there was little interest in him on the free-agent market this winter.

    The offense-thin Yankees took a chance on him with a one-year, $2 million deal, and at 35 years old he has enjoyed a career renaissance hitting out of the cleanup spot in the Bronx.

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