MLB's Biggest Surprises, Disappointments Entering the All-Star Break
One of the best things about the game of baseball is how unpredictable it can be on a year in, year out basis. Even with all of the advanced metrics and in-depth scouting that takes place these days, it's still impossible to predict how things will play out.
On an individual basis, there are always a handful of surprise players that come out of nowhere each season. On the flip side, there are also more than a few players who enter the year with lofty expectations, only to fall on their face.
As we head into the All-Star break, here is a look at the 10 biggest surprises and 10 biggest disappointments of the first half of the 2014 MLB season.
Disappointment: RF Carlos Beltran, New York Yankees
Many called the New York Yankees' signing of Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal one of the better bargains of the offseason, and it certainly looked like a relative steal after the way he hit for the St. Louis Cardinals the past two years.
Instead, he's been a shell of the player he was last year, when he hit .296/.339/.491 with 24 home runs. Granted, he's been slowed by right elbow and now right knee issues, but that doesn't make him any less of a disappointment.
Suddenly the two years and $30 million remaining on his contract don't look like such a good deal, as the 37-year-old may be coming to the end of what could be a Hall of Fame career.
Surprise: SP Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs' move to flip Scott Feldman to the Orioles for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop may very well go down as one of the best moves of the Theo Epstein era if Arrieta keeps pitching like he has here in 2014.
Ranked as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America in 2008 and 2009, Arrieta was never able to turn potential into production during his time in Baltimore. All told, he was 20-25 with a 5.46 ERA in 69 games (63 starts) during his time with the Orioles.
In nine starts with the Cubs last season following the trade, he showed some flashes, going 4-2 with a 3.66 ERA. While there were high hopes in the organization that he could be a piece of the future, it's fair to say no one expected him to be this good in 2014.
Since the start of June, he's been virtually unhittable, going 4-0 with a 0.99 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and .161 BAA in seven starts and ranking as one of the top pitchers in all of baseball.
Disappointment: LF Domonic Brown, Philadelphia Phillies
Once one of the top prospects in all of baseball, Dominic Brown looked like a bust after hitting just .236/.315/.388 in a total of 433 at-bats over his first three big league seasons.
Things finally clicked last year, as Brown made the NL All-Star team and hit .272/.324/.494 with 27 home runs and 83 RBI. Entering his age-26 season, he looked like a budding young star on an aging Philadelphia Phillies roster.
Instead, he is back to struggling this year. His minus-1.5 WAR is dead last among all qualified position players, and on top of his offensive struggles, he is one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball.
Surprise: RP Dellin Betances, New York Yankees
Once one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, Dellin Betances bottomed out in 2012 when he went 6-9 with a 6.44 ERA over 131.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. That effectively put an end to his days as a starting pitcher, and it may have been for the best. He responded to a move to the bullpen last year by posting a 2.68 ERA and 11.6 K/9 over 38 appearances in Triple-A.
Betances won a spot in the Yankees' revamped bullpen this spring, and he quickly pitched his way into the setup role that was vacated by David Robertson moving to the ninth. He's continued to dominate after a hot start, earning a spot on the AL All-Star team as perhaps the best non-closer reliever in baseball right now.
"Believe it or not, I told myself this year that my goal was to try to make the team and do the best I can to put myself in a situation to be there,” Betances told Jorge Castillo of The Star-Ledger on making the AL squad.
Disappointment: SP Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
Over his first 12 starts of the 2013 season, Clay Buchholz was as good as any pitcher in baseball. He was 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, and he looked to be on his way to finally reaching his full potential.
Shoulder and neck issues cost him 82 games from there, and while he returned to go 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in four starts down the stretch, his stuff was clearly not the same and he was touched up in the playoffs.
It's been a knee strain that has limited him this season, but it's hard to blame his struggles entirely on the injury. He has pitched better in three starts since coming off the DL, pitching into the seventh inning in all three starts and posting a 3.92 ERA, but he's still a long way off from where he was at the start of last season.
Surprise: 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, Cleveland Indians
Long the Cleveland Indians' third baseman of the future, the window had seemingly closed for Lonnie Chisenhall to be the everyday guy at the hot corner when it was announced that Carlos Santana was going to try his hand at third.
The 25-year-old opened the season seeing part-time action between third and designated hitter, but he quickly emerged as the Indians' best hitter, playing his way back into the everyday lineup in the process.
He turned in one of the best individual performances of 2014 on June 9, going 5-for-5 with a double, three home runs and nine RBI in a game against the Texas Rangers.
Chisenhall is currently tied for fourth in the AL with a .325 batting average, and his .908 OPS puts him in the top 10 ahead of guys like David Ortiz and Robinson Cano. Who would have predicted it back in April?
Disappointment: SP Jhoulys Chacin, Colorado Rockies
Few pitchers have been able to figure out Coors Field over the years, but Jhoulys Chacin looked to be on to something entering his age-26 season this year.
Over his first five seasons in the league, the right-hander went 37-41 with a 3.61 ERA (126 ERA+), and he was coming off the best season of his career last year when he went 14-10 with a 3.47 ERA and 1.262 WHIP.
Expected to lead the rotation alongside Jorge De La Rosa here in 2014, Chacin instead missed all of spring training and the first 32 games of the regular season with a shoulder strain. He never really found his footing in 11 starts after returning from the DL, and he now finds himself on the 60-day DL with the shoulder problems returning.
Surprise: IF/OF Brock Holt, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox offense has been a disaster this season, especially in the outfield, but Brock Holt has been one of the few bright spots.
Acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates as what amounted to a throw-in piece in the Mark Melancon-for-Joel Hanrahan trade, Holt hit an impressive .344/.406/.453 in the minors in 2012. He was still viewed as nothing more than a utility guy long term, though.
Injuries opened up a job for him at third base in Boston early on this season, and he has run with the opportunity. He's been shuffled all over the field, playing first, shortstop, third and all three outfield positions, and that versatility has made him that much more valuable.
His .311 average leads all rookies with at least 200 at-bats and is also tops on the Red Sox right now. He has certainly done his part out of the leadoff spot.
Disappointment: 1B Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles
Chris Davis was expected to regress this year after he led the American League with 53 home runs and 138 RBI last season.
Hidden behind those gaudy power numbers was a troubling 29.6 percent strikeout rate and unsustainable 29.6 percent HR/FB rate. Nonetheless, he still looked more than capable of hitting around .260 with 30-plus HR and 100-plus RBI in the middle of the Baltimore Orioles lineup.
Instead, he finds himself hitting just above the Mendoza line entering the All-Star break. His strikeout rate has climbed to 30.9 percent, and he is coming off of a disastrous June when he hit just .175/.292/.381 and struck out 36 times.
Surprise: RF Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays
A 31st-round pick back in 2010, Kevin Kiermaier entered the season as the No. 10 prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays' system, according to Baseball America. That was after he hit .295/.362/.431 with 42 extra-base hits and 21 steals between Double-A and Triple-A last year.
An injury to Wil Myers opened the door for regular playing time in the majors, and he has made the most of his chance, flashing unexpected power and helping carry what was a dismal offense.
In 1,448 minor league at-bats, he managed a grand total of 15 home runs, but he has already hit eight through his first 148 at-bats in the big leagues.
Things will get interesting for the Rays once David DeJesus and Myers return from injuries, as there will be quite a logjam in the outfield. If nothing else, the emergence of Kiermaier may allow the Rays to deal someone like Matt Joyce.
Disappointment: 1B Prince Fielder, Texas Rangers
Looking to bolster their offense and free up an everyday spot for highly regarded youngster Jurickson Profar, the Texas Rangers pulled the trigger on a huge trade this past offseason, shipping Ian Kinsler to the Detroit Tigers for Prince Fielder and $30 million.
Entering play Thursday, Kinsler was hitting .303/.339/.477 with 11 home runs and 47 RBI, leading all second basemen in WAR at 3.8.
Meanwhile, Fielder struggled to get things going through 42 games before undergoing season-ending neck surgery. He's just one of a number of Rangers to land on the disabled list this season, but he ranks as the most disappointing by far.
Surprise: SP Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros
Dallas Keuchel entered spring training this year just battling for a roster spot after going 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA in 47 games (38 starts) through his first two big league seasons.
He ended up winning the No. 5 starter job but wasted little time emerging as the ace of the rebuilding Houston Astros staff. His peripheral numbers suggest his breakout season is for real, and at just 26 years old, he could be a big part of the team's future plans.
Keuchel didn't wind up with an All-Star spot when the rosters were first announced, but he could still earn a spot as one of the Final Vote candidates on the AL side.
Regardless, it's been a terrific first half for a pitcher who was essentially an unknown outside of Houston entering the year, and the future looks awfully bright.
Disappointment: SP Justin Masterson, Cleveland Indians
An All-Star for the first time last season, Justin Masterson enjoyed a breakout season and established himself as a legitimate ace atop the Cleveland Indians rotation. He finished the season 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA, raising his strikeout rate from 6.9 K/9 in 2012 to 9.1 K/9.
He was seeking $17 million annually during extension talks this past offseason, according to ESPN, but talks eventually broke off and he entered this season set to hit free agency next winter.
That has proven to be a terrific decision by the Indians, as Masterson has looked like a completely different pitchers this year. His walk rate is way up (3.5 BB/9 to 5.1 BB/9), and his 5.51 ERA is the second-worst among qualified starters.
Surprise: LF J.D. Martinez, Detroit Tigers
J.D. Martinez showed some potential during his 2012 season with the Astros, hitting 11 home runs in 395 at-bats and leading the team with 55 RBI.
His numbers dipped across the board last season, though, as he was shuttled between Triple-A and the majors for much of the year. The Astros released him just before the start of the 2014 season.
With Andy Dirks sidelined following back surgery and Rajai Davis best suited as a platoon player, the Tigers took a flier on Martinez two days after he was released, and it may wind up being one of the best signings of the year.
He's been an absolute beast since assuming everyday duties, putting up the above numbers in just 173 at-bats. A .369 BABIP and 22.2 percent HR/FB suggest he could be in for some regression moving forward, but that doesn't make what he's done so far any less surprising.
Disappointment: 2B Jedd Gyorko, San Diego Padres
After leading all rookies with 23 home runs and ranking third with 26 doubles, Jedd Gyorko looked like a star in the making for the San Diego Padres.
Those numbers immediately made him one of the best offensive second basemen in the game, and given his minor league track record, there was plenty of reason to think he'd take another step forward in his sophomore campaign.
The Padres had seen enough to give him a six-year, $35.5 million extension just days after the 2014 season started, and it's been all downhill for him since. His .162 average and 40 OPS+ are the worst among players with 200-plus at-bats.
Surprise: RP Pat Neshek, St. Louis Cardinals
Despite posting a decent 3.35 ERA in 45 appearances for the Oakland Athletics last season, veteran Pat Neshek received little interest on the free-agent market this offseason, eventually signing a minor league deal with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"I was kind of shocked because I didn't have a bad year last year, I just didn't pitch in key situations," Neshek told Alex Halsted of MLB.com. "I was trying to relay that to everybody. I almost didn't even have a job. I didn't have many Minor League offers even."
The 33-year-old managed to pitch his way onto the Opening Day roster with a 3.24 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 8.1 spring training innings, and he has emerged as the most unlikely of All-Stars here in the first half of the season.
Making his first All-Star appearance even more special is the fact that the game will be played in Minnesota, where Neshek was born and later drafted by the Twins in the sixth round of the 2002 draft.
Disappointment: RP Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers ranked 24th in the MLB last season with a 4.01 bullpen ERA. With Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras gone in free agency and Drew Smyly moving to the rotation, they were in need of a complete overhaul heading into the offseason.
When Joe Nathan opted out of his deal with the Rangers, the Tigers jumped at the chance to add the active saves leader, signing him to a two-year, $20 million deal with the assumption that he would lock down the ninth inning.
Coming off arguably the best season of his career in 2013 (43-of-46 SV, 1.39 ERA, 10.2 K/9), Nathan has been anything but reliable this year. The 39-year-old had a 9.00 ERA in June, allowing runs in six of his 10 appearances, and he may force the Tigers to make a move in the weeks to come.
Surprise: 1B/OF Steve Pearce, Baltimore Orioles
Let's just take a look at Steve Pearce's transaction log over the past few years:
- 12/15/11: Signed as free agent by Minnesota Twins
- 3/27/12: Released by Minnesota Twins
- 3/29/12: Signed as a free agent by New York Yankees
- 6/2/12: Purchased by Baltimore Orioles
- 7/28/12: Selected off waivers by Houston Astros
- 8/27/12: Purchased by New York Yankees
- 9/29/12: Selected off waivers by Baltimore Orioles
- 4/27/14: Released by Baltimore Orioles
- 4/29/14: Signed as a free agent by Baltimore Orioles
Suffice to say that Pearce has not had much of a chance to get comfortable with any one team, but he seems to have finally found a home in Baltimore.
The Toronto Blue Jays placed a waiver claim on Pearce back in April when he was designated for assignment, but he opted for free agency instead, then re-signed with the Orioles two days later.
That move has worked out for both sides, as Pearce has made a huge impact in the middle of an Orioles lineup that is without Matt Wieters and features a struggling Chris Davis.
Disappointment: SP Ricky Nolasco, Minnesota Twins
The deck was stacked against Ricky Nolasco before he ever threw his first pitch in a Minnesota Twins uniform.
A solid middle-of-the-rotation arm, Nolasco signed a four-year, $49 million deal this offseason that ranks as the largest free-agent contract ever handed out by the Twins. With that, he was slotted atop their staff and expected to play a major role in turning around what was the league's worst rotation in 2013.
Instead, he has the highest ERA of any qualified starting pitcher and stands as one of the worst signings of the offseason. Add to that a recent MRI on his elbow after he admitted to pitching with discomfort since spring training, and this season has been nothing short of a disaster for Nolasco.
Surprise: SP Alfredo Simon, Cincinnati Reds
Used exclusively as a reliever last season, Alfredo Simon enjoyed something of a breakout season, posting a 2.87 ERA in 63 appearances and 87.2 innings of work.
A starter during his time with the Orioles, Simon was forced into the rotation to start the 2014 season when Mat Latos opened the year on the disabled list.
Not only did the 33-year-old prove to be a viable stand-in for one of the better pitchers in the NL, but he himself has emerged as one of the league's best arms this season.
His 4.31 FIP and a .232 BABIP suggest that he could be in line for some regression in the second half, but with an NL-high 12 wins and a 2.70 ERA that currently ranks sixth in the NL, his first half has been among the biggest surprises of all.
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