Many questions surrounded the Tampa Bay Rays when this season began. Would the bullpen be a liability? Who would replace stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena? What players would step up or re-emerge?
So nearly three months into a whirlwind season, the Rays have had their share of surprises this season, whether it be their near-devastating 1-8 start, their surge to first place in the AL East or their fall back to third.
There have also been a few surprises players for the Rays, whether it be the revival of an ace-caliber pitcher, the emergence of young outfielder or the replacements of free agent losses.
Here are the top five surprises for Tampa Bay so far in the 2011 season.
Sam Fuld had one of the most exciting and productive Aprils that any one could experience, as he hit in the high .300s and made one spectacular catch after another.
As documented as his great opening month was, his struggles in May nearly demolished his numbers from his great start. But Fuld has made a much bigger impact beyond his offensive stats.
Fuld, known as "Super Sam" by the way he flies around to take hits away from the opponent, has been the standout on another good Tampa Bay defense.
It's fair to say there hasn't been much, if any, of a drop-off from Carl Crawford to Sam Fuld. Fuld has nearly twice a many stolen bases than Crawford, as well, proving his case of being on this list.
The Rays bullpen has soared beyond expectations for this season, despite the loss of their closer, set-up man and other key bullpen members during free agency.
At the front of the 2011 bullpen success (actually the back, since he's the closer) is Kyle Farnsworth, who has converted 15-of-16 save attempts coming into last night, with a 1.69 ERA.
Many worried that Farnsworth, along with every other arm in the pen, wasn't ready for the closer role. The little closing time that he had before coming to Tampa Bay was less than impressive. But he's proved the doubters wrong.
Being sixth in the AL in saves and seventh in WHIP isn't anything overly outstanding, but it's solid numbers and great value for the Rays, who are all about getting every bit of value out of every dollar.
After batting .217 last season, who would of thought Casey Kotchman would be an offensive catalyst for Tampa Bay? Since signing a minor league deal to join the Rays, he has went from border-line MLB-Triple A player to a top hitter in the American League.
Hitting .339 coming into the Milwaukee series, Kotchman would be third in the MLB in average if he had more at-bats. He started hot after replacing Dan Johnson at first and hasn't looked back from there.
His hitting isn't the only huge asset in his repertoire. Kotchman also has solid glove-work over at first base, once again giving the Rays a cheap way to replace a star (Carlos Pena)
He may not have Pena's power, but a .339 average is greatly appreciated by Joe Maddon, over the low and sub-.200 marks that Pena put up. Kotchman hasn't created the same buzz about him this year as Fuld or Matt Joyce, but he's done more than his fair share of producing.
Since this is more a list of biggest surprises and not biggest impact, James Shields is second on this list. But even with that said, after a poor 2010 campaign, Shields has more than turned things around.
He has not only returned to the form he had in 2008, when the Rays won the AL pennant, but has been even better, which should easily put him in the All-star game.
Shields, along with Justin Verlander of the Tigers and Jered Weaver of the Angels, look to be the favorites to start the mid-summer classic for the American League. It's a long way from the miserable starts he had last year, a year in which he allowed the most home runs in baseball.
But now he's first in complete games this year (five), and after his last start, was tied for second in strikeouts and third in ERA. After starting quick, it looked as if he may fall off a bit, but he continues to throw up zeroes.
He wasn't even a sure-fire starter coming into this season, but Matt Joyce has suddenly become an all-star caliber player for the Rays. Being in the top 10 in batting average, slugging and OPS, you can see why.
Though he's cooled off a bit, Joyce is still batting above .300 and continues to move up in ballot results. The local kid (alumni of near-by Armwood High and Florida Southern) has turned into a great story, as he continues to shine in the middle of the Rays' lineup.
After a couple of years of thinking the Rays didn't get the better of the deal when they traded away Edwin Jackson for Joyce, the Rays patience has finally payed dividends for them.
With 36 RBI, 40 runs and double-digit home runs, Joyce looks to keep producing at such a level for the Rays, and Tampa Bay hopes they have a key bat for years to come.