Baseball's 1st-half surprises
For as many big stars who have been major disappointments in the first half of the Major League Baseball season, there have been just as many surprises and feel-good stories.
For fantasy baseball enthusiasts, the multitude of sleeper picks and emerging superstars provided some consolation for the minefields of underachieving superstars who went in the first few rounds.
Here's a look at the biggest surprises of the first half:
Jason Bay (BOS — OF): The Trail, B.C., native is making Red Sox Nation forget they ever heard the name Manny. Though he's proven himself to be a star in recent years with the Pirates before last summer's big trade, one can't compare the abyss that is Pittsburgh to the bright lights and pressure of Boston. Bay's average may be down, but he's on pace for career highs in home runs and runs batted in this year.
Raul Ibanez (PHI — OF): The 37-year-old is having the season of his life so far in Philadelphia. Ibanez had 24 home runs through July 19, just nine shy of his career high. He also boasted an average well over .300 while his strikeouts total is way down from his years in Seattle.
Jason Werth (PHI — OF): Perhaps one of the keys to the success of Ibanez has been this man. Werth is hitting behind Ibanez in the Phillies order and has been lighting it up. The former Toronto Blue Jay is on pace to shatter his career highs in hits, runs, doubles, stolen bases, home runs and RBIs all set last year. To put the season Werth is having into perspective, he's practically matching or beating teammate Ryan Howard in most offensive categories and is currently ranked higher than the former National League MVP by Yahoo! Fantasy Sports.
Zack Greinke (KC — SP): Arguably the front-runner for the American League Cy Young Award (along with Toronto's Roy Halladay), Greinke has been almost unhittable this season. His 2.08 earned-run average is second only to Arizona's Dan Haren for starters, and his record of 10-5 with five complete games, two shutouts and 136 strikeouts is among the best in baseball.
Ben Zobrist (TB — 2B/SS/OF): One of the biggest surprises this season has been the emergence of Zobrist. The Tampa Bay Rays' utility man entered 2009 having not played a full season in the majors, but is playing like a seasoned veteran. Through July 19, he had 17 home runs, 52 RBIs, 51 walks, 11 stolen bases and a .300 average.
Aaron Hill (TOR — 2B): After sitting out most of last season with a concussion, the Blue Jays second baseman has turned many heads in the American League with his offence and defence. The all-star starter already has set a new career high with 20 home runs and through July 19 was tied for third in the majors in hits with 114 and fifth in total bases with 190.
Adam Lind (TOR — OF): After platooning between the bench, the outfield and the minor leagues for the last few years in Toronto, Lind has come into his own and earned a starting job. Believe it or not, Lind entered play on July 20 tied for first in the American League with former MVP Justin Morneau at 197 total bases. He was also tied for ninth in homers with 20 and second in doubles with 29 in the AL.
Nelson Cruz (TEX — OF): The Rangers right-fielder also has come out of nowhere this season, shattering his career highs in every offensive category, save for triples.
Russell Branyan (SEA — 1B/3B): Like Cruz, Seattle's corner infielder has shocked the baseball world with his dominating play. Branyan has changed teams 10 times in his career and played for six different teams since 2006, but he has never been as good or as consistent as he's been this year. He's in second in the AL in home runs, and, by the end of July, Branyan could very well have new career highs in all offensive categories.
Ryan Franklin (STL — RP): Cardinals pitcher Ryan Franklin may be a 10-year veteran, but he has been reborn as the team's closer this season. Through July 19, he was sixth in the NL in saves with 22 and had the best ERA at a miniscule 0.79 with only eight walks.
Justin Upton (ARI — OF): Upton was not expected to do much this year, especially after a slow start. But the former first overall pick has been stellar since May, already passing his previous career marks in all offensive categories, except for walks, triples and at-bats.
Josh Johnson (FLA — SP): Following in the footsteps of the likes of Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, Florida pitcher Josh Johnson continues to emerge as a true number No. 1 hurler. At 8-2 this season with two complete games, 109 strikeouts and a 2.74 earned run average through July 19, the Marlins starter has crept up to a Top 10 ranking among pitchers in the majors.
Brandon Inge (DET — C/3B/OF): It's fair to say that no one expected Inge to be ranked as the fourth-best catcher in the league at this point this season (or any season), but Inge has impressed. He entered play on July 20 eighth in the AL in home runs with 21 (tops for catchers) and is only one behind Cleveland's Victor Martinez for the RBI lead by a backstop with 58.
Chris Carpenter (STL — SP): The first thing that comes to mind when the name Chris Carpenter is mentioned is injury-prone. The 2005 Cy Young Award winner is dominant when he's healthy, which is rarely. This year, the one-time Toronto Blue Jays right-hander has remained relatively healthy, posting an 8-3 record with one complete game, 14 walks, 71 strikeouts and an enviable 2.26 ERA through July 19.