April’s 10 most surprising players

Three-plus weeks into the season, it is surprising that Zack Greinke doesn’t have a win, Albert Pujols has more strikeouts than walks and the Red Sox haven’t figured out they need Jason Varitek to play more. But enough with not-so-pleasant surprises.

The top 10 pleasant surprises (among players):

So far, Livan Hernandez has rewarded the Nats for taking a chance on him.
So far, Livan Hernandez has rewarded the Nats for taking a chance on him.

Livan Hernandez, SP, Nationals
Washington signed Jason Marquis to a two-year, $15 million deal to lead its young rotation. Conversely, Hernandez didn’t have a job when spring training began, and he had to settle for a minor league deal. Marquis lasted 8 1/3 innings (three starts) and posted a 20.52 ERA before going on the disabled list. Hernandez has worked at least seven innings in each of his first four starts and has a 0.87 ERA. Go figure.

After he beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, Hernandez told reporters he is using the offseason snub as motivation. "I want to show the people that I’m not done," he said. "I do everything they asked me to do. I pitch every five days; I haven’t missed a start for 14 years. No matter what happens, no matter how you feel, I’m always there."

Hernandez averaged an MLB-best 220 innings over the past decade. Listed at 35, he says he wants to pitch "for a long time." Don’t be surprised when he someday is called the righthanded Jamie Moyer.

Kelly Johnson, 2B, Diamondbacks
Major leaguers don’t like to be snubbed. Or, in Johnson’s case, dumped. The Braves preferred Martin Prado at second base, so they non-tendered Johnson, who was snatched by Arizona two weeks later. Good move by the Diamondbacks.

Johnson is showing the Braves what they are missing. Displaying better patience at the plate, he hit seven homers in his first 19 games — he finished with eight in 106 games last year — and raised his OBP nearly 100 points.

Jose Guillen, DH, Royals
Because of serious leg injuries — Guillen told the Kansas City Star that a bout with blood clots left him hospitalized for 20 days this past offseason — he missed 81 games last season while hitting only nine homers. The Royals relegated him to DH duty after signing Rick Ankiel and Scott Podsednik. Guillen wasn’t happy about that. He isn’t saying much about it these days, preferring to let his bat do his talking.

And his bat is saying plenty: seven homers, 18 RBIs and a .349 average. A scout who has known Guillen since his minor league days in Pittsburgh asked me to give him a message: "He should be doing this every year." Replied Guillen: "I could do this every year if I was healthy."

If he keeps this up, don’t be surprised if Guillen is traded to a contender in need of an angry bat.

Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
Wells never will live up to his contract, but don’t hold that against him. It isn’t his fault Toronto overpaid him. At least he is healthy again after offseason wrist surgery.

Wells paid for playing through discomfort last season. He missed only three games but hit .250 with 15 homers, a .311 OBP and a .400 slugging percentage. He hit four homers in the first three games this season and hasn’t cooled much.

C.J. Wilson has impressed since his move to the Rangers' rotation from the pen.
C.J. Wilson has impressed since his move to the Rangers’ rotation from the pen.

C.J. Wilson, SP, Rangers
The lefthander has something to prove, too. He wants to show his team it made the right decision by giving him an opportunity to start after he was the team’s most consistent reliever in 2009. The evidence continues to pile up in Wilson’s favor: He has a 1.75 ERA and is the first Ranger to open the season with four consecutive quality starts since 1993.

Andruw Jones, OF/DH, White Sox
After a miserable 2008 with the Dodgers, Jones, 33, continues to find his way back. The White Sox signed him to be a platoon DH and reserve outfielder, but a scout who has watched the club believes Jones, who dropped 25 pounds in the offseason, can be more. "Alex Rios is playing better — he was a dog last year — but I believe Jones will end up hitting more," the scout says. He has so far. In 19 fewer at-bats, Jones has six homers to Rios’ three and a .393-.323 edge in OBP.

Mike Pelfrey, SP, Mets
No Met has rebounded better from a miserable 2009 than Pelfrey — and that includes a bunch of Mets who needed to bounce back. Pelfrey has won all four of his starts, hasn’t allowed a run since the second inning of his 2010 debut and leads the majors with a 0.69 ERA. What’s changed? He is pitching with more confidence, he is throwing a quality split-finger fastball, and he has improved the command of his secondary pitches. No wonder his outlook has done a 180.

"I related last year to having a bad day at work every day," he says. "Nobody wants to go to work and have those days. Now I look forward to getting back out there. It’s tough to sit around for four days (between starts)."

Doug Fister, SP, Mariners
If you predicted that Fister would be the Seattle starter ranked among the AL ERA leaders, you should consider a career change to fortune-telling. This is a staff that figured to be led by Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee. It will be. Hernandez has been Hernandez, and Lee finally will debut Friday night.

After four starts, however, Fister has been the Mariners’ stingiest starter. The 6-8 righthander sports a 1.67 ERA and has held opponents to a .208 average. "Coming out of spring training without Lee, we talked about someone needing to step up," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu says. "He’s done that. He’s pitching aggressively and keeping the ball low."

Sergio Santos, RP, White Sox
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard much about Santos. You’re not alone. This time a year ago, Santos was toiling in the minors after making the switch from the infield to the bullpen. The conversion didn’t take long. He made the White Sox out of spring training and has emerged as Ozzie Guillen’s most reliable reliever, featuring a high-90-mph fastball and good changeup. In eight outings (eight innings), he has struck out 10 and has allowed two hits, three walks and zero runs.

Matt Capps, RP, Nationals
A Nationals starter opened this top 10, so it makes sense to close it with the Nationals’ closer. Few were wowed when Washington signed Capps after his unimpressive 2009 (five blown saves and a 5.80 ERA). Everyone should be impressed now. Capps leads the majors with nine saves in nine tries and has allowed only one earned run in 12 1/3 innings.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Three-plus weeks into the season, it is surprising that Zack Greinke doesn’t have a win, Albert Pujols has more strikeouts than walks and the Red Sox haven’t figured out they need Jason Varitek to play more. But enough with not-so-pleasant surprises.

The top 10 pleasant surprises (among players):

So far, Livan Hernandez has rewarded the Nats for taking a chance on him.
So far, Livan Hernandez has rewarded the Nats for taking a chance on him.

Livan Hernandez, SP, Nationals
Washington signed Jason Marquis to a two-year, $15 million deal to lead its young rotation. Conversely, Hernandez didn’t have a job when spring training began, and he had to settle for a minor league deal. Marquis lasted 8 1/3 innings (three starts) and posted a 20.52 ERA before going on the disabled list. Hernandez has worked at least seven innings in each of his first four starts and has a 0.87 ERA. Go figure.

After he beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Tuesday, Hernandez told reporters he is using the offseason snub as motivation. "I want to show the people that I’m not done," he said. "I do everything they asked me to do. I pitch every five days; I haven’t missed a start for 14 years. No matter what happens, no matter how you feel, I’m always there."

Hernandez averaged an MLB-best 220 innings over the past decade. Listed at 35, he says he wants to pitch "for a long time." Don’t be surprised when he someday is called the righthanded Jamie Moyer.

Kelly Johnson, 2B, Diamondbacks
Major leaguers don’t like to be snubbed. Or, in Johnson’s case, dumped. The Braves preferred Martin Prado at second base, so they non-tendered Johnson, who was snatched by Arizona two weeks later. Good move by the Diamondbacks.

Johnson is showing the Braves what they are missing. Displaying better patience at the plate, he hit seven homers in his first 19 games — he finished with eight in 106 games last year — and raised his OBP nearly 100 points.

Jose Guillen, DH, Royals
Because of serious leg injuries — Guillen told the Kansas City Star that a bout with blood clots left him hospitalized for 20 days this past offseason — he missed 81 games last season while hitting only nine homers. The Royals relegated him to DH duty after signing Rick Ankiel and Scott Podsednik. Guillen wasn’t happy about that. He isn’t saying much about it these days, preferring to let his bat do his talking.

And his bat is saying plenty: seven homers, 18 RBIs and a .349 average. A scout who has known Guillen since his minor league days in Pittsburgh asked me to give him a message: "He should be doing this every year." Replied Guillen: "I could do this every year if I was healthy."

If he keeps this up, don’t be surprised if Guillen is traded to a contender in need of an angry bat.

Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
Wells never will live up to his contract, but don’t hold that against him. It isn’t his fault Toronto overpaid him. At least he is healthy again after offseason wrist surgery.

Wells paid for playing through discomfort last season. He missed only three games but hit .250 with 15 homers, a .311 OBP and a .400 slugging percentage. He hit four homers in the first three games this season and hasn’t cooled much.

C.J. Wilson has impressed since his move to the Rangers' rotation from the pen.
C.J. Wilson has impressed since his move to the Rangers’ rotation from the pen.

C.J. Wilson, SP, Rangers
The lefthander has something to prove, too. He wants to show his team it made the right decision by giving him an opportunity to start after he was the team’s most consistent reliever in 2009. The evidence continues to pile up in Wilson’s favor: He has a 1.75 ERA and is the first Ranger to open the season with four consecutive quality starts since 1993.

Andruw Jones, OF/DH, White Sox
After a miserable 2008 with the Dodgers, Jones, 33, continues to find his way back. The White Sox signed him to be a platoon DH and reserve outfielder, but a scout who has watched the club believes Jones, who dropped 25 pounds in the offseason, can be more. "Alex Rios is playing better — he was a dog last year — but I believe Jones will end up hitting more," the scout says. He has so far. In 19 fewer at-bats, Jones has six homers to Rios’ three and a .393-.323 edge in OBP.

Mike Pelfrey, SP, Mets
No Met has rebounded better from a miserable 2009 than Pelfrey — and that includes a bunch of Mets who needed to bounce back. Pelfrey has won all four of his starts, hasn’t allowed a run since the second inning of his 2010 debut and leads the majors with a 0.69 ERA. What’s changed? He is pitching with more confidence, he is throwing a quality split-finger fastball, and he has improved the command of his secondary pitches. No wonder his outlook has done a 180.

"I related last year to having a bad day at work every day," he says. "Nobody wants to go to work and have those days. Now I look forward to getting back out there. It’s tough to sit around for four days (between starts)."

Doug Fister, SP, Mariners
If you predicted that Fister would be the Seattle starter ranked among the AL ERA leaders, you should consider a career change to fortune-telling. This is a staff that figured to be led by Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee. It will be. Hernandez has been Hernandez, and Lee finally will debut Friday night.

After four starts, however, Fister has been the Mariners’ stingiest starter. The 6-8 righthander sports a 1.67 ERA and has held opponents to a .208 average. "Coming out of spring training without Lee, we talked about someone needing to step up," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu says. "He’s done that. He’s pitching aggressively and keeping the ball low."

Sergio Santos, RP, White Sox
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard much about Santos. You’re not alone. This time a year ago, Santos was toiling in the minors after making the switch from the infield to the bullpen. The conversion didn’t take long. He made the White Sox out of spring training and has emerged as Ozzie Guillen’s most reliable reliever, featuring a high-90-mph fastball and good changeup. In eight outings (eight innings), he has struck out 10 and has allowed two hits, three walks and zero runs.

Matt Capps, RP, Nationals
A Nationals starter opened this top 10, so it makes sense to close it with the Nationals’ closer. Few were wowed when Washington signed Capps after his unimpressive 2009 (five blown saves and a 5.80 ERA). Everyone should be impressed now. Capps leads the majors with nine saves in nine tries and has allowed only one earned run in 12 1/3 innings.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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