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March 4, 1998

Flashback: Last Year's Surprise Players

Players who broke with their history in 1997

by Greg Spira and Keith Law

Surprises are what provide much of the drama of a baseball season. There are too many unknowns in baseball for there not to be surprises, so not even the best analysts can make predict every development in an upcoming season. Here we check in on players who did the unexpected during the 1997 season, and try to evaluate whether what was unexpected last season should now be expected in 1998. The only thing we won't be surprised by is that some of the following players will surprise us and not do what we expect them to do.

Edgardo Alfonzo
Surprise: Forced the Mets into giving him a regular job
Outlook: Continued improvement

With shortstop and second base inexplicably considered occupied, the Mets grudgingly gave Alfonzo a chance at third base, and he responded spectacularly. He was brilliant defensively, and the offensive skill that he showed in the minors finally emerged in the majors. He was a completely different hitter than in 1996, showing much more patience and much better pitch selection at the plate, significantly increasing his batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, all while striking out far less often. Alfonzo might not maintain quite as high a batting average next year, but he's likely to continue to improve as a hitter.

Sandy Alomar Jr.
Surprise: Did what he was supposed to do seven years ago
Outlook: Anyone's guess

The biggest and least predictable surprise of last season. He had never slugged above .490 before last year, and yet slugged .545 over a full season. Could it be that the injuries were what held him back all these years? We may never know when he gets hurt again.

Jay Bell
Surprise: Unexpected career-high slugging
Outlook: A return to normalcy may be masked by Arizona's ballpark

He had slugged under .400 over the previous two seasons, but in his first year back in the AL since 1988, his average went up substantially and he showed the most power of his career. At 32, Bell is likely to revert to his 1995-1996 performance level this coming season, but that drop will probably be masked by what will likely be a good hitter's park in Arizona.

Albert Belle
Surprise: More than just the Comiskey effect
Outlook: The walk rate drop bodes poorly

We all knew Belle's numbers would drop from the ballpark move, but we didn't know by just how much. Belle had his 1992 season all over again: in '92, he hit .260/.320/.470 with 52 walks and 128 strikeouts; last year, he hit .274/.332/.491 with 53 walks and 105 strikeouts in ~50 more plate appearances. In between those two seasons, he never struck out 100 times or posted an OBP below .370 in a season, and topped 1.000 in OPS three straight years ('94-'96). Belle was 30 last year, and while that's not young, it's not an age where 200-plus point drops in a players OPS are common. He should rebound somewhat this year, but a return to his intimidating Cleveland self isn't likely.

Jeff Blauser
Surprise: Did what they paid him for
Outlook: Wrigley will cover some decline

Well, it took four years, but Blauser finally repeated - and even beat - the 1993 form that had the Braves believing they had their shortstop of the future. Blauser battled a number of injuries and some horrendous treatment from the fans, but came back strong last year with career-best power numbers. The move to hitter-friendly Wrigley will mask some of the inevitable slip, but Blauser could easily approach his '97 numbers if he stays healthy again.

Bret Boone
Surprise: Was even worse than in his awful `96 campaign
Outlook: Only minor improvement likely

Boone's offensive game has inexplicably fallen apart. He was widely expected to recover in 1997 from a terrible 1996, but 1997 proved to be another setback. Boone tried to do some different things in 1997; he was noticeably more patient at the plate, but it really didn't seem to help his game. He's reportedly ready to try almost anything to improve, but there's no reason to expect anything more than minimal improvement at the plate.

Scott Brosius
Surprise: 1996 overachiever turns into `97 underachiever
Outlook: He'll do better, but not by much

Brosius' 1996 seemed like a breakthrough year for him, but it led into the worst performance of his career in 1997. Absolutely nothing went right for him at the plate last year, and he showed no real signs of ever reaching dry land with his bat. He seemed utterly confused against virtually all pitchers, never knowing when to swing or when to take. He's with the Yankees now, and they're unlikely to show him the patience the A's did last year. Brosius will probably improve a little, but not enough to escape the wrath of King George.

Jeromy Burnitz
Surprise: Still had it in him
Outlook: One or two more years before age eats at his skills

Burnitz hit .265/.380/.470 in 200 AB in '96, so his .281/.382/.553 last year wasn't a total shock. He ranked 7th among AL outfielders in OPS last year, behind Griffey, Justice, Matt Stairs, Bernie Williams, Manny Ramirez, and Rusty Greer. He's always had the eye and the power, and now he's got a four-year commitment from Milwaukee to give him some job security.

Jose Canseco
Surprise: His bat doesn't support his savoire faire anymore
Outlook: Couldn't have lost it that quickly

Dan Duquette's smart off-season move last winter, ignored in the hue and cry over Clemens' departure. Canseco failed to slug .500 for the first time since 1993 and for just the fifth time in the 12 seasons where he's had at least 100 at bats, and posted the worst batting average of his career. I really enjoyed watching him struggle after badmouthing Duquette, but I can't believe that the 203 point OPS drop wasn't a partial fluke.

Jeff Conine
Surprise: His offense fell apart
Outlook: He'll get back to decency, but that's about it

Conine seems to have gotten old very quickly. In 1994 and 1995 he was one of the best hitters in the league. By the end of 1997 he had been dumped on the Royals, the team that let him slip away in the 1993 expansion draft so they could protect the immortal (as in peskily unkillable) David Howard. While Conine does appear to be declining, it's unlikely that the sheer awfulness of his 1996 can be attributed to that decline, so look for his offense to jump back up to where he will be an offensive contributor, but not a star, for the Royals.

Joey Cora
Surprise: The little pony that could
Outlook: We won't see those homers again

Seems like 1987 all over again when little guys like Joey Cora hit 40 doubles and 11 homers in 574 AB. How bizarre was Cora's season? In 2558 career at bats before 1997, Cora had just 13 homers; in one season, he nearly doubled his career total. In his defense, he had a pretty similar season in 1996, just less noticeable because he only hit 6 homers (a career best at the time).

Marty Cordova
Surprise: Big age 27 disappointment
Outlook: Back to the future - or something like that

Cordova was one of the few positive things going for the Twins at the beginning of last year, but then his offense followed his team into the tank. At an age when many players have their finest season, Cordova just stopped getting hits while battling leg injuries all season long. There was no real sign of a significant change in Cordova's game last year; aside from the sharp fall in batting average, his performance was in line with his career. If he's fully healthy, look for Cordova to recover much of the average he lost last year, so he'll once again be a positive, but his chances of stardom look like they're gone.

Chad Curtis
Surprise: Power and fury
Outlook: Younger than you think, and it could be real

It seems like Chad Curtis has been around forever, or at least since people cared about political scandals, but he's just 29 this year. That's why his sudden power increase - slugging .481 when he had only topped .400 once before in his career - might be real after all.

Delino Deshields
Surprise: Recovered - mostly - from the Chavez Ravine blues
Outlook: He can stop taking his medication

When the Dodgers traded Pedro Martinez for Delino Deshields, it was at least tenuously defensible. But while Pedro became a star, Delino's star dimmed. His batting average, walks and power all seemed to be at least partially eclipsed in Los Angeles. Moving to the Cardinals last year, his average and power came back with a big bang, and he seemed to be almost the player fans thought he was going to turn into. He was far less tentative at the plate; he sometimes seemed too aggressive, but it's hard to fault the results. It's likely that he's fully recovered from his LA story, and that while his power numbers may not stay up at their 1997 level, the rest of his game will be.

Mariano Duncan
Surprise: Crashed and burned
Outlook: Won't get the chance to redeem himself

Duncan fooled everyone by hitting .340 with decent power in '96, and he was one of several overachievers who helped the Yanks to the title that year. Some regression to the mean was to be expected, but Duncan completely fell apart - no doubt helped by the constant, public criticism from George Costanza's boss. Duncan was never more than a role player before '97, and at this point, a return to the majors has to be considered unlikely.

Damion Easley
Surprise: Where did all those homers come from?
Outlook: Repeat about as likely as President Newt

Easley had shown modest power at best in his previous injury-plagued major-league campaigns, but not enough to merit more than an NRI coming into '97. He broke out the thunderstick for his first full-time shot, and earned himself a ridiculous multi-year deal, despite the presence of Frank Catalanotto in AAA. Easley's almost certain to be overvalued in roto drafts across America, because in every group of 12 owners, there will be one who'll bet on a repeat.

Darrin Fletcher
Surprise: Slugged a career high .513
Outlook: Back to reality

Darrin Fletcher, who began 1997 with a career slugging average barely over .400, suddenly emerged as a home run hitter for the Expos last year. He proved too good for the Expos payroll, who let him go as a free agent after the season. Fletcher hits lots of fly balls at this point of his career, so it's inevitable that he'll continue to hit a moderate number of home runs for Toronto, but he's simply not that good a hitter, so his overall offensive performance will surely head south this year, especially if, as expected, he gets a lot more playing time.

Ron Gant
Surprise: He keeps getting worse
Outlook: It's likely to continue

Gant, like so many other power/speed guys, was overrated to begin with, but nothing in his career merited the five-year deal for which St. Louis is paying so dearly. He looked helpless at the plate, striking out 162 times in 502 AB, and hitting .158/.158/.229 when he was behind in the count, which is a large part of the time. There's always a chance he'll recover, and he could still be a 20/20 guy for you roto players, but the absolute value of his expected contribution to a baseball team is less than epsilon.

Carlos Garcia
Surprise: You're as old as you are, not as old as you say
Outlook: Pressure is off in Cleveland

Boy, that Cam Bonifay sure knows when to hold 'em and when to pawn them off on the first unsuspecting GM to call you. Garcia was never that good and was horribly injury-prone to begin with, but he never hit at all in '97 and was shot off the 40-man roster like a Bill Romanowski `hello.' He's landed in Cleveland to compete with Enrique Wilson and Shawon Dunston for the second base job, where any real production would be considered a bonus.

Bernard Gilkey
Surprise: Career year in 1996 followed by bomb
Outlook: Back to normal

Gilkey seemed to completely forget how to hit righties last season, and as a result followed up his 1996 career year with a dud of a season. Mets fans were forced to watch Gilkey fly out to the outfield time after time after time. Since he has never before had such a wide platoon split, he will obviously have to make adjustments if he's going to be successful again, but he definitely appeared to be going in the right direction in September. It's likely that Gilkey will return in 1998 to the mid-level performance he showed before he was traded to the Mets.

Tony Gwynn
Surprise: Added homers to his repertoire
Outlook: What Gwynn wants to do, he does

Gwynn added more of an uppercut to his swing last year, and that resulted in a lot more fly balls and career highs in doubles and home runs. Assuming Gwynn stays with the same hitting style, he will continue to put up higher power numbers, but at this age you have to think that his overall offensive performance is going to start falling sooner or later.

Butch Huskey
Surprise: Provided legitimate power
Outlook: Somewhat pessimistic

Huskey didn't look overmatched last year when the Mets finally gave him a shot at a regular job - and certainly he showed more than the large contingent of "tools" outfielders that have failed the team over the last few years. Unfortunately, the Mets now expect him to be a major force in the lineup, and that's not going to happen. Huskey still shows little knowledge of the strike zone, and that probably will catch up to him next season. Expansion might help keep his raw power numbers close to where they were last year, but his lack of discipline will likely keep his career from going in the right direction.

Wally Joyner
Surprise: Aging gracefully
Outlook: It can't last forever

Think the Royals wish they had him back? Joyner's numbers aren't out of whack when you compare them to his previous four years, but the fact that he's still putting up decent numbers at age 35 is pretty damn impressive - and somewhat surprising. The Padres may think it can go on indefinitely, since they traded Derrek Lee, but Joyner will start to slow down at some point soon.

David Justice
Surprise: He forced baseball to pay attention to him again
Outlook: The swing leads to more sweet results

For reasons that are not easily understood, David Justice had almost been written off by baseball people when he was traded to the Indians last year. Yes, his career has been hampered by injuries, but that's not a good reason to forget to the great results that have usually come off of Justice's sweet swing. Justice wasn't particularly healthy last season either - he suffered both knee and elbow problems - but he came through with a monster season anyway. There's no reason to think he won't come through with a season almost as good in 1997. Just don't count on him to play 162 games.

Ray Lankford
Surprise: Pulled it all together in one season
Outlook: Could do it again if he's healthy

The highly touted prospect of the early 90s finally did everything expected of him in the same season: he hit for average (.295), drew walks (95, .411 OBA), hit for power (31 HR, .585 SLG), played solid defense, and stayed healthy after his late start due to shoulder surgery rehab. He's 31, but the talent is obviously there for him to stay at this level if he can avoid the nagging injuries that have consistently chipped away at his productivity.

Mike Lansing
Surprise: Started hitting home runs
Outlook: Will keep hitting home runs - thanks to Coors

Lansing had an explosive 1997, posting career highs in doubles, home runs and slugging percentage. He adjusted his swing to become much more of a flyball hitter last year, and it paid off. If he was staying in Montreal, his power numbers would probably fall off somewhat in 1998, but his trade to Coors will enhance the value of his new batting style and his power numbers will show at least a superficial increase.

Mike Lieberthal
Surprise: His '96 numbers weren't a function of small sample size
Outlook: Still not enough

Had a hot April and didn't just coast through the rest of the season, although a heavy workload caught up to him in September (.189/.315/.297). Despite 27 doubles and 20 homers, he only slugged .442, and probably won't get all that much better. Estalella should have the job by April '99.

Javier Lopez
Surprise: Took a large step up
Outlook: Will stay there

Javier Lopez posted a .361 OBP and a .534 SLG in 1997, both career highs, despite moving to a worse hitters' park midway through the season. His improvement appears to be the result of just his maturation at the plate, and, at age 27 this season, he should be able to provide similar production.

Tino Martinez
Surprise: Could do no wrong at the plate
Outlook: Back to normal in '98

Martinez would be the first to tell you that he has no idea where those extra 15 homers came from, as his career year was completely out of line with his consistent performances over the previous few seasons. Usually a spike like that doesn't last, and there's every reason to expect Martinez to drop off the BBWAA's voting lists in '98.

Quinton McCracken
Surprise: Not even Coors could make him look good
Outlook: Now in Tampa Bay to be exposed

A smart manager could get something out of McCracken: he is fast, he could draw a few walks, and he's a good defensive center fielder. However, anyone who gives him 300 PA is asking for real trouble, and if Tampa's plan is to put him at leadoff, they could set records for run-scoring futility.

Raul Mondesi
Surprise: Has exceeded the hype
Outlook: No reason to expect a slowdown

Slugging .541 in Chavez Ravine is no mean feat; only Mike Piazza slugged better, and he was the best hitter in the NL last year. No other Dodger slugged better than .465 last year. What's most impressive about Mondesi was his continuing improvement at the plate: 44 walks in 665 PA isn't great, but it's a career high in patience and it means he's getting on base at a solid rate (OBA of .362). I won't say he's worth $60M over 6 years, but he's improved each year and there's no reason to look for a decline.

Hal Morris
Surprise: He was incredibly awful. Really, really awful
Outlook: Partly cloudy with a few sprinkles possible

Weak ground ball to short. Weak ground ball to second. That, in a nutshell, was Morris' 1997 season. Very few batted balls of his made it much past the infield. He was simply unable to drive the ball, partly because of a shoulder problem but partly because he seemed to forget how at the plate. Until last season, Morris had been showing increased power compared to earlier in his career. If his shoulders recover, he should be able to be decent again at the plate, but his career is winding down, so his future ought to be on the bench as a pinch hitter, instead of as the Royals' regular DH.

Dean Palmer
Surprise: A major off year
Outlook: He'll be a solid power bat

Palmer last season suffered through nagging injuries and his worst year since 1992, before the years of explosive offense began. Palmer is aging, but he hasn't really gone downhill as a hitter yet; he's still a somewhat patient hitter whose pitch selection is poor but who hits the ball hard and can drive it a long way. He should bounce back most of the way next year; expect a .280/.340/.500 season from him in 1998 if he can stay healthy

Rafael Palmeiro
Surprise: Walks down, average down, power down
Outlook: Hard to tell, but he's at the age where big dropoffs portend bigger ones

Palmeiro's '97 looks worse because his '96 was so solid. His walk rate dropped back to prior levels, but his strikeout rate jumped, and he seemed to lose some control of the strike zone when facing the AL's better pitchers. (Davey Johnson's obvious lack of confidence in Raffy against Randy Johnson didn't help.) It could easily have just been an off-year, but I'll bet that 1997 was indicative of what we can expect from him in the future.

Mike Piazza
Surprise: Was unbelievably incredibly great instead of being just incredibly great
Outlook: More greatness

Piazza's 1997 was the greatest offensive year of any catcher ever. Can he repeat it? Can he top it? Or will the wear and tear of playing catcher finally catch up with him? It's all too easy to underestimate Piazza, but let's go out on a limb and say he probably won't be able to improve on his 1997 season.

David Segui
Surprise: Homers
Outlook: Even the Kingdome won't save him

He never had the kind of power he showed in `97 before, so unless he's buttering his breakfast toast with creatine, he'll be the worst first baseman in Seattle since Pete O'Brien.

Gary Sheffield
Surprise: Power outage
Outlook: Higher electric rates

It's hard to tell exactly what happened to Gary Sheffield last year. After a season as the best hitter in the league in 1996, 1997 was a major disappointment for Sheffield individually. He hit for neither average or power. He clearly was playing through some minor injuries, and was not able to drive the ball with his legs as well as he had in previous seasons. He also pulled the ball more often than he did in 1996, and that made it easier for pitchers to get him out by pitching away. Sheffield is an extremely unpredictable player, but he's had the offseason to heal, and he should end up with a great 1998 if he can avoid any new injuries.

Chris Snopek
Surprise: Disaster
Outlook: Could surprise people with a strong comeback

Snopek looked like he had a great shot at proving himself as a major league regular when Robin Ventura was injured early last season. Instead, everything possible went wrong, as Snopek's game collapsed both offensively and defensively. Snopek was sent down to the minors, and wasn't even brought back up in September. He's a dark horse in the Sox' post-Ozzie shortstop shuffle, and he ought to bounce back as a hitter. There are also rumors that he'll be kept in anticipation of a stretch drive trade of Robin Ventura, so that he'll get to be the caretaker third baseman until Carlos Lee is ready.

J.T. Snow
Surprise: Great season was expected as much as snow on July 4th
Outlook: It's up to the alien inhabiting his body

Other than alien possession, there is no reasonable explanation for the great season Snow produced in 1997. Snow put up his superb numbers by battering right handed pitching, but he continues to show no aptitude at all against left handed pitchers, and should never start against them. Snow's hitting slipped somewhat towards the end of the year, and it's probably reasonable to expect only a .260/.350/.470 year from him this year, when he will presumably be aided by expansion and more rest against lefties.

Bill Spiers
Surprise: He can hit
Outlook: Not this well

But he may be adequate at shortstop, and .270/.360/.400 wouldn't be out of the question, although it's slightly on the high side for him.

Scott Stahoviak
Surprise: Plunging average
Outlook: Some recovery, but not enough

The Twins didn't expect Stahoviak to be Lou Gehrig, but they did expect more than he gave them. He came into the season with a secure role as a platoon first baseman, but his season was riddled with injuries early. At the plate, he seemed a little less patient, a little more confused, and a little more likely to pull the ball. None of these explanations adequately explain why he often couldn't buy a hit. However, there's nothing to indicate a permanent change in his abilities, so look for his average to bounce back up most of the way - not enough, however, to keep his job for very long.

Matt Stairs
Surprise: Somebody let him play
Outlook: More of the same

It wasn't a surprise around here that Matt Stairs could hit. Heck, that was apparent five years ago. The surprise is that a major league franchise finally gave him a chance to play. Given regular playing time, Stairs showed tremendous power. He's definitely the real deal, but he probably doesn't have quite the power his home run numbers from last year imply, so he's not going to hit 50 home runs or anything in 1998. He's already 30 years old, so improvement is definitely unlikely. But for the next few years, he'll be an offensive force to be reckoned with.

Lee Stevens
Surprise: He hit like Joe Carter used to hit
Outlook: He's gonna hit slightly better than Joe Carter hits now

Stevens was once an overrated prospect in the Angels organization. He's been given some major league chances before, but never really showed anything to any of his teams. Coming back from a Japanese hiatus, he turned a minor league job in `96 into a `97 season where he hit .300 with power while subbing for several injured players, which will probably earn him a few more years as a major leaguer. Some of the power he showed last year is undoubtedly real, but he still is much too impatient at the plate and is unlikely to hit more than .270/.300/.450 in the future.

Doug Strange
Surprise: Played well with regular work
Outlook: Not likely to be this good again

He can't play shortstop, and really was just a silly signing for Pittsburgh unless they're going to use him to displace Tony Womack.

Dale Sveum
Surprise: Came back from a nine-year nap
Outlook: 1987 redux?

Sveum's main value is that he can and will play everywhere in the infield, and with the Pirates, he was basically playing for food. For the minimum salary, you could get a player like Sveum to fill in for 200 AB all over the infield, but the Yankees will pay him about $800,000.

Larry Walker
Surprise: Had an MVP season
Outlook: Won't be quite as good

Walker's 1997 was just phenomenal in every way. So great that there's no way he's going to repeat it. His numbers on the road will drop fairly sharply, though his Coors numbers might actually improve. Walker was lucky in 1997 that his usually bothersome knees didn't affect his play; given his history, good fortune is unlikely to shine on him as much this season. Still, there's no reason to believe that Walker won't give the Rockies another great season overall.

Todd Walker
Surprise: Comparisons to Dave McCarty
Outlook: Still a great bet for success, now at second base

The move back to second should be the best thing for Walker, given the disappointing start to his career. He started hitting a few weeks after returning to Salt Lake and never stopped, hitting .333 and slugging .542 with the Twins in 48 at bats after his return. Back home in the keystone, Walker should face a lot less pressure and is a big sleeper for '98.

Kevin Young
Surprise: Not really - we knew he can hit
Outlook: May disappoint, but he'll still be valuable

Finally, Kevin Young hit major-league pitching. He actually started it in '96, hitting .242/.301/.470 in just 132 AB with Kansas City, and cashed in some walks for some hits with his .300/.340/.535 last year. He isn't quite that good - a smart pitcher will eat Young alive every time - but a .280/.330/.470 wouldn't be a surprise, and would be a welcome improvement over last year's alternative corner solutions for the Buccos.

Todd Zeile
Surprise: An excellent season in a pitchers' paradise
Outlook: There's a reason they're called "career years."

Instead of posting a decline, as one would expect from a 31 year old player coming to a great pitchers' park, Todd Zeile had the best year of his career in 1997, posting a career high .365 OBP. Clearly, Zeile's season gives off a strong smell of fluke-osity, and Zeile should return to a more normal level of 260/.340/.430 in 1998.

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