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This is one of my favorite columns of the year. It started in 2004 as a way for me
to highlight players who I expected to have good seasons by their own lights,
guys who would exceed expectations, with a fairly broad range of what those expectations were.

In two seasons,
I’ve named players such as Bronson Arroyo, Mark Bellhorn (in his good year),
Keith Ginter (same) and Carl Crawford to the list. Impressed? Don’t be: the
pieces have also choked out Jose Acevedo, Kazuo Matsui and D.J. Houlton.
There’s no pattern to the guys below, and I’d be lying if I told you there was
a methodology behind the assembly of the the list. I don’t have some SLORP
(Sheehan’s Level Over Replacement Player) formula that separates the qualified
from the rabble.

Some of these players are here because of things in their performance record,
while others because of skills they possess, or changes in their environment.
They range from young to old, hurler to hitters, superstars to guys just
trying to get some love. All of them, however, are my guys:

  • Daniel Cabrera: This might have had more visceral impact if I’d run the
    column before Cabrera threw four no-hit innings against Venezuela on Tuesday.
    Nevertheless, that outing was an indication of what Cabrera can do when his
    command is right. He struck out nearly a batter an inning last season, while
    almost doubling his K/BB and G/F ratio and lowering his HR rate slightly, and
    he did all of this without being overworked. I believe we’ve mentioned that he
    has a new pitching coach with some success in his background. I even traded
    Aaron Hill for him over the weekend.

    Cabrera’s upside is “All-Star Game starter,” and I think he could get there as
    early as July.

  • Joey Gathright: With Rocco Baldelli perhaps not yet ready to play in the
    field, there’s a chance that Gathright will be the Opening Day center fielder
    in Tampa. He’s that rarest of items these days, a pure leadoff hitter, the guy
    Mets fans think Jose Reyes is. A better comp might be peak Gary Pettis, one of
    the five fastest guys in baseball who gets on base enough to use his legs and
    runs a lot of balls down in center field, but who isn’t going to hit for any
    power. The D-Rays could actually use a guy like this, and while they’re
    committed to other outfielders, letting Gathright play for two weeks could
    make it easier to complete one of the many deals rumored all winter.

  • Aubrey Huff: Huff had a disappointing ’05, continuing a two-year slide
    from his ’03 peak. I find that kind of pattern interesting–and I’ll risk
    getting myself in trouble here–because if you wanted to identify statistical
    lines that looked like they were influenced by the new steroid testing, it
    seemed to me like Huff, who saw his EqA drop from age 26 to 27, and again from 27
    to 28, would be the poster child. So much of the focus of these stories has
    been on guys whose performance has been unchanged, or changed at an advance
    age when declines would be expected. Huff on the other hand, has been in
    decline at 26-28, much of the loss in his isolated power.

    Huff has never tested positive. I have no reason to believe he has ever used
    steroids or other PEDs, and I don’t mean to imply that he has. I just want to point out what
    a testing-influenced statistical record might look like if steroids fueled
    stats and testing stopped steroids. I’m convinced enough of his potential to
    include him on this list. He’ll pop back up over a .300 EqA again this year, with
    excellent rotisserie numbers.

  • Corey Patterson: This may be an idiosyncratic pick for an OBP-is-life guy.
    Patterson, though, is capable of being a very good player in the Devon White
    mold, hitting .280/.330/.450 with very good defense and 10-15 net steals a
    year. He absolutely had to get out of Chicago, where the Cubs spotlighted
    their mishandling of Patterson by acquiring Juan Pierre, the player they
    wanted Patterson to be, over the winter.

    In a new league with a new team and a different set of expectations,
    Patterson–just 26–can get back to being the player he is. The Orioles have
    to do their part by batting him sixth or seventh, living with the strikeouts,
    and trying to help him improve on the margins: improving his pitch recognition
    so that he can get his K/BB ratio into the acceptable 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 range.

  • Mike Piazza: The thing about Piazza is that everyone thinks he’s done, and
    I see no evidence for that. At 36, in a bad year in a pitchers’ park, he hit
    .251/.326/.452. He was 10th in EqA and 13th in RARP among regular catchers.
    No, he can’t throw; his defense outside of that area is about average, though,
    and as for the pitcher
    handling–the thing everyone loves about people like Damian Miller–Piazza isn’t considered a problem by his staffs. Other than the
    throwing–at which he’s admittedly horrible–he’s an average defensive catcher.

    He’s also 37 and moving to a park in which the gaps are marked in miles rather
    than feet. Piazza, though, has enough left in his bat to contribute a high
    average and doubles. I see a renaissance season in which he bats over .300,
    loses a few homers but hits 30 two-baggers, and is one of the three best
    catchers in the league.

  • Mark Sweeney: This was a nice pickup by the Giants, who suffered last year
    in the absence of Barry Bonds. Sweeney can hit righties, and he finally got
    some playing time the last two years to prove it. The Giants would like to see
    Lance Niekro hold the first-base job; while Niekro has more power than
    Sweeney, the difference in OBP between the two could be as much as 70 points.
    By playing Sweeney at first base, possibly in a platoon, the Giants would give
    themselves the best shot at winning in what is probably Bonds’ last season,
    and at least his last with them.

  • Brandon Webb: This is mostly a context pick, as the Diamondbacks upgraded
    their infield defense with the addition of Orlando Hudson.
    Hudson is the best second baseman in baseball, and while his defensive stats
    are in no small part due to his range on pop-ups, he also gets to more than
    his share of grounders. Webb, an extreme groundball pitcher with a big platoon
    split, stands to benefit the most from his new teammate. Even Russ Ortiz could be helped a bit.

    It would not surprise me to see Webb, who even in his last two “disappointing”
    seasons has had ERAs of 3.59 and 3.54, make the NL All-Star team and be on the
    fringe of Cy Young voting.

  • Brad Wilkerson: Take one very good, underrated hitter and move him from
    the second-best pitchers’ park in the game to the second-best hitters’ park.
    Add water, bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, cool and serve.

    Mmmm…baked goods…

    Oh, Wilkerson. The guy can flat-out hit. Even if the minor injuries that have
    sapped his power continue to nag him, he’ll be a productive center fielder in
    the Rusty Greer mode. If the power comes back–and he’s reportedly healthy–I
    could see an MVP-caliber year, a .300/.400/.540 season with plus defense.
    Wilkerson is the best outfielder the Rangers have had since Juan Gonzalez‘s
    first tour.

  • Scott Williamson: I love me some Scott Williamson, and I have been waiting
    for a healthy season for years. He has the same combination of plus heat and
    an unhittable breaking ball that has worked for short relievers like Tom
    Gordon
    and Francisco Rodriguez. It was just a season ago that Williamson had a
    1.26 ERA for the Red Sox in 28 2/3 innings, and was unhittable in the
    postseason (8 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 14 K). If he can just stay on the mound–I know, I
    know–he can be a devastating force for the Cubs.

One final note: David DeJesus was supposed to be on here, but
I noticed that I included him on last year’s list. He was all right in 2005;
he’ll be much better than that, the Royals’ All-Star and a top-tier AL center
fielder, in 2006.

So I’ve been running this column for three years now, telling you who my guys
are. It’s your turn: write in and give me your guys for 2006 and why you’ve
dubbed them so.

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