We expected Mike Trout to play like Mike Trout. We expected Max Scherzer, the two-time defending Cy Young winner, to dominate opposing hitters again. This article isn’t for them, the annual All-Stars who have already proven their greatness. Instead, we wanted to take a look at players who have taken everyone by surprise and produced sparking performances so far in 2018.
Although this article isn’t strictly aimed at fantasy baseball players, you might find a player on this list who makes for a shrewd pick up — especially if your league isn’t that deep. Even if you don’t play fantasy, these 15 players are giving baseball fans something unexpected to cheer about. Whether it’s a relatively unknown youngster finally making a name for himself or a savvy veteran putting together a renaissance year, it’s safe to say that nobody really expected these 15 players to be playing at the high level they have been.
15. Nick Markakis – Atlanta Braves
Nick Markakis spent most of career with the Baltimore Orioles, being a perfectly adequate right fielder. His career batting average hovers around .290, he’s a double-digit homerun guy, and can notch anywhere from 50 to 100 RBIs in a season, depending on where he bats and the quality of his teammates. When he hit free agency in 2014, the Atlanta Braves signed the then-30-year-old to a four-year, $44 million contract. The Braves weren’t contending at the time, and he was a decent outfielder that didn’t cost a ton of money.
Fast forward to 2018. The Braves surprised everyone by infusing young talent into their lineup and are suddenly fighting with the Washington Nationals for the top of the NL East. While hot prospects like Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna have hogged much of the attention, Markakis is a big part of their breakout. He’s hitting .327/.388/.492 (all well above his career averages), and is heading the NL in both hits and doubles. At 34-years-old, his strikeout rate is way down as well — and they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
14. Mike Foltynewicz – Atlanta Braves
Speaking of the Baby Braves, here’s another member of the team that is having himself a potentially career defining year. Right-handed pitcher Mike Foltynewicz has spent three seasons prior to 2018 attempting to be a starting pitcher, but could never manage an ERA lower than 4.31 or a WHIP lower than 1.297. In other words, he wasn’t very good at it. Inconsistent performance and a string of injuries made him nothing more than a guy who filled out the back end of rotation on teams who weren’t serious about winning.
The 2018 of Mike Foltynewicz is a different story, though. His command is better, his strikeouts are up, and he’s pitched to a 2.31 ERA and a 1.189 WHIP so far this season. He’s given up just five home runs in 74 innings pitched and even threw a complete game shutout on June 1. Still just 26-years-old, it seems like Foltynewicz might have finally figured out what was missing from his arsenal. He’s arbitration eligible in both 2019 and 2020, and could be in for a serious raise (he’ll make just $2.2 million in 2018) if he can keep putting up these impressive numbers.
13. Eduardo Escobar – Minnesota Twins
With over 2,300 plate appearances, Eduardo Escobar is hardly inexperienced. But the Twins infielder, who primarily plays third base, is turning a new leaf in 2018. It could be because he’s a pending free agent, but regardless of the reasons, the 29-year-old is coming up big for Minnesota. His slash line of .288/.340/.568 is well above his career norms of .257/.305/.415 — especially that slugging percentage, which has skyrocketed. He’s never hit more than 21 homers or 73 RBI (both in 2017), and he’s already on pace to break those personal bests in 2018.
Escobar leads the AL in doubles, and his offensive outburst has helped the Twins stay in striking distance of the division-leading Cleveland Indians. The Venezuelan native is certainly building off a strong 2017 season, and will be hoping for some decent-sized free agent offers this winter. He would also make a decent shortstop for any team currently lacking one, giving him additional value.
12. Jed Lowrie – Oakland Athletics
Jed Lowrie has been floating around the league for more than a decade now, playing infield spots for the likes of the Red Sox, Astros, and Athletics. He’s never been an All-Star or won a Gold Glove, but Lowrie was a career .263 hitter who provided an infrequent home run, while playing at least average defense. Like a few other players on this list, Lowrie will be a free agent after this season, so maybe it’s the extra motivation to earn another contract that has the 34-year-old veteran playing better than he has in a long time.
Lowrie has never hit more than 16 home runs in a season. He’s on pace to get close to 25. He’s never knocked in more than 75 RBI, but he’s on pace to break 100 this year. He’s also slashing .285/.349/.466, which is above his career numbers of .263/.333/.412. The extra production from Lowrie has helped Oakland to a slightly above .500 record (for now), but they play in the stacked AL West with the Mariners, Angels, and Astros. They have an outside shot of making a Wild Card, but will need to get really hot first. Lowrie’s impressive season just won’t be enough.
11. Jose Martinez – St. Louis Cardinals
Jose Martinez is almost 30-years-old, but this is really only his second season in the The Show (he played in 12 games in 2016, which don’t really count). He has an impressive 2017 season, but many people thought it might be a fluke. After all, who shows up in Major League Baseball already in their late 20s and plays like an All-Star? The St. Louis Cardinals must have known something that no one else did, because they are getting an incredible return on the $560,000 they are paying Martinez in 2018.
The first baseman is lighting it up at the plate, slashing his way to a .320/.391/.514 line with nine home runs and 40 RBIs. He’s on pace to set career bests in almost every single offensive category, meaning the Cardinals are happy to put up with his slightly below average defense. Martinez must be damn proud of the grind he has put in to finally get this far, considering he’s been with various organizations in the minor leagues since 2006, including the Orioles, White Sox, Braves, and Royals.
10. Jeimer Candelario – Detroit Tigers
Fun fact: Due to Jeimer Candelario being on the 40-man roster when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, he is technically considered a World Series champion. But he wasn’t on the postseason roster and only appeared in five games for the Cubs that season, so it really is just a technicality. Chicago traded the young New York native to Detroit in 2017, where he spent most of his time in the minors. A late season call-up gave the Tigers a glimpse at his true potential, though.
In 27 games for the Tigers at the end of 2017, Candelario hit .330/.406/.468 with a pair of home runs. While he hasn’t been able to maintain those impressive ratios in 2018, he’s shown an increase in power on his way to a .263/.350/.507 slash line so far this year. He’s also added 10 home runs and 29 RBIs (which could be higher if his teammates weren’t so bad at getting on base in front of him). Still just 24-years-old, Candelario looks to have some serious talent that is finally breaking out.
9. Asdrubal Cabrera – New York Mets
Once upon a time, Asdrubal Cabrera was an All-Star. In his mid-20s and playing for the Indians, he made consecutive All-Star teams in 2011 and 2012 on the backs of hot starts, which then cooled off as summer wound down. Maybe 2018 will turn out to be the same thing, but Cabrera — now with the Mets — has been a bright spot in New York for a team without a lot of reasons to celebrate.
Cabrera was off to another hot start, his batting average peaking around .350 before finally coming back down to a normal (but still respectable) .283. He clobbered 11 home runs and batted in 36 runs while playing second base for the Mets, and his slash line of .283/.323/.498 is above his career averages. Unfortunately, a slight hamstring injury in early June may derail his strong start. Which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Mets baseball recently.
8. Eugenio Suarez – Cincinnati Reds
Eugenio Suarez has been around the league for a few years now, having a few okay seasons with the Cincinnati Reds following a trade from the Tigers. The Venezuelan native has a career average of .262 and has hit 20+ homers in the past two seasons. He strikes out a ton, but so do a lot of elite MLB players. The Reds probably expected a bunch of the same from the 26-year-old in 2018, but they’ve actually gotten much more.
So far this season, Suarez is slashing .301/.386/.568 — that’s a NL leading slugging percentage, folks. All those numbers are way up from his career averages of .262/.338/.437. He’s on pace to set new personal bests in home runs and RBIs, and miraculously is striking out as a lower rate than previously. Perhaps he’s just excited about his new contract, since the Reds gave him a six-year, $66 million deal before the season started.
7. Yangervis Solarte – Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays acquired utility infielder Yangervis Solarte last winter mostly as an afterthought. Unfortunately, persistent injuries to Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki (plus the awful slumping of Devon Travis) have led to Solarte having to play a bunch more games than expected. While his batting average and OBP numbers have remained close to his career averages, he’s shown a surprise amount of power in his bat and a refreshing amount of excitement in the dugout.
Solarte has cruised out to 12 home runs early, with 37 RBIs to go with them. If he continues to get regular playing time, which seems likely, he will probably set new personal highs in runs, hits, home runs, RBIs, and walks in 2018. He may never slash much better than his .266/.315/.455 career averages, but his love for the game and celebratory dances by the dugout have endeared him to the Toronto fans. He has relatively cheap club options for 2019 and 2020, so perhaps he’ll stay a Blue Jay for a little longer as they push through an inevitable rebuild.
6. C.J. Cron – Tampa Bay Rays
We have to admit we were kind of surprised when the Angels traded C.J. Cron to the Rays ahead of the 2018 season. He seemed like a valuable depth piece for a team that had playoff aspirations. Then again, with Albert Pujols and Shohei Ohtani pegged to fill the DH spot most games, Cron ended up as a surplus in L.A. He earned himself a role as the everyday first basemen (and sometimes DH) in Tampa, and he’s been having a terrific season in the Sunshine State.
Cron has never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, but already had 15 by the second week of June. Barring a catastrophe, he will set personal bests for HRs, RBIs, hits, runs, doubles, and walks this year. All of that without hitting much better than his career slash line of .261/.310/.454 (he’s currently at .258/.327/.484). Unfortunately, his outburst of power isn’t doing much to help the pathetic Rays. They are below .500 in a division that will probably send two teams to the playoffs, and are one of the cheapest assembled rosters in baseball. At least Cron can entertain the dozens of paying fans at The Trop with frequent longballs.
5. Ross Stripling – Los Angeles Dodgers
Ross Stripling is only in his third year in the big leagues, and didn’t quite find his niche in the first two. He bounced around from starter to reliever and back to starting, putting up average numbers and never having a winning record. He was definitely an afterthought, considering the expensive L.A. Dodgers’ roster contains pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Rich Kill, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Julio Urias. Unfortunately all of those players have battled injuries, meaning Stripling is being forced into starting action after once again beginning the season in the bullpen. He’s responded with some amazing baseball.
Through eight starts (and 11 more relief appearances), Stripling is 5-1 with a minuscule 1.65 ERA and an impressive 1.050 WHIP. He’s struck out 72 batters in 60 innings pitched so far, good for a 10.8 K/9 rate — the highest of his career, so far. His walks are down and he’s really helping to save the Dodgers season as they attempt to get back to a World Series after painfully losing the 2017 Fall Classic in Game 7. Despite being 28-years-old, Stripling is still on his entry-level contract. That makes him a pretty cheap option for the Dodgers, who have him under control until the end of 2022. You may not have heard much about Ross Stripling yet, but we’re willing to bet you know his name by then.
4. Jesus Aguilar – Milwaukee Brewers
After three years with the Cleveland Indians and barely a handful of major league plate appearances to show for it, Jesus Aguilar was DFA’d and picked up by the Milwaukee Brewers in early 2017. He impressed during spring training and ended up playing 133 games (although starting just 55 of them) for the Brew Crew that year, putting up a .265/.331/.505 slash line with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t an everyday player.
In 2018, Aguilar has already started 41 of the 57 games he’s played in, mashing to the tune of .290/.361/.544 — all well above his career averages. He has 11 home runs and 37 RBIs so far, putting up a positive WAR for the second straight season. He’s only committed two errors while playing first base, and is a big part of why the Brewers have burst into contention in the NL Central. They are neck-and-neck with the Chicago Cubs as we get close to the half-way mark of the season.
3. Andrew Heaney – Los Angeles Angels
Andrew Heaney started 18 games for the Angels in 2015. He was pretty good, pitching to a 3.49 ERA and going 6-4 on the season. Those aren’t All-Star numbers, but they were encouraging for a 24-year-old rookie starter. Unfortunately, Heaney started out the 2016 season in the worst way possible. After just a single start, Heaney required Tommy John surgery and his season was over. He returned at the tail end of 2017, but posted a 7.06 ERA and a 1.662 WHIP in five starts. Perhaps the magic was gone?
Heaney has rebounded in a big way in 2018. In ten starts so far, he’s pitched to a 3.12 ERA and a 1.104 WHIP (both career bests). He pitched a complete game shutout against the Royals (on his birthday, no less) in early June, and looks even better than the 2015 version that showed so much promise. The Angels are fighting for the AL West division lead or a Wild Card spot, and a lot of what happens for the Halos between now and October will depend on Heaney’s continued success.
2. Miguel Andujar – New York Yankees
The Yankees didn’t necessarily have plans for Miguel Andujar to play in the big leagues this year, but a couple key injuries saw the 23-year-old Dominican Republic native called up just a week into the 2018 season, and installed as the regular third basemen immediately. Andujar has repaid the faith his organization had in him with a helluva impressive start to his career.
Over 53 games, Andujar is hitting .310/.340/.552 with eight home runs, 21 RBIs, and 28 RBIs. We can’t really compare those numbers to his career averages, because his career has only just started! He’s hitting in the bottom third of the stacked Yankees lineup that also includes Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez — so there’s really no shame in batting seventh or eighth after those guys. Andujar and the Yankees are cruising this season, playing close to .700 baseball so far, with only their classic nemesis the Red Sox standing in their way in the battle for AL East supremacy.
1. Corey Dickerson – Pittsburgh Pirates
What happened between Corey Dickerson and the Tampa Bay Rays remains a bit of a mystery. The 29-year-old had a career year for the Rays in 2017, making his first All-Star team. Even though he cooled off at the plate in the final third of the season, he still seemed a very capable major league player and he was a relatively cheap option for the Rays in 2018, at just $6 million. However, the Rays suddenly designated him for assignment back in February, a move that left many people scratching their heads.
Dickerson landed in Pittsburgh, and has gotten even better after a cold first week of the season. He’s slashing .319/.352/.480, numbers that are at or above his career averages. Oddly enough, his power numbers are down a bit but he’s doing a better job hitting for contact. Regardless, those are still great numbers considering the Rays literally dumped him on a street corner. Did they think Dickerson was finished? Because he’s clearly not.