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Tuesday, March 20
Updated: October 8, 2:30 PM ET
 
Senior Circuit Surprises

ESPN.com

To some, it's a foregone conclusion that Ken Griffey Jr. is going to tear the cover off the ball in his second year in the National League. He could hit 50 home runs this year and few will bat an eye, because we expect it. The fact is, we baseball fans have these expectations, and sometimes they are met (see Pat Burrell last year), sometimes they are not (try Ruben Rivera) and sometimes they are exceeded (does anyone really know who Jose Vidro is yet?).

These are our choices of players we expect to surpass expectations in the 2001 season. We chose one from each team.

Diamond in the rough
 Byung-Hyun Kim
Kim's a setup man for now, but that could change if he's dominant.
Pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim blew three saves both before and after the all-star break last season. Problem is, he had only three opportunities after the break, 17 before. He sported a 2.11 ERA at the break. The rest of the way, it was 8.04 ERA. What happened? His command on the strike zone disappeared. He walked 15 and struck out 71 in 42 innings before the break, but walked 31 with 40 strikeouts in 28 second-half innings. No guarantee Kim will always perform as he did in the first half last year, but this spring he's walked just two batters, and struck out 11, in his first six innings. A good sign. When he's on, few pitchers in baseball are harder to hit.

The Marquis man
Because of injuries to the bullpen last year, right-hander Jason Marquis took the express route to the majors. He went from being a starter with Double-A Greenville to a set-up role with the Braves last June, got sent to Triple-A Richmond in July, and was recalled to Atlanta in September. In 15 appearances for the Braves, the hard-throwing Marquis (1-0, 5.01) had 17 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. The numbers aren't overwhelming, but we're going to make the 22-year-old Marquis our marquee man nonetheless. His versatility (Set-up man/No. 5 starter) makes him our "Pick to Click."

Everything's coming up Roosevelt
 
  Brown
As of press time, there's talk that general manager Andy MacPhail may look to trade for a starting center fielder, with Corey Patterson needing more time in Triple-A. If that happens, Roosevelt Brown may actually start the season in the minors, but we still expect he will do big things in Chicago this year. Brown, who would back up Sosa and injury-prone Rondell White, has exhibited excellent power and hit for high averages throughout his minor league career, and flashed the same potential in Chicago last summer, hitting .352 in 91 at bats. Should White run into an ivy-covered wall, Roosevelt could pick up the slack nicely.

Keep it in the family
 Aaron Boone
Boone has looked good coming back from a torn ACL.
The name Aaron Boone does not immediately make you think of an imposing hitter, but maybe it should. This Boone has shown for two straight years that he's a solid major league hitter, hitting over .280 both years. Before tearing his ACL in early July last season, Boone was on a pace to hit more than 20 home runs, as well. On top of that, Boone has made steady progress in hitting left-handed pitchers, once a real weakness. After hitting .208 and .219 against them in '98 and '99 respectively, Boone hit over .300 against them last year. Now that he's been united with his father, look for him to continue to improve. That could mean hitting .300 with 25 home runs or more.

Enjoying a Hot Toddy
Until last August, Todd Hollandsworth looked like a sure-fire candidate for a "Where are they now – the Rookies of the Year" segment. The kid who had won the National League award in 1996 had fallen on such hard times that not only was he not a starter in Los Angeles, he was considered a weak backup. But then he was traded to the Rockies, a place where Terry Shumpert has flirted with .400, and his career turned around. Not only did Hollandsworth hit .323 with 11 home runs in 165 at bats with Colorado, he did better on the road, hitting a mean .351 away from Coors Field. The prognosis: Hollandsworth wins the left field job over an aging and strikeout-prone Ron Gant, and makes fans forget about Jeffrey Hammonds.

He's not a "Grilli Man"
 Jason Grilli
Grilli is in strong contention for a spot.
Last season, Ryan Dempster made a name for himself with a 14-win season. Brad Penny began to do the same, showing signs of being one of the better young pitchers in the game. This year, we like Jason Grilli to join them. Grilli will likely make the Marlins' rotation by default. With Jesus Sanchez allowing hits to players not even in the stadium, the team is searching for someone – anyone – to move into the rotation. Grilli, who has pitched well this spring, is likely to do so. Once he's there, we think he'll use that live, mid-90s fastball of his to strike some fear into opposing batters. Look for a 10-win season from the youngster, as the Marlins begin to show the makings of a dominant pitching staff.

Not run of the Mill
The Astros don't figure to have problems scoring runs in 2001. That said, we'll focus on the starting pitching. Wade Miller has long been regarded as one of the top prospects in the organization's farm system. The right-hander was called up in July of last season and posted a 6-6 record and a 5.14 ERA. While those numbers don't seem spectacular, Miller showed improvement with each start, winning four of his final five decisions to end the season. "The only thing that stands between him and being a No. 1 pitcher is control," manager Larry Dierker said in The Houston Chronicle. "All the raw material is there for him to be a star pitcher, a winning pitcher and potentially an All-Star pitcher."

Full steam ahead for Dreifort
 
  Dreifort
Darren Dreifort has a past in this league. If history is any indication, this spring he'll be mowing batters down with his volatile mid-90s fastball. Then, sometime during mid-season, hitters will solve Dreifort and he will look very mortal again. Why will this season be different? Well, Dreifort has the security the new $55 million contract brings, and that might allow him to calm down on the mound. Even though he has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season, he could finally become the gem in the Dodgers' scary (on paper, at least) rotation. If nothing else, he brings more punch at the plate as a batter than any other pitcher. Last August against the Cubs, he became the first pitcher in 10 years to hit two home runs in a game. The former Wichita Stater's taters flew a combined 903 feet.

Mr. Wright, yes, but Mr. Wright now?
While the whole baseball world marveled at Jeff D'Amico and his 4-0, 0.29 ERA in August last season, Jamey Wright was playing the great equalizer, going 0-3 with an ERA of near six for the month. It was the culmination of a tough summer for Wright, who didn't have the greatly improved success in his first year away from Coors Field that he would have liked to. Still, there's reason to think we'll see better things from this extraordinarily talented pitcher. When Wright has his sinker under control, he's been very good, at times even better than that. He allowed fewer hits than innings pitched last year, and his 4.10 ERA was perfectly solid. He'll start on Opening Day against the Dodgers and Kevin Brown, a pitcher who also struggled with control earlier in his career, and then became one of the best pitchers in baseball. Coincidence? We think not.

Yahtzee! Time for Milton Bradley
 Milton Bradley
Can Bradley improve his attitude and produce?
Physically, 22-year-old Milton Bradley is the complete package. He's a great athlete who possesses speed, power and grace in the outfield. Last season, Bradley showed his clutch hitting with his .364 average with runners in scoring position. But scouts say Bradley has a bad temper, and he was demoted to Triple-A last year because manager Felipe Alou said he wasn't hustling on the basepaths. But so far, so good this spring. Bradley is batting .316 (18-for-57) with two HR, eight RBI and three steals, showing that he's poised to post a huge season in 2001.

No "I" in Timo… well, one
Timo Perez didn't earn any series MVP trophies for his play last season. Nor did he get a championship ring, as his Mets fell to the cross-town rival Yankees in the World Series. But, whether Perez can earn a regular spot in the lineup depends largely on whether he can disrupt opponents' game plans as he did against the Giants and Cardinals in last year's playoffs. Perez became the definition of manufacturing a run last fall: Getting to first base by way of hit or walk; stealing second; and then scoring on a single. However, this spring hasn't been indicative of what Perez can do or what the Mets need from him. He's hitting .200 with one double and has just one stolen base through March 21. Yet, the Mets are more inclined to focus on what he did in October and September – in which he had an .333 OBP and stole five bases after being called up from Triple-A Norfolk.

From TV to the big leagues
 Johnny Estrada
Estrada looks like "Ponch," but plays like "Pudge."
Johnny Estrada doesn't mind if people refer to him as "Ponch" from the 1970s show CHiPs. In fact, he relishes being compared to Erik Estrada. But what he would like more is to be with Philadelphia when the regular season starts. Estrada, Johnny not Erik, has emerged as a potential star for the Phillies because of what he can do at and behind the plate. The switch-hitter batted .295 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs and struck out just 20 times in 356 at-bats in Triple-A Reading last year. He also has a 53-game stretch without committing an error and threw out 38 percent (37-of-98) potential base stealers. And over the past two seasons, Phillies starting catcher, Mike Lieberthal, has missed significant time because of injuries so it's likely that Estrada would get an opportunity to perform in the majors.

Ramirez poised for breakthrough
 Aramis Ramirez
Ramirez gets another chance to prove himself at 3B
The Pirates' infield is starting to sound like an old baseball riddle: "Who's on first? …" The one infield spot that should be locked down is third base, where Aramis Ramirez has made his claim with a good spring. Through March 21, Ramirez was batting .359 with eight RBI. However, Ramirez has been in this position before – three times in fact. Last year, Ramirez was sent down to Triple-A Nashville after hitting .167 in April. His season was interrupted there as well after partially dislocating his left shoulder in late August. Now, with a number of players trying to find spots in the infield, Ramirez has to know this is a crucial season. Whether he'll be the answer to "Who's on third?" will be played out over time.

Will Jackson thrive?
Damian Jackson's star has been on the rise since his move from shortstop to second base last August. He hit .290 the last two months of the season when he cut down on his habit of going for the home-run ball. The team's leadoff hitter, he had an 80-percent success rate stealing bases and could swipe 50 this season. He has problems with lefties and loves first pitches. But he has the power to reach the alleys. Defensively, Jackson has the range and footwork but has some problems with consistency turning the double play. But he has his team's confidence that he will be a solid replacement for Brett Boone and he can hone his offense learning from one of the all-time great leadoff hitters, Rickey Henderson.

Rios: Grande
Outfielder Armando Rios finally got his break into the big league's last season, appearing in 115 games. Mainly used as a substitute, Rios is fighting veteran Eric Davis for a full-time job in right field. Rios' strengths are his strong arm, good defensive coverage (especially needed in funky Pac Bell Park) and his heady play. Rios had 50 RBI last season in 233 at bats, nearly the same RBI-per-at bat percentage (.215) as teammates Barry Bonds (.221) and Jeff Kent (.213). With a season under his belt and an aging Davis, Rios is primed for a breakout season.

Placido ready to pounce
 Placido Polanco
Will Polanco be able to handle the hot corner?
With Fernando Tatis now north of the border, the starting third-base job will go to either Placido Polanco or Craig Paquette. With his spring performance so far, the right-handed hitting Polanco has the upper hand. Polanco is batting .429 (15-for-35) this spring, with nine RBI and six runs. The 25-year-old utility infielder led St. Louis with a .342 average with runners in scoring position last year, and batted .313 as a starter. Paquette – a .239 lifetime hitter – is also a righty, so platooning the two players doesn't make sense. If Polanco wins the job and plays full-time, expect numbers like .310 BA, 80 RBI and 80 runs.




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