Under-the-radar standouts

After Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington refrained from making a deal at the July 31 deadline, he responded with the money quote of the trade season. "We were willing to do something stupid," Huntington told reporters. "We just weren't willing to do something insane."

Loopiness is all relative in a pennant race. With his team 26 games over .500 and leading the National League Central, Huntington can dress up like the Pirate Parrot and wave the Jolly Roger while directing traffic on the Fort Duquesne Bridge, and it won't put much of a crimp in his Executive of the Year chances.

Huntington inherited Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Starling Marte upon his arrival in 2007, but most of the moves that have transformed the Pirates from perennial laggards to contenders have come under his watch. The haul includes first-round draft picks Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole, free agents Jason Grilli and Russell Martin and trade acquisitions A.J. Burnett, who the Pirates acquired from the Yankees in February of last year, and Jeff Locke, who came over from Atlanta in a deal in 2009.

For sheer bargain-basement legerdemain, Huntington might have outdone himself this spring, when he signed lefty pitcher Francisco Liriano for less guaranteed money than the Colorado Rockies invested in Jeff Francis.

Liriano, who joined the Pirates for a guaranteed outlay of $1 million in February, is 12-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings entering Friday's start against Colorado at Coors Field. He is one of only four pitchers (Hiroki Kuroda, Justin Masterson and Clayton Kershaw are the others) with five starts of at least seven shutout innings.

Liriano is rekindling memories of 2006, when Baseball America rated him among the top prospects in the game and scouts compared him favorably to Minnesota ace and teammate Johan Santana because of his 94-98 mph fastball and plus slider and changeup. Liriano proceeded to make an All-Star team at age 22, undergo Tommy John surgery in 2007, win a Comeback Player of the Year award with Minnesota in 2010, throw a no-hitter in 2011 and bomb to the tune of a 6-12 record and a 5.34 ERA with the Twins and White Sox last season.

The Pirates and Liriano agreed on a two-year, $12.75 million contract in December, but Huntington and agent Greg Genske had to start from square one after Liriano broke a bone in his non-throwing arm while horsing around with his kids in the Dominican Republic on Christmas Day. All that patience was worth it for the Pirates; if the postseason began today, manager Clint Hurdle wouldn't surprise anyone by naming Liriano his Game 1 starter.

"He's been unbelievable," said shortstop Clint Barmes. "Standing behind him and watching the way he attacks hitters and spots his pitches, he's obviously messing with the timing of hitters and keeping them off balance. He puts balls right where he wants them."

The Pirates have the infrastructure in place to craft pitching turnaround stories, and it's helped them get some mileage out of Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and others in recent years. Pitching guru Jim Benedict does terrific work rehabbing pitchers in the minors, and Ray Searage and Euclides Rojas are an underrated combination on the big-league roster. Huntington and his staff thought Liriano could benefit from a change of leagues and the move to PNC Park, and they were spot-on in their assessment.

"Our people talked with Francisco as he was rehabbing, and he told them his arm hasn't felt this good since before his Tommy John surgery," Huntington said. "He's worked so hard and he's been a great student -- whether it's a mechanical change, an approach change or a pitching use change. He's applied things and been open and willing to listen and learn. He deserves all the credit in the world."

Liriano isn't the only winter acquisition who has had an impact above and beyond expectations. Here are several other moderately-priced free-agent signings ($3 million and under) and offseason trade afterthoughts who have given teams a big lift for the price.

James Loney

James Loney

#21 First Baseman
Tampa Bay Rays

2013 STATS

  • GM109
  • HR10

  • RBI51

  • R42

  • OBP.355

  • AVG.307

James Loney, Rays

Loney, who signed a $2 million deal in December, has given the Rays defensive stability at first base and steadiness at the plate, where he ranks eighth among first basemen with an .805 OPS. Loney has never hit with the prototypical corner infielder pop, but his 33 extra-base hits and .449 slugging percentage make him a comfortable fit in a Tampa Bay lineup that's received a big boost with the recent promotion of Wil Myers.

According to FanGraphs, 29.8 percent of the balls that Loney puts in play are line drives. That's the most among major league hitters this season, and considerably better than the 20.9 percent big league average.

"Offensively, if you break him down, the biggest [thing] against him is a lack of homers. So what?" Maddon told reporters in May. "Whenever you get a guy that drives 90 or 100 runs in and doesn't hit a ton of homers, that guy's probably a pretty good hitter. He probably drives in a lot of runs with two outs with line drives and ground balls, and there's a lot of value there, too."

Ryan Raburn and Scott Kazmir, Indians

General manager Chris Antonetti generated lots of attention over the winter with an un-Tribe-like expenditure of $104 million on Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, who've given the Indians middling production for that nine-figure investment.

Antonetti operated more in the organizational comfort zone with the signings of Raburn and Kazmir, who have made major contributions for a combined cost of $2 million.

The Indians are 31-20 when Raburn is in the starting lineup, and 31-33 when he isn't. Raburn has given the Indians lots of pop (13 homers and a .559 slugging percentage) and versatility while starting games in left field, right field, second base and DH. He even took an emergency turn on the mound on Thursday in a blowout loss to Detroit. Cleveland rewarded Raburn with a new two-year, $4.85 million contract extension earlier this week.

Kazmir, 29, fell a long way from his peak as an elite prospect with the Mets and a two-time All-Star in Tampa Bay. He swallowed his pride, addressed his delivery problems with the Sugarland Skeeters in the independent Atlantic League, and attracted the attention of Edwin Rodriguez, a minor league manager in the Cleveland system, during a stint in the Puerto Rican winter league.

While Kazmir's velocity has crept back into the low 90s, he's added a cutter to his repertoire and been more proficient throwing strikes. He has a 1.93 ERA in nine starts going back to June 21. Kazmir is on his way to posting the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career.

"You don't want to get deceived by spring training, but Scott stood out early in camp," Antonetti said. "The one thing that was clear to us was how hard he worked to get back to being a major league pitcher. When you understand his story and the lengths he went through last year to rediscover what made him successful and come back better, it's pretty inspiring. This didn't happen by accident."

Marlon Byrd

Marlon Byrd

#6 Right Fielder
New York Mets

2013 STATS

  • GM100
  • HR17

  • RBI60

  • R53

  • OBP.325

  • AVG.276

Marlon Byrd, Mets

David Wright leads the Mets with a 5.1 WAR and a .904 OPS, but Byrd ranks first on the team with 17 homers and 60 RBIs. Not bad for a 35-year-old guy who missed most of last season because of a PED suspension and signed for a base salary of $700,000 in early February.

With Ruben Tejada banished to the minors, Travis d'Arnaud injured in the minors and Ike Davis struggling to dig himself out from a horrific first-half slump, the Mets' lineup hasn't turned out to be quite what Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins envisioned. When the Mets passed on an opportunity to call up Lucas Duda from Triple-A this week, Collins cited the stellar outfield defense of Eric Young Jr. , Juan Lagares and (yes) Byrd as a reason why the team is content with the status quo. Byrd's seven defensive runs saved are one shy of his single-season high.

A lot of baseball people thought the Mets missed a prime opportunity to flip a short-term asset when they held onto Byrd at the trade deadline. Maybe so. But if you're perplexed over how the Mets can be a respectable 52-60 with the lineup Collins is running out every day, Byrd's performance has been a significant factor. At the very least, he can expect a sizable salary increase no matter where he's playing in 2014.

David Carpenter, Braves

Any discussion of general manager Frank Wren's offseason coups would have to include Chris Johnson, who fell through the cracks when he came over from Arizona as part of the Justin Upton trade in late January. Johnson is leading the NL with a .339 batting average and (tellingly) ranks first in the majors with a .419 BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

But the Braves have gotten an impressive return from Carpenter, the latest in a productive group of waiver pickups that includes Eric O'Flaherty, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro and Jordan Schafer. The Braves aren't active claimers as a rule, but they usually find a way to make them count.

Carpenter, 28, worked with Dave Wallace, Marty Reed and Dom Chiti in the minors before the Braves entrusted him to Roger McDowell and Eddie Perez with the big league staff. He has struck out 49 batters in 43 2/3 innings while relying on a mid-90s fastball, slider and change, and quietly ascended to a more prominent role in the Atlanta bullpen.

The Braves think Carpenter has room to grow as a pitcher, given his background. He broke into pro ball as a catcher with St. Louis in 2006, and played the position for State College in rookie ball that season. The State College staff included a hard-throwing righty named Jason Motte, another former catcher who emerged as a 40-save closer for the Cardinals in 2012 before blowing out his elbow this spring.

Nate McLouth

Nate McLouth

#9 Left Fielder
Baltimore Orioles

2013 STATS

  • GM102
  • HR7

  • RBI23

  • R61

  • OBP.352

  • AVG.284

Nate McLouth, Orioles

McLouth resurrected a flagging career last summer in Baltimore, and played well enough down the stretch for the Orioles to re-sign him to a $2 million deal.

He's given the Orioles excellent defense in left field, 27 stolen bases and a .352 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot.

Matt Tuiasosopo, Tigers

Tuiasosopo, 27, has seven homers and a .531 slugging percentage in 113 at-bats with Detroit. Not bad for a guy who was a six-year free agent in November and resorted to emailing general managers en masse to state his case for employment.

The Dodgers, Reds, Rockies and Twins reportedly expressed interest in Tuiasosopo, but Detroit GM David Dombrowski signed him to a one-year, $525,000 deal -- which only goes to show that it pays for big league executives to monitor their emails.

Others of note: Neal Cotts, Jeff Baker and Jason Frasor, Rangers; Lyle Overbay and Shawn Kelley, Yankees; Manny Parra, Reds; J.P. Howell, Dodgers; Kevin Gregg and Nate Schierholtz, Cubs; Eric Chavez, Wil Nieves and Will Harris, Diamondbacks; Mike Carp, Red Sox; Vin Mazzaro, Pirates; J.B. Shuck and Dane De La Rosa, Angels; Chad Gaudin, Giants; Samuel Deduno, Twins; Oliver Perez, Mariners; Tyson Ross, Padres; Yan Gomes, Indians.