Last week, we touched on the ten players who disappointed the most in 2012. This year, we're going to take a look at the ten players that were the biggest surprises. Note: in this article, surprise is thought of as a positive, as in "I'm surprised he did so well!".
1. Miguel Gonzalez, Orioles
It's been a year of surprise for the Orioles. I probably could do a list of their top ten surprises (like I could have done on the disappointments list with the Red Sox). But after thinking about it, I'm pretty sure no one could have ever predicted that Gonzalez would be one of their best starters in the second half of the season. This is a guy who had a 6.17 ERA in 15 appearances (six starts) in 2011 for the Red Sox…in AA. The Orioles signed him in March, after Spring Training had already begun. In 14 appearances (six starts) for AAA Norfolk, Gonzalez had a 1.61 ERA and a 5.30 strikeout to walk ratio. He got called up to the majors, and somehow sustained his success, posting a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts (and three relief outings) while eating over 100 innins for the Orioles. I wouldn't bet on the 28-year old to keep up this level of production for 2013, but he's been a great story for the Orioles this year, and is actually starting game three of their AL Division Series matchup with the Orioles.
2. Fernando Rodney, Rays
Rodney's season makes me throw my hands in the air. He has the lowest single-season ERA of all-time at 0.60 after an unreal 2012 season. His 5.07 strikeout to walk ratio is two times better than his career best mark of 2.57 set in 2007. Last year, he walked more batters than he struck out, and this year, he's a stud reliever. Hell, his 2.4 fWAR is more than he had in the last six seasons COMBINED. Rodney's 2012 came completely out of nowhere, and was a key part in the Rays winning 90 games despite disastrous seasons from Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, and Evan Longoria missing half of the year.
3. AJ Pierzynski, White Sox
Pierzynski has always been a serviceable major league catcher, even if he has a terrible reputation in the eyes of the media. But his 2012 season was far from just serviceable…in fact, it was downright awesome. His 27 homers were a career high, topping his previous career high by 50% (18 way back in 2005, his first year on the South Side). I'm not overly concerned about RBI and runs, but his 77 RBI tied a career high and his 68 runs were a career-best. His .827 OPS was just the second time he's topped .800 over a full season in his career, with the other time coming way back in 2003 with the Twins, when Pierzynski was 26, as opposed to his current age of 35. With free agency looming once this playoff season ends, it was a fantastic career year for the catcher, who will look to cash in this offseason.
4. Scott Diamond, Twins
Just who in the hell is Scott Diamond? The Twins acquired him from the Braves before the 2011 season for your typical live armed relief prospect, a guy named Billy Bullock who walked 8.45 batters per nine innings in AA and AAA in 2012. Diamond seemed like the stereotypical Twins starting pitcher: doesn't throw overly hard, doesn't strike a lot of batters out, good control…hell, he's Carl Pavano. Diamond slotted into the Twins rotation for most of the season and was their most effective pitcher, posting a 3.54 ERA and walking just 1.61 batters per nine innings. The Braves essentially gave him away, and here he is, making an impact for a really bad Twins team. Atlanta's minor league system seems to be a farm for those type of guys, the ones that can't crack their major league rotation but can thrive with another organization.
5. Brandon Moss, Athetlics
I could probably put every A's player from this roster on this list aside from Yoenis Cespdes and Jarrod Parker, but in my mind, Moss's season was the most surprising out of anyone who had an impact on the A's this year. Oakland is his fourth organization in five seasons, and he spent nearly all of 2010 and 2011 in the minors for the Pirates and Phillies respectively after coming to Pittsburgh from Boston as a blue chip prospect in the Jason Bay/Manny Ramirez trade. Moss, who turned 29 in September, spent the first two months in AAA for the A's this year before getting called up to primarily play first base for the team. All Moss did was bash 22 homers in 84 games, hitting .291 with a .954 OPS. I don't think anyone could have ever predicted that out of the A's first base logjam coming into the year, Moss would emerge as the most productive player of the bunch.
6. Ian Desmond, Nationals
Desmond struggled in the majors over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and was looking like just another failed prospect after a middling 2011 that saw him post a .298 on-base. Of course, that reputation was shed in 2012 when Desmond bashed 25 homers (after coming into the year with just 22 in his entire career), stole 21 bases, and created a five win season at shortstop for the Nationals in their fantastic 2012 season. Desmond turned 27 last month, so this might be less of a complete fluke and more of his power finally developing as he reaches his physical peak. Regardless, I'm sure any team in the league would take Desmond's production at shortstop.
7. Kris Medlen, Braves
Medlen missed nearly all of the 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and started 2012 in the bullpen for the Braves due to an overcrowded rotation and Atlanta's desire to limit his work. After Jair Jurrjens struggled and got hurt and Brandon Beachy blew his elbow out, a spot in the rotation opened up for Medlen. All he did was go 9-0 in 12 starts (all of which the Braves won), post an 0.97 ERA, strike out a batter per inning, and walk a hair over one batter per nine along with allowing a groundball rate near 55%, slightly lower than Tim Hudson's mark on the season. While I wouldn't expect Medlen to post an ERA under 1.00 (or even 2.00) next year, I wouldn't be surprised to see him be one of the ten best starters in the National League next year…which I wouldn't have predicted at all coming into this year.
8. Carlos Gomez, Brewers
The Brewers picked up Gomez from the Twins for JJ Hardy, and he had yet to live up to any of his prospect hype during his prior two saesons with Milwaukee…until 2012, of course. Gomez hit 19 homers (more than his previous three years combined) and kept his speed too, stealing a career-best 37 bases at an 86% success rate. Gomez also continued to be an elite defender in center field, something that the Mets (who initially dealt him to the Twins prior to 2008 in the Johan Santana trade) would love to have right about now. In fact, I'm sure most teams in the league would love to have a player like Gomez in center, and he's a guy that I'm sure the Brewers would love to sign to an extension before he hits free agency after next season. If only Scott Boras wasn't his agent…
9. Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
After being signed by the Cubs and taken away from a possible NFL career, the Cubs bobbled Samardzija's career from 2008 to 2011, putting him in the major league bullpen where command was a major issue for him. They converted him to a starter for 2012, and fans were wincing at the potential result…until Samardzija outperformed all expectations, and had a fantastic year. He threw 174 2/3 innings, pitching to a 3.81 ERA while striking out a batter per inning (which he never did in relief), somehow posting a career-best walk rate of under three batters per nine innings, and most imporantly, retaining his blazing fastball velocity. After this season, the Chicago front office looks like an office of geniuses and that initial $10 million investment in 2007 looks like a drop in the bucket.
10. Chase Headley, Padres
Headley was always one of the "future stars" that would get thrown about when talking about players in the league, but a rough 2011 had most people take a step back from those predictions. Of course, he came into his own in 2012, blasting 31 homers (after having 36 over the rest of his entire three and a half season career), stealing 17 bases, scoring 95 runs, and driving in 115, walking at a double digit rate as the cherry on top. And remember, this is on the Padres, an offensively challenged team playing half of their games in an extreme pitchers park. This was just a monstrous, seven win season from an immensely talented player that will have a profound effect on the future of the Padres. Do they give him an extension and market him as the new face of the franchise, trade him and cash in on the great year, or simply wait until he hits free agency after hte 2014 season to make a decision and possibly let him walk away to earn the ire of the fanbase?