Jerry Sullivan: No shortage of candidates for Surprise All-Star Team - The Buffalo News
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Jerry Sullivan: No shortage of candidates for Surprise All-Star Team

Father's Day makes me think of baseball, so first thing Sunday morning I turned to the MLB standings, which revealed that 26 of the 30 teams -- all but one in the AL -- were within four games of first place or a wild card.

Who needs a salary cap? It's amazing how much parity exists, despite the inequity in financial resources. You could take the standings and flip them upside-down and barely know the difference.

Six teams that missed the playoffs a year ago would be in if the season ended Saturday. The Cubs, who won the World Series, were under .500. Two years ago, the Mets, Royals, Cubs and Blue Jays reached the league championship series. They were all under .500 Sunday.

Arizona and Colorado are on pace to win 100 games after losing 93 and 87, respectively, a year ago. Minnesota, which lost 103 games, was leading the AL Central. Milwaukee, which lost 89, was leading the NL Central. The Rays, who lost 94 games, have a winning record.

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The Diamondbacks were last in MLB in earned-run average last year at 5.09. They're currently second under new manager Torey Lovullo. The Yankees were 22nd in baseball in runs at 4.20 a game. They're now averaging an MLB-best 5.76 runs and sitting atop the AL East.

That's the beauty of baseball, how quickly fortunes can turn from year to year. New stars emerge, old players have unexpected breakthroughs. Others come crashing to Earth. Boston's Rick Porcello won the Cy Young last year. Now he's allowing opponents to hit .316, the second-highest in the AL.

I've put together a team of players who have enjoyed remarkable upswings in performance. Call them my Surprise All-Stars. I've written enough about the Yankees' Aaron Judge, so I left him off to open up a spot in the outfield. He'll be the unofficial captain. Stats through Saturday's games.

CATCHER

Alex Avila, Tigers: The son of general manager Al Avila is thriving in his return to Detroit. Avila, who bats second ahead of Miguel Cabrera, is hitting .324 with a .610 slugging percentage. He has baseball's third-highest walk rate. This, after hitting .216 and slugging .354 from 2013-16. Avila caught for four division champions in Detroit before taking a one-year deal with the White Sox last year. He came back for one year, $2 million. His dad got a bargain.

FIRST BASE

Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals: At 32, having a huge comeback season after an injury-plagued 2016. Zimmerman is second in MLB in batting (.352). He's fourth in homers (19) and RBIs (54) and second in slugging (.678) and on-base plus slug, or OPS (1.072) behind Judge. A week ago, he had a two-homer game to tie Vladimir Guerrero for the franchise (Expos-Nats) career homer lead with 234. Zimmerman is three home runs short of Frank Howard's record of 237 for the most in D.C. history.

SECOND BASE

Jonathan Schoop, Orioles: At 25, the Curacao native is having a career year. Notorious for his lack of plate discipline earlier in his time with the O's, he's doubled his walk rate. Schoop is hitting .293 and leads all AL second basemen in homers (13) and slugging (.540). He's also one of the league's top fielding second sackers. That gave him the nod over the Yanks' Starlin Castro, also enjoying a breakthrough year.

SHORTSTOP

Zack Cozart, Reds: Expectations were low for Cozart after complications from knee surgery cut short his 2016 season. But he's having the year of his life at 31, leading MLB shortstops in batting (.320), on-base (.404), slugging (.562) and OPS (.966). He's always been a top defender, but had a career OPS under .700 before this season. Well, it is a contract year.

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THIRD BASE

Ryon Healy, A's: The second-year man hit two homers against the Yankees on Saturday, giving him three multi-homer games in two weeks and pushing him to seventh in the AL with 17 bombs. He's hitting .288 and slugging .554 and is one of three AL players with 35 extra-base hits. Judge and Corey Dickerson are the others. Healy has 28 homers in 137 games. Only Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco got there quicker for Oakland.

OUTFIELD

Aaron Hicks, Yankees: Written off as a bust by the Twins, Hicks has come into his own at 27 in the Bronx. He produced in a part-time role, then took over the center-field job when Jacoby Ellsbury was hurt. A .220 hitter with minimal power numbers in his first four years, he's second in the AL in on-base (.413) and third in OPS (.968) to teammate Judge. Hicks is also a terrific fielder and an upgrade over Ellsbury in center.

Marwin Gonzalez, Astros: I could have put him almost anywhere; the native Venezuelan has played everywhere but pitcher and catcher for surging Houston. Having a career year at 28, hitting .311 with a .585 slugging mark. He would be third in AL in on-base and OPS if he qualified. Gonzalez came to the Astros as a Rule 5 pickup in December of 2011, hours after Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager. Nice start by the GM.

Cody Bellinger, Dodgers: The 21-year-old rookie is being called LA's answer to Aaron Judge. No one has more homers than Bellinger's 18 since his callup on April 25. He has eight bombs in June, including back-to-back two-homer games last week. The 6-4 lefty is slugging .789 with a 1.151  OPS in June. His dad, Clay Bellinger, was a Yankee utility man for three seasons. He robbed Todd Zeile of a homer in the 2000 World Series.

DESIGNATED HITTER

Corey Dickerson, Rays: His OPS fell more than 200 points when he moved from Colorado to Tampa last season. The Coors Field effect. But he's obliterated that theory with a career-best start. Dickerson is fifth in MLB in batting (.324) and OPS (.947) and first in extra-base hits with 38. He's had an epiphany against lefties, hitting .365 against them after batting just .244 against portsiders before this season.

RIGHTY STARTER

Luis Severino, Yankees: Has bounced back from a poor 2016 to become their most reliable starter. He's 5-2 with a 2.99 ERA. In 81 innings, has allowed just 63 hits while striking out 90 and walking 22. He's demonstrating the command he lacked in a miserable 2016. Severino can bring it. His fastball got up to 100 mph in a big performance at the Cubs in May.

LEFTY STARTER

Alex Wood, Dodgers: Another lefty with Clayton Kershaw numbers? That's not fair. Wood, a former Brave who missed most of last season with elbow trouble, is 7-0 with a 1.90 ERA. Opponents are hitting .188 off him. He has the same ratio (0.92) as Kershaw and a higher strikeout per nine. Wood has allowed only two homers and 15 walks in 61.2 innings. Not bad for $530,000.

RIGHTY RELIEVER

Corey Knebel, Brewers: Took over as closer in mid-May and ran with it. Has 10 saves and a 1.01 ERA. Leads all MLB relievers with 63 strikeouts (in 35.2 innings) and is holding opponents to a .148 batting average. Has high-90s heat and a 12-to-6 curve. Came from Texas in deal for Yovani Gallardo.

LEFTY RELIEVER

Felipe Rivero, Pirates: Another electric arm who became closer during the season. Opponents are hitting only .145. Struggled with command after coming from Nats last year, but has blossomed in Pittsburgh. Since start of May, he's allowed seven hits in 22 innings. His ERA and ratio both 0.72.

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