It’s early. We know. But every baseball season brings its share of breakout performances, and with Memorial Day looming, enough time has passed to at least take notice. Perhaps these players prove to be trade chips at the deadline, or for rebuilding clubs, pillars for the next winning team. Or, as is often the case, these performances may prove to be unsustainable, and the players behind them will become mere footnotes.
Nevertheless, The Athletic’s baseball staff has named one surprise player from every team. Our list includes a typical smattering of players: a non-tender, a Rule 5 draftee who was ultimately returned, non-prospects who have figured things out, and familiar faces who have suddenly regained their All-Star form. They also include a player who was nearly traded despite a massive contract that had been deemed unmovable, another player who rebounded after a bad day at work prompted him to say “I (expletive) hate this place,” and a pitcher who has been nicknamed “Nasty,” even though his stuff isn’t all that nasty, which is precisely why his sheer dominance has caught the game by surprise.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Merrill Kelly
Kelly has long proven himself a big-league starter after coming over from Korea in 2019, but he’s taken his performance to another level this year, with an ERA (1.71) that ranks in the top 10. He may not have exciting stuff, but he does most things well and knows how to set up hitters.
Atlanta Braves: Kyle Wright
The 2017 first-round pick went from 2-8 with a 6.56 ERA in 21 games (14 starts) from 2018 to 2021, to a 2.79 ERA with 50 strikeouts and 13 walks in 42 innings this season after seven starts. He had a 1.74 ERA in his first five starts, then had his first bad game (seven hits, six runs, four walks in 4 2/3 innings vs. Boston), but bounced back by allowing one earned run, three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings Sunday against the Padres.
Baltimore Orioles: Keegan Akin
This could be answered several different ways, but the Orioles bullpen as a unit has been the biggest surprise so far in 2022. With few — maybe no — recognizable names, it has been one of the best relief corps in the majors. Jorge Lopez, Felix Bautista, Cionel Perez and Joey Krehbiel have been a big part of the turnaround, but Akin, who primarily has been a starter in his career, has been a revelation in a bulk relief role. He’s been so valuable that the Orioles haven’t given in to the temptation to move him back to the rotation.
Boston Red Sox: Michael Wacha
The past three years, Wacha pitched for three different organizations for a cumulative 5.11 ERA. His days as a difference-maker seemed long gone, and if anything it seemed the Red Sox might have overpaid (one year, $7 million) for a fifth starter. Instead, Wacha has pitched to a 1.38 ERA that would be tied for second-best in the American League if he hadn’t missed two starts with soreness in his side. The Red Sox rotation has been their greatest strength, in part because Wacha has given them impact from top to bottom.
Chicago Cubs: David Robertson
Pleasant surprise? For a team on pace to lose around 100 games this season, it would probably be Robertson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2019, missed the 2020 season and then joined Tampa Bay’s bullpen last year after pitching for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. At the age of 37, Robertson is 5-for-5 in save chances with a 1.50 ERA through 11 relief appearances, showing signs of the reliable reliever who once set up for Mariano Rivera in New York and then notched 110 saves between 2014 and 2016. The Cubs recently placed Robertson on the injured list without designating an injury. Robertson signed a one-year, $3.5 million contract (plus performance bonuses) after the lockout. Keeping him healthy and in a good rhythm will be a priority when the Cubs fully prepare to become sellers at the trade deadline.
Chicago White Sox: Matt Foster
If Andrew Vaughn being good surprised any of our readers, it wouldn’t speak well to our draft coverage. If Tim Anderson batting .300 again is a shock, well, welcome to Earth. There is a lot to learn and you’ll want to sit down for most of it. But Matt Foster has gone from a less-than-sure bet to making the Opening Day roster to an unquestioned member of the Sox’s high-leverage relief mix. Neither his strikeout numbers nor raw stuff are overly flashy, but he looks like the 2020 version of himself who was excellent as a rookie, with a legitimate slider added. José Ruiz, who has added a viable changeup to his 97 mph fastball out of the bullpen, is an honorable mention.