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Find this season's feel-good stories03/17/2008 9:00 AM ET
By Alex Cushing / MLB.com
Finding baseball's next feel-good story is tricky.
Looking back on last year, all the chips had to fall into place for career Minor Leaguer Jack Cust to break through with the A's, for a washed-up Carlos Pena to mash 46 homers in Tampa Bay or for a sober Josh Hamilton to deliver a .554 slugging percentage without much experience above Class A.
Unlike in Hollywood, where films are usually marketed as the "the feel-good movies of the summer," baseball's surprise players are often stumbled upon.
What is clear is that all winning teams have their fair share of $1 players. Anyone who took a chance on Dmitri Young not only got more than he bargained for but dramatically increased his title hopes.
Getting something for nothing can make all the difference in a close race.
Which players will make up the next batch of feel-good stories? Below is a position-by-position look at names you may not be too familiar with now but will want to remember during the final few rounds of your draft.
Chris Iannetta, Rockies: Expected to take over Colorado's catching chores, Iannetta flopped last year, barely finishing above the dreaded Mendoza Line with a .218 average. Chalk that up to rookie jitters, as it's only a matter of time before Iannetta starts showing the form that enabled him to register a whopping .915 OPS in the Minors. If he doesn't beat out Yorvit Torrealba by the time the school year comes to an end, he almost certainly will before it starts up again.
Nick Johnson, Nationals: Call me cynical, but Johnson's broken leg was the best thing that could have happened to Dmitri Young last year. Filling in at first base, D'Meathook parlayed his good fortune into an unlikely comeback campaign. But now, the tables have turned, with Johnson expected to start while Young nurses a sore oblique muscle. Much remains up in the air, and staying healthy has never been Johnson's strong suit, to say the least. Still, his career .395 on-base percentage is nothing to sneeze at, nor is the .520 slugging percentage he posted two years back. And if a burly, aging hitter like Young can piece together something resembling a career year, why can't Slick Nick?
Chris Burke, Diamondbacks: With Craig Biggio chasing 3,000 hits, Burke didn't get much of a chance in Houston last year. He'll encounter another roadblock at second base in Arizona, as veteran Orlando Hudson has the job locked down, but he's a good bet to see his share of at-bats as a super-utilityman. Don't give up on Burke yet, keeping in mind mind that the former first-round pick batted .309 with a .495 slugging percentage and 21 steals over 647 Triple-A at-bats.
Jeff Keppinger, Reds: I've said it before and I'll say it again: This year's class of shortstops offers fewer sleepers than in years past. If you find yourself in a bind toward the end of your draft, there are far worse speculative picks than Keppinger. While he's hardly a secret after batting .332 in limited time last season, he's sure to have plenty of doubters on draft day. Last year was no fluke, and with Alex Gonzalez on the shelf with a stress fracture in his left knee, Keppinger will likely be Cincinnati's Opening Day shortstop.
Jorge Cantu, Marlins: For all the disappointment that has followed Cantu over the past couple of seasons, he still sports a .450 career slugging percentage. And with the weak competition he faces at third base from Jose Castillo and Dallas McPherson, a comeback year would hardly be shocking. Remember, he blasted 28 homers and drove in 117 runs three years ago, he's only 26, and he's been hitting the cover off the ball this spring -- all in all, an appealing gamble.
Luke Scott, Orioles: The silver lining in Scott's trade to the O's is that only Jay Payton and Jay Gibbons stand in his way for the starting left-field job. And considering how road games brought the best out in Scott last year (.593 SLG), new surroundings could be just what the doctor ordered. There's a late bloomer under the surface here.
Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals: Not your typical right-handed hitter, Ludwick does his best work against righties (.547 SLG in 2007). Unfortunately, managers have pigeonholed him as the wrong kind of platoon player, playing him all too often against lefties. Ludwick reminds me somewhat of Cust; they both tore apart Minor League pitching year after year without getting their just due. With outfield prospects Colby Rasmus and Brian Barton expected to be given more time to develop, the window may finally open for Ludwick in St. Louis.
Eric Hinske, Rays: Hinske has fallen far since winning American League Rookie of the Year honors back in 2002, but his skills remain intact. After being buried on Boston's bench for two seasons, he has a chance to earn significant playing time in Tampa Bay, especially with Rocco Baldelli out indefinitely. At 30, Hinske is young enough to turn things around with the Rays and certainly deserves a second look.
Johnny Cueto, Reds: Scouts, stat-heads, you name it, everyone's fallen in love with Cueto in Reds camp. That includes manager Dusty Baker, who has been known to overlook players without big league experience. "Cueto looked awesome," Baker said after watching the right-hander in one of his first Spring Training outings. "Saw a number of good things today. No missed signs, I liked that." After flying through three Minor League levels with a 3.07 ERA and a 170/34 K/BB ratio over 161 innings, the 22-year-old looks to be well on his way toward locking up a rotation spot. With the command of a veteran, Cueto could deliver a special rookie season.
Juan Cruz, D-backs: Sure, Brandon Lyon will get the first look at closer, a role he's surrendered twice in his career. Some say Tony Pena and/or Chad Qualls are next in line, but Cruz has the power stuff tailor made for the job. And considering he struck out 87 over 61 frames last season (12.83 K/9), why not gamble?
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.