After surveying and detailing the busts, bombs, breakdowns and blowouts in baseball last week, it's only right that I put on my happy face -- at least for today and tomorrow -- to break open the breakthroughs and biggest surprise success stories of 2006.
Today it's an American League list dominated by Tigers, Twins and big-time rookie pitchers. Tomorrow I'll reveal the National League successes. So without further ado, here are my top 25 breakout players of the AL. (Just like last week, everyone's graded on a curve, based on individual expectations entering the year):
25. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox. Dubbed the Greek God of Walks as an unknown minor leaguer in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, he's becoming a very useful player for the poor Red Sox, who've fallen fast.
24. Juan Rivera, OF, Angels. Heaven knows the Angels need all the hitting they can get, and Rivera has ascended a couple of stratospheres, occasionally even giving Vladimir Guerrero the feeling that he isn't alone in that lineup.
23. Michael Cuddyer, OF, Twins. He's headed for 100 RBIs. Previous high: 45.
22. Melky Cabrera, OF, Yankees. He looked lost upon his promotion last year, when the sun always seemed to be in his eyes. This year he's played so well that the Yankees barely miss Hideki Matsui. It would be a shame if the Yankees can't find playing time for him next year in a crowded outfield.
21. Joel Zumaya, RP, Tigers. A starting pitcher until this season, he's become maybe the most exciting reliever since Bruce Sutter and Al Hrabosky. It's great fun to see if he hits 100 mph, or even 101 or 102, on the radar gun.
20. Reed Johnson, LF, Blue Jays. The leadoff man in one of baseball's best-hitting lineups, he's as proficient at getting hit (19 HBP) as he is at hitting (.322 average).
19. Scott Proctor, RP, Yankees. Sometimes you'd think the plan is to use him until he drops. He leads the league in appearances (70), most of them productive, some heroic. He's transformed from just another hard thrower into a pitcher.
18. Mark Teahen, 3B, Royals. Here's proof that this season hasn't been a complete washout for Kansas City. Teahen showed little power as an A's minor leaguer, yet the main compensation in the three-team Carlos Beltran trade has a .522 slugging percentage (146 points higher than last year).
17. Corey Patterson, OF, Orioles. Practically a giveaway over the winter, he has revitalized his career in Baltimore. Getting out of Cubsdom is a bonus for many.
16. J.J. Putz, P, Mariners. Unfortunate last name, wonderful talent (8:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 83 to 10). Putz is a bright spot in another off-year in the Great Northwest.
15. Joe Crede, 3B, White Sox. This superb defender with power had his coming-out party in the 2005 postseason and has carried it over into '06 (a .255 career hitter coming into the season, Crede's at .302 now). He will contend for a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger at a position with Alex Rodriguez, Eric Chavez and Troy Glaus.
14. Nick Markakis, OF, Orioles. This is exactly what Baltimore needs: young, talented, home-grown players to prevent owner Peter Angelos from overspending on all the wrong free agents, a specialty of his.