These 14 under-the-radar pickups are paying off

April 23rd, 2023

At the dawn of each season, we all wonder how stars who joined new teams over the winter will fare with their new clubs. But there are always some under-the-radar moves that pay off in a big way for teams that perhaps see more potential in a veteran player than others do, or high upside in a young prospect who hasn’t found success in the Majors yet, among other strategies to maximize the talent on their rosters.

The 2023 season is no exception, as several low-key moves are already looking great for the clubs that made them. Here’s a look at 14 players you may not have heard much about during the Hot Stove season, but who are off to strong starts with their new teams:

Evan Longoria, D-backs
When the D-backs inked Longoria to a one-year contract this past offseason, they hoped they had found a veteran right-handed bat for their lineup and a former All-Star who could mentor some of the young, exciting talents trying to settle in at the Major League level. So far, the move is paying dividends, particularly at the plate -- the 37-year-old third baseman is hitting .303 with two doubles and two home runs over his first 36 plate appearances.

Sam Hilliard, Braves
With his size and speed, Hilliard was seen as a potential everyday outfielder who could hit 20-25 homers a season when he came up with the Rockies. But in parts of four seasons with Colorado, he hit .212/.294/.423 and struck out in almost exactly a third of his plate appearances (32.7 percent). 

With a trade to Atlanta came a change of scenery and, at least in the early going, a change in fortune for the 29-year-old. In his first 38 plate appearances with the Braves, he’s hitting .333 with three doubles and a homer. He’s also played some great defense in center field.

Adam Frazier, Orioles
The Orioles are Frazier’s third team in three years after he spent the first six-plus seasons of his Major League career with the Pirates. After a down year at the plate in 2022, he’s looking to bounce back and produce more like he did in ’21, when he hit .305/.368/.411 in 155 games split between the Pirates (98) and Padres (57).

He’s certainly off to a solid start with his new club -- Frazier already has two homers in his first 57 at-bats with Baltimore after hitting three in 541 at-bats with the Mariners last season. He also has three doubles and three steals.

Hunter Renfroe, Angels
He looks like Mike Trout, and over the first three weeks of the season, he’s doing his best to hit like Trout, too. Renfroe is hitting .288 with six doubles and six homers over his first 20 games with the Halos, adding even more power to a lineup that already features Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

Jason Heyward, Dodgers
After he slashed .211/.280/.326 in 152 games over his final two seasons with the Cubs, it looked as though Heyward’s best days at the plate were well behind him. And though he's fallen on hard times since, Heyward opened the season by going 4-for-13 with three homers in the span of four games for the Dodgers. The 33-year-old right fielder showed he still might have something left in the tank.

Christian Vázquez, Twins
When the Twins signed Vázquez to a three-year, $30 million deal this past offseason, they were counting on his veteran presence in the clubhouse, his skill at handling a pitching staff, his postseason experience (he’s won World Series rings with the Red Sox and Astros) as well as his solid defense behind the plate. So far, they’re getting more than what they bargained for at the plate from the 32-year-old backstop, who is hitting .298 (14-for-47) with three doubles.

Brent Rooker and Carlos Pérez, Athletics
Rooker, a first-round pick of the Twins in 2017, has always hit well in the Minors, but entering the 2023 season, he had never had much success at the Major League level. Minnesota traded him to the Padres, who later traded him to the Royals, from whom the A’s claimed him off waivers. So far, that move is looking great -- Rooker his hitting .326 with four homers over his first 14 games with Oakland.

Pérez, meanwhile, is back in the Majors for the first time since 2018. The 32-year-old catcher, who played for the Angels, Braves and Rangers from 2015-18, persevered through Minor League stints with the Orioles, A’s and Rockies before returning to the A’s organization and making the big league roster out of Spring Training. He’s had a tremendous start to the season, hitting .385 (10-for-26) with a double and a homer so far.

Matt Strahm, Phillies
The defending National League champions signed Strahm to a two-year deal in order to bolster their bullpen, but with an early injury to starter Ranger Suárez, Strahm was pressed into service as a starter and has filled in admirably. Since appearing out of the bullpen for his Phillies debut on Opening Day, the left-hander has made four starts, posting a 3.18 ERA with 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 17 innings.

Connor Joe, Pirates
Joe returned to where his professional career began when the Pirates acquired him from the Rockies during the offseason, and he’s made the most of his second opportunity with the Bucs so far. The 30-year-old left fielder/first baseman is hitting .357 with a pair of triples and a pair of homers over his first 17 games to help fuel a surprising Pittsburgh club that’s won 15 of its first 22 this season.

Seth Lugo and Brent Honeywell, Padres
The Padres were looking for starting rotation depth behind Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove and Blake Snell, and they brought in Lugo, who had been deployed exclusively as a reliever over his final two seasons with the Mets, but has significant starting experience. With a high-spin curveball that generates a lot of swings and misses, the veteran righty is off to a good start with San Diego, pitching to a 2.78 ERA over his first four starts.

Honeywell was among the game’s top pitching prospects while in the Rays organization, but four elbow surgeries set him back until he finally made his MLB debut in 2021. Tampa Bay dealt him to Oakland following that season, and he struggled to a 7.08 ERA in 13 Minor League appearances in ’22. The Padres brought him aboard because they saw high upside, and so far, their confidence has proven prescient -- the 28-year-old right-hander has made eight relief appearances over which he owns a 1.46 ERA.

Travis Jankowski, Rangers
Jankowski had been utilized as a strong defender in the outfield and a speedster on the basepaths over eight MLB seasons entering the 2023 campaign, but he’s been a pleasant surprise at the plate for Texas. Over his first 14 games with the Rangers, he’s gone 11-for-37 (.297) with three doubles and a triple. His 11 hits are two more than he had in 55 at-bats last season.

Kevin Kiermaier, Blue Jays
It might take a while to get used to seeing Kiermaier wearing any uniform other than that of the Rays, for whom he patrolled center field for the first 10 seasons of his Major League career, but Kiermaier has made himself right at home at the plate since joining Toronto. While known primarily for his defense -- and he does already have 4 defensive runs saved -- the three-time Gold Glove Award winner has opened the season by hitting .310 (18-for-58) with three doubles, a triple and a homer over his first 17 games.