Redemption Song: Long Forgotten Prospects Find Niche in MLB.

Jose Bautista has hit more home runs by himself than the entire Seattle Mariners team.

One of the reasons I’m such a big baseball fan today is that I collected cards growing up  (and yes, I still do). There was nothing more exciting than pulling a rookie card of the next hot-shot prospect, sticking it in a hard case, and knowing that it would help put you through college. Well, the following players certainly didn’t help me through school while they struggled to live up to their top prospect status, but after years of anonymity, they might at least keep my knees safe from college loan sharks. Here are five long-awaited players finally marking their mark in Major League Baseball: 

Jose Bautista: While 29-year-old Jose Bautista is no spring chicken (and his defense at the hot corner makes Russ Davis look like a Gold Glover) the Pirates still have egg on their face for trading away this year’s most surprising slugger. After struggling to hold down in full-time gig in Pittsburgh, Bautista was traded to the Blue Jays in 2009 for prospect Robinson Diaz in the hopes that a change of scenery would allow the third baseman to tap into his batting potential. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened. Bautista was as ordinary as Drew Barrymore in his first year with the Jays, but he’s been a revelation this season, leading the American League with 43 HR’s and ranking second in walks and RBI’s (105) and third in OPS (.992) and slugging. It’s a testament to Bautista’s work ethic and skill set that he’s been able to achieve this level of success at such an advanced age, and also another sign that the Pirates just don’t get it. Like we needed another of those.    

Bryan Bullington: So Bryan Bullington hasn’t exactly been killing it since joining the Kansas City Royals (1-4, 6.11 ERA), but it’s still inspiring to see the number one overall pick from the 2002 draft (picked by, you guessed it, the Pirates) get his first Major League win at age 29. Bullington struggled for years with inconsistency and injuries after being drafted out of Ball State, but he put it all together in a start against the hated Yankees on August 15th, throwing eight innings of two-hit baseball in a 1-0 Royals victory. It’s not quite as inspiring as The Rookie, but it’s close.   

Neil Walker: It’s hard to believe that Neil Walker is just 24 because it seems like he’s been in the Pirates’ system forever. Drafted out of high school as a catcher, Walker was shifted to second base to accelerate his ascent to the bigs, and while it took longer than expected, he’s making the most of his opportunity this season. Since being called up in May, Walker has hit .310 with 10 HR’s and 51 RBI’s while posting an .842 OPS and playing adequate defense at second. If the Pirates plan on contending in the next decade or so, they’ll need Walker to keep showing that he was worthy of the number 11 overall pick in 2004. They’ll also need a first baseman, shortstop, right fielder and about twenty more pitchers…but that’s a story for another day.   

Aren't you glad you held on to that Colby Lewis rookie card for over a decade?

Colby Lewis: This time last year, Colby Lewis was playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League. Now, the burly right-hander is one of the major reasons why the Texas Rangers are on the verge of capturing the AL West title. First drafted by the Rangers way back in 1999, Lewis bounced around in the majors and minors before finally discovering the secret to pitching while playing in Japan (its Red Bull if you’re wondering). Lewis has been a mainstay of the revived Rangers pitching staff, posting a 10-12 record (a lack of run support is the main culprit of his 12 losses) with a 3.86 ERA and 173 K’s in 177 innings. Not too bad for a pitcher who came into the season with a career ERA on the wrong side of seven.

Andres Torres: Just like Nelly, I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes (this portion of Viva La Vidro is brought to you by Nelly’s new hit single “Just a Dream”) and while Andres Torres has neither, I still can’t help but think over and over again how amazing it is that it took Torres until age 32 (he was drafted by the Tigers in 1998) to get his first chance at a starting role. Torres had just over 400 career at-bats before 2010 but he’s looked like a seasoned vet this season, posting a line of .273-14 HR’s-60 RBI’s-23 SB’s as the leadoff hitter for the San Francisco Giants. In addition to setting the table for Los Gigantes’ offense, Torres has also played stellar defense in centerfield, leading to a WAR (wins above replacement player) rating of 4.0 (nearly twice as good as any Mariners’ offensive player). Torres’ value to the Giants can’t be overstated–without him, the Padres would be running away with the division. Who ever said old people can’t contribute positively to society…and pennant races?