Surprise! Unheralded players are making their marks, raising some eyebrows

In 2011, outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. was a first-round draft pick by the Blue Jays.

Then, after hitting. .268 in seven minor league seasons for the Blue Jays, he was traded March 8 to Baltimore for international slot money the Orioles weren’t going to use anyway.

When he arrived in spring training in Sarasota, Fla., he was projected as outfield depth on an Orioles roster that was loaded with outfield prospects making impressions.

Now, six weeks into the season, Smith is one of the Orioles’ biggest surprises. He’s a left fielder and a left-handed batter who is a constant in the middle of the Orioles lineup. He is their second-best hitter behind Trey Mancini.

And he’s not alone when it comes to surprise contributors around baseball.

Sometimes, all a player needs is a new team, a trade, or a new pitch or a different approach to the strike zone.

Remember Christian Walker, the Orioles’ first base prospect who played parts of three seasons at Triple-A Norfolk, stuck behind Chris Davis?

He’s still playing, even though in the last few years, it’s been like he disappeared from baseball.

Walker is doing a good job at first base - .295 with seven home runs - for the Diamondbacks, a team that’s winning despite losing Paul Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin and A.J. Pollock.

Why haven’t we seen Walker in the big leagues until now?

The answer is that he’s got a knack for going through waiver claims and signing with teams that already have All-Star first basemen in the big leagues.

After he left the Orioles, Walker was in the Atlanta organization playing behind the Braves’ Freddie Freeman. He also was with Cincinnati playing in the minor leagues behind the Reds’ Joey Votto.

Then, Walker, 28, went to the Diamondbacks and hit 50 home runs in two minor league seasons for Triple A Reno in 2017 and 2018 with a few at-bats with the big club.

When Arizona traded Goldschmidt the Cardinals last winter, Walker got his chance to play regularly in the big leagues.

Walker went into the weekend hitting .295-7-16 with a .368 on-base percentage. The D-Backs are raving about his smooth swing.

Kansas City first baseman Hunter Dozier is an American League version of Walker. The Royals’ top draft pick in 2013 is 27, old for a guy trying to make it for the first time in the majors.

After seven seasons in the Royals minor league system, he’s finally living up to hype in the big leagues.

He came into spring training with a career .279 on-base percentage after striking out 530 times in 530 minor-league games.

Now he’s hitting .331 with a .400 on-base percentage. The Royals say he has better knowledge of the strike zone. In short, he’s not swinging at a pitcher’s pitch.

In Minnesota, Twins fans weren’t excited when the team announced that it had acquired a left-handed pitcher named Martín Pérez.

After all, check out his stats with his previous team, the Texas Rangers. He was among the American League leaders in earned runs allowed and walks. To make matters worse, he was struggling to get five strikeouts per nine innings and last season, the Rangers moved him to the bullpen.

But former Rangers executive Thad Levine, now with the Twins, believed in Pérez and was familiar with him.

When Pérez got to spring training, he talked with former Twins pitcher Johan Santana, a former AL Cy Young winner, and current Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi, and each of them told Pérez to add a cutter to his repertoire.

Pérez did.

It has turned his career around. He’s throwing cutters 40 percent of the time and he’s a big reason the Twins are leading the American League Central.

It’s early, but Pérez has a 5-0 record and a 2.83 ERA.

Boston relief pitcher Marcus Walden is nothing if not patient. He was drafted in 2007 by Toronto.

Now, 12 years later, he’s a 30-year-old rookie and a key in a Red Sox bullpen that is trying to return to the World Series without all-world closer Craig Kimbrel.

In between, Walden had shoulder and elbow injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He played at Double-A and Triple-A levels in the Oakland and Cincinnati organizations.

Walden finally wound up in the independent Atlantic League, where he was spotted by the Twins, who signed him and then let him go. It was at a time when he was so frustrated with baseball, he was thinking about quitting and becoming a coach.

The Red Sox signed him and made him a long reliever in 2018, but he still spent most of last season at Triple-A Pawtucket.

Now, he’s 5-0 in the Red Sox bullpen with a 1.77 ERA, 23 strikeouts and five walks. His ground balls are up, too.

The difference?

He’s starting to throw his slider more. He’s increased its usage from 15 percent last year to almost 40 percent this year.