Just before he turned 27 last November, Quintin Berry signed with the Detroit Tigers as a minor league free agent. Little did anyone realize the path his career was about to take.
Injuries to Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks helped give Berry a shot in the big leagues, and the gregarious outfielder has made the most of it so far, hitting .316 in 33 games. It's not clear how much he'll play when the Tigers return to full strength, but so far Berry has been a breath of fresh air, even adding some speed (12 steals without being caught) to a lineup lacking it.
Berry is one of a handful of players who have come from way off the radar to contribute to playoff contenders. Here are a few more:
DANIEL NAVA, OF, RED SOX
Unlike teammate Will Middlebrooks, Nava wasn't considered a big prospect when he entered the season as a 29-year-old player with only 161 major league at-bats to his credit. But he's hitting .313 with the Red Sox since a May callup, helping Boston withstand injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury.
JOSE QUINTANA, LHP, WHITE SOX
This 23-year-old Colombian made his major league debut under bizarre circumstances on May 7 after being called up straight from Double-A as Chicago's 26th-man exemption for a doubleheader. He pitched 5 2-3 scoreless innings in relief that day, and the White Sox brought him back from the minors later that month. In eight appearances, including six starts, Quintana has posted a 1.25 ERA. He's thrown eight scoreless innings in each of his last two starts.
MICHAEL FIERS, RHP, and MARTIN MALDONADO, C, BREWERS
Fiers and Maldonado formed a unique battery for Milwaukee on May 29 — each was making his first major league start. Fiers is now 2-2 with a 2.70 ERA, and Maldonado has hit five homers in only 78 at-bats, helping George Kottaras hold down the fort behind the plate in Jonathan Lucroy's absence.
ROBBIE ROSS, LHP, RANGERS
The Texas bullpen would be loaded even without Ross, but this 23-year-old pitcher has distinguished himself already, going 6-0 with a 1.08 ERA in 41 2-3 innings. A starter in the minors, Ross has already made eight relief appearances of at least two innings, including a four-inning stint at San Francisco on June 10 in which he allowed no runs and only one hit.
ERNESTO FRIERI, RHP, ANGELS
Frieri didn't come totally out of nowhere. He made his debut with the Padres at the end of the 2009 season and quietly racked up strikeouts in San Diego for a couple years before he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels on May 3 for two minor leaguers. All he's done since is throw 23 1-3 scoreless innings for the Angels, converting all 10 of his save chances and allowing only six hits in that span. His control could become a problem, but Frieri has already helped his new team recover from a slow start.
JOE KELLY, RHP, CARDINALS
Kelly posted a 5.01 ERA in 11 Double-A starts last year, so it may be a stretch to expect too much of an impact in the majors in 2012. But the Cardinals needed rotation help with Chris Carpenter and now Jaime Garcia recovering from injuries. Kelly has managed to scatter hits in four starts for St. Louis, posting a 3.38 ERA in the big leagues.