One of the many great things about this time of year is seeing unexpected players crack Opening Day rosters.
Some have overcome obstacles to make it to the Majors for the first time. Others have traveled a long road to get back. All of them probably feel an extra sense of accomplishment to be taking part in all of the festivities that go along with a season opener.
With the 2016 schedule officially underway following Sunday's three games -- and everyone else set to start on Monday -- here is a look at 10 of the best stories from this year's group of 750 Opening Day big leaguers (players listed alphabetically by last name).
Tony Barnette, RP, Rangers: Many American players go to Japan for a season or two, but Barnette really found a home there, spending six years with the Yakult Swallows of the Central League. Last season, on a team that at times also included the likes of Wladimir Balentien and Lastings Milledge, Barnette posted a 1.29 ERA and racked up a league-best 41 saves. Now 32, the right-hander decided it was time to take another shot at the Majors. The chance has paid off for Barnette, who pitched in the D-backs' system from 2006-09, reaching Triple-A.
Ryan Buchter, RP, Padres: Now that Buchter has nabbed the last spot in San Diego's bullpen, the left-hander has a good chance to no longer be an answer to an obscure trivia question. Entering 2016, the 29-year-old is one of two pitchers since 1918 (not counting moonlighting position players) to pick up a win in his only career appearance, as a reliever. That came on June 20, 2014, when he threw a scoreless 12th inning for the Braves in Washington. Buchter, who spent last year at Triple-A for the Cubs and Dodgers, already overcame being a 33rd-round pick (Nationals, 2005) out of a school that has produced no other big leaguers (Gloucester County College in New Jersey) to make the Majors in the first place.
Jeremy Hazelbaker, OF, Cardinals: The 28-year-old put himself in good position with a strong spring, and a late injury to Ruben Tejada sealed his fate. This comes just a year after Hazelbaker was released by the Dodgers and wound up with the Cardinals' Double-A affiliate. To his credit, the former Red Sox fourth-round pick earned his way to Triple-A Memphis, where he produced a .998 OPS over 58 games, then added a solid winter ball performance in Venezuela to set the stage for this spring. After more than 3,000 plate appearances in the Minors, he pinch-hit against the Pirates in Sunday's opener.
Jim Henderson, RP, Mets: As bad as elbow injuries are for pitchers, shoulder injuries are worse. So it's no small feat that Henderson is part of the Mets' season-opening bullpen two years after undergoing the second shoulder surgery of his career. It took Henderson a while to get to the Majors in the first place, before he debuted at age 29 in 2012, and the righty saved 28 games for the Brewers the next season before going under the knife in '14. He didn't make it out of the Minors last year, but after 13 strikeouts in 10 2/3 innings this spring, Henderson is back.
Cedric Hunter, OF, Phillies: This isn't Hunter's first Opening Day. But his other one came ages ago in baseball years, back on March 31, 2011, when he scored a run as a pinch-hitter for the Padres in St. Louis. Five days later, the former third-round pick got a hit in his first big league at-bat, yet his stint with the Padres lasted only three more ABs. Since then, he has spent time in the Cardinals, Indians and Braves systems, passing 2015 at Atlanta's Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate. Fortunately for Hunter, rebuilding Philly is a land of opportunity these days, so five years later, it's time for Opening Day No. 2 and perhaps even an everyday role.
Logan Kensing, RP, Tigers: His last Opening Day was even longer ago than Hunter's, coming with the Marlins in 2009. Between that season and last August, he pitched in a total of one Major League game, but Kensing got a chance with the Mariners late in '15 and parlayed that into a shot with Detroit this spring. The 33-year-old right-hander now has an opportunity to establish himself in Detroit and improve upon his 5.80 career ERA at the highest level.
Cory Luebke, RP, Pirates: For those among us who are not professional athletes, it can be difficult to fathom what some will endure for another chance to play. In Luebke's case, that has meant pushing through two Tommy John surgeries on his left elbow (the first didn't take), plus another season lost to a different arm issue and a staph infection. Once a highly promising starter for the Padres, Luebke's body cooperated enough this spring for him to win a job in the Pirates' bullpen, where the 31-year-old can make his first MLB appearance since 2012.
Ross Stripling, SP, Dodgers: It's fair to say the right-hander didn't show up on the radar for the club's rotation when the spring began. "He was not on the list," manager Dave Roberts said on Friday, when Stripling was in fact named LA's fifth starter to open 2016. But some injuries struck, and the 26-year-old performed well enough to take the job. It was quite a feat for a guy who has never pitched above Double-A and who missed 2014 due to Tommy John surgery, returning to make 14 starts last year. To be sure, Stripling appreciates how far he has come.
Ronald Torreyes, INF, Yankees: He's only 23 and made it up to the Majors last September, going 2-for-6 over an eight-game stint with the Dodgers in September. But Torreyes is on this list due to his bizarre, whiplash-inducing year. Between May and his debut, he was purchased by the Astros from the Cubs, the Blue Jays from the Astros and then the Dodgers from the Jays. Once the season ended, he was designated for assignment by L.A., traded to the Yankees, designated again, claimed by the Angels, designated one more time, then finally claimed yet again by New York. Got all that?
Chien-Ming Wang, RP, Royals: Just one year ago, Wang spent part of his season relegated to the independent Atlantic League, suiting up for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. And when he was in affiliated baseball, he posted a 5.88 ERA over 130 innings at Triple-A for the Mariners and Braves. The Royals, fresh off the successful Ryan Madson experiment, signed Wang to a Minor League deal anyways, then watched him get back to throwing 94-95 mph. The 36-year-old righty, who won 19 games for the Yankees in both 2006 and '07, hadn't pitched in the big leagues since August '13 but now has a spot with the defending World Series champions.