The next few months without any baseball are going to be rough for MLB fans, so let’s spend a little time appreciating the game we do love as we await its return, starting with these players we don’t talk about enough. Some are simply underrated, some are unappreciated veterans we maybe take for granted, some are up-and-coming young players I just happen to like. A couple are legends worthy of our gratitude. We have one player for every team!
Jump to: American League
There’s only so much air left after Ronald Acuna Jr.’s electrifying play his first two seasons, but Albies, who is entering his age-23 season, is also one of the game’s top young stars. You know how many second basemen have had more extra-base hits than Albies’ 164 through age 22? Zero. You know how many second basemen have had more career WAR through age 22? Two, and they’re both Hall of Famers (Roberto Alomar and Eddie Collins). Acuna might be the MVP candidate, but Albies plays with a similar energy and enthusiasm that makes him one of the most exciting players in the game – and at 5-foot-8, he does it an everyman’s body.
Let’s see, all he did for the Orioles in 2019 was play every game, hit 24 home runs and 33 doubles, steal 40 bases and hit .274 with a .339 OBP. The Orioles promptly rewarded him by placing him on waivers (and then trading him to the Marlins). His career has been up and down, but in his two seasons as a full-time player, he has posted 3.9 WAR (2016) and 4.0 WAR (2019). ). I love that in an age of declining stolen bases, Villar still sacrifices his body on the basepaths (only Billy Hamilton has more steals over the past four seasons).
OK, we talk about deGrom plenty – he is, after all, the winner of back-to-back Cy Young Awards. He could become just the 11th pitcher to win at least three Cy Young Awards and just the third to win three in a row (Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson both won four straight). With all that, I think we still undersell how great he’s been the past two seasons – in large part because he’s won just 21 games due to lack of run support. He has a 2.05 ERA and 189 ERA+ over 2018-19. The great Tom Seaver had an ERA+ of 189 or better just once in his career (194 in 1971). Max Scherzer’s career-best ERA+ is 178. Gerrit Cole is now regarded as maybe the best pitcher in the game and he had a 185 ERA+ last season.
Here’s rooting for a big comeback for McCutchen from his knee injury. Obviously, he isn’t going to regain his 2012-15 peak, when he finished third, first, third and fifth in the MVP voting, but he has still been an above-average hitter every season of his career. At 33, the best-case scenario for Cutch is something like Moises Alou, who missed his entire age-32 season after tearing his ACL in a treadmill accident. Alou returned and hit .355 at age 33. Maybe that bar is a little high, but Alou kept hitting until he was 40.
Even after signing a big free-agent deal, Corbin’s season flew under the radar, which is understandable on a pitching staff with Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and given the big years Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto had at the plate. Some questioned the length and dollar amount of Corbin’s contract, considering that his 2018 was a big leap forward for him, but he went 14-6 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts, proving that 2018 breakout was no fluke. He might be the No. 3 starter on his team, but he’s the best No. 3 starter in the majors.
I get it: The Cubs signed Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract, and he has won seven games in two seasons. He went 6-8 last season, but that wasn’t all his fault: He allowed no runs or one run in 11 starts but won just five of those games. But here’s a reason to pay attention to Darvish: He had a 5.01 ERA through July 3, then something suddenly clicked, and he had a 2.76 ERA in his final 13 starts, with 118 strikeouts and just seven walks. Instead of falling into his old trap of nibbling around the corners, he pounded the zone: Darvish has always been one of my favorite pitchers to watch with his wide arsenal of pitchers (Statcast credits him with eight different pitches, including an eephus pitch) and while his fastball velocity is no longer premium, don’t be shocked if he has his best season yet.
OK, Miley is never going to grace the cover of People magazine as the Sexiest Pitcher Alive. Since 2014, he has gone from the Diamondbacks to the Red Sox to the Mariners to the Orioles to the Brewers to the Astros and now to the Reds. He had some bumps along the way, but he’s 19-8 with a 3.52 ERA the past two seasons, proof that you can still succeed in today’s game with the art of pitching.. He got a two-year, $15 million deal from the Reds, so at least he can buy instead of renting for a change.
This guy can absolutely bring it and was having a breakout season before he landed on the IL in August because of an oblique injury. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, he ranked 19th in strikeout rate and seventh in average fastball velocity last season. Here’s why he’s a deep sleeper Cy Young candidate: His .320 BABIP allowed was pretty high, even though his hard-hit rate ranked in the 91st percentile.
Sometimes you have to appreciate a player for what he is: the last of a dying breed. Dyson’s game is all defense and speed, an anachronism in today’s power-driven game. How many players set their career highs in plate appearances at age 34, like Dyson did with the Diamondbacks in 2019? He’ll probably open as Pittsburgh’s starting center fielder against right-handers, and he can still run ’em down with the best of them in the outfield. Obviously, Dyson isn’t a star, but he’s gotten every ounce out of his talent and carved out a lengthy MLB career.
Nobody except prospect experts had heard of Edman before the 2019 season, but the former Stanford infielder — the No. 12 prospect in the Cardinals system heading into the season, according to Baseball America — exceeded expectations with a fabulous rookie season, hitting .304/.350/.500 and becoming one of my favorite players with his speed (97th percentile) and defensive versatility. He could end up in the outfield or at third base, and he will probably play both as a super-utility player. He doesn’t walk much and doesn’t hit the ball especially hard, so he’ll need to maintain a high batting average.
Part of a powerhouse UConn team that included George Springer and Matt Barnes (all three went in the first two rounds of the 2011 draft), Ahmed looked like a utility infielder after his first few years in the league, when he didn’t hit much. But he has added just enough power to go with his elite defense — he has won back-to-back Gold Gloves while averaging 57 extra-base hits — that the total package has made him one of the more underrated players in the league.
Trevor Story or Nolan Arenado? Not so fast, my friends. Over the past two seasons, Story has been worth 12.0 bWAR and Arenado 11.4. Yet in the recent ESPN Rank 100, Arenado came in at ninth and Story at 30th – behind, among others, Bryce Harper (5.5), Kris Bryant (5.5) and Walker Buehler (5.6). Heck, Acuna ranked eighth after hitting .280/.365/.518 for a 122 OPS+. Story hit .294/.363/.554 for a 118 OPS+ while playing outstanding defense at shortstop. Maybe he just needs to incorporate a few bat flips to get some attention.
I know, I know. He can’t win the big one in October. He doesn’t throw as hard anymore. He hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2015. His ERA in 2019 rose all the way up to … 3.03 (still seventh in the National League). We focus so much on the negatives with Kershaw that we sometimes forget that he’s still damn good and that he’s one of the best of all time. Let’s enjoy him while we still can.
From 2011 to 2016, Cueto was one of the best starters in the game, going 82-43 with a 2.73 ERA. Then came a forearm issue in 2017 and Tommy John surgery after nine starts in 2018. He returned late last season and earlier this spring said his new right arm “feels like a baby.” You never know, because we all need a little bit of his twists and turns in our baseball lives.
Chris Paddack had a 3.33 ERA and fanned 9.8 batters as a rookie, so everyone knows he might take it to the next level in 2020. Lamet returned from Tommy John surgery after missing all of 2018, made 14 starts and averaged a ridiculous 12.9 K’s per nine. His fastball velo ranked in the 89th percentile, and his curveball and slider both generated strikeout rates above 48%. He has to improve his fastball command (batters slugged .608 against it) and show he can pitch deeper into games, but he and Paddack could be a special 1-2 punch this season.
Every team has to have an All-Star, and Means was the Orioles’ rep as a 26-year-old rookie. But he actually deserved it, with a 2.50 ERA in the first half and his 4.5 WAR for the season ranking ninth among American League pitchers. He tailed off in the second half, and because he kind of came out of nowhere, he’ll have to prove the skeptics wrong, but he did a very good job of limiting hard contact (90th percentile), and he limits walks.
Holy cow, where did this season come from? Workman went 10-1 with a 1.88 ERA while allowing just 29 hits in 71⅔ innings. His .123 batting average allowed was the lowest ever by a pitcher with at least 60 innings, topping Craig Kimbrel‘s .126 mark in 2012. In the year of the home run, Workman allowed just one, so his .166 slugging percentage was also the best ever. Given his win-loss record, this was one of the best relief seasons of all time. I have no idea if he can do it again.
You want a good nominee for most underrated player of the past decade? How about Gardner, even though he has spent his entire career in pinstripes? His career WAR is now 41.6 on Baseball-Reference and 37.0 on FanGraphs. A few of the players he ranks above: Albert Belle, Dave Parker, Dave Concepcion, Maury Wills, Juan Gonzalez, Harold Baines, Roger Maris and Steve Garvey. Players he could pass this season if he matches his 4.0 WAR from 2019: Darryl Strawberry, Don Mattingly, Jose Canseco, Tony Oliva, Al Oliver, Gil Hodges and Lou Brock. Gardner has somehow won just one Gold Glove, but at 36, he’s still good enough in the field that the Yankees plan to play him in center. Not too bad for a player who hit zero home runs in 449 at-bats in first full professional season in the minors.
This is turning into an amazing late-career renaissance. Through age 32, Morton was 46-71 with a 4.54 ERA, minus-0.6 WAR and many injuries along the way. The past three seasons, he has gone 45-16 with a 3.24 ERA and 10.7 WAR. Plus, he keeps getting better, coming off a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting, and 2020 might be his final season. Intent on spending time with his wife and four kids, he told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this spring that it’s possible he will retire after the season if he has a bad year or gets injured. On the optimistic side, don’t be surprised if he’s pitching for the Rays in the World Series.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette understandably get the bulk of the attention, but Biggio quietly put up a .793 OPS as a rookie — better than Vlad’s .772 mark. His game isn’t as flashy as Guerrero’s or Bichette’s, but he does a lot of little things that add up: He draws walks, was 14-for-14 as a base stealer and didn’t ground into a single double play. (His dad had a famous season when he played every game and didn’t ground into a double play, either.) Biggio just needs to add his father’s proclivity for getting hit by pitches.
It was nice to see Santana make his first All-Star team last season, as he has been a durable (averaging 154 games per season) and steady performer since 2011. After a lost year in Philadelphia, he had his best season in his return to Cleveland. Here’s a fun fact: Santana has recorded eight 90-walk seasons, tied with Joey Votto, among others, for 18th-most all time. Of the 17 players with more, 13 are in the Hall of Fame, the exceptions being Barry Bonds (16), Lance Berkman and Eddie Yost (10), and Bobby Abreu (9). Yost was known as “The Walking Man.” Let’s call Santana “The Amblin’ Man.”
Encarnacion just keeps hitting home runs: He’s riding a streak of eight straight 30-homer seasons and going to one of the better home run parks in the league. He leads the majors with 297 home runs since 2012 (two more than Nelson Cruz has hit), and that total ranks 10th all time from ages 29 to 36. Encarnacion’s average launch angles since 2016: 15.7, 16.7, 18.1 and 22.5 degrees. The man knows how to hit the ball in the air.
The Tigers had one player reach 500 at-bats last season. They had pitchers who went 3-13, 3-17 and 1-13 — not that we look at records. Their best pitcher allowed 39 home runs. Their top home run guy hit 15 and was designated for assignment. So, um, Cabrera has had a heckuva career. That .398 slugging percentage next to his name doesn’t look right, but maybe his slimmed-down physique will lead to one more big season and remind us that he was one of most devastating right-handed hitters we’ve ever seen.
The Royals had two players break out in the juiced-ball extravaganza of 2019. Jorge Soler led the AL with 48 home runs — shattering the franchise record — so he got some notoriety, but how about Dozier, who hit .279/.348/.522 with 26 home runs in 139 games? Dozier showcased an impressive hard-hit rate (73rd percentile) and strong average exit velocity (85th percentile), so as with Soler, there are reasons to buy in to the numbers. Dozier’s defense at third was a little lacking, so he might move to right field on a full-time basis this season.
Not buying Garver’s “where did that come from?” 31-homer season? Well, consider that his hard-hit rate was in the 97th percentile, and his average exit velocity was in the 85th percentile. He made some mechanical adjustments, focusing on pulling the ball more and lifting it, and his barrel rate nearly tripled from 2018. Oh, his chase rate was also much better than average. I’m buying.
Correa’s star has fizzled a bit the past couple of seasons — mostly due to his inability to remain on the field. He played 109 games in 2017 but was still worth 6.1 WAR, matching his 2016 total. He played 110 games in 2018, battled back issues and struggled at the plate (.239/.323/.405). Last year, he played just 75 games due to a fractured rib, but he did mash when he played (.279/.358/.568). Want a sleeper MVP pick? A healthy Correa could be just that — and again stake his claim as one of the best all-around players in the game.
Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert are higher-rated prospects, but White is the one who will be on the Opening Day roster, even though he hasn’t yet played above Double-A. The Mariners already signed him to a long-term deal that guarantees him $24 million over six years. His profile is unique for a first baseman: He bats right and throws left and should immediately be one of the best defensive first basemen in the game. He hit 18 home runs at Arkansas, but that’s also considered one of the toughest home run parks in Double-A for a right-handed hitter (he hit 13 of his 18 home runs on the road). The Mariners haven’t had a good first baseman since … well, John Olerud. That was a long time ago.
Like Ahmed, Simmons is a good-field shortstop who gets overlooked because this generation of shortstops includes some bangers at the plate. Still, how good is Simmons? He came up in 2012 with the Braves, playing 49 games that year. According to Baseball-Reference, since his first full season in 2013, he ranks eighth in WAR among position players. Maybe that overstates his brilliance with the glove a little bit — but he is absolutely brilliant, with outstanding range and one of the best arms ever seen at shortstop. In my humble opinion, the discussion of greatest defensive shortstop ever is a debate between Ozzie (no last name needed) and Simmons.
It’s hard to say that Semien was ignored, given that he finished third in MVP voting after posting the highest WAR by a shortstop since Alex Rodriguez in 2003. But it’s also safe to say that the non-fantasy-playing, casual baseball fan outside of the Bay Area has little idea how good Semien was in 2019. He posted an OPS+ between 95 and 99 in each of his previous four seasons with the A’s, but he powered up to a 138 mark in 2019. There were real reasons for the improvement: His chase rate went down, his contact rate in the strike zone went up, and the result was his doubling his rate of barrels. He has improved on defense as well, and at 29, he might be a late bloomer, but he’s also a player who could have a nice run the next few seasons.
He’s unique in today’s game. As starting pitchers throw fewer and fewer fastballs, Lynn threw his more than 70% of the time last season — and he threw his cutter 16% of the time. It’s a four-seamer, a hard sinker, a cutter ,and then he’ll drop in an occasional curveball or changeup. It all works: He struck out a career-high 246 batters last season while picking up Cy Young votes for the first time in his career. Fastball command is everything, my young readers.