For whatever reason, some players don’t always get the respect they deserve. In some cases, they are really good at what they do, but some even get disrespected from time to time. It may be because the team they play for does poor in the standings, or they may be deserving of an honor or award, only to get passed up in favor of someone else who was arguably less deserving than they were. In any event, it’s about time a light was shined on some of these players, though a couple of the selections may be shocking to some. This team consists of a player at every position, including designated hitter, five starters and one closer. 2014 may the time to shine for some of them.
C: Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers: This one was very tough to give out. The argument could be made for Carlos Santana of the Cleveland Indians or Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals. Both of them would be fine choices. This honor was originally going to go to Santana, however, he played a mere 84 games behind the plate in 2013, while spending 47 games at DH and 29 games at first base. Perez has an excellent case as he is a very good defender, as evidenced by his gold glove last year. He’s only 23 and looks like he could breakout as one of baseball’s best catchers both on the offensive and defensive side. Perez made his first All Star game in 2013 and if he stays healthy, could be his first of many.
However, as good as Perez and Santana are, this goes to Lucroy and here’s why. To start off, according to FanGraphs, Perez was 5th among all catchers in MLB last year with a 3.7 WAR. Lucroy was 6th with a 3.5 WAR. When someone asks who the best catcher in baseball is, two names come to mind: Buster Posey and Yadier Molina, and with good reason. Let’s face it, Posey and Molina have two World Series rings a piece. Posey won an MVP and the MLB batting title in 2012. Molina has kept himself in the batting race in recent years, has reeled off five straight gold gloves and has a reputation as an outstanding defensive catcher. Not to mention he placed 4th in MVP voting in 2012 and 3rd in 2013.
With Joe Mauer moving to first base, Perez and Santana can duke it out for the best catcher in the American League. It’s a little harder for Lucroy having to share the senior circuit with who seem to be the consensus two best catchers in the game. Not to mention, when people think of the Brewers, the first thing they probably think of is the disgraced Ryan Braun. Perhaps after that, Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez and Yovani Gallardo come to mind. He’s a really good hitting catcher with good speed. Lucroy has shown to have really good power. He had a 114 OPS+ in 2013, which is pretty nice for a catcher. Perhaps the most glaring thing is Lucroy has quietly been one of baseball’s best catchers while making under $1 million salary. He’s due $2 million this year and has definitely performed handsomely enough to get a raise in the future.
1B: James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays: This was another tough one between choosing Loney or Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants. In the end, Loney wins, though Belt, like Lucroy, has to share the NL with probably the two best players at his position, this being Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Goldschmidt is in Belt’s division like Molina is in Lucroy’s. The Giants didn’t have much to celebrate with their evident World Series hangover in 2013, but Belt looked like he broke out for the Giants the way Perez broke out for the Royals. He had 39 doubles and a 142 OPS+ in 2013. With him being only 25, he could fill up the first base position in San Francisco for a long time.
That said, Loney hasn’t had too much in his big league career after finishing 6th in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2008. With critics clamoring in years past that the Rays needed offense, Loney helped do his part and get this team to the ALDS. As a team, Tampa Bay batted .257, good enough for 12th in baseball and scored 700 runs, just missing the top 10 in 11th place. He had one of his finest seasons of his career in 2013, batting a career best .299, including .351 on the road. Though it is close, Loney has also shown himself to be a better defender than Belt has been.
2B: Aaron Hill, Arizona Diamondbacks: It came down to Hill or Neil Walker of the Pittsburgh Pirates on this one. Hill has shown how good he can really be when healthy. The key words there being “when healthy.” He has played in just 276 games over the course of the past three seasons. Walker has played in 421 during that same period of time. He’s not a bad offensive second baseman, and definitely served his purpose as a role player in helping the Bucs achieve its first winning season and playoff berth since 1992.
Perhaps the one thing that came boiling down it the most how much value Hill carries when he is at 100%. For those who forgot, Hill hit 36 home runs and drove in 108 in 2009. He hit 26 both in 2010 and 2012. He had a 5.1 WAR in 2007, 5.8 WAR in 2009 and 4.8 WAR in 2012, according to Baseball Reference. To this date he’s only made one All Star appearance, though he has performed as being worthy of multiple selections. He finished 12th in MVP voting in 2009 and 26th in 2012. If Hill was healthy then maybe the D-Backs could’ve pushed stronger for that NL West crown or at least a Wild Card spot in 2013. A healthy Hill in 2014 can only help this team get back to the postseason.
SS: Elvis Andrus, Texas Rangers: Though this piece was published Jan. 9, I fittingly began working on this Jan. 8, which would’ve been Elvis Presley’s 79th birthday. Sorry. I just had to do it. When it comes to Andrus, he’s a good contact hitter, though he won’t hit home runs the way Ian Desmond of the Washington Nationals does, for example. The 24-year-old Rangers shortstop stole a career high 42 bases in 2013. Andrus could use a better eye at the plate, but he doesn’t strike out in epidemic proportions like Austin Jackson, Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn do. There’s room for improvement on his end, but he’s been underrated in his time up.
3B: Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics: The first thing I should do is give an honorable mention and sincere, heartfelt apology to Adrian Beltre of the Rangers. With Wednesday being the announcement of the Hall of Fame elections, Beltre is on the right track to making it. In what has to be an excellent turnaround and comeback story, Beltre has found new life since 2010. At first glance, Beltre may not seem like a Hall of Famer to some, but he’s entering his age 35 season, and his only 574 hits away from 3,000. He has four gold gloves, three silver sluggers. He has received MVP votes in five seasons, including four top ten finishes and two top three. Certainly he has stayed healthy and has had longevity. Yet after struggling last April, he picked himself up well for the rest of the season. If there is one big contract that has paid off, Beltre signed a 5-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers and they have not regretted it, though he may have been overshadowed by Miguel Cabrera the past two years. Beltre has an excellent shot at Cooperstown. Not bad for someone who made his first All Star team at 31. Despite all of that, he is not more underrated than Josh Donaldson.
If I were to ask someone to name who finished in the top 5 in the AL MVP voting in 2013, they may not have a hard time coming up with Cabrera winning his second straight award, or Mike Trout finishing runner-up for the second time in as many years. Perhaps with how Chris Davis lit up 53 home runs last year, one could imagine he’d finish high, and perhaps would know one of the usual perennial MVP candidates in Robinson Cano finished 5th. Yet it may have come as a surprise to some that Donaldson finished 4th in AL MVP voting in 2013. This is somebody who didn’t make the All Star team, didn’t win a gold glove or a silver slugger award. Yet he had a 148 OPS+. A fun fact for those who did not know is whether they rely on Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or both, either way they slice it, Donaldson actually had a higher WAR than Cabrera in more games played in 2013. Baseball Reference suggests Cabrera had a 7.2 WAR to Donaldson’s 8.0. FanGraphs says Donaldson’s 7.7 WAR edged out Cabrera’s 7.6 for best WAR among all third basemen in 2013. In any event, the 2013 A’s were no fluke from the year before. One of the big reasons is because of Josh Donaldson, whom I believe is the most underrated third baseman in the game and perhaps most underrated player in all of baseball.
LF: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals: As if being a very good hitting prospect, the second overall pick and winning the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in the nation didn’t raise enough high hopes out in KC, Gordon was expected by some to be the next George Brett. To slap that label on anybody is enormous pressure and expectations. Gordon hasn’t quite had the career Brett did as he didn’t really impress with his time at the hot corner in 2007 and 2008. He also saw limited playing time in 2009 and 2010. Yet since 2011, he looks like he has reinvented himself as a left fielder. In 2013 he won his third straight Gold Glove and made the All Star squad for the first time. His hitting has improved and these are his WAR numbers, per baseball reference, from 2011-2013 respectively: 7.3, 6.5, 4.2. FanGraphs has his WAR a little lower in those years, but still ranks him as 5th in WAR for left fielders in 2013. It’s good to see Gordon didn’t give up and is putting together a nice career after a rather sluggish start.
CF: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Some people may ask how I can put one of the best players on the planet as the most underrated player at his position. When a player has back-to-back 10 WAR campaigns, give or take, one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time and yet is still only good enough for second place in AL MVP voting in two years running, that’s definitely a big reason. The Halos went 78-84 in 2013, their worst record since their 77-85 season in 2003. Since the team won it all in 2002, they have had just three losing seasons: 2003, 2010 and 2013. Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 and had an arguably an even better season in 2013. Had it not been for his groin injury, he could’ve won it again possibly. So I understand why Cabrera won it both seasons, but it doesn’t take away Trout played out of his head in the both years he has come second to Cabrera.
This team has spent money in hopes of reliving 2002, yet instead they’ve relived much of the club’s mediocrity from 1996-2001, regardless of record. They’ve shelled out the bucks, yet are still waiting for their first postseason appearance since 2009. Though the MVP doesn’t always have to go to someone from a playoff team, not since 2008, when Trout’s current teammate Albert Pujols won an MVP while playing for a club who failed to qualify for the playoffs. Pujols won his second of three NL MVP awards while with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Pujols has been a disappointment in his first two years, the same goes for Josh Hamilton in his first year and the team traded away Mark Trumbo last month. Yet despite Pujols and Hamilton not living up to their mammoth contracts, Trout has still picked up the slack. I think if the Angels make the playoffs in 2013, Trout is running away with the MVP. Oh yeah, and speaking of MVP, I almost forgot another reason to justify why I put Trout on here. Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette gave Trout a 7th place AL MVP vote in 2013. If that’s not underrating a player, what is?
RF: Marlon Byrd, Pittsburgh Pirates: Neal Huntington proved his worth as one of the best general managers in the game last season with the right combination of draft picks, trades and free agent signings. He managed to pick up Byrd on Aug. 27 from the New York Mets and he continued his nice season he was having in the Big Apple. The kind of power this former All Star is capable of displaying should not be underestimated. Byrd played just 166 games combined in 2011 and 2012. He’s primarily been a centerfielder his entire career, but after playing 138 of 147 games in right last season, he put up some of the best numbers of his career, and can still help a club at 36.
DH: Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals: When talking about the Hall of Fame, Butler has an outside shot. It’s all a matter if he can get to 3,000 hits or not. However, he took a dip in 2013 after putting up a career year in 2012. He still had a nice season but for him, it was a bit of a drop off. It took him up until that 2012 season to finally make a trip to the All Star game and he won a Silver Slugger that year too. Butler has never gotten an MVP vote, despite a lot he has accomplished. He’s not the biggest home run threat in the world, but he is good at getting on base and taking walks. If he can get to 3,000 hits, he has a chance at Cooperstown, but he better get going seeing as he has 1,124 hits and is about to enter his age 28 season. If he can bounce back from last year and have a year similar to 2012 or better this season, he’ll be back on the right track.
SP: James Shields, Kansas City Royals: If someone is looking for a baseball book to read, I highly recommend “The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History” by ESPN’s Jayson Stark. I recall in that book that Stark wrote one way to become underrated is to beg to be traded to the Royals. He may have been onto something there.
It looks like the voters appreciated Shields a little bit when he placed 3rd in AL Cy Young voting in 2011 and 16th in MVP balloting that same year in his first and so far only All Star appearance. He’s a quality, serviceable righty who can give a team a lot of innings. The 228.2 innings he went in 2013 led the AL. In an era where more pitchers have been used, Shields has 21 complete games and 8 shutouts under his belt. Health problems don’t ever seem to be a concern for him. He has a lot of heat and can ring up batters. He could get his walk rate down, but is still a deserving member of this team.
SP: Mat Latos, Cincinnati Reds: The Reds gave up Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger to get Latos, and my guess is if they could do it again, they would. Even though Johnny Cueto is considered Cincinnati’s ace, Latos has been very efficieitn for this team in the two years he has been there. He has struck out 185 batters or more the past four seasons. He finished 8th in the NL Cy Young voting in 2010 and has yet to receive a vote since then, even though 2013 was probably the best season of his career after 2010. Here is somebody who has shown improvement as Latos surrendered fewer home runs and issued fewer walks than he did in 2011 or 2012. He also posted the best ERA+ (121) last season since his 126 ERA+ of 2010. He does give up quite a few hits, surrendering a career high 197 base knocks in 2013. Still, he’s made his strides and Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty ought to be commended for going out and getting Latos.
SP: Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals: It doesn’t matter if it’s on the road at Nationals Park, Zimmermann has been a good pitcher in his career. A person may ideally think of Stephen Strasburg or Gio Gonzalez when thinking of the Nationals rotation, but it was Zimmermann who stepped things up in 2013, with a very nice 1.088 WHIP. In fact, when the Nationals finished with the best record in baseball in 2012 at 98-64, Gonzalez was the one who was named to his second consecutive All Star team and finished 3rd in NL Cy Young voting. Zimmerman didn’t get an All Star appearance or place in the Cy Young balloting, but here’s something someone should keep in mind when looking at 2012.
WAR (Per Baseball Reference)
I’m not suggesting Zimmermann was better than Gonzalez that season when he wasn’t, but it was close and yet Gonzalez got all the accolades and Zimmermann didn’t that season. In fact, it could be argued Zimmermann was better in 2012 than in his supposed breakout year of 2013 and he also had a good 2011 campaign despite finishing with an 8-11 record. I’m not sure if 2013 was a one time thing or if he becomes consistently regarded as one of the best pitchers in the NL. However, it’s about time people started taking note of him and 2013 was that year. Based on what he’s done the last three seasons as a whole, he belongs on this list.
SP: Travis Wood, Chicago Cubs: The lone All Star representative for the North Siders in 2013, Wood posted a 4.4 WAR, 200 innings, a 127 ERA+ and 1.145 WHIP. He struggled in 2011 before improving in 2012 and coming through big in 2013. The only problem is the Cubs didn’t exactly give him his deserved run support. So, he might as well have provided his own. Wood hit 3 home runs last season. He was one of the better pitchers in the NL last season and his trip to Citi Field was well deserved.
SP: Alex Cobb, Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays had a very decorated pitching staff in 2013. In addition to having the 2012 AL Cy Young winner and 2010 runner-up David Price, a few of their other hurlers have accomplished something. Matt Moore pitched his way to the All Star game and finished 9th in Cy Young balloting. Chris Archer finished 3rd to teammate Wil Myers and Jose Iglesias for AL Rookie of the Year voting, which was won two years prior by right hander Jeremy Hellickson, though he struggled last season.
Yet an argument could be made Cobb was their best pitcher last season, despite missing two months with Eric Hosmer of the Royals hitting a line drive into his head on June 15. Cobb would be carried off a stretcher. Here’s how Cobb fared against the other men in his rotation.
So Moore was 3rd in innings pitched among their regular rotation, yet it didn’t stop him from his accolades, even though Cobb was closer to Moore than Archer was to Cobb, Moore was to Hellickson or Hellickson was to Price in innings tossed.
Wait, that can’t be right. Price was the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Moore went to Citi Field last year. How could Cobb pitch as many innings as he did, miss two months, get carried off on a stretcher and still lead Rays starters among ERA+ in 2013? Yet he did.
WAR (According to Baseball Reference)
This is starting to get a little ridiculous. It’s not funny anymore with how good Cobb was against his other starters. While it’s true he missed a good time of the season and it’s unknown how he would’ve done during that two month span, yet another statistic in which Cobb led and a significant one too, with the rise of sabermetrics in this game.
Cobb had more to show for the Rays in the postseason than Moore or Price did. In two starts, he had a 1.371 WHIP, which wasn’t the greatest. Yet Price and Moore had one start each. Price’s WHIP was 1.571 in his start and Moore’s 1.895 in his. Not to mention he blanked the Indians in the Wild Card game. Cobb went 11.2 innings and had 10 strikeouts. Cobb didn’t get any votes for the Cy Young last year, though it looks like he deserved it more than Moore did. I can only conclude how criminally underrated Alex Cobb is.
CL: Joe Nathan, Detroit Tigers: Nathan had one of his best seasons ever in 2013, and that’s really saying something. He saved 43 games, had a 297 ERA+, an 0.897 WHIP and had a 3.2 WAR. He made his 6th All Star game last season when that number seems like too low for him. Except for his struggles in 2011, Nathan has been one among the best in the business. If we’re talking about the Hall of Fame, and yes, there does seem to be a higher standard for relievers, but it’s hard to say Nathan doesn’t have a case. Mariano Rivera is getting in. No ifs, ands or buts about that. Trevor Hoffman may not get in on the first ballot like Rivera will, but I can imagine he’ll eventually make it in one of his 15 tries. Billy Wagner may never get in, but a career 422 saves, 187 ERA+ and 0.998 WHIP cement him as one of the greatest closers in history.
The reason Nathan is my choice is because he’s never been regarded as “the guy.” Rivera closed out 5 World Series championship teams, won a World Series MVP, an All Star game MVP and is seen as the consensus greatest reliever in the history of the game. At least it could be said Hoffman was #1 in his league and had two second place NL Cy Young finishes in 1998 and 2006. Nathan never was the closer for a World Series winner and therefore he may not be as prominent as other closers during his time. Now he’s entering his age 39 season and with Rivera gone, now it’s Craig Kimbrel who seems like he’ll be regarded as the best in the game. Granted, Kimbrel is as good as advertised and more, but Nathan has been relieving in the shadow of other greats ever since he became a regular closer back in 2004. He hasn’t even gotten a Cy Young vote since 2006 when he has most certainly had seasons since then where he has deserved a vote or two his way. He’s been grotesquely underrated in the last decade. Hopefully he’ll be more appreciated one day.