As baseball’s All-Star break approaches, MLB fans will soon get a glimpse of the game’s most recognizable stars, as voted on by the fans themselves. It’s a popularity contest, so the players on display are the players that everyone knows, either by media exposure or word of mouth.
But what about the “other guys?” The unsung heroes that fly under the radar? Below, I will assess each team’s most underrated player, at least by this season’s standards. These are names you may want to start taking note of. In regards to these players, as Notorious BIG once said, “If you don’t know, now you know…” Without further ado:
American League East
Baltimore Orioles – Darren O’Day, RP
I love the “O’Day, O’Day O’Day O’Day!” chants that starts when he starts warming up in the Camden Yards bullpen. The submarine right-hander has burst onto the scene in Baltimore after a brief but solid tenure in Texas, which followed a 30-game stint in Anaheim. O’Day is 12-1 in a year-and-a-half in Baltimore, going 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA last year and proving that was no fluke by going 5-0 with a 2.09 ERA this year. He also threw five hitless innings in four postseason games last year, and has become one of the game’s most effective setup men. He’s not an All-Star, and he’s not even on the last-vote-in list, but he’s plenty worthy.
Boston Red Sox – Daniel Nava, LF
This is a hard one to admit, but Nava is quite a story. How many undrafted players make it in Major League Baseball, let alone pace baseball’s highest scoring offense? Nava’s career started with a boom, as he connected for a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in 2010. Though he didn’t see the majors in 2011, he played in 88 games last year, and with an opening in left field this year, he’s taken full advantage. As an everyday player, Nava has batted .296 with 10 home runs and 51 RBI, and has come through often in the clutch, batting .330 with runners in scoring position. So much for my prediction of Jackie Bradley Jr. winning AL Rookie of the Year.
New York Yankees – Francisco Cervelli, C
Cervelli’s strong season has been derailed by injury, but he is as valuable a cog to the Yankees as anybody. With Cervelli, it’s not so much about the numbers (.269, 3, 8), but the energy he brings to the team and his ability to handle the pitching staff. Chris Stewart has filled in admirably, but his absence has hurt the Yankees, make no mistake. Cervelli has also been clutch in limited time this season, and the Yankees clearly had a lot of faith in him to not try to resign Russell Martin.
Tampa Bay Rays – Joel Peralta, RP
Peralta is another one of those classic journeyman relievers who has finally found it. The Rays are Peralta’s fifth team, and he has developed into Joe Maddon’s eighth-inning guy, with a low-90’s fastball and nasty splitter. Peralta’s primary numbers aren’t necessarily dominant (6-14, 3.30 in 193 games over 2-plus seasons in Tampa Bay), but he has 185 strikeouts over 174.1 innings during that span, and his durability and dependability haven’t gone unnoticed by Rays fans.
Toronto Blue Jays – Steve Delabar, RP
With Delabar being on the final All-Star vote ballot, he’s certainly less underrated than he was at the beginning of the season, but he’s still hardly a household name. With a mid-90’s fastball, Delabar can be overpowering, as shown by his 57 strikeouts over 40 innings. He’s 5-1 with a 1.58 ERA in 35 games, and for an underachieving team he’s been a breath of fresh air. Delabar could easily develop into a closer, even though Casey Janssen isn’t too shabby. Though Alex Anthopoulous has taken a lot of heat for his team’s poor first half, obtaining Delabar for Eric Thames is more than a steal.
American League Central
Chicago White Sox – Jesse Crain, RP
Crain is a longtime veteran who isn’t underrated by any general managers, a fact that will soon be showed when he is dealt to a contender (Boston?) at the trade deadline. Crain has been nearly unhittable this year (0.74 ERA in 38 games), and is 45-30 with a 3.05 ERA in 502 career games over 10 seasons with Minnesota and Chicago. For the third straight year, Crain also has more strikeouts than innings pitched. He is easily Chicago’s biggest trading chip.
Cleveland Indians – Michael Brantley, LF
It took Brantley a little while to emerge, but 2013 has been something of a breakout year for the 26-year-old. There were signs of it last year when he hit .288 with 60 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 149 games, but he has stayed consistent with a .284-7-45 line through 85 games this year, adding 9 stolen bags. Cleveland has won some close games this year in large part due to Brantley’s .377 RISP average as well.
Detroit Tigers – Joaquin Benoit, RP
What shocks and amazes me is how long it took Jim Leyland to insert Benoit into the closer’s role on several occasions this year. The Tigers began the year with unproven rookie Bruce Rondon, which quickly backfired. The closer-by-committee approach bombed, and bringing back Jose Valverde was a complete disaster. Enter the dependable Benoit, who is 11-6 with a 2.99 ERA in two and a half seasons at a Tiger. This has been his best year yet, as he has stepped into the closer’s role and converted all seven of his save opportunities. With a mid-90’s fastball, sharp slider and devastating changeup, he and Drew Smyly have been the two constants in an otherwise crummy Detroit bullpen.
Kansas City Royals – Greg Holland, RP
Holland’s stuff can be electric, with a fastball that can creep close to triple digits, and he has corrected some early season jitters by converting 14 straight save opportunities. He has a ridiculous 59 strikeouts in 34 innings, yet his name would be conspicuously absent from any conversation about the game’s top closers among casual fans. He has been the rock at the back-end of a strong Kansas City bullpen.
Minnesota Twins – Glen Perkins, RP
Keeping up with the late-inning reliever trend in the AL Central, Perkins is another closer who gets no pub despite being good enough to do the job for at least 10 other teams. The hard-throwing southpaw is 20-for-22 in save chances this year and has a 2.41 ERA in 168 games since the start of the 2011 season.
American League West
Houston Astros – Jose Altuve, 2B
Altuve would be a nice trade commodity for teams looking for middle infield help if the Astros didn’t need so desperately to build around him for the future. The diminutive Altuve, who stands at 5’5”, racked up 167 hits last season in 147 games and is a career .285 hitter, but is also a force on the basepaths. He stole 33 bases last year and has 21 more this season, but because he plays in Houston, very few people know about him.
Los Angeles Angels – Howie Kendrick, 2B
Kendrick is another second baseman who flies under the radar in an AL run by Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano at the position. The 5’10” Kendrick may be enjoying his best year yet (.312, 11, 40) and plays great defense, but goes mostly overlooked in a lineup that features Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. He has stayed healthy, averaging 148 games played the last three seasons, and with Pujols and Hamilton having down years, he should get a lot more love for helping keep the Angels afloat in 2013.
Oakland Athletics – Josh Donaldson, 3B
Donaldson is one of the countless young Athletics jumbled on a roster of no-names compiled by Billy Beane that is a potential star-in-the-making. Donaldson (.319, 15, 58) didn’t get many people’s attention last year because he played in just 75 games, but he is arguably the A’s best hitter right now and should continue to ascend.
Seattle Mariners – Tom Wilhelmsen, RP
At one point, “The Bartender” was flat-out unhittable. The closer has since returned to earth and his numbers actually look rather pedestrian now (0-2, 3.58 ERA, 18-for-23 in save chances) after hitting a real rough patch in May. But when this guy is on, he is potentially as good as it gets, at least stuff-wise. Wilhelmsen throws close to 100 mph and has an absurdly good slider. On a team of underachievers and players past their prime, Wilhelmsen may not be as dynamic as some of the other names on this list, but he’s usually trustworthy at the end of games.
Texas Rangers – Derek Holland, SP
It still feels like more people recognize Holland for his wispy mustache and spot-on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harry Caray impressions and not his stellar pitching. But make no mistake, the flame-throwing lefty is legitimate ace material. Though he had a bit of a down year last year, he has returned to his 2011 form (16-5, 3.95, league-leading four shutouts) with strong numbers in 2013 (7-4, 3.19, 114 strikeouts in 118.2 innings) and has really become the go-to guy on Ron Washington’s staff.
National League East
Atlanta Braves – Freddie Freeman, 1B
This feels like a bit of a cop-out, especially with all the attention Freeman is now getting with the final All-Star vote. But for most of the year, he was truly getting lost in the shuffle for an Atlanta team that would be lost without him. He has three walk-off hits to go along with his .305-9-56 line, which includes a .394 RISP average. Freeman is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Miami Marlins – Logan Morrison, LF
People seemed to forget about Morrison’s injury in light of Giancarlo Stanton’s, which is understandable given how easy it is to forget the Marlins altogether. But LoMo is a solid all-around player who gives Miami a much-needed lineup boost, and he has made a quick impact in just 21 games back with a .293-4-10 line. He showed great flashes in 2011 (.247, 23, 72), but dropped off last year (.230, 11, 36). Health has been an issue with Morrison, but the potential is there and, frankly, because Stanton is a known commodity, who else can you call “underrated” on the Marlins?
New York Mets – Bobby Parnell, SP
The Mets closer will be a sought-after commodity at the trade deadline, and rightfully so. Parnell seems to have finally put it all together. His numbers are eerily identical to last year’s in half as many games (5-4, 2.49 in 2012, 5-4, 2.48 in 2013), and his 15 saves in 18 chances won’t make you confuse him with Mariano Rivera, but his stuff is electric, and he has been as consistent as any Met in an otherwise down year.
Philadelphia Phillies – Kyle Kendrick, SP
It’s easy to forget about Kendrick because he pitches behind the Big Three, but he has actually been the Phillies second-best pitcher this season, and has been a model of consistency since the start of the 2011 season. Let’s overlook for a second that Kendrick has given up more hits than any National League pitcher this season (123 in 117.2 innings) and focus more on his 7-6 record and 3.90 ERA in 18 starts. That is the exact ERA he posted last year while going 11-12 in 37 games (25 starts), and he was 8-6 with a 3.22 ERA in 34 games (15 starts) in 2011. The sinkerballer relies on ground balls to get outs and if not for his ability to pick up the slack after Cliff Lee, the Phillies might find themselves completely out of contention now.
Washington Nationals – Ian Desmond, SS
Desmond always seems to be on the cusp of becoming a truly great player, yet has not taken that next big step yet. Still, he is deserving of his All-Star selection (.278, 15, 49, 10 SB), and his numbers last year (.292, 25, 73, 21 SB) are an indicator that he is a multi-talented player. Desmond needs to work on his defense, but as an overall player, he deserves more attention as one of the game’s top shortstops.
National League Central
Chicago Cubs – Nate Schierholtz, RF
Let’s at least establish this – Schierholtz isn’t underrated to Giants fans. He was an invaluable member of their 2010 championship team, and may have raised some eyebrows when the Cubs gave him a 1-year, $2.25 million deal. But to his credit, Schierholtz has done his part, hitting .273 with 11 homers and 34 RBI in 74 games. He is an outstanding defensive player, and has a knack for the clutch (.316 average with RISP). His play with the Giants and Phillies last year was far from stellar (.257, 6, 21), but he has proven that given a chance to play every day, he can put up steady numbers.
Cincinnati Reds – Jay Bruce, RF
Yes, Bruce is a pretty well-known name at this point, but you still don’t hear him mentioned as a top-flight power hitter. That’s a travesty given his home run totals, which have increased in each of his previous five seasons. He hit 34 last year and 32 the year before, and is well on his way with 18 this season. He won’t smell .300, and at .271 in 2013 that stands true, but he leads the league in doubles with 26, and is also an underrated defender in right.
Milwaukee Brewers – Jonathan Lucroy, C
It’s strange to think that a team doing as poorly as the Brewers has several household names (Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez, Francisco Rodriguez), which leaves Lucroy lost in the weeds. But the 27-year-old backstop is really the backbone of the Brewers. He hit .320-12-58 last year in just 96 games, and is at .268-11-48 this year in 76 games. Those are similar numbers to 2011 (.265-12-59 in 136 games), when the Brewers reached the NLCS. He has struggled to throw out runners behind the plate, as he has allowed more stolen bases (45) than any National League catcher, but then again, the Brewers have probably allowed more baserunners than anyone in the NL.
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pedro Alvarez, 3B
The powerful Alvarez is getting his dues as the Pirates begin to gain national attention, but he still flies under the radar. He belted 30 homers last year despite hitting .244, and has 22 this year with a similar .249 average. He is an inconsistent defender, but his big swing is what have Pirates fans thinking playoffs for the first time in over two decades.
St. Louis Cardinals – Allen Craig, 1B
I would go so far as to argue that Craig may be the most underrated player in all of baseball. While not the sole reason, Craig was a major factor in St. Louis’ decision not to go overboard in trying to keep Albert Pujols. Craig showed plenty of promise through the 2011 season (.315, 11, 40), and filled Pujols’ shoes admirably last season (.307, 22, 92 in 119 games), and both years those numbers could have been much more impressive if not for injuries costing him significant playing time. This season, he is not only a run-producing machine (.325, 10, 69 in 84 games), but a master of the clutch as well (.476 average with RISP, .488 RISP/2 outs), and he has stayed healthy. No, Cardinals fans won’t suddenly forget Pujols, but Craig is certainly doing his part, and it’s amazing more people outside of St. Louis haven’t taken notice. It’s hard to argue Joey Votto getting the starting All-Star nod, but Craig being a reserve just seems wrong.
National League West
Arizona Diamondbacks – Patrick Corbin, SP
In the time it took me to write from the Braves to the D’backs, I realized that while Freddie Freeman is a legitimate MVP candidate, if the award were given out now, it would probably need to go to Corbin. If not for the brilliance of the sophomore lefty, the first-place Diamondbacks would be fighting the Padres for NL West cellar space. Corbin has been magnificent, going 10-1 with a 2.40 ERA and allowing a measly 90 hits in 123.2 innings pitched while striking out 99 batters and issuing just 31 walks. Each passing day, the Angels look more and more foolish for dealing Corbin (along with Joe Saunders, Rafael Rodriguez and later Tyler Skaggs) for Dan Haren. (Disclaimer: It would have been very fair of me to go with Corbin’s fellow All-Star, Paul Goldschmidt, here, who is also worthy of MVP consideration).
Colorado Rockies – Michael Cuddyer, RF
The former Twin gained a little national recognition with a 27-game hitting streak, but has mostly gone unnoticed in Denver this season despite stellar numbers (.338, 15, 52). Cuddyer had several strong seasons with the Twins, including a 32-homer campaign in 2009, but looks to have developed into a complete hitter this season. He has never batted above .284 in his career, but has always been a steady player who appears to have taken a big step forward this year, even if not many people have noticed.
Los Angeles Dodgers – Kenley Jansen, RP
I think the Brandon League experiment is finally over. Jansen has always had closer-like stuff and it seems puzzling he wasn’t in the role to begin the year. He hasn’t exactly been flawless, but his overall numbers (2-3, 2.49) belie his potential to dominate (296 strikeouts in 189 career innings pitched). If he can stay healthy, he can be the stopper the Dodgers need to make a run in the NL West.
San Diego Padres – Luke Gregerson, RP
Gregerson is Old Reliable for San Diego, having never had an ERA above 3.24 in four full seasons as a Padre entering 2013. He is 4-4 with a 2.68 ERA this year in 40 games, and his sidearm delivery has enabled him to have more strikeouts than innings pitched in three of his first four seasons. For a Padres team lacking impact players, Gregerson has been one of the few constants and should be considered among the game’s premier late-inning relievers.
San Francisco Giants – Madison Bumgarner, SP
Bumgarner may be a stretch for this list, considering he has pitched 15 shutout innings in two World Series starts, but it still feels like he goes unmentioned when discussing the game’s elite pitchers, which he certainly is. The southpaw with the smooth delivery has been remarkably consistent, with ERAs of 3.00, 3.21, 3.37 and 3.05 this year while compiling a 45-35 record. He averages 8.2 K/9 IP in his career, and his outstanding 2013 campaign has been even more critical considering the struggles of ace Matt Cain. At just 23 years of age, here’s hoping people start taking notice of Bumgarner soon.