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MLB 2012 Spring Preview: The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know

Lou CappettaAnalyst IIDecember 29, 2016

MLB 2012 Spring Preview: The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know

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    In every sport, there are always players who are undervalued, under-appreciated and underrated.

    In baseball, with the large roster sizes, September roster expansion and length of the season, there are probably more chances for players to contribute seemingly out of nowhere, or with little to no recognition than in any other sport.

    Some may be younger players still trying to make a name for themselves. Others may be quality veterans who happen to play in the shadow of some of the game's superstars.

    Some may even get overlooked because they play on poor teams or in small markets with little exposure.

    Whatever the reason, there are plenty of quality baseball players out there that even some very knowledgeable fans don't know. With that said, here are the 30 best players that fans don't know in preparation for the 2012 season.

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Arizona Diamondbacks: Gerardo Parra, LF

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    With the exception of Justin Upton, and possibly Ian Kennedy, almost any of the defending National League West Champion Arizona Diamondbacks would be a good fit for this list. Lacking some of the bigger names their big market counterparts offer, Arizona's roster is chock full of young, quality professional baseball players, and arguably no player on that squad exemplifies that more than outfielder Gerardo Parra.

    Still only 24 years old, Parra completed his third season in 2011, and while the numbers may not be flashy, the left outfielder was solid, batting .292, with .357 on-base percentage, while going 15-for-16 in stolen base attempts. Parra's eight triples and 16 intentional walks place him in the top 10 in the NL in both categories.

    An excellent outfielder who spent much of his first two Major League seasons positions, Parra was able to settle into the left field spot regularly for the Diamondbacks in 2011. The move paid off, as Parra's excellent defensive would not only help Arizona to a surprise division title, but also earn him his first Gold Glove award.

Atlanta Braves: Jonny Venters, LHP

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    The back end of the Atlanta Braves bullpen was dominant in 2011, as closer Craig Kimbrel lead the National League in saves with 46. The number would be a new record for rookie closers, and earn Kimbrel NL Rookie of the Year honors.

    Anytime a flame-throwing rookie comes in and totally dominates the most pressure-filled role in baseball, he's going to garner a ton of attention, and while the Braves laid claim to arguably the best closer in the NL last season, they also may have had the games most dominant set-up man in lefty Jonny Venters.

    After a quietly dominant rookie campaign for Atlanta in 2010, Venters took his game to a whole new level in 2011.

    Pitching in 85 games for the Braves, Venters posted a paltry 1.85 ERA, a WHIP of 1.02, along with striking out 96 batters in only 88 innings pitched. Venters' most dominant statistic, however, may be the fact that opponents were only ably to bat .176 against him.

    Venters was selected as an All-Star in 2010, but with much of the attention going Kimbrel's way, it's easy to forget that Venters may have been as good, or even better than his closer was last year. If the two pitchers can keep it up, Atlanta's opponents may begin to feel like they are playing seven-inning ball games.

Baltimore Orioles: Robert Andino, IF

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    Over the past few seasons, times have been difficult in Baltimore, causing some very good players, like Nick Markakis or Adam Jones, to not receive the recognition they deserve.

    Those players are finally in the average baseball fan's consciousness now, but if asked who was Baltimore's second baseman for most of 2011, those same fans would probably say Brian Roberts.

    That answer would be incorrect, as the Orioles All-Star second baseman, and arguably their most important player, would play in only 39 games due to injury last season. The correct answer would be Robert Andino.

    After bouncing between the minors and majors for much of his seven-year career, Andino got the chance to play every day for the injured Roberts, and made the most of his chance. In 139 games in 2011, Andino batted .263, while setting career marks in runs scored (63), hits (120), doubles (20) and walks (41). Andino also led the team in stolen bases with 13.

    The numbers aren't great, but they are solid, and when you take into account that Andino not only replaced one All-Star during the season in Roberts, but also was able to spell JJ Hardy at shortstop and Mark Reynolds at third base at times last year, his value increases substantially.

    If Roberts is healthy, Andino will undoubtedly go back to the bench for 2012, but after last year, he'll find a spot to play.

Boston Red Sox: Daniel Bard, RHP

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    Over the past few seasons, the face of the Boston Red Sox bullpen has been All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. With Papelbon in Philadelphia this year closing games for the Phillies, it looked like Daniel Bard, who has quietly been one of the better set-up men in baseball the past two years would get his chance to shine.

    Then the Sox acquired Andrew Bailey from Oakland, thus moving Bard into the starting rotation.

    Bard will start the season as Boston's fifth starter, and with a hard fastball in the upper-90's and fluid three-quarters delivery that's especially tough on righties, he could end up moving up in the rotation, and in the public consciousness rather quickly.

    While it's difficult to compare numbers between starters and relievers, some of Bard's 2011 stats, like his .959 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 ratio and his .179 batting average against, stick out as possible measuring sticks of his future success as a starter. 

    Moving between the bullpen and rotation can be tricky (Joba Chamberlain), but can work out (Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz) without a hitch, too. Only time will tell if Bard can not only handle the workload of starting, but also the added pressure of starting in Boston for a team that expects to contend every year. If he's successful, Boston may have an ace for years to come, and Bard will become a household name in no time. 

Chicago Cubs: Darwin Barney, 2B

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    A rookie in 2011, Darwin Barney got off to a fast start and quickly filled a void at second base left after the 2010 trade of Ryan Theriot.

    Finishing seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, Barney fit perfectly into the No. 2 slot in the Cubs lineup. He was great in the first half of 2011, batting .306 with 40 runs scored in his first 75 games. He struggled a bit in the second half of the season, but still posted a respectable line with a .276 batting average, .313 on-base percentage, 66 runs scored, six triples and nine stolen bases.

    Barney's true value, however, may come in the field. A former shortstop in the minor leagues, he has quickness and good range to both sides, Barney is not only a potential future Gold Glove winner at second base, but along with Starlin Castro and Geovany Soto, could anchor a strong middle on Chicago's North Side for years to come.

Chicago White Sox: Alejandro De Aza, LF

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    An in-season call-up in 2011, Alejandro De Aza, a little known outfielder who has spent parts of four seasons in the majors between the Marlins and White Sox, caught fire and really turned heads last season.

    Sure he played in only 54 games for Chicago in 2011, but in those games De Aza was great, accumulating 50 hits, batting .329 (.345 from Aug. 3 on) and stealing 12 bases in 17 attempts. He showed a combination of speed, pop and defensive prowess that suddenly made incumbent left fielder Carlos Quentin expendable.

    The White Sox are committed to rebuilding, so De Aza all but has the lead-off position and either the center field or left field job going into Spring Training. It will be interesting to see if De Aza can capitalize on his breakout 2011 campaign, but if he does, that rebuilding job on the south side may be over sooner rather than later.

Cincinnati Reds: Chris Heisey, LF

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    Much of the focus of the Reds offense was on reigning NL MVP Joey Votto, who put up another great season, and outfielder Jay Bruce, whose terrific first half lead to a breakout season that saw the Reds' right fielder belt 30 home runs for the first time.

    Great seasons by Bruce and Votto, along with solid production from Brandon Phillips and Drew Stubbs, however, may have overshadowed a surprise breakout campaign by outfielder Chris Heisey.

    Going from afterthought in the offense to replacing the traded Jonny Gomes, Heisey finished third on the club in home runs with 18 and RBI with 50 in only 279 at-bats. His average was a bit low at .254, and he did strikeout 78 time in 120 games, but the 27-year-old could improve on those numbers given a chance to play every day in 2012.

    The power and potential seem to be there for Heisey, and if he can build upon his quiet breakout year of 2011, the Reds may boost one of the best hitting young trios in the game, and in a division that lost both Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols to the American League, that may finally be enough to put them over the top for NL Central supremacy.

Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley, LF

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    An afterthought in the deal that sent former Cleveland Indians ace CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008, Michael Brantley has improved dramatically in each of his first three seasons in the majors.

    After watching Grady Sizemore battle injuries again, and Shin-Soo Choo miss much of last year due to injury, Brantley stepped in as the Indians No. 1 outfield option. Brantley's speed and defense were his calling cards, as he would finished the 2011 campaign ninth in defensive WAR ranking and fourth in outfield assists.

    Many of the questions surrounding Brantley involve his offense, as it is still unclear if he'll hit enough to be a regular corner outfielder and lead-off man, but while the numbers weren't spectacular, 2011 was a step in the right direction, as Brantley would hit .266, score 63 runs and steal 13 bases in 114 games. All those numbers are vast improvements from 2010 (.246 AVG, 38 runs, 10 SB in 72 games), so things seem to be heading in the right direction.

    Still only 24 years old, Brantley will be entering his fourth major league season, and by the looks of things, the left field and lead-off positions are his to lose going into Spring Training, and if Brantley can continue to improve, he could end up leading Cleveland to a return to the top of the AL Central division.

Colorado Rockies: Jhoulys Chacin, RHP

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    After the Rockies dealt ace Ubaldo Jimenez to the Cleveland Indians last season, it looked like the days of terrible Rockies rotations would once again be the norm in the Mile High City.

    That may not be the case, as Colorado has some talented, if less-than-household name starting pitchers, and while none of them can currently be called an ace, righty Jhoulys Chacin could easily make that leap in 2012.

    Entering his fourth season, and still only 24 years-old, Chacin has quietly put together two very solid seasons in 2010 (9-11 W/L, 3.28 ERA, 138 SO, 137.1 IP) and in 2011 (11-14 W/L, 3.62 ERA, 150 SO, 194 IP).

    Solid numbers indeed, but consistency and control have been problems for the young righty so far in his career. Chacin's WHIP numbers over the past two seasons have been rather high (1.27 in 2010, and 1.31 in 2011) mostly due to a high walk rate, including a league leading 87 last year. He also has yet to put together two good halves of a season, following a poor first half in 2010 with a great second half, and doing the opposite in 2011.

    Still Chacin has the stuff, and did lead the Rockies in just about every major pitching category in 2011. Colorado needs him to take the next step, and if he does, this pitcher with the unmistakable name may make Rockies fans forget about their last ace with the unmistakable name. 

Detroit Tigers: Doug Fister, RHP

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    Doug Fister spent a quality 2010 campaign in the shadow of that year's AL Cy Young award winner Felix Hernandez, and finished 2011 in the same situation after being traded to Detroit during last season.

    Fister improved upon a very solid 2010, his first full season in the Majors, in 2011 by going 11-13 with 146 strikeouts in 216.1 innings pitched. The pitch-to-contact pitcher also finished in the top 10 in both ERA (2.83, 4th in AL) and WHIP (1.06, 6th in AL).

    Very good numbers, indeed, but Fister blossomed after being traded to Detroit at the deadline. Pitching in the shadow of Justin Verlander's all-time great season, Fister went 8-1 for the Tigers down the stretch with a 1.79 ERA and a 0.839 WHIP, helping Detroit capture the AL Central crown. Not a bad year for a second fiddle.

    Fister is still only 28 years old, and is just entering his prime. As long as Verlander is in Detroit, Fister will never be their ace, but a few more seasons like 2012, and he'll be a household name in no time.

Houston Astros: J.D. Martinez, LF

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    The Astros were a complete disaster last season, and in reality, about two-thirds of the Houston ball club could be on this list.

    That maybe a stretch, but even in what will surely be another down year in Houston, there should also be a few bright spots, and none may be brighter than J.D Martinez.

    Martinez, who was only two years removed from being drafted when he was called up to the Major Leagues last July 30, could easily find himself in the middle of Houston's lineup, after a solid showing during the last two months of 2011.

    He played just 53 games, but in those games Martinez batted a respectable .274 with six home runs, 29 runs scored and 35 RBI. He got off to a hot start, and the result was an Astros rookie record 29 RBI in the month of August.

    There isn't much to like in Houston, and despite a small sample of only 53 games, Martinez may be one of the shinning stars that Houston fans can follow for years to come.

Kansas City Royals: Alex Gordon, LF

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    OK, if you're a baseball fan, you have probably heard the name Alex Gordon before. In fact, it's probably been mentioned in the same sentence as the word "bust."

    After being drafted by the Royals with the second overall pick in 2005, he made his debut only two seasons later. It was a solid rookie season, but since, Gordon had faltered, and began to be tagged as one of the bigger busts in recent memory.

    As the focus in Kansas City changed to the trade of Zack Greinke, and later to newer young phenoms Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, Gordon revived his career by finally having a breakout season, his fifth in the Majors.

    With all due respect to Eric Hosmer, Gordon was by far Kansas City's best all-around player in 2011. Gordon finished 10th in the league in batting average at .303 to go along with career highs in home runs with 27, doubles with 45, RBI with 87, runs scored with 101, hits with 185 and stolen bases with 17.

    Gordon also won his first Gold Glove award in 2011. He looks to have finally begun to fulfill his potential, and along with the rest of the Royals talented young lineup, could help the Royals turn some heads in 2012.

LA Angels: Peter Bourjos, CF

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    When a team moves an all-time great defensive center fielder to right to make room for you, you know you have some serious big league potential.

    Such is the case with Peter Bourjos, who took over center field from Torii Hunter when he entered the major leagues in 2010.

    Bourjos took the position over full time in 2011, and not only excelled defensively, but also proved that he may be the fastest man in Major League Baseball.

    Bourjos is still learning offensively, as proven by his 124 strikeouts last year, but progressed nicely and was able to put together a solid season offensively.

    Bourjos would lead the American League in triples with 11, scored 72 runs, hit 12 home runs and stole 22 bases, all while batting a respectable .271. The average was even more impressive considering that Bourjos was only ably to hit .204 in 51 games in 2010.

    Bourjos could well be on his way to a Gold Glove award, and if he can cut down on his strikeouts, and get on base a bit more, he could be the Angels lead off man before long. He's still only 24, so becoming the west coast version of Jacoby Ellsbury is not yet out of the question.

LA Dodgers: Kenley Jansen, RHP

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    Yes, the Dodgers bullpen was terrible in 2011, and yes, he was unable to secure the closer job that eventually went to Javy Guerra, but Kenley Jansen may end up being the next great relief pitcher in baseball.

    The 24-year-old right-hander served well in a set up roll for the Dodgers in 2011. The big, strong strikeout reliever appeared in 51 games for Don Mattingly's ball club, saving five of them while posting a 2.85 ERA. Jensen posted ridiculous strikeout numbers, striking out 93 batters in only 53.2 innings pitched, for a SO/9 ratio of 16.1.

    Jansen finished seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2011, and could help anchor a much improved Dodger bullpen in 2012.

Miami Marlins: Gaby Sanchez, 1B

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    The Marlins made plenty of waves this offseason by adding Jose Reyes, Heath Bell, Mark Buerhle and Carlos Zambrano to go along with a promising young core of Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton.

    Despite being selected as an All-Star for the first time in 2011, Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez may be the least recognized of all of Miami's bright young stars.

    The quick-handed line-drive hitter has been a model of consistency in his first two full seasons in the majors. Almost duplicating his 2011 numbers that saw him finish fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, Sanchez hit 19 home runs, finished second on the team with 78 RBI, scored 72 runs, hit .266 with a .779 OPS.

    Another promising trend for Sanchez, is from 2011 to 2012, his strikeouts went down (101 in 2010, 97 in 2011) and his walks went up (57 in 2010, and an NL eighth best 74 in 2011).

    With all the new talent in Miami, and the young stars on the rise, the Marlins could have an all-star player in Gaby Sanchez batting as low as seventh in their lineup. Sure, some of the Marlins higher profile players may steal the spotlight in 2012, but Sanchez is sure to still be a solid as they come, and a 100-plus RBI season is not out of the question.

Milwaukee Brewers: Jonathan Lucroy, C

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    When you play with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and a guy who wins the MVP award in Ryan Braun, you're bound to get overlooked.

    Such may be the case with Milwaukee receiver Jonathan Lucroy. In just his second season, Lucroy took over the full-time catching job, and was very good. He controlled the pitching staff, and threw out a respectable 28-percent of would-be base stealers.

    Cather is a defensive position first, but Lucroy prove proficient with the bat as well. Upping his offensive production across the board, the 25-year-old backstop hit .265, with 12 home runs, 59 RBI and a .703 OPS. Very solid numbers for a catcher who bats in the lower half of the lineup.

    With Prince Fielder in Detroit, the Brewers may have to rely on further production from Lucroy at the dish. If he continues to improve, he'll no doubt be an all-star before long.

Minnesota Twins: Danny Valencia, 3B

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    After playing slightly more than half a season in 2010, and still finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting, Twins third baseman Danny Valencia took a step back in his first full season in 2011.

    Valencia got off to a slow start, but was still able to put up respectable numbers, especially at third base, which has become more of a defensive position over the past few seasons.

    Playing in 154 games in 2011, Valencia hit only .246, but did belt 15 home runs, scored 63 runs and lead the team in RBI with 72. Not bad for a down year, especially when you consider the fact that Valencia was playing in a new ballpark for the first time, and the Twins were without Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau for most of the year.

    A solid defensive third baseman, Valencia did commit 18 errors, but still led the AL in assists at the position and finished third in the AL in fielding percentage.

    If the 27-year-old Valencia can build upon the strong showing he had in 2010, he should anchor the Twins' hot corner for years to come.

New York Mets: Lucas Duda, RF

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    The Mets have not been good for a few seasons now, and things look like they'll get worse before they get better, meaning there will be plenty of players on this squad that fans don't know in 2012.

    Lucas Duda had his second call-up to Queens in 2011, after a brief stint for the Mets the previous September. It was a year to forget for Mets fans, but one of the few bright spots turned out to be the young first baseman/outfielder.

    Duda took over right field duties full-time after Carlos Beltran was dealt to the Giants, and provided much needed pop for a lineup that not only was missing Beltran after the trade, but also Ike Davis and David Wright due to injuries.

    The 25year-old played 100 games for the Mets in 2011. Duda belted 10 home runs, drove in 50 runs, batted .292 and had an OPS of .852. Of his 88 hits on the season, 34 went for extra bases.

    The Mets will need plenty of help in 2012, so Duda will get every chance to prove that 2011 was not a fluke. 

New York Yankees: Eduardo Nunez, IF

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    When you have some aging veterans, as the Yankees do, it becomes ever more important to have quality bench players who can step in when needed, with as little drop-off in production as possible.

    The Yankees got very good numbers from much of their lineup in 2011, and while guys like Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson were among the AL MVP contenders, the most valuable Yankee may have been a little know, 24-year-old infielder named Eduardo Nunez.

    In his first full season, Nunez's put up respectable numbers. He batted .265, scored 38 runs and stole 22 bases in 112 games, but to judge Nunez's value strictly through numbers is not doing him justice.

    Nunez played six different positions for the Yankees in 2011, including all three outfield spots, and did so with relative ease. He spent extensive time on the left side of the infield, playing a combined 90 games filling in for injured superstars Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, playing well enough to help keep the Yankees in contention.

    Nunez is still young, and may have a future in the Bronx as more and more of the core Yankees from the early 2000's retire.

Oakland Athletics: Brandon McCarthy, RHP

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    The Oakland Athletics looked to have one of the better young starting rotations in baseball at the start of 2011, that is until numerous injuries hit the likes of Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson.

    Oakland did get some quality seasons from Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, but with those two players traded this offseason, and Anderson and Braden doubtful for Opening Day, the A's new ace is another young right-hander who quietly had a very solid 2011 campaign.

    Enter Brandon McCarthy, who made his debut with the White Sox as a 21-year-old in 2005, was ineffective before and after being traded to Texas, and didn't pitch at all in the Major Leagues in 2010.

    Still after signing with the A's McCarthy stayed healthy and made the rotation. He made 25 starts, pitched 170.2 innings, both career highs, and posted an ERA of 3.32. His record was only 9-9, but McCarthy finished second in the AL in complete games with five, third in walks/9 at 1.32, and ninth in WHIP at 1.13. His strikeout/walk ration of 4.92 was not only good for second in the AL, but also an A's record.

    McCarthy will start 2012 as the Oakland ace, and if he can stay healthy, the 27-year-old righty could hold the spot for years to come. 

Philadelphia Phillies: Antonio Bastardo, LHP

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    Any pitcher not named Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee has a chance to get overlooked in Philadelphia, especially when that pitcher is a set-up reliever, but make no mistake, Antonio Bastardo is the real deal.

    The left-handed reliever with the sharp slider and tailing fastball put together a very good year out of the Philadelphia pen after a less than stellar 2010 campaign.

    Bastardo appeared in 64 games in 2011, finishing 15 of them for eight saves. In 58 innings pitched, Bastardo had an ERA of 2.64, a 0.931 WHIP and 70 strikeouts, good for a whopping strikeout/9 ratio of 10.9.

    Batters hit only .144 against Bastardo, a number that looks even better since he was equally tough against right-handed batters as he was against lefties (.143 AVG vs righties, .145 AVG vs lefties).

    Bastard throws in the low-to-mid 90's, but has all the stuff of a future closer. He'll help make the Phils a tough out once again in 2012.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Neil Walker, 2B

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    After almost two decades of losing, the Pirates showed flashes in 2011 that a possible resurgence could be just around the corner.

    While much of the spotlight was on Andrew McCutcheon, and the struggles of Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker quietly was proving to be on of the better young second baggers in baseball.

    Much improved with his glove last year, Walker continued to progress on a solid rookie year in 2010 that saw him finish fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

    His batting average fell 23 points to .273, but Walker hit 12 home runs, and set career bests in hits with 163, runs with 76, doubles with 36 and stolen bases with nine. His 83 RBI were good for second on the team, and to put that number into perspective, was one more RBI than all-star second baseman Brandon Phillips.

    Pitching is still an issue in Pittsburgh, but the Pirates have a bunch of young talented players on offense, and the 26-year-old Walker has a real shot at representing the Steel City in many All-Star games to come.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fernando Salas, RHP

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    Jason Motte was the closer in St. Louis for their surprise run to another World Series title, but between Motte getting hot and Ryan Franklin faltering, the Cardinals went through a litany of closers.

    Fernando Salas was the guy who held the closer's job the longest last season in St. Louis. During that time, Salas saved 24 games in 30 chances, posted a 2.28 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 75 innings pitched.

    The numbers are solid, but only tell half the story as right-handed reliever steadied a bullpen that saw eight different pitchers earn at least one save. No other pitcher in the Cardinals' pen, including Motte, was able to hold on to the job for more than a week or so, until Salas took over.

    After his stellar postseason, Jason Motte looks to start 2012 as the redbirds' closer, with Salas as his set-up man. Both guys have the stuff to close, and have proven it. The two could help the St. Louis relief corps, which less than a year ago seemed to be the team's weakness, be one of the better ones in the National League this year.

San Diego Padres: Yonder Alonso, 1B

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    The post-Adrian Gonzalez era at first base in San Diego was supposed to belong to Anthony Rizzo, a prospect the club received from the Red Sox in exchange for Gonzalez. After Rizzo played poorly in his time with the big club last year, the Padres sent Mat Latos to the Reds for a package that included first base prospect Yonder Alonso.

    Alonso played in 47 games in 2011 for the Reds. His bat was there, as the 6'2", 240-pound University of Miami product clubbed five home runs and 15 RBI in only 88 at-bats, while also producing a .330 batting average and .943 OPS, but his glove was a different story.

    Since first base in the Queen City is currently occupied by former NL MVP Joey Votto, the Reds tried to convert Alonso into a left fielder. The experiment failed miserably, as Alonso proved to be too big and slow to play the outfield.

    With nowhere to play him, Alonso was dealt to San Diego in one of those rare baseball trades that make sense for both teams. Now the cash-strapped Padres have a young, powerful, slugging first baseman they have under their control for a few more years.

    Anthony Rizzo has since been traded to the Cubs, meaning Alonso could step right in as the Padres starting first baseman. It may not belong before he makes the San Diego faithful forget all about Adrian Gonzalez. 

San Francisco Giants: Sergio Romo, RHP

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    Despite their increased  importance, set-up men are almost always the most overlooked men on the team.

    Such is the case of Sergio Romo, San Francisco's terrific reliever, who, in a staff of some of the best young starters in baseball, and an all-star closer with a larger than life persona, probably isn't as well known as he should be (even the guy's beard gets overlooked compared to Brian Wilson's).

    Still, Romo is just as important to the Giants as any pitcher on the team. He quietly had an excellent season in 2010, when the Giants won it all, and was even better in 2011.

    Romo appeared in 65 games last season. He went 3-1, with an ERA of 1.50. He gave up only eight runs all season, and posted astounding numbers numbers with a 0.708 WHIP, a 13.1 SO/9 and a 14 SO/BB ratio (70 strikeouts compared to only five walks).

    Romo throws heat, and has excellent control. He may be the games best set-up man, and no doubt will end up a closer, either in San Francisco or elsewhere, before his career is over.

Seattle Mariners: Mike Carp, LF/1B/DH

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    After seeing limited action in 2009 and 2010 with brief call-ups by the Mariners, Mike Carp got a chance to to play in 2011, and made the most of it.

    The 25-year-old lefty played fist base and the outfield for the Mariners in 2011. In 79 games, Carp showed promise and some pop, belting 30 extra base hits (including 12 home runs) in fewer than 300 at-bats. He did strikeout an average of more than once per game, whiffing 81 times, but was still able to manage a respectable batting average and on-base percentage of .276 and .326, respectively.

    Carp has a big fluid swing, has power to all fields and can play either first base, the outfield or DH. With the rebuilding process that's continuing in Seattle, it's not out of the question for Carp to begin 2012 as the Mariner's clean-up man.

Tampa Bay Rays: Wade Davis, RHP

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    When a starting rotation has David Price, James Sheilds, Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and phenom Matt Moore, it's easy to be the forgotten man, like Wade Davis is.

    In his first two seasons in the Major Leagues, the big powerful right-hander has been one of the more consistent young hurlers in the American League.

    Starting 29 games each of the last two seasons, Davis has posted double-digit win totals both years, winning 12 games in 2010 followed by 11 last year. While his ERA and WHIP numbers are on the high side, 4.45 and 1.38 in 2011, respectively, Wade has managed to increase his innings total each year, tossing a career-best 184 last season.

    Is Wade in the same class as the other members of his rotation? No, but considering he's in his mid-20's, only been in the league two full seasons and pitches in arguably the toughest division in baseball, it's easy to see there is a lot to like about Wade Davis.

    To put Davis into better perspective, how many teams would love to have a fifth starter who is young, has a winning record and a legitimate chance to toss 200-plus innings? 

Texas Rangers: Mike Napoli, C/1B

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    Mike Napoli made the first incarnation of this list, as a member of the Angels in 2009, and while he may be better known now, especially after having a great postseason, he makes this list again because he continually is overlooked amongst the best catchers in baseball.

    Maybe that statement sounds ridiculous, but after a career season for the Rangers that saw Napoli hit, .320, score 72 runs, drive in 75 runs, and finish 10th in the AL in home runs (30), slugging percentage (.631), and OPS (1.046), it's time to put Napoli's name in the discussion. He has hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last four seasons, a feat no other catcher in baseball besides Brian McCann has matched.

    Napoli's reputation for defensive struggles may be much exaggerated as well. In 2011, the Rangers' receiver threw out the third highest percentage of runners in the AL at 32.3 percent, and had the lowest catcher's ERA in the league at 3.16.

    Do you know Mike Napoli? Probably, but do you really know how good Mike Napoli is? Probably not. If this doesn't convince you, go compare him to some other catchers who been named all-stars. The numbers are probably closer than you'd think.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow, RHP

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    2011 was Brandon Morrow's fifth season in the Major Leagues, and it was by far his best.

    Still only 27, Morrow stepped into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Ricky Romero after Shaun Marcum was sent to Milwaukee. He answered the call with a very solid season, just his second as a full-time starter.

    Morrow posted a .500 record at 11-11, and a rather high 4.72 ERA pitching in the tough AL East, but some of his other numbers were very good.

    Morrow made a career-high 30 starts in 2011. In his 179.1 innings pitched, Morrow struck out 203 batters (seventh in the AL), and lead the American League with SO/9 ratio of 10.9. Solid numbers to build on indeed.

    While he did have four different games were he totaled 10 or more strikeouts, Morrow has had bouts with inconsistency. In other words, he can be lights out, or extremely hittable. If he can find a middle ground, Morrow and Romero will give the Jays a solid one-two punch in the starting rotation.

Washington Nationals: Michael Morse, 1B/OF

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    Question: Who was the only first baseman in the National League East last season to hit .300, with 30 or more home runs and 90 or more RBI?

    Most people would probably answer Ryan Howard, but that would be incorrect. The correct answer would be Michael Morse of the Washington Nationals.

    The offensive output the Nats thought they would be getting from free agent signee Jayson Werth, actually came from a player who had a breakout season after barely getting a shot in his first six seasons in the majors.

    Morse was a rock for Washington last year, showing virtually the same production both pre and post all-star break. He would lead the team in almost every major offensive category as Morse would finish the season batting .303, with 31 home runs, 95 RBI, 73 runs scored and a .910 OPS. He finished in the top 10 in the National League in batting average, slugging (.550), OPS, doubles (36), home runs and RBI.

    With Adam LaRoche returning from injury in 2012, Morse will move to the outfield, but his position as the big bat in the Nationals lineup is secure. Morse is the perfect fit for Washington, as both are on a rapid rise in the consciousness of baseball fans.

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