MLB Free Agents 2014: The Most Underrated Player at Each Position
Whether it's due to our preconceived notions of a player, the other names available at the position on the free-agent market or regular-season performances that don't jump off the page and demand attention, there are a handful of players who, every year, fall into the underrated category on the open market.
These are the players who become afterthoughts, the fallback option for teams when they swing and miss in their attempts to acquire their first, second and third choices to upgrade a specific position. They're the equivalent of the "safe school" that we apply to when trying to pick what college we're going to attend.
We don't really want to go there, but if all else fails, we will—and more often than not, the school exceeds our expectations.
While the start of free agency is still a few weeks away, it's never too early to begin to take stock of the market. Here's the player at each position who could contribute to a team's success—but whom nobody's really going to be beating down the door to sign out of the gate.
Catcher: Dioner Navarro
An All-Star with Tampa Bay in 2008, Dioner Navarro revitalized his career with the Cubs this season, posting the best offensive numbers of his career while playing solid defense and, most importantly, serving as a valuable mentor for starting backstop Wellington Castillo.
What he's done, and the big hits and the home runs in a small sample is about as good as you get from that position ... He's done a great job with Welly. It's nice to have people that know that's their role and when they're called upon they do the best they can.
While he hasn't caught more than 100 games since 2009 and will be overshadowed on the free-agent market by players like Brian McCann, A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the soon-to-be 30-year-old is one of the better catching options available whom nobody's going to be talking about.
Whether it's as part of a platoon—the switch-hitting Navarro has been at his best against left-handed pitching—or as a starter, a team is going to wind up with a bargain when they bring Navarro into the fold.
First Base: Lyle Overbay
Thrust into a starting role with the Yankees after Mark Teixeira was essentially lost for the season due to a wrist injury he suffered getting ready for the World Baseball Classic, Lyle Overbay proved that he's still got some game left in his tank.
Overbay ranked second on the Yankees in RBI, third in home runs and doubles (24) and fourth in hits (107). Defensively, his 3.7 UZR/150 was ninth-best among qualified first basemen while his five defensive runs saved was the eighth-highest at the position, according to FanGraphs.
Realistically, Overbay would best be served as part of a platoon at this point in his career, as he was significantly better against right-handed pitching than southpaws, but for a team looking for a low-cost, low-risk placeholder at first base for a season, Overbay would be a terrific addition.
Second Base: Kelly Johnson
He strikes out a ton and is no better than an average defender, but Kelly Johnson is the kind of veteran bat who can help fill the void for a team in the middle of the infield at a relatively minimal cost.
Johnson has posted double-digit home runs and at least 50 RBI in six of the past seven seasons despite being constantly moved around the diamond, and while those numbers aren't earth-shattering by any means, they're more than adequate for a super-utility player that isn't a major defensive liability at any of the multiple positions that he can play.
Third Base: Juan Uribe
After hitting .199/.262/.289 with six home runs and 45 RBI combined in 2011 and 2012, 33-year-old Juan Uribe has enjoyed a career renaissance with the Dodgers this season, producing at the plate while providing phenomenal defense at the hot corner.
Via FanGraphs, Uribe led all qualified third basemen with a 35.3 UZR/150 this season, while his 15 defensive runs saved ranked third, trailing Manny Machado (35) and Nolan Arenado (30) while besting the marks of Evan Longoria (12), Josh Donaldson (11) and David Wright (five).
Players like Michael Young, Mark Reynolds and even the oft-injured Kevin Youkilis will draw more headlines this winter, but Uribe is arguably the best third basemen on the market—and chances are that he'll be paid as such, whether it comes from the Dodgers or another team looking to bolster the position.
Shortstop: Brendan Ryan
He's about as limited an offensive player as you'll find in baseball, with no discernible ability to hit for average, get on base consistently or provide any significant speed when he gets on base.
But few shortstops in baseball can match up with the 31-year-old when he's got a glove on his hand.
According to FanGraphs, since the start of the 2011 season, only Clint Barmes (12.3) has a higher UZR/150 than Ryan (11.2), while no qualified shortstop comes close to his 51 defensive runs saved, with Barmes' 39 DRS a distant second.
For a team that is looking to shore up its defense up the middle and isn't all that concerned about production from the position, there isn't a better option on the free-agent market than Ryan, who isn't going to command a significant salary due to his offensive limitations.
Left Field: David Murphy
Always overshadowed in his own outfield by the likes of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton, David Murphy put together the worst offensive season of his career in 2013, struggling to hit for average or get on base with any regularity.
It's easy to forget that from 2008 through 2012, Murphy was a .283/.346/.795 hitter who provided some pop and speed in Texas' lineup while playing solid defense in left field.
He's not an All-Star-caliber player by any means, and with his dreadful numbers in 2013, his asking price is sure to be considerably lower than it would have been had he played up to his previous level of play.
Between his relatively low salary and track record of success, Murphy, who will be 32 years old on Opening Day 2014, could be one of the steals of the winter.
Center Field: Franklin Gutierrez
It's been three years since Franklin Gutierrez was able to stay healthy enough to play more than 100 games, and the results were impressive, with the center fielder hitting a dozen home runs, swiping 25 bases and winning a Gold Glove Award.
That shaky injury history will be the reason why Seattle declines the $7.5 million option that the team holds on the 31-year-old outfielder for 2014, giving him a chance to play the free-agent market.
Aside from his health, Gutierrez comes with a number of red flags: He's allergic to drawing walks (a career 6.4 percent walk rate), he strikes out a lot (a career 20.8 percent whiff rate), and he doesn't hit for average (a career .256 hitter), all via FanGraphs.
But when he's healthy, Gutierrez's glove more than makes up for his issues at the plate, and his power is legitimate. If a team can keep him healthy, perhaps limiting his playing time by platooning him with a left-handed batter in center field, allowing the right-handed Gutierrez to play only against southpaws, the payoff could be considerable.
Right Field: David DeJesus
A versatile outfielder who is capable of playing above-average defense at all three positions, David DeJesus isn't going to be one of the most ballyhooed free agents on the market this winter—but he may be one of the most valuable.
Not only do his versatility and glove make him an intriguing addition for any club, but he's no slouch at the plate either, capable of hitting for average, providing some pop and, most importantly, getting on base consistently near the top of a team's lineup.
While he lacks the top-end speed that most teams prefer in the leadoff spot, the soon-to-be 34-year-old has enough to advance from first to third on balls hit down the line or into the outfield gaps and can serve as a low-cost table-setter for any team that signs him to a new deal this winter.
Starting Pitcher: Bronson Arroyo
He's not a strikeout artist by any means, surrenders entirely too many home runs (his 32 were more than any other pitcher on the senior circuit this season) and is looking for a three-year deal, all things that will be working against Bronson Arroyo, who will celebrate his 37th birthday before Opening Day 2014.
But as he told reporters, including the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo, there's plenty for teams to like about what he has to offer:
I feel I can pitch effectively at 37, 38, and 39 years old. I’ve never missed a start. Never been injured. I’m not a max-effort guy out there, so there’s no big-time wear and tear on me. I loved Cincinnati but I don’t think they’re in position to give me what I want.
Arroyo has logged at least 200 innings in eight of the past nine seasons, falling one inning shy of the mark in 2011. Despite his penchant for surrendering the long ball, he's pitched to a 3.72 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over the past two seasons, averaging more than 3.5 strikeouts for every walk that he issued.
In 2013, Arroyo posted as many quality starts as aces such as Madison Bumgarner, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, beating the likes of David Price, Stephen Strasburg and Jered Weaver by at least four.
While there's always some risk in signing a veteran hurler who is closer to his 40th birthday than his 30th to any deal, Arroyo is about as consistent a starter as you'll find on the open market this winter.
Closer: Joaquin Benoit
A middle reliever for nearly all of his 12-year major league career, 36-year-old Joaquin Benoit thrived in the ninth inning after Detroit manager Jim Leyland finally named him the team's official closer in mid-June, blowing only two saves and solidifying what had been a major weak spot for the team.
Yet for as well as the 36-year-old pitched this season, he's sure to be overshadowed by bigger names on the free-agent market like Grant Balfour, Fernando Rodney and Brian Wilson, with some teams viewing him as more of a middle reliever than a closer—and looking to pay him middle-reliever money.
But money may not be the end-all, be-all that decides where he's pitching in 2014.
While Benoit knows that his future may lie elsewhere, as he told George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press, it's clear that he'd prefer to remain in Detroit past this season:
I’m not the kind of guy that likes to say I’m going to be here for the rest of my life.
I think whatever decision they make is going to be great. If they decide to go with me as a closer, I’m happy. If they decide to give me another chance and help them, being, being his (Bruce Rondon's) set-up man, I would be happy, too.
Wherever Benoit winds up, that team will be getting an experienced, versatile reliever who can handle nearly any situation that the team wants to put him in.
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