Highlighting MLB's Must-Know Small-Market Stars

Jason MartinezContributor IMay 30, 2014

Highlighting MLB's Must-Know Small-Market Stars

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    Brantley is quietly emerging as a superstar in Cleveland.
    Brantley is quietly emerging as a superstar in Cleveland.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    If you don't follow baseball closely enough to pick out the best players on each and every MLB team, regardless of how small of a market or how recognizable that player may be, you are forgiven.

    You probably have other priorities like work, family and other fun hobbies that don't involve cheering for your favorite baseball team, playing in a friendly fantasy baseball league or watching an occasional ballgame.

    While you've been focusing on your life, several players that you probably don't know much about because they play on small-market teams that aren't normally playing the nationally televised "games of the week" are or have emerged as MLB stars.

    Here are eight of those such players.

Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians

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    Michael Brantley has been in the majors since 2009 and had accumulated nearly four years of MLB service time coming into the season, all with the Cleveland Indians. He's not a household name, but he's been a decent player long enough for you to probably know who he is.

    And that is a solid, yet far from spectacular player with a career .711 OPS and a 162-game average of nine homers and 18 stolen bases. That's even less impressive when you consider that he's a corner outfielder. 

    The 27-year-old, who was the player-to-be-named-later in the midseason 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers, is breaking that perception in 2014, though. 

    In the midst of a 14-game hitting streak, Brantley has raised his average to .310, while his OPS is sitting at .887. He's already one homer shy of his career high of nine homers and on pace for a 27-homer, 24-stolen base season. And his power increase hasn't come at the expense of his always strong plate discipline. He has 19 walks and 19 strikeouts on the season.

    The Indians' poor 24-30 start has further buried Brantley under the radar, though he's cemented himself as the No. 3 hitter in a lineup that is surrounded by some pretty good talent, even if they are underperforming as a whole.

Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    Starring in the postseason is one of the best ways to become a household name in the major leagues. But before baseball fans could ask who is this Sonny Gray kid who pitched eight shutout innings in Game 1 of the ALDS, the Oakland Athletics were knocked out of the playoffs in a five-game series defeat to the Detroit Tigers.

    Gray was also spectacular during the regular season, but his first MLB start didn't happen until August 10. A good portion of baseball fans, whether it is because their favorite team is no longer in the playoff race or their fantasy baseball team has fallen out of contention, aren't paying as much attention by then.

    As a result, the 24-year-old Gray's emergence as the staff ace on one of the best teams in baseball has fallen a bit under the radar.

    In 11 starts, the right-hander has a 2.31 ERA (74 IP, 59 H, 24 BB, 60 K) while holding opponents to a measly .217 batting average. The biggest indicator of his dominance is a 91 percent quality start rate (at least 6 IP, no more than 3 ER allowed), which is probably unsustainable. Anything over 65 percent is very good.

Greg Holland, RP, Kansas City Royals

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    Maybe it's because he's only 5'10". Maybe it's because he pitches for the Kansas City Royals. But it seems like Greg Holland should be getting a lot more attention after posting numbers that could almost be viewed as Craig Kimbrel-like in 2013, his first full season as a closer.

    In 68 games, the right-hander posted a 1.21 ERA with 47 saves in 50 chances, a 2.4 BB/9 and 13.8 K/9. He hasn't slowed down in 2014, posting a 1.74 ERA with 15 saves in 16 chances, a 2.7 BB/9 and 12.8 K/9. 

    Armed with a 95 mph fastball and one of the filthiest breaking balls around, the 28-year-old Holland isn't a welcome sight for hitters in the ninth inning. 

    Now if the Royals can just turn things around—they're 24-28 after four consecutive losses—Holland can make a run at 50 saves and become recognized as one of the best closers, if not the best closer, in the game. 

Dallas Keuchel, SP, Houston Astros

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    Dallas Keuchel wasn't a very good pitcher on the worst team in baseball in 2013. He posted a 5.15 ERA and allowed 20 homers in 153.2 innings. The 26-year-old lefty came into spring camp without a guaranteed spot on the team that just about everyone was picking to be awful again. 

    Of course no one knows who he is. But that's slowly changing. 

    Not only are the Astros showing signs of life, with 12 wins in their last 18 games to bring their overall record to 23-32, but Keuchel has been the team's ace. And not just "ace" in terms of being the best pitcher on the staff. He has actually pitched like a true "staff ace."

    In 10 starts, the former seventh-round pick out of the University of Arkansas has a 2.55 ERA with a 1.5 BB/9, 7.8 K/9 and an average of seven innings pitched per game.

    If opposing hitters are making adjustments to Keuchel after word spread during his early-season success, it's not working.

    He's pitched complete games in two of his last three starts and came within one out of a complete game in the other start, allowing two earned runs with one walk and 15 strikeouts combined over the three games.

Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers

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    It's not impossible to be a star for the Milwaukee Brewers. Ryan Braun has proven that, and Carlos Gomez has certainly joined him after a 2013 season in which he had 61 extra-base hits, won a Gold Glove award and stole 40 bases.

    Becoming a star on a small-market team that already has two hitting stars, though, is the challenge that catcher Jonathan Lucroy faces.

    But take a look at what he's done over the past three seasons, and it's hard to not include him amongst the best catchers in the game. 

    Since 2012, the 27-year-old has an .836 OPS with a 162-game average of 18 homers, 35 doubles and 90 runs batted in. He's also leading a pitching staff that is one of the best in the game while hitting in the middle of the lineup for the first-place Brewers. 

Brandon Moss, 1B/OF, Oakland Athletics

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    Signed as a minor league free agent prior to the 2012 season, Brandon Moss began his career with the Oakland Athletics with Triple-A Sacramento.

    When he finally debuted with the A's in early June, he was considered a 28-year-old journeyman who had spent most of his career in the minors. The A's were willing to give him a chance, however, after Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue struggled to grab a hold of the first base job. 

    While he's bounced between first base, right field and the designated hitter spot, Moss established himself right away as the power-hitting lefty the team needed in the middle of their lineup. 

    Since Moss' first start on June 6, 2012, he's posted a .901 OPS with a 162-game average of 37 homers, 31 doubles and 105 runs batted in. The A's are 198-125 over that span. It's hard for Moss to do much more without becoming a household name. 

Tyson Ross, SP, San Diego Padres

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    An inconsistent pitcher with the Oakland A's, Tyson Ross was unable to secure a spot in their starting rotation before he was traded to the San Diego Padres.

    The change of scenery has not only helped him become reliable enough to let him take the mound every fifth day, the 27-year-old has been ace-like very often. Since Ross was moved into the starting rotation on July 23, he's posted a 2.76 ERA with 49 walks and 150 strikeouts in 159.2 innings pitched.

    While his splits show that he's much better at Petco Park than on the road, especially in 2014 (1.54 ERA at home; 5.02 ERA on the road), Ross isn't exactly a walk in the park for opposing teams facing him in their home stadium.

    With a mid-90s fastball and a slider that's unhittable at times, Ross is capable of shutting down an opponent on any given day and in any given ball park.

Seth Smith, OF, San Diego Padres

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    In 2011, Seth Smith took advantage of a career-high 533 plate appearances by posting an .830 OPS with 15 homers, 32 doubles, nine triples and 10 stolen bases for the Colorado Rockies. Yet, for some strange reason, he was traded to the Oakland A's following the season for pitchers Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. 

    The A's, with a crowded outfield situation, were only able to give him a part-time role in 2012-13, and Smith contributed to the back-to-back division champs with a .738 OPS while averaging 11 homers, 25 doubles and 121 games. 

    Undervalued once again, the A's traded Smith to the San Diego Padres this past offseason for reliever Luke Gregerson. Headed for sporadic playing time again, possibly, in one of the least hitter-friendly ballparks in the game, no one would've predicted that the 31-year-old Smith would be headed for his best season as a big leaguer.

    Injuries to Cameron Maybin and Carlos Quentin opened up an opportunity for regular playing time, but it didn't take Smith long to establish that he was easily the best hitter on the team.

    While that doesn't say much, considering that the Padres offense is the worst in the majors by far, Smith has been one of the best hitters in the game with a .966 OPS, six home runs, 13 doubles, three triples and 24 walks in 46 games.

    And, most surprisingly, he's treating Petco Park as if it was Coors Field. In 26 home games, Smith has a 1.139 OPS with four homers, nine doubles and three triples, which is a remarkable feat considering how hard it is, historically, to be even an average hitter there.