MLB's All-Under-The-Radar Team Entering Spring Training 2017

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2017

MLB's All-Under-The-Radar Team Entering Spring Training 2017

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    Could a breakout season be coming from James Paxton?
    Could a breakout season be coming from James Paxton?Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    We've spent plenty of time this offseason talking about top prospects, breakout candidates and proven veterans gearing up for another big year.

    But what about the guys no one is talking about?

    Whether it's a top prospect who has taken a little longer than expected to develop, a somewhat forgotten player working his way back from injury or something else altogether, a player can go overlooked for a number of reasons.

    So with that in mind, ahead is our all-under-the-radar team heading into spring training.

    We've chosen a player from each position, five starting pitchers and a reliever who deserve more attention than they're getting this winter and attempted to shine a light on why they're going unnoticed.

Catcher: Andrew Susac, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (A+/AAA)

    72 G, .254/.320/.408, 66 H, 14 2B, 8 HR, 41 RBI, 32 R

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    Andrew Susac was the No. 1 prospect in the San Francisco Giants system and the No. 88 prospect in baseball at the start of the 2015 season, according to Baseball America.

    At one point, it looked like his eventual arrival in San Francisco could facilitate a move out of the crouch for Buster Posey.

    Instead, he was shipped out as a trade chip last summer in the deal that netted setup reliever Will Smith from the Milwaukee Brewers.

    "I think the opportunity is good here for me and what I want to do as far as baseball going forward," he told Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "The Giants were good to me. They always treated me well and Buster was always good to me. It's not bad to learn from that type of top-tier player, either. Definitely more opportunity here, I think."

    With 238 at-bats under his belt in the majors but little proven at the MLB level, Susac finds himself in the gray area between prospect and established big leaguer.

    However, the 26-year-old still has the tools to be a starting catcher at the highest level, and he's the front-runner to break camp with the starting job ahead of Jett Bandy and Manny Pina.

First Baseman: D.J. Peterson, Seattle Mariners

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (AA/AAA)

    119 G, .264/.327/.455, 120 H, 28 2B, 19 HR, 78 RBI, 57 R

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    When a player reaches Double-A in his first full season as a pro, it's generally a good sign that he's on the fast track to MLB success.

    That's was D.J. Peterson.

    After going No. 12 overall in the 2013 draft, he hit .297/.360/.552 with 31 doubles, 31 home runs and 111 RBI the following year.

    Fast forward two years, and there was a legitimate question whether he'd be added to the 40-man roster and protected from the Rule 5 draft this offseason.

    "At the end of the day, we had the (roster) space. And we don’t think he’s played his best baseball. We wanted to give him a chance to stay in the organization and see what he can do," general manager Jerry Dipoto told Bob Dutton of the Seattle News Tribune.

    A rebound in OPS from .633 to .782 was certainly a positive sign this past season.

    He may not develop into the All-Star slugger that many were anticipating, but he'll have a chance to compete for the right-handed side of a platoon with fellow rookie Dan Vogelbach at first base.

Second Baseman: Cory Spangenberg, San Diego Padres

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    Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    14 G, .229/.302/.354, 11 H, 1 2B, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 6 R, 0.4 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    Cory Spangenberg began the 2016 season as the San Diego Padres starting second baseman, but he played in just 14 games before an injury to his left quad muscle ended his season. 

    In his absence, Ryan Schimpf turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the season.

    Seeing his first big league action at the age of 28, Schimpf posted an .869 OPS with 17 doubles and 20 home runs over 330 plate appearances. 

    While he was a great story, a .217 batting average, 31.8 percent strikeout rate and a 17.7 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio all raise questions about whether a repeat performance is in the cards.

    Meanwhile, Spangenberg looked like a potential longterm piece after a strong rookie season of his own in 2015.

    The former first-round pick hit .271 with 26 extra-base hits and nine stolen bases while playing 108 games in a super utility role, posting a 2.1 WAR along the way.

    The 25-year-old should have every chance to win back his starting gig this spring, and his combination of speed and contact skills could make him a catalyst for the young offense.

Third Baseman: Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    110 G, .285/.331/.496, 25 2B, 18 HR, 58 RBI, 54 R, 1.6 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    If not for an injury, we might be talking about Nick Castellanos as one of the game's budding young stars.

    The Detroit Tigers third baseman was hitting .291/.332/.508 with 22 doubles, 18 home runs and 57 RBI at the end of July, but he played just nine games over the final two months after suffering a broken left hand.

    Extrapolating his 2016 stats line over 162 games leaves you with:

    • .285 BA, .827 OPS, 37 2B, 27 HR, 85 RBI, 80 R, 2.4 WAR

    By all accounts, that would have been a breakout season for someone who has seemingly been in the league for years but is still only 24 years old.

    Third base is a deep position and home to some of the game's truly elite talentsKris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado—so it's easy to see why someone like Castellanos could be overlooked, especially coming off a season that was cut short.

    He's capable of taking another step forward in 2017, though, and is probably deserving of a bit more attention.

Shortstop: Matt Duffy, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    91 G, .258/.310/.357, 86 H, 14 2B, 5 HR, 28 RBI, 41 R, 1.6 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    "The Rays Make a Smart Bet on Matt Duffy."

    That was the headline from Dave Cameron of FanGraphs on Aug. 1 after Tampa Bay sent starter Matt Moore to the San Francisco Giants for Duffy and a pair of prospects.

    Here's what he wrote to conclude the piece:

    As a guy with some legitimate contact skills and some real defensive value, Duffy’s an interesting player even if 2015 goes down as his career year. Even if he’s just Martin Prado with a better glove, that’s still a nice player, and a guy the Rays should be pretty thrilled to get back for a starting pitcher they didn’t really need. And if Duffy wasn’t just a creation of the Giants Magical Infielder Production System, and there’s some more power to be unlocked in the future, well, this could go down as a terrific deal for the Rays.

    Duffy finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2015 with a .762 OPS, 28 doubles, 12 home runs and 77 RBI en route to a 4.9 WAR.

    However, his lack of a prospect pedigree and some inflated peripheral stats begged the question if those numbers were repeatable.

    A nagging Achilles injury this past season kept said questions from really being answered and eventually ended his season at the start of September.

    Now the Rays are set to find out exactly what they have in Duffy.

Outfielder: Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (AA/AAA)

    129 G, .321/.419/.581, 34 2B, 25 HR, 94 RBI, 79 R, 12/16 SB

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    The Seattle Mariners have been wheeling and dealing all offseason, yet it still looks like rookie Mitch Haniger has a solid opportunity to break camp with a starting gig in the outfield.

    The Mariners acquired the young slugger along with Jean Segura as part of the five-player blockbuster deal that sent Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks at the start of the offseason.

    "For us, Haniger became a critical element of the trade," GM Jerry Dipoto told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. "We like the player. We like the upside. We like his physicality."

    Added an opposing scout: "Haniger could end up being the most important player in that trade. There’s some potential."

    So why no love for Haniger in prospect circles?

    The fact that he turned 26 in December is probably the biggest reason.

    It's rare that a late-bloomer finds his way onto top prospect lists, but that doesn't mean Haniger can't still carve out an everyday role at the next level.

    Heck, maybe he will wind up being the most important player in that trade.

Outfielder: Trayce Thompson, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    80 G, .225/.302/.436, 53 H, 11 2B, 13 HR, 32 RBI, 31 R, 0.9 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    Trayce Thompson will likely never provide much in the way of batting average as a .241/.319/.429 hitter over parts of seven minor league seasons.

    His power is for real, though.

    The 25-year-old played in just 80 games last season and tallied 262 plate appearances, yet he managed to rack up 11 doubles and 13 home runs.

    A nagging back injury landed him on the disabled list in the middle of July, and it was later revealed that he had two fractured vertebrae in his lower back, an injury he's still in the process of recovering from.

    "The target we're looking at is early March and I think it's realistic, but I have to pace myself," he told Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. "If I'm not 100 percent then, it's not necessarily a terrible thing. I feel like I have a lot to catch up on. I have to keep in mind the big picture with a season to play. I want all the at-bats I can get, but Day One Opening Day is the goal."

    The closest thing the Los Angeles Dodgers found to a right-handed power bat for their lefty-heavy lineup this offseason was Logan Forsythe, who will likely be hitting leadoff.

    Thompson could push for the starting left field job once he's back to 100 percent.

Outfielder: Derek Fisher, Houston Astros

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (AA/AAA)

    129 G, .255/.367/.448, 122 H, 21 2B, 21 HR, 76 RBI, 71 R, 28/35 SB

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    The cream of the crop in the Houston Astros farm system has been in the news frequently this offseason as a result of the team's pursuit of a front-line starter.

    One name that's hardly ever mentioned is Derek Fisher.

    "Scouts still aren't sure what to make of Fisher," wrote MLB.com's Prospect Watch. "He has a pretty left-handed swing to go with considerable bat speed and raw power, giving him middle-of-the-order upside and 20-20 potential. Yet his feel for hitting isn't as impressive as his physical tools, and he swings and misses more than would be expected."

    The on-field results are tough to ignore.

    The 23-year-old has recorded back-to-back 20/25 seasons, and he reached Triple-A last year in just his second full season in the Houston organization.

    Baseball America ranked him as the No. 9 prospect in the Astros' organization this season, two spots behind fellow outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez.

    Don't be surprised if it's Fisher who winds up being a surprise contributor for a contending Houston team.

Starting Pitcher: James Paxton, Seattle Mariners

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    20 GS, 6-7, 3.79 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 24 BB, 117 K, 121.0 IP, 1.0 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    If you're a fan of advanced stats, you're already well aware of why James Paxton deserves more attention than he's getting this offseason.

    If not, allow me to explain.

    FIP or Fielder Independent Pitching is a measure of the facets of the game that a pitcher can control—home runs, strikeouts and walks—and it's converted into a number that is meant to mirror ERA.

    To put it simply, it's what a player's ERA should be and it's often a good predictor of positive or negative regression to come.

    While Paxton pitched to a rather nondescript 3.79 ERA over 20 starts last season, it was accompanied by a 2.80 FIP which was good for fourth-best among all pitchers with at least 120 innings of work.

    Only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez were better.

    Now that doesn't mean Paxton is going to be Kershaw in 2017.

    What it does mean is that he pitched a lot better last season than his surface numbers may lead you to believe, and a breakout season could be brewing.

Starting Pitcher: Tyler Skaggs, Los Angeles Angels

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    10 GS, 3-4, 4.17 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 23 BB, 50 K, 49.2 IP, 0.6 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    The health of ace Garrett Richards will be a big story for the Los Angeles Angels this spring after he opted for stem-cell therapy and rest in an effort to bounce back from a partially torn UCL.

    A healthy Tyler Skaggs could prove to be just as important.

    Skaggs missed the entire 2015 season and half of last year recovering from Tommy John surgery but returned with a bang against the Kansas City Royals on July 26 as he tossed seven scoreless innings.

    The 25-year-old was once viewed as one of the game's elite pitching prospects, checking in at No. 13 in 2012 and No. 12 in 2013 on Baseball America's top 100 prospect list.

    He has the stuff to be a quality No. 2/3 starter type with a mid-90s fastball, terrific curveball and decent changeup, and he's enjoyed some success in his limited MLB action.

    Now that he's proven himself healthy once again and had a normal offseason, he could finally be ready to take that next step.

    Don't underestimate what the Richards-Skaggs-Matt Shoemaker trio could mean for the Angels' chances of contending for a playoff spot in 2017.

Starting Pitcher: Zach Davies, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Jon Durr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    28 GS, 11-7, 3.97 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 38 BB, 135 K, 163.1 IP, 2.3 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    It's not often—or ever really—that you hear Zach Davies mentioned among the game's best young starting pitchers.

    That's just how it goes for a guy with an average fastball velocity of 89.3 mph who relies on a dynamite changeup as his best offering.

    And yet, 34 starts and 197.1 innings into his MLB career, the 24-year-old looks every bit the part of a cornerstone piece for the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers.

    During that span, Davies has gone 14-9 with a 3.92 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and a 159-to-53 strikeout-to-walk ratio while posting a 2.9 WAR.

    He may never be an ace, but there's no reason he can't be a consistent contributor in the rotation for the years to come.

    The Baltimore Orioles would no doubt use a mulligan if they could on the 2015 deadline deal that sent Davies to the Brewers for an over-performing rental in Gerardo Parra.

Starting Pitcher: Sean Manaea, Oakland Athletics

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    25 G, 24 GS, 7-9, 3.86 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 37 BB, 124 K, 144.2 IP, 2.7 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    Sean Manaea might have gone No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft if not for a nagging hip injury during his junior season at Indiana State.

    Now the big 6'5" lefty is fresh off a stellar rookie season with the Oakland Athletics and looking to continue his emergence as a quality big league starter.

    Missing more bats will be the first step.

    After striking out 260 batters in 217.2 innings over three minor league seasons, he managed just 7.7 K/9 in his MLB debut, and the continued development of his secondary stuff will be the key.

    A strong finish to the 2016 season is plenty of reason for optimism going forward.

    The 25-year-old went 3-1 with a 1.05 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and a .161 opponent's batting average over his final six starts, while his strikeout rate ticked up a bit to 8.4 K/9.

    Guys like Carlos Rodon and Robbie Ray have been popular picks to potentially break out this coming season, but keep an eye on Manaea.

Starting Pitcher: Matt Andriese, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    29 G, 19 GS, 8-8, 4.37 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 25 BB, 109 K, 127.2 IP, 1.0 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    The recent trade of Drew Smyly has opened up a spot at the back of the Tampa Bay Rays rotation for Matt Andriese.

    Based on last year's numbers, a case can certainly be made that he's better served pitching out of the bullpen:

    • Starter: 19 GS, 7-7, 4.80 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 105.0 IP
    • Reliever: 10 G, 1-1, 2.38 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 22.2 IP

    However, having a more clearly defined role could go a long way.

    Andriese joined the rotation in May last season after spending the first month of the year in the minors, going 5-0 with a 2.82 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over seven startsincluding a two-hit shutout against Oaklandbefore being moved to the bullpen.

    He returned to the rotation again in August after two months of relief work and struggled to find that same success, going 2-6 with a 6.47 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 11 starts to close out the year.

    He'll still be looking over his shoulder with top prospects Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell knocking on the door, but seizing a rotation spot from the get-go could position Andriese for a breakout season.

Relief Pitcher: Hector Neris, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images

    2016 Stats (MLB)

    79 G, 4-4, 28 HLD, 2.58 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 30 BB, 102 K, 80.1 IP, 2.0 WAR

     

    Why He's Flying Under the Radar

    The assumption at this point is that veteran free-agent signing Joaquin Benoit will be closing games for the Philadelphia Phillies this coming season.

    Then again, the assumption last year was that David Hernandez would be their closer, and that didn't last a week.

    To be clear, Benoit hasn't been handed the closer's job just yet.

    "As we sit here today, I think we’ll probably enter spring training with a competition,” GM Matt Klentak told Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly during the winter meetings.

    That competition will likely also include last year's primary closer, Jeanmar Gomez, and standout setup man Hector Neris.

    The 27-year-old Neris has closer stuff with a mid-90s fastball and a devastating splitter that he throws over half the time. Opponents hit just .158 against his splitter last season, and it accounted for 69 of his 102 strikeouts, according to Brooks Baseball

    Craig Edwards of FanGraphs provided an in-depth look at the pitch and the sustainability of its success.

    As long as hitters keep chasing it, he has a chance to emerge as the ninth-inning option for a Phillies team on the rise.

     

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.