Under-the-Radar MLB Players Who Will Key Their Club's Run to October
Superstars get all the love, but they can't do it alone, especially in Major League Baseball. The season is too long and the rosters too deep for one player to carry a club all the way across the finish line.
While the studs typically merit more than enough coverage, this time the focus will be strictly on the under-the-radar players who deserve a mention despite getting oh-so-little attention.
These are your sidekicks and lesser-knowns who have put together better-than-you-realized performances so far—and could continue to do so as the playoff races tighten during the stretch.
Because "under the radar" can be a debatable, nebulous term, the criteria here simply is that any 2014 All-Star is ineligible.
And since this piece is about getting to the postseason, only players on the 17 teams that are .500 or better—which also happens to be all teams within five games of a playoff spot—are considered.
Here are the players who don't qualify as superstars but still could key a run to October, in order from worst team record to best.
Miami Marlins (64-64): Christian Yelich, OF
Not long ago, Christian Yelich was a big-time prospect, and the 22-year-old has been having a really good first full season in the majors. And yet Yelich somehow seems to get overlooked. (Playing for a Miami Marlins team that doesn't draw crowds probably has a little something to do with that.)
If MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton has been the driving force behind the Marlins remaining relevant at this stage, then Yelich is the steering wheel pointing them in the right direction. That analogy fits nicely, too, because he's the club's leadoff hitter, and he's triple-slashing .287/.368/.422 with 73 runs in 110 games.
Cleveland Indians (65-63): Carlos Carrasco, RHP
Michael Brantley is now the surprise stud for the Cleveland Indians, but while he isn't all that well-known, he was an All-Star. That makes Carlos Carrasco as good a candidate as any for a club that continues to hang around the outskirts of the AL wild-card race.
After an early-season demotion from the rotation to the bullpen, the 27-year-old Carrasco figured things out to the point where he regained a spot in the five-man in early August and has made three dynamite starts in a row. Carrasco, who still possesses an electric fastball, has allowed just one earned run on nine baserunners with 17 strikeouts in 18.0 frames.
"The only thing I had on my mind," Carrasco said via Jordan Bastian of MLB.com after his six innings of two-hit, one-run ball Friday, "was giving [us] the opportunity to win the game." Carrasco has been doing more than that recently, and if he can keep it up, there's an opening to be All-Star Final Vote candidate Corey Kluber's second-in-command.
Toronto Blue Jays (66-63): Marcus Stroman, RHP
This has been an up-and-down season for Marcus Stroman, but that's understandable: He's a 23-year-old rookie.
Despite some recent blow-ups, the Toronto Blue Jays' former first-rounder has the best repertoire in the rotation and has more than a few gems to his name this year already. To wit, even after giving up 10 earned on 15 hits in just 5.2 innings over his past two turns, Stroman still sports a 3.47 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 7.9 strikeout-per-nine rate as a starter.
For Toronto to have any hope of sticking in the wild-card hunt, Stroman will have to find his form—fast.
Pittsburgh Pirates (67-62): Russell Martin, C
Once a star with the Los Angeles Dodgers early in his career, Russell Martin now performs quite capably and does so in comparative secrecy in Pittsburgh. The 31-year-old backstop gets the nod here for two reasons.
One, his defense continues to be great, as he's thrown out 29 of 76 attempted base stealers—or 38 percent, which is the third-highest mark among catchers with at least 700 innings behind the plate.
Two, Martin is still doing plenty at the plate with a .285 average and a .408 on-base percentage that would be a career high.
Oh, and before you ask: Yes, super utility man Josh Harrison was, in fact, an All-Star this year, so he doesn't qualify.
New York Yankees (66-61): Brett Gardner, OF
Even with the New York Yankees struggling, by their standards, for a second straight season, it's tough to label many players on the roster as "under the radar." If one does fit, though, it would be Brett Gardner.
The 31-year-old leadoff man doesn't get nearly enough attention for the season he's having this year. His .788 OPS puts him on pace for a career best in a full season, and his 4.2 WAR ranks in the top 20 among all position players, according to Baseball Reference.
Atlanta Braves (68-62): Alex Wood, LHP
Pitching has been a strong suit for the Atlanta Braves all year long, but even on a team that ranks fifth in baseball with a 3.31 ERA, Alex Wood has the goods to be the No. 2 behind Julio Teheran.
Plus, with Mike Minor having a horrible campaign (minus his two most recent outings), Atlanta could use a solid left-hander like Wood to balance out an otherwise all-righty rotation.
Since returning to the five-man in late June, the 23-year-old has a 2.71 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 61 strikeouts in 69.2 innings across 11 starts.
San Francisco Giants (68-60): Angel Pagan, OF
After Angel Pagan missed almost two full months—and 45 consecutive games—with a back injury, the San Francisco Giants are just happy to have their leadoff hitter and center fielder, well, back.
When Pagan plays, the Giants have gone 43-34, which translates to a .558 winning percentage that would be good enough for the top NL wild-card spot. Instead, the club is clinging to the second position, two games back of the St. Louis Cardinals and only one up on the Atlanta Braves.
Honorable mentions go to closer Santiago Casilla, who took over the role for a struggling Sergio Romo midseason, and rookie second baseman Joe Panik, who has gone 27-for-67 (.403) in August to raise his average to .307.
Detroit Tigers (69-59): J.D. Martinez, OF
One could just as easily go with right-hander Rick Porcello (14 W, 3.10 ERA), who finally is having his breakout campaign at a time when a suddenly shaky rotation most needs it.
The pick here, though, is J.D. Martinez, an off-the-scrap-heap find who needs to prove that what he's done so far (.304 BA, 17 HR, 57 RBI) is for real, especially with Austin Jackson now in Seattle and Miguel Cabrera's slugging dropping each month since May to a measly .378 in August.
Seattle Mariners (70-58): Dustin Ackley, OF
Sorry, but we're still not buying what Comeback Player of the Year candidate Chris Young is selling (MLB-low .224 BABIP), so while having the 35-year-old righty continue his production would be nice, Dustin Ackley is the call.
After all, this is the Seattle Mariners we're talking about—offense is always the need. And Ackley, 26, is hitting better of late, with a .283 average since returning to the top-third of the lineup in late July.
His three-run home run Saturday not only helped pick up Young, who somehow allowed only three runs on seven hits and five walks in 3.2 innings, but also helped keep the M's ahead of the Tigers.
"Nobody here is panicking any more," Ackley told Greg Johns of MLB.com. "We all know what we're capable of doing."
St. Louis Cardinals (70-58): Lance Lynn, RHP
After Adam Wainwright, the St. Louis Cardinals rotation isn't nearly as sturdy or deep as it once was.
Sure, the club acquired proven veterans John Lackey and Justin Masterson at the trade deadline, but they're also pitching in new environs. Meanwhile, Shelby Miller continues to regress, and Michael Wacha's shoulder injury makes him a who-knows going forward.
Lance Lynn has had second-half struggles in his career (4.32 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 2012, 3.93 and 1.39 in 2013), but he's been steady so far throughout 2014 with 17 quality starts out of 26. For the season, he owns 14 wins, a 2.78 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP.
Milwaukee Brewers (71-58): Wily Peralta, RHP
Mike Fiers has become a nice story (again), but he won't necessarily keep his rotation spot once Matt Garza returns. Wily Peralta will, on the other hand, and he arguably has the best stuff in a five-man that is more good than great—what with the likes of Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo and Garza as solid No. 3-type starters.
Peralta, 25, needs to be more like the pitcher whose 15 wins are tied for the most in baseball rather than the shaky righty he was Saturday, when he surrendered seven runs on as many hits in a loss to the NL Central-rival Pirates.
Kansas City Royals (72-56): Lorenzo Cain, OF
So many of the Kansas City Royals' strengths come from their pitching and defense that the club needs Lorenzo Cain, a great defender in his own right, to continue to produce with the bat.
The 28-year-old center fielder is hitting .301 and already has set career highs in doubles (24) and stolen bases (19) with a good chance to do the same in runs (41) and RBI (41).
Lefty Danny Duffy and setup man Wade Davis (0.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 13.7 K/9 and 2.4 WAR—third best among all relievers) are close seconds here, but the Royals have a bigger need for bats than arms.
Los Angeles Dodgers (74-57): Justin Turner, INF
It's hard to find many (any?) under-the-radar players on the Los Angeles Dodgers, but here's a guarantee: Utility man Justin Turner is having a much better year than you realized.
To wit, the 29-year-old has seen action at four different positions—second, third, short and first—and he's hitting a career-high .318 to go with a .391 on-base percentage, too. Seriously.
Of late, Turner has been filling in at both short and third for the injured Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe, respectively, and his play is helping keep the Dodgers in the running for the NL's best record.
With Ramirez due back from a strained oblique Monday, per Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, Turner should take over regular hot-corner duties until Uribe's hamstring is healed.
Baltimore Orioles (73-54): Kevin Gausman, RHP
Rookie Kevin Gausman could be the Baltimore Orioles' 2014 version of Wacha, the 2013 first-year right-hander who helped push the St. Louis Cardinals to the postseason, as Jim Callis writes for Sports on Earth:
His repertoire is similar to Wacha's, as Gausman relies more on his fastball and changeup than his so-so slider. Gausman throws harder than Wacha, averaging 95 mph with his fastball, and uses a splitter/changeup. He has better pure stuff than any Baltimore starter.
Baltimore's top pick—and No. 4 overall—in 2012, Gausman has gone 7-4 with a 3.41 ERA in 13 starts since joining the five-man in early June. With Ubaldo Jimenez demoted to the bullpen, Baltimore's search for a front-of-the-rotation arm continues, but Gausman could put an end to that.
Keep an eye on Steve Pearce (.288/.351/.515), too, now that he's in line to see near-everyday playing time with Manny Machado set to go under the knife for season-ending knee surgery for the second year in a row.
Washington Nationals (74-54): Denard Span, OF
After a so-so first portion of the season, Denard Span has been one of the best hitters in baseball since the start of the second half.
To that end, the 30-year-old is hitting an MLB-high .380 since the break, which certainly helps explain how the Washington Nationals have broken out with baseball's second-best record in that time (23-11), including a recent walk-off-happy 10-game winning streak.
Right-hander Tanner Roark (2.80 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) is another candidate, but the Nationals rotation is stacked with studs. The lineup is built more around depth, and Span is the guy who starts it off every game.
Oakland Athletics (76-52): Stephen Vogt, C/1B/OF/DH
The Oakland Athletics still have baseball's highest-scoring offense, but the bats have been slowing down lately. And it's hard not to want to connect the dots back to the deadline deal in which they gave up cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes (21 HR, 84 RBI) for left-hander Jon Lester.
With Cespedes on the team, the A's averaged 5.0 runs per game. Since he's been gone? Try 3.8 runs per.
Stephen Vogt is no Cespedes in terms of name recognition or power, but his lefty bat has been arguably Oakland's best over the past three months and has helped keep the team's offense afloat.
Since coming up on June 1, the 29-year-old is hitting .324/.353/.514 with nine homers and 32 RBI in 62 games—all while playing catcher, first base and outfield.
Los Angeles Angels (76-52): Matt Shoemaker, RHP
In the wake of lefty Tyler Skaggs' season-ending Tommy John surgery and right-hander Garrett Richards' awful season-ending knee injury, the Los Angeles Angels are going to need someone to pick up the pitching slack.
Matt Shoemaker would seem an unlikely candidate to do so, given that he's only a rookie—and a nearly 28-year-old one at that—but he's provided a big lift for a club that was in need of solid starters even before losing Skaggs and Richards for the count.
Shoemaker continued to show what he can do by hurling 7.2 scoreless frames to beat the Boston Red Sox last time out, bringing his season totals to 12 wins, a 3.56 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 102 strikeouts in 103.2 innings.
For the Angels to hold off the A's and win the AL West—thus avoiding the dicey one-game wild-card playoff contest—Shoemaker is going to have to keep this up.
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