Selecting MLB's All-Underrated Team of Hidden Stars

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2016

Selecting MLB's All-Underrated Team of Hidden Stars

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Like unicorns, leprechauns and Mark Trumbo's plate discipline, underrated stars are supposed to be a myth. The term itself is contradictory: If someone is a star, they're both well-known and lauded for their talent in whatever field they're in. That hardly meets the criteria for the "underrated" label.

    While I can't speak to horned horses galloping through the forest (or wherever unicorns are supposed to hang out) or tiny men guarding pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, underrated stars—like a selective Trumbo—exist.

    They're not perennial All-Stars—though some should (and hopefully will) make an appearance in San Diego at this year's Midsummer Classic—and odds are they're not future Hall of Fame inductees, either.

    These are just good baseball players who deserve more attention and adulation than they're currently getting.

    While a player's current performance matters, we're looking for past success as well. This will help to eliminate any one-year wonders (anyone remember Kevin Maas?), but it also eliminates hotshot rookies—like Aledmys Diaz and Trevor Story—from entering the conversation.

    Additionally, while we typically include a designated hitter on these teams, that's not the case here. Why? Because designated hitters tend to be past-their-prime stars like Alex Rodriguez, hardly the kind of player we'd call underrated.

    That said, let's take a look at the 10 players who deserve of a bigger piece of the spotlight.

Catcher: Travis D'Arnaud, New York Mets

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    How can a guy currently on the disabled list and quickly earning the "injury prone" label, someone who's never lived up to the hype that surrounded him as a prospect and, before getting injured, was hitting a paltry .196, lead things off on a team full of underrated stars?

    If that's your reaction to seeing Travis d'Arnaud here, then you haven't been paying attention to what he's done in limited playing time.

    His .745 OPS since 2014 ranks seventh among catchers with at least 700 plate appearances, ahead of the likes of Brian McCann, Derek Norris, Yadier Molina and Salvador Perez. He also sits seventh in adjusted offense at the position over that same period.

    Per Baseball Prospectus, d'Arnaud has been one of the game's best framers—not just last year, but in 2014 as well. That he's working with one of the league's best pitching staffs doesn't hurt, but some of the pitchers' success is due to his catching ability.

    He's never going to be Johnny Bench or Mike Piazza, but d'Arnaud is far better, both at the plate and behind it, than he gets credit for.

First Base: Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    It wasn't hard to understand why there was a fair amount of eye-rolling last month when the San Francisco Giants signed Brandon Belt to a six-year, $75 million extension

    He didn't fit the mold as a prototypical first baseman, having never hit 20 home runs or collected 70 RBI in a single season and having battled myriad injuries, including a pair of concussions and a broken thumb, over parts of five years in the majors.

    But during a September game against Cincinnati, something clicked. And then the lights went out—literally. “I found the approach I liked and then I got concussed,” Belt explained to the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman. “Fortunately, I remembered it.”

    The proof is in the numbers.

    Through 29 games, he's hitting .323 with a .993 OPS, which is third among qualified first basemen behind Chris Carter and Anthony Rizzo. He trails only Rizzo in adjusted offense, which pegs him as the Giants' most productive hitter thus far.

    And while Carter's numbers are a product of his new home park in Milwaukee, Belt is producing wherever his travels take him. He's also become a much more patient hitter, nearly doubling his career walk rate while slashing his strikeout rate by nearly 50 percent.

    “I'm back to seeing the ball, not guessing,” he told Schulman. “The results are not very good when I guess. For a few years, I was just searching for something to hold on to. I think I've found it.”

    Ya think, Brandon?

Second Base: Logan Forsythe, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Here's a question for you: How many second basemen could check off these benchmarks last season?

    • .280 batting average
    • .800 OPS
    • 15 home runs
    • 30 doubles

    The answer is two: Jose Altuve and Logan Forsythe.

    Given the lack of attention Forsythe commanded after that breakout season, I'm more convinced than ever that Tropicana Field is actually a black hole from which no light emerges. It's the only possible explanation as to why the 29-year-old isn't mentioned among the game's elite second basemen.

    As for the premise that it was all a fluke—think again. It was all about opportunity—he had never had the chance to play on a daily basis, at the same spot on the field and in the lineup—and an adjustment at the plate.

    "He's a guy that was extremely patient, and it probably worked for him for a long time," Rays manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times last year. "But where he's hitting in our lineup and what we needed him to be, we needed him to get out of his comfort zone and get more aggressive and look to impact the ball, and he's certainly done that."

    He's still impacting the ball in 2016.

    Through 25 games, Forsythe is hitting .312 with four home runs, eight doubles and a .950 OPS. He's third in adjusted offense at the keystone behind Daniel Murphy (who has suddenly turned into Rogers Hornsby) and Altuve.

    While Kevin Kiermaier makes highlight reels for his ridiculous defense in center field and Evan Longoria is the face of the franchise, it's Forsythe who is Tampa Bay's most consistent—and dangerous—bat in the lineup.

Third Base: Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    It's hard to shine at third base these days given all the talent at the hot corner.

    You've got the youngsters: Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant and Manny Machado. You've got the high-profile, seasoned veterans: Adrian Beltre, Josh Donaldson, Evan Longoria and David Wright. You've got the guys who fall somewhere in between those groups: David Freese, Martin Prado, Kyle Seager and Justin Turner.

    And then you've got Mike Moustakas.

    Sure, we're cheating a bit with this selection, as Moustakas made his first All-Star appearance in 2015 and garnered some support in the American League's MVP voting. And neither his .258 batting average nor his .314 on-base percentage through 25 games this year is overly impressive.

    But it'd be a mistake to dismiss the 27-year-old as a disappointing former top prospect and first-round draft pick. As Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star noted, not even the offseason has been able to knock Moustakas out of his comfort zone.

    "Moustakas has backed up a second-half power surge in 2015 with more of the same in 2016. He blasted 15 homers after the All-Star break last year, including seven during the month of September. In all, he has hit 23 homers in his last 388 at-bats, dating back to the All-Star break and including the postseason."

    Including the at-bats he's logged since Dodd's story was published April 28, Moustakas has gone deep 23 times in his last 402 at-bats. But it's not all about power. The adjustments he made last year—a concerted effort to go the other way and avoid hitting into defensive shifts—remain intact.

    “I’m just trying to see the ball and put a good swing on it,” Moustakas said, per Dodd. “I’m not trying to do too much. I’m trying to stay in that left-center field gap.”

    The Moose is loose, folks. And there may not be a way to contain him.

Shortstop: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    If you thought standing out at third base was tough, try pulling it off at shortstop, where youngsters like Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Jose Iglesias, Francisco Lindor, Ketel Marte, Addison Russell, Corey Seager and Trevor Story command most of our attention.

    Due in part to the plethora of talent at the position—along with the current state of baseball in Cincinnati—nobody outside of Great American Ballpark talks about Zack Cozart. But they should.

    A nasty knee injury ended what was shaping up to be his breakout season at the plate last year. While he's dealing with tendinitis and general soreness in the knee this season, which has cost him a few games, Cozart has picked up where he left off.

    He's hitting .342 with eight doubles, three home runs and a .902 OPS through 20 games, and he is tied with Story for fourth in adjusted offense among shortstops with at least 80 plate appearances, the pair sandwiched between Bogaerts and Lindor on the leaderboard.

    That's impressive company for a player who has long been a light-hitting, glove-first shortstop. He may not be hitting .300 by the time the season comes to an end, but with a notable increase in both hard contact and line drives, it sure looks like Cozart's power is for real.

    For a rebuilding Reds team that has the unenviable task of playing in the same division as the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals, bright spots are going to be few and far between this season.

    Cozart is well on his way to becoming one of them.

Left Field: Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    I hate to say I told you so, but I told you Starling Marte was on the verge of doing big things just before the regular season got underway. Lo and behold, the 27-year-old left fielder has made me look clairvoyant.

    Hitting .315 with 10 doubles, three home runs, seven stolen bases and an .858 OPS in 28 games, Marte has firmly established himself as one of the game's premier left fielders. It doesn't hurt that he's making ridiculous plays in the field, like this one on Jackie Robinson Day, or that his four assists put him in a three-way tie for first at the position.

    “He’s the best player on that club now,” a veteran scout told John Perrotto of Today's Knuckleball shortly after Marte made that robbing grab. “For me, he’s the guy I’d fear the most if my team was playing the Pirates. He can change the game with his bat, his legs and his glove. He’s one of the most complete players in the game.”

    While his low walk rate and increased strikeout rate don't scream "improved plate discipline," Marte has become a bit more selective at the plate. He's chasing pitches out of the strike zone less often—he's swinging less in general—but has still been able to maintain a healthy contact rate.

    Back in spring training, ESPN.com's David Schoenfield wrote that "[Marte] ranks 14th among position players in WAR over the past three seasons, ahead of players such as Jose Bautista, Anthony Rizzo, Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Davis."

    Based on what we've seen so far, he's going to keep climbing up that list. All this proves one thing and one thing alone: There ain't no party like a Marte partay because a Marte partay don't stop.

Center Field: Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

    In December 2014, Odubel Herrera was a fringe prospect in the Texas Rangers organization and wasn't protected in the Rule 5 draft. Philadelphia jumped at the chance to take him, and now he's become one of the game's most promising young center fielders and leadoff hitters.

    Over 28 games for the upstart Phillies, Herrera is hitting .319 with a .901 OPS. He's fourth in on-base percentage at .447, and perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt is the only player to post a higher walk percentage than Herrera's 20.2 percent.

    The 24-year-old sits in equally impressive company among qualified center fielders when it comes to adjusted offense, with only Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and some guy named Mike Trout besting his 143 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) on the year.

    It's Herrera's disciplined approach at the plate, even in the face of adversity, that has Phillies manager Pete Mackanin convinced that he's going to be hitting for average for a long time, as he explained to CSNPhilly.com's Corey Seidman:

    He went through a midseason slump (in 2015), was down back to .250, and then he rebounded, which meant he knew how to make adjustments. The pitchers started softening up, trying to get him to expand the strike zone and he didn't fall for that. He adjusted and ended up hitting .297. To me, he's gonna be a perennial .300 (hitter) because he has a good idea at the plate.

    He's no slouch in the field, either, with the requisite speed to cover a huge swath of ground in center field and track down fly balls hit into the outfield gaps that some of his counterparts wouldn't be able to get to.

    While most of the credit for Philadelphia's shocking start to the season rightly goes to the team's starting rotation, Herrera has been a major part of its success—and will be an even bigger part of its future.

Right Field: Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    If I were to ask you to rattle off the names of the best right fielders in baseball, how long would it take you to get to Hunter Pence? If we're being honest, it'd take awhile.

    Bryce Harper, J.D. Martinez, Yasiel Puig, Jason Heyward, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista, Mookie Betts and Giancarlo Stanton would all be at or near the top of the list. Jay Bruce, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, Matt Kemp and Adam Eaton might all come to mind before you get around to Pence.

    That's more a statement on how much talent there is at the position than an indictment of Pence. And while he may not have Eaton's throwing arm, Heyward's range, Stanton's power or Betts' athletic ability, the 33-year-old has been—and continues to be—one of the more overlooked stars in the game.

    Over 29 games, he's hitting .279 with five doubles, five home runs and an .871 OPS. While adjusted offense puts him 10th at the position, between Kemp and Bautista, Pence is second in RBI (23) and fifth in on-base percentage (.381).

    It's not like this is anything new. While he played just 52 games last year due to injury, Pence has always been productive when he's in the lineup, averaging 25 home runs and 94 RBI per 162-game season, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

    His on-field ability may be overshadowed by his more popular teammates (Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Buster Posey) and his oversized, outgoing personality, but Pence is the poster boy of consistency. He may not always be super, but he is most assuredly a star.

Starting Pitcher: Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

    I've been saying for years that Jose Quintana is underrated—most recently back in February, when I failed to give the Chicago White Sox rotation enough credit—and sure enough, the 27-year-old southpaw has finally delivered the breakout season some of us saw coming.

    Quintana has been filthy this year, going 4-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 0.98 WHIP over six starts. He's struck out 37 batters in 38.2 innings of work, walked eight and allowed a single home run. Needless to say, you can find his name at or near the top of most pitching leaderboards.

    While he has five pitches in his arsenal, Quintana's go-to offerings, per Brooks Baseball, have been his low-90s fastball, mid-80s changeup and high-70s, knee-buckling curveball. He leans heavily on the fastball-changeup combination to keep batters off balance and induce strikeouts.

    He's always going to be in Chris Sale's shadow—and rightfully so—but Quintana is well on his way to delivering his fourth consecutive 200-inning season and showing, once again, that he's a legitimate front-of-the-rotation arm.

Relief Pitcher: Hector Rondon, Chicago Cubs

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    I know it seems impossible that anyone on the Chicago Cubs could be underrated, considering the excessive amount of coverage and hype the team receives. But nobody ever talks about Hector Rondon, and that's a shame because few relievers have been as good as he's been over the past few years.

    Since 2014, only three relief pitchers have pitched to an ERA below 3.00 while posting a strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of at least 9.00 and a walks-per-nine-innings rate no higher than 2.00 (minimum 120 appearances): Kenley Jansen, Koji Uehara and Rondon.

    Last season, Rondon pitched to a 1.67 ERA and 1.00 WHIP, successfully converting 30 of his 34 save opportunities. This year? A 1.00 ERA and 0.44 WHIP while going a perfect 4-of-4 on saves. While that lack of save opportunities makes it easy to ignore him, he's established himself as one of the game's best relievers.

    Note: When your team has outscored the opposition by 93 runs entering the first week of May, save opportunities are few and far between.

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs and MLB.com and are current through Wednesday, May 5.

    My Twitter account is just as underrated as the players on this list. Hit me up @RickWeinerBR to talk all things baseball.