MLB's All-Underrated Team Heading into 2020 Season

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2020

MLB's All-Underrated Team Heading into 2020 Season

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    For one reason or another, there is always a handful of MLB players who simply don't receive the attention they deserve.

    Whether it's a pitcher who succeeds without overpowering stuff, a well-rounded player who gets lost in the shuffle at a deep position, or something else entirely, players wind up underrated for a variety of reasons.

    With spring training in full swing and the 2020 regular season fast approaching, we've decided to shine some light on a few underappreciated players with our All-Underrated team.

    Players were chosen based on how they are viewed on the national landscape, and while statistics provided the foundation for making each player's case, there was ultimately a fair amount of subjectivity that went into selecting our team.

    Let's get to it.

Catcher: Robinson Chirinos, Texas Rangers

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    With 13.0 WAR since the start of the 2014 season, Robinson Chirinos trails only Buster Posey (24.1), J.T. Realmuto (17.6), Russell Martin (13.8) and Salvador Perez (13.6) among all catchers.

    Yet he is rarely mentioned among the game's top backstops.

    The 35-year-old has averaged 17 home runs and 54 RBI with a 107 OPS+ over the past three seasons. Last year, he hit .238/.347/.443 for a 105 OPS+ with 22 doubles and 17 home runs while logging a career-high 3.8 WAR.

    Despite his strong recent performance, he was only able to land a one-year, $5.5 million contract during the offseason that includes a $6.5 million club option and a $1 million buyout for 2021.

    Baseball Prospectus also graded Chirinos as an above-average pitch framer and tallied three defensive runs saved (DRS) last year while throwing out a respectable 21 percent of base stealers.

    He's not elite, but Chirinos has been a solid second-tier option at the catcher position for several years running.

First Baseman: Ji-Man Choi, Tampa Bay Rays

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    A strong showing down the stretch in 2018 made Ji-Man Choi a surprise contender for the Tampa Bay Rays first base job last spring.

    After he was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers on June 10 in a deal that sent infielder Brad Miller the other way, Choi hit .269/.370/.506 for a 141 OPS+ with 12 doubles and eight home runs in 189 plate appearances.

    In his first full season at the MLB level, he continued to show good power and borderline elite on-base skills.

    The 28-year-old hit .261/.363/.459 with 20 doubles and 19 home runs in 487 plate appearances while walking at a 13.1 percent clip.

    He finished strong with an .889 OPS and 10 home runs in 57 games after the All-Star break, and his strong exit velocity (85th percentile) and hard-hit rate (72nd percentile) lend credibility to his breakout performance, per Baseball Savant.

    Assuming he can hold off young slugger Nate Lowe, Choi should again be an under-the-radar performer in the middle of the Tampa Bay lineup.

Second Baseman: Cesar Hernandez, Cleveland Indians

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    In his five seasons as an everyday player, Cesar Hernandez has quietly been worth 11.2 WAR while serving as the everyday second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies.

    The 29-year-old posted a .355 on-base percentage during that span, making him a valuable table-setter who also averaged 16 steals and 75 runs scored.

    Despite his steady production, the Phillies opted to non-tender him at the start of the offseason ahead of his final year of arbitration, with the addition of Didi Gregorius filling his middle infield spot.

    The Cleveland Indians inked him to a one-year, $6.25 million contract in December to replace the departing Jason Kipnis, who had a middling 84 OPS+ and a .304 on-base percentage last year.

    For a modest, short-term investment, the Indians appear to have found an upgrade at second base as they try to chase down the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central.

Shortstop: Paul DeJong, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Paul DeJong was a fourth-round pick in 2015, and he never ranked among the top 10 prospects in the St. Louis Cardinals system prior to making his MLB debut, according to Baseball America.

    He burst onto the scene in 2017 with a 121 OPS+ and 52 extra-base hits in 443 plate appearances to finish second in NL Rookie of the Year voting, and he made a smooth transition to shortstop after playing primarily third base in the minors.

    The Cardinals front office saw enough during that debut to sign him to a six-year, $26 million extension, and a pair of club options could keep him in St. Louis through the 2025 season.

    The 26-year-old slugged a career-high 30 home runs last season to earn a spot on the NL All-Star team while also emerging as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball.

    His 26 DRS trailed only Matt Chapman (34) and Roberto Perez (30) among all players and tied with Chicago Cubs standout Javier Baez for tops among shortstops.

    While there is room for improvement in his .233/.318/.444 batting line, DeJong made strides with his walk rate (+2.0%) and strikeout rate (-2.7%) last year, and another step forward is still possible.

Third Baseman: Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The third base position is absolutely stacked right now.

    Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant and Jose Ramirez are all bona fide superstars, while Rafael Devers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Yoan Moncada are among the game's brightest rising stars.

    That abundance of talent has often left Justin Turner overlooked.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers plucked Turner from the scrapheap ahead of his age-29 season after he was non-tendered by the New York Mets.

    In his six years with the team, the late-bloomer has been worth a staggering 27.0 WAR. That's good for 14th among all players and trails only Donaldson (35.9), Arenado (34.9), Machado (28.6) and Rendon (27.4) among third basemen during that span.

    He's a .302/.381/.506 hitter in his time with the Dodgers, and he has backed that with a .310/.411/.520 line that includes 13 doubles, nine home runs and 35 RBI in 236 plate appearances during the postseason.

    Throw in his solid defense at third base (23 career DRS), and there is little question he belongs in that conversation of elite players at the hot corner.

Left Fielder: Brett Gardner, New York Yankees

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    Despite playing in the bright lights of New York, veteran outfielder Brett Gardner has somehow found a way to go overlooked throughout his 12-year MLB career.

    The 36-year-old has been an All-Star just once, despite posting eight seasons with at least 3.0 WAR.

    He has been extremely durable throughout his career, playing in at least 140 games nine different times, including each of the past seven seasons. As Yankees fans can attest after last year, the ability to stay on the field can't be overlooked.

    In his age-35 season, Gardner hit a career-high 28 home runs and posted a 117 OPS+ that stands as the second-highest mark of his career.

    He has also racked up an absurd 138 DRS in the outfield, playing primarily left field while also proving capable in center field when the need arises.

    The Yankees brought him back on a one-year, $10 million deal that includes a $10 million club option and a $2.5 million buyout in 2021, and he has provided every reason to believe he will be well worth that investment even at his age.

    His 41.6 career WAR ranks 23rd among all active players and 15th among active position players, yet he has rarely been mentioned among the game's top players.

Center Fielder: Mark Canha, Oakland Athletics

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    A Rule 5 selection all the way back in 2015, Mark Canha posted a solid 105 OPS+ with 16 home runs and 70 RBI in a 1.2 WAR season with the Oakland Athletics as a rookie.

    However, season-ending hip surgery limited him to just 16 games in 2016, and he spent the bulk of the 2017 season in Triple-A. All told, he struggled to a 64 OPS+ and minus-1.2 WAR in the two seasons following his debut.

    He was a solid contributor once again in 2018 with a 114 OPS+ and 17 home runs in 411 plate appearances, before taking his game to another level entirely last year.

    Splitting his time between all three outfield spots and first base, he tallied a career-high 497 plate appearances and made the most of the opportunity, hitting .273/.396/.517 for a 145 OPS+ with 26 home runs in a 4.5 WAR season.

    A significant spike in his walk rate from 8.3 to 13.5 percent gave him elite on-base numbers, and his ability to handle center field proved crucial when Ramon Laureano was sidelined with a stress reaction in his shin.

    Canha will likely be stationed primarily at one of the outfield corner spots now that Laureano is back in the mix, but his defensive versatility, elite on-base skills and solid power make him an extremely valuable member of the Oakland roster.

Right Fielder: Max Kepler, Minnesota Twins

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    The Minnesota Twins had five players hit at least 30 home runs last season en route to an MLB-leading 307 long balls as a team.

    Max Kepler finished second on the team with 36 home runs in a breakout season offensively, and he may just be scratching the surface of his full potential.

    The 27-year-old logged a 96 OPS+ in his first three seasons as an everyday player, before exploding for a 122 OPS+ and 68 extra-base hits to finish 20th in AL MVP voting last year.

    Below the surface, his hard-hit rate improved from 37.1 to 42.4 percent, and an increasingly pull-heavy approach seemed to unlock more of his raw power.

    After posting a .244 BABIP last year, there's also reason to believe he could be headed for some positive regression from a batting average standpoint, and his 16.6 percent strikeout rate speaks to his standout contact rate and plus hit tool.

    Last February, the Twins signed Kepler to a five-year, $35 million extension that includes a club option for 2024, and that has a chance to be one of the best bargains in baseball in the years to come.

Starting Pitcher: RHP Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

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    It's not hard to see why Kyle Hendricks is regularly overlooked.

    At a time when 95 mph fastballs have become commonplace around the league, Hendricks averaged just 87.9 mph with his fastball in 2019, per Brooks Baseball.

    However, thanks to his pinpoint command and ability to keep hitters off-balance, he has been a consistent presence in the Chicago Cubs rotation.

    While the 30-year-old has failed to match the brilliance he showed in 2016, when he led the NL with a 2.13 ERA and finished third in NL Cy Young voting, he has still been a rock-solid member of the starting staff.

    Over the past three seasons, he has turned in a 3.33 ERA and 1.15 WHIP while limiting opposing hitters to a .246 average and .682 OPS, recording 47 quality starts in 87 appearances during that span.

    There are 115 active pitchers who have at least 100 career starts under their belt. Among that group, Hendricks ranks in the top 10 in both ERA (3.14, sixth) and WHIP (1.11, eighth), yet he is rarely mentioned as one of baseball's elite starters.

    The deadline deal that sent Ryan Dempster to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Hendricks in 2012 already deserves a spot among the best trades in Cubs franchise history.

Starting Pitcher: RHP German Marquez, Colorado Rockies

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    Overshadowed by teammate Kyle Freeland, who finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting, German Marquez put together a breakout season of his own in 2018.

    He finished with a 3.77 ERA (125 ERA+) and an impressive 230 strikeouts in 196 innings, good for a 4.7 WAR season. It looked like the Colorado Rockies had a pair of budding aces on their hands, but both pitchers took a step backward last year.

    While Freeland was borderline unpitchable with an ugly 6.73 ERA, Marquez has a far more palatable 4.76 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. Thanks to pitching half his games at Coors Field, that still represented above-average production to the tune of a 109 ERA+ and 3.5 WAR.

    All told, Marquez has now been worth 11.5 WAR over the past three seasons, making him one of the few reliable arms on a pitching staff that struggled mightily in 2019.

    The 25-year-old has swing-and-miss stuff and has proven capable of handling Coors Field, which is something that few pitchers before him can claim.

Starting Pitcher: RHP Dinelson Lamet, San Diego Padres

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    Dinelson Lamet returned to the San Diego Padres rotation last July as something of a forgotten man.

    After a strong debut in 2017, he missed the entire 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. While he was away, young guys such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack stole the spotlight.

    That said, it did not take Lamet long to re-establish himself as one of baseball's most promising young pitchers upon returning to action.

    In 14 starts last season, he posted a 4.07 ERA and 1.26 WHIP with an impressive 105 strikeouts in 73 innings, good for a 12.9 K/9 rate. That trailed only Gerrit Cole (13.8) and Chris Sale (13.3) among pitchers who started at least 10 games in 2019.

    Armed with a fastball that averaged 96.0 mph and a lethal slider that limited opposing hitters to a .116 average and .078 ISO while accounting for 77 of his strikeouts, per Brooks Baseball, he has the stuff to give the Padres a huge boost as long as he can stay on the field.

    The 27-year-old has racked up 244 strikeouts in 187.1 innings during his time in the majors, and a breakout season could be forthcoming in 2020.

Starting Pitcher: LHP Ryan Yarbrough, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Used as both a starter and a bulk reliever the past two seasons, Ryan Yarbrough has posted a 4.02 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 289 innings with the Tampa Bay Rays the past two seasons.

    In 14 starts and 14 relief appearances last year, he had a 3.55 FIP and 1.00 WHIP with 117 strikeouts in 141.2 innings, lowering his walk rate from 3.1 to 1.3 BB/9 in the process.

    With Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow penciled into the first three spots in the starting rotation, Yarbrough has a chance to be a serious weapon once again as the team's No. 4 starter or in a hybrid role.

    According to Baseball Savant, the 28-year-old ranked among the MLB leaders in exit velocity allowed (100th percentile) and hard-hit rate allowed (99th percentile). Despite Brooks Baseball clocking his fastball at just 88.5 mph, he is as tough as any pitcher in baseball to square up. 

    Now, he is eyeing a full-time spot in the starting rotation.

    "It's one of those things where I just try and show them, I've come in and shown I can compete for that [starter] role and prove to them that I can do that," Yarbrough told reporters during Spring Training. "Obviously, that's in my thought process a little bit."

    Regardless of his ultimate role, he's one of the most underrated pitchers in baseball.

Starting Pitcher: RHP Brad Keller, Kansas City Royals

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    Not all pitchers need to rack up strikeouts to be effective, and Brad Keller is the perfect example.

    The 24-year-old has quietly emerged as a promising young starter for the Kansas City Royals after being selected in the 2017 Rule 5 draft, despite one of the lowest strikeout rates of any starter in baseball.

    Among the 128 pitchers who have tallied at least 200 innings over the past two seasons, Keller ranks 121st with just 6.4 K/9.

    Despite the lack of strikeouts, he has produced a 3.68 ERA (123 ERA+) and 6.2 WAR, emerge as one of the few long-term building blocks for the Royals at the MLB level in the process.

    Armed with a heavy mid-90s fastball and an excellent sinker, Keller has logged a 52.0 percent ground-ball rate in his young career, and that has allowed him to pitch to contact more than the average starter.

    The next step for Keller will be trimming a 3.8 BB/9 walk rate after he finished second in the AL with 70 walks in 2019. If he can do that, he has a chance to take another step forward.

    For now, he is lining up to be the veteran anchor of a starting rotation that will soon feature top prospects Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic.

Relief Pitcher: RHP Giovanny Gallegos, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Acquired from the New York Yankees in the Luke Voit trade, Giovanny Gallegos came to the St. Louis Cardinals with just 30.1 innings under his belt at the MLB level.

    In parts of eight minor league seasons, he had a 2.78 ERA and 9.9 K/9, and he finally got a chance to show what he could do at the MLB level over a full season last year.

    By season's end, he was one of the team's most reliable relief options.

    The 28-year-old posted a 2.31 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 19 holds in 66 appearances, racking up an impressive 93 strikeouts and just 16 walks in 74 innings.

    That performance has him in the mix for the closer's role this spring.

    "I'm confident in myself every time when I stand on the mound. And I keep working. Working hard is the key," Gallegos told reporters. "I try to stay ready for any situation. Any time, any situation. Help the team win a game."

    Regardless of his role, his mix of swing-and-miss stuff and plus command will make him a key member of the St. Louis pitching staff in 2020.


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