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The Strike Zone

Position players flying under the radar

Edwin Encarnacion is proving that his breakthrough 2012 was no fluke. (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)Edwin Encarnacion is proving that his breakthrough 2012 was no fluke. (Kathy Kmonicek/AP)

With All-Star chatter picking up, last week I examined a handful of pitchers whose seasons have mostly flown under the radar but who might merit discussion when managers Bruce Bochy and Jim Leyland sit down to consider the rosters for their squads. Today I turn my attention to position players.

As an organizing principle, I'm going around the diamond by position, without regard to league. This isn't to say that any of these players merits a starting nod ahead of a more high-profile or heralded player, just that they deserve to step out of the shadows because their seasons are going underappreciated. Only two of these players even ranks in the top three in All-Star voting at their respective positions (AL here, NL here). You know about Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado, but how about some love for Josh Donaldson, the A's top hitter thus far?

Catcher: Jason Castro, Astros

The 10th pick of the 2008 draft lost all of 2011 and part of 2012 to knee injuries, which concealed his evolution into a competent major league hitter after he struggled in his 2010 debut. Thus far this year, the 26-year-old backstop is hitting a beefy .275/.332/.486 with 10 homers in 271 plate appearances, and his 2.2 Wins Above Replacement leads the Astros by more than one win. As much as there is to love about Jose Altuve (.296/.329/.381, 0.9 WAR), he's cooled off considerably since a torrid April, and if only one Astro gets to go to Citi Field, it should be Castro.

First base: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays

Encarnacion isn't exactly unheralded, but he's shown that last year's 42-homer breakout was no fluke, hitting .274/.355/.545 with 21 homers, a total that ranks second in the league to only Chris Davis, who quite rightly leads the voting at the position. Along with Adam Lind (with whom he essentially shares the first base and DH chores, and who — spoiler alert — gets his own spotlight below), he's been one of the Jays' hottest hitters this month (.297/.388/.635) as they've clawed their way back to .500. He ranks third among DHs in voting, but with 44 starts at first to Lind's 29, he belongs here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals

With Carpenter blocked at his natural position of third base by David Freese, the Cardinals decided to experiment with him at second base, a position where he had all of 18 professional innings coming into the season. Their resourcefulness has paid off in a big way. Carpenter learned the position over the winter, demonstrated he could play it passably in spring training, and now ranks 10th in the league — and first on the majors' winningest team — in WAR (3.4) on the strength of a .322/.403/.472 showing with the stick (the batting average is seventh in the league, the on-base percentage fourth) and the leather (five Defensive Runs Saved). He's also continued to demonstrate his flexibility by filling in at third during Freese's absences, and spotting at first base and rightfield as well. Via the latest voting numbers, he's the most popular player on this slate, though his 2.2 million votes rank only third among NL second basemen.

Third base: Josh Donaldson, A's

Donaldson's 2012 conversion from catcher to part-time third baseman last year was a success from a defensive standpoint if not an offensive one; he hit just .241/.289/.398 while sharing the job with the even lighter-hitting Brandon Inge. This year, the 27-year-old has taken over full-time duties and broken out as a hitter, batting 305/.373/.488 with 10 homers. He's cut his percentage of swings outside the zone from 32.5 percent to 24.0 percent, and his unintentional walk rate has more than doubled (from 4.7 percent to 9.6 percent). His 139 OPS+ leads the A's, who are once again contending for the AL West flag, and ranks ninth in the league, while his 3.0 WAR ranks seventh.

Shortstop: Everth Cabrera, Padres

Last year, while playing in just 114 games, Cabrera swiped an NL-high 44 bases in 48 attempts, but his .246/.324/.324 line didn't make any waves; aside from a 50-point spread in batting average, his home/road splits were more or less equivalent in terms of OPS, quashing the notion that his performance was particularly Petco-suppressed. This year has been a different story; driven by some small-sample flukiness against lefties (.414/.474/.586 in 102 PA, up from .195/.266/.257 in 125 PA), he's hitting .305/.382/.418 overall. He's been worth 3.1 WAR, and again, he leads the league in steals (31 in 38 attempts). Alas, between hitting the DL last week due to a hamstring strain and being among the players on the Biogenesis list, he's probably not likely to get anywhere near Citi Field for the All-Star Game.

Leftfield: Carl Crawford, Dodgers

Between a terrible 2011 and a 2012 lost to wrist and elbow injuries, most people have forgotten what a dynamic player Crawford can be at his best. He's battled hamstring problems with the Dodgers thus far and is currently on the disabled list, which only furthers the punchlines. But when he's been available, he's put up numbers (.301/.358/.470) in line with the 2010 showing in Tampa Bay that led the Red Sox to sign him to a seven-year, $142 million deal in the first place.

Centerfield: Carlos Gomez, Brewers

I'll admit to being something less than a fan of the three-year, $24 million extension to which the Brewers signed Gomez in March; from here, it appeared to be based on one good half-season (.278/.321/.488 with 14 homers in 274 PA) that he seemed hard-pressed to sustain given the atrocious .242/.290/.363 he had hit in his previous 1,856 career PA. But clearly, he's figured a thing or two out at the plate, as he's hitting .313/.355/.570, good enough for ninth in the league in batting average and fifth in slugging percentage. The latter mark is boosted by his league-high eight triples (tied with teammate Jean Segura, who's hardly escaping notice); he has "only" 12 homers. His 4.9 WAR leads the league by 0.6 wins, though it's worth pointing out that the figure is driven by an off-the-charts 19 Defensive Runs Saved; he's +10 runs via Ultimate Zone Rating and +2 via Fielding Runs Above Average. Still, it's a great season in the making.

Rightfield: Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks

Parra won a Gold Glove in 2011, but he was relegated to a fourth outfielder role last year behind Jason Kubel, Chris Young and Justin Upton. On paper, he appeared destined for a similar fate this year behind Kubel, hot-shot rookie Adam Eaton and free agent signee Cody Ross, but injuries to the latter two have opened the door to full-time play, and he hasn't disappointed. Parra's hitting .315/.378/.480, and he's been 15 runs above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved (+10 UZR, +4 FRAA), showing off his cannon for an arm on plays like this and this. His 3.4 WAR is tied with teammate Paul Goldschmidt for fourth in the league, though his six steals in 15 attempts has cut into his value a bit.

Designated hitter: Adam Lind, Blue Jays

Though he hit 60 homers from 2010 through 2012, Lind was otherwise useless at the plate, batting a combined .246/.296/.428 and compiling just 0.4 WAR. With the Blue Jays brass having finally gotten it through their thick skulls that he has no business playing against lefties — against whom he owns a career .228/.270/.353 line — he's become a much more productive player, hitting .337/.402/.554 with 10 homers in 229 PA, just 36 of which have come against southpaws.
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