Brian Roberts of the Orioles stood in the center of his team's clubhouse recently discussing his status as one of the game's most unheralded players because a few feet away his locker had been taken over by a teammate who was happily involved in conversation with some fellow Orioles. Never mind that Roberts is the best player on the team or that he is the only veteran star in the room, or that such an act might be cause for a polite -- and perhaps not-so-polite -- rebuke had it happened in many other clubhouses. Roberts simply shrugged and found a different way to get ready for work.
Of course, it wasn't a surprise that Roberts was overlooked (even by his teammates); when he is out of sight, he is often out of mind. Though he has made two All-Star teams in his nine-year career, he has never gotten the recognition he deserves. This year, he could very well establish career highs in runs, hits, RBIs and doubles. The latter category is one Roberts owns. Since 2003, no player in the game has more doubles than his 295. This year, he leads the American League with 51 doubles and became just the fourth player ever to post three seasons with at least 50 doubles. The other three men to accomplish the feat -- Tris Speaker, Paul Waner and Stan Musial -- are all in the Hall of Fame.
Roberts is not likely to wind up in Cooperstown, nor is he likely to pass Earl Webb's 78-year-old record for doubles in a season (67). In fact, said Roberts, "I didn't even know who he was until someone told me about him recently."
Unfortunately, that's a fate that often befalls Roberts, too. He doesn't seem to mind his lack of notoriety, saying, "I never thought about it much," but his latest above-average season deserves some more respect. Therefore, Roberts is the captain on this year's All-Underrated Team, the best at each position to have not gotten the respect they deserve this year. All the players below have one two things in common: they are all having excellent years and they are all doing so very quietly.
Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox
Pierzynski often makes headlines for rubbing people the wrong way, but the man recently named the most hated player in baseball deserves some love for his best season in six years. Pierzynski is batting .312/.345/.452, and his average is second to Joe Mauer among all catchers. He's been durable, too. At age 32, no backstop in the American League has caught more games than Pierzynski's 119, and he could well set a career high for games caught by year's end.
First Base: Kendry Morales, Angels
Morales had shown enough potential in parts of three previous seasons that the Angels felt comfortable not trying to outbid the Yankees to keep Mark Teixeira around last winter. In return, they've gotten a very Teixeira-like performance for a fraction of the cost (he's making $600,000, compared to Teixeira's $20 million). After a slow start, Morales is batting .307/.353/.574 with 30 home runs and 98 RBIs, and ranks in the top 10 in the AL in slugging percentage, home runs, RBIs, doubles, OPS and total bases. Morales deserves serious MVP consideration.
Second Base: Brian Roberts, Orioles
How underrated has Roberts been this year? He has more home runs (15) and RBIs (73) than reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia and more hits (164) than Chase Utley. He has a higher on-base percentage (.355) than Robinson Cano, and a higher slugging percentage (.463) than Dan Uggla despite the fact that Uggla has almost twice as many home runs. Roberts is also going to finish the season with over 30 stolen bases, is currently tied for the most runs scored (100) by a second baseman and will likely lead the league in doubles.
Shortstop: Yunel Escobar, Braves
Troy Tulowitzki didn't make the All-Star team, either, but aside from that, it would be tough to make the case that Tulo doesn't get enough attention. That leaves Escobar as the choice at shortstop. He ranks fourth among all big league shortstops in RBIs, fifth in batting average and on-base percentage, sixth in slugging and home runs and seventh in runs scored. Defensively, he's fifth in the NL among all shortstops in fielding percentage and his range is superb; he has the highest zone rating per game in the league.
Third Base: Chone Figgins, Angels
It's a shame Figgins didn't make the All-Star team, and not just because he had promised to replicate Ozzie Smith's famous flip in honor of "The Wizard" if he had. Most of the attention Figgins has gotten in his career has been for either his size (he's just 5-foot-9, 155 pounds) or his remarkable versatility (he's played at least 25 games at six different positions). But lately he's found a way to be a big man at just one position. Figgins is hitting .303 with a .401 on-base percentage and leads the American League with 91 walks and 106 runs scored. Yes, he lacks power at a position that is usually populated by slugging run producers (Figgins' three home runs is easily the fewest among players with at least 100 games at third), but it hasn't stopped him from becoming a valuable asset on the first-place Angels, and it won't keep him from being a highly attractive free agent this winter.
Left Field: Carlos Lee, Astros
Like Roberts, Lee has been underrated for years and this season is no different. He ranks sixth in the NL in hits and eighth in RBIs, and among left fielders he's in the top five in each of the Triple Crown categories. For the year, he's hitting .305 with 25 home runs and 94 RBIs, well within range of his seventh straight season with at least 99 RBIs. Even more impressively, he has struck out just 45 times, the fewest in the game for any player with at least 20 home runs.
Center Field: Matt Kemp, Dodgers
The two men on either side of him in the Dodgers' outfield -- Andre Ethier in right and Manny Ramirez in left -- have gotten considerably more attention, but Kemp deserves similar treatment. One week shy of his 25th birthday, he's drawn comparisons from manager Joe Torre to Bernie Williams, the graceful and often overlooked center-field centerpiece of the Yankees' recent dynasty. Kemp leads all center fielders in RBIs, and his 10-game winning RBIs, while less dramatic than those of Ethier, are tied for the most in the game among center fielders. Overall, his .305 average, 23 home runs and 91 RBIs represent a breakout season for a man who isn't likely to be on a list like this much longer.
Right Field: Nick Markakis, Orioles
With a six-year extension he signed in January that will net him over $60 million, the 25-year-old Markakis is being paid like a star even though he isn't often thought of like one. He should be, though. Markakis leads the O's in batting average and RBIs and leads all right fielders in doubles. In addition, his 93 RBIs are the most of any right fielder in the American League, as are his 82 runs scored, and only Ichiro has more hits. With a .303 batting average, Markakis is on pace for his third straight .300 season in his four-year career.
Designated Hitter: Hideki Matsui, Yankees
As difficult as it might be to believe, there is actually a Yankee who doesn't get enough attention, at least not from the people in this country. Though he is still a living legend in Japan, Matsui has been overshadowed throughout his seven-season Yankees career, most recently by the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira and Johnny Damon. Yet Matsui remains what he has always been, a highly effective run producer with serious pop. After playing just 93 games last season (his second injury-plagued season in three years), Matsui has bounced back at age 35 to bat .275 with a .510 slugging percentage, 24 home runs and 81 RBIs. He leads all DHs in hits, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage while ranking second in batting average and on-base percentage.
Starting Pitcher: Scott Feldman, Rangers
All of the players on this list are underrated. Only one is virtually unknown. That would be Feldman, the 26-year-old former 30th-round draft pick who is in his fifth season in the majors but only his second as a starter. If his 6-8 record and 5.29 ERA in 2008 kept him anonymous, then his 16-4 mark and 3.46 ERA this year should have changed all that. Feldman began the year in the bullpen, but was moved into the rotation after Kris Benson got hurt. Thanks largely to his new cut fastball, Feldman has improved substantially, and now has the best winning percentage in the American League. His 16 wins are the second-most in the AL and his 3.10 ERA as a starter is fourth-best. He's also holding batters to the third-lowest OPS of any pitcher in the league, behind only Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke.
Closer: Huston Street, Rockies
Consider the following comparison:
Aside from the ERA, the numbers are almost identical, yet the top line belongs to the most talked about closer in the game and the second to one of the most overlooked. Mariano Rivera has been his usual excellent self and deserves serious Cy Young consideration, but Huston Street has been nearly as good, especially since he resumed his role as closer on May 1. In that time, Street has posted a 2.23 ERA and notched 31 saves. He ranks third among all closers in K/BB ratio, and leads the NL in save percentage, all while posting the lowest WHIP (0.92) of his career. Not bad for a guy who at lost his job at one point this season.