Rays' Kevin Kiermaier, trio of Indians highlight preseason All-Underrated team
- These are the best players at every position who have yet to make an All-Star team or win a major award.
Kevin Kiermaier may not be a household name, but then few Tampa Bay Rays are. Nonetheless, he's someone who casual fans might be familiar with given his penchant for spectacular defense, which has made him a staple of highlight collections on TV and online as well as earned him not only a pair of Gold Glove Awards but also the 2015 AL Platinum Glove and the 2016 Wilson Defensive Player of the Year. Earlier this week, the 26-year-old centerfielder reached an agreement with the Rays on a six-year, $53.5 million extension. It may very well turn out to be a bargain, because despite his modest offensive skills, he's been one of the most valuable players in the majors over the past three seasons—so good that he heads up our preseason All-Underrated Team.
Thanks to his 82 Defensive Runs Saved from 2014 to '16, including 25 last year (the MLB high among centerfielders) and a single-season record 42 in '15, Kiermaier has been worth 16.4 WAR since the start of the '14 season. That's the highest total in that span for any player who has never made an All-Star team, a reasonable proxy for underratedness even given his defensive hardware.
With that in mind, I went looking for similarly unheralded players, ones who have been particularly valuable over multiple seasons—generally three, but sometimes the situation was clarified by using two years—without being chosen for an All-Star team or winning MVP, Rookie of the Year or Cy Young honors. In the end, I chose one at each position to make up this squad.
Catcher: Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh Pirates
Cervelli spent parts of seven seasons (2008–14) with the Yankees, starting more than 40 games only in '10. Liberated by a November 2014 trade to Pittsburgh, Cervelli has been a regular the past two seasons, although he was limited to 101 games last year in part because of a broken left hand. Nevertheless, over the past three seasons he's hit for a 107 OPS+ (.285/.372/.378) en route to 5.8 WAR, including 3.2 in 2015, when he set a career high with 130 games. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cervelli has been slightly below average behind the plate (-4 runs), but he's emerged as an elite pitch framer, worth 34 runs above average in that span according to data from Baseball Prospectus. That’s enough to give him the nod over the Marlins' J.P. Realmuto (4.8 WAR in 2015 and '16 combined but -27 framing runs).
First base: Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians
Santana's role with the Indians has been in flux since 2013, as he has converted from catching to third base to first base/designated hitter duties. He had 92 starts as a DH last year with just 62 at first, but over the past three seasons he's started 287 games at the position. In that time, he's been worth 7.1 WAR, with a pair of big seasons in 2014 (3.0 WAR, 122 OPS+) and '16 (3.0 WAR, 121 OPS+) bookending a subpar '15 (1.1 WAR, 101 OPS+). Overall in those years he's averaged a 115 OPS+, 27 homers, 107 walks and even seven steals per season.
Second base: Logan Forsythe, Los Angeles Dodgers
A teammate of Kiermaeier's in Tampa Bay from 2014 to '16, Forsythe was traded to the Dodgers in late January for pitching prospect Jose De Leon. A 2008 supplemental first-round pick out of the University of Arkansas, Forsythe spent parts of four seasons (2011–14) as a light-hitting utilityman for the Padres and the Rays before breaking out with a 17-homer, 5.0 WAR season as a full-timer in '15. He upped his home run total to 20 in '16 but slipped to 3.4 WAR due largely to a hairline fracture in his left scapula that cost him a month. Over those two seasons, he's hit for a 119 OPS+ (.273/.347/.444) and has been seven runs above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved.
Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels
Like Kiermaier, Simmons is a defensive whiz; though he hasn't won a Gold Glove since 2014, he was Wilson's Defensive Player of the Year in '15. For his five-year career (including a 49-game rookie season in '12), he's tallied 131 Defensive Runs Saved, the highest total at any position; on a per-1,200 inning basis (roughly 135 games), that's 29 runs above average per year. Simmons has been worth a solid 11.6 WAR over the past three seasons and has improved steadily as a hitter in that span, from a 75 OPS+ in 2014 to 84 in '15 and then 92 in '16, his first year with the Angels.
Third base: Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers
Can a recipient of the winter's sixth-largest–free-agent contract really be underrated? Considering the apparent bargain the Dodgers got on their four-year, $64 million deal for Turner, the answer is yes. In 2016, his first full season as a full-timer, the 32-year-old Turner overcame a sluggish start owing to off-season left knee surgery to hit .275/.339/.493 for a 124 OPS+ with 27 home runs and 5.0 WAR. Since being non-tendered by the Mets in December 2013 for a perceived lack of hustle, the raking redhead has hit a combined .296/.364/.492 for a 136 OPS+ and 13.1 WAR—a total topped in that span only by two players who have never been All-Stars, Kiermainer and Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton.
Leftfield: Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
Yelich isn't likely to be classified as "underrated" much longer, as his star is certainly on the rise. A 2010 first-round pick out of a California high school, he debuted in July 2013, won a Gold Glove in '14 and signed a seven-year, $49.5 million extension in '15. All that was a prelude to his breakout season last year at age 24, when he set career highs in homers (21), RBIs (98), OPS+ (133, on .298/.376/.483 hitting) and WAR (5.3). Over the past three seasons, he's been worth nearly as much as the Marlins' other corner outfielder, the far more heralded Giancarlo Stanton (12.4 WAR to Stanton's 12.7), with +24 DRS to go with his 122 OPS+ .
Centerfield: Kevin Kiermaier, Tampa Bay Rays
Kiermaier isn't simply a glove man. While his raw batting line over the past three seasons (.258/.313/.425) doesn't look like much, it's been good for a 105 OPS+; he's averaged 11 home runs and 15 steals per year, and in 2016, he improved his walk rate to 9.7%, up from 5.2% in '14 and '15 combined. According to Baseball-Reference, his value the past two seasons was bolstered by 11.4 runs thanks to baserunning and double play avoidance—the "little" things, as the site's WAR subcategory designates them. That tied Kiermaier with Jarrod Dyson for fifth in the majors in that span.
Rightfield: Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals
The December trade that sent the 28-year-old Eaton from the White Sox to the Nationals opened some eyes. Not only has Eaton been an impressively valuable player—his 15.4 WAR since 2014 is second only to Kiermaier among non-All-Stars—but he's also just two years into a five-year, $23.5 million contract that could add another two years and $20 million via a pair of club options. The shape of Eaton's contributions has shifted over the past three seasons: Though he hasn't deviated more than two points in any direction from his overall 120 OPS+, he went from one homer in 2014 to 14 in each of the past two seasons, and after playing centerfield in '14 and '15, last year he shifted to right and was 22 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved en route to a career-high 6.2 WAR.
Righthanded starting pitcher: Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians
A three-time Baseball America top-100 prospect from 2007 to '09, Carrasco took seemingly forever to break through due to injuries (including late-2011 Tommy John surgery) and ineffectiveness at the major league level. But since making the Indians out of spring training in 2014, he's delivered a 3.22 ERA and 3.00 FIP with 9.8 strikeouts per nine across 464 innings. Carrasco's 11.1 WAR in that span is a hair behind Tanner Roark's 11.3 for Washington, but Roark's dismal 2015 (0.7 WAR, 91 ERA+) was the separator here. The Indians might have beaten the Cubs in the 2016 World Series had Carrasco not been lost for the year in mid-September after suffering a non-displaced fracture of his right pinkie against the Tigers.
Lefthanded starting pitcher: Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals
Speaking of prospects who have taken forever to break through due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Duffy—who made Baseball America's Top 100 in 2011—helped the Royals to the World Series in '14 and '15 but didn't qualify for an ERA title until last year, his age-27 season. Appearing in 42 games and making 26 starts, Duffy threw 179 2/3 innings with a 3.51 ERA (124 ERA+, also his average over the past three seasons) and 9.4 strikeouts per nine. For the past three seasons, he's totaled 9.2 WAR, including a career-best 4.2 in 2016.
Closer: Cody Allen, Cleveland Indians
Anyone paying close attention to Cleveland's 2016 postseason run got a good look at Allen's role in the team's success, whether he was shutting the door in the ninth inning or working out of a men-on-base jam in the seventh or eighth. Not only has Allen saved 90 games over the past three years, but he's also delivered a 2.52 ERA with 12.0 strikeouts per nine, averaging 69 innings and 1.8 WAR.