Under the radar
Also in this column: • A destination for Andruw Jones • Sigh of relief in Philly • More news and notes
Here's my All-Underappreciated All-Stars, the best of baseball's players and decision-makers who aren't among the best known.
I'll start my team with a GM and manager, then pick my starting pitcher, reliever, infielder, outfielder and catcher. This is a list of some greats (or near-greats) of the game who only come up noticeably short in one area: recognition.
Larry Beinfest, Marlins.
Beinfest often wears a cowboy hat yet manages to blend into a crowd. He's from Los Angeles but there isn't an ounce of Hollywood in him.
He's won a World Series, rebuilt a franchise in no time and makes a higher percentage of good trades than almost anyone else. He never sees his name in lights, which may have something to do with his blend-into-the-background personality, and it may also have something to do with running a team without many fans.
"It's part of my makeup to maybe lay a little bit low," says Beinfest.
Well, he's picked the right organization then. He's occasionally cited in South Florida as the second or third most important man in the Marlins organization, behind Miguel Cabrera and maybe Dontrelle Willis. But nationally, it's almost like he doesn't exist.
Beinfest's miracle winter of 2005-06 hasn't gotten near the acclaim it should. Charged with conducting a secret fire sale, he needed to find major-league-ready players while paring his payroll to almost nothing (about $25 million). The result was 14 new players, 11 of them pitchers, many of them stars in the making. In one trade alone, with Boston, he plucked future NL Rookie of The Year shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Anibal Sanchez, who went 10-2 with a 2.82 ERA and threw a no-hitter.
"I'm happy with the way it worked out ... "[But] it was a function of trading away a lot of really good players," Beinfest says in typically low-key fashion.
The result was a stunning season, during which the $25 million Marlins actually peeked their heads above .500 before settling in at 78-84 after beginning 11-31. Beinfest didn't win national awards and finished second to another under-the-radar type, the Twins' Terry Ryan, when GMs voted for their own Executive of the Year (Beinfest himself voted for Ryan). This winter, he made his Marlins slightly younger and cheaper, and executed one trade, a deal that received little notice and netted Henry Owens and Matt Lindstrom from the Mets, one of whom is likely to fill the club's closer role.
Beinfest credits great people working for him, including Jim Fleming, Stan Meek, Dan Jennings and Michael Hill, and some luck; it's like they still can't believe their good fortune to have drafted second baseman Dan Uggla as a Rule V longshot.
While he's found a lot of stars for the Marlins, Beinfest continues to avoid accolades he deserves.
"I don't mind at all. It's not something I seek," he says. "I only have to worry about [team owner] Jeffrey Loria and [president] David Samson deciding whether I'm doing a good job. Personally, I prefer the focus on the field and the organization. The limelight is not something that gets me going."
Well, then, he's in the right place, isn't he?
Runner-up GM: Walt Jocketty, Cardinals.
Grady Little, Dodgers.
Don't let that Southern twang and folksy charm fool you. This guy can manage a game, and he can manage people even better. He won consistently in Boston and tied for first his first year in Los Angeles, two teams with history and places with pressure.
It helps that the players actually seem to like him. Little's trick? "Players know they're playing for someone whose priority is them, and not himself, every day," Little says. "The players have enough pressure on themselves. None of that pressure comes from me."
Little's accent and speech patterns, which can sound a little like Forrest Gump, can cause folks to underestimate him. It's not a strategy, though, just something that comes naturally. "What you see is what you get," he says.
What you usually get is the right call. The move to let Pedro Martinez keep pitching in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees is the one folks remember, though.
"It'll be something people talk about for a long time," Little says. "To get the point where we're in the seventh game, I was sitting in the dugout. A lot of people are forming opinions and making comments, but they weren't in that dugout."
Runner-up Manager: Ron Gardenhire, Twins.
Derek Lowe, Dodgers.
This guy is one of the best pitchers in baseball nobody ever talks about. He's clutch, he's durable and he's versatile. Plus, he's a major winner.
Since 2002, the three biggest pitching winners in baseball are Roy Oswalt with 84 victories, Randy Johnson with 80 and Lowe also with 80. One of them no one guesses.
"I think if anyone was asked to give the top 10, I wouldn't be mentioned in the top 30," Lowe says. "You can't change people's opinions. Guys who have electric stuff but are inconsistent get talked about."
He says he doesn't know why that is, but he has an idea. "I think it's all about the perception of the strikeout. Guys who strike guys out are remembered," Lowe says. "A guy can go seven and strike out ten or he can go seven and get 15 groundballs. What are people going to remember?"
Like a lot of much bigger stars, Lowe went through a tough breakup with Boston. He blames himself more than anyone. "I didn't pitch very good. I tried too hard to have a career year," says Lowe, who followed an awful 2004 regular season with a 3-0 postseason.
Yet he also decries the system in Boston, where star players' flaws are sometimes aired in the paper before they are let go. He understands the fans' need to know is insatiable in Boston. But that doesn't mean he enjoyed reading what his bosses thought of him.
"The sad thing about being in that market, they have to give the fans reasons why they keep guys or don't keep guys," Lowe says. "As the year went on, I'm reading all this negative stuff. If you want to know where you stand, just read the papers in Boston. When you play in a market like Boston, you know your fate.
"It's too bad they can't ease you out the door," he adds. "They have to slam the door."
Lowe recalls that Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, Martinez and Roger Clemens, to separate degrees, also experienced uncomfortable breakups in Boston (and it appears the same may be happening to Curt Schilling). "They said Clemens was washed up, and he's won four Cy Youngs since then," Lowe remarks.
With Lowe, the knocks in the papers were related to off-field issues. "They didn't think I was reliable or trustworthy," he says. "I think a lot of the things they said were incorrect." Incorrect or not, they were wrong to think Matt Clement would be a suitable replacement for Lowe, who remains as reliable and trustworthy as almost anyone on the field, where it counts.
Runner-up Starter: John Lackey, Angels.
Scot Shields, Angels.
Almost no one does the job of setting up the closer better than Shields, an unassuming guy who goes unnoticed -- though not by folks in the game. When Manny Ramirez was discussed in trade with Anaheim, Shields was one of the names that came up. Anaheim wouldn't think of it.
Shields credits the Angels fine starting staff and having "one of the best closers in the game" in Francisco Rodriguez. But those who play know how good this guy is. Some of the game's biggest hitters dread having to face him.
Shields throw hard and his ball moves in unexpected ways, but his best attribute is that he acts like he has the upper hand, no matter who he's facing, an unusual trait for a 38th-round draft choice (1,137th pick overall) and converted shortstop. "I don't back down from any hitter," Shields said. "I just say, 'Here it comes."'
It works. Shields is regularly among the league leaders in innings and strikeouts for a reliever, and over the past three years has thrown 284 2/3 innings and struck out 291 batters. He also is usually among league leaders in the non-glamorous stat of "holds." "Middle relievers are starting to get more recognition," Shields says. "But it doesn't matter to me, as long as I'm doing my job."
Runner-up Reliever: Brian Fuentes, Rockies.
Carlos Guillen, Tigers.
Guillen has to be the most underrated player in the game. Over the last three seasons, he's hit .318, .320 and .320, and last year, at age 30, he blossomed into a major star for the pennant-winning Tigers.
Guillen's offensive output compares favorably to any shortstop, and that includes Derek Jeter, who finished second in American League MVP voting. Guillen's batting average ranked third among all shortstops (behind Jeter's .343 and Miguel Tejada's .330), his .400 on-base percentage ranked second (to Jeter's .417), his .519 slugging percentage ranked first (Tejada was second at .498) and his .920 OPS first (Jeter's .900 was second). And Guillen did all this while playing in one of the worst hitter's parks, Comerica Park.
Guillen is underappreciated by his own team, which hasn't gotten serious about re-signing him at a time when Michael Young just got $80 million over five years from the Rangers. And Young posted a lower OPS (.815) than Guillen last season despite playing his home games in a hitter's haven.
It's as if folks can't accept what kind of player Guillen has become after a couple seasons in Seattle that bore no resemblance to what he's produced lately. According to Larry Stone of the Seattle Times, one of the first recommendations some Mariners people made to then-incoming GM Bill Bavasi was to replace Guillen. Bavasi agreed, sending him to Detroit for Ramon Santiago and Juan Gonzalez (no, not that Juan Gonzalez).
Runner-up Infielder: Robinson Cano, Yankees.
Jason Bay, Pirates.
Trust me, this is a career path that will never be repeated. After playing for Team Canada in the Little League World Series, Bay went under the radar first at the College of Southern Idaho (yes, everyone's under the radar there), then Gonzaga, then as a 22nd-round draft choice by Jim Beattie of the Montreal Expos. Bay was quickly traded three times, then became the first Rookie of the Year winner to have been traded so often.
"The guy's got almost everything you're looking for," says Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, the one who acquired Bay last. "His game is very well-rounded. He's a solid defender, he gets on base, he hits homers." Yes, all that, plus, "He's a great guy," says Littlefield.
Bay has consistently put up All-Star numbers in Pittsburgh. He and teammate Freddy Sanchez had their moment in the sun when they played in the All-Star Game last summer at PNC Park. But outside the Steel City, folks don't realize how good Bay is. In 2005, he became the first Pirate to hit .300 and have 40 doubles, 30 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs and 20 stolen bases (he was 21 for 22 in that department), and last year, despite battling knee trouble that resulted in offseason surgery, he set career highs with 35 home runs and 109 RBIs.
"He continues to get better," Littlefield said. "And he's done all this in a lineup that's been a challenge." Which explains why he's walked 197 times over the last two years. Bay and Sanchez are being brought back cautiously because of knee concerns, and Xavier Nady suffered a stomach infection early in spring. But once all three return to full health and can combine with new acquisition Adam LaRoche, Bay should have his most productive year to date.
Runner-up Outfielder: Matt Holiday, Rockies.
Jorge Posada, Yankees.
Posada's made a career of being overshadowed, if not overlooked. It's hard to grab the attention when you're on a team of superstars and frequently bat seventh or even eighth.
Posada's hitting exploits are still fairly well-known. As Pat Borzi in the New York Times recently pointed out, Posada's 603 RBIs since 2000 is by far the most by a catcher (by comparison, Hall-of-Famer-to-be Ivan Rodriguez has 498 in that span.) But it's his defensive efforts in 2006 that didn't get the notice they warranted until recent days. When a lot of folks were wondering whether he was slipping, Posada turned in his best year defensively, improving his throwing at age 35. Posada threw out an excellent 37.3 percent of would-be basestealers last year, the second best mark in his career.
Runner-up catcher: Ramon Hernandez, Orioles
• Andruw Jones has mentioned how he'd like to stay with the Braves, but the consensus around baseball is that the new ownership group, Liberty Media, bought the team with an eye on finances, not winning, and that Jones is as good as gone. The Red Sox and White Sox have been rumored, but one former teammate of Jones said if Jones has his choice, he'd like to avoid a cold-weather climate. That friend sees the Angels as a definite possibility.
• Keeping up with the Joneses dept.: Scouts and coaches in Florida have been impressed by yet another Jones in Braves camp. Young outfielder Brandon Jones has four hits in 11 at-bats, including two doubles and a home run
• Freddy Garcia's checkup went so well the doctor didn't recommend an MRI, a major relief to the Phillies and the player who's free-agent eligible at year's end. There was concern after Garcia threw in the low 80s and got roughed up the other day.
• The Yankees' will be surprised to find that Doug Mientkiewicz's all-world defensive reputation is overdone, according to one National League scout. "He had the yips in 2005 with the Mets. He couldn't turn the 3-6-3 double play, and he wouldn't ever throw home," the scout said.
• From the standpoint of the team, moving Jonathan Papelbon back to closer was the only solution that made sense for the Red Sox. There just wasn't a reliable closer to be had on the trade market, not unless they were willing to surrender their first born.
• The great thing about spring injury updates is that no one is hurt or in pain. They are only "experiencing tightness" or "irritated."
• From here, baseball's decision to abandon cable for the dish looks like a short-sighted money grab.