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February 22, 2020
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Underrated teams, players as Spring Training begins

Underrated teams, players as Spring Training begins
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Anthony Castrovince

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air. But as voiced in many a lonely pop song or illustrated in many a tale of unrequited affection, there’s not always enough love to go around.

So it is in baseball at the start of another spring. Projections are filtering out, opinions are never-ending, and sometimes teams and players don’t get the appreciation or interest they deserve.

Here are some teams and players that fit that category. To be clear, the players included do not come close to constituting a full list of those who deserve more attention (actually, we’ll be posting my annual All-Underrated Team soon). I’m just including some guys who have been swept to the side a bit by the offseason narratives.

1. The D-backs
Adjusting for the means at hand, the D-backs had as good a winter as anybody, adding Madison Bumgarner, Starling Marte, Héctor Rondón, Junior Guerra, Kole Calhoun and Stephen Vogt. They aren’t going to catch the Dodgers, but a PECOTA projection of 79 wins is still selling them short.

Full PECOTA projections

Elsewhere in the National League West, the projections call for similar win totals from the Padres, and that’s more understandable there, given all the untapped upside on San Diego’s roster. The Padres have a higher ceiling than Arizona in 2020, but for now the D-backs are the safer bet to vie for an NL Wild Card spot. After all, they won 85 games last year, and their run differential (+70) was 67 runs better than the Wild Card-winning Brewers and suggested that Arizona should have been an 88-win team.

Granted, the D-backs had Zack Greinke the majority of 2019, but now they have a potentially impressive top end of the rotation in Bumgarner, Luke Weaver (152 ERA+, or 52 percent better than league average, in 64 1/3 innings last year) and Zac Gallen (156 ERA+ in 80 innings). They have a high offensive floor, thanks to the Martes (Starling and Ketel) and David Peralta. And they have a good farm system, to boot.

2. & 3. Austin Rileyand Johan Camargo, 3B, Braves
These guys are presently better known as “Not Josh Donaldson.” And while Atlanta did successfully pivot to Marcell Ozuna when Donaldson went north, Donaldson’s big presence is a big loss, rendering third base a weakness. Though the Braves will probably still be a popular pick to three-peat in the NL East, that weakness is a big reason they are projected to finish third by both PECOTA and FanGraphs.

But let’s not forget that the rookie Riley last year had a .930 OPS and 14 homers in 42 games before the league caught up to him. While he certainly has adjustments to make (108 strikeouts in 297 plate appearances), he has good raw power and could benefit from a return to his natural position at third after moving to the outfield out of necessity in 2019. And Camargo came to camp in better shape, which could put him in position to more closely replicate his 2018 (115 OPS+ in 524 plate appearances) than his abysmal ’19 (67 OPS+ in 248 plate appearances). This could be an effective combo.

And if all else fails, the Braves can just trade for Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado.

4. The Phillies
I get why the aforementioned projections have the Phils fourth in the NL East. It’s arguably baseball’s strongest division, and Philadelphia fell flat with a late-season collapse in the frustrating first year of the Bryce Harper era.

All that said, this could still be a really good team, with the more proven guiding hand of new manager Joe Girardi, with Harper settled in, with Didi Gregorius playing for his next contract in a park that suits his swing, with Zack Wheeler’s peripherals pointing to bigger and better things, with prospects Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard nearing readiness, and with (hopefully) better health. The Phillies have potentially protected themselves a bit with one of the game’s more interesting lists of non-roster invitees, which includes Neil Walker, Francisco Liriano, and Anthony Swarzak, among others.

5. Nomar Mazara, OF, White Sox
The projections temper expectations for the new-look South Siders, painting them as right around a .500 team. And that’s totally fair. Chicago had a big offseason, but it’s hard to know whether all the pieces will fit together properly.

But in an acquisition spree that has included Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación, Dallas Keuchel and Gio González, it’s easy to overlook the trade the Sox made for Mazara. His prospect potential has not panned out, to date, but he’s only 25 and has battled thumb issues the last two seasons. It’s worth remembering that Mazara had a solid .282/.342/.484 slash with 15 homers in the first three months of 2018, and his power increased in ’19. He adds to the upside of a roster featuring Yoán Moncada, Tim Anderson, Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Lucas Giolito and others. With due respect to the big-name additions, that overall upside is the White Sox biggest selling point.

6. The Brewers
Another club that has probably earned its uninspiring projections (79 wins per PECOTA, and 81 per FanGraphs). After all, the Brewers let Grandal, Mike Moustakas and Eric Thames walk in the midst of watching nearly half the NL Wild Card Game roster go out the door.

Public projections, however, have rarely been kind to a GM David Stearns production, so look at them with an especially skeptical eye here. I won’t be picking the Brew Crew in the NL Central, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that Stearns and Co. have identified something in, say, Avisaíl García and Justin Smoak that they think is going to play particularly well in Miller Park. Stearns seems to be going with a strategy of building up the Brewers’ floor with a slew of offseason trades and signings, while leaving room in the budget for in-season upgrades. He struck gold on the likes of Jordan Lyles and Drew Pomeranz midseason last year. The point, ultimately, is that the Brewers are not to be overlooked just because they look a lot different this year than last.

7. Jose Urquidy, RHP, Astros
Between losing Gerrit Cole and gaining a target on their backs in the wake of their illegal sign-stealing scandal, the Astros could conceivably take a significant step back in 2020. The projections still love their talent-loaded roster, but Cole’s absence appears to place a heavy burden on Lance McCullers Jr., who will be limited, innings-wise, in his return from Tommy John surgery.

You don’t hear as much about Urquidy, but this guy had a respectable 118 ERA+ and 1.10 WHIP in 41 innings last season, and he had a big night on the big stage that was Game 4 of the World Series (five scoreless innings), despite the relative rust of pitching out of the ‘pen just twice in the first two rounds. He’s not flashy, he’s not guaranteed the last rotation spot, and he sure as heck ain’t Cole. But he’s capable of bringing consistent quality innings to a team patching a big, big hole.

8. The A’s
Oakland always deserves more love than it gets. The Angels’ splashy offseason propelled them past the A’s in the PECOTA projections, but I still think the A’s are the team more likely to push the Astros in the American League West.

If health permits, Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk could give the A’s one of the best young rotation cores in the sport, and there’s more coming down on the farm. Offensively, while second base might be a little shaky, Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson are enough to give the A’s a dynamic infield, and the rest of the lineup returns the cast that contributed to the fifth-highest wRC+ mark (107) in the Majors last season. The A’s typically build a quality bullpen, too, and there’s a lot of depth behind the elite Liam Hendriks.

I’m sticking with my bold New Year’s prediction that the A’s unseat the Astros, because the world needs more A’s advocates.

9. Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals
The Cards did not have much power last season, and that was before losing Ozuna. They shook off all the calls to add a big outfield bat this winter, and I beat that drum as much as anybody. The missing middle-of-the-order presence is a big reason why the forecasts call for St. Louis to take a step back in the NL Central.

But even I can admit that the Cards are capable of outsmarting us, and Carlson could be an X-factor. He’s been the subject of a lot of hype among Cardinals fans, and he does rate as the No. 17 overall prospect in the game, per MLB Pipeline. Still, the casual fan and the average NL Central prognosticator is likely guilty of overlooking his potential impact in this race. Carlson’s competing for a corner-outfield opportunity despite just 79 plate appearances to his name at Triple-A. And even if he doesn’t break camp with the club, he could rise quickly. He had a .914 OPS across two Minor League levels last year.

10. & 11. Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney, Angels
The Angels are undoubtedly improved, and that is reflected in PECOTA projections that have them winning an AL Wild Card spot. The key concern is whether they’ve done enough in the rotation, where Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy do not exactly rate as the high-profile additions fans and media were clamoring for.

None of us, though, should overlook the potential of these two arms in the Halos’ rotation. Steamer’s projections peg both to an ERA north of 4.00, but I think either is capable of better. It was only 90 innings in his rookie year, but Canning allowed a rate of contact (69.5 percent) comparable to that of Justin Verlander (68.8) and Patrick Corbin (69.6), and it was weak contact (.299 expected weighted on-base average). Heaney’s battled injury issues in recent years and gave up too many homers in 2019, but his 21.5% strikeout minus walk rate was really strong, and his command could take him far.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.



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