Winning at baseball's highest level truly requires a collective effort. Unlike basketball, where one superstar can carry a team or football, where an elite quarterback almost guarantees you'll be in the mix, baseball is the epitome of a team game. Sure, every club has its share of star players and household names, but let's highlight an underrated guy from each of the 30 teams who isn't talked about nearly enough.
Lefty Nestor Cortes was an all-star last season, so calling him underrated could seem like a stretch, but hear me out. When you talk about the Yankees pitching staff you almost certainly begin with ace righty Gerrit Cole, and the Bombers aggressively pursued and ultimately secured Carlos Rodon in free agency. Throw in righty Luis Severino who has seemingly been a polarizing arm on this team since he debuted, and Cortes sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But in 2022, the 28-year-old pitched to a 2.44 ERA in 28 starts, while delivering a 0.92 WHIP, holding opponents to a sub .200 batting average, and punching out over a hitter/inning. New York feels good every time Cortes takes the hill, and the southpaw will look to blossom into a household name in '23.
Alex Verdugo has the unfortunate distinction of being the primary piece of the return the Red Sox got for Mookie Betts, but if you don't hold that against him you'll be able to see that for three years running, he's been excellent for Boston. A year ago, the left-handed swinging outfielder slashed .280/328/.405 with 11 homers, and set new career highs with 74 RBI and 39 doubles. Verdugo has yet to make an all-star team but he's also just 26 years old and has steadily developed into a dangerous hitter pitchers have to be careful with.
The Orioles have stockpiled quite an impressive young core, and while Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Ryan Mountcastle get a lot of attention, someone people don't talk about nearly enough is outfielder Austin Hays. Baltimore selected the 27-year-old in the 3rd round in 2016, and while it took him a while to break through--particularly for a college player--Hays is proving to be worth the wait. In the last two seasons, he's crushed 38 homers, driven in 131 runs, and doubled 61 times, while playing outstanding defense out on the grass.
Daulton Varsho was quietly one of the more dangerous left-handed power hitters in baseball last season, and the Blue Jays were thrilled to acquire him in an offseason trade with Arizona. In his first real chance to play every day in the big leagues, Varsho slammed 27 home runs and drove in 74 runs for the Diamondbacks in '22, while adding 23 doubles and three triples. He's also incredibly versatile, as not only can he handle all three outfield positions, but he can also play catcher. Toronto identified him as a piece they really wanted to help offset their right-handed heavy line-up, and they sent two longtime Blue Jays, Lourdes Gurriel and Gabriel Moreno to the desert to get their man.
To be totally frank, the only reason Shane McClanahan is on this list is that he plays for Tampa Bay, which unfairly makes him undeservedly anonymous to too many casual fans in other cities. You can bet, though, that perhaps as soon as early this year, that will no longer be the case. In just two big league seasons, McClanahan has established himself as arguably the best left-handed starter in the American League. He started the all-star game for the junior circuit a season ago. In 28 starts for the Rays the 25-year-old put up a 2.54 ERA across 166.1 innings, while striking out 194 batters and surrendering just a 0.93 WHIP. In every respect, McClanahan should be a household name and mentioned among the best pitchers in the sport, and hopefully that will start to be the case shortly.
Similarly to McClanahan, the only reason Dylan Cease is considered underrated is that his track record of success is not long enough that casual baseball observers have been forced to remember his name. For those of us in tune with what was going on last summer, though, very few starting pitchers were even close to the level of consistent dominance Cease delivered for the White Sox. In 32 starts the righty put up a stellar 2.20 ERA with a 1.11 WHIP, while holding opponents to a .190 batting average and finishing 2nd in the AL with 227 strikeouts. Were it not for the incredible season Justin Verlander put together in Houston Cease would've won the American League Cy Young award, and with Verlander now out of the AL, maybe 2023 can be his year.
Righty Joe Ryan was a September call-up for the Twins in 2021 before getting his first chance to pitch regularly in the team's rotation last season, and it's fair to say he took advantage of his opportunity. In 27 starts, Ryan won 13 games with a 3.55 ERA, while holding opponents to a .211 batting average and punching out 151 hitters in 147 frames. The 26-year-old was the Twins most consistent starter all year long, and he should become a more well-known name in 2023.
The Tigers consciously traded away most of their valuable relief pitchers this winter. However, Alex Lange is still here, and the right-hander could conceivably become a valuable trade asset in a few months. In a career-high 71 appearances last season, the LSU product was excellent, pitching to a 3.41 ERA and striking out 82 batters in 63.1 innings, while registering 21 holds and holding opponents to a .203 batting average. Detroit plans to slot him in as their closer in '23, and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to a more high-leverage role.
It's rare that a blockbuster trade works out well for both parties involved, but the deal the Mets and Guardians executed two winters ago has done just that. Shortstop Francisco Lindor has thrived after getting acclimated to New York, and in Cleveland, both Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario have developed into cornerstone pieces for the Guardians. Gimenez in particular has come on in a hurry. In '22, the 24-year-old slashed .297/.371/.466 with 17 homers, 69 RBI, 26 doubles, three triples, and 20 steals. He was an all-star and won his first Gold Glove award, and has quickly become one of the best second basemen in baseball.
University of Florida product Brady Singer was the Royals first-round pick in 2018, and after an up-and-down first two seasons in the big leagues the righty seemed to really find his footing at the highest level a year ago. In 27 outings Singer set new career bests in ERA (3.23), WHIP (1.14), strikeouts (150) and innings (153.1). Kansas City still envisions him being their staff ace for years to come, and his ability to progress will be a major storyline for this team in 2023.
Lefty Patrick Sandoval had a good year for the Angels in 2021, but it still would have been difficult to predict he'd take the quantum leap he did in 2022. In a career-high 27 starts the 26-year-old pitched to the tune of a 2.91 ERA and struck out 151 hitters in 148.2 innings. His BB/9 ratio of 3.63 was too high, and contributed to his WHIP being higher than he'd like, so command will understandably be a point of emphasis for him in 2023. That said, in short order Sandoval has become the Halos best-starting pitcher not named Shohei Ohtani, and the club is excited to see even further progression in the year ahead.
Influenced heavily by the rapid ascension of their superstar center fielder Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners have quickly become one of the more exciting teams in baseball. But Rodriguez is far from alone in Seattle. First baseman Ty France has been a dynamic hitter for the M's since coming north in a 2020 trade with San Diego, and his workmanlike attitude is perhaps the biggest reason he isn't discussed more prominently. A season ago the veteran slashed .274/.338/.436 and set new career highs with 20 homers and 83 RBI. Seattle made the playoffs in 2022 and fully plan on making a deeper run this time around, and to do so France will need to be front and center.
Oakland has spent the previous two winters ripping down their foundation and starting from scratch, leaving very little in the way of well-known Major Leaguers left on their roster. But southpaw reliever Sam Moll stands out to me as someone more people should know about. In 53 appearances last season the Lakeland, TN native turned in a 2.91 ERA and held opponents to just a .205 batting average in 43.1 innings. With A.J. Puk now in Miami, Moll is going to be the primary lefty in the Athletics bullpen, and it wouldn't be surprising at all if he himself ends up shipped out of the Bay Area later this summer.
When Justin Verlander left the Astros to head to Queens in free agency it moved everyone in Houston's rotation up a spot on the depth chart, which should in turn help people understand just how good right-hander Cristian Javier really is. Last season the 25-year-old worked to a strong 2.54 ERA in 148.2 innings, while striking out 194 hitters. Opposing batters managed just a .170 batting average against Javier, whose WHIP was an outstanding 0.95. In the playoffs he was even better, surrendering only one run in 12.2 frames to help Houston win the World Series, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him blossom into one of the game's best starters in the next few months.
Teams very rarely win trades with the Tampa Bay Rays, but the Rangers may well have gotten one over on them when they pried first baseman Nathaniel Lowe away in a six-player trade in December of 2020. In Texas Lowe has blossomed into a complete hitter who just turned in a phenomenal 2022 campaign. In 157 games Lowe slashed .302/.358/.492 with 27 homers, 76 RBI, and 26 doubles. Texas has invested a lot of money and resources towards ending a long postseason drought, and their slugging first baseman is one of the reasons they feel confident about the future.
The Mets are in full win-now mode and have accumulated a laundry list of star players in search of the club's first championship since 1986. But while folks are quick to discuss Mets like Pete Alonso or Francisco Lindor, center fielder Brandon Nimmo inconspicuously seems to fly under the radar more than he should. A year ago Nimmo slashed .274/.367/.433 with 53 extra-base hits, and was deservedly rewarded with a long lucrative contract from the Mets in free agency. The veteran is generally considered a star by fans, but it's important to remember just how many things he does well, and New York is thrilled to have him in orange and blue long term.
Like the Mets, the Phillies have household names all over the diamond, which is why third baseman Alec Bohm's name sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Philadelphia selected the Wichita State product 3rd overall back in 2018, and while he's experienced growing pains on defense, nobody can dispute Bohm's offensive ability. In his first full big league season a year ago he slashed .280/.315/.398 with 13 homers and 72 RBI, and he became a critical right handed bat for a Phillies team that ended up winning the National League pennant.
Atlanta's best starting pitchers are unquestionably Max Fried and Spencer Strider, but very few clubs are able to throw a better number three than the Braves. Righty Kyle Wright was Atlanta's 1st round pick in '17, and while he'd struggled in limited big-league opportunities prior to last season, that narrative is completely different now. In 30 starts in 2022 Wright went 21-5 with a 3.19 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, while striking out just under a batter/inning. He threw six scoreless innings of two-hit ball in his only playoff start, and the Braves are hoping the breakout performance was just the tip of the iceberg for his potential.
Trevor Williams was far from the sexiest name on a Mets team that won 101 games last season, but in a lot of ways he was as valuable a part of the team's success as anyone. Working primarily as New York's long man in the bullpen, Williams often found himself in games where he needed to go deep to save the rest of the relief corps while also sporadically getting pressed into spot starting. This is one of the toughest jobs in baseball as he often went weeks between outings, but he handled it incredibly. In 30 games for the Mets (9 starts), Williams pitched to a 3.21 ERA in 89.2 innings, and as a free agent he jumped at the opportunity to become a full-time member of Washington's rotation.
Outfielder Bryan De La Cruz has flashed moments of brilliance for the Marlins, and talent wise can do just about everything on a baseball field. To date, the 26-year-old has been unable to consistently put it all together at the big league level, but that could change in 2023. In 329 at-bats a year ago he hit .252 with 13 homers, 43 RBI, and 20 doubles, while playing stellar defense out on the grass at spacious LoanDepot Park. De La Cruz is still only 26 years old, and as he matures and gains more experience, he profiles as someone who could become more well-known in a hurry.
Young Nico Hoerner was the Cubs first-round pick five years ago, and while he played in 112 games for Chicago between '19-'21, the 2022 season was his first chance to play a full big-league campaign. It's fair to say the 25-year-old was not overmatched. In 135 ballgames, he slashed .281/.327/.410 with 10 homers, 22 doubles, five triples, and 20 steals. Hoerner is a shortstop and played position number six for the Cubs last season, but the free-agent arrival of Dansby Swanson is going to push him to second base and give Chicago one of the more exciting double-play combinations in the National League.
Everyone knows the Cardinals offense runs through their superstar corner infielders, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, but the man often being driven in by the two sluggers is speedy shortstop Tommy Edman. The 27-year-old switch-hitter has developed into a dynamic leadoff hitter, and is coming off easily the best season of his career. Appearing in all but nine of the Redbirds games, Edman slashed ..265/.324/.400 with 13 homers, 57 RBI, 31 doubles, and 32 steals. The National League is loaded with star shortstops making it hard for Edman to get enough traction nationally, and he is 100% somebody who is underappreciated.
Second-generation big league third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes was the Pirates first-round pick back in 2015, and while he hasn't developed into the type of star Pittsburgh originally thought he might, he's still been a steady contributor. In a career-high 136 games last season Hayes hit .244 with 34 extra-base hits, while playing his trademark excellent defense at the hot corner. Some fans have been quick to label Hayes a bust because he doesn't hit for as much power as a lot of third basemen do, but he's still only 26 years old and can already help his team win in numerous ways.
With the Braves last season William Contreras made the all-star team as the National League's DH, and Atlanta did a nice job shuffling both he and Travis d'Arnaud behind the plate while often keeping the other ones bat in the line-up. Offensively, it helped Contreras thrive, as he slashed .278/.354/.506 with 20 long balls and 45 RBI. This winter though the Braves jumped at the chance to upgrade their catching corps, acquiring veteran Sean Murphy in a three-team trade that sent Contreras to Milwaukee. With the Brewers the 25-year-old will start regularly behind the plate in the same division as his brother, Willson.
Southpaw Nick Lodolo isn't as much underrated as he is unknown, though that should change emphatically in the next few weeks and months. Cincinnati selected the TCU product 7th overall in 2019, and he looked every bit like the team's future ace following his initial promotion last season. In 19 starts Lodolo delivered a 3.66 ERA with a 1.25 WHIP, while striking out 131 hitters in 103.1 innings. He's still only 25 and could have an innings limit this season, but make no mistake, Nick Lodolo is a name you'll remember very soon.
Veteran Miguel Rojas actually began his career with the Dodgers nine years ago before being traded to Miami where he spent the last eight seasons mostly as the Marlins' starting shortstop. The Dodgers executed a trade with Miami to bring the Venezeula native back to LA in January, with the intention of making him an often-used utility infielder. Sometimes things change in a hurry. The Dodgers' regular shortstop, Gavin Lux, tore his ACL in a spring training game which has thrust many Los Angeles fans into a panic thinking the team needs to go outside the organization to replace him. And I'd tell those folks don't overreact. In Rojas the Dodgers have a steady defensive shortstop whose been a lifetime .260 hitter in the big leagues. The team will be just fine with him playing every day.
Veteran Elias Diaz' name is never mentioned among the better catchers in the National League. Still, very few backstops have been as consistent on both sides of the ball as he has over the last several seasons. The 32-year-old has never played in more than 106 games in a Major League season, but in 2021 crushed 18 home runs. He's long been renowned as one of the best defensive players at his position, and is adept at handling a pitching staff--something especially important given the climate in Denver.
Padres' superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. lost all of 2022 thanks to a reckless injury suffered on a motorcycle and a PED suspension, opening the door for Ha-Seong Kim to take over as San Diego's everyday shortstop. And Kim's performance last season helped convince team brass to reshuffle their defensive alignment, sending Tatis to the outfield, sliding Jake Cronenworth to first base, signing Xander Bogaerts to play short, and shifting Kim to the other side of second base. That's a lot of moving parts but the Padres are in full win-now mode and won't stop at any cost. Offensively in '22 Kim did prove himself worthy of remaining a regular, slashing .251/.325/.383 with 11 homers, 59 RBI, and 29 doubles.
The Giants acquired right-handed swinging J.D. Davis in a July trade with the Mets last summer, in a deal that is looking very one-sided. New York received Darin Ruf hoping he could add thump to their DH corps but the veteran struggled mightily in Queens. Davis, on the other hand, thrived by the Bay with more regular playing time. In 49 games with the Giants he slashed .263/.361/.496 with eight homers and eight doubles, and will enter this season entrenched as San Francisco's starting third baseman. He also executed a top-notch recruiting pitch, convincing his former Mets teammate, outfielder Michael Conforto, to join the Giants in free agency.
Diamondbacks' third baseman Josh Rojas has quietly been a steady and consistent contributor in Phoenix for a few seasons now, though many casual fans might not look at him that way. In '22 the University of Hawaii alum slashed .269/.349/.391 with 35 extra-base hits and 23 stolen bases. Rojas is not going to be confused with a star player, but he plays the game the right way and does a lot of things right, and Arizona is happy to have him on their side.