From Derek Jeter to Michael Young: The Ten Most Underrated Position Players in the A.L.

by M.C. Antil on January 6, 2011

(Editor’s note:  This was originally posted the first week of October, 2010.  However, in light of some of this winter’s moves — not the least of which were the Yankees re-upping of Derek Jeter and the Rangers’ signing of Adrian Beltre, while shifting Michael Young to full-time DH — I decided to re-visit it.  If anything, it’s more apt now then when I originally filed it.)

Take this for what it is, and disagree all you want, but understand I watched a lot of American League baseball this past year. 

Anyway, it is the first weekend of the 2010 baseball post-season, so in the interest of putting a cap on these past six months of terrific baseball (and to trigger a little early Hot Stove talk) let me offer the following: my list of the ten A.L. players whose current level of recognition is most disproportionate to their on-field contributions and/or overall greatness. 

In other words, the ten guys still somehow flying under the radar of the average baseball fan, given what they mean to their respective teams.  (And keep in mind, they’re not listed from worst to first, but from least to most overrated.)

Derek Jeter

10.  Derek Jeter
How can a first ballot Hall of Famer, much less a Yankee, be on any list of underrated baseball players? 

Because let’s get one thing straight; New York did not dominate baseball these past 15 years because George Steinbrenner blew his top one day and demanded it.  The Yankees were not head and shoulders above every other team in baseball because Brian Cashman out-maneuvered his peers, or Joe Torre out-classed his. In fact, the Yanks weren’t even the gold standard of baseball because they had all those YES Network gazillions burning a hole in their pocket (although that certainly helped).

No, the New York Yankees have been able to lap the field season after season  for nearly a full generation because in the mid-90’s  the club’s player development team (Stick Michael, Brian Sabean and Mitch Lukevics) caught lighting in a thimble.  In the span of two years they signed and brought to the big leagues Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada, and Derek Jeter — four Hall of Famers whose combination of greatness and sustained health would prove to be unprecedented in modern baseball history.  And by far — by far — the most important of those four has been Jeter.

Let the stat geeks carp about his limited range. Let the cynics tell you he was lucky to have played for the Yankees. I’ll argue just the opposite. The New York Yankees were lucky to have him.

They had been an ordinary, almost irrelevant baseball organization for almost 20 years before Jeter and his off-the-charts baseball IQ came to town.  Theirs was a world full of big-ticket free agent busts like Steve Kemp, Steve Sax and Eddie Lee Whitson, and over-hyped, hopelessly flawed prospects like Bam Bam Meulens, Bobby Meacham, Ricky Ledee, Kevin Maas, Roberto Kelly, Melky Cabrera and Dan Pasqua.  Never forget that. 

And don’t dismiss the very strong possibility that, given how relatively few real impact players they’ve been able to develop the last 15 years, the moment their captain and his pals decide to hang ’em up is the very moment the Yanks find themselves staring, once again, into the deep, dark abyss of baseball irrelevance.

Kurt Suzuki

9.  Kurt Suzuki
Being underrated and playing in Oakland is almost redundant, isn’t it?  I mean, by its very definition being an A’s catcher is a little like being the proverbial tree falling in a forest. 

But next to Joe Mauer, no catcher in the A.L. combines high level offensive and defensive skills any better than Kurt Suzuki. 

It’s tough to pinpoint any one thing that he does better than any other catcher; but on the same token, it’s equally hard to think of anything he doesn’t do exceptionally well.  He also plays just about every day and never seems to wear down. 

I guess the thing I admire most about Suzuki is how he continues to handle and nurture the best crop of young arms in any organization in baseball — including, just maybe, the Giants.  I also like the fact that on most any other club in baseball he’d be a #6, #7 or even #8 hitter, but on the A’s — the MLB equivalent of a junior varsity team — he often bats cleanup. 

What’s more, he somehow seems to rise to the occasion against the game’s best pitchers.  I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but it seems every time I watch him face a pitcher against whom I figure he has no chance whatsoever, he ends up hitting a rocket somewhere. 

Omar Vizquel

8.  Omar Vizquel
The only reason this guy is not #1 is because he is finally, after all these years, getting the recognition he’s long deserved.

I’ve argued for almost a decade now that Omar Vizquel is, by far, the greatest shortstop of my baseball life, a bloated stretch of time that extends backward past guys like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and anyone else you care to name, all the way back to Luis Aparicio

Sure there were better hitting shortstops in that time.  But there were no better fielders.  None.  Case closed. End of conversation. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the single most important thing a shortstop does for his team?  

In fact, if someone were holding a gun to my head and demanding that I pick one shortstop to field a hard-hit smash in hole and turn it into an out, or see my brains splattered all over the wall, there’s no doubt who I’d take.  In his day, Omar was the best.  And frankly, there was no one even in second place. 

(Plus, he’s not exactly been an offensive slouch.  His first hit in 2011 will be his 2,800th of his career, he’s scored over 1,400 runs, driven in nearly 1,000 and his lifetime SB total currently sits at 400 and counting.)

Fortunately, thanks to the fact Vizquel’s now played in San Francisco, Texas and Chicago the past three seasons, more and more people — including many in the media like his current play-by-play man, Hawk Harrelson — are now starting to shout to the rooftops about his greatness. 

So much so, in fact, that these days when I ask a fellow baseball fan, “Do you think Omar Vizquel is a first-ballot Hall of Famer?” the guy doesn’t look at me like I’ve got carrots growing out of my ears.

John Jaso

7.  John Jaso
Call this a trendy pick, and you can laugh if you’d like.  After all, prior to his call-up this past April, very few outside of the Tampa organization had ever even heard of John Jaso.  And, frankly, many still haven’t. 

But in the six months since he was recalled and given the starting job, Jaso single-handedly filled the 2010 Rays’ two most glaring holes (and the two biggest reasons they didn’t return to the post season in ’09). 

First, he stepped in and became what Dioner Navarro wasn’t anymore, a quality starting catcher.

Second, on June 6, Joe Madden (one of the few managers left in baseball still willing to roll the dice and act contrary to conventional wisdom) took the bold step of putting his starting catcher in the most important spot in his lineup: namely, leadoff. Before the move the Rays were having trouble scoring.  After it, they were a juggernaut.  Jaso takes pitches, works counts and is as good as anyone at building the kind of prolonged at-bats that sap a pitcher’s reserves. 

 What’s more,  he may just be his team’s best baserunner — and this is a club, mind you, that has both Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton

There’s no chance in hell that Jaso will get much support for American League MVP this post-season.  But if the Rays were the league’s best team, and John Jaso was their biggest difference-maker, couldn’t you at least make a case for the guy?

Denard Span

6.  Denard Span
Raise your hand; who here thought that when Torii Hunter took his golden glove, his potent bat and his million dollar smile and headed west, the Twins would sink like a stone?  C’mon, get ’em up. 

OK, next question; who thought when one-time phenom Denard Span was finally brought up from the minors, the Twins were going to use him like a stable pony, keeping him around just long enough to light a fire under Carlos Gomez’s incredibly talented but maddeningly erratic butt? 

Yeah, I know.  Me too. 

But let me tell you, Span is the real deal.  And the Twins not only haven’t missed a beat, they’ve actually gotten better.  Why?  Because, swing a dead cat on any corner in America and you can hit a dozen or so halfway decent #5 hitters — like, for example, Hunter. 

But leadoff guys as skilled as Span are as rare as rare can be.  Watch him work a count.  Watch him take pitches inches off the plate.  And best of all, watch him look a pitch so deep into the box that it’s just about to pop into the catcher’s glove, only to see him flick his wrists and, not hit the ball to the left side, but actually whip it down the right field line. 

The man is absolutely amazing, and has emerged as the single most underrated leadoff hitter in all of baseball.

Shin Soo Choo

5.  Shin Soo Choo
Long time ago, former NBA player Jamaal Wilkes got so well known for being underrated, that he actually became a little overrated.  Shin Soo Choo’s not at that point yet, but he could get there. 

Almost every play-by-play man in the A.L. says something similar the first time Choo comes to bat:  “Here’s Shin Soo Choo, one of the most underrated players in the game.” 

And they’re right.  The guy can do it all.  Run.  Field.  Throw.  Hit for power. Even steal a base when necessary.  In fact, in 2009 Choo was the only player in the league to bat .300, hit 20 HR and steal 20 bases. 

What I like best about Choo, however, is that he is one of the few left-hand hitters in baseball who doesn’t looked hopelessly overmatched against the game’s toughest southpaws.  Granted, his splits are better against right-handers, but he doesn’t give away at-bats against lefties like some guys do.  What’s more, he doesn’t suddenly turn himself into an opposite field slap hitter.  He holds his ground and continues to give his team productive at bats out of the crucial #3 hole. 

That a player as talented as Choo was once traded by former Mariner GM Bill Bavasi for a spare part like Ben Broussard (followed closely by the ex-M’s GM swapping Asdrubal Cabrera for Eduardo Perez, who was out of baseball in three months) gives weight to the argument that if Seattle fans were to file a class action law suit against Bavasi for breach of contract, damages and perhaps even malpractice, they’d have a hell of a case.

Jeff Mathis

4.  Jeff Mathis
This pick will no doubt have some readers scratching their heads.  Jeff Mathis is, after all, never going to win a batting title, he might never drive in 50 runs, much less 100, and God forbid, he’s never going to the Hall of Fame. 

But on the same token, he just may be the finest defensive catcher the game has known since Newman and Kramer decided to team up for their millennium party. 

During the 2009 post-season (the ALCS, if I’m not mistaken, vs. the Yanks) he made a catch-and-tag at home that was not to be believed.  The throw from the Angel left fielder was a good 5′ up the first base line.  Mathis backhanded it on a short hop then lunged plate-ward just in time to nail the runner (who, again if memory serves, was carrying the tying run).  When he made the play — a play which the rest of the baseball media absolutely ignored — Tim McCarver (a former All Star catcher who was working the game for Fox) audibly gasped. 

How good is Mathis defensively?  Consider this: his manager Mike Scioscia (himself a former Gold Glove catcher) gave him the Angels’ starting job this year  over Mike Napoli, despite the fact that Mathis is a career .199 hitter and Napoli has now averaged 22 HR a year, three years running. 

Laugh all you want, but when a major league club is trying to win baseball games, and do so on a budget, this is exactly the kind of guy any smart GM targets. 

Adrian Beltre

3.  Adrian Beltre
Speaking of incredible defenders, how about Adrian Beltre? 

As a Chicago South Sider, I had to listen for years about how Joe Crede was the best third baseman in the A.L. and that it was an absolute sin he never won a Gold Glove.  Well, those Sox fans were right in one regard. Until two years ago it truly was a crime that the best fielding third baseman in the league had never won a Gold Glove. Only that guy wasn’t Crede. 

For nearly a decade Beltre fielded his position like no third baseman I’d ever seen, expect perhaps — and I do mean, perhapsBrooks Robinson.  He was a virtual vacuum cleaner on any ball to his right, got to a ton of balls to his left, and came in on short hoppers and threw sidearm strikes to first as well as any man who’s ever played the game. 

What’s more, as was the case this year, Beltre has it in him to rise up and become, literally, the best hitter on his team for weeks, months and even full seasons at a clip. 

Look, I get the fact that he’s had wild fluctuations in his offensive production (with the ups, perhaps not coincidentally, always coming during a walk year).  And shame on him for that. I also get the fact he’s lost half a step as he’s gotten older. 

But cynicism and age aside, Adrian Beltre remains for my money one of the best third basemen to ever play the position — although until this year, when he moved to Boston and finally began playing in the bright lights of the A.L. East, a lot of supposedly knowledgeable baseball fans had barely ever heard of the guy.

Michael Cuddyer

2.  Michael Cuddyer
How good is Michael Cuddyer? 

He’s good enough that, even though he may been the most consistently brilliant right fielder in all of baseball a few years back, when the Twins needed a third basemen, Cuddyer played third. 

When they needed a second basemen last year, he played second. 

And this year, when their two-time MVP first basemen and cleanup hitter, Justin Morneau, was lost to a season-ending concussion, who stepped up to not only play first base, but bat cleanup as well?  You guessed it.  But it wasn’t that Cuddyer simply filled in.  He did so with gusto.  In fact, the Twins actually had a better record with Cuddyer at first than they did Morneau. 

I was so impressed with him this year that when I ran into Twins GM Billy Smith the final week of the season, I told him that if I had given an MVP vote this year I would have placed Cuddyer fourth on my list, behind only Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera

To appreciate Michael Cuddyer, however, unlike those other three, takes both time and patience.  You can’t just look at a box score, or check out his game log.  You have to watch him night after night; watch him take on the toughest pitchers in the league and defy them to pitch around Mauer; watch him run down a ball down in the corner or barehand a one-hopper off the wall and throw a  strike to second base; or watch him cut a base just enough to enable him beat a throw from an outfielder that by all rights should have hung the guy out to dry. 

I swear, the man’s a freak.  An absolute baseball freak.

Michael Young

1. Michael Young
Right here, right now, you give me a choice between Michael Young’s career and Wade Boggs’ and I don’t bat an eye.  I take Young’s in a heartbeat. 

Name me any of baseball’s recent 200-hit machines that wasn’t at some point in his career accused of being selfish, or at least obsessed with his own stats?  Boggs?  IchiroPete Rose?  Even to some extent, Tony Gwynn?  All those guys carried the stink of selfishness and/or self-obsession at one point or another. 

Only Young has been immune.  In fact, not only is he not thought of as selfish, he’s considered by many baseball insiders to be the quintessential team player.  He just quietly goes about his business, getting hits, fielding his position and doing whatever it takes to win.

And unlike those other hit-making machines, Young’s production is not limited to singles.  He can drive the ball at will, but usually doesn’t try to unless the situation calls for it.  In 2006, for example, he not only collected an amazing 217 hits, he had 52 doubles, 14 HR and drove in 103 runs out of the #2 hole.

Yet despite the fact that that season he led all shortstops in baseball in fielding percentage and played in every one of his team’s 162 games, when the MVP vote was taken he finished 30th in the balloting.  30th! 

And just so you’re clear; that’s a 3 followed by an 0. Incredible. 

The guy’s also been an All Star second baseman, an All Star shortstop, and an All Star third baseman, yet has never once seen fit to call anyone’s attention to that fact. 

Why is it these days we so rarely appreciate greatness unless it’s jammed down our throats.  Or packaged and marketed to us by Nike?  Why can’t we just see it and celebrate it on its own merits — even if it happens to occur in some far-off part of the country? 

Why, in other words, do we continue to embrace the shadowy reflection of what used to be Alex Rodriguez while remaining  utterly blind to the dependable, relentless and ongoing brilliance of Michael Young?

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