All-Underrated Team (cont.)
Second base: Ben Zobrist, Rays
Zobrist is, admittedly, not a full-time second baseman -- he has started 88 games there as well as 33 more in rightfield -- which probably helps explain why he's rarely mentioned alongside Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler as one of the AL's elite at the position. But "Zorilla" is showing that his All-Star 2009 season wasn't a fluke. He leads the majors in doubles (42) while also hitting 15 homers and stealing 15 bases. Additionally, he's the Rays' leader in walks (66), slugging (.499) and OPS (.874) and ranks second on the team in average (.287) and OBP (.375). Defensively, Zobrist ranks first in the majors at second base via Plus/Minus while rating above-average in right.
Third base: Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks
Entering this season the 30-year-old Roberts was a utility player with just 398 career at bats and 10 home runs. He wasn't going to make the Diamondbacks' Opening Day roster until a spring training injury to Geoff Blum opened a roster spot. This season, however, Roberts has found a home at third, where he's started 77 games while still maintaining some versatility with 22 starts at second and two starts in leftfield. And he's on pace for a 20-20-20 season; through Wednesday he has 20 doubles, 16 homers and 15 steals while putting together a .256/.349/.417 batting line.
Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles
Five shortstops have an OPS of at least .800 this season, and of those five -- the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, the Mets' Jose Reyes, the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta, the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera and Hardy -- only Hardy wasn't honored as an All-Star this year, in part because he missed 25 early-season games with an oblique injury. Hardy now paces AL shortstops in home runs (24) and slugging (.513) while primarily batting leadoff for the Orioles. He's not a player without faults -- he rates slightly below-average defensively and has an OBP of just .315 -- but has been among Baltimore's most productive offensive players, leading the club with an .828 OPS. That effort recently earned him a three-year contract extension
Outfield: Alex Gordon, Royals; Peter Bourjos, Angels; Cameron Maybin, Padres
With 17 outfielders honored as All-Stars, it may seem hard to find any player who fell through the cracks, but a few years later than expected Gordon has grown into the emerging star the Royals projected him to be when they made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 draft. After several injuries and a couple position changes, the 27-year-old Gordon is hitting his stride in leftfield, where he leads all major league outfielders with 19 assists. He is one of eight players having a 30-15-10 season (doubles-homers-steals) -- coincidentally, that numbers includes all three Royals' outfielders -- but what Gordon has provided that Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur have not is a keen eye at the plate, good for a .367 OBP and a team-leading .852 OPS.
Bourjos, meanwhile, has quickly developed a reputation for being one of the game's premier outfielders. The Angels thought so much of him that they moved perennial Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter to right so that Bourjos could man the middle. According to Plus/Minus, Bourjos has saved more runs than any other centerfielder in baseball. But he's on this list for his offense, which rarely gets any mention. Assistant general manager Ken Forsch said before the season that Bourjos projects long-term as a leadoff hitter with power, and so far the player has done nothing to dissuade anyone of that notion. Fresh off a streak of three straight games with at least three hits, Bourjos has put together a .285/.337/.451 batting line with eight homers and 17 steals. His .788 OPS ranks second on the team.
Maybin, like Gordon, is a once-touted prospect who had fallen from grace only to return to prominence this season. Now with his third organization, Maybin has improved his contact-rate with the bat to put together a .277/.334/.405 batting line with a team-leading 117 hits, 69 runs and 32 stolen bases. Combined with his stellar play in centerfield of spacious Petco Park, Maybin has a 4.0 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a number greater than more celebrated NL outfield counterparts Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Jay Bruce, Hunter Pence, Carlos Gonzalez and Andre Ethier, among others.
Starting Pitchers: Johnny Cueto, Reds; Justin Masterson, Indians; Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Jeff Karstens, Pirates
It's hard to imagine the majors' ERA leader flying under the radar but the Reds' Cueto didn't make his season debut until May 8 due to injury and has been pitching for a team that has been slowly sinking out of the playoff picture since mid-June. But Cueto has allowed more than three earned runs in only one of his 20 starts and has a 2.02 ERA over 133 1/3 innings, giving him a shot at joining Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Kevin Brown as only the fifth starter with a sub-2.00 ERA since 1990.
Masterson still has a little bit of difficulty in getting out lefties (.275 average and .691 OPS against) but is so dominant against righties (.204 average and .539 OPS) and so effective at getting groundballs (67.7 percent) that he has become the Indians' ace -- even with the addition of Ubaldo Jimenez. Masterson ranks fifth in the AL in ERA (2.83), which is nearly a two-run reduction over last season's 4.70, and eighth in innings pitched (181 1/3). He has failed to go at least six innings in only three of his 26 starts that haven't been shortened by rain
Kuroda's curse, meanwhile, has been poor run support. He's just 9-14 despite a 2.88 ERA. In his 14 losses the Dodgers have scored just 20 runs -- and never more than three -- with him on the mound. His nine wins are the fewest among the 16 pitchers who have made more than 20 starts with an ERA under 3.00.
Zimmermann will be in Stephen Strasburg's shadow as long as the two are teammates on the Nationals, but the former's star has shone brightly this season. Zimmermann is only 8-11 due to poor run support, but his ERA is 3.10 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is exemplary, a 3.93 K/BB that ranks ninth in the majors. Zimmermann's 16 quality starts lead Washington's rotation, as does his .291 OBP against.
Karstens, who began the year in the bullpen, has been the top performer on the Pirates' surprise starting staff, thanks to a low walk rate of 1.7 per nine innings. While rotation-mate Charlie Morton has gotten more attention for his turnaround from a 2-12 season in 2010 and for his mimicry of Roy Halladay, Karstens has been statistically superior this year, with a 3.09 ERA over 148 1/3 innings with a 1.15 WHIP. His groundball-to-flyball ratio has improved by more than a tenth for the second straight year to a career-high 0.87.
Relief pitchers: John Axford, Brewers; Kyle Farnsworth, Rays
Axford is the free spirit whose Twitter account contains a self-description of "mustache aficionado," a recurring gag of a #staching hash tag and such interjections as "stachetastic," so perhaps it's only fitting that the Brewers closer is doing a fine impersonation of mustachioed star closers like Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. Since blowing two of his first five save opportunities, Axford has been perfect in his next 34 with a 1.53 ERA. Even after Milwaukee acquired former Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez, Axford has successfully staved off competition for save opportunities. Perfection will do that for you.
Only three closers this year have at least 20 saves while maintaining an ERA under 2.00. They are NL All-Stars Joel Hanrahan and Craig Kimbrel . . . and Farnsworth, the unexpectedly efficient Tampa Bay closer. With 22 saves (in 26 chances), he has set a career-high in his 13th season, as he has walked only eight to go along with a paltry 1.93 ERA and .193 average against; he retired 23 batters in a row until Tuesday, breaking the second-longest streak by an AL reliever this season. His 5.13 K/BB ratio ranks third in the league behind only Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.