Everybody throws around the term "underrated" in the world of sports, but nobody knows what it means. It's subjective and relative.
For instance, is it possible that Mike Trout is still underrated after all this time? Well, perhaps in the global sporting sphere, but not so much in these parts.
That's why I use this space annually to try to take a more objective approach to "underrated." In compiling the All-Underrated Team for 2019, I once again used the following player parameters:
1. At least two years of service time.
2. No All-Stars.
3. No finalists (top three in voting) for the BBWAA awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year), and preferably no Silver Sluggers or Gold Gloves, either.
4. No nine-figure contracts.
That limits the player pool considerably, and it allows us to cast a light on some players who, whether properly rated or not, deserve our attention.
• 2018 All-Underrated Team
C: Francisco Cervelli, Pirates
You might remember (OK, you probably don't remember) that Cervelli was the catcher on my 2016 All-Underrated Team, too. Three years later, he's back! He made it after a resurgent offensive season, at a time when catcher production is at something of a nadir in MLB.
Though his 2018 was disrupted by concussions, Cervelli slashed .259/.378/.431 with a career-high 12 homers and 57 RBIs. I'm going to cite weighted runs created plus (wRC+) several times in this piece, because it's the best total judge of a hitter, assessing his contribution to run-creation while adjusting for league and ballpark context. Among catchers with at least 400 plate appearances, Cervelli's 125 wRC+ trailed only that of J.T. Realmuto (126) and was tied with that of Yasmani Grandal. Combine that with the value the Pirates place on his game-calling and leadership, and he's still a really valuable player.
1B: José Martínez, Cardinals
Martinez doesn't have a set position with the Cards, but he can play first base for us. He earned the "honor" by posting a .309/.372/.478 slash over 915 plate appearances in his scattered playing time the last few seasons. Martinez had 1,146 Minor League and winter ball games (including 28 games of independent ball) under his belt when he made his big league debut at the end of 2016. So the fact that he's up in the bigs at all is a testament to his willpower.
Though Martinez has major defensive limitations and is basically a bench option for the Cards at the moment (Marcell Ozuna's shoulder issues could lead to more playing time in the outfield), he's been a surprisingly productive player for the Cards when given the opportunity. Actually, last year, he produced an identical weighted runs created plus mark to Anthony Rizzo.
2B: Whit Merrifield, Royals
It is, perhaps, a bit awkward to list Merrifield here after he just signed a four-year deal with the Royals. But it's not like the $16.25 million guarantee set the world aflame.
What that contract did was affirm what an inspirational example Merrifield is for every Minor Leaguer wondering when or if his ship will come in. Here was basically a non-prospect who didn't get his first big league opportunity until age 27 and who looked to be a bench option, at best. Merrifield forced himself into the everyday lineup by playing virtually any position and using his speed to generate runs. Last year, he became just the third player since World War II to lead the Majors in hits (192) and stolen bases (45), and José Altuve was the only American League second baseman with a higher on-base percentage than his .367 mark.
SS: Marcus Semien, A's
The game is awash with super shortstops right now. In the world of Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, et al., a guy like Semien simply isn't going to stand out. And Semien's career .249/.310/.403 slash is nothing special.
But Semien makes this list because of his underrated defensive improvement. In 2016-17, he rated negatively on the defensive runs saved scale (minus-15 total), but last year, thanks to improvements with his footwork, throwing mechanics and range, he was a plus-9 contributor. So despite a pedestrian offensive season, he rated similarly on the FanGraphs WAR scale to All-Star and recent high-profile trade piece Jean Segura. If he can maintain those defensive strides and continue to turn in something resembling league-average production at the plate, he's a really valuable asset to an Oakland team on a budget.
3B: Travis Shaw, Brewers
Shaw was a great story in 2017, when he turned a post-trade opportunity with the Brewers into an age-27 breakout (.273/.349/.513 slash and 31 homers). But you never know if a late breakout from a guy who had previously been considered merely serviceable is going to stick.
• Best players on baseball's biggest stage
Thankfully, Shaw's performance, much like his "Mayor of Ding Dong City" nickname, did stick in 2018. He hit 32 homers with a similar OPS (.825), and his 119 wRC+ was ninth among qualified third basemen, and his willingness and athletic ability to slide over to second for the first time in his career when the club surprisingly traded for Mike Moustakas added to his value to the Brew Crew. And though he didn't command the attention received by MVP teammate Christian Yelich or Lorenzo Cain or Jesús Aguilar, Shaw actually improved his walk, strikeout, hard-hit and barrel percentages from his big year in '18.
LF: Eddie Rosario, Twins
Byron Buxton was the hyped homegrown outfielder in the Twins' system, and that's only natural, considering he was the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. But Rosario, a fourth-round selection out of Puerto Rico in '10, has been the more productive player thus far.
Rosario, 27, was never projected to be much of a power threat, but he's embraced the flyball revolution and, over the past two years, hit 51 homers and put up an isolated-power mark (a measure of a player's extra-base hits per at-bat) identical to that of George Springer (.204). Rosario's FanGraphs-calculated WAR value (5.9) in that span has been comparable to that of Andrew McCutchen (6.3).
CF: Tommy Pham, Rays
It's been a roller-coaster couple of years for Pham. After injuries and a degenerative eye condition delayed his big league timetable, he broke out in a big way in 2017, only to suffer some statistical stumbles that led to a shocking trade to Tampa Bay last summer. But after the Rays bought low, Pham went high. He responded with an incendiary .343/.448/.622 slash line in his final 39 games. He was on this All-Underrated squad last year, and he might be even more deserving now considering the Cards possibly punted on him prematurely.
Pham is turning 31 next month and has yet to play even 140 games in a Major League season. But he had the 13th-highest hard-hit percentage (49.9) in baseball last season, per Statcast™, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him make a Yelich-like rise in MVP consideration this season.
By the way, Pham defers to Kevin Kiermaier in center field in the Rays' outfield, but he can still man the position for us here.
RF: Brandon Nimmo, Mets
A year ago, Nimmo was rumored as a potential trade piece for pending free agent Josh Harrison. He was considered a fourth outfielder in the Mets' 2018 plans and was even optioned to Triple-A early in the year. But by year's end, he ranked behind only Trout (191), Mookie Betts (185), J.D. Martinez (170), Yelich (166) and Alex Bregman (157) in wRC+ (149).
So that's pretty good. While it's fun that the Mets have added Robinson Canó, Wilson Ramos and Jed Lowrie this winter, Nimmo might still be the most fascinating figure in their lineup. If he can improve against lefties (.688 career OPS), the sky's the limit.
DH: Khris Davis, A's
Here's how this works: Every year, Davis finishes in the top five in the Majors in homers and hits .247.
I'm not exaggerating. Davis has hit exactly .247 each of the last four seasons (and in 2014, he wasn't far off, with a .244 mark). It might be the most incredible stat in baseball right now.
And yes, Davis was the Majors' 2018 home run champ, with 48, so it's not like he's gone totally unnoticed. But because Martinez moved to the DH spot in an epic first year in Boston and Nelson Cruz was selected by players as the AL reserve, Davis missed out on the All-Star festivities yet again, and Martinez understandably beat him out in the Silver Slugger voting (though not-so understandably also won as a right fielder). So we'll see if Davis' 40-some homers and .247 average in '19 earn him any acclaim.
SP: Kyle Freeland, Rockies
A quick word about Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco, who held this spot a year ago: The only pitchers who have compiled higher FanGraphs-calculated WAR marks than Carrasco (18.0) over the past four seasons are Max Scherzer (25.5), Chris Sale (25.3), Corey Kluber (23.6), Clayton Kershaw (23.2), Jacob deGrom (21.4) and Justin Verlander (19.0). Carrasco recently signed a nice extension with the Indians, but he still very much qualifies here.
With that said, let's spread the love around. Freeland deserves our love after a breakout sophomore season in which he was an All-Star snub and finished behind deGrom, Scherzer and Aaron Nola in the National League Cy Young pecking order. But when you post a 2.40 ERA in 15 starts at Coors Field, you probably deserve an award all your own. A Denver native, Freeland mastered Coors (and everywhere else) because of his deep pitch mix, sequencing and ability to move the ball around. And after what he did to the Cubs in the NL Wild Card Game, putting him on this list admittedly feels like cheating.
If you agree -- and would prefer this spot go to somebody who didn't get any Cy voting love last fall -- then you don't have to look far for another candidate. German Márquez has been, by ERA+, 20 percent better than league average the last two seasons, in 358 innings pitched. Of course, Marquez did win a major award ... the Silver Slugger!
RP: Chad Green, Yankees
So many relievers could qualify for this list, and of course relief performance, in general, can fluctuate wildly from year to year.
But now that he's met our service-time requirement, Green is the perfect candidate for this spot because of the stars surrounding him in the Yankee bullpen and his relative lack of star power. Green might have to further diversify his fastball-reliant repertoire to maintain this level of effectiveness, but, in a group that features Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, Adam Ottavino and Dellin Betances, Green still manages to stand out statistically.
Over the past two years, he's delivered 144 2/3 innings with a 0.90 WHIP, a 6.16 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .557 opponents' OPS. Per FanGraphs' WAR tally, the only relievers more valuable than Green (4.1) in that two-year span were Blake Treinen (4.9), Craig Kimbrel (4.8), Edwin Díaz (4.5) and Felipe Vázquez (4.2), all of whom were All-Stars last summer.