Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

MLB News

5 early-season unsung heroes in the NL East

May 10, 2018

Save the glossy magazine covers for Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper, for Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes, for Freddie Freeman and Jacob Arrieta. The National League East is brimming with bona fide superstars who receive their due most every day.Most of them have been around for years, and it's not

Save the glossy magazine covers for Max Scherzer and Bryce Harper, for Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes, for Freddie Freeman and Jacob Arrieta. The National League East is brimming with bona fide superstars who receive their due most every day.
Most of them have been around for years, and it's not entirely because of them that the balance of power in the NL East has shifted. Instead, new contributors are bubbling to the surface in all five NL East cities. In some of them, young players are stepping into bigger roles. In others, superstars have overshadowed their more productive teammates.
No matter the definition, each NL East team has at least one unsung hero:
Braves RHP Dan Winkler
Why you should know about him:
 One of the division's top right-handed relievers, Winkler has posted a 1.15 ERA and limited opponents to a .115 batting average over 15 2/3 innings this season. Since he allowed two earned runs during the Braves' April 14 bullpen disaster at Wrigley Field, right-handed hitters have gone 1-for-15 with 10 strikeouts against him. Winkler's emergence has positioned him to serve as one of closer Arodys Vizcaino's primary setup men.
Why you don't: A former 20th-round Draft pick who is already 28 years old, Winkler has spent most of the past three seasons on the disabled list. Atlanta selected him in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Two years later, Winkler fractured his right elbow during the first week of the season, sidelining him for 16 months.
What they're saying: "You've got to feel good for him given all he has gone through." -- Braves manager Brian Snitker

Marlins RHP Drew Steckenrider
Why you should know about him:
A model of consistency, Steckenrider hasn't allowed a run in seven consecutive outings, striking out 10 with no walks and just two hits against him. The 27-year-old impressed as a rookie in 2017, striking out 54 in 32 2/3 innings. His WHIP of 0.72 ranks in the Top 10 among NL relievers, while his demeanor and stuff make him a potential future closer.
Why you don't: A late bloomer, Steckenrider was an eighth-round Draft pick in 2012 and didn't receive much acclaim as a prospect. It wasn't until his fifth professional season, in 2016, that he posted a sub-3.00 ERA for the first time over a full season. A year later, Steckenrider shuttled back and forth four times between Triple-A New Orleans and the big leagues.
What they're saying about him: "It's his pulse, the heartbeat, is what impresses me the most. There's never a spike on it or a down on it, no matter the score or the situation. The intensity is inside. It's amazing that nothing really fazes him, there is no alteration to his demeanor or his persona, on the mound or in the dugout. That's what has been the most impressive. It's been very motivating to see him grow as a possible guy to pitch in the eighth or ninth inning." -- Marlins pitching coach Juan Nieves
Mets 2B Asdrubal Cabrera
Why you should know about him:
Seventh in the NL in hitting, Cabrera has batted anywhere from first through fifth in the Mets' lineup. He leads them in average, on-base percentage, slugging and runs scored, and he's second behind Cespedes in home runs and RBIs. After requesting a trade last summer because he wanted to play shortstop (the Mets didn't accommodate him), Cabrera has settled in at second base without complaint.
Why you don't: Cabrera has been one of the game's best hitters, but nobody seems to notice. He doesn't boast Cespedes' flair, Michael Conforto's popularity, Todd Frazier's outsized personality or Jay Bruce's power. Cabrera doesn't land on the tabloid back pages often, or ever. He simply hits, with 14 multihit efforts and just six 0-fors in 32 starts.
What they're saying about him: "He's the one guy that's probably been the most consistent. He goes out there and just puts a good at-bat together every game and every plate appearance, really. It's been really helpful." -- Mets manager Mickey Callaway

Nationals 3B Wilmer Difo
Why you should know about him:
On a team featuring Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner and so many others, Difo ranks in the top five in WAR. Filling in at second base for Daniel Murphy, at third for Rendon, and at shortstop on the rare occasions Turner takes a breather, Difo has effectively become an everyday player. While Harper receives most of the credit for the team's turnaround since he moved the leadoff spot, Difo has likewise thrived since shifting to the No. 9 spot at the same time.
Why you don't: A bench player in the past, Difo has become a starter only because of injuries to others. In a clubhouse full of established stars, he doesn't cut a significant profile. According to adjusted OPS figures, which account for ballpark effects and other factors, Difo was a below-average hitter in each of his first three big league seasons. In other words, he just wasn't much of a factor until now.
What they're saying: "Love having him around. He gets guys pumped up every day. … When he gets on base, typically good things happen, so I love watching him play, I really do, and he brings that energy every single day." -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez

Phillies 2B Cesar Hernandez
Why you should know about him:
 Taking advantage of opportunities during the Phils' rebuild, Hernandez not only earned a spot in Philadelphia's everyday lineup, but he has established himself as one of baseball's best leadoff hitters. Ranking in the top 10 in MLB in chase rate, which gauges how often a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone, Hernandez finds himself in the company of elite hitters such as Boston's Mookie Betts and Cincinnati's Joey Votto. He is third in the NL in walks, trailing only Harper and teammate Rhys Hoskins, and 12th in on-base percentage.
Why you don't: Playing exclusively on teams that finished fourth or fifth in the division hasn't helped Hernandez's Q-Rating. Baseball is also awash with quality players at the position; more second basemen than shortstops put up at least 3.0 WAR last season, according to Fangraphs calculations. (Hernandez was one of them.)
What they're saying about him: "I think the way it works is, 'I don't care if I get to two strikes, I don't care if I hit with a strike on me, it doesn't bother me if I take a pitch that I might have been able to drive.' The demonstration is that he feels very confident and comfortable hitting in any count. … Let's just call that a talent. But then I think he's also studied opposing pitchers. It almost feels like he knows what's coming out before it comes out." -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo, Instagram and Facebook