The goal of this annual column is not just to identify an underrated player at every position, as the headline suggests, but to do so as objectively as possible. "Underrated," after all, can be an overrated term. I mean, if you wanted to, you could make an argument that even Mike Trout is underrated, just by citing his MVP tally relative to his number of MVP-worthy seasons.
We can do better than that (I hope). Here are the criteria for the All-Underrated Team:
- At least two years of service time.
- No All-Star Game appearances (we've averaged 79 All-Stars named to rosters over the past five years, so this is a fun challenge to navigate around).
- No major awards or even top-five finishes for major awards (MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year).
- No nine-figure contracts.
With that in mind, here's the 2017 squad:
Catcher: J.T. Realmuto, Marlins
Among National League catchers, only Buster Posey (4.0) had a higher FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement mark than Realmuto's 3.5. He banged out 154 hits, a franchise record for a catcher, and he posted a solid .303/.343/.428 slash line. He was also a workhorse with 1,113 innings behind the plate (only Yadi Molina, at 1,218 1/3, had more). This is the rare catcher who gives you some speed. Realmuto has stolen 20 bags in 28 tries over the past two years.
Realmuto hit 11 homers and 31 doubles last year, but his isolated power mark (.126) dropped from its 2015 level (.147). The signing of backup A.J. Ellis could allow Realmuto to log more time at first base this season, possibly easing the burden on his body and assisting his power production.
First baseman: Lucas Duda, Mets
Every year, with the above qualifications in mind, this proves to be the toughest position on this list to fill. I'm going with Duda coming off a down and injury-riddled year only because his absence opened the door for James Loney and the assertion by a not-small percentage of Mets fans on social media that Loney > Duda. In my best Ron Howard-in-"Arrested Development" voice, "He's not." (Even if Terry Collins started Loney over Duda in the NL Wild Card Game.)
Over the past four seasons (and including a 2016 season in which he was limited to 47 games played and hit .229), Duda's weighted runs created plus (126) is better than that of Carlos Santana (124), Adrian Gonzalez (124), Mike Napoli (116), Albert Pujols (116) and Eric Hosmer (111), to name a few. I'm willing to shrug off last year's struggles as a byproduct of the stress fracture in The Dude's lower back and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Is Duda streaky? Yes. Are last year's injury issues a potential cause for concern going into 2017? Yes. Might he lose playing time to Jay Bruce and/or Michael Conforto if the Mets don't address their outfield logjam with a trade? Yes.
But is that enough to rate Duda below a veteran vagabond like Loney? No, and the Mets proved as much by paying the arbitration-eligible Duda $7.25 million rather than non-tendering him. (Loney, for the record, signed a Minor League deal with the Rangers.)
Second baseman: Jonathan Villar, Brewers
Logan Forsythe occupied this spot on this list last year and could have done so again. But because there's already enough Forsythe dissection out there in a week in which he was dealt to the Dodgers, let's put the emphasis elsewhere.
The honest and obvious truth is that I have no earthly idea if Villar can repeat his breakout 2016, but the point is: How many people outside of Milwaukee even knew Jonathan Villar had a breakout 2016?
Villar's FanGraphs-calculated WAR (3.0) was eighth best among all shortstops (he also spent a lot of time at third, but I've put him at second base here because that's where he figures to see the most time in 2017). He didn't obtain that mark with dazzling defense. For Villar, it was all about the speed (a Major League-high 62 steals) and power (19 homers, 38 doubles). The Brew Crew got him for a Minor League pitcher named Cy Sneed, and so far it looks like a steal.
All that said, Villar didn't have an inordinately high percentage of well-struck balls (his "barrels" per batted ball rate was just 6.3 percent, which ranked 189th on the Statcast™ leaderboard), and he struck out in one quarter of his plate appearances. So the power might regress in 2017. But here's a tip of the cap to a great season on a bad team that few people were paying attention to.
Shortstop: Didi Gregorius, Yankees
In his first year in the Bronx, Gregorius would hear people chanting Derek Jeter's name when he made an error or making an out. Such is life when you're replacing a legend.
Of course, even if Gregorius' first year in pinstripes was nothing special, it was still a big improvement over Jeter's final year. Gregorius' 89 OPS+ presented the Yanks a 13-point upgrade over Jeter's 2013 effort, and the difference in their defense was night and day.
Then, last year, Gregorius became something more resembling a league-average hitter, which of course has great, great value at this particular position. His isolated power mark rose from .105 to .171 as he banged out 20 homers, 32 doubles and two triples. The defensive metrics suggested a decline with the glove, but because he's 26 years old and rated so well on the defensive scale just a year earlier, let's hold off on assuming he's suddenly a liability at the position, as Jeter was by the end. The bottom line is that while Gregorius is not Jeter in his prime and never will be, he's at least earned the right to stop hearing the dude's name at every turn (he writes, after referencing Jeter five times in three paragraphs).
Third baseman: Jose Ramirez, Indians
OK, seriously, where did that come from? Ramirez entered 2016 with a .644 career OPS in the big leagues and a Minor League track record that showed decent line-drive ability but, on the whole, a utility player profile. And yet Ramirez might have been the MVP of the AL champion Indians last year, rescuing them from the prolonged absence of Michael Brantley and the disappointment of Juan Uribe by putting up a .312/.363/.462 slash line with 11 homers, 46 doubles, three triples and 22 stolen bases while seeing time in left field and third base (where he's now locked in as the starter).
Ramirez did get some down-ballot AL MVP Award love … in that one voter gave him a ninth-place spot on the ballot. But if you didn't pick up on this club until the World Series, his season was easy to miss and impossible to predict. Ramirez entered last Spring Training camp as a bench guy, at best, and that's kind of the point of including him here: His own team underrated him.
Left fielder: Christian Yelich, Marlins
Yelich won a Gold Glove in 2014 and last year won a Silver Slugger and got three down-ballot NL MVP Award votes, so perhaps he is nearing properly rated status. But he still met all of the qualifications for this list.
Is the 25-year-old Yelich as easily identifiable as a superstar-caliber ballplayer as outfield mate Giancarlo Stanton? No, but the he has at least been more reliable from a sheer games-played standpoint. And while his batting average and on-base numbers have been remarkably consistent from the day he arrived to the bigs in 2013, Yelich reduced his ground-ball rate from 62.5 percent to 56.5 in 2016, and he upped his fly-ball percentage from 15 to 20 and -- voila! -- crossed the 20-homer threshold after not previously topping nine, while also hitting 38 doubles.
A good defender and a pure hitter with improving power, Yelich is likely not long for this list.
Center fielder: Adam Eaton, Nationals
The Nationals gave up a small fortune for Eaton, and so, from this point forward, he will be judged not only by his own contributions but also by what Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning become on the South Side.
Just don't get so caught up in the trade haul that you lose sight of what a good ballplayer Eaton is. He's spent the past three seasons quietly compiling a .362 OBP and a 120 OPS+ in Chicago, averaging 28 doubles and double-digit homer and stolen-base totals. And last year, after making the move from center field, he had the highest defensive runs saved total (20) of any right fielder in baseball.
Nervous about the move back to center, Nats fans? I don't know that I would be. The metrics weren't kind to Eaton in center in 2015, but he played a good deal of that season with a shoulder injury. In 2014, he ranked fifth on the defensive runs saved (11) scale among qualified center fielders.
Right fielder: Kole Calhoun, Angels
Calhoun won a Gold Glove in 2015 and was just given a three-year, $26 million contract extension, but otherwise he is most known -- if he's known at all --- as the dude who lines up next to Mike Trout in the Angels' outfield. Why, I'd even venture to guess there are some people who think his name is spelled Cole Kalhoun.
But Calhoun is a valuable asset to the Halos. The former eighth-round pick never garnered much prospect hype, but he's got a respectable .266/.328/.436 slash line with 69 homers in 2,142 big league plate appearances going back to 2012. Add in the solid defensive and baserunning metrics, and Calhoun has been worth an average of 3.8 Wins Above Replacement the past three seasons. He's a good player overshadowed by a great one, but like Trout, Calhoun has a lot of teams kicking themselves for passing by him in the Draft.
Designated hitter: Carlos Santana, Indians
Though Casey Blake fell off the Hall of Fame ballot this year with zero votes, he at least has a legacy in Cleveland as the guy the Indians gave up to get Santana midseason in 2008. Santana was a catching prospect back then. He has since played himself out of that position, as well as third base. He'll probably see more time at first in 2017 than he did in '16 because of the Edwin Encarnacion signing, but this is still a player best profiled as bat-only.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Though Santana didn't crack the 30-homer barrier until this past season, he's spent the past six seasons proving he has the ability to get on base at an elite clip (.365 career OBP). And it is that ability that has helped him log a career wRC+ (124) comparable to that of Yoenis Cespedes (123).
Starting pitcher: Tanner Roark, Nationals
We should call this the Jose Quintana Memorial Underrated Starting Pitcher Award, because Quintana qualified for it each of the past few years before finally getting an All-Star nod in 2016.
The 30-year-old Roark (whose oft-mangled last name, for the record, does not rhyme with "fork" but is actually pronounced "Row-ark"), was a 25th-round Draft pick, minor trade acquisition and unheralded prospect, which maybe explains why he's not a household name nationally, but does little to explain why the Nationals have jerked him around so much the past few years. Roark had an 18-11 record and a 2.70 ERA in 229 2/3 innings in his first 36 Major League starts through 2014, which, you know, will give you job security in a lot of rotations. But the Nats signed Max Scherzer and dumped Roark in the bullpen. He had a 4.38 ERA and 91 ERA+ as a swingman in 2015.
Last year, though, the departure of Jordan Zimmermann opened up another opportunity for Roark, and he capitalized with a 2.83 ERA and a 148 ERA+ in 210 innings over 34 appearances. It wasn't a Scherzer-like season, but it was enough to get some down-ballot NL Cy Young Award love, at least.
In his career, Roark now has a 3.04 ERA. He doesn't miss many bats or offer much velocity, but he's got five pitches (a sinker that ranked among the most valuable pitches in baseball last year, a changeup, curve, slider and four-seamer) he can command in any count. That's a valuable pitcher, and Roark finally has a secure spot in the Nats' rotation to show for it.
Relief pitcher: Tyler Thornburg, Red Sox
This offseason acquisition by the Red Sox is obviously not generating nearly as much attention as the swap for Chris Sale. But judging by the inconsistency the Red Sox got from the back end of their bullpen last year and knowing late-inning run prevention could be more important than ever if the offensive production is negatively impacted by David Ortiz's retirement, it honestly could be just as big a deal in the AL East race.
That is, if Thornburg's 2017 season in Boston is anything like his '16 campaign in Milwaukee, where he had a 2.15 ERA, 12.1 strikeouts per nine and a 0.94 WHIP in 67 appearances last year. We'll see. We can't overlook the fact that Thornburg has elbow issues in his history. He's successfully avoided Tommy John surgery, to this point, but there is the possibility that he becomes Boston's 2017 answer to Carson Smith.
But as with Villar, Thornburg's 2016 was a season that largely got overlooked because of the team conditions. The key to Thornburg's breakout was health, first and foremost, but he also got better bite and location on his curveball, which made all the difference in the K rate. And the right-handed Thornburg proved himself equally reliable against lefties and righties, which is essential for the setup role he'll occupy in his new home.
Relievers can fluctuate drastically from year to year, so there's danger in listing Thornburg here on the basis of a one-year breakout. But again, he was an underrated trade acquisition.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.