ESPN the Magazine had an article recently that discussed some of the most underrated and overrated portions of all sports. They included owners, managers, particular positions, etc. That got me to thinking about what a list like that might look like in just the world of baseball. I’m not going to include owners or managers – just players. I’ll make 4 posts out of this: most underrated & overrated active players, as well as most underrated and overrated all-time players. These won’t be in any particular order, except that these will be what I consider to be the top-10.
1. Chipper Jones – as for career WAR, would you have ever guessed that he ranks just one spot behind Ken Griffey, Jr.? In fact, by the time this season is over, there’s a good chance he’ll be ranked ahead of Griffey. He also ranks ahead of Hall of Famers like Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson. He’s never been a stellar fielder, but you can’t beat a switch-hitter that’s going to give you a career .304 batting average and .935 OPS. Only Mickey Mantle can lay claim to better switch-hitting numbers than Larry Wayne Jones.
2. Placido Polanco – who would you expect to have the higher career WAR: Polanco or David Ortiz? Polanco or Alfonso Soriano? Polanco has won three Gold Gloves – at two very different positions (second & third). He’s a career .300 hitter, hasn’t had a negative WAR rating since 1999 (when he was 23 years old), and yet he’s going to crack the $6 million salary mark for the first time this year. There’s nothing real flashy about his game, but assuming he plays until he’s around 40, he’ll easily surpass 2,500 hits and might approach 3,000!
3. Miguel Cabrera – I know, I know – how can a guy making almost $20 million/year for 8 years be underrated? Well, think about this: the greatest players in the game today are . . .? Pujols, A-Rod, etc., right? How often do you hear anyone mention Cabrera in that list? I hardly ever hear anyone mention him at all, let alone in those discussions. And, compared to what those other guys are making (even his teammate, Fielder), Cabrera’s a bargain. His average season since he started playing full-time is 33 HR, 115 RBI, .320/.399/.561/.960. And, he’s just now hitting his prime years (he turned 29 in April). He won the batting title last year, will surpass 300 HR and 1700 hits at the age of 29, and will be well on his way to a career WAR that would put him in the top 30 all-time. Assuming he stays healthy and productive, he may be one of the greatest ever, let alone one of the greatest right now.
4. Evan Longoria – if he hadn’t hit the home run that sent the Rays into the playoffs on the last day of the season last year, how much do you think you’d know about him? And, even with that, do you really appreciate how good he is? Two gold gloves, rookie of the year, average annual WAR of 6.6, and he’s only been in the league 4 full seasons. Think about this: he currently ranks 33rd among active players with a career WAR of 27.9 – ahead of highly touted stars like Pedroia, Cano, Braun, Reyes, and Hanley Ramirez. The next highest ranked player with the same number of years of experience is Brett Gardner at #95!
5. Dan Haren – since becoming a full-time starter, Haren has won 14+ games in six of seven seasons. He’s averaged nearly 200 K’s per season, a 1.15 WHIP, and an impressive 4.30 K/BB ratio. Pitching in near obscurity in Oakland and Arizona hasn’t helped anyone take note of him. And, even in LA, he’s been overshadowed by some of his rotation-mates. But, he’s one of only 3 active pitchers in the top-20 in career WAR ranking with 10 seasons or less experience (Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander being the other two).
6. Matt Cain – I may have just not been paying attention, but it seemed to me like the Giants’ deal with Cain during the offseason was nothing more than a footnote. But, did you realize they’re going to pay him $20 million/year from 2013-2018? There’s a good reason for that – he’s phenomenal! His career WAR is right there with more well-known names like Greinke and Verlander. His ERA the last 6 seasons is 3.39, and continues to get better (just 2.97 over the last 3 seasons). His WHIP the last three years is 1.12, and he currently leads the NL with a 0.73 WHIP this year. His win total has never surpassed 14, but that’s certainly through no fault of his own. And, at just 27 years old, he has many good years ahead of him.
7. Francisco Rodriguez – most tend to lump him in with the disastrous contracts the Mets gave out over the last several years because his save totals never came anywhere close to what they were in LA. But, is that all his fault? In the three seasons he was in New York, the Mets never had a winning record. You can’t expect a guy to save 50 games when the team’s only winning 75. He had one rough year in 2009 (3.71 ERA, 1.31 WHIP), but in his three years there he blew fewer saves than he had in his last 3 seasons in LA. He’s only 30 years old, and is the 4th highest ranked active reliever in career WAR – behind Rivera, Kerry Wood (who spent 8/14 seasons as a starter), and Joe Nathan.
8. Ben Zobrist – who finished with the highest WAR in all of baseball last year? Ryan Braun? nope. Matt Kemp? nope. Josh Hamilton? nope. It was Zobrist (8.4). And, just two years prior to that, he finished second only to Pujols. In fact, over the last 3 seasons, only Pujols and Longoria have a better cumulative WAR than Zobrist’s 19.2. He’s another guy whose game isn’t real flashy, but has averaged right around 20 steals and 20 home runs the last three years. And, the Rays only have to pay him a total of $9 million over the next two seasons!
9. Adrian Beltre – when he hit 48 HR’s in 2004 at the age of 25, everyone (including the Mariners) thought he was going to be the next Mike Schmidt. And, since he got the big contract, and never hit even 30 homers again until last year, everyone has labeled him a disappointment. But, despite a few seasons in which he battled injuries, he ranks 11th among active players in career WAR. And, Pujols is the only player ahead of Beltre with fewer years in the league. In fact, by the time he retires, assuming he plays another 5-6 years (retiring around 38), he will surpass 400 home runs (ranking him around 5th all-time among 3B), potentially 1,600 RBI (top 2-3 among 3B all-time), and somewhere between 2,800-3,000 career hits (also putting him in the top 5 all-time at 3B). He also is likely to finish with a career WAR right around the same as HOF third basemen like Paul Molitor and Harmon Killebrew.
10. David Wright – how many gold glove-winning third basemen are out there that also can hit for both power and average, while playing in a ballpark like Citi Field, on a team with almost no other offensive weapons? Wright is one of just three active players under the age of 30 who are ranked in the top-30 in career WAR (Cabrera and Mauer being the other two). Before missing nearly half of last season to injury, Wright’s average full season was a .306 avg., 26 HR’s, 104 RBI, .902 OPS, and an average WAR of 4.6. If he stays healthy, he will be great for many years to come.