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Ward and Rengifo named to MLB’s All-Underrated Team


3:59 AM UTC

It has been 10 years since I filed my first All-Underrated Team column, and what a journey it has been. What began as a simple, innocent endeavor to simply salute some guys who perhaps did not get adequate recognition led to a lot of arguments over what it means to be “underrated.” The result is that I have formulated the industry’s absolute strictest qualifications for inclusion.

These are the requirements for the All-Underrated Team (for now, at least):

  1. No All-Star appearances, ever in the player’s career.
  2. No BBWAA awards (MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year), ever in the player’s career.
  3. No Silver Slugger or Gold Glove honors, ever in the player’s career.
  4. No All-MLB Team honors, ever in the player’s career.
  5. No inclusion on MLB Network’s current “Top 10 Right Now!” lists.
  6. No nine-figure contracts.
  7. At least two years of service time.

Frankly, I might have overcorrected and made this TOO stringent (I didn’t leave myself much of a player pool to work with). But as long as I can file a list of players who have contributed to their clubs without receiving wide acclaim, I can feel I’ve done my small part to contribute to this important conversation.

So here it is, folks: The 2024 All-Underrated Team!

A year ago, the Twins signed veteran catcher Christian Vázquez, because Jeffers, who had an encouraging debut in 2020 but struggled offensively in ’21 and ’22, had not proved himself ready for the starting role.

But after adjusting his swing, the 26-year-old Jeffers blossomed in 2023 with a .276/.369/.490 slash line in 96 games to seize the starting duties by season’s end. His 134 OPS+ was tied with Mitch Garver for tops among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

Hardcore observers of fake award presentations know that Naylor was recently named to the 2023 All-Awardless Team. He qualifies here, too, having been snubbed in last year’s All-Star selections.

Naylor, who goes all out all the time, came back from a gruesome ankle injury to post a .282/.336/.471 slash line with 37 homers and 59 doubles over the past two seasons. The only first basemen with at least 500 plate appearances in that span who had a higher OPS+ than Naylor’s 127 mark were Freddie Freeman (158), Yandy Díaz (151), Paul Goldschmidt (147), Matt Olson (141) and Pete Alonso (134).

An extremely difficult position to fill, given our ultra-strict parameters. So let’s just use it to give a nod of appreciation for a guy who has provided the Angels with better-than-average offense (a .751 OPS, 107 OPS+, 33 homers, 37 doubles) over the past two seasons while playing six different positions (with the bulk of his time coming at second).

Actually, if the season were somehow made entirely of the second half, Rengifo’s .829 OPS after the All-Star break over the past two years would earn him more acclaim.

Once again, with so many shortstops having been saluted elsewhere, let’s throw a spotlight on a super-utility type. You might be surprised to learn MLB Network’s “Shredder” system had the 34-year-old Berti ranked 13th among shortstops. He plays six positions on the diamond but played short more than anywhere else last season and is currently at the top of the Marlins’ depth chart there for 2024.

Berti led the Majors in steals in 2022, with 41. Though his steals output curiously dipped in the new rules environment, he’s nevertheless 91-for-his-last-111 in that department. Berti had career-bests in hits (114) and homers (seven) in 2023 and provides good defense at the position.

McMahon was our All-Underrated third baseman a year ago, and absolutely nothing has changed. In 2023, McMahon had his third straight season with 20 homers and his second season in the past three years with 30 doubles.

More importantly, McMahon once again rated as one of the best hot-corner defenders in MLB. Over the past four years, the only third basemen with more Outs Above Average than McMahon’s 30 are the Pirates’ Ke’Bryan Hayes (50) and former Rockies star Nolan Arenado (35).

In 2023, Ward set out to prove that his age-28 breakout (.281/.360/.473 slash) was not an aberration. He didn’t get to complete the task, because a fastball to the face on July 29 prematurely ended a season in which he slashed a decidedly less-exciting .253/.335/.421.

So why is he our left fielder here? Well, for one, Ward moved over to left field from the other corner and ranked third at his new position in Outs Above Average. And as far as the offense is concerned, he seemingly pressed when thrust into the Angels’ leadoff role at the start of the season. Ward actually had strong OPS marks above .870 while batting third, fourth, fifth and sixth. So maybe don’t pencil him into the leadoff spot, but also don’t write him off as a one-year fluke.

Considered a glove-first prospect, the 25-year-old Taveras has turned out to be a serviceable bat with, perhaps, a lot more in the tank. Taveras paired his plus glove at this premier position with a 95 OPS+ over the past two seasons, or just below league average. Notably, though, in 2023 he barreled more balls (29) than in his first three seasons combined (22).

Though held hitless in the World Series, Taveras’ 10-for-41 showing (with seven walks and four steals) in the first three rounds of the 2023 postseason helped Texas advance there. Given his age, high defensive floor and the big steps he’s taken already, there might be additional upside here.

Kepler is not only the first German-born player to stick in the big leagues; he’s also the first German-born player to be named to the All-Underrated Team … twice!

A 2020 honoree on this prestigious list, Kepler remains underrated after significantly reducing his ground-ball rate and improving his hard-hit rate last season. He slashed .260/.332/.484 with 24 homers and 22 doubles, and his 121 OPS+ was ninth best among right fielders with 400 plate appearances (comparable to All-Star Adolis García’s 123 mark).

Because of our parameters and teams’ penchant for rotating guys in and out of the DH spot, we’re not always able to fill the DH spot on the All-Underrated Team. But Hittin’ Harold qualifies after slashing .306/.348/.432 over the past two seasons while making more than 60% of his starts as a DH.

That batting average is tops among players logging at least 40% of their games at the bat-only position in that span, and the only DHs with a higher OPS+ than Ramírez’s 121 mark in that span were all All-Stars: Yordan Alvarez, (179), Shohei Ohtani (163), Bryce Harper (146), J.D. Martinez (125) and Brent Rooker (123).

A wider audience got a window into just how good this right-hander can be when he went 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA in four postseason starts in 2023, including a magnificent World Series outing in which he held that loaded Rangers lineup to a mere run on three hits with nine strikeouts and no walks in seven innings in Game 2.

The 35-year-old Kelly has been a strong addition to the D-backs’ staff since coming back to the States after four seasons in Korea, and he’s really hit his stride the past two seasons, posting a 125 ERA+ that ties him with Dylan Cease, Jordan Montgomery and Kevin Gausman for 13th best among all starters with 300 innings in that span.

Look at how Graterol’s numbers over the past four seasons compare to one of the most heralded, decorated (and well-compensated) relievers in the sport:

Graterol: 158 ERA+, 173 2/3 innings, 1.05 WHIP, 3.5 K/BB
Josh Hader: 160 ERA+, 184 innings, 1.05 WHIP, 3.5 K/BB

Graterol does not possess Hader’s strikeout stuff, but he’s been every bit as effective thanks to his extreme ground-ball and weak-contact tendencies and his ability to limit walks at an elite rate.

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