The 30 Best Players Baseball Fans Don't Know

Lou CappettaAnalyst IIFebruary 16, 2009

With so many players in Major League Baseball, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. This is especially true if you play in a small market. Every year players emerge as stars, seemingly out of nowhere.

Many of these players, however, are quietly some of the better players in the sport before the spotlight hits them. here is one player from each team that you might not know too much about, if at all, but you probably will soon.

Mark Reynolds, 3B, Arizona Diamondbacks (2008: .239, 87 R, 28 HR, 97 RBI)

The 6'3", 220 lbs. third baseman debut for the Diamondbacks in May 2007 and never looked back. He hit 17 HR and 62 RBI in 366 at bats.

In 2008, despite striking out a record 204 times and seeing his average drop 40 points to .239, Reynolds still hit 28 HR and drove in 97 runs. If Reynolds can cut down on the strikeouts, he may take the next step and become a superstar.

Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Atlanta Braves (2008: 13-10, 188.1 IP, 139 Ks, 3.68 ERA)

With both Tim Hudson and John Smoltz losing time due to in juries last season, the Braves were in need of quality starting pitching. The got it in Jair Jurrjens.

Jurrjens started 31 games for the Braves, with a record of 13-10 and an ERA under 4.00, on his way to a third place finish in the ROY voting.

With the signing of Derek Lowe, Jurrjens projects to be the third or even fourth starter. It may not be long before he's an ace.

Nick Markakis, OF, Baltimore Orioles (2008: .306, 106 R, 20 HR, 87 RBI)

Markakis, a three-year veteran, might be the best hitter nobody really knows. In 2008, Markakis hit .300 for the second straight year.

He's a pure hitter with pop who can produce runs, field and even steal a base or two (10 SB in 2008, 18 SB in 2007).

He was third in the AL in 2008 in runs produced with 123, on a last-place team. If Markakis played on a half-way decent team, he'd already be a star.

Hideki Okajima, LHP, Boston Red Sox (2008: 3-2, 64 G, 62 IP, 60 Ks, 2.61 ERA)

It's hard to find someone on the Red Sox that people don't know, but if there is someone, that guy is Okajima. He doesn't get the fanfare of Beckett, Matsuzaka, or Papelbon, but that doesn't make him any less important.

In two years in Boston, Okajima has averaged 68 appearances, 68 IP, 64 Ks, 2.40 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. He has become one of the best middle relievers in the game, but even on the biggest of big market teams, middle relievers usually don't get their due.

Ryan Theriot, SS, Chicago Cubs (2008: .307, 85 R, 178 H, 22 SB, .387 OBP)

Theriot is another guy on a big team with a bunch of big names that sometimes gets overlooked. After winning the shortstop job in 2007, Theriot hit .266, with 80 runs scored and 28 stolen bases.

He followed that up with similar numbers in 2008, except he raised his OBP by 61 points and led the team in batting at .307 (5th in the NL). That's a better batting average than better know shortstops like Michael Young, Jimmy Rollins, and Jose Reyes.

John Danks, LHP, Chicago White Sox (2008: 12-9, 195 IP, 159 Ks, 3.32 ERA)

In 2008, the White Sox weren't expected to do much, but they thumbed their noses at the predictions, and ended up winning the AL Central division crown.

While much of the spotlight was shone on the emrgences of Gavin Floyd and Carlos Quintin, Danks quietly put excellent number as Chicago's third starter.

After an uninspiring rookie season in which Danks was 6-13 with a 5.50 ERA in 26 starts, Danks rebounded.

In 33 starts in 2008, Danks won 12 games, pitched 195 innings and posted the fifth-best ERA in the American League. Despite the lack of limelight, Danks was a big reason for Chicago's success.

Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, Cincinnati Reds (2008: .251, 75 R, 26 HR, 68 RBI)

Being a good young player on a team full of great young talent, it's easy to get overlooked. 2008 was Encarnacion's third season in the major leagues, and is one of the few players who improves every season.

Encarnacion posted career bests last season in games played, runs scored, walks and may have had the quietest 26 homers in baseball.

If Encarnacion continues to improve, it may not be long before Encarnacion becomes a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Kelly Shoppach, C, Cleveland Indians (2008: .261, 67 R, 21 HR, 55 RBI)

Although Kelly Shoppach has been in the majors since 2005, it wasn't until injuries to all-star catcher Victor Martinez that Shoppach got his chance to play every day. Despite striking out 133 times in 2008, Shoppach hit 21 home runs and drove in 55 RBI in only 352 at-bats, all while playing above average defense.

Shoppach projects to play more this year as Victor Martinez will play much more at first base. With more playing time, Shoppach has the opportunity to build upon his break-out season. If he does, he could become one of the best hitting catchers in the game.

Chris Ianetta, C, Colorado Rockies (2008: .264, 50 R, 18 HR, 65 RBI)

When Colorado re-signed Yorvit Torreallba before the 2008 season, they did so with the idea that he would be the starter. Chris Iannetta had other ideas.

The second year catcher, thought to be all glove, proved he could really hit, 18 long balls and drove in 65 runs in just 333 at-bats.

Iannetta did this while playing solid defense, not committing an error in 104 games played. With Iannetta coming into his own, the Rockies could prove to have the best backstop combination in baseball.

Armando Galarraga, RHP, Detroit Tigers (2008: 13-7, 178.2 IP, 126 Ks, 3.73 ERA)

Armando Galarraga went from minor acquisition in the 2007 off-season, to ace of the Tigers pitching staff during the 2008 season.

With injuries and poor play affecting four of Detroit's starters, Galarraga, acquired from Texas for a minor leaguer, step in and just kept on winning.

The rookie right-hander from Venezuela led the Tigers in wins with 13 and was the only Detroit starter with a sub-4.00 ERA, on his way to a fourth place finish in the AL ROY voting.

Galarraga proved to be a very bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 2008 in Detroit.

Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Florida Marlins (2008: 15-8, 212.1 IP, 186 Ks, 3.52 ERA)

When Florida traded Dontrelle Willis prior to the 2008 season, many wondered which of their young pitchers would step up and prove to be the new ace of the Marlins staff.

It would be Nolasco, in his third year with Marlins, that would step-up. Nolasco had an outstanding year, helping Florida win 84 games in one of the toughest divisions in baseball.

Not only did Nolasco win 15 games, he was 12th in ERA, and he also finished in the top 10 in innings, strikeouts, shutouts, K/BB ratio and WHIP.

It's hard to shine in a division that includes Johan Santana, Cole Hamels, and Tim Hudson, but Nolasco is making his case for the spotlight.

Michael Bourn, OF, Houston Astros (2008: .229, 57 R, 5 HR, 41 SB)

Bourne was the key player the Astros received in the deal that sent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia.

After stealing 18 bases in 19 attempts in just over 100 games in 2007, the Houston pictured Bourn at the top of their lineup.

Bourn batted only .229, and stuck out 111 times in 138 games, proving he still needs polish as a hitter.

He also proved that he can run with the best base thieves in baseball. Bourn finished fourth in the NL in steals with 41, and was only caught 10 times.

If he cuts down on the K's and gets on base more, the sky is the limit for this speedster.

Joakim Soria, RHP, Kansas City Royals (2008: 2-3, 63 G, 42 SV, 66 Ks, 1.60 ERA)

This guy was an All-Star last season, and still, many baseball fans don't know him. The second year closer for the Royals had a great year, and should be considered one of the best closers in the majors.

Soria's 42 saves in 2008 were second in the American League. He pitched in more games than Mariano Rivera, had more strikeouts than Bobby Jenks, and had a better ERA than Jonathan Papelbon.

That's impressive company, and if he played for a big market team, he'd probably be considered the best closer in the game, not named Mariano.

Mike Napoli, C, LA Angels (2008: .273, 39 R, 20 HR, 49 RBI)

Napoli has been the Angels back-up catcher for the past three seasons, but after a strong second half in 2008, and very good post-season, he may become the starter in 2009.

Hitting is his strong suit. Napoli hit 20 homers and drove in 49 runs in only 78 games last season. That included a red-hot September where he collected 18 hits in his final 27 at-bats.

He also had two homers and four RBI in four games in the ALDS. He is a below average defensive backstop, and since the LA also has Jeff Mathis, an excellent defensive catcher, Napoli may end up stuck in a platoon role.

Blake DeWitt, 2B, LA Dodgers (2008: .264, 45 R, 9 HR, 52 RBI)

A part-time player in 2008, DeWitt split time between second and third base. After a solid rookie season in which he hit .264 with 9 dingers and 52 RBI in only 368 at-bats, Dewitt will be given every opportunity to take over at second base full time for the retired Jeff Kent.

His solid defense and versatility gives Joe Torre plenty of flexibility, if players at other positions falter. At worst, DeWitt will be a more than serviceable super-sub.

Manny Parra, LHP, Milwaukee Brewers (2008: 10-8, 166 IP, 147 Ks, 4.39 ERA)

2009 could be a long season in Milwaukee. There aren't many big market teams that could lose both CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets and still be competitive, let alone a small market team like the Brewers.

If pitcher Manny Parra can build on his solid rookie campaign, however, then Milwaukee may be OK. Parra won 10 games for the Brewers in his first season, while pitching in 166 innings.

His 4.39 ERA was a bit high for a National League pitcher, but it's not terrible. If he can decrease his walks from the 75 free passes he issued in 2008, then he may prove to be the Brewers new No. 1 starter.

Denard Span, OF, Minnesota Twins (2008: .294, 70 R, 7 3B, 18 SB, .387 OBP)

Last season, fellow rookie Carlos Gomez received most of the spotlight. That will happen when you get traded for a future Hall of Fame pitcher. Gomez had a fine rookie season, but it was Span who should have received the spotlight.

The speedy Span became the Twins lead-off hitter and immediately ignited the offense. His .294 average was good, but it was his .387 on base percentage that showed his patience as a hitter.

Span also stole 18 bases and scored 70 runs, a good number for any rookie season, but he did it in only 93 games. Scouts have also raved about his defense and the way he works counts and takes pitches. He may be the next great lead-off hitter.

Jonathon Niese, LHP, NY Mets (2008: 1-1, 3 GS, 14 IP, 11 Ks, 7.07 ERA)

Jonathon Niese was a September call-up for the Mets in 2008. He started three games, and to say that he was less than impressive would be an understatement.

But in his time in AA and AAA last season, Niese was 11-8 with a 3,15 ERA, 2.5 K/BB ratio, and he averaged almost 8 Ks/ 9 innings. The upside is there.

His fastball can creep into the mid-90's, he changes speeds well, and has a plus curve. With Pedro Martinez probably not returning to the Mets, Niese will probably be given every chance to win the fifth starter spot.

Austin Jackson, OF, NY Yankees (2008: .285, 9 HR, 69 RBI, 19 SB in class AA)

Austin Jackson is the New York Yankees' top prospect, and probably will not start the season with the big club, no matter what he does in spring training.

That being said, the center field position is the only question mark the Yankees face. Melky Cabrera proved that he was not the fielder or hitter many in the organization hoped he would be.

Brett Gardner has decent speed, but is all glove and little bat, and Nick Swisher had a terrible season and was so bad in center that Chicago traded for an aging Ken Griffey.

That could mean Jackson ends up in the Bronx sooner that later. He looks to be a five-tool player, and if he can get better at hitting breaking pitches at AAA, don't be surprised to see him around mid-season.

Justin Duchscherer, RHP, Oakland A's (2008: 10-8, 141.2 IP, 95 Ks, 2.54 ERA)

The Oakland starting pitching has been like the Star Wars films of late. They have had to different "trilogies" of pitchers, the first set slightly better than the first, but both really good.

Last season, after Oakland traded the last of the "Big 3 part two", Duchscherer stepped in as the new ace. The seven year veteran, and two time All-Star was already a very good relief pitcher before making the transition to starter.

While Joba Chamberlain was doing the same thing amid much greater fanfare, Duchscherer was having the better season, going 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA in 22 starts before hip surgery ended his season.

Since Duchscherer is the only veteran in the A's rotation this year, he will be looked upon to lead Oakland in their playoff push, and people still may not know his name...or be able to pronounce it.

Jayson Werth, OF, Philadelphia Phillies (2008: .273, 73 R, 24 HR, 67 RBI)

Jason Werth has played six seasons for three different teams in the Major Leagues, before having a breakout season for the world champs. Werth played the "fourth outfielder" role well, playing all three outfield positions.

Werth played more than 100 games for only the second season in his career, and put up career highs in almost every statistical category.

He also showed speed, posting a 20/20 (SB/HR) season in only 134 games played. He looks to start the 2009 season as philadelphia's starting right fielder. 

Ryan Doumit, C, Pittsburgh Pirates (2008: .318, 71 R, 15 HR, 69 RBI)

The emergence of Nate McLouth stole much of the attention in Pittsburgh last season, but the Pirates may have the best all-around catcher in baseball playing for them, and very few know him.

Despite 2008 being his fourth season, Ryan Doumit had never played more than 83 games. That changed last season, as Doumit played 116 games, making the most of his opportunity.

He hit a career high .318, with 15 home runs and 69 RBI in 431 at bats. He also played great defense, having no errors and throwing out 37 percent of base stealers.

Not since Jason Kendall's day in Pittsburgh, have the Pirates had a player like this at backstop. Maybe now that the world knows Nate McLouth, they will learn of Ryan Doumit.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, San Diego Padres (2008: .279, 103 R, 36 HR, 119 RBI)

Baseball fans may know Adrian Gonzalez, but many don't know how good he really is. After being unable to crack the Texas Rangers line-up in his first two seasons, Gonzalez has become one of the best first baseman in all of baseball, yet was named an All-Star for the first time last season.

He hit 36 homers in the worst hitters' park in baseball, and drove in and scored over 100 runs on the worst offensive team in baseball last year.

Over his three seasons in a Padres uniform, Gonzalez has averaged 96 runs scored, 176 hits, 39 doubles, 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a .288 batting average.

Throw in the fact that he can really pick it at first base, and you got a guy who is comparable to Mark Texiera, at about $19 million less.

Matt Cain, RHP, San Francisco Giants (2008: 8-14, 217.2 IP, 186 Ks, 3.76 ERA)

It's easy to get overlooked when you're a young pitcher in the same division as Tim Lincecum, let alone the same starting rotation, but Matt Cain has been one of the best starting pitchers in baseball the past three years.

Maybe Cain hasn't received notoriety because of his sub-par won-loss record (30-43 in his career), a by-product of pitching for a team that hasn't won more than 76 games since 2004.

But other than that, Cain's numbers are there. He's pitched at least 190 innings in each of the past three seasons. He's finished in the top 10 in strikeouts twice, and has a career ERA of 3.74.

The one knock against Cain is that he does allow a few too many walks, averaging more than 80 per year the past three seasons. But the best thing about Cain may be his age, as he won't turn 25 until October.

Kyle Lohse, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals (2008: 15-6, 200 IP, 119 Ks, 3.78 ERA)

When Kyle Lohse was on the free agent market last off-season, he had a few lookers, but no takers. Lohse, still only 30 at the time, had gotten the label of "journeyman" pitcher, and no teams were looking at him as a top tier starter.

He finally signed with the Cardinals last March 14, a month after pitchers had reported to spring training. It proved to be a smart move by the Cards, as Lohse would win a career best 15 game, pitch 200 innings and post a sub-4.00 ERA for the first time in his eight-year big league career.

Lohse made many teams regret passing him up last season, while making the St. Louis brass look like geniuses.

Yuniesky Betancourt, SS, Seattle Mariners (2008: .279, 66 R, 36 2B, 55 RBI)

The 27-year-old shortstop for the Mariners may be the best kept secret in baseball. While the shortstop position has it's fair share of big-time players, such as Derek Jeter, Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, Betancourt is a throwback.

His numbers are good, with 66 runs scored and 55 RBI as Seattle's number nine hitter, but his strength is not as an offensive force.

He's one of the few defensive shortstops left in baseball, a slick fielder who may have the best range at the position in the game. He is one of the few bright spots on one of the worst teams in baseball.

Chad Bradford, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays (2008: 4-3, 68 G, 2.12 ERA with 2 teams)

Being a middle relief pitcher is not sexy, so needless to say, most of them are pretty unknown to even the most knowledgeable baseball fans.

Bradford has been one of the better middle relief pitchers in the game for more than a decade now, but really made an impact last season.

After signing with Baltimore in the off season, Bradford was traded to the Rays to solidify their bullpen after Troy Percival's injury.

Bradford was almost unhittable appearing in 21 games down the stretch and posting an ERA of 1.42. The side-armer's veteran leadership also proved important to the young Rays as they made their improbable run to the World Series.

Taylor Teagarden, C, Texas Rangers (2008: .319, 10 R, 6 HR, 17 RBI)

With Josh Hamilton being the feel good story of 2008 and Ian Kinsler's breakout season, most baseball may have missed Ranger's prospect Taylor Teagarden's debut.

Teagarden may have only played 16 games in 2008, but he made enough of an impact that he may find himself the starting catcher for the Rangers in 2009.

Teagarden was lethal with the bat in those 16 games, hitting .319 with 6 homers, 10 runs scored and a .396 on base percentage.

The most amazing number for Teagarden, however, was his 17 RBI. Although it's a small sampling, that's more RBI than games played. Teagarden has tremendous upside. If he lives up to it, then baseball fans will learn his name in no time.

Adam Lind, DH/OF, Toronto Blue Jays (2008: .282, 48 R, 9 HR, 40 RBI)

Adam Lind, now in his fourth season, has been one of the better part-time players the past two seasons. In 616 at bats combined the past two seasons, Lind has hit 30 doubles and 20 home runs while driving in 86 runs.

Despite being a below average defensive player, striking out more than the Blue Jays would like and hitting only .253 in 2008 against left-handed pitching, the other numbers are hard to ignore as the Toronto plans to use Lind as the everyday DH in 2009.

On a team starved for hitting, if Lind has a big year, he could become a household name by seasons end.

Joel Hanrahan, RHP, Washington Nationals (2008: 6-3, 9 SV, 93 Ks, 3.95 ERA)

It's hard to get noticed being a closer on the worst team in the NL East, especially when that division has Brad Lidge and now Francisco Rodriguez in it, but Joel Hanrahan may be able to steal some of the spotlight.

After Washington traded closer John Rauch in late July, Hanrahan step in as closer in just his second season.

Thanks mostly to his 96 mph fastball, Hanrahan would end up striking out 93 batters in 84 innings pitched and saving 9 games.

If he can cut down on his 42 walks, and if the Nationals are competitive enough to give Hanrahan opportunities, then the 6' 3", 215 lbs. closer could have a huge year.

With the 2009 baseball season quickly approaching, these players could make a big splash. Whether or not the baseball world will begin to give these ballplayers their due, remains to be seen.


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