"Underrated" is one of those words we toss out in our sports dialogue with no real idea what it means. Our interpretation of what or who is or is not underrated is all relative to the specifics of our circumstances -- what we read, what we watch, what we experience. I can guarantee you there were people who walked by Mike Trout at the Super Bowl the other night and didn't know who the heck he was, and so I could argue that Trout is underrated.
But every year, when I fill out my All-Underrated Team for the season ahead, I like to lay out clear guidelines as to the type of players I'm looking for:
1. At least two years of service time
2. No All-Stars
3. No finalists (top three in the voting) for major awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year)
4. No nine-figure contracts
That whittles the list of candidates down to a precious few (and as you'll see, I'm guilty of fudging one of those rules with one guy on this year's list), but it keeps this exercise from becoming overly subjective. Or maybe my qualifications are overrated. I don't know.
Anyway, here's this year's team.
Catcher: Mike Zunino, Mariners
J.T. Realmuto held this spot last year, and he arguably still belongs. But he's a reasonably high-profile trade candidate at the moment, and we're going to look for new blood in several spots on this roster.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past where Zunino looked like a prospect bust. Actually, just last May, he was optioned off Seattle's big league roster for a spell to get some intensive work on his swing mechanics. But the M's had seen real flashes from Zunino's bat late in 2016, and they saw real changes in his final 100 games in '17 (.921 OPS, 25 homers, 20 doubles), and when the offense adds to the defensive value Zunino presents behind the dish, you have a potential cornerstone player -- even if it took a lot of patience to get to this point.
First base: Justin Bour, Marlins
Carlos Santana was on this list a year ago and still technically qualifies, but considering he has the second-largest contract given to a free agent this offseason (three years, $60 million with the Phillies), let's shine a spotlight on one of the few productive players the Marlins haven't traded.
Between platoons and injuries, the 29-year-old Bour hasn't played more than 129 games in a season (he played 108 last year), but in 2017, he proved he can produce against lefties (.253/.327/.483), which bodes well for his usage moving forward. Over the last three years, his Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) mark of 123 (or 23 percent better than league average) is better than that of Eric Hosmer (120). And though his performance got drowned out by that of Aaron Judge, Bour was an animal in the Home Run Derby last year, hitting dingers and eating doughnuts.
Second base: Cesar Hernandez, Phillies
It's easy to miss solid players on rebuilding ballclubs, and if Hernandez's name has been bandied about by the casual fan at all the last year or so, it's typically been as a trade candidate. But the list of second basemen who have compiled higher FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement marks than Hernandez (7.6) over the last two seasons is a short one: Jose Altuve (14.3), Brian Dozier (10.8), Daniel Murphy (9.9), Robinson Cano (9.2) and Ian Kinsler (8.1).
Hernandez's second-half surge in 2016 looked a little fluky, but his final '16 and '17 numbers were virtually identical as his improved walk rate stabilized.
Shortstop: Jean Segura, Mariners
Didi Gregorius held this spot last year and still qualifies after his 25-homer campaign. But we're spreading the love around. I'm admittedly guilty of breaking one of my rules set above with this one, because Segura was an All-Star in 2013. But look, that was five years ago (I had to look it up to remember it), and at a time when there are so many incredibly young shortstops to celebrate across MLB, it's easy for the 27-year-old Segura -- who brings a nice blend of speed, defense and batting average -- to get lost in the shuffle. His 120 wRC+ mark over the last two seasons is bested by just two qualified shortstops -- Carlos Correa (135) and Corey Seager (120). So don't sell him… short.
Third base: Anthony Rendon, Nationals
Rendon finished sixth in the National League MVP Award voting last year, but he had a good argument to land higher. To date, his notoriety revolves around two superlative offensive seasons (2014 and '17) and one especially outlandish game (six hits, three homers and 10 RBIs last April 30). If the improved plate discipline he demonstrated in '17 is his new norm, he's not long for this list. But the defensive value Rendon provides even in those stretches where he's not sizzling at the dish make him one of the Nats' most valuable players.
Heck, look at how the understated Rendon stacks up with Bryce Harper in the two WAR calculations (FanGraphs and Baseball Reference) over the last four years:
Harper: 17.2 (2014-17 bWAR); 19.1 (2014-17 fWAR)
Rendon: 17.0 (2014-17 bWAR); 19.0 (2014-17 fWAR)
Left field: Adam Eaton, Nationals
Eaton was on this list a year ago as a means of pointing out why the huge prospect haul the Nationals gave up for him might not be totally crazy. He then stormed out the gate with a .393 on-base percentage in his first three weeks as a Nat … and then blew out his left knee on the basepaths. Because it's deceptively easy to forget what an igniter and game-changing defender the Nats are getting back with Eaton's pending return to duty, I'm keeping him on the list. That's right: Eaton's repeatin'!
Center field: Tommy Pham, Cardinals
This feels like cheating, because Pham's big league success so far is limited to a small sample. But it also feels like cheating because Pham's 2017 numbers were so outlandish (he had a .306/.411/.520 slash in 530 plate appearances) that he's quickly veering into properly rated terrain.
Ah, whatever. Let's split the difference and put the Phamster on here. He earned it by fighting his way back into the Cards' plans (he's shifting full time to center to accommodate Marcell Ozuna) after injuries and a degenerative eye disease threatened to derail his promise and potential. He's turning 30, but he's seemingly just getting started -- and I, for one, am a big fan of Pham.
Right field: Steven Souza Jr., Rays
The Angels' Kole Calhoun occupied this spot on this list a year ago before taking a big step back offensively. Now a bounceback candidate, Calhoun might still belong here, but let's march on over to Souza (that pun goes out to all you military band fans) on the heels of his 2017 improvement in which he posted the most games played (148) and best OPS (.810) and OPS+ (121) marks of his career. Again, I generally prefer a little longer track record before committing to the "underrated" label, but this particular position was light on clear candidates for the list, and there's a lot to like about Souza's athleticism, speed and power.
Besides, Souza won me over by jokingly calling out the otherwise excellent Tampa Bay Times Rays beat reporter Marc Topkin for not putting Edgar Martinez on his Hall of Fame ballot.
Designated hitter: Khris Davis, A's
Since becoming a big league regular in 2014, the man they call "Khrush" has averaged a home run every 15.03 at-bats -- the seventh-best rate among qualified hitters in that span (and slightly better than that of this year's prominent power-hitting free agent, J.D. Martinez). Shorten the sample to just the last two seasons, and Davis' rate of a homer ever 13.2 at-bats is bested only by some guy named Giancarlo Stanton (11.7).
Davis strikes out a lot (a common problem in today's game), and the A's are making him more of a DH than an outfielder for a reason. But his pure power has allowed him to put up an OPS+ 26 percent better than league average over the last three years, and the home run rate not only survived a 2016 move from Milwaukee to Oakland, but actually improved.
Starting pitcher: Carlos Carrasco, Indians
To be clear, Carrasco did finish fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting this past season, but that was not some one-year blip of brilliance. Over the last three years, this is where he ranks among all qualified Major League starters in the following categories:
ERA: 18th (3.41)
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): 10th (3.18)
Expected FIP (xFIP): 5th (3.06)
FanGraphs WAR: 10th (12.8)
Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched (WHIP): 10th (1.10)
Strikeout rate minus walk rate: 7th (22.1)
Carrasco's xFIP is virtually identical to teammate and two-time AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in that span. Coming off his first 200-inning season, Carrasco belongs on the short list of the game's best starting arms.
Relief pitcher: Addison Reed, Twins
Reed all about it: In the three-year span beginning with 2015, FanGraphs has Reed worth 4.5 WAR and Wade Davis worth 4.3 WAR. Davis got a three-year, $52 million contract from the Rockies this offseason (that's the highest average annual value ever for a closer), while Reed got a two-year, $16.75 million deal from the Twins.
Reed has been a target in two of the last three summer trade periods for a reason. He can deliver high-quality, high-leverage relief in any inning asked, and it wouldn't be a shock if he succeeds fellow Twins signee Fernando Rodney in the ninth inning at some point this season. He doesn't blow people away, but he doesn't walk them, either. Reed has a 5.96 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.996 WHIP over the last two seasons, good enough to close things out for my All-Underrated squad.