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The 3 MLB teams with underrated strengths

These teams might not win their divisions, but parts of their roster should be better than you might have guessed.

Oakland Athletics v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Labeling something as underrated is a way to use code for whatever you really mean. When you say that S.F. Sorrow is one of the most underrated albums of the ‘60s, do you mean it’s one of the best albums of the decade? Or just a good album, one of hundreds from the decade, that is listened to less than other classics? Are you just excited about an album you’ve only recently discovered, and this is your way of priming someone to make a similar discovery? Or are you just telling the world that you’re so wizened and music savvy that you’ve heard of and appreciated a cult-classic album from 50 years ago, perhaps in the introduction of an unrelated article?

This is an article about underrated components of Major League Baseball teams, and I’m pretty sure the definition is, “Hey, these guys are better than I, Grant Brisbee, gave them credit for. Your mileage may vary. Thanks for reading.” There are a couple of rebuilding teams included, and there’s one ostensible contender, so the term underrated doesn’t have to mean teams that are on their way up or on their way down.

It doesn’t have to mean anything, really. But no one’s going to click on an article titled “Anyway, I just noticed the rosters on these teams, sorry, though it’s not really my fault because there’s, like, 30 different teams to keep track of.” These are the teams with the most underrated components to their roster.

Most underrated lineup in baseball: Milwaukee Brewers

Baseball Prospectus projects the Brewers to score 720 runs, which is good for seventh in the league. Is that more runs than you expected or fewer? Before I took a look at their roster, it surprised me. When I think of the Brewers, I think of an amorphous blob of rebuilding, a pair of shoes fixed with duct tape that’s peeling off.

Except this is a lineup with purpose. Ryan Braun is getting older, but he’s still the known quantity, and he’s surrounded by players who make sense. Here, we’ll use the Descript-o-Lineup tool again to prove a point:

  1. Speedy player coming off a breakout year
  2. Recent top-10 prospect in baseball
  3. Former MVP coming off strong season
  4. Slugger with outlandish success in Korea over the last two years
  5. Recent top-100 prospect in baseball
  6. Change-of-scenery raffle ticket
  7. High-OBP defensive center fielder with speed
  8. Catcher with a chance to hit better than his peers

These are all rose-colored descriptions, of course. You could just as easily do something like ...

  1. Player coming off flukish improvement
  2. Unproven youngster
  3. Over-30 guy on his way down
  4. Former major-league washout
  5. Unproven youngster
  6. Late-20s guy who isn’t a prospect anymore
  7. Surprising player likely to regress to the mean
  8. Unproven youngster

That first batch sounds like a recipe for a lineup that can score 800 runs. The second group might have trouble scoring 600. But I’ll err on the side of youth and widely respected talent. Orlando Arcia gets lost in a world with Corey Seagers and Carlos Correas, but he’s still one of the most coveted young players in baseball. Domingo Santana is unproven, but he’s already held his own, and the tools are a fine reason to be optimistic.

Most underrated rotation: Toronto Blue Jays

The entire Blue Jays staff had one of the best adjusted ERAs in the AL last year, so this almost has a “most underrated thirst-quencher: water” vibe to it, but they’re getting a boost because of their underwhelming offseason, which makes it easy to dismiss their entire roster. That would be a mistake. They have the pitching to win, even if the lineup is merely average, and that’s not something I would have expected.

My methodology in this search was to go through the projected rotations at Roster Resource and scope out the fourth starters. Would I want the projected fourth starter to start a postseason game for my team? And, if so, were they already one of those spoiled teams like the Red Sox, Mets, or Nationals, a team we already figured would pitch their way to a postseason berth? The only team that ticked both of those marks was the Blue Jays. Say, Aaron Sanchez is pretty good. And is that Francisco Liriano as the fifth starter? That makes all kinds of sense.

  1. Marco Estrada
  2. J.A. Happ
  3. Marcus Stroman
  4. Aaron Sanchez
  5. Francisco Liriano

What’s different about this rotation compared to what we expected before last season?

  1. Repeated his fine season, and led the league with the lowest hits-per-nine mark again
  2. Was as good as he was in the second half of 2015, but over a full season
  3. If last year was the low floor, this year should be the high ceiling
  4. A proven commodity now
  5. An overqualified fifth starter

It’s not that the Blue Jays have a better rotation than the Red Sox on paper. Certainly not. But they have a rotation that can help the team make the postseason and even win the division with a few unexpected breaks.

You know what they say about teams that are better on paper, right?

They line birdcages with paper.

And, look at that. We’re talking about a team named the Blue Jays.

You connect the dots.

Except these Blue Jays can’t be caged.

I don’t even know what that means.

Help, I’m trapped in one-sentence-paragraph-columnist mode, please help.

I’m really impressed with the depth of this rotation is what I’m getting at. More so than I expected to be when I started this exercise.

Most underrated bullpen: Oakland A’s

What’s that? You can’t bring yourself to care about the A’s bullpen? You’ll be caring an awful lot when your team trades its best prospect for one of their relievers in July, pal, so it’s best to start paying attention right now. This isn’t all about you.

The A’s have built something worth paying attention to, if only because the quickest way to a restocked farm just might be with in-demand relievers. The A’s spent money on Ryan Madson, partially with a future trade in mind, I’d guess, and even if it hasn’t worked out in the most exciting fashion yet, he’s still a changeup monster with second-tier closer potential.

Madson is the perfect example of why the bullpen is underrated: He’s a pitcher who should probably be better. You can say that about just about all of the relievers. Sean Doolittle? Should be better because he’s healthy. Liam Hendricks? Should be better because the strikeout-to-walk ratio should better match the runs allowed. Santiago Casilla? Should be better because he’s in a lower pressure situation, and he improved on the strikeout gains he enjoyed the previous season.

Add Ryan Dull — the most consistent reliever in the bullpen last year — and you have five relievers with at least moderate promise. That’s before you get to John Axford, who was a costly mistake, but isn’t completely washed up just yet, and the armada of youngsters and random arms the A’s can employ.

It’s not a perfect pen. It might even be the fourth- or fifth-best bullpen in their own division by the end of the season. But a rebuilding/reloading team like the A’s needs to stock their bullpen with high-reward guys, regardless of the risk. They’ve done just that, and it’s so easy to overlook the rest of their roster, that it’s a little too easy to dismiss the whole team.

You heard it here first, then. Brewers-A’s World Series. Vegas is that way =====>. Tell them that SB Nation sent you. And until you can collect your money, pay extra attention to these teams and what they’re doing right instead of doing wrong. That seems like a good way to sniff out the season’s surprises before the games even start.