Baseball BeatSeptember 25, 2007
Flyin' Under the Radar
By Rich Lederer

While others are discussing the division and wild card races during the last week of the season, I thought it would be a welcomed relief to pay tribute to ten players who have been flyin' under the radar screen. None of these pitchers or hitters will receive a single vote for MVP or Cy Young honors, yet all of them have been among the most valuable players on their respective teams while earning at or near the minimum salary.

In alphabetical order, here are the Poor and Not So Famous . . .

Rafael Betancourt, RP, Cleveland Indians

W-L 5-1 | SV 2 | ERA 1.41 | WHIP .76

Age: 32
2007 Salary: $840,000
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent in January 2003

Betancourt has been one of the most effective relief pitchers in the majors this season, leading all non-starters with 27 Runs Saved Against Average through games of Saturday. As the set-up man for the Cleveland Indians, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound righthander has allowed only 58 baserunners in 76.1 IP while recording (for what it's worth) 29 holds, good for second in the American League.

Throwing almost exclusively fastballs, Betancourt has struck out 75 (or nearly one per inning) and walked only 9 batters (for a K/BB of 8.33). Opponents are "hitting" .183 against him while putting up an OPS of .488. Originally signed by the Boston Red Sox as an amateur free agent in 1993, the fifth-year MLB veteran has inherited 33 baserunners and prevented all but three from scoring. He ranks second in the majors (behind J.J. Putz) in Win Expectation above Replacement (WXRL).

Manuel Corpas, RP, Colorado Rockies

W-L 4-2 | SV 16 | ERA 1.85 | WHIP 1.03

Age: 24
2007 Salary: $382,000
Acquired: Signed 1999 (undrafted free agent from Panama)

Corpas, who spent the entire 2005 season pitching for the Modesto Nuts in the California League (A+), has been nothing short of brilliant working out of the bullpen for the Rockies this season. The 6-foot-3, 170-pound righthander earned his first save on July 7 when he struck out the side to preserve a 6-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. Promoted to the role of closer, Corpas has recorded 15 saves during the second half.

The fastball-slider pitcher throws strikes (2.34 BB/9) and induces about 2.5 groundballs for every flyball allowed. As reflected in his 1.64 ERA at home, his style suits Coors Field well. Corpas has been effective during the stretch run, allowing only one run over his last 12 appearances covering 13.2 innings and one earned run in his last 17 outings and 18.2 IP.

Jack Cust, DH, Oakland Athletics

AVG .261 | OBP .412 | SLG .520 | HR 26 | RBI 82

Age: 28
2007 Salary: $380,100
Acquired: From the San Diego Padres in May 2007

Cust is finally getting his first extensive action in the big leagues ten years after being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks with the 30th overall pick of the 1997 amateur draft. Prior to this season, Cust had played in a total of 70 games for Arizona, Colorado, Baltimore, and San Diego. The 6-foot-1, 231-pound lefthanded hitter has been everything his stathead fans have imagined, slugging 26 HR while posting an OBP over .400 and a SLG greater than .500. Over half of his plate appearances (486) have resulted in a walk (100) or strikeout (156). He ranks second in the majors (behind Reggie Willits) in the number of pitches per plate appearance (4.40).

Matt Diaz, LF, Atlanta Braves

AVG .338 | OBP .368 | SLG .504 | HR 12 | RBI 44

Age: 29
2007 Salary: $375,000
Acquired: From the Kansas City Royals in December 2005

Diaz can flat out hit. He is mashing lefthanders to the tune of .360/.385/.586. The one drawback is that the preponderance of Diaz's OBP is made up via his AVG as the aggressive hitter has drawn a base on balls only 4% of the time. A relative unknown, the former Florida State star is far from a one-year fluke as he has now hit .333 with 19 HR in 640 AB and 691 PA over the past two seasons. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound outfielder has cooled of late, going homerless since jacking two against Florida late last month.

Corey Hart, RF, Milwaukee Brewers

AVG .297 | OBP .355 | SLG .533 | HR 22 | RBI 76

Age: 25
2007 Salary: $395,000
Acquired: Drafted in the 11th round of the 2000 amateur draft

Although overshadowed by MVP candidate Prince Fielder and ROY favorite Ryan Braun, Hart is experiencing a breakout season hitting nearly .300 with 22 HR and 23 SB. Playing everyday for the first time in his career, the 6-foot-6, 214-pound outfielder is torching southpaws (.333/.423/.622). He has stepped up his production in September (.350/.402/.638) although it may not be good enough to put Milwaukee into the playoffs next week.

Carlos Marmol, RP, Chicago Cubs

W-L 5-1 | SV 1 | ERA 1.22 | WHIP 1.11

Age: 24
2007 Salary: Minimum
Acquired: Signed July 1999 (undrafted free agent from Dominican Republic)

Check out Marmol's ERA. Yes, that's not a typo. 1.22 it is. It's hard to believe that the second-year righthander spent the first month-and-a-half in the minors. Formerly a starting pitcher, Marmol has pitched exclusively in relief this season. He started strong, working 10 games before allowing his first run. And he is finishing even stronger, hurling 18 consecutive outings covering 22.1 IP without surrendering a run.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound righthander has struck out 94 batters in only 66.2 IP. His control is still problematic, providing 35 free passes or more than one every two innings. HIs ERA has never reached 2.00 this season and he has pitched well at home (1.53 ERA with a .172 BAA) and on the road (0.86 ERA, .162 BAA). Look for Marmol to play an important role for the Cubs in the postseason.

Peter Moylan, RP, Atlanta Braves

W-L 5-3 | SV 1 | ERA 1.85 | WHIP 1.06

Age: 28
2007 Salary: Minimum
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent in March 2006

Moylan has been a workhorse for Bobby Cox this season. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound righthander has been asked to pitch 76 games and 87.2 innings. He has put up stellar numbers although his relatively low strikeout rate (6.26 per 9 IP) for a reliever is cause for concern on a go forward basis. Born in Attadale, Australia, Moylan was originally signed by the Minnesota Twins as an amateur free agent in March 1996. He only lasted two years before deciding to return home as a pharmaceutical salesman.

The bespectacled Moylan continued pitching, dropping down to a sidearm motion while adding nearly 10 miles per hour to his fastball. He was a surprise pick for the Australian World Baseball Classic squad and opened eyes when whiffing four Venezuelans, including Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, and Magglio Ordonez in his only WBC outing. Moylan was subsequently invited by Atlanta to spring training camp prior to the 2006 season and made his debut in the majors last summer.

Cody Ross, CF, Florida Marlins

AVG .335 | OBP .409 | SLG .659 | HR 12 | RBI 35

Age: 26
2007 Salary: $380,000
Acquired: Purchased from the Cincinnati Reds in May 2006

Ross spent part of the 2007 season on the 60-day DL, missing most of May, all of June, and part of July. With increased playing time, Ross has been a monster in September, hitting .389/.411/.796 with 7 2B and 5 HR in 54 AB. For the season, the 5-foot-9, 203-pound sparkplug has slugged 17 2B and 12 HR with an OPS of 1.065. The jury is out, but the center fielder, who bats right and throws left, may finally be finding a home in Florida after various stints with the Tigers, Dodgers, and Reds.

Matt Stairs, LF, Toronto Blue Jays

AVG .292 | OBP .370 | SLG .553 | HR 20 | RBI 61

Age: 39
2007 Salary: $850,000
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent in December 2006

Stairs is not unknown, having played 1537 games since breaking into the big leagues with Montreal in 1992. But he is a bargain, putting up a .923 OPS for a rather meager salary of $850,000. Stairs has ripped 27 doubles and 20 homers in 342 at-bats this season. To my surprise, he has slugged at least 13 HR for 11 straight seasons and now has 240 over the course of his career.

Jayson Werth, RF, Philadelphia Phillies

AVG .303 | OBP .410 | SLG .455 | HR 7 | RBI 48

Age: 28
2007 Salary: $850,000
Acquired: Signed as a Free Agent in December 2006

Werth is posting career highs in AVG, OBP, and OPS while playing part-time for the Phillies. After missing all of July with a sprained left wrist, Werth was put into the starting lineup upon his return and he responded with a .414/.500/.609 line in August. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder's performance has slowed considerably in September, and it remains to be seen what the future holds for the former first round draft pick and stepson of Dennis Werth, grandson of Dick Schofield, and nephew of Dick Schofield.

Honorable Mentions: Heath Bell (SD), Brandon Lyon (ARI), Hideki Okajima (BOS), Tony Pena (ARI), and Joakim Soria (KC).


Just a note on stairs..with all the injuries the bluejays have had this year, his playing time in LF/RF and 1B was dramatically increased and has put up some of the teams best numbers (such a shame) this year still with limited playing time. I expect him to sign a 2 year deal in the off season with the jays and see Reed Johnson move to another team.

I love these kinds of articles, and your choices are excellent. I think Brendan Harris deserves a mention as an honorable mention. While his defense has been criticized, his offense for a middle infielder has been outstanding, and I think, unlike Pena, he has been unheralded. He earns just $386,000.

Highlights of his numbers:
.286/.343/.434; 12 home runs; 35 doubles; 59 RBIs

Incidentally, and this is emphatically NOT a razzing, but have you considered revisiting B.J.Upton. He may indeed slip under .300 as you anticipated (although I doubt as far as you thought), but I think he has also shown real staying power in terms of average and has struck out somewhat less as the year wore on while walking more and increasing his power.

Betancourt (pronounced be-AN-court)

be An court? where does the first T belong?

Yadier Molina--a peerless catcher who was actually hitting .280 or so when shut down for injury.

Good choices, Bob and Bill. I will get back to you, Bob, on your Upton comment. I haven't forgotten about him or my predictions and will share thoughts on both later today.

GC: I picked that up from Betancourt's player page at ESPN. I have since deleted that reference in the article above. Thanks.

What are some of your choices for most overpaid players who haven't performed? I am thinking about guys who have been healthy all year...

I'd add Yuniesky Betancourt to the list -- $727k, hitting .290, stellar defense, and a ton of clutch hits.

Here is how Upton has performed since I wrote the article Bob mentioned on May 5th:

 G   AB	  R   H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
96  364   68  104  17   0  18   60  54 111 .286  .377  .481  .858

Upton has hit for a better AVG, OBP, and SLG than I predicted back then. The biggest difference is that B.J. has walked more than I anticipated. I didn't see the increase in BB coming. He has also produced nine more hits than what I would have calculated for the same number of at-bats.

On the other hand, his power has been roughly what I estimated as the actual and projected ISO have been within a few basis points.

In summary, I will admit that I underestimated Upton although I have a hunch that my predictions (other than BB rate) wouldn't have been too far off the mark had he not missed a month's worth of games in June and July.

Wimbo: With just a quick look at the stats, my top ten underachievers relative to pay (with more emphasis on underachieving than pay) would be Adam Eaton, Jason Jennings, Jeff Weaver, Woody Williams, and one of Bartolo Colon/Kevin Millwood/Vicente Padilla (although the latter may not qualify under your parameters given the time they spent on the DL), plus Craig Biggio, Ray Durham, Jason Kendall, Julio Lugo, and Richie Sexson with honorable mentions "earned" by Jose Contreras, Nomar Garciaparra, Shea Hillenbrand (a total waste of money), Kei Igawa, Jacque Jones, Matt Morris, Brett Tomko, and Omar Vizquel. I would put Juan Pierre in there but he basically did what was expected of him. Andruw Jones and Vernon Wells underperformed miserably as well.

Who would you select?

Thanks Rich. Actually one of my point early in the season was that Upton had always been a selective hitter and should increase his walk rate some. Although he has continued to strike out a bit more than had been his wont, and his K-rate is up again in September (I think), he did cut back some on his strikeouts as the year wore on.

Part of the key to Upton, I think, is that he hits hard line drives, so he may keep his BABIP higher than the norm. I saw a rehab game in Vero Beach, and he hit a line drive home run into right center field that hit the far building.

I also think that he will improve, not decline. Quite a few of his Ks are on close pitches he takes, and my guess is he will learn to foul those off at least rather than rely on umpires to give him the call.

I might consider Danys Baez for the list of underachievers, at least as an honorable mention. His salary does not match the top earners, but 3 years at over $6 million per for a middle reliever should get better performance than he produced.

That is funny, my pitchers were exactly the same. Looking through the hitters I have two guys I want to talk about. I gave Andruw Jones "more" credit than you did. Mainly due to the fact that he had the worst year of his career in what I believe is a contract year for him. And at a price north of $13MM that is an expensive slump for him. Maybe there were other factors, like, the kind that Ivan Rodriquez experienced a few years back. Either way he didn't come through this year. Speaking of "I-Rod" you can stick a fork in him, I don't think the Tigers will pick up the $13MM option for 2008. He had the his lowest OPS since 1992, lowest HR's since 1993, was lowest SB since 1995, lowest runs scored since 1995, most K's in his career, fewest walks since his rookie year when he only had 280 AB's. Not that he has fallen off a cliff, that was a few years ago, but the fact that he isn't on your list suggests that you expected that from him. Which is sad, because in his prime he was a great player. By the way I enjoyed your article.