MLB

MLB 2022 playoffs: Seven underappreciated players who could play postseason hero

Major League Baseball’s postseason has arrived, and that means it’s time to ask the big questions about the tournament. Who will win the World Series? Which unbeatable juggernaut will be slain before the League Championship Series? And, on an individual level, will anyone be able to follow Randy Arozarena’s flight path from 2020?

Arozarena, for those who may have forgotten, pinned his proverbial star that October by hitting .377/.442/.831 with 10 home runs and 14 runs batted in across 20 games for the Tampa Bay Rays. That he had appeared in only 23 regular-season games gave him the otherworldly impression that he had manifested out of thin air. The Rays may have ended up falling short in their championship pursuits, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, but Arozarena gained immortality in his own way. In addition to getting his name in the history books, Arozarena will forever be lionized in annual columns like this one, where we throw darts hoping to predict the “next” him.

Now, readers of a certain kind might object to this exercise on the grounds that Arozarena’s postseason emergence was an anomaly, the once-in-a-generation product of an unusual year. We agree. Last postseason didn’t feature an Arozarena-like ascent, and this one likely won’t, either. We find this exercise worthwhile all the same because it allows us to highlight players who might have been overshadowed by their older, more accomplished teammates throughout the daily grind of the regular season, and who may make their mark (and raise their Q score) under October’s lights. Besides, would you rather think about this trivial baseball matter, or would you rather contemplate all of this old world’s new horrors? Right.

We’re using the same ground rules as last year with one new adjustment: this year, we’re focusing exclusively on position players. Sorry, pitchers, but part of Arozarena’s charm was that he performed on a nightly basis. Here the other restrictions: 

  • No top prospects. Nobody is going to be surprised if Julio Rodríguez or someone else who was considered a top-25 prospect has a big month. Ditto for no-doubt, top-notch performers like Andrés Giménez, who ought to receive consideration near the top of MVP Award ballots. We’re trying to highlight the underappreciated, not the obvious.
  • No prior postseason experience. We’re aware that Arozarena technically appeared in the playoffs with the Cardinals in 2019, but we want to limit this to fresh faces. 
  • No arbitration eligibility. Just in case the first two points let someone slip through, here’s a failsafe mechanism to ensure we’re focused on non-established players. 

With all that fine-print nonsense out of the way, let’s get to our collection of hitters to watch for this month. (Do note the players are presented in alphabetical order.)

Cabrera was overshadowed in New York’s farm system by fellow infielders Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza, but he’s earned more attention since debuting in mid-August. He’s ping-ponged between the infield and the outfield, recording six assists in 30-something games in right; five of those came within a nine-day period as teams learned about his arm the hard way. Beyond his defensive weaponry, Cabrera is a switch-hitter who has batted .256/.343/.484 this season against righties in the majors and minors combined. He’s a proponent of lifting the ball, and his 31.4 percent grounder rate puts him in company with Will Smith, Cal Raleigh, and other sky captains. If Cabrera is going to have an Arozarena-like month, it’s going to entail him making several defensive highlights and having a few fly balls carry over the wall.

Donovan, like Cabrera, has played all over the diamond since reaching the majors in April. He finished the regular season having started five or more games at six different positions, making it easier to list the two he didn’t see run at than those he did: center field and catcher. At the plate, he showed an elite feel from the left side for contact and the strike zone, posting whiff and chase rates that ranked in the 90th percentile or better. The Cardinals are a factory for grimy, industrious infielders, and Donovan is their latest model. A big October for him would include a lot of hard-fought walks and timely singles either hit right back up the middle or punched to the opposite field.

Óscar González, OF, Guardians

Gonzalez was undetectable by radar entering the spring, to the extent that he had been passed over in the 2020-21 Rule 5 draft and was left unprotected for last winter’s event. (It was later canceled by the owner-imposed lockout, so we’ll never know if he would have been selected.) He’s since made the Guardians look brilliant, launching nearly 40 extra-base hits in fewer than 100 games. You can’t blame Cleveland or others for being skeptical about his chances of sustained success. On paper, Gonzalez’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach should make him exploitable; in reality, he just had his most productive month in September. The safest bet this October has Gonzalez joining the Avisail Garcia class of players who are faster than they look.

Maybe it’s cheating to include Kwan (one of CBS Sports’ breakout picks entering the spring) on the grounds that he was one of the most productive rookies in the class; we’re doing it anyway because he clears our checklist and there’s no reason to take this exercise so seriously. (Live a little, gosh.) Kwan is an elite contact hitter with a great command of the strike zone. He’s also one of the fastest players in the majors (albeit just the third fastest in his own lineup), a trait that helps make him a standout defender. Kwan is never going to hit for power or post Judgesque exit velocities, but he contributes across the board and that makes him a fun and valuable player.

The Cardinals and the Guardians are the only two teams with multiple entrants on this list. Nootbaar, whose name sounds ripped from a Thomas Pynchon novel, has a lot working in his favor. He hits the ball hard, he minds the zone and he plays a good corner outfield. If there’s a knock against him, it’s that too many of his batted balls fall outside of the optimized 10-to-30 degree window. That hasn’t mattered with respect to his overall production, but it may help to explain why his batting average is so low despite having so many other positive offensive traits. 

The Rays obtained Paredes back in the spring from the Tigers in exchange for Austin Meadows. He offered a good first impression to his new team in June, when he performed his best Arozarena impression by launching eight home runs, walking as many times as he struck out, and posting a 1.074 OPS in 20 games. Paredes has cooled down significantly since (how could he not have?), batting just .195/.321/.384 in the second half. He controls the strike zone and he makes a lot of contact, but he gets underneath the ball at a frequency that suppresses his average. If Paredes can get on a better plane this month, who knows, it might start to feel like June again in St. Pete.

The Dodgers acquired Thompson, the 31-year-old brother of Warriors shooting guard Klay Thompson, from the Tigers over the summer when they were running short on healthy outfielders. He’s since had a career-saving season as a part-time player. The book on him remains written in old ink: he hits the ball hard — really hard — but he often struggles to make consistent contact. Even this season, the best of his big-league career, saw him punching out in more than 35 percent of his trips to the plate. Thompson’s profile makes for a risky long-term play, but all he needs to do in October is boom more than he busts to join his brother as a postseason hero.



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