As of Tuesday morning, there were 21 teams within five games of first place or a wild card in Major League Baseball. That’s 70 percent of the teams, which tells you how much parity exists in the game today, despite the absence of a salary cap.
One game here or there can have a profound effect on the races. It can mean the difference between missing the postseason or playing deep into October. Remember, the Giants and Royals won 88 and 89 games last season, respectively, and wound up in the World Series.
With so many teams in contention as we approach the seasonal midpoint, it’s hard to keep track of every player who is playing a vital role in his team’s success. A lot of players, even fairly prominent guys, can fly under the radar.
They’re far from unknown – especially to avid baseball fans – but they’re players whose performances haven’t caused much of a stir, in some cases because they’re overshadowed by more celebrated teammates.
Here’s my team of under-the-radar guys. The stats are through Monday’s games:
Catcher - Francisco Cervelli, Pittsburgh: Was recently behind the plate for 56 consecutive shutout innings, the longest such streak in at least 58 years. Cervelli, who was acquired from the Yankees last fall, has finally gotten a chance to prove himself as a starter. Advanced stats say he’s the best in the game at framing pitches, one reason the Bucs are second in MLB in earned-run average. He’s been a revelation with the stick, batting .308 with a .385 on-base percentage.
First base - Mark Teixeira, Yankees: At age 35, ‘Tex’ is having a solid rebound year after a miserable, injury-plagued 2013-14. He’s tied for third in the AL in homers (18) and tied for fourth in RBIs (49). Alex Rodriguez has been getting most of the pub, with good reason, but it hasn’t hurt A-Rod to have Teixeira batting behind him in the order in the 5 hole. Tex remains one of the finest fielding first basemen in the game, too.
Second base - Logan Forsythe, Tampa Bay: Joe Maddon has moved on, but the Rays’ organization remains one of the most resourceful in baseball. They traded long-time utility star Ben Zobrist and found a nice facsimile in Forsythe, who plays all the infield positions and has been rock-solid in his first full-time gig. The ex-Padre is batting a career-high .293 and has already posted career highs in home runs (eight), RBIs (32) and doubles (14). He had six multi-hit games in a recent eight-game stretch.
Third base - Yunel Escobar, Washington: The long-time shortstop filled in admirably at third for injured Anthony Rendon. Escobar is fourth in the NL in batting at .329 – .379 in June. He has three five-hit games this season. He’s a strong defender at third. Rendon is back, but it will be hard for the Nats to sit Escobar if he keeps hitting. The A’s dealt him to the Nats last January for Tyler Clippard.
Shortstop - Brandon Crawford, Giants: Long regarded as an elite defender, Crawford has been steadily improving as a hitter for the defending Series champs. He leads the Giants in RBIs (42). He has nine homers, one shy of a career high, and 15 doubles. Crawford is batting .278 after not hitting over .248 in his first four MLB seasons. He’s a distant second to the Cards’ Jhonny Peralta in the All-Star vote, which proves KC isn’t the only Missouri city stuffing the on-line ballot box.
Designated hitter - Kendrys Morales, K.C.: Best remembered for breaking his leg in a celebration after hitting a walk-off grand slam in May 2010, he’s found a home with the Royals. The switch-hitting Morales has eight homers, 45 RBIs and an .810 OPS. The Royals signed him to a two-year, $17 million deal last December, giving them needed punch in the middle of their lineup. And yes, his first name ends in ‘s.’ MLB mistakenly spelled it “Kendry” until four years ago.
Left field - Yoenis Cespedes, Detroit: The dynamic Cuban with the rifle arm is coming into his own in his fourth MLB season and third team. Cespedes has been on fire in June, batting .382 to raise his average to .308 with a .508 slugging mark. He’s still a free swinger, but he’s a force in that Tigers’ lineup. The knock in Boston last year was that he marched to his own drum and was unpopular with the coaches. They aren’t complaining in Detroit.
Right field - Jason Heyward, St. Louis: The Cards got Heyward from Atlanta to fill the void left by the death of top prospect Oscar Taveras in a car crash. Heyward, a great physical talent, is coming into his own at 25. A recent 15-for-34 streak raised his average to .279. He’s widely regarded as the game’s best defensive right fielder, a two-time Gold Glover with amazing range who has saved 32 runs this season, according to defensive metrics.
Center field - Cameron Maybin, Atlanta. The former hot Detroit prospect is finally realizing his potential after a career marred by injuries and last year’s suspension for amphetamine use with the Padres. Maybin has settled into the No. 2 hole in the order and is batting .288 with a .366 on-base percentage and 13 steals. He’s a terrific defensive player. San Diego sent him to Atlanta in the deal for Craig Kimbrel.
Righty starter - Zack Greinke, Dodgers. Operating in the shadow of Clayton Kershaw, he’s been one of the more consistent starters in the game, and one of the unluckiest. He has gone eight starts without a win despite giving up one run or fewer in six of them. Greinke (5-2) is third in the NL in ERA (1.81), second in ratio and fourth in innings pitched. He’s gone at least six innings in all 14 of his starts.
Lefty starter - Jacob deGrom, Mets: Matt Harvey gets most of the attention, but deGrom has been their best pitcher, proving his Rookie of the Year campaign was no fluke. He’s 7-5 with a 2.34 ERA, and could have double-digit wins with more support. In his last seven starts, the long-haired deGrom has a 1.42 ERA with 56 strikeouts and only six walks. Look out when the Mets get all their young arms healthy.
Set-up man - Darren O’Day, Baltimore. The sidearmer has been a big part of the O’s surge. Last week, he walked the bases loaded against the Jays, then struck out the side without allowing a run. He did the same thing on May 29 against the Rays. O’Day is 4-0 with a 0.98 ERA, allowing 16 hits in 27 innings while striking out 36 and walking seven. His feud with Toronto’s Jose Bautista adds zest to a tight AL East race.
Closer - Glen Perkins, Minnesota - You seldom hear his name when people talk about the top closers. But Perkins, a two-time all-star, gets the job done. He’s 23 for 23 in save situations this season for one of baseball’s surprise teams. He has walked just four and struck out 28 in 30.1 innings. At this pace, the St. Paul native will shatter the club record of 47 saves, set by Joe Nathan in 2009.