By Raimundo Ortiz (@AroundtheMundo)
The All-Star voting has been wonky this year with the Mid-summer Classic being held in Kansas City. In the event that some of these players you’re about to read about don’t make it, I want something to be written about these hugely important players. Each brings at least one skill indispensable to his club, and several bring much more.
The Next Big Thing–Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
This offseason the Dodgers put their eggs in the Joc Pederson basket when they traded away All-Star Matt Kemp, who socked 25 home runs last season, to a division rival. Kemp had reportedly ruffled feathers in the locker room, but 20+ home run hitters aren’t too plentiful in this new, cleaner era. The pressure was on Pederson.
He has passed every test with flying colors. Pederson has become a premier power hitter already, cracking 19 home runs in 305 plate appearances. He’s been a plus defender in the outfield, whereas Kemp was one of MLB’s worst and eventually had to be removed from center field. In fact, Pederson has a flair for the spectacular in the outfield, making 40 plays outside of his zone already, and completing 20 percent of his “remote” opportunities, defined by Fangraphs as plays with a 1-10 percent chance of being made.
Dodgers fans surely have forgotten Kemp by now, and Pederson has even moved Yasiel Puig aside as L.A.’s big deal. If Pederson’s this good already, his ceiling seems limitless.
The Stick–Stephen Vogt, C, Oakland A’s
During the 2015 A’s’ offseason makeover, Vogt was handed a full-time job. Previously he had been a potent platoon player, but in 71 games this year, vs. right-handers and southpaws, Vogt has been a beast. One of the A’s bright spots in this dim season thus far Vogt is slashing .304/.399/.545 with 13 home runs and 53 RBI.
He’s proven he can rake vs. left-handed pitching, batting .333 in 57 at-bats, but he remains death on conventional pitchers, socking 12 of his 13 blasts against them. Part of Vogt’s big season has been increased patience; he’s walking 14 percent of the time in 2015, up from 5.6 percent last year. His ground ball rate is up, but so is his line drive rate.
No catcher in 2015 has had as big an offensive impact as Vogt, and he’s been a neutral defender too. Vogt is quietly one of the sport’s most valuable players right now thanks to that production at such a hitting-starved position.
The Fireman–Dellin Betances, RP, New York Yankees
Betances was one of MLB’s most dominant relievers last season, partially because of the length he gave the Yankees when he pitched. David Robertson was there to close the door but he left this offseason–even though Betances was the obvious choice to become the closer, free agent left-hander Andrew Miller took the role.
Betances never sulked, and instead has been as dominant in 2015 as he was in 2014. He has continued to go more than one inning, and his ERA is lower this year than last, and his strikeout rate has increased. In just 37.1 innings of work Betances has set down 61 hitters, and with Miller on the DL Betances has finally claimed that closer role. He has five saves on the season, and whether he keeps the job upon Miller’s return or cedes it back, he’s currently the most dominant reliever in baseball.
The Complete Package–Lorenzo Cain, OF, Kansas City Royals
The Royals made the World Series last season largely on the strength of their bullpen, and a phenomenal defense. Lorenzo Cain has continued to shine in that outfield, posting a 9.9 defensive rating and making 57 plays outside his zone. He routinely makes impressive plays look easy, and almost impossible plays look merely tough.
But he ain’t all glove. Cain has stepped up his work at the plate and become one of the more dangerous all-around players in MLB. He’s reaching base at a near-.350 clip, batting .290, and he’s stolen 13 bags.
Cain’s added 3.6 runs of value as a baserunner, and is a positive at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths. It’s unrealistic to call him an MVP candidate, but Royals MVP isn’t far-fetched.
The Buccaneer–A.J. Burnett, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
This man won’t go away. After a brutal 2014 with the cellar-dwelling Philadelphia Phillies (8-18, 4.59 ERA) Burnett was expected to hang up his cleats. Instead, he decided to take another tour in Pittsburgh, and he’s once again formed a shockingly good 1-2 punch with Francisco Liriano.
Burnett is 6-3 with a 2.01 ERA–and it’s backed up by his 2.64 FIP. He’s whiffing 7.87 batters per nine innings, walking less than two-and-a-half hitters per nine, and keeping the ball in the park. Burnett has only allowed three home runs in 98.1 innings of action, and stranded 81.8 percent of baserunners. If the Buccos reach October, this may be the guy getting the ball in Game 1.