It's easy to focus on the superstar players, because they are the biggest difference-makers. However, pennants are often won (or lost) with the unheralded players who are in the process of making names for themselves. These “under-the-radar players” often turn into stars, solid everyday players or championship-caliber role-players. Here's a look at an under-the-radar player on each AL team. (For a look at the under-the-radar NL players, click here.)
Baltimore Orioles, Jim Johnson, RHP: The 28-year-old was the Orioles' fifth-round selection in the 2001 draft. He now has had parts of six years of experience in the major leagues with the Orioles, and this will be his third season in the last four with 50 or more appearances. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander has a fastball in the 93-95 mph range with a hard curveball and a changeup that could use more deception and less velocity. He gives the Orioles a good trade piece this offseason.
Boston Red Sox, Josh Reddick, RF: The Red Sox were evaluating the trade market to resolve the decline of right fielder J.D. Drew, when suddenly, rookie Josh Reddick claimed the position and ran with it. Most scouts knew he could play all three outfield positions, and the majority of evaluations concluded he would be a fourth outfielder on a championship team. However, Reddick, 24, had other plans. His strong and accurate arm in right field, along with his ability to run the ball down in the complex confines of Fenway Park’s right field, has solidified his everyday status. Reddick always had the tool package, and his .331/.377/542 slash line had Red Sox GM Theo Epstein putting his phone away at the deadline.
Chicago White Sox, Phil Humber, RHP: Humber was the New York Mets first-round selection (3rd overall) in the 2004 draft. After failing with the Mets, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins in the Johan Santana trade. He elected free agency after the 2009 season and has bounced around since. The White Sox claimed him on waivers this winter and have been rewarded with one of baseball's best surprises. Humber has a 3.56 ERA with an impressive 1.105 WHIP, the lowest of his career. His development allowed the White Sox to deal Edwin Jackson at the trade deadline in a three-way deal that landed much-needed bullpen help in Jason Frasor.
Cleveland Indians, Vinnie Pestano, RHP: Pestano, 26, is having his breakout season as an impact setup reliever for the contending Cleveland Indians. The right-hander from Cal State Fullerton has a 2.95 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings. His funky delivery and low arm angle are deceptive and nasty. His changeup has late sink fade action and his sinker gets the grounders when he’s not missing bats for punchouts. His arm speed out front is lightning fast and many scouts think he’ll eventually become a closer. He has phenomenal makeup and the trust of Indians skipper Manny Acta on a nightly basis.
Detroit Tigers, Al Alburquerque, RHP: The 25-year-old was originally signed by the Chicago Cubs as a non-drafted free agent out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic in July 2003, but never made an impact in Chicago. He was granted free agency in November of last year and signed with the Tigers at the recommendation of assistant GM Al Avila. Alburquerque has been an important part of the first-place Tigers' bullpen. The hard-throwing right-hander has an impressive 2.29 ERA with 55 strikeouts and just 18 hits against him in 35 1/3 innings pitched. His fastball plays in the 93-96 mph range, and he has a hard, downward, biting slider that misses bats.
Kansas City Royals, Johnny Giavotella, 2B: The Royals farm system has been so loaded with position-player prospects that Giavotella has gone under the radar. The 23-year-old was the Royals' second-round pick in the June 2008 draft out of the University of New Orleans. In four minor league seasons he’s hit .305/.375/.437. Tigers manager Jim Leyland complimented Giavotella this past weekend after observing him from the opposite dugout, telling the media, “He’s a very hard-nosed, tough-looking kid with a lot of energy … very impressive."
Los Angeles Angels, Peter Bourjos, CF: Bourjos, 24, has become the best defensive center fielder in the majors with more range than anyone in the game. Although he has held his own with a .266 average and .318 on-base percentage, the front office would like to see more ability to work counts and draw walks. When he does get on, his 15 stolen bases in 19 attempts speak for themselves. There are multiple general managers who are hoping that when phenom Mike Trout is major league-ready, the Angels put Bourjos on the trade market. However, the long-range plans from the Angels' front office are to find room for Trout and Bourjos in the same outfield.
Minnesota Twins, Glen Perkins, LHP: On a team with Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, it's somewhat surprising Perkins has been the best reliever, but that's the case. Perkins, 28, was the Twins first-round selection (22nd overall) in the 2004 draft. After back-to-back seasons with ERAs over 5.00, Perkins has figured it out. With an impressive ERA of 1.99 and a WHIP of 1.015, he’s clearly becoming one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball. His 92-94 mph fastball and hard slider have been devastating to left-handed hitters, who are hitting just .203 against him. Due to potential free agency for Nathan and Capps, Perkins just might become the Twins closer as early as 2012.
New York Yankees, Boone Logan, LHP: The Yankees were so concerned about the left side of the bullpen, they delved into free agency, signing lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano. The move backfired after a season-ending injury to Feliciano. In stepped Logan. The 26-year-old has made Feliciano's absence much easier to handle and provided the bridge to Dave Robertson and Mariano Rivera.
Oakland Athletics, Guillermo Moscoso, RHP: Moscoso, 27, was originally signed by the Tigers as a non-drafted free agent in 2003 out of Venezuela but didn't get a real chance in the big leagues until this year. With the A’s having to deal with multiple injuries, they gave him a chance ,and he has a respectable 3.69 ERA in 12 starts. Moscoso has a fastball in the low-to-mid-90s with deception and the ability to get in on right-handed hitters. His breaking ball and changeup have improved, and he has the potential to be a mid-rotation starter.
Seattle Mariners, Trayvon Robinson, OF: The Dodgers have struggled all season to find a solution in left field. They’ve tried Jay Gibbons, Trent Oeltjen, Tony Gwynn Jr., Marcus Thames, Juan Rivera and rookie Jerry Sands. They’re still searching. At the trade deadline, they traded Robinson in a three-way deal to the Seattle Mariners, even though the 23-year-old was hitting .293 with 26 homers for Triple-A Albuquerque. Most scouts agree with the Dodgers' assessment though, that his big holes at the plate and high strikeout ratio will prevent him from ever succeeding at the big league level. However, with his type of athleticism, quick twitch muscles and raw tools, he’s certainly an exciting player to keep watching just in case those holes get filled.
Tampa Bay Rays, Matt Moore LHP:, LHP: The only question surrounding Moore is why isn’t he in the major leagues, joining David Price and James Shields at the top of the Rays rotation. It might be because the Rays know how good he’s going to be and they want to delay arbitration and free agency. Moore is the best pitching prospect I’ve seen in the minor leagues this year. His delivery is deceptive, and his stuff is off the charts. Coming into the 2011 season, I projected him to be a No. 2 starter. I was wrong; he’ll end up as a No. 1. His mid-90s fastball has great downward plane and hitters don’t pick it up. He has a well-above-average curve ball that buckles the game’s best young hitters. His changeup is deceptive with great arm speed. The command has developed, but I can’t understand why he’s not pitching in Tampa. I chose to categorize him as “under the radar” knowing he’ll soon be in the same breath as CC Sabathia, David Price, Jon Lester and the other top left-handed starters in the American League.
Texas Rangers, Derek Holland, LHP: In case you missed the news from Arlington: Derek Holland has arrived. With three complete-game shutouts in July, the 24-year-old is finally reaching his potential. He is an impressive 4-0 since July 7 and is trying to put himself in position to pitch Game 4 of the playoffs if the Rangers make it. Holland has four pitches and a fastball in the low-to-mid-90s.
Toronto Blue Jays, Yunel Escobar, SS: The Blue Jays surprised baseball last July when they traded shortstops with the Braves, sending Alex Gonzalez to Atlanta. Escobar had no home runs at the time of the trade last July in 301 plate appearances. Attitude, indifference and inconsistency were part of the reasons the Braves gave up on him and wanted the more sure-handed defense of an older and wiser Gonzalez. Building for the future, the Blue Jays believed in the long run Escobar would be the better player. It took just a year for their vision to come to fruition. While Gonzalez struggles in Atlanta, Escobar, 28, is hitting .302/.381/.439 for the Blue Jays with 10 home runs. The Jays have him signed to a club-friendly contract of $5 million for the next two years with club options for the same amount in 2014 and 2015. He was a worthy investment for a solid average shortstop north of the border, and he's under the radar in the sense that he's playing a lot better than people realize.