All 30 MLB teams have household names on their rosters. But all-star caliber players aren’t the only ones that make dramatic differences during the course of a 162-game season. Role-players often decide pennant races and later postseason games. Let’s dive into a player from every club who should be getting more love from the national audience.
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The Yankees traded their embattled starting catcher, Gary Sanchez, to Minnesota last winter, content to go into the season with lesser-known defense-first backstops. With that in mind, they acquired veteran Jose Trevino from Texas to split the catching duties with incumbent Kyle Higashioka. Trevino has outplayed Higashioka by a considerable margin, however, and he’s slowly taken over as the number one catcher on baseball’s best team. The 29-year-old has enjoyed the best offensive season of his career–he’s already set a new career-high in home runs and may surpass his previous RBI high by the all-star break.
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In less than two years right-hander Nick Pivetta has gone from being a castoff in Philadelphia to arguably the best starter on a surging Red Sox team with postseason aspirations. Right now Pivetta leads Boston in every major pitching category–ERA, WHIP, BAA, wins, strikeouts and innings pitched. The Red Sox started 2022 poorly but a strong June has them in wild-card position, and they’ll need Pivetta to continue pitching like this in the second half.
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Affable Alejandro Kirk had not been given the chance to be a number one catcher in the big leagues prior to 2022, and the big guy has really run with his opportunity. He’s currently hitting well over .300, reaching base at better than a .400 clip, and has already set new career highs in homers, RBI, and doubles. Similar to Boston the ‘Jays underachieved early this season, but they are a club with a seriously talented young core, and Kirk has firmly added his name to that mix.
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It’s truly incredible how almost every pitcher the Rays acquire seemingly instantly gets dramatically better. It’s a testament to Tampa Bay’s scouting department, player development, and analytics, and is further proof that this is arguably the smartest organization in our game. The latest example is Jeffrey Springs, a lefty who went from struggling Texas reliever to potential all-star starter in Tampa. After eight scoreless outings as a relief pitcher in 2022, the Rays inserted Springs into the rotation, and he’s thrived. In 10 starts he’s delivered a 2.72 ERA with 1.07 WHIP and 9.75 K/9.
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The Orioles took outfielder Austin Hays in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft, and he’s become a symbol of perseverance on this team. Touted as a heralded prospect ahead of his Major League debut in ’17, Hays struggled mightily and didn’t make it back to the big leagues until 2019. It took him a couple of years to assert himself as an unquestioned everyday player in Baltimore, but Hays broke out last year and is playing at an even higher level right now. He’s currently pacing the O’s in batting average, RBI, runs, doubles, SLG%, OPS, and hits.
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Young Andres Gimenez was one of the key pieces Cleveland brought back from the Mets in their blockbuster Francisco Lindor trade, and this season the 23-year-old is starting to take some of the sting out of that deal for Guardians fans. Thus far in 2022 Gimenez is hitting well over .300, has an OPS north of .850, and has already set new career highs in homers, RBI, doubles, runs, and hits. Cleveland is currently on an aggressive social media campaign to get him into the all-star game, an honor he would very much be deserving of.
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Righty Reynaldo Lopez came to the southside of Chicago in the same trade with Washington that netted the White Sox Lucas Giolito, and while he never really established himself as a starter for the Chi-Sox, his performance in relief in 2022 has been a different story. This season Lopez is pitching to the best ERA of his seven-year career and has become a dynamic multi-inning weapon for manager Tony LaRussa to call upon in the middle innings.
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Tigers closer Gregory Soto might be the best American League reliever that nobody has heard of. In his first 27 appearances in ’22, the hard-throwing southpaw has enjoyed the best campaign of his career, converting 13/15 saves, pitching to a 2.77 ERA, and holding the opposition to a .209 batting average. Detroit had hoped to take a serious step forward this season, but that has emphatically not happened. Teams will undoubtedly try to trade for Soto prior to the deadline, and the Tigers will have a decision to make.
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The rebuilding Royals currently find themselves buried in the AL Central’s basement, but luckily for them, that’s not a complete disaster. Kansas City’s season is going to be a success regardless of how they finish, thanks to the impressive development of top prospect and budding star Bobby Witt Jr. But another steady offensive player for them is not known well enough nationally. Versatile Hunter Dozier has played all four corner positions for the Royals in ’22 and is a dangerous middle of the line-up right-handed bat.
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Left-handed swinging Twins utility man Luis Arraez does not hit for virtually any power, but believe me, Minnesota doesn’t care. That’s because the one thing Arraez does do is consistently slash singles and get on base. He currently leads the Majors in batting average and on-base percentage. The 25-year-old is an integral reason the Twins have led the AL Central all year, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue hitting at this pace in the second half.
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The Angels are littered with big-name star power, and it’s continually baffling how a team with Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani can struggle to seriously compete. But LA’s offense is not just a two-man show. One player who has dramatically stayed under the radar for this team is left fielder Brandon Marsh–a former second-round pick of the organization who has developed into a productive piece. Marsh has already driven in over 30 runs and has come up with several clutch hits for this team in 2022.
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Despite losing a handful of key pieces over the winter, the Astros have proven in 2022 that they’re not going away anytime soon and remain a force to be reckoned with in the American League. A big reason why is that Houston currently boasts the best bullpen in the game, anchored by closer Ryan Pressly. Getting the ball to him has become the responsibility of right-hander Rafael Montero, who has become a dominant set-up man. Montero has pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA, held opponents to under a .200 batting average, struck out over a batter/inning, and has registered 11 holds. He’s even notched five saves.
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First baseman Ty France never got enough of a chance with the Padres, but evaluators always felt he would hit if he got an opportunity to play regularly. Saying France has proven that in Seattle would be an understatement. In ’21 the right-handed swinger slashed .291/.368/.445 with 18 homers and 73 RBI. He’s been even better in 2022. The 27-year-old is on pace to hit .316 with 25 homers and 100 RBI. His OBP is currently sitting just below .400 and his OPS is .866. This is a hitter that belongs in the midsummer classic, and if he is selected maybe he’ll finally get some recognition.
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Tampa Bay traded slugger Nate Lowe to the Rangers ahead of last season, and in Texas, he’s become one of the more dangerous left-handed hitters in the AL West. Through his first 243 at-bats this season Lowe has slashed .276/.323/444 with 10 homers, 30 RBI, and nine doubles. The Rangers have played better lately and are in reasonable striking distance to steal the final wild-card spot in the AL. A strong showing down the stretch from the powerful first baseman would go a long way towards making that dream a reality.
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Right-hander Paul Blackburn made 27 mostly ineffective starts for the A’s between ’17-’21, but 2022 has been a much different story. The Antioch, CA native has toed the rubber for Oakland 14 times this season and pitched to an impressive 2.97 ERA with a 1.18 WHIP. Blackburn pitches to soft contact and is not a strikeout pitcher–as evidenced by his low 6.54 K/9 rate. The A’s have already sold off most of their valuable assets, and while Frankie Montas will generate a lot of trade interest over the next few weeks, don’t overlook the impact Blackburn could have on the trading deadline.
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The Mets have become the best team in the National League in ’22, and they are not low on star power. Pete Alonso leads the NL in homers and RBI. Jeff McNeil is 3rd in the NL in batting average. Francisco Lindor is enjoying a tremendous 2nd season in Queens. But let’s talk about a player you should know about if you don’t already. Infielder Luis Guillorme is quite possibly the most gifted defensive infielder in the game, and the fact that he’s never been considered for a gold glove is due mostly to his lack of consistent playing time before this season. Manager Buck Showalter has made sure to get Guillorme consistent starts and at-bats this year and has been rewarded. The veteran is currently enjoying easily the best offensive season of his career and combined with his defensive prowess he’s become a key cog on this club.
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The Phillies are underachieving once again, but a significant bright spot for them has been their new backup catcher, Garrett Stubbs. The left-handed swinger has only registered 41 big league at-bats thus far, but he’s already crushed three homers–including a dramatic walk-off blast against Miami. Stubbs doesn’t get all that much playing time because of the presence of J.T. Realmuto but you have to give him credit for taking advantage of his opportunity.
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Seven years ago the Atlanta Braves signed William Contreras as an international free agent, and while he’s lived in the shadow of his older brother Willson for his entire career, the younger catching Contreras is starting to break out in 2022. Ronald Acuna’s early injury and the foot issue he’s dealing with as we speak forced regular DH Marcell Ozuna into the outfield, opening DH at-bats for Contreras who has taken advantage. In just 34 games in ’22, he’s already hit more homers and doubles than he had in 173 career at-bats coming into the season. A lifetime .280 hitter with power in the minor leagues, Contreras is only 24 years old, and Atlanta could have a long-term difference-maker on their hands.
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Along with catcher Keibert Ruiz, young righty Josiah Gray was one of the premium prospects the Dodgers sent to D.C. last winter when they landed all-stars Max Scherzer and Trea Turner for the stretch run. And while the first 27 starts of his career have had their share of ups and downs, Gray has shown serious upside that has folks in the nation’s capital thinking he can be a top of the rotation starter very shortly. The 24-year-old has pitched his best baseball recently. In four starts in June he’s worked to a 1.13 ERA with an 0.88 WHIP in 24 innings.
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Former Blue Jays’ 18th-round pick Jon Berti has played in over 800 minor league games, but he’s finally earned regular playing time with the Marlins and has taken full advantage. Berti doesn’t offer much in the power department, but he’s played five different positions for the Marlins in 2022 and slashed .298/.393/.426. Speed is his unquestioned best asset, as evidenced by his Major League-leading 21 stolen bases in only 43 games.
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The Cardinals are locked in an NL Central dogfight with Milwaukee that is likely to come down to the wire in September. If they’re going to come out on top their bullpen will have to be a big reason why, and there simply has not been a better relief pitcher in the sport in ’22 than their right-handed set-up man, Ryan Helsley. Through his first 23 appearances, the 27-year-old has pitched to an 0.31 ERA that looks like it should be a typo. Through 28.2 innings he’s allowed only 17 baserunners and struck out 39 hitters.
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It’s been a seriously disappointing season on the north side of Chicago, but that’s not to say the Cubs haven’t had any bright spots. Arguably the biggest one is the emergence of right-hander Keegan Thompson, a pitcher the team selected in the 3rd round in 2017. Thompson began the year in the Chicago bullpen before sliding into the rotation, and he’s excelled in each role. In 61 innings Thompson has pitched to a 3.10 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP while striking out a shade under a batter/inning.
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Unlike the Cubs, and unfortunately for the Pirates, there has not exactly been a standout bright spot on a struggling Pittsburgh team. But their best and most consistent starter has certainly been righty JT Brubaker who has taken the ball every 5th day and if nothing else provided innings while keeping the Bucs in the game. Six different times this season Brubaker has gone five or more innings and allowed two or fewer earned runs. In just his 3rd big league campaign Brubaker is obviously under team control for the foreseeable future, but it’s at least possible he could be on the radar of some teams looking to trade for a back of the rotation arm.
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Milwaukee picked outfielder Tyrone Taylor in the 2nd round out of high school ten years ago, and while they had to wait a long time, the Torrance, CA native is starting to reward them for believing in him. Taylor hit 12 homers in 243 at-bats last season, and his performance early in ’22 was enough to convince the Brewers to DFA struggling veteran Lorenzo Cain. He’s now firmly entrenched as a starter on this team, and Milwaukee hopes he can play an important role in their quest to capture the NL Central crown.
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Veteran Brandon Drury is not exactly an unknown name, but most baseball fans are probably unaware of the type of season he’s putting together for the Reds as we speak. Injuries had prevented the right-handed swinging infielder from playing anything resembling a full season in three of the last four years, but he’s reintroduced himself to big league pitchers in ’22. In 62 games for Cincinnati Drury has hit .272 with 15 homers. He signed with the Reds as a minor league free agent in March, and Cincinnati will certainly like to capitalize on his breakout at the trading deadline.
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The Dodgers have been the premier team in the National League for at least the last half dozen years. They’re loaded with incredible star power and household names, but one that not enough people probably know about is their 28-year-old right-hander Tony Gonsolin. Los Angeles’ ninth-round pick from the 2016 draft leads the Major Leagues in wins and ERA, and he’s probably the favorite to start the all-star game for the National League in his own ballpark.
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Wilmer Flores’ face was plastered on newspapers and tv screens everywhere when he was crying on the field after thinking he’d been traded seven years ago. That came when he was a member of the Mets and devastated at the thought of leaving the only organization he’d ever known. Flores ended up staying in New York four more years after that memorable day, and after a one-season pitstop in Arizona, he’s quietly become a very important piece on a good Giants team. San Francisco manager Gabe Kapler loves playing the match-ups and using his platoons, and Flores is an integral piece of his right-handed alignment.
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It wasn’t all that long ago that Jurickson Profar was the top-ranked prospect in the sport when he was coming up in the Texas organization. The switch-hitter didn’t really break through in Texas until his 5th season in ’18. He crushed 20 homers and registered 77 RBI that year, and the Rangers attempted to capitalize on him finally showcasing his full skillset by trading him to Oakland in a blockbuster three-team deal. After just one season with the Athletics though, Profar was traded down the coast to San Diego where he’s been able to quietly serve as a valuable role player on a good team with star power. This season the veteran has slashed .248/.347/.410 with 27 extra-base hits.
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Daulton Varsho is quite obviously the only big leaguer who evenly splits his time between catcher and center field, a level of versatility that is just unheard of in today’s game. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee product is in his first full big-league season and has quietly become an important part of the Diamondbacks’ offense. He’s already hit 10 homers, driven in 32 runs, and doubled 14 times. He’s even stolen four bases and thrown out six out of eighteen potential base stealers from behind the plate.
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Connor Joe was the 39th pick in the 2016 draft but after over 500 minor league games for four different organizations, his career was essentially spinning its wheels. Until he signed with his 5th team, the Colorado Rockies, who have given him a legitimate chance to play and watched him take advantage of the opportunity. Playing virtually every day for Colorado, Joe has slashed .278/.375/.399 with five homers, 11 doubles, and three triples. He leads the Rockies in steals, OBP, and walks, while predominately serving as the team’s leadoff hitter.
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