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Monday, August 4, 2003
Updated: August 6, 9:50 AM ET
The List: Underrated current athletes

By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

They're the athletes we, as fans, don't think about as much as we should. They're better than we think they are. Or they've accomplished, over long careers, more than we've realized. These days, with so much information floating around, with fantasy leagues and big money riding on every game, nobody flies under the radar screen. So we can't say that any of these players are completely unappreciated, or unknown. But they are the most undervalued players in sports.

Ron Francis
Francis has been ripping apart opposing defenses since 1981.

1. Ron Francis, Carolina Hurricanes
The 40-year-old center will soon start his 23rd season in the NHL, but has spent all of it in small markets Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina, meaning he's gone largely unrecognized. In 1,651 games, he's scored 536 goals and assisted on 1,222 others, for a total of 1,758 points, fifth-highest all time. He's an ironman, playing 82 games last season and compiling an impressive 57 points. He won the Selke trophy in 1995, awarded to the best defensive forward. He won the Lady Byng three times.

A couple of other nuggets to chew on, next time you see Francis: He's No. 3 on the all-time games played list, only 20 players have scored more goals and he's No. 2 on the all-time assists list (only 741 behind Gretzky).

Francis is the NHL's "most underrated player of all time," said ESPN's Barry Melrose. Wrote Tom Jones of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "When the game's greatest players are discussed rarely does Francis' name come up. Maybe that's because Francis never brings it up."

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2. Jeff Bagwell, Houston Astros
Year after year, Bagwell puts up big numbers -- his worst season at the plate, his rookie year, he hit 15 homers and drove in 82, batting .294. He's had two 40 HR/30 SB years, displaying speed that few first basemen can boast. He's won a Gold Glove (in 1994) and an MVP Award. Bagwell is on his way to the Hall of Fame, one of the best first basemen of all time (Bill James has him at No. 4, just behind Mark McGwire and just ahead of Eddie Murray), and one of the greatest hitters of our era, despite playing his prime years in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome.

3. Craig Biggio, Houston Astros
"Craig Biggio is the best player in major league baseball today." That's from The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, copyright 2001. James compares Biggio to Ken Griffey Jr. (back when Junior was the man), makes a good case that Biggio is better and adds, for good measure, that Biggio is "tremendously underrated." We agree with James, even if the comparison to Junior doesn't carry the same weight as it did a couple of years ago.

Brad Johnson
Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks usually get all the attention ... but not Johnson.

4. Brad Johnson, Tampa Bay Bucs
Johnson had the highest passer rating in the NFC last season -- 92.9, and threw 22 TD passes, a Tampa Bay record. But he still got little notice on a team with lots of big names. It seemed his primary job as QB was, to put it bluntly, not to screw things up. "He is very underrated," Tampa Bay wide receiver Keenan McCardell said before the Super Bowl. "Brad is a guy that people say didn't have everything, but he just overachieved. A lot of people say the talent level has to be unbelievable, but when you're a hard worker and a playmaker, you can always play in this league."

And Johnson proved lots of doubters and naysayers wrong last season. He can play, and he made a huge difference for the Super Bowl champs. Perhaps it's because he's relatively quiet, or, as the Orange County Register put it, "Understated and underrated."

5. Matt Harpring, Utah Jazz
The 6'7" forward, picked up by the Jazz as a free agent, had a terrific season in 2002-03, averaging 17.6 ppg and shooting 51 percent from the floor, the eighth-best percentage in the league (he also hit 41 percent of his 3-pointers, seventh best). In just five seasons, Harpring has gone from Orlando to Cleveland to Philadelphia and now to Utah, where it looks like he'll stay a while. "He fits in great here," said John Stockton in the middle of last season. "He looks for ways, whatever they might be, to make us better. He just keeps battling. He's a tough competitor."

6. Doug Christie, Sacramento Kings
Christie doesn't score a lot of points (he averaged 9.4 in 2002-03, below his career average of 11.9), but he's key to every other part of Sacramento's game. He averaged 2.25 steals a game, fourth in the NBA. He dished 4.7 assists and pulled down 4.3 rebounds a game. And often, as he did in the first round of the playoffs last season, he shuts down the opponent's shooting guard.

Christie is "the key to Sacramento's pressure defense, is an effective three-point shooter and one of the league's best finishers on the break," wrote David DuPree in USA Today. "Yet, when anyone talks about the Kings, Christie's name isn't usually mentioned until after Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, Bobby Jackson, Jim Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu and Keon Clark."

7. Vernon Wells, Toronto Blue Jays
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The Blue Jays' center fielder, only 24, didn't make it into the All-Star starting lineup, even though he leads all AL outfielders in HR and RBIs. Last year, his first full season in the majors, he drove in 100 runs. "Wells, a bright, well-spoken son of a football-playing artist, has quietly become the most productive center fielder in the American League -- and is only getting better," wrote Alan Schwarz recently on ESPN.com.

8. Mike Brown, Chicago Bears
Brown, 25, begins his fourth pro season having scored few honors, but NFL head coaches still consider him one of the most underrated players in football. The Bears' safety has never been in a Pro Bowl, but means so much to Chicago's future that he just scored a six-year, $17 million deal, which included a $5 million signing bonus. "We feel from coaches to players and personnel, everyone is in agreement Mike is very much a catalyst for what we have done and what we want to do, and that's win football games," said Chicago GM Jerry Angelo said. "He's the quarterback on our defense, and we can't minimize what he brings to our team intangibly."

Brian Giles
Giles gets on base (.418 career OBP) and hits for power (35+ HRs the past four seasons).

9. Brian Giles, Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates' outfielder only seems to get publicity when his name is mentioned in trade talks. But he's been one of baseball's very best hitters for a long time now. For example, Bernie Williams is a great hitter, but Giles is better -- that's how great he is. Check out the last five years of OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage):
Giles          Williams
1.032   1999    .971
1.026   2000    .957
 .994   2001    .917
1.072   2002    .908
 .955   2003    .767

10. Jamal Mashburn, New Orleans Hornets
Mashburn, a 10-year NBA veteran, does it all -- he averaged 21.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game, and put in a lot of minutes -- more than 40 a game, eighth in the NBA. "I don't know why (Mashburn doesn't get more credit)," Hornets coach Paul Silas said last season. "I'm certainly going to start talking him up -- for the All-Star Game, the Olympic team and so forth. He makes everyone around him better and I think he belongs right up there with any guy that plays this game."

Silas' talking must have worked. Mashburn was named an All Star for the first time in 2003.