Low profile, but high impact
Johan Santana, Ben Weber and Michael Young are among the league's most under-appreciated players.
It's nice to have All-Stars at every position, but then, not everybody can be -- or spend like -- the Yankees and Red Sox. As the last two World Series champs have taught us, you can win a lot of games (and titles) with lesser-known, lower-profile players.
The superstars may get the big salaries and bigger headlines, but there are plenty of players sprinkled throughout the game who are plenty valuable to their respective teams --without getting the attention or the attendance big dollars.
As the new year kicks off, a look at baseball's under-appreciated, unnoticed players, without whom their teams wouldn't be the same.
ANAHEIM: Ben Weber.
Everyone knows about the Angels' terrific tag team of Brendan Donnelly and Troy Percival at the back end of the bullpen. But lost in their shadow is Ben Weber, who is a combined 18-5 over the last three seasons.
Weber is durable -- averaging just over 60 appearances in the last three seasons. In two of the last three years, he's compiled ERAs under 2.70.
BALTIMORE: Jay Gibbons.
With three years of major-league service, Gibbons continues to show improvement, improving his RBI total from 36 in 2001 to 69 in 2002 to 100 last season.
He's also grown in the outfield and reminds some of Boston's Trot Nixon -- another lefthanded-hitting right fielder with grit and intensity.
BOSTON: Tim Wakefield.
Wakefield threw the last pitch of the 2003 Red Sox season, but his value is almost impossible to calculate. Since joining the Red Sox, he's reached double figures in either wins or saves in seven of his nine seasons.
Though almost exclusively a starter now, he retains the flexibility the pitch out of the bullpen.
CHICAGO: Kelly Wunsch.
After injury-plagued seasons in 2001 and 2002, Wunsch regained his health and form in 2003. Wunsch pitched in 42 games and held opponents to a paltry .139 batting average while averaging nearly a strikeout per inning. Now that Tom Gordon has gone and Billy Koch may follow him, look for the White Sox to give Wunsch a bigger bullpen role in 2004.
CLEVELAND: John McDonald.
McDonald has spent parts of five seasons with the Indians has yet to collect more than 264 at-bats in a single season. But he's a valuable bench player with superb defensive instincts.
If McDonald had a stronger bat, he could play shortstop for any number of teams. As it is, he's a plenty useful spare part.
DETROIT: Eric Munson.
When a team celebrates narrowly avoiding becoming the losingest team in baseball history, you know there wasn't much to recommend about the 2003 Tigers.
But Munson, a former No. 1 pick, managed to hit 18 homers in 313 at-bats and made a nice transition from third base to first. On a team nearly completely devoid of hope, Munson at least offered some.
KANSAS CITY: Joe Randa.
For the first time in his five years as the Royals' third baseman, Randa failed to play at least 151 games. Bur he still managed to hit .291 -- slightly above his career average of .285 and reach double figures in homers (16). Were it not for some injuries, Randa surely would have topped the 80-RBI mark for the fifth straight season.
He'll never replace George Brett as the Royals' all-time third baseman, but he's a consistent and dependable contributor year after year.
MINNESOTA: Johan Santana.
At the start of the year, the Twins had a deep rotation (Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Joe Mays, Rick Reed) and a top duo at the back end of the bullpen (Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins). But by the final month of the year, Santana was both the most versatile and dominant pitcher on the staff.
Pitching in relief for much of the first half, Santana was 11-2 with a 2.86 ERA after moving into the rotation, then beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the ALDS.
NEW YORK: John Flaherty.
It may be an oxymoron to be a member of the New York Yankees and be anonymous, but Flaherty fits the bill.
Flaherty has 12 years in the big leagues and has made himself into the consummate backup receiver. He appeared in 40 games, hit well enough (.267) and had the trust of the veteran pitching staff. More to the point, he was good enough to pay once a week and allow No. 1 catcher Jorge Posada to get some much-needed rest, which surely contributed to the latter's best season.
OAKLAND: Chad Bradford.
The closers keep changing in Oakland -- Arthur Rhodes will be the fourth in four seasons -- but the righty set-up man, Bradford, remains the same.
The submariner has established himself as a horse (147 appearances over the last two seasons) while limiting opposing hitters to a .235 batting average.
SEATTLE: Randy Winn.
Destined to forever be remember as the only compensation the Mariners received for losing Lou Piniella, Winn filled a gap in left field that had existed since Ken Griffey Jr.'s major-league debut.
He reached 75 RBI for the second straight year, set a career high with 103 runs scored and had a respectable .345 on-base percentage. What's not to like?
TAMPA BAY: Victor Zambrano.
There's plenty of pitching work for Piniella still to accomplish. The Devil Rays led the league in walks, hit batsman and wild pitches, so control was an issue.
Zambrano wasn't exempt, leading the league in walks. But without much support, Zambrano managed to win 12 games while leading the staff in innings pitched, games started and strikeouts.
TORONTO: Aquilino Lopez.
A Rule 5 pick from Seattle, Lopez not only remained on the roster all season, but thrived. With the Jays experimenting -- out of necessity and injury -- with their closer's spot, Lopez quietly led the team with 14 saves and his trick delivery made his tough on all hitters, who managed just a .212 average against him.
TEXAS: Michael Young.
Understandably dwarfed by his double-play partner and overshadowed by the young players on either side of him in the Texas infield (Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock), Young nonetheless hit .306 and is the consensus choice as the best defender at his position in the league. Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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