Low profile, but high impact

Johan Santana and Carl Pavano weren't All-Stars in '03, but both proved to be invaluable to their teams.

Originally Published: January 12, 2004
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

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 underappreciated, unnoticed players, without whom their teams wouldn't be the same.

Baseball's best-kept secrets
American League National League
ANAHEIM:
Ben Weber, RHP.


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 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.
ARIZONA:
Carlos Baerga, INF
.

Since flaming out with the New York Mets, Baerga has found a second career as a role player. In his first season with the Diamondbacks, Baerga hit .343 in limited duty, while compiling a .396 on-base percentage. He's also become a positive clubhouse presence, further increasing his value.
BALTIMORE:
Jay Gibbons, OF.


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 left-handed-hitting right fielder with grit and intensity.
ATLANTA:
Marcus Giles, 2B.


Other Braves may have posted better numbers, but Giles emerged as a complete player. Before last season, he had never played more than 68 games in a season. But he established himself as the Braves' everyday second baseman and showed surprising power (.526 slugging percentage). He may not even be the best player in his family -- but he's closing the gap on big brother Brian.
BOSTON:
Tim Wakefield, RHP.


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 to pitch out of the bullpen.
CHICAGO:
Kyle Farnsworth, RHP.


It's the Cubs rotation that (rightfully) impresses everyone. But quietly the bullpen was a big factor to the Cubs' reaching the NLCS. Apart from blue-collar closer Joe Borowski, the Cubs got valuable set-up innings from Farnsworth, who, in his fifth season, finally harnessed his considerable talent. Two numbers tell the story of his dominant stuff -- 92 strikeouts (in 76 innings pitched); and a .195 opponents batting average.
CHICAGO:
Kelly Wunsch, LHP.


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.
CINCINNATI:
Chris Reitsma, RHP.


A former high pick of the Red Sox who ran into arm problems, Reitsma was a versatile and useful member of an otherwise disappointing Cincinnati staff last year. He did everything from start (three games) to close (12 saves), with plenty of appearances in-between.
CLEVELAND: John McDonald, INF.

McDonald has spent parts of five seasons with the Indians but has yet to collect more than 264 at-bats in a single season. 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.
COLORADO:
Brian Fuentes, LHP.


Fuentes, who finished the season sharing closing duties, led the Rockies in appearances last season along with Javier Lopez. In 75-plus innings, Fuentes fanned 82 and allowed just 64 hits. What is surprising about the left-handed Fuentes was the fact he was tougher on right-handers (.227 opponents batting average) than lefties (.238).
DETROIT:
Eric Munson, 3B.


When a team celebrates narrowly avoiding becoming the losingest team in baseball history, you know there wasn't much about the 2003 Tigers to recommend. But Munson, a former No. 1 pick, managed to hit 18 homers in 313 at-bats and made a nice transition from first base to third. On a team almost completely devoid of hope, Munson at least offered some.
FLORIDA:
Carl Pavano, RHP.


Josh Beckett may have been the World Series star and Ugueth Urbina may have solidified the bullpen, but don't underestimate the impact made by Pavano, who won 12 games and was healthy enough -- at last -- to lead the staff in innings pitched. Who would have thought that when Pavano was dealt for Pedro Martinez that he -- and not Martinez -- would get to the World Series first.
KANSAS CITY:
Joe Randa, 3B.


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 3B, but he's a consistent and dependable contributor year after year.
HOUSTON:
Brad Ausmus, C.


Forget the .229 batting average and the paltry power output in a hitter's ballpark (18 extra base hits in 450 at-bats) -- Ausmus is the kind of player who can't be appreciated by a glimpse of the stat sheet. Much harder to measure -- though no less important -- is his effect on a mostly young pitching staff, his defensive tools and the intangibles he brings.
MINNESOTA:
Johan Santana, RHP.


At the start of '03, 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 season, 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.
LOS ANGELES:
Wilson Alvarez, LHP.


After busting out as a big-money, often-injured member of the Tampa Devil Rays, Alvarez resurrected his career with the Dodgers in the second half of last season. He appeared in 21 games, started 12 and fashioned a 2.37 ERA. The six-win total may have been modest, but that was six victories more than he had in the previous three seasons combined and more than anyone had the right to expect.
NEW YORK:
John Flaherty, C.


It may be an oxymoron to be a member of the New York Yankees and be anonymous, but Flaherty fits the bill. He 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, Flaherty 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.
MILWAUKEE:
Danny Kolb, RHP.


Bright spots were hand to find with the Brewers, who once again suffered through another losing season. But one of the pleasant surprises was the emergence of Kolb. Released by Texas, he was given the job of closer and converted 21 of 23 save opportunities in the second half of the season while averaging almost a strikeout per inning (39 in 41 innings pitched) and compiling a tiny 1.96 ERA.
OAKLAND:
Chad Bradford, RHP.


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.
MONTREAL:
Tomo Ohka, RHP.


Ohka took a step backward last year, dipping from a 13-8, 3.18 season in 2002 to 10-12, 4.16 last season. Still, pitchers who can win in double figures -- and do so at a modest price -- are always valuable, especially with the cost-conscious Expos.
SEATTLE:
Randy Winn, OF.


Destined to forever be remembered 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?
NEW YORK:
Jae-Weong Seo, RHP.


A lot went wrong for the Mets as they finished in last place, from the disappointing seasons of Tom Glavine to the injury suffered to Mike Piazza, but Seo was one of the few Mets who excelled. If the Mets are to make it back to contender status, they'll need to develop young pitching, and Seo showed he was worth watching, with nine wins and a respectable 3.82 ERA, second-best among New York pitchers who made more than 13 starts.
TAMPA BAY:
Victor Zambrano, RHP.


There's plenty of pitching work for Piniella still to accomplish. The Devil Rays led the league in walks, hit batsmen 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.
PHILADELPHIA:
Rheal Cormier, LHP.


Thanks to some tinkering by pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, Cormier resurrected his career and became one of the most effective left-handed relievers in the game at age 36. He didn't lose a decision all year and his 1.70 ERA speaks for itself, as does the .181 opponents batting average.
TORONTO:
Aquilino Lopez, RHP
.

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 the closer's spot, Lopez quietly led the team with 14 saves and his trick delivery made him tough on all hitters, who managed only a .212 average against him.
PITTSBURGH:
Jack Wilson, SS.


Wilson isn't spectacular in the field or at the plate, but he's the very embodiment of consistency, providing decent production (nine homers, 62 RBI) while adding solid defense in the middle of the infield.
TEXAS:
Michael Young, 2B
.

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.
ST. LOUIS:
Woody Williams, RHP.


In his 11th major-league season and with his third organization, Williams posted a career-best 18 wins at age 37. Few expected him to be the ace of the Cardinals staff, making it that much nicer when he emerged into exactly that role.
  SAN DIEGO:
Mark Loretta, 2B.


In a year in which the Padres barely avoided losing 100 games, Loretta was the team's best story. He set a franchise record for most hits by an infielder and was the team's most asked-about player at the trade deadline. After spending the last two seasons with three teams, Loretta is staying put as San Diego's second baseman.
  SAN FRANCISCO:
Pedro Feliz, 3B.


Feliz played first, third and the outfield for the Giants and made only three errors in 76 games. He supplied decent power off the bench, too, clubbing 16 homers in 235 at-bats.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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