Can you name that player? MLB’s top underappreciated crew

Kansas City's Alcides Escobar was perfect in swiping 22 bases in 22 attempts last season.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

First, I have to say this game isn’t nearly as much fun as it used to be. When I started doing this sort of work, for the old Dumont Network back in the 1950s, you could just grab a ledger book, enter a bunch of walks and doubles for a bunch of guys, and … voilà! There’s your list of underappreciated, dare I say underrated, major-league players of baseball.

Well, it’s not so easy anymore. On-base percentage is almost perfectly valued by baseball executives, and the writers and broadcasters are bound to catch up soon. They’re figuring out the defense, too; 25 years ago, Ozzie Smith was among the sport’s highest-paid players. Today, thanks to “sabermetrics” and “the Internet,” anybody who cares is roughly three clicks away from finding the best baseball players, and if somebody doesn’t care … well, who cares?

Which is why I can’t even come up with an All-Underrated Team, one poor unappreciated soul for each position. Still, our pundits aren’t perfect. So I have come up with eight players who still somehow aren’t as famous as they should be …

Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays

AROUND THE HORN

Yes, yes, I know … among the cognoscenti, Zobrist’s talents have long been appreciated, and he’s drawn some Most Valuable Player support on three occasions. But he should have drawn more support! Zobrist finished eighth in the balloting in 2009, 16th in 2011, and 18th in 2012. But he should have fared far better every time. Zobrist continues to receive too little credit for not just playing multiple positions, but also playing multiple positions well.  So the next time you see Zobrist make a good play at second base, try to remember that he’s an accomplished outfielder, too. Which makes him one of the best players in the league, most years.

Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

What do you think about when you think about Jason Heyward? You might think about the spring of 2010, when Heyward was the story. You might think about the injuries that cost Heyward a fair amount of games in 2011, and even more in 2013. Or you might think about Heyward’s horrible postseason record: In nine games, he’s batted .154 (6 for 39) with 16 strikeouts and just one walk. … What’s missing from all that? Despite averaging only 133 games in his four seasons, Heyward’s hitting stats and defensive prowess have made him one of the more valuable players in the National League over that span. And considering he’s still just 24, the only thing between Heyward and a path to Cooperstown is a couple of 150-game seasons and maybe one big October moment.

Jose Molina, Tampa Bay Rays

No, the senior member of the Catching Molina Brothers is hardly a budding superstar. But the numbers suggest that there’s nobody better than Jose Molina when it comes to stealing the occasional strike. But exactly how does he do it? And can this rare and valuable skill be taught? That’s why you should watch Molina this season. But watch very closely, because this special skill might show up just two or three times per game.

Alcides Escobar, Kansas City Royals

Another specialist. Escobar is an awful hitter — his .293 batting average in 2012 probably is just a tempting mirage — but he does some other things exceptionally well. Escobar’s contributions begin with his outstanding work at shortstop, but he’s also one of the best and smartest baserunners in the majors; last season he stole 22 bases without being caught even once, and in 2012 he went 35 for 40.

Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers

Beltre, unappreciated? Yes, I think so. Once considered a one-hit wonder because of his devastating (but unsustainable) 48 homers in 2004, Beltre’s been a much better player in his 30s than he’d been during most of his 20s, and over the last four seasons has established himself as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. His once-brilliant defense seems to have slipped last season, and his hitting might be next. So it’s worth appreciating one of our all-time great third basemen while he’s still near the top of his game.

Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals

Now that I think about it, Desmond is probably the most underrated player in the majors. Yes, people know he’s good. But how many people know that Desmond’s been the best shortstop in the majors over the last two seasons … by a lot! Granted, if you’re starting a team you might choose Troy Tulowitzki or Hanley Ramirez or maybe even Andrelton Simmons as your shortstop … but it’s close. It’s real close. Over that span, Desmond leads all NL shortstops in homers and RBI and he’s among the NL’s best defenders. (Only one major-league shortstop, Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy, has more homers — just two — and none have more RBI in the last two years.) 

Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

Is Holland underrated? I don’t know. I do know that you hear a whole lot about Craig Kimbrel, but Holland’s right there with Kimbrel. By this measure, anyway. Sure, Holland pitched in the All-Star Game last year. But he probably needs to hit the big stage in October to take his rightful place among the game’s premier firemen.

Gerardo Parra, Arizona Diamondbacks

How underrated is Parra? Just two seasons ago, his own team demoted him to a part-time role. While he’s hardly a superstar and doesn’t hit much, Parra’s probably one of the greatest defensive outfielders on earth, and does more than enough to justify his place in the lineup. Granted, he did play regularly last season. But that’s hardly recompense for losing his job to Jason Kubel the season before. There aren’t nearly as many underrated players as there used to be. Teams are a lot smarter than they used to be. But they still make mistakes. Just ask Parra. Or his agent.