Most can blend in like the everyman on the street. They are Major League Baseball players, but you probably won't even recognize them.
Many in this unique group aren’t even every day starters. But they have one thing in common: they are among the game’s most underrated and underappreciated players. With MLB expanding the playoffs in 2012, two more teams will play October baseball. Whether that becomes a reality for these five teams will largely depend on the performance of their key underrated players.
Los Angeles Dodgers (INF/OF Jerry Hairston Jr. and RHP Mike MacDougal)
He might be 35, but you wouldn’t know it watching Jerry Hairston Jr. play. In a March 30 spring training game, the new Dodger made not one, but two great diving catches. Brought up as a second baseman, Hairston Jr. learned to play the outfield in 2004 when Brian Roberts became the Orioles everyday second baseman.
Since then, Hairston Jr. has played here, there and everywhere — short, third, second, left, right and center — for seven different teams. And boy does he play. Hairston Jr. has suited up in nearly 120 games in each of the last three seasons. A year ago, he had a .348 on base percentage for the Brewers, playing center field, second base and third base.
“I’m not a bench guy. Bench guys play maybe once every 10 days. I play just about every day,” Hairston, now in his 15th MLB season, said proudly. “I pride myself on playing everywhere. It’s not a bad niche to have. It’s helped me have a long career.”
In recent years, Hairston has also been good karma. He helped the Brewers advance to the NLCS a year ago, and nearly got the Padres into the postseason in 2010. He credits former Cubs skipper and current Reds manager Dusty Baker with helping extend his career.
Another unsung Dodger is right-handed bullpen specialist Mike MacDougal. A former closer, MacDougal found his comfort zone in 2011, posting a 2.05 ERA over 57 innings for Don Mattingly’s club.
Toronto Blue Jays (SS Yunel Escobar and LHP Darren Oliver)
Ageless wonder Darren Oliver has been an MLB hurler so long that when he made his MLB debut nearly 20 years ago, the wild card didn’t even exist. Yet the lefty specialist, who will turn 42 this October, keeps on trucking thanks to carving out a living in the latter part of his career as quite the dependable reliever.
In 2011, the former starter recorded a 2.29 ERA, the lowest in his 18-year MLB career. Oliver is also on one heck of a playoff streak, having pitched in the postseason in each of the past six seasons, helping the Mets in 2006; the Angels from 2007-2009; and aiding the Rangers to consecutive World Series in 2010 and 2011.
After a disappointing debut in Toronto in 2010, Escobar had his best campaign in 2011 since his breakout rookie year in 2007 with Atlanta. The shortstop recorded a .369 on-base percentage in 2011 to go along with a .290 average, 11 HR and 48 RBI.
Atlanta Braves (LHP Eric O’Flaherty and RHP Jonny Venters)
If Chipper Jones’ final season in Hotlanta is going to include a postseason appearance, the Braves' key bullpen chips of O’Flaherty and Venters need repeats of their 2011 efforts. But it won’t be easy, especially for O’Flaherty who finally found his groove in his third season with the Braves a year ago, posting a mind-boggling 0.98 ERA over 73 innings. Venters’ 2011 was even better than his 2010 campaign, which was hard to top. For the second consecutive year, Venters recorded an ERA under 2.00, appearing in 85 games out of the Braves bullpen in 2011 with an impressive 1.84 ERA.
Kansas Royals (DH/1B Billy Butler and RHP Greg Holland)
Royals skipper Ned Yost calls Billy Butler “as smart of a hitter and as talented of a hitter that I’ve come across,” which is saying something since Yost played professionally for 14 years and has coached or managed for more than 20 seasons.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Quipped Yost: “He was born a pure hitter.”
With Joakim Soria shelved, 26-year-old Royal needs a big season out of the bullpen and is also highly-underrated. In 2011, Greg Holland posted an impressive 1.80 ERA across 60 innings in his first full season in the big leagues. With an outstanding curve ball and slider, Holland is one of the most underrated hurlers in the American League.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (INF Alberto Callaspo and LHP Scott Downs)
Everyone knows the Angels have star power in Albert Pujols and their starting pitching staff. But what may put the Halos over the top in 2012 are the contributions from the likes of lefty bullpen specialist Scott Downs and infielder Alberto Callaspo. At 36, Downs is coming off the best season of his career, posting a 1.34 ERA and a 6-3 mark in 53 innings of work. The switch-hitting Callaspo also had his best season a year ago, recording a .366 on-base percentage while playing in 141 games.
“(Callaspo’s) versatility comes on the offensive side because he can hit in such a variety of roles,” said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. “He can hit in a role with guys in scoring position, like the fifth or sixth spot, or he can hit atop the order in the two spot because he gets on base.”
Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online ballpark tour guide, “A Fan’s Guide To The Ultimate Ballpark Experience: Fully Loaded!” which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.
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