Every contending team has star players, but they also have those special players who often fly under the radar yet are indispensable to a team’s success during a playoff run. These stalwarts have intangibles that aren’t seen by the public, and with the focus mostly on stars, they often get overlooked, particularly outside their local market. It’s time to give them the recognition they deserve. As I’ve done for the past two seasons, I touched base with executives and managers across MLB to hear their thoughts on these key players. So, who is the most underrated, yet indispensable player on each (viable) postseason contender?
All statistics are from 2023 unless otherwise noted. WAR figures are according to Baseball Reference.
Baltimore Orioles: Anthony Santander, RF
The Orioles have the best record in the AL and are stacked with some of the best young players in baseball, from the sport’s best overall catcher (Adley Rutschman) to the front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year (Gunnar Henderson) to a recent member of the 30 homer–30 stolen-base club (center fielder Cedric Mullins) to the power bat of Ryan Mountcastle to future ace Grayson Rodriguez. However, one player who seems to fall under the radar is right fielder Anthony Santander, who has been the Orioles’ 3-hole hitter all season long and an important force in their clubhouse. Santander has slashed .250/.324/.473 (115 OPS+) with 29 doubles, 23 home runs and 67 RBIs. He’s been a 2.2-WAR player.
Mike Elias, general manager: “He is the glue on this team. He bats third every night.”
Texas Rangers: Dane Dunning, RHP
A first-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, Dane Dunning was one of three players traded by the Washington Nationals to the Chicago White Sox that December for outfielder Adam Eaton. Four years later, the White Sox dealt him to the Texas Rangers for right-hander Lance Lynn. Dunning made 61 starts over his first three seasons in the major leagues (2020-22) and posted a 4.48 ERA. However, this year manager Bruce Bochy put him in the bullpen to start the season for the first time in his career. He was stellar in eight relief appearances as Bochy used him in a variety of roles. When Jacob deGrom was placed on the injured list about a month into the season, Bochy moved Dunning to the rotation and in that role, the righty has allowed three runs or fewer in 16 of his 19 starts. On the season, he is 9-5 with a 3.19 ERA, 1.161 WHIP, and 3.0 WAR. He’s clearly the most underrated indispensable player on this team.
Bochy: “He started the season as a reliever, and he provided not only important bulk innings and multi-innings but succeeded in high-leverage situations as well. When he replaced (deGrom) in the rotation, he not only put up great numbers but also delivered one quality start after another.”
Minnesota Twins: Donovan Solano, INF
The “underrated/indispensable” label fits several Twins position players this season, from infielder-outfielder Willi Castro to outfielder Michael A. Taylor to infielder Kyle Farmer; all three have been key for the first-place Twins. However, the player mentioned the most by those with the club was Donovan Solano, who has played 62 games at first base, 17 at second base, 12 at third base and even DH’d 11 times while slashing .280/.369/.397 with 23 doubles, 32 runs scored and 26 RBIs. He gets rave reviews in the clubhouse from the players and coaches for his work ethic and being such a great teammate on and off the field. His ability to get on base and his versatility are his best assets.
Rocco Baldelli, manager: “Donovan gives you the definition of a professional at-bat. He squares the ball up and consistently finds his way on base. The more we’ve asked him for, the more he’s given us. And he fits the mold along with many others on our club of being an excellent teammate and worker.”
Tampa Bay Rays: Isaac Paredes, 3B
The Rays traded outfielder Austin Meadows to the Detroit Tigers for infielder Isaac Paredes in April 2022 and were immediately criticized by many fans, media members and even some people in the industry. But as usual, the Rays knew what they were doing, which was making one of the more lopsided trades in franchise history. Paredes doesn’t have the flash of Randy Arozarena, nor the story of Yandy Díaz and his emerging power. However, what Paredes does have is valuable: He delivers a consistent blue-collar performance night after night. What separates him is his ability to hit the best pitchers in the league and pitchers’ best pitches. Paredes is slashing .257/.358/.508 and has posted a 137 OPS+. He has set career-highs in doubles (20), home runs (25) and RBIs (79) during his breakout, 3.6-WAR campaign.
Kevin Cash, manager: “Paredes has sat in the middle of the lineup, producing runs all season. He handles top-end pitching very quietly but very well.”
Houston Astros: J.P. France, RHP
The Astros have dealt with a slew of injuries to their rotation this year, including losing Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia to season-ending surgeries. However, they’ve been able to stay in the pennant race thanks to a pair of rookie starters, Hunter Brown and J.P. France. Most of us expected Brown to be this good after watching him in the postseason last fall; however, none of us knew France would be this good this soon. He is 9-4 with a 2.75 ERA and 1.213 WHIP in 18 appearances (17 starts), good for 2.7 WAR.
Dana Brown, general manager: “Quality human being! Big-time competitor with quality stuff. Sneaky fastball that he commands and a good changeup. Solid ‘get me over’ curveball and good slider that can finish off hitters.”
Seattle Mariners: Justin Topa, RHP
The Mariners have one of the best pitching staffs top to bottom in the AL and many of us rave about their rotation (Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo) and the back end of their bullpen (Matt Brash and Andrés Muñoz). However, one pitcher who seems to get overlooked is Justin Topa. He has been brilliant this season, posting a 2.16 ERA in 57 appearances. The 32-year-old ranks in the 97th percentile in barrel% and the 95th percentile in xERA/xwOBA.
Jerry Dipoto, president of baseball operations: “Justin has been huge for us. I’m not sure many in or around baseball are aware of just how good he’s been, but we certainly are.”
Toronto Blue Jays: Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
In Yusei Kikuchi’s first four years in the majors (90 starts, 11 relief appearances), he never won more than eight games nor had an ERA under 4.41. Last season, he went 6-7 with a 5.19 ERA. This year, he’s gone 9-4 with a 3.52 ERA in 25 starts, striking out 138 and walking 36 in 133 innings. The key has been his ability to manipulate his four-pitch mix, adding and subtracting and vastly improving his command in and out of the strike zone. His walks have dipped dramatically, from an average of 5.2 per nine innings last year to a career-best 2.4 this year. Recently, he’s been dominant — he’s allowed one run or fewer in five of his past six starts.
Ross Atkins, general manager: “From day one of spring training, we believed (his work) this past offseason was going to pay off. Yusei has been phenomenal with his aggressiveness and strike-throwing coupled with the development of his curveball. He’s become a huge part of our rotation’s success this year and a force in the league since the All-Star break.”
Boston Red Sox: Connor Wong, C
Connor Wong has been a key to Boston’s surprising contending season thanks to the faith the Red Sox pitching staff has put in his game preparation and calling. His pop time to second base is in the 83rd percentile and his sprint speed is in the 75th percentile. He’s thrown out 25 percent of the runners trying to steal on him (league average is 21 percent). He doesn’t grade well on framing, but he makes up for it with the fingers he puts down.
Offensively, his maximum exit velocity is in the 88th percentile and his barrel% is above average (53rd percentile). Wong has batted .240/.292/.394 with 22 doubles, seven home runs, 29 RBIs and five stolen bases. He has been worth 1.9 WAR but provided even more value. His intangibles have really helped Boston’s pitching room.
Brian O’Halloran, general manager: “In his first full big-league season, Connor has been a reliable contributor on both sides of the ball, carrying a heavy workload behind the plate. He puts the pitcher first, controls the running game and continues to improve defensively. He’s also had some big hits for us.”
Atlanta Braves: Travis d’Arnaud, C
Travis d’Arnaud was the starting catcher for the Braves in every postseason inning in 2021 when they won a world championship. He lost his starting job this past offseason when Atlanta traded for Sean Murphy, one of the best overall catchers in the game. D’Arnaud never complained and embraced his role as part-time catcher, part-time designated hitter, part-time pinch hitter and full-time leader. He proved that he’s about winning more than anything else. Instead of waiting to become a free agent in the offseason and signing with a team where he’d be the starter, in July he agreed to a contract extension through 2024 with a club option for 2025. Everyone in the Braves’ clubhouse knows he’s the most indispensable player in their organization. He’s instrumental in game-planning, calling, overall team strategies and, most importantly, player leadership.
Alex Anthopoulos, president of baseball operations: “He’s the glue to the team who connects with every player, coach and staff member.”
Los Angeles Dodgers: David Peralta, LF
The Dodgers are so loaded with star players — from Freddie Freeman to Mookie Betts to Will Smith to Clayton Kershaw — but they also have a bunch of under-the-radar indispensable players, from the power of Max Muncy and the versatility of Chris Taylor to the defense of Jason Heyward. However, in talking with members of the Dodgers organization, the one name that keeps popping up is veteran outfielder David Peralta.
The 36-year-old’s best years are behind him, but the former Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award winner is still producing on the field as well as in the dugout and clubhouse. He’s hitting a respectable .271 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs in 327 plate appearances, but it’s the little things he does to win games — such as situational hitting, smart base running and fundamental defense — that have stood out the most. Everyone talks about what a great teammate he is.
Brandon Gomes, general manager: “What David Peralta brings to the table as far as attention to detail, energy in dugout, performing at a high level all around but especially when it comes to situational hitting probably gets masked by some by other big names we have in our lineup. He’s an A+ person and teammate and ‘the grinder mentality’ permeates everyone he’s around.”
Milwaukee Brewers: Sal Frelick, OF
A first-round pick in the 2021 draft out of Boston College, Sal Frelick reached the majors in only two years. Injuries to the Brewers’ outfielders contributed to that fast rise, but Frelick looks like he’s here to stay after an impressive start to his big-league career, reaching base at a .388 clip with an .809 OPS and three homers and 16 RBIs in his first 26 games (98 plate appearances). He is 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts and ranks in the 90th percentile in sprint speed. He has won games with his outfield range and ability to make diving plays. He grinds his at-bats, walking more than he strikes out. He has made quite a first impression.
Matt Arnold, general manager: “Since making his major-league debut in July, Sal has added an undeniable energy both offensively and defensively, and he will continue to play a huge role for us down the stretch.”
Philadelphia Phillies: Bryson Stott, 2B
A first-round pick in the 2019 draft out of UNLV, Bryson Stott quickly moved through the Phillies farm system quickly and became a big-league starter in just three years. Last season as a rookie, he rebounded from a slow start to finish with a .234/.295/.358 slash line with 10 home runs and 12 steals while playing adequately at shortstop. In the offseason, the Phillies wrote Trea Turner a check for $300 million and told Stott he was moving to second base. Stott embraced the new full-time position and got to work with infield coach Bobby Dickerson. In addition, he worked with hitting coach Kevin Long to improve his offensive game.
The results have been impressive. Stott has slashed .297/.344/.441 with 27 doubles and 12 home runs while stealing 24 bases in 26 attempts and playing above-average defense at second base. He might not have made the All-Star team this year but he’s certainly played like one, producing 4.2 WAR. His competitiveness, grit and passion are contagious, too.
Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations: “Stott has become a quality major-league player, although not that well known because of all our big-name players. He has become an above-average second baseman with speed. In addition, he’s a good major-league hitter that makes contact and can work the count. He is a gamer.”
Chicago Cubs: Yan Gomes, C
The surging Cubs have been led by veteran position players such as Cody Bellinger and shortstop Dansby Swanson, while Justin Steele has been a Cy Young Award candidate. Christopher Morel has been one of their most exciting players to watch, so much so that you can’t even go get a Chicago dog behind home plate in between innings if he’s due up. However, one Cubs player whom no one about talks is Yan Gomes — that is unless you talk with the manager, coaching staff or front office, who all point to the veteran catcher as their most underrated player. His ability to handle a pitching staff, from preparation to execution, is special; his ability to communicate and motivate are notable; his leadership and mentorship skills are obvious. Gomes has slashed .273/.314/.434 with 15 doubles, nine home runs and 45 RBIs over 286 at-bats. His intangibles, however, are off the charts.
Carter Hawkins, general manager: “Gomes makes the pitching staff and everyone around him better and he’s like having a second coach in the dugout.”
Arizona Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte, 2B
Ketel Marte’s best year was in 2019, when he hit .329 with 32 home runs, 92 RBIs and 10 steals as he made his first All-Star team and finished fourth in NL MVP voting. However, over the next three years, he never hit more than 14 home runs in a season and his on-base percentage dipped to .321 in 2022. This year has been a much different story, as he’s slashing .273/.353/.476 with 19 doubles, a league-leading seven triples, 20 home runs and 63 RBIs. He’s been consistent at home and on the road, as well as against righties and lefties. His spark, enthusiasm and leadership have been felt by his teammates.
Mike Hazen, general manager: “He ties our whole lineup together by the way he can attack right- and left-handed pitchers.”
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Cincinnati Reds: Will Benson, RF/LF
A first-round pick by Cleveland in 2016, Will Benson was dealt to Cincinnati this past February for Justin Boyd and Steve Hajjar in a lopsided deal for the Reds. The Guardians gave Benson only 55 at-bats in the big leagues last year before deciding to move on. The Reds are glad they did, as he has slashed .281/.381/.498 with 11 doubles, six triples and seven home runs in 236 plate appearances. He has 14 steals in 16 attempts. He has played solid defense in both outfielder corners, including four assists and no errors. Of note, his sprint speed ranks in the 90th percentile and he’s impressed with his ability to take borderline pitches.
Nick Krall, general manager: “He has been a huge boost to our club since coming back from Triple A (in late May). He takes quality at-bats and plays excellent defense.”
San Francisco Giants: Wilmer Flores, 1B, 2B, 3B, DH
Wilmer Flores has played all over the infield for the Giants, making all the routine plays while putting up productive numbers at the plate as he’s slashed .304/. 365/.545 with 19 doubles, 18 home runs and 46 RBIs in 337 plate appearances. He’s been especially dominant against left-handed pitching with a .341/.387/.579 slash line against them. He’s been extremely consistent, hitting .344 in June, .383 in July and .328 in August. His offensive production and defensive versatility don’t get talked about enough around the league. He’s been a huge key to the Giants’ success.
Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations: “He’s been hot since June 1 and even though he didn’t get All-Star consideration, he’s having an All-Star-caliber season.”
Miami Marlins: Tanner Scott, LHP
When you think of the Marlins you immediately think about their strong young starting pitchers like Sandy Alcantara, Eury Pérez and Jesús Luzardo or you think about the athleticism of Jazz Chisholm Jr. and Bryan De La Cruz or the power of Jorge Soler, Jake Burger and Josh Bell. However, right after that you focus on all their one-run and extra-inning victories, and you look at their bullpen and left-handed reliever Tanner Scott, who has been the biggest difference-maker.
A sixth-round pick of the Orioles in 2014, Scott was traded to the Marlins in April 2022 with Cole Sulser for three minor leaguers. It was one of those stealth trades that is largely forgotten unless someone emerges like Scott has this year. Scott has made 56 appearances, posting a 2.64 ERA and 1.103 WHIP with 82 strikeouts in 58 innings. He’s been worth 2.1 WAR. His fastball is 96 to 98 mph and he has a wipeout power slider that arrives at 89-91 mph and has produced a .179 batting average against.
Skip Schumaker, manager: “Tanner Scott has been our Josh Hader. Only throw him in high-leverage, meat-of-the-order spots. Righty, lefty, doesn’t matter.”
(Top image photos: Alika Jenner / Getty Images; Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today; Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)