Once upon a time, major league baseball was a cultural force, and was one of the most popular sports in the world. There were countless storylines, marquee players, and entertainment a fan could count on, game after game. One of the best times for the sport came just after the turn of the 21st century, before the steroid allegations and lawsuits really got out of control. Professional baseball rode this time of success for a little more than a decade following the year 2000, before the league really began to observe plummeting ratings on an annual basis. It was a great time to watch, because of the influx of new stars at the time.
Some of those stars stuck around for a long time in the sport, and others merely had a one-off season or two, before regressing back into anonymity. Either way, there have been a ton of entertaining MLB players over the past 15 years or so, and it's worth remembering at least a few of them who were making headlines at the time. With that, we can remember a time when baseball was enjoying some of its peak years in terms of athletic relevance, and was must-watch television for the entire season.
Ranked below are the top 15 forgotten MLB players of the 21st Century.
15 Juan Pierre
While Pierre may have morphed into a mere journeyman player later in his career, when he made his debut in the early-2000s, many fans and analysts were in awe of his blazing speed, and slap hitting abilities. Pierre was a contact hitter of the highest order, and the epitome of what a leadoff hitter should be in MLB. His best years were spent on the Marlins and the Rockies for the beginning of his career, and he was consistently a .300 hitter, who would lead the team in hits and at-bats year after year. Eventually, he did level off as the years wore on, but he was one of the most entertaining players to watch in his heyday, and Pierre should be remembered as one of the best pure hitters of his era. He served as a nice counterpoint to the bevy of home run hitters in the game at the time.
14 Wilson Betemit
It seems ridiculous to say it now, but there was a time when Betemit was considered one of the top prospects in baseball, and was figured to be the Braves' long-term shortstop of the future. That never did materialize, however, and Betemit spent the majority of his time in the majors hopping from team to team, after he fizzled out in Atlanta early in his career. To his credit, he did sustain a long career, and along the way played for many different franchises before his retirement in 2013. But he was never really elite at any one thing, which pretty much slotted him in as a utility player most of the time. Maybe it's a stretch to call him an outright bust, but he definitely didn't live up to the expectations that the baseball world had him when he was a young prospect in Atlanta.
13 Torii Hunter
Hunter was one of the best centerfielders in baseball during his long span with the Twins, and also one of the most entertaining fielders of his era. He flashed web gems on seemingly a daily basis for a long stretch of time, consistently being featured on highlight reels throughout every season. Through his defensive prowess, his offensive capabilities were usually underrated, and Hunter could get it done with the bat as well as the glove. He ended up retiring in 2015, back with the Twins where his career started, after several seasons in Los Angeles and Detroit. Without a doubt, Hunter is one of the best players of his time, and provided Gold Glove-caliber plays in most of the games that he played in. He was one of the best players in the history of the Twins as well.
12 Orlando Hernandez
Known as the pitcher with one of the most funky deliveries in all of baseball, Hernandez's windup was downright ridiculous when the public first had the chance to see it. It's debatable how good of a pitcher he actually was, but most of the time he proved to be at least worthy of maintaining a spot in the starting rotation. His best years were spent with the Yankees, where he found some success in the postseason, and held down the fort for the offense to take hold. From there he bounced around the league a bit, with the always entertaining windup being his calling card throughout the years. Hernandez may not have been a Hall Of Fame-caliber talent, but he was one of the most distinctive players of his era.
11 Luis Gonzalez
Gonzalez is a true rags-to-riches story in baseball if there ever was one. He was largely a mediocre hitter for a variety of teams in the '90s, before he got to Arizona and became one of the best hitters in the league for the Diamondbacks. In 2001, he led the World Series-winning team in the batter's box, and was one of the most feared bats in the game at the time. Gonzalez would thrive in Arizona for several more seasons, before his numbers decreased slightly prior to his retirement in 2008. In all, he was one of the most surprising comeback players of the time, improving mightily upon the so-so play that he exhibited in the early portion of his career. Gonzalez was able to become one of the most important players on a World Series winner, proving that it's never too late to turn a career around.
10 Scott Rolen
When Rolen debuted with the Phillies in the late-'90s, he quickly established himself as one of the best third-basemen in the game, and his ceiling seemed limitless. Instead, he became a "good" not "great" player that had stints with multiple teams, never truly finding the right spot to flourish in. There's no doubt that Rolen could play great defense, but he was up-and-down with the bat during his career, never making the full impact that many thought he could. Not to mention, there were times where he could have a passive-aggressive demeanor that hurt him from a PR standpoint, and severed ties with some of the teams that he played for. Rolen is one of the more interesting players of his time, but never fully lived up to his potential.
9 Todd Helton
At his best, Helton could be considered a top-five hitter in baseball, and perhaps even the best in the game at one point. He played his entire career for the Rockies, making him one of the rare examples who never switched teams later in their career. While his numbers may have dipped as the years went on, for a stretch he was one of the most elite hitters to ever put on a uniform, and frankly he deserves more credit in the modern day for his accomplishments. It seems like Helton was more or less forgotten after he retired, and that's really a shame, because he's one of the best players of his generation by any standard. Maybe it had to do with playing in Colorado, which isn't the biggest baseball market, but even so, Helton should be recognized as the phenomenal hitter that he was.
8 Rick Ankiel
Ankiel is infamous for being the pitcher that threw multiple wild pitches in one inning. His control was so terrible, that he had to convert to the outfield to salvage his career. Amazingly, he was able to do so, and Ankiel was an outfielder for numerous MLB teams, most notably the Cardinals, who had housed him when he was a pitcher who couldn't find the strike zone. Indeed, he was suited for it since he did have a great arm, but never could muster up the mechanics necessary to pitch consistently in the majors. He moved on to bevy of other teams, but all in all Ankiel carved out a substantial career for himself, and proved he could excel at the pro level.
7 Barry Zito
As far as MLB pitchers who have on distinctive pitch that sets them apart from the rest, Zito's 12-to-6 curveball would have to be at the top of the list. He didn't have a great power fastball or devastating changeup, but his curveball at its peak had the ability to freeze hitters every time he took the mound. Zito was able to ride that one pitch to many successful seasons with the Athletics and the Giants. Time and time again, he would drop the hook on an unsuspecting hitter for a strikeout, and it was one of the most entertaining single pitches the game had ever seen. It's debatable whether or not Zito is a Hall Of Fame player, but he was a very good starter in the big leagues for many years, and deserves to be recognized as one of the most entertaining hurlers of his time.
6 Alfonso Soriano
The hype train that followed Soriano early in his career with the Yankees was off the rails. He was one of the most anticipated players of his era, and playing in New York obviously gave him way more attention than he would have had otherwise. Soriano had great power at the plate, and was able to play both infield and outfield positions during his lengthy career. While he never became the Yankee great that some had predicted he would be, he found successful stints with numerous other teams, including the Cubs for a long stretch of time. He was a solid all-around player, and was reliable at the plate for most of his career. Soriano was a great player at his prime, and good overall.
5 David Eckstein
While his flame burned out relatively quickly, Eckstein was a member of the 2002 Angels team that made the World Series. He was quickly recognized as a player that never thought twice of giving maximum effort. He would run out surefire ground-ball outs, and his slap hitting style made him a hit with the baseball world for a short period of time. He wasn't the most talented player of his era, but he did have a great '02 season that helped Anaheim get to a World Series. He would spend the rest of his career relatively anonymously, but for that one season he received plenty of attention, and deservedly so. One of the more interesting "one-off" type players of his era.
4 Eric Gagne
Gagne only really had three solid seasons in his decade-long career, but they were truly some of the best ever by a closer in MLB history. He was a nationwide phenomenon when this run was going on, and one of the most popular players in the sport. It was predicted that he would be able to dominate the sport for years to come, a la Mariano Riviera did out of the bullpen for the Yankees, but that never did come to fruition. Gagne fizzled out very quickly after his astounding 2003 season where he was at the peak of his game. He became a journeyman talent, never living up to those best seasons before he retired after the 2008 campaign. He was one of the biggest "what if?" stories in MLB history, as Gagne fell off hard after some initial success.
3 Dontrelle Willis
Catching fire with the Marlins early in his career, Willis was one of the most popular pitchers in all of baseball. His funky delivery and infectious personality made him in an instant star. It didn't hurt that this was coupled with a Marlins World Series run that eventually results in them winning a championship. Soon after the 2003 season however, Willis struggled mightily. He was a 20-game winner in 2005, proving that he wasn't just a one-hit wonder, but after that he wasn't the same player. His game really fell off after he left the Marlins, and he bounced around the league trying to find a place where he could recapture his excellence on the mound from a few years prior. Ultimately, it just wasn't in the cards, and Willis retired after the 2011 season, after less than a decade in the majors.
2 Joe Mauer
For a few years in the mid-2000s, Mauer was one of the most popular players in the sport. He was one of the best hitters in the league, and was thought to be a generational type-talent at catcher, that would be a Hall Of Fame player. Well, Mauer is still going with the Twins, but it's fair to question whether he really lived up to his potential. There was a long stretch of time where he struggled with injuries, and missed some significant time. All in all, he's definitely had a good career, but there was a time when he the poster boy for everything related to baseball, and now he's kind of relinquished that role to the likes of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Mauer will always be considered a great player, but he probably doesn't deserve the absolute highest accolades in the sport. He still has a job though all these years though, which should be commended.
1 Mark Prior
Mark Prior was perhaps the ultimate "what if?" story of his era in MLB. Prior was an ace pitcher for the Cubs in the first two years of his career, and the hype train was out of control. The projections for his career seemed to be off the charts, and he was considered one of the best young players in the game. Unfortunately, after the 2003 season (the same year as the Steve Bartman incident, which Prior was on the mound for), he suffered some arm problems and the quality of his pitching fell way off. Prior only lasted a couple more seasons in the majors, and called it quits after the 2006 campaign. It was an underwhelming end to a career that seemed full of promise, and indicative of the general luck of the Cubs at that time (before they were winning World Series and whatnot). Prior was a can't miss prospect, and ended up busting out way too early. Overall, he's one of the biggest disappointments of the 2000s era in all of sports, and in MLB history itself.