AL All-Star Report: Disappointments Abound At 1st Base

If there’s a word to describe American League first baseman at the midway point of June it’s “Disappointment”. And if you’re a fan of a team with any of the seven underperforming first baseman—half the league—you might be choosing stronger terminology. Because while Paul Konerko for Chicago has been magnificent, Prince Fielder from Detroit has been solid and there’ve been something other nice stories, both comeback and emerging the overall  theme at this spot is one of Disappointment.

When you look at the combination of salary, expectations and actual performance, the two worst have to be Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez and Los Angeles’ Albert Pujols. The struggles of Pujols have been well-documented, but his current form has been better and the odds are good that his overall season numbers will be decent again before too long. Therefore, while I might be accused of letting my Red Sox passion get the best of me (especially now that the Celtics are done and there’s nothing to distract me), I would argue that Gonzalez “leads” AL first baseman when it comes to total underperformance.

The Red Sox first baseman has a .318 on-base percentage and .414 slugging percentage. He’s hit only five home runs so far and the batting average sits on .267. The RBI numbers are respectable at 35, but that’s only because the Boston offense is still one of the best in the league, so there are plenty of opportunities. Furthermore, Gonzalez was one of many Red Sox players who were sleepwalking through last September—he wasn’t bad, but he was similar to Josh Beckett or Jon Lester. He never picked up the team in the way you’d expect of a player with his stature. The Red Sox just signed him to a long-term contract and coupled with the deals given out to John Lackey and Carl Crawford, a misfire could cripple the franchise for the next few years—perhaps longer. The loss of power can be lived with—when Gonzalez is hitting, he peppers the Green Monster with enough doubles. But the lack of average and the mediocre walk totals have to be changed, and immediately.

Pujols is up to nine home runs on the year after going a month-plus before hitting his first one and similar to Gonzalez his plate discipline suffered during his slump. Because he’s started to hit again I think the walk totals are going to follow and if we run “Last Four Months” numbers at year’s end, the guess is that Pujols will look MVP-caliber. But in terms of an All-Star race right now, you certainly can’t dismiss a bad stretch that constitutes more than half the games played.

We can stay in the AL East and add three more disappointments to the list. Carlos Pena, after a little power surge to start the year, has been abominable, batting .192 with eight home runs. He takes his walks, so the on-base percentage is a manageable .341, but the lack of power—even to the alleys—can’t be lived with on a contending team in Tampa. New York’s Mark Teixeira kept his usual slow April and this time expanded it to include a nice hunk of May. He’s started to heat up—at $20 million per year it’s certainly nice of him to consider starting his season on Memorial Day—and is up to 11 home runs and the slugging percentage is at a decent .459. But even this has to be weighed against the fact he’s in a stacked lineup in a hitter’s park. Finally we come to Toronto, where a normally respectable Adam Lind swung the bat so poorly he was shipped to the minors. David Cooper now has the job.

Kansas City and Seattle both think they have hot prospects at first base in Eric Hosmer and Justin Smoak. I’ve panned Smoak several times in the division reports that have run the past several weeks. His ten home runs are nice, but fit into a package that has a .285 on-base percentage and .375 slugging percentage it amounts to ten good at-bats for the year. Smoak is in his second full year as the starter and can’t screw around anymore. The Royals have reason to be more patient. Hosmer is in his first full season, but after a good call-up run late in 2011, he’ struggled to a .290/.374 line in his OBP/Slugging. He’s hit better in the past several games, so we’ll keep an eye on him and see if that marks a turnaround.

That’s the Core 7 Of Disappointment, although Cleveland fans might feel I should include Casey Kotchman in the group. He’s got the numbers to qualify, at .281/.315 and had a good year in Tampa last season. It’s only the fact that he’s been up and down his entire career that led me to exclude him from the Underachievers Club. Oakland has also had problems, although expectations were so low that the word disappointment can’t qualify. The A’s have sent both Kila Ka’aihue and Daric Barton to the minors and just handed the opportunity to Brandon Moss.

Is there any good news? TheSportsNotebook likes what it sees from Minnesota’s Justin Morneau. He’s not waking up the echoes of his MVP season of 2006 or the years immediately following, but his .494 slugging is solid and indicates his comeback from the concussion problems are underway. Now the batting average needs to jump. Mitch Moreland continues to be one of the underrated hitters in the stacked Texas lineup, churning out a .340/.517. He doesn’t walk much, although I wonder if pitchers come in to him more often, given the other hitters they have to deal with in that lineup. He’s hit well enough that Texas can still feel good about trading Chris Davis to Baltimore, even as Davis posts a solid .344/.538 line for the surprising Orioles. With Davis, I would like to see him become more patient, as he’s got a batting average of .305. so the OBP should be higher. Not taking walks will hurt a hitter when the slump comes.

Then we come to the clear 1-2 finishers at this spot. Fielder, at .384/.500 and 10 home runs in a pitcher’s park is a deserving #2 and should be on the All-Star team, albeit not as the starter. And Konerko? How about just gaze up on the .404/.605 line, stats that are Pujols-ian (at least in his St. Louis days) in their brilliance, give him your vote and make sure you keep him in the front of your MVP deliberations.