AL All-Star Report: Jose Bautista Comes In Strong For Toronto

After two seasons of performing at an MVP level, Toronto Blue Jays’ rightfielder Jose Bautista was off to an atrocious start in April. A combination of being overshadowed by Albert Pujols’ struggles in Los Angeles and the fact the media rarely extends its eyes to Toronto anyway kept Bautista’s problems a little more in the dark, but the man who hit 97 home runs over 2010-11 had only three at the end of April and was batting below .200. It’s a mark of just how hot Bautista has been that not only are his numbers starting to catch up to recent norms, he can still lead up TheSportsNotebook’s discussion of American League corner outfielders as we continue to trod the road to Kansas City and the July 10 All-Star Game.

Bautista’s batting average is still low, at .237, but his plate discipline continues to mark him an elite offensive talent and the on-base percentage is a solid .355. The slugging percentage is .544—very good by normal standards, but still below his otherworldly performance of the last two years, where he exceeded the .600 mark. With 25 home runs, Bautista is set to challenge the half a hundred number again. Now if his team could just get some luck with keeping its starting pitching healthy, those of us south of the border might get to see him play in a really heated playoff race.

Mark Trumbo for the Angels was displaced into left field when Pujols arrived at first base, but it’s Trumbo that’s putting up the MVP numbers so far in 2012. With a .366/.610 stat line for on-base & slugging percentage, Trumbo has hit 18 home runs and if you stick rigidly to the notion that the All-Star outfield should consist of one centerfielder and two corner me, then Trumbo ought to join Bautista in the starting lineup at Kansas City.

Of course the All-Star ballot doesn’t work that way, even if the CF/Corner distinction works well for TheSportsNotebook in breaking down the players. And while I do adhere to the notion that at least one outfielder must be a true centerfielder for defensive purposes, I won’t hold to any such guarantee for the corner spots. That’s relevant here because the American League class on the corners is not nearly as deep as the National League’s, nor is it as good as the AL centerfield group, and I can see choosing two more centerfielders to join Josh Hamilton in KC. Beyond Bautista and Trumbo, the only corner men putting together a season worth considering are Matt Joyce in Tampa and Josh Willingham in Minnesota. Joyce, with a .387/.512 line as he tried to carry an offense missing Evan Longoria is now on the disabled list with a back problem. Willingham is a solid .384/.535 line and probably deserves at least at roster spot on the All-Star team. Whether he becomes trade bait for a Twins’ team that’s trying to get young will be an interesting question in the month-plus leading up to the trade deadline.

The lack of depth in this All-Star class make it possible for any number of players to make a strong run at the top tier by September when TheSportsNotebook does its final All-Star evaluations. This is where the American League group is a little stronger—while the NL players in the middle-class were mostly one-dimensional—worth complimenting for getting on base or hitting for power—only a few were the kind of complete packages that could sizzle in the second half. But when you look through the American League, you see someone like Alex Rios having a comeback year in Chicago, at .340/.496 and is a hot two weeks away from moving up on the list. How about Josh Reddick in Oakland, who’s hit 17 home runs in  a tough ballpark and just needs to upgrade his .335 on-base percentage a bit to be in the running? And Bautista’s not the only notable talent rebounding from a slow start—Cleveland’s Shin-Soo Choo is at .364/.442 after an awful start, which following an injury-riddled 2011, had me wondering if his productive days were over.

Alex Gordon in Kansas City was a worthy All-Star choice at the end of last season and someone else who had to overcome a bad April. His on-base percentage, at .363 is restored to full health, although with just five home runs, he’s going to have to heat up along with the mid-summer weather in his hometown. Seth Smith in Oakland is churning out walks, with a .380 OBP, and with eight home runs and a .447 slugging can push himself into contention. Like Reddick, Smith could get bonus points for having to carry a lineup that’s positively awful. Ben Zobrist at Tampa can earn the same kind of brownie points if he takes his current .374/.446 stat line and increases the power while Longoria and Joyce are on the disabled list. Finally, let’s tip our caps to two veterans. Torii Hunter in Los Angeles keeps going strong at .351/.447 with ten home runs, showing his power isn’t gone yet at age 36. And Nick Swisher in the Bronx is the rare Yankee player who always seems underappreciated. At .498, the slugging is solid and he needs to pick the .331 OBP back up to the higher level he usually operates at.

A big reason the AL corner class is soft at the top is because of injuries. Up and down the league, players either have excellent numbers, but not enough at-bats because of DL time, or good players are hoping for the chance to get their season started. Cody Ross for Boston and Andy Dirks in Detroit fall in the former category. Ross is now healthy, while Dirks has been supposed to be ready to return to the lineup any day now. Nick Markakis has been hurt in Baltimore, though he’s expected back soon. The Orioles are also missing Nolan Reimold, the left fielder who’s shown some power flashes when he’s had the chance to play every day. Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes, the hyped Cuban import, got off to a decent start, but got hurt. He’s still slugging .503 and could lift himself up the list if he stays healthy and gets hot.

Perhaps no one has been a big a disappointment as Texas’ Nelson Cruz, who might still have a hangover from his defensive massacre of the Game 6 flyball that should have ended the World Series last year, and only the potent Ranger lineup is covering up for the disappointing .314/.434 stat line. After a hot start, Chicago rookie Dayan Viciedo has cooled off, and Tampa’s Desmond Jennings hasn’t been able to get into a good rhythm, in large part because of DL time. One rookie who is hitting is Minnesota rightfielder Ben Revere, with a .323 batting average, although the walks need to go up and he’s not a power hitter. The career of Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki seems to have finally hit the end of the line and two more struggling vets are Jeff Franceour in Kansas City and Detroit’s Brennan Boesch.

We’ll wrap up this spot with a couple more veterans—Raul Ibanez in New York has hit 11 home runs, giving the power the Yanks had hoped for in the bandbox stadium that is the Bronx, but he does little else well and the team needs him back DH’ing when Brett Gardner returns in July. Johnny Damon better be a heckuva clubhouse influence in Cleveland, because he does nothing on a baseball field well anymore. And it will be interesting to see what July holds in Boston—Carl Crawford is due back, while popular Daniel Nava has swung the bat well in his absence. Will the $20 million Crawford earn his job back or will the Red Sox have to make a difficult choice? Stay tuned.