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Monday, July 18, 2011
Three key players to watch in the AL

By David Schoenfield

A quick look at three key players to watch over the final two-plus months. While all the attention is paid to the trade deadline, the key for many teams is to get improved performance from players who have performed better in the recent past.

Gordon Beckham, 2B, White Sox

Beckham
Beckham
The White Sox happily made Beckham the eighth pick of the 2008 draft after Beckham's terrific junior season at Georgia, and he was in the majors a year later, posting a solid .270/.347/.460 line as a rookie. A shortstop in college, he played third base as a rookie, but the White Sox moved him to second base for 2010. With an expected improvement in his offense in his sophomore season, many projected Beckham as one of the top second basemen in the majors entering the season. Instead, his offense cratered; he hit .159 in May and through June was hitting .209 with just two home runs. But he hit .308 with seven home runs the rest of the way and most figured he had made the adjustments to get back on track in 2011.

It hasn't happened. Beckham is scuffling along at .255/.312/.366, nearly the exact same line he had last season. He has played an excellent second base, with just one error and solid range, but the bat shows little signs of life. His walk rate has deteriorated from his rookie season and his strikeout rate has increased. He's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone and pitchers have picked up on this, throwing him fewer strikes knowing he'll chase. The talent is still there, but Beckham needs to go back to the more patient approach he had as a rookie.

Max Scherzer, P, Tigers

Scherzer
Scherzer
While Justin Verlander has dominated, the rest of the Detroit rotation has been thoroughly mediocre. None of the four other starters have an ERA below 4.40 and none have a WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) below 1.40. Here's one way to look at it: Of 47 AL starters who qualify for the ERA title, Verlander ranks second in WHIP (to Josh Beckett), but Scherzer ranks 38th, Brad Penny 40th and Rick Porcello 44th. Phil Coke doesn't have enough innings, but he has a worse WHIP than Porcello. Even with Verlander's league-leading total, the Detroit rotation ranks just 10th in the AL in strikeouts, putting more stress on a defense that is missing Brandon Inge and includes mediocre defenders like Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Ryan Raburn. Scherzer is the guy who has the stuff to become a No. 2 starter, and while he's 10-5, he has a 4.53 ERA. He's been plagued by inconsistency outings -- he has five games where's allowed at least six runs.

Torii Hunter, RF, Angels

Hunter
Hunter
While Vernon Wells' struggles received plenty of attention (and deservedly so), Hunter is struggling through his worst season since he became full-time regular in 2003. He's hitting .239/.310/.379 for a .689 OPS that is 100 points below his career mark and 130 points below 2010. He's compounded that by grounding into 20 double plays. Hunter started the season hitting cleanup, but has now moved into the second- or third-hole. Either way, the Angels don't have enough firepower to have a low-OBP guy who grounds into a ton of double plays hitting high in the order. Hunter turns 36 today and it seems pretty clear he's slowing down. Two years, ago he stole 18 bases in 22 attempts. Last season, he was nine for 21. This year, he's two for six. He's older and slower and a second-half recovery is hardly a sure thing.