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Wednesday, July 7, 2010
It's about time to pick it up offensively

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

It's that time of year to honor players who've ridden big first-half performances to All-Star Game berths -- and rail against a system that leaves Joey Votto, Kevin Youkilis, Paul Konerko and other worthy candidates sweating out the Final Vote results in hopes of a trip to Anaheim. While Bud Selig's 14-member panel studies expanded use of instant replay, the convoluted All-Star voting process also merits a place on the agenda.

July is also a good time for introspection, which means assessing the performance of players who aren't carrying their share of the load. In this week's edition of Starting 9, we check in on hitters for contending clubs who have failed to produce to expectations and need to pick up the pace in the second half to help their teams make the playoffs. It's our midseason "All-Offensive Laggard" squad.

Note to Cubs fans: Your team is 10½ games out in the National League Central and a lot closer to last place than first. So the Aramis Ramirez-Derrek Lee discussion will have to wait for another day.

As for Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, he has hit safely in 15 of his last 17 games and appears to have turned the corner.

One of our toughest omissions: White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham, who seemed poised for a breakout but is hitting .206 with a .551 OPS. He recently lost playing time to Brent Lillibridge. Beckham is playing his third position in three years and logged a mere 233 at-bats in the minors before joining the big club last season, so he deserves a little more time to get his act together.

B.J. Upton (.224 BA), Carlos Pena (.199) and Jason Bartlett (.226), Rays

Upton hit 24 home runs in 2007 at age 22 and has 27 homers since. He put up monster numbers during the Rays' 2008 postseason run but hasn't been the same player since surgery to repair a torn labrum that winter.

Jason Bartlett
Bartlett
Carlos Pena
Pena
B.J. Upton
Upton

So is it health, immaturity or a lack of dedication and focus? The one thing scouts agree on is that Upton is a mess mechanically and needs some time in the cage to rework his setup and approach.

"He's turned into a slider-bat-speed guy," an NL scout said. "For whatever reason, there's so much movement in his swing that he just doesn't catch up to fastballs. If it's 91 [mph] or above, he's got problems."

Upton's name is starting to surface in trade rumors (for Cliff Lee and others), but general manager Andrew Friedman isn't just going to rush out and move Upton while his value is at a low point. Upton is making $3 million this year, so he's not that big a drag on the Tampa Bay payroll. He's only 25 years old, and as former Rays outfielder Delmon Young has shown in Minnesota, there's still time for Upton to figure it out.

Pena has 16 homers, but seven came during a torrid stretch in early June.

"Unless you make a mistake, he's not going to hit you," a scout said.

The Rays, meanwhile, have reason to believe that Pena is in full-scale "press" mode. Pena is a former first-round pick who kicked around with Texas, Oakland, Detroit and Boston before finding stardom and a home in Tampa. Now he's 32 years old (and a Scott Boras client) and ready to hit the open market with a potentially huge payday on the line. He wouldn't be the first player to feel some stress under those circumstances.

Matt Kemp (.267 BA, .323 OBP), Dodgers

Matt Kemp
Kemp

The common lament on Kemp: He has "gone Hollywood" and craves celebrity status even though he hasn't accomplished enough as a player to warrant that type of attention. That perception was inevitable when he started dating Rihanna and being spotted at Lakers games.

The 2010 version of Kemp has been underwhelming. His defensive metrics are abysmal, and he's had major problems laying off breaking balls out of the strike zone. Kemp is sixth in the National League with 93 whiffs, and his inattentive play recently resulted in an argument with Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer.

"It's a disappointment," a scout said. "You expect him to be a 40-40 guy at some point, because he's got that capability. I've always compared him to Dave Winfield. He can really look bad on the breaking ball at times, but if you make a mistake, he's got big, big power. And even when he's fooled, he has the speed to leg out infield hits. He's always been able to overcome the rawness with athleticism. But he's definitely taken a step back this year."

General manager Ned Colletti made some candid observations about Kemp in April that apparently didn't resonate. But when Kemp found himself on the bench last week for three games courtesy of manager Joe Torre, he was forced to start paying attention. Kemp has gone 11-for-31 since returning to the lineup, and with Manny Ramirez on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, he needs to get hot and give Andre Ethier some consistent help after the break.

Pablo Sandoval (six homers, 34 RBIs, .714 OPS), Giants

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval

At the risk of stating the obvious, Sandoval is flirting with the ultimate bad-news scenario: He might not hit his weight.

Scouts generally cut Sandoval slack because he's 23 years old and forced to carry a major burden as the focal point of the San Francisco batting order. For sake of reference, Sandoval is only seven months older than Giants golden boy Buster Posey, but he's the guy opposing teams focus on in scouting meetings, no matter how much Aubrey Huff, Juan Uribe and Andres Torres contribute to the cause.

By any objective measure, this season has been a disappointment for Sandoval. He's slugging .392 (compared with .556 last year), and he's been a lost cause from the right side of the plate; he's hitting .205 with no homers in 83 at-bats right-handed.

According to FanGraphs, only Jeff Francoeur, A.J. Pierzynski and Vladimir Guerrero have swung at more pitches outside the strike zone. While Sandoval's hand-eye coordination is extraordinary, he's not putting himself in a position to succeed.

"He's hit at every level -- inside or outside the country -- and now he's in a failure spot," an NL scout said. "He has to be thinking, 'How do I get out of it?' Sometimes that's what it takes for a hitter to change his approach. It's something that grows on you with time."

Then there's the weight issue: Sandoval tried to get in better shape over the winter and in spring training, but it's always going to be a struggle for him. He's athletic and light enough on his feet to play an adequate third base, but his mobility is eventually going to suffer.

"The kid comes to play," an American League scout said. "He's got some life to him. I like him. But he's never going to reach his full potential until he gets a handle on his weight. You're going to see those hamstring and calf injuries, nagging stuff, until you look up at the end of the year and he's played 125 to 130 games. And people are going to say, 'Why isn't he in there more often?'"

Todd Helton (.310 slugging percentage, 12 extra-base hits in 248 at-bats), Rockies

Todd Helton
Helton

Helton hasn't made the All-Star team since 2004 or hit 20 homers in a season since 2005, so it's been awhile since he was the main man in the Colorado lineup. But the Rockies could always count on him for long, tenacious at-bats, a slew of doubles and a high on-base percentage.

It's been a slog this year. Helton's 15th-inning sacrifice fly gave the Rockies a 4-3 win over San Francisco on Sunday, but he's been bothered by back problems and has lost playing time to Jason Giambi and Melvin Mora at first base. When he does play, the Rockies have to get power from other sources to compensate for his lack of pop.

"I almost hate to say it, but there's nothing coming out of the bat," a scout said. "It just doesn't look strong. With the back problems, you can almost make a comparison to [Don] Mattingly at the end. You can see the same career arc there."

Helton is on pace to finish with more strikeouts than walks for the first time since 2001. The most likely explanation: His bat is slower, so he has to start his swing earlier to catch up to good fastballs, and his selectivity suffers as a result.

"He has to cheat, but at some point, you can't cheat enough," a scout said. "And teams aren't going to help him out [and throw him slow stuff] to speed up his bat."

Johnny Damon (.774 OPS) and Brandon Inge (six homers in 287 at-bats), Tigers

The Tigers rank last in the American League in fielding percentage, and their starters have logged the 26th-biggest workload in the majors. Throwing the ball around the diamond indiscriminately and burning out a bullpen aren't the optimal way to compete for a division title.

Brandon Inge
Inge
Johnny Damon
Damon

It would help if manager Jim Leyland could find someone to take the offensive burden off Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Brennan Boesch. The shortstop and catching positions are offensive black holes in Detroit, so the two guys mentioned above need to help pick up the slack after the break.

Damon is as durable as ever, and his energy hasn't waned at age 36. But he's a DH now, and he has five home runs after hitting 24 a year ago. That walk-off home run against Baltimore on Tuesday was a step in the right direction, but the move from Yankee Stadium to Comerica Park has clearly put a crimp in his production.

Inge hit 27 home runs last year even though he could barely walk. He underwent surgery in November to repair patellar tendinitis in both knees, and his return is a work in progress.

"I don't think people realize how bad he was physically at the end of last year," a scout said. "It's amazing he played as well as he did for as long as he did under those conditions."

Yunel Escobar (0 homers, 19 RBIs), Braves

Yunel Escobar
Escobar

The Braves need Escobar, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Matt Diaz to give Martin Prado and Troy Glaus more help in the second half. In the meantime, it's always interesting to watch Escobar find new and innovative ways to test manager Bobby Cox's patience.

While Escobar plays shortstop with aplomb, it's hard to fathom how he could have fallen into this pronounced a funk offensively. After hitting 14 homers and putting up an .813 OPS last season, he's been an offensive nonentity in the first half. He's failed to homer in 245 at-bats, and he's slugging a minuscule .286.

"He gets pull-happy," an NL scout said. "When he's going well, he keeps his hands inside the ball and wears out right-center field. He hasn't done that this year."

Two other scouts had bigger issues with Escobar's demeanor, seeming indifference and mental walkabouts. One called Escobar a "second-division type of guy," and the other observed, "He thinks he's better than he is."

The Braves will listen if someone approaches them with a trade offer for Escobar, but a lot of factors make it a remote possibility this season. Escobar is 27 years old, extremely skilled and capable of turning it on and having a big second half. The Braves like Omar Infante in his super-utility role, and Brandon Hicks hasn't shown he can hit, so GM Frank Wren would have to find another full-time shortstop if he dealt Escobar. And how many teams with pennant aspirations trade away their starting shortstop in July?

Those extenuating circumstances don't make it any less frustrating for the Braves to watch Escobar fail to play to his potential. He's even more exasperating to watch now that former Braves shortstop prospect Elvis Andrus has emerged as an All-Star in Texas.

Raul Ibanez (seven home runs, .401 SLG), Phillies

Raul Ibanez
Ibanez

Ibanez was the toast of Philadelphia and a potential MVP candidate after a torrid April and May last season, but it's been downhill ever since. His production waned in the second half because of a sports hernia, and now he's failing to produce even at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park. Ibanez has a .714 OPS in a venue that most hitters regard as nirvana.

In May, Ibanez batted seventh in the order for the first time since 2004. The more he struggles finding his power stroke, the more Phillies fans are looking forward to top prospect Domonic Brown's arrival.

At 38, Ibanez now falls in that Chipper Jones-Todd Helton realm: He has to start the bat earlier to catch up to the hard stuff, and it's a challenge for any hitter to drive the ball with authority when he has to commit that early. Does Ibanez have anything in the tank for a second-half surge? With Chase Utley and Placido Polanco on the disabled list, the Phillies need him to discover his form of April and May 2009 when he attained folk hero status in the city.

"He's been such a workout warrior, he sort of defied his age," a scout said. "He's kept himself in such great shape. He's still strong enough, but he's lost that quick-twitch aspect that he used to have. It's just not there anymore."

Yadier Molina (.614 OPS), Skip Schumaker (.643 OPS) and Brendan Ryan (.560 OPS), Cardinals

Colby Rasmus is having a breakout year in center field, but manager Tony La Russa isn't getting much offense from the Cardinals' other up-the-middle positions. Molina, Schumaker and Ryan are hitting a combined .230 at catcher, second base and shortstop.

Brendan Ryan
Ryan
Skip Schumaker
Schumaker
Yadier Molina
Molina

Of course, Molina's contribution can't be measured by his offensive numbers. He's thrown out 14 of 34 attempted base stealers, and the Cardinals have a 2.77 ERA in the 70 games he's started. St. Louis' staff ERA is 5.49 in the 11 games started by Jason LaRue.

Still, after making himself into a proficient hitter the past two seasons, Molina has hit a wall offensively this year. He was slowed by an oblique injury in spring training, and you wonder if his workload takes a toll at times. There was that 20-inning squat-athon against the Mets in April, and Molina even insisted on playing Sunday against Milwaukee just a few hours after the birth of his daughter. But if the workload hasn't affected his defense, why should it be killing his offense?

Schumaker showed some signs of life with a team-leading .311 batting average in June, but he's getting fewer at-bats against lefties these days. Ryan, who hit .292 last year, underwent wrist surgery in January. He's yet to find a comfort zone at the plate despite extensive work in the cage with hitting coach Mark McGwire.

Bobby Abreu (.252 BA, .394 SLG) and Hideki Matsui (.254 BA, .334 OBP), Angels

Abreu notched his 500th career double in early June to join Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Craig Biggio as one of four players in history with 500 doubles, 250 homers and 350 steals. But the overall numbers are very un-Abreu-like. He's been awful on the road, and he's strayed from his usual all-fields approach, rolling an awful lot of weak ground balls to second base.

Hideki Matsui
Matsui
Bobby Abreu
Abreu

Abreu was widely praised for changing the mindset in the Angels' batting order with his disciplined approach in 2009. But there's a fine line between patient and overly passive, and he's straddling it too often this season: Abreu has taken more called third strikes than any hitter in the majors.

Matsui, another former Yankee, has been equally ineffectual. He's batting .186 with a .223 on-base percentage against lefties. Worse yet, every time Matsui turns around, someone on talk radio is raving about former Angels DH Vladimir Guerrero and his "resurgence" in Texas.

Kendry Morales' season-ending broken leg has Angels manager Mike Scioscia scrambling for offense in a lot of unexpected places. In a 9-2 loss to the White Sox on Monday, the 6-7-8 spots in the Angels' batting order were filled by Paul McAnulty, Kevin Frandsen and Cory Aldridge. That's three players who weren't even on the team's 40-man roster when the season began.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.