First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Even considering his injury, Albert is the best first baseman in the National League and is still the early favorite for MVP. Albert's Equivalent Average (a metric that computes a player's offense into a batting-average-like number) is .368. That leads the National League by far. Florida's Miguel Cabrera is second with a .341 EQA. Albert has 26 HR in just 201 ABs (247 PAs), which projects to more than 70 over a full season (Albert, of course, won't play a full season because of the time missed to injury). Oh, and Albert's batting line? 313/442/741. That's a .313 batting average with a .442 OBP and a .741 slugging percentage. That's outstanding even over just half a season.
A lot of NL first basemen are off to a hot start. A lot of attention has been paid to Nomar Garciaparra (362/426/584), who is a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year and has helped keep the Dodgers in the NL West race. While Nomar has been great, look closely at Nick Johnson of the Nationals. Johnson has a 309/440/556 hitting line in a tougher ballpark. And we haven't even mentioned Ryan Howard of the Phillies, wh0's slugging the crap out of the ball (25 HR and a .618 SLG), although his 28:75 BB:K ratio is a bit of a problem. Todd Helton is having the opposite problem out in Colorado. He's hitting .307 with plenty walks (47, for a healthy .434 OBP), but his power numbers are lacking. Helton has managed just 8 HR so far this season (although he does have 18 doubles). Helton is probably not at 100%, and this is what we're seeing in the numbers.
An early candidate for Rookie of the Year is Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, who's hitting just like his dad; in the good way (14 HR and a .520 SLG) and the bad (.343 OBP, 24:64 BB:K ratio). Also keep an eye on Mike Jacobs of Florida (354/478/268) and Conor Jackson in Arizona (369/423/277, albeit in hitter-friendly Chase Field).
If there's an Unlikely Player of the Year Award, it goes to Scott Hatteberg, who has managed to stave off career disintegration for at least another year with Cincinnati (400/426/287). And if anyone is really looking for some cheap offense, ask the Pirates about Craig Wilson (354/495/271).
Having mentioned that, who is struggling or not playing as well as we would expect? Oddly enough, Carlos Delgado is having a bit of a rough time in New York. He's hitting 344/523/262, which is a slump by his standards. The difference is mostly in the batting average. Delgado hit 399/582/301 last year with Florida, and although it's hard to repeat something that good, he's taken a bigger dive in New York than expected. The difference is a .262 batting average this year (Delgado is a .283 career hitter). Is this just a blip -- an aberration of sample size given just 71 games this season? That's certainly possible. But it's also true that Delgado just turned 34 years old, and it's doubtful that he has any more seasons left in him like his 2005 in Florida.
You could call Atlanta's Adam LaRoche (336/482/250) a disappointment, except that his performance is almost entirely in line with his career numbers (326/472/262). LaRoche isn't a bad hitter, but his offense isn't really acceptable at first base. The solution for Atlanta would be to move Chipper Jones to first base and trade LaRoche. Chipper is getting too old for third base, and Davenport's Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) have him at -7, ranking him among the worst defensive third basemen in the league. The perfect solution would have been to move Chipper to first and install hot prospect Andy Marte at third, but the Braves traded Marte to get Edgar Renteria, a terrifically unequal deal that ruined what could have been a perfect solution to a problem. As it is, Chipper continues to suffer injuries and play poor defense, and Adam LaRoche isn't getting any better.
2B: Dan Uggla, Marlins
My policy in All-Star voting is to vote for the person who has performed the best -- regardless of their superstar status or the possibility that they're a fluke. There's every likelihood that the heretofore unknown Uggla (366/532/313 and a good glove) will return to mediocrity any minute now, but I simply have to say that he's been the best second baseman in the league. His .302 EQA is the best among NL 2Bs, and his 9 FRAA are second only to Colorado's Jamey Carroll.
It's certainly a close race, though. Chase Utley of the Phillies leads in the voting (I believe), due to his impressive 358/490/288 hitting line. But not only does Utley hit in a friendly ballpark in Philadelphia, but he's not a very good defensive second baseman. So although he's a fine player, I've passed him over.
Another possibility is Jose Vidro in Washington. Vidro is having a comeback year, hitting 362/404/307 in a cavernous ballpark. Jeff Kent probably would get my vote with his stellar hitting out in LA (381/472/274 with 9 FRAA), but injuries have limited Kent to just 59 games, so he hasn't contributed as much in that sense. If Rickie Weeks could field as well as he can hit (377/424/290), then he'd be a contender. But Weeks currently sports a -10 FRAA, which is just awful and unacceptable at such a defensively crucial position. Weeks' poor defense is common knowledge, and the word I've gotten is that if it doesn't get better, the Brewers will move him, likely to center field to exploit his speed.
The biggest surprise among second basemen is Brandon Phillips of Cincinnati. Phillips was a prospect that the Indians gave up on, but he's taken Cincinnati by storm, hitting 357/461/310 and is a perfect 14/14 in steals so far this year. Phillips, like Uggla, could just be a fluke, but if so he's been a very fortunate one for Cincinnati, who is currently leading the NL Wild Card race by a hair.
The biggest disappointment among NL 2Bs is easily Atlanta's Marcus Giles (there are many disappointments in Atlanta, as their Win-Loss record would suggest). Giles is hitting a measly 324/349/239. Now Giles is an excellent hitter, and this is probably just one of those slumps. But it came at the wrong time for the Braves, who were looking to Giles to be their leadoff man this year. Rookie Josh Barfield (255/289/368) has been a disappointment for the Padres, who expected him to be major league-ready at this point. Neifi Perez is just an awful player to actually select for your lineup (226/239/314), but then everybody in the entire world knows this, except for a certain thick-headed manager in Chicago named Dusty.
SS: Jose Reyes, Mets
I said that I would call Jose Reyes a prospect when he started playing like one. This season, at least so far, he has. His plate discipline has greatly increased; he's already drawn 29 walks in 330 ABs this year, whereas he only drew 27 last year in 696 ABs. His batting average has increased from last year to a fine .297, and add to that a power surge: 8 HR already this year compared to just 7 last year. But the most important thing is his defense; whereas Reyes had "tools" and flashiness last year, it got him -7 FRAA, poor for a shortstop. This year, he's been 1 run above average so far. This is great news for the Mets; since Reyes is improving across the board, it's less likely that his success is a fluke or just lucky.
It's slim pickens among NL shortstops, as many commentators have noticed. You won't find Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, or Michael Young in the senior circuit. After Reyes, the best is probably Edgar Renteria of Atlanta. While the Braves did give up too much to get him in Marte, Renteria has at least put up good numbers, hitting 302/385/445with steady defense. I also have to mention Bill Hall in Milwaukee. Hall has been a super -utility man for years, bouncing from position to position and rarely holding a steady job. But he's a good hitter and a significant power threat (277/330/584 this year) and has actually played better defense this year than he has in the past. He's a pleasant surprise for Milwaukee, who had hoped that young J.J. Hardy would be ready for the everyday shortstop job. He wasn't (242/295/398).
Omar Vizquel and David Eckstein are having solid seasons, and then it gets pretty thin. Hanley Ramirez hasn't blossomed yet in Florida (266/334/395), and neither has Ronny Cedeno in Chicago (281/304/377). Rafael Furcal has been a big-league dud thus far in Los Angeles (334/340/254 with poor defense), and Khalil Greene looks to be regressing in San Diego (222/308/406). Now that the hitting streak is over, we can all admit that Jimmy Rollins isn't really such a great hitter (317/417/259 this year, right in line with his 327/416/272 career numbers). The worst everyday shortstop in the NL is Clint Barmes, who is hitting 206/239/321 despite playing for the Rockies.
3B: Miguel Cabrera, Marlins
There's already a campaign underway for Mets 3B David Wright as the NL MVP. This is because he's an inspiring young player on a turnaround team. But the truth is that, as great as he is, he's not been quite as good as Miguel Cabrera, who will never get a sniff from the voters, because he plays for the Marlins.
I mentioned earlier that Cabrera's EQA of .341 was second only to Phat Albert in the NL. His actual hitting line is 347/443/570. When you can hit .347 with walks and power and not suck at defense, you're an MVP candidate, easily. While Wright is hitting almost as well as Cabrera (336/402/606), his defense is much worse. Honorable mention goes to Scott Rolen, who appears to have fully recovered from his injuries of last season, hitting 341/409/559 with brilliant defense. Morgan Ensberg would be right at the top, except that his hitting (246/380/525) is partially due to his ballpark, and he too has defensive trouble.
The biggest surprise here is Freddy Sanchez of the Pirates. The Pirates, who are second only to the Royals in signing useless free agents, signed Joe Randa to play third base for them this year, but Sanchez won the job by hitting 351/388/500 thus far. Sanchez used to be a prospect, but certainly isn't one anymore now that he's 28. His breakout smells of a fluke, but it's been a blessing thus far to the otherwise dreadful Pirates. Other pleasant surprises have been Corey Koskie in Milwaukee (266/348/500) and young Edwin Encarnacion in Cincinnati (270/364/481). Garrett Atkins continues to hit well in Colorado (310/384/502, good even for Coors) but move the poor guy off the hot corner (league-worst -10 FRAA at 3B).
Disappointments include Nationals rookie Ryan Zimmerman, who is hitting 268/328/454. That's actually not bad at all in RFK Stadium, and Zimmerman has done terrifically on defense. But he was touted as the next Scott Rolen, so he's not quite there yet. Aramis Ramirez is having a huge off-year in Chicago (249/309/464). I knew coming into the season that the Cub offense was a bigger problem than many thought, but I also predicted that the two rocks in the lineup would be Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Well, Lee got injured and Ramirez is in a big slump, and the Cubs might be the worst team in the league.
The worst everyday 3B in the NL is Vinny Castilla, who is hitting a dreadful 234/268/325 in San Diego. Refer back to earlier in my blog, when I referred to the trade whereby the Padres acquired Castilla as "bone-headed."
LF: Jason Bay, Pirates
Bay is finally starting to earn respect as one of the best hitters in baseball. He's managed a 290/407/562 clip so far this year, and that despite being on the NL's worst team. Matt Holliday's numbers look just as good (349/395/606), until you consider that he plays for the Rockies. Still good numbers, but not great. Alfonso Soriano has gotten a lot of praise and All-Star support, mainly because of his 24 HR and .553 SLG. And while those are great numbers in RFK Stadium, balance that against a .275 batting average and a .340 OBP. It's not bad, certainly -- but it means that he's not in Bay's class. The same could be said of Milwaukee's Carlos Lee, who is having a fine year slugging the ball (24 HR, .569 SLG), but isn't getting on base that well (.339 OBP).
Other LFers having a good year include Pat Burrell with the Phillies (252/378/526) and Adam Dunn in Cincinnati (221/364/542). Dunn is a singular fellow; a player who can still be quite valuable despite a .221 batting average.
Left field is a deep position, and good play has also come from Dave Roberts in San Diego (295/365/432) and rookie Josh Willingham in Florida (274/350/467). Barry Bonds has hit quite well (252/476/516), but in limited duty; he's only appeared in 61 games and had 229 plate appearances. It looks like it will remain that way for the rest of the year. Although I must point out that most of Bonds' value lies in his OBP, which is fueled by his 67 walks. His batting average is low and so are his power numbers; he only has 11 HR and we're nearly halfway through the season. This would lead me to conclude that Bonds should be pitched to and challenged much more often than he is.
Who's having a disappointing year? Preston Wilson isn't doing so hot in Houston (279/314/414), but he's not so potent a hitter as Coors Field made him look. Young Matt Murton has yet to take off in Chicago (262/332/360) and Cliff Floyd is struggling in New York (238/330/403). The worst everyday LF in the NL is probably Atlanta's Ryan Langerhans, who is suffering through a big sophomore slump (250/338/389).
CF: Carlos Beltran, Mets
The doubters and boo-birds can finally be silenced in New York; the Carlos Beltran they paid for has arrived. He's hitting 285/395/607 with 20 HR, good defense, and some good base-stealing once again. There's really no challenger among the rest of the NL CFers.
Andruw Jones is back to his old self again, hitting 281/347/517. He has 18 HR and a .517 SLG so far this year. Those are quality numbers, but certainly a step down from his .575 SLG last year. He's not even going to approach the 51 HR he slugged last year, and will be lucky if he makes it to 40. Also, the defensive regression documented last year seems to continue; Andruw rates at 0 FRAA; a dead-average center fielder. It's certainly possible that FRAA isn't getting the whole story, but by all accounts, Andruw isn't the defensive phenom he once was. Eric Byrnes is doing well in Arizona (284/345/528), but I doubt that's anything but a fluke.
With so many good left fielders, a good center fielder is hard to find (as Flannery O'Connor might have said). Ryan Freel of the Reds is doing a fine job (302/390/442), especially considering that he's been jerked all around the diamond this year. Despite all the attention foisted upon Ken Griffey, Jr., may I suggest that Freel 7is actually having a better year than Junior, who is hitting 264/317/527. It's the Soriano syndrome, where people think that the slugger is having a better year than he actually is. Junior's 15 dingers are countered by his very low OBP and deteriorating defense. Right now, Junior rates an EQA of .275, whereas Freel stands at .289, and he has better defense. I don't think Griffey should be on the bench, of course, but neither should Freel. The Reds should move Griffey to LF, shift Adam Dunn to 1B, either trade or platoon Scott Hatteberg, and put Rich f'n Aurilia on the bench.
There are plenty disappointing CFers in the NL. Randy Winn out in San Francisco is showing a great glove, but is only hitting 263/338/415 after an excellent 2005. Mike Cameron is hitting decently in San Diego (252/337/420), but he too also carries a fine glove. Jim Edmonds is still hitting well (260/360/417), but it's not as well as his usual self, and it looks like his injury troubles have affected his defense.
Brady Clark (279/379/341) has turned back into a pumpkin over in Milwaukee; Aaron Rowand (273/320/449) is making the Jim Thome deal look like a steal -- for the White Sox; and Willy Taveras of the Astros continues to do everything well that doesn't involve the use of a bat (267/321/325).
But the biggest disappointment has to be Juan Pierre of the Cubs. Granted, Pierre had a very poor 2005 (276/326/354) and has never been as good as his reputation, but he's still a career .300 hitter and seemed like the perfect person to fill a hole in Chicago. Instead, he's been the hole, especially on offense, hitting a career-worst 252/297/323 despite moving into a friendlier hitter's park.
RF: Bobby Abreu, Phillies
Bobby Abreu does get paid a lot of money, and it might make sense for the Phillies to trade him, but let's remember that this is still an excellent player who might be on his way to the Hall of Fame. Abreu's power has really been lacking this year (only 8 HR so far), but he's still hitting an insane 290/451/482, thanks to an ML-leading 76 walks.
While Abreu is in a class of his own, there are several other NL RFers having fine seasons. At the top of the list is J.D. Drew (282/374/475), who is proving that he is still a fine hitter when healthy. Austin Kearns (269/346/476) is doing well in Cincinnati, although his batting average is rather low, and his BB:K ratio (29:72) is troubling. Brian Giles is suffering from a lack of power in San Diego, but is still a valuable guy, hitting 285/389/395. The most surprising NL RFer has to be Brad Hawpe of the Rockies (306/388/544), whose numbers look great even in context.
Jacque Jones is doing fairly well in Chicago (290/320/502), although his problem is the same as it's always been; an inability to draw walks. If you're Vlad Guerrero and you hit .330, you can afford to swing at anything. But if you're Jacque Jones and you hit .290, you can't afford a BB:K ratio of 10:51. But this shouldn't come as a surprise to the Cubs, since this is exactly what Jones did in Minnesota.
Who's the biggest disappointment among these players? I'm tempted to say Jose Guillen of the Nationals, but he has injury issues to explain his 210/267/398 hitting line. I could say Jeromy Burnitz, but really, no one but the Pirates could really be surprised that he's hitting 231/280/430.
No, my choice is Atlanta's Jeff Francouer. Francouer succeeded in 2005 despite a horrible lack of plate discipline. His success came from the fact that he hit .300 and didn't need a lot of walks to be successful. As a Braves fan, I hate to say this, but Francouer could very well be our generation's Pete Incaviglia; a phenom whose lack of plate discipline dooms his career as pitchers learn not to throw them strikes. I cautioned people against calling him the next Dale Murphy, but no one listened. Truthfully, Francouer's doing much worse this year (254/274/437) than he did last year (300/336/549). Nobody can really hold down a major league job with a .274 OBP. And his plate discipline has been worse this year, probably as a result of pitchers learning to get him out outside of the strike zone. In 2005, Francouer drew 11 walks in 257 ABs. This year, he already has 327 ABs, but has only drawn 7 walks. He hit 20 HR in his 257 ABs last year; he only has 9 so far this year. Despite the fact that he's already become an Atlanta institution, Francouer needs to go back down to the minors, because he is not major-league ready. But the Braves, because of the PR pressures, may end up keeping him in the majors too long. If they do that, he may well be an Incaviglia-esque failure.
C: Brian McCann, Braves
At last, some good news for Atlanta fans. I have to caution you that McCann's only player 56 games, so we can't really take his numbers that seriously. Even still, a 352/412/519 hitting line is pretty amazing. McCann has taken over as the Atlanta catcher of the future.
Catcher is another position where (like at SS), the NL is far behind the AL. Whereas the AL has Mauer, Varitek, Victor Martinez, Pudge Rodriguez, and Posada, the NL really has no one who can compare to those 5, although McCann could be getting there soon.
Exhibit A: the second-best catcher in the NL is Dodger rookie Russell Martin. Martin is hitting a fine 301/372/458 and has shown good defense behind the plate. I could have given the #2 spot to Chicago's Michael Barrett (308/370/508), but the poor man is a defensive liability (-10 FRAA, worst among NL backstops).
David Ross is hitting well in Cincinnati (323/397/697), but with just 99 ABs, can you say "lucky?" Damian Miller and Mike Piazza are having decent seasons, as are young catchers Ronny Paulino of Pittsburgh and Miguel Olivo of Florida.
Paul Lo Duca has been a disappointment in New York (280/321/394), but it comes as little surprise, since he hasn't been as good as his reputation in years. Brad Ausmus (257/328/326) is a millstone around the Astros' neck, but they'll never admit it. Brian Schneider, who looked like a breakout star and defensive whiz last year (at least by catching standards), is having an awful year in Washington (234/310/309). Mike Matheny is struggling with the Giants (231/276/338), but that comes as a surprise only to GM Brian Sabean, who mistakenly thought he was signing players for the Senior Tour. And good though the Cardinals' Yadier Molina is behind the plate, even a catcher has to hit better than 214/266/301 to stay in the majors.
SP: Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
My top 10 NL pitchers would be:
1. Brandon Webb, ARZ
2. Bronson Arroyo, CIN
3. Jason Schmidt, SF
4. Pedro Martinez, NYM
5. Chris Carpenter, STL
6. Carlos Zambrano, CHC
7. Chris Capuano, MIL
8. Brad Penny, LA
9. Chris Young, SD
10. Aaron Cook, COL
Notes on the top 10: It's great to see Webb finally getting the respect he deserves as one of the best young hurlers in the game . . . Arroyo is good, but I doubt he'll stay this good . . . If Jason Schmidt really is healthy again, the Giants can thank their lucky stars . . . Capuano is starting to look like the real thing in Milwaukee, and with Ben Sheets still hurting, he's the only good starter they have . . . Moving to San Diego has really suited Chris Young in a deal that looks better for them every day . . . Aaron Cook looks like a fluke, but it's possible that his brand of pitching is just what it takes to succeed in Colorado, because he's been doing it for a while now.
Other starting pitchers of note: Aaron Harang is a big reason the Reds are still contending, as his 27:105 BB:K ratio in 105.1 IP is a wonderful surprise . . . Keep an eye on Florida's Josh Johnson, who's posted a 2.20 ERA through his first 73.2 IP, allowing just 3 HR . . . Tom Glavine's resurgence is for real, as evidenced by his improved BB:K numbers (30:75) . . . Without Brett Myers (3.86 ERA, 82 K in 98 IP), the Phillies' rotation is ca-ca . . . John Smoltz is still a good pitcher (3.89 ERA, 25:88 BB:K ratio), but the Braves should trade him if the right deal comes along . . . Dontrelle Willis' early-season struggles are behind him; after posting a 6.45 ERA in May, he's managed a 2.50 mark in June . . . The Braves need to figure out what is wrong with Tim Hudson (4.27 ERA, 42:74 BB:K ratio), as that trade with Oakland isn't looking so hot right now . . . I hope the Dodgers really don't think Aaron Sele (2.73 ERA despite 17:26 BB:K ratio) is for real, but considering their recent behavior, they probably do . . . Jake Peavy is still mowing them down (21:101 BB:K ratio), but his HR allowed (14 in 94 IP for a 4.50 ERA) are killing him, despite pitching in Petco . . . Byung-Hyun Kim (4.31 ERA, 26:56 BB:K ratio, 5 HR allowed in 64.2 IP) might be a pitcher who can consistently succeed at Coors . . . Greg Maddux (4.94 ERA despite 19:56 BB:K ratio) should really consider retirement after this season, especially given the state of the Cubs . . . Whatever bothered Livan Hernandez last year (3.98 ERA, 84:147 BB:K ratio) is still bothering him this year (5.57 ERA, 43:61 BB:K ratio) . . . Who's surprised that Jorge Sosa turned out to be a dud (5.18 ERA)? Other than you, Mr. Schuerholz . . . Some people thought that Sidney Ponson had turned things around in St. Louis, but his poor strikeout ratio has finally started to bump up his ERA (4.95 and rising) . . . Jason Marquis' career has been spiralling steadily downward for a while now, and the Cards need to get rid of him while they still can (5.82 ERA, 45 K in 102 IP) . . . The formerly hot prospect Oliver Perez may be gone forever (6.63 ERA).
RP: Trevor Hoffman, Padres
A list of my top 5 NL closers:
1. Trevor Hoffman, SD
2. Tom Gordon, PHI
3. Brian Fuentes, COL
4. Billy Wagner, NYM
5. Mike Gonzalez, PIT
I didn't think Hoffman had enough left for one more year, but he has thus far (1.29 ERA, 18/19 in SV) . . . Whatever else has gone wrong in Philadelphia, Tom Gordon has done his job well (1.93 ERA, 20/21 in SV, 11:41 BB:K ratio) . . . Cross your fingers, Colorado fans, you just might have the real thing in Brian Fuentes (2.35 ERA, 12:41 BB:K ratio, 3 HR allowed) . . . Billy Wagner hasn't been that bad, it's just that the four saves he's blown have seemed really big. Give a 34-year-old man a break
Other NL Closers: Derrick Turnbow (MIL), Chad Cordero (WSH), and Mike Gonzalez (PIT) are doing a fine job . . . Florida's Joe Borowski really can't be for real (3.34 ERA and 25 K in 29.2 IP despite 16 BB) . . . Ryan Dempster may not be as bad as he looks (4.59 ERA), but the Cubs still overpaid him by a fair amount . . Jason Isringhausen has been teetering on the brink for years, and 2006 might be the year he falls -- or not . . . It's too easy to say that the problem is "confidence," but something is certainly happening to Brad Lidge -- I think it's the walks (21 already this year, despite allowing just 23 all of last year) . . . Chris Reitsma's ERA is 9.11, which is exactly what Bobby Cox should call. John Schuerholz belief that his bullpen would magically come together this year was more than just confidence; it was hubris, a hubris that may help the tragic fall of the Braves dynasty.
Back later with the AL.