Underachieving stars who need to turn their seasons around
Jason Varitek calls one heck of a game. Everybody in baseball recognizes the Boston catcher and team captain as a steadying defensive hand, a consummate professional, a stand-up guy.
But in the last throes of a four-year, $40 million deal he signed with the Red Sox after the 2004 World Series, Varitek is having the exact opposite of a contract-year push. He is having the worst year of his career. The 36-year-old Varitek is on pace to have career-worst numbers in batting average (he's hitting .226), on-base percentage (a miserable .317), slugging percentage (.369), strikeouts, RBIs and ... well, you get the picture. From one stretch, from May 22 to Aug. 17, the switch-hitting catcher did not hit a single home run left-handed.
The Red Sox need Varitek in the worst of ways. J.D. Drew is out for another week or more with his sore back. Mike Lowell has a pulled oblique muscle and will miss at least a few more games. Manny Ramirez is gone.
The Sox have a rookie (Jed Lowrie) taking Lowell's spot at third, a backup (Alex Cora) at shortstop, new guys in left field and right field (Jason Bay and Mark Kotsay) and they trail the first-place Rays by 4 1/2 games in the American League East. If ever the Sox needed Varitek to revert to the earlier Varitek -- this is a player who, in 2005, had 22 home runs and 30 doubles in winning the Silver Slugger award -- it is now.
Varitek, if you look closely, may be showing signs he's snapping out of his funk. He hit .264 in August, his best month since May. Since Aug. 16, he's hitting .342. He had three home runs in that stretch, more than he had in June, July and his first 12 games in August combined.
Can Varitek have a September to remember? Boston's season may count on it.
Here are 10 other players who need to turn it around this month for teams hoping to make postseason plans:
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
After his postseason party in '07, in which he hit .438 in Boston's World Series sweep of Colorado, a lot was expected of the speedy young outfielder. Maybe that's the problem.
Remember, Ellsbury is still pretty young. He turns 25 on Sept. 11. That might help explain the growing pains of a .267 season that includes a paltry .329 on-base percentage. Ellsbury bounced back from a terrible July with a .287 batting average in August. But he's still striking out twice as many times as he walks. If he gets on, he's dangerous (43 steals). He has to get on.
What's ahead: What you've seen this year is a lot more reliable than what you saw last year. And though he had a nice bounceback in August, Ellsbury still has only a .297 OBP after the break. Don't expect him to be a September hero.
Paul Konerko, White Sox
It's probably safe to say that if Konerko -- who has two more years on a $60 million contract that he signed after Chicago's 2005 World Series win -- had been hitting well all season, the Sox would be in much better shape and Ken Griffey Jr. might still be playing in Cincinnati.
Instead, White Sox GM Kenny Williams saw Konerko's numbers (now at .235, 13 homers, 47 RBIs, his worst numbers since '03) and decided to get him some help. And a funny thing happened. In 22 games in August, Konerko hit .333 with a .483 OBP, four homers and 12 RBIs. If he keeps that up, the charging Twins will have plenty to worry about in September.
What's ahead: Historically, June, July and August are Konerko's strongest months. But he missed most of June with a pulled oblique muscle. And the breathers he's getting when Nick Swisher takes over at first are clearly helping. The big first baseman could be in for one of the better Septembers of his career.
Orlando Cabrera, White Sox
OPS+ is a measure of on-base and slugging percentages combined, adjusted for ballparks and the league in which someone plays. It might be a little esoteric for many fans. An OPS+ of 100 is considered average. Cabrera has rarely had that in his 12-year career.
This year, his OPS+ is at a career-low 80. The 33-year-old shortstop is on pace to strike out more than he ever has. And though he'll probably walk more than he ever has, too, he is clearly the lightest hitter and easiest out in a White Sox lineup that is otherwise scary good.
What's ahead: Cabrera is who he is. He usually enjoys a little uptick in September stats, but it's nothing remarkable (.282 batting average). The Sox are fine with that, as long as his defense (he has the best range in the league at short) remains the same.
Garret Anderson, Angels
Anderson has never been a high on-base guy (is career OBP is .327) and he hasn't topped 20 home runs in a season since 2003, when he had 29.
This year, though, Anderson's OBP is down at .317, he has only 14 homers and his batting average is at .281, 15 points below his career average. The Angels don't absolutely need Anderson now that they have Mark Teixeira and Torii Hunter. But a little more would help.
What's ahead: Manager Mike Scioscia has tried to rest Mr. Angel this year. Anderson has played 48 games as the designated hitter, presumably to save him some wear and tear. He'll probably continue that through September (he's a .298 career hitter after August), which will put him into the postseason fresher than he's ever been.
Chone Figgins, Angels
Again, you don't get one of the game's best records by fielding a bunch of nobodies. But how good would the Angels be with Figgins (.283, 14 extra-base hits in 98 games, 87 OPS+) playing more like he did last year (.330, 33 extra-base hits in 115 games, 117 OPS+)?
What's ahead: September is usually one of Figgins' better months, and with all the time off he's had -- he missed 33 games with a strained hamstring -- he ought to be ready to go. He's hit .349 in his last 11 games, with a .417 OBP.
Pedro Martinez, Mets
If the Mets are going to make sure they don't go through that same September swoon that they did in '07, a lot will ride on the veteran pitcher of the staff, Martinez. If you'll remember, Martinez was pretty good last September, going 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA in five starts.
This year, the ol' right-hander is slogging along with a 5.07 ERA in 16 starts. But there is hope. In his last five starts, he is 2-0 with a 3.77 ERA. Johan Santana could certainly use his help.
What's ahead: Martinez has a career 2.94 ERA in the month of September, but this is an older, more cautious Martinez at the back end of his career. He's still effective, but he hasn't gone more than seven innings in a start this season, and he's done that only twice. Expect good in September. Don't expect great.
Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
In his first 106 games this season, through Aug. 24, the Philadelphia shortstop and reigning National League MVP was hitting .255 with a terrible .321 OBP. What's more, he had only eight home runs in 477 plate appearances.
In his last seven games, he is 14-for-29 (.483) with a .528 OBP. He has a homer, three doubles, a triple, and seven RBIs. Is he back? The Phillies, who trail in both the NL East (by one game) and the wild-card race (by 51/2 to the Brewers), sure hope so.
What's ahead: He is heating up. And for a guy with a career .293 average in September -- that's almost 20 points better than any other month -- it seems just about right on time. He's also a career .500 slugger in the month of September -- 59 points better than any other month -- so expect a lot of big, game-changing hits from the 29-year-old Rollins coming up.
Bobby Howry, Cubs
The Cubs have one of -- if not the -- deepest bullpens in the game. With Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Sarmardzija, Chad Gaudin, Neal Cotts and others, it's sometimes easy to forget Howry. A lot of Cubs' fans would like to forget him.
Howry has thrown more innings (64) than anyone but Marmol this season, yet he has a 5.06 ERA. Left-handed hitters are killing the veteran righty (.324 batting average). Manager Lou Piniella will probably give Howry, in the last year of a three-year, $12 million contract, a lot of September to straighten things out. If he doesn't, don't expect to see much of him in October.
What's ahead: Piniella can afford to use Howry this month, and he probably will, if for no other reason than to rest his better relievers for the postseason. Howry will get close to his career record of 81 1/3 innings in a season (set last year). Good news for Cubs fans: Howry has a 3.04 ERA in September, his best in any month. He may not do so well this year -- he is 35 now -- but he won't kill the Cubs.
Bill Hall, Brewers
The move back to third base this season was supposed to help Hall. But he's hitting just .231, with a .298 OBP. Only six regulars in the NL have a worse OBP (minimum 350 plate appearances) than Hall, who has 100 strikeouts in his 89 starts.
What's ahead: Hall seems lost at the plate, and though he loves this time of the year -- his .267 average and .343 OBP in September are his best for any month -- he's been getting worse, not better, this year (.235 average in August). He had a decent July, but he's showing few signs now that he's going to have anything close to a breakout in this last month.
Chris Young, Diamondbacks
The 24-year-old center fielder is likely to have more than 150 strikeouts by season's end (he's at 140 now), though he has increased his walk total from last year (he had only 43 in 148 games in '07, and he already has 49 in '08) and his batting average is up (.237 to .245). Young is no longer the leadoff hitter. Not with a .307 OBP. But to stay at No. 2 in the lineup -- and for the D'backs to generate more offense -- he's got to learn to put the bat on the ball more often. The sooner, the better.
What's ahead: We don't have much to work with on Young, but he did improve his numbers slightly last year in September. Manager Bob Melvin has stuck with his guy for two years. He'll stick with him now, even with more strikeouts, that lame OBP and declining power numbers (32 homers in '07 to 18 this year),