The 2010 season is rapidly approaching the quarter pole, and that means pennant races and individual performances are just beginning to take shape. If you're partial to going negative, this occasion might bring to mind certain notable performers who have thus far failed to, well, perform. Of course, it's one thing to struggle on a team that has no prayer of contention. It's quite another thing to struggle for a team that is contending or was expected to do so. The players who are doing that are the "step it up" guys — i.e., those who need to improve in a hurry lest their teams fall short of their lofty goals. And here they are ...
Max Scherzer, Tigers
Scherzer has upside and, until 2010, a strong major league track record. In this, his first season in Detroit, however, he's scuttled badly. He's got an ERA north of 7.00, he's given up nine home runs in 42.0 innings and his strikeout rate has declined significantly. The Tigers were worried enough to option him down to Triple-A. They need Scherzer to figure things out. That's especially the case given the struggles of every pitcher in the rotation not named Justin Verlander.
Skip Schumaker, Cardinals
Schumaker's been hitting a bit better in recent days, but his overall numbers remain disappointing. When he's on, he's a solid on-base threat who'll smack a double every now and then. In 2010, however, he hasn't been on, and, as a converted outfielder, his defensive contributions at second base are limited. Given shortstop Brendan Ryan's struggles at the plate, they need Schumaker to stabilize the middle infield. Their hope is that he's beginning to do just that.
Gordon Beckham, White Sox
Last season, Beckham was good enough to finish fifth in the AL Rookie-of-the-Year balloting, but this season he's been one of the least productive regulars in the game. He has just five extra-base hits, and his OBP is below .300. Beckham has more power than he's shown, and overall he's a much better hitter than these miserable numbers would suggest. He'll get better, but he'll need to get much better if the Sox, who have a number of issues, are to get back in the race.
Todd Helton, Rockies
The Rockies' elder statesman is hitting quite like an elder statesman thus far. First base, of course, is a power position, but in 132 plate appearances this season, Helton has zero home runs and just four doubles. The OBP is fine, but Helton — particularly as a corner defender who plays his home games at a mile above sea level — badly needs to show more power. He's almost bound to get better, but he's very much in his decline phase.
Melky Cabrera, Braves
Cabrera was supposed to be a key part of a revamped outfield in Atlanta, but he hasn't delivered thus far. First and foremost, he's slugging .229. When your slugging percentage would make for a bad batting average, you simply have no power. In a related matter, Cabrera has been losing playing time of late. But if the Braves are going to challenge for the NL wild card (let alone the division title), they need Cabrera to hit a little. Soon to come: The other half of the trade that sent Cabrera to the Braves.
Brandon Wood, Angels
The Angels haven't been entirely patient with Wood over the years, but the evidence that he's not a good major-league hitter is mounting. Wood raked throughout the minors, but thus far his skills haven't translated. Actually, that's being a bit charitable: in 350 career plate appearances at the highest level, Wood has a batting line of .184 AVG/.209 OBP/.286 SLG. He's still just 25, and he's still entitled to a longer look. However, the results so far have been grim. The struggling Angels probably don't have time for a learning curve.
Chone Figgins, Mariners
Has there been a more disappointing team in baseball than the Mariners? Touted as the AL West favorites by many, Seattle instead is battling for the worst record in baseball. Blaming one player on a team with so many problems isn't fair, but Figgins takes the fall for these purposes. The M's marquee free-agent acquisition is batting just .182, getting on base at just a .306 clip and slugging just .242. Those are, quite obviously, horrid numbers. The M's need many things to happen in order to get back into contention, and one of those things is for Figgins to produce at something close to an acceptable level.
Javier Vazquez, Yankees
Suffice it to say, you're not going to hear any "Jav-ier Vaz-quez" clap, clap, clap-clap-clap chants at Yankee Stadium any time soon. Vazquez has been a quality pitcher for his entire career, save for the brief time he's spent in pinstripes. And that's what matters this season. Right now, Vazquez is on pace to give up 35 home runs in just 131 innings of work, and that's unacceptable. On the other hand, he's coming off his first quality start of the season, so perhaps he's turned a corner. On the nonexistent third hand, the Yankees seem to believe otherwise, as they shuffled the rotation so that Vazquez won't face the Red Sox and Rays this week.
Jeff Francoeur, Mets
The Mets' right fielder and painfully enthusiastic Delta Airlines spokesman is struggling badly in 2010. Francoeur started off hot this season, but he's been unspeakably bad in May (he's got a revolting batting line of .100 AVG/.145 OBP/.100 SLG for the month). He's showing very little in the way of raw power, and his plate discipline is as bad as it's ever been, which is ... quite bad. His career numbers against right-handed pitching suggest Francouer is, at best, a fourth or fifth outfielder who should be used only against lefties. But this isn't the prevailing view in baseball, so he plays every day and racks up outs by the truckload. Unless Francouer heats up again and stays that way (or gets benched), the Mets will struggle to get back in the race.
Josh Beckett, Red Sox
The Boston rotation has a multitude of problems, and chief among those problems is Josh Beckett. At this writing, Beckett has the second-worst ERA of any AL qualifier (7.29), is on pace to post the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career and is on the DL with back problesm. There's some bad luck involved in Beckett's struggles (his Batting Average on Balls in Play, which is unusually high at the moment, will come down), so he'll get better as the season moves on (provided he's healthy, of course). However, unless he does a better job of spotting his two-seamer, he's not going to be the Beckett of old. The Sox, already working from behind in baseball's toughest division, very much need the Beckett of old.