The San Diego Padres don’t have much in the way of offense. The lineup is anemic under the best of circumstances and having to hit in the vast dimensions of Petco Park is in fact the worst of circumstances. But it hasn’t stopped their 28-year-old third baseman Chase Headley from continuing the breakout year he enjoyed in 2011 and building on it in 2012.
Headley, now in his sixth year in the majors, starting getting good chunks of playing time in 2008 and became the team’s regular third baseman a year later. It was last season that he stepped up and hit .289, with enough plate discipline to translate that into an excellent .374 on-base percentage. Though the batting average is down 22 points going into Tuesday’s game, the walks are way up, to the point that his OBP is slightly higher this year at .376. The change from hits to walks is likely due to the fact the rest of the offense, save first baseman Yonder Alonso is so bad, pitchers have no incentive to give Headley anything to hit. But that factor can’t explain that Headley has improved his power—with a .424 slugging percentage, he’s far from an elite slugger, but when you factor in the lineup and the ballpark effects it speaks well to his continued development. This is Headley’s best season in the majors and he would have to be considered the leading candidate to be the Padres’ All-Star representative in Kansas City come July 10 and the #2 third baseman in the National League overall based on current numbers.
There’s no question who the cream of the crop is and that’s David Wright with the Mets. Hitting in a park almost as unfriendly as Petco and in a lineup not much better than the Padres, Wright has dazzled with a .455 on-base percentage that’s well-balanced between hits and walks, and his eight home runs key a .569 slugging percentage. Wright joins Cincinnati Reds’ first baseman Joey Votto as the two lead candidates for National League MVP, with Matt Kemp in Los Angeles sure to join that list when he gets healthy again.
The All-Star race for National League third baseman has been marred by injuries and underperformance, as no fewer than six third baseman with a solid track record aren’t in the discussion as of today…
*Pablo Sandoval and Chipper Jones can blame injuries, because they’ve both swung the bat well when they’re in the lineup. Sandoval in particular was a beast for a San Francisco team that desperately needs his bat, with a .362/.473 OBP/Slugging stat line. It’s possible that when TheSportsNotebook revisits this topic in September, Sandoval will be under serious consideration, although his DL time was extensive and he’s way behind the leaders in terms of raw playing time. Chipper doesn’t have great power, but with a .352 OBP he’s still a consistent offensive contributor in what he says is his final campaign (and I believe him, but after Michael Jordan, Roger Clemens & Brett Favre we know to take nothing for granted).
*St. Louis’ David Freese is certainly not having a bad year, as his 13 home runs and .498 slugging percentage attest. But I’d like to see that .317 on-base percentage come up significantly. He’s got a decent batting average and he’s in a strong enough lineup that chasing pitches isn’t necessary. If he got the 100-point spread between batting average and OBP that’s appropriate to great hitters the latter number would be in the .370s and Freese would be in the upper tier of this discussion.
*Aramis Ramirez had an All-Star caliber year in Chicago last season, and after a horrible start in Milwaukee is starting to get in gear, with a .335/.467 stat line. But the slow start still leaves him off the leader board at this writing.
*Hanley Ramirez is in the same situation, at .329/.451. There’s plenty of time for him to get really hot and he’s got a team good enough to make the playoffs and keep its individual stars at the top of any awards discussion by September.
*Ryan Zimmerman has been awful for Washington and the team desperately needs his bat if they’re going to continue their first-place run in the NL East. Zimmerman’s .229 batting average and three home runs are beyond unacceptable and completely out of character.
Any of the above six could join Headley and Wright at the top of the list in a few months. Further down the line, Pedro Alvarez has shown good power for Pittsburgh, with his two-homer day on Sunday being the latest in a year that’s seen him slug .451. But the .207 batting average with minimal walks is a significant issue. And Cincinnati’s got an interesting choice ahead with Todd Frazier. After replacing an injured Scott Rolen, Frazier ripped off a .333/.554 stat line in 130 at-bats. If it were me, there’d be nothing interesting about it. I’d tell an aging Rolen who had a bad year in 2011 that a change is being made. But Dusty Baker, in a year where Cincy is all-in for a division title, might not be comfortable pulling the trigger. At least the Reds are playing in an American League park right now so the DH can delay the decision for a little bit. All signs are that Baker goes with the veteran and buys Frazier some at-bats both at third and occasionally giving Votto a night off at first.
Placido Polanco (Philadelphia), Chris Johnson (Houston) and Ryan Roberts (Arizona) are all big disappointments, and in the case of Polanco and Roberts it’s enough to be a career crisis, as both their teams may look at trades. Arizona might get a veteran to step in, while Philly’s interest might be clearing Polanco as part of a get-younger strategy. As for Johnson, he’s shown enough in spurts to suggest he can eventually join second baseman Jose Altuve as one of the exciting young everyday players in the Astro lineup. But Johnson is not there yet.
Colorado and Chicago are both train wrecks at the hot corner right now. Ian Stewart hit the disabled list for the Cubs and he was doing nothing to begin with. Jordan Pacheo and Chris Nelson are non-productive for the Rockies with no reason to hope for better.