Power outages dimming first-base production

Power outages dimming first-base production

Power outages dimming first-base production
LOS ANGELES -- It's not so much a case of "Who's on first?" this unpredictable season. It's more a matter of "What's going on over there?"

Beyond the big shoulders of Paul Konerko and Bryan LaHair in Chicago and a handful of other locales (Cincinnati, Detroit, Houston, Washington), the traditional power plant at first base has produced a strangely unexpected array of outages.

This story, of course, begins and ends with Albert Pujols.

Pujols' numbers falling below all tracking systems to levels evoking disbelief, the Angels' extravagant acquisition has been the talk of baseball for reasons he never could have anticipated when he signed his 10-year free-agent deal.

Roughly one-fourth of the way through the season, his numbers look like they belong to another Pujols -- Luis, the light-hitting catcher from the 1970s and '80s.

"If Albert can have a bad month," said Konerko, the consistently productive White Sox slugger, "it can happen to anybody in the world -- because he is the best in the world."

Pujols is hitting .211 with three home runs, 18 RBIs and a .569 OPS (on-base plus slugging) in his first 41 games with the Angels, compared to .325 and 1.026 lifetime, respectively.

Konerko, like everyone else, expects Pujols to bust out any day now and go on a rampage. Maybe he'll pull along another 20 struggling first basemen with him.

"First base and third base and the corner outfield positions are always going to be considered power and RBI spots," Konerko said. "When players struggle at those positions, it stands out more than if it's a guy playing another position."

Konerko, recovering from a pitch that hit him above the left eye on Friday, stands atop the heap with his .367 average and 1.058 OPS. One of the game's most consistent weapons, he isn't interested in offering any explanations for his explosive start.

"I really don't know what to tell you," Konerko said. "I'm just playing the game."

Hitters are funny that way. They generally don't like to dissect their hot streaks, worried that words will incite the baseball gods. Maybe Pujols should hold daily media soul sessions at his locker until he snaps out of his doldrums.

As he struggles to find his true identity in his debut American League season, King Albert is far from alone.

The production of established stars such as Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira and Todd Helton are all well below career norms across the board. Prince Fielder, the other big free-agent prize of this past winter, is starting to bring some thunder to Detroit. But the Tigers, like Pujols' Angels, have been a disappointment.

There's no explanation why first basemen across the game's landscape, reaching into Canada, are having big problems getting to first base -- and beyond.

Toronto's Adam Lind, who had 26 homers and 87 RBIs last season and career highs of 35 and 114 in 2009, was placed on outright waivers when he was unable to pull himself out of his funk. He was hitting .186 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 29 games.

Miami's Gaby Sanchez, who clubbed 19 homers each of the past two seasons with 85 and 78 RBIs, was demoted to Triple-A New Orleans when his average fell to .197 with another hitless effort Saturday.

Perhaps most perplexing of all is the case of Eric Hosmer. The projected Royals star with the sweet swing has endured an inexplicable slumber after homering in two of the first three games of the season against the Angels.

Appraised as a future batting champion by scouts, Hosmer is hitting .172 with a .549 OPS. He hit .293 with a .799 OPS in 128 games last year, clubbing 19 homers with 78 RBIs.

Just as baffling -- and baffled -- is the Mets' Ike Davis, a .163 hitter with a .524 OPS for the Mets. As a rookie in 2010, he hit .264 with 19 homers and 71 RBIs.

Teixeira, the other first baseman in New York, is off to his characteristic start, hitting .228 with a .669 OPS. He has 20 RBIs with five homers. Check back in September, and he'll probably have his 30 homers and 100 RBIs, but of concern is a batting average in steady decline.

On the flip side of these disappointments stands LaHair. In his 10th professional season, at 29, the Worcester, Mass., native has emerged as a force with the reshaped North Siders.

LaHair is batting .311 with a 1.037 OPS, second among all first baseman to Konerko's 1.057. In 65 Major League games coming into the season, LaHair owned five homers and 16 RBIs. He has launched 10 bombs with 21 RBIs in 37 games.

"He's had a great first six weeks," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "He's been everything we've hoped he would and then some. We really needed some offense out of somebody. It's been great to see.

"Hopefully, it just continues and he adjusts to everything that's going to happen. When you start having that success, people start adjusting to you and you've got to adjust, too."

The only National League first baseman producing at LaHair's rate is the Reds' Joey Votto, with his .308/.456/.594 slash line. Votto has seven homers and 28 RBIs in 39 games as the centerpiece of manager Dusty Baker's attack.

Washington's Andy LaRoche (.963 OPS), Atlanta's Freddie Freeman (.818) and Houston's Carlos Lee (.788) are slugging and getting on base at impressive clips, along with Fielder (.851) and Baltimore's Chris Davis (.790) in the AL.

But they're in the minority. The majority of first basemen aren't delivering to expectations.

"It's just one of those things," Konerko said. "Guys who have hit will hit."

LaHair was originally property of the Mariners, who are waiting for Justin Smoak to develop into the hitter they envisioned when he was the centerpiece of the 2010 deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. Smoak, who homered and drove in two runs in Sunday's win at Colorado, is hitting .218 with a .591 OPS.

Consider the Red Sox and Padres. Gonzalez left a gaping hole in the San Diego lineup when he was dealt to Boston after the 2010 season. After a brilliant AL debut (.338, 27 homers, 117 RBIs, .957 OPS), Gonzalez has delivered modest numbers (.272, three homers, 21 RBIs, .756 OPS) thus far for new manager Bobby Valentine.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, rookie Yonder Alonso quietly has adapted beautifully to spacious Petco Park. Acquired from the Reds as part of the package in exchange for Mat Latos, Alonso is hitting .293 with a .785 OPS after delivering a pair of hits and RBIs in Sunday's 3-2 Interleague decision over the Angels, giving the Padres the weekend series.

The Cardinals and Rangers, who got to know one another last October in a classic World Series, are handling first base with a baton.

In Pujols' absence, with Lance Berkman limited to 13 games and possible out for a much longer period, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig -- currently on the DL with a hamstring injury -- have stepped in and given new Cards manager Mike Matheny quality at-bats. Matt Adams, the Cardinals' No. 8 prospect according to MLB.com, went 2-for-4 with a run scored in his Major League debut Sunday night.

Texas goes with Mitch Moreland primarily, but on a given night, you might find Michael Young, Mike Napoli or Brandon Snyder at first. Whichever lever manager Ron Washington pulls, it seems to hit the jackpot.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.