Judgment Day nears in Major League Baseball

Tuesday night David Ortiz was moved to the sixth spot in the batting order for the first time in five years. This was a result of weeks of poor play and an alarming absence of power from the previously Ruthian slugger.

Major League Baseball is roughly two months into their 2009 season. At this point, with the trade deadline roughly nine weeks away, team’s executives will start to evaluate the chance their current rosters give them to make the playoffs.

With two months of games behind us this is also the point of the season where early jitters and poor performance, if they are still lingering, become more pronounced for premier players. The primary task for the baseball executive, and the fantasy baseball owner for that matter, is to properly diagnose the nature of the problem that is afflicting their player so that the proper action can be taken.

Injuries: This is often the easiest problem to identify. Remember Vernon Wells in 2007? After a stellar 2006 campaign, Wells struggled mightily in the 2007 season. Near the end of August Wells admitted to a nagging shoulder injury and opted for much-needed surgery, taking the rest of the year off. There are many different types of injuries. Some can be played through, some require a little rest and others can cost players entire seasons. If a player’s production is severely limited by injury, however, it’s best to give them the time they need to get healthy.

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Slumps: There are a number of players who take a while to start producing. Take the New York Yankees’ recent All-Star free agent first basemen Mark Teixeira. A slow April in which he hit .200 with a measly 3 home runs and 10 RBI has since been erased by a May in which he has hit .327 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI. Slumps such as Tex’s, especially when they are habitual, are hardly anything to worry about. Longer slumps, such as the one that Alex Rios is currently experiencing, are harder to deal with. Do you drop the player in the batting order? Send him for a rehab assignment in the minors? It depends on the player you are dealing with. Younger players often need a shakeup or a change of focus to rebound. Older players may need to be rested or may be, unfortunately, in their decline stage.

Anomalies: This category is nearly impossible to properly define but serves as a broad banner term covering a number of different occurrences. Basically an anomaly is an event in a player’s career that cannot be explained by reasonable means. Some players have entire seasons that can be described as anomalous, take Gary Matthews Jr.’s season statistics from 2005-2007 for example. In 2006 he had a .313 batting average. That was sandwiched by two years where he barely cracked .250. The one good year, which has been historically shown to be an anomaly, garnered Matthews a good contract with the Angels. It is the task of general managers to discern when a player’s performance is indicative of his skill set or if his numbers are anomalously bad or good and to adjust accordingly. In Matthews’ case his great numbers have faded and as a result he has become a rather expensive extra outfielder.

Decline: Have you been waiting for the discussion on ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz? Did you hope you would see his name in the slump category? Or, did you hope his recent woes would be described as an anomaly? Unfortunately the reality for Ortiz is that he is likely in the period of his career where his stats, naturally, are falling off. For many players this happens gradually as they reach their mid-30s. 34, in fact, is the normal age for players to begin their decline phase. For Ortiz, 33, decline has come more quickly. Nobody should be surprised by this, though, as a precedent was set for Ortiz’s decline just a few years ago. In 1998 Mo Vaughn finished fourth in MVP voting, by 2002 he was in serious decline and he played his final game in 2003 at age 35. Why the steep decline? Like Ortiz, Vaughn was plagued by nagging injuries, struggled with his weight and spent a lot of ‘resting’ time at DH. All these things take their toll on a player’s body and contribute to rapid decline phases. Many people suspect that performance-enhancing drugs are to blame for the rapid decline of players such as Vaughn and Ortiz but in an era where so many people have abused drugs this is too big a topic to get into here. The job of the general manager is to decide whether a player in his decline phase can be of use to the club as a leader/mentor such as Ivan Rodriguez has been for a couple of years now for various teams or if the player’s lack of production has become a liability.

Regardless of the reason June is the month where managers and general managers start to make more final decisions with their players. What will happen to players who struggle? Only time will tell.

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