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Last night, Bobby Crosby popped his ninth homer to help the A’s beat the Orioles, 5-4. The win helped the A’s hold onto first place over the scorching hot Angels, who won their eighth in a row later in the evening.

The problem the A’s have is that the homer by Crosby was a rare highlight for a player who some, quite reasonably, saw as an MVP candidate coming into the season. He certainly fit the profile: a prime-aged middle infielder with a broad base of skills, batting in the middle of the order for a team that was not only likely to win its division, but had a good chance to be the best team in the league. What wasn’t there to like?

Unfortunately, Crosby’s 2006 season has not been MVP-caliber, or anything close. In fact, Clay Davenport’s system pegs Crosby as a barely-above-replacement player, generating just two-tenths of a win so far. That reflects a considerable drop in his defense according to that system, from an above-average shortstop (Rate2: 111) to below (Rate2: 91). Even if you take that with a grain of salt–defensive statistics can be wonky in half-season samples, and there’s been no comparable degradation in Crosby’s observed range–it’s Crosby’s bat that has really driven down his value.

Last year, in a season truncated by rib and ankle fractures, Crosby showed the kind of improvement that you love to see in a young player. He cut his strikeout rate by two-thirds while maintaining his walk rate and power, with the ensuing jump in batting average boosting his overall numbers across the board. When he was in the lineup, the A’s were among the best teams in baseball. When he wasn’t, they were one of the worst.

The A’s were impressed enough by Crosby’s performance to make him their #3 hitter at the start of the season. A .215/.261/.323 April put a severe crimp in that plan and the team’s run scoring. He’s improved a bit since then, but a look at his month-to-month splits–admittedly not a perfect tool–shows the pattern of a player struggling to put things together. In May, Crosby hit for average (.276) and power (.483 SLG, .207 ISO) while striking out about once every five ABs with a 22/7 K/BB. It was his most productive month. In June, he improved his plate discipline (12 walks, 15 whiffs in 83 AB) but lost average and hit for no power at all, just three doubles. He’s been lost in July: .161/.266/.232.

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider what Crosby is going to be. It may be that instead of being a challenger to the top tier of AL shortstops, he’s actually not able to hit for the kind of average that a Derek Jeter or Miguel Tejada does. Perhaps to be an effective hitter, he needs a contact rate that won’t support a .300 BA or a .380 OBP, but will allow him to hit 35 doubles and 25 homers. That’s still a productive player, although not a superstar, and perhaps not someone suited for the middle of the order in a contender’s lineup.

At 26, Crosby is in his peak already. With more than 1300 MLB plate appearances under his belt and a .244/.318/.408 lifetime line, it’s clear that the Long Beach State product isn’t going to be a reasonable replacement for Tejada. Over the next couple of seasons, though, he can be the fourth or fifth-best hitter in a lineup good enough to win division titles. The A’s now have to accept that, and plan accordingly. They’re not going to be getting enough production from shortstop to be as blithe about the outfield corners and first base as they have been, and as we’ve seen, offense is a real problem for this team. One of the first steps in addressing that problem is seeing Crosby for what he is, and not for what he and many others thought he was going to be.