Following up last week’s column, I’m going to take a look at four AL players who might be tying you in knots trying to decide whether you can bank on their performances to continue in the second half, or whether you should replace them with someone you know you can count on.

Certain players don’t seem to present terribly difficult decisions in my mind–Felipe Lopez‘s first half, for instance, bears more than a little resemblance to Alex Gonzalez the Marlin’s first half in 2003, and we all know how that’s turned out. (Besides, the art of finding comparable players is already in good hands.) Looking for clues to the future in a player’s numbers, though, is always a useful skill, and one well worth practicing.

Kevin Mench

One of those prospects who’s managed to be hyped, overhyped and a post-hype sleeper all in the same career, Mench is having a textbook Age 27 season, matching the ability to hit for average he showed in 2003 with the power he displayed in 2004, and landing in the AL’s top ten in OPS as a result. It’s also been a full calendar year since his last DL stint, which is perhaps the most crucial element of his breakthrough. Like Nick Johnson, Mench’s talent has never really been in question, only his ability to stay in the lineup to use it.

Or is his health the most crucial element after all?:

Half           BB/100 PA   K/100 PA  BA   OBP  SLG
1st Half 2003    7.19       12.23   .320 .381 .464
1st Half 2004    4.62       12.61   .276 .319 .529
2nd Half 2004    9.05       13.58   .281 .350 .548
1st Half 2005    8.26       11.74   .304 .370 .585

Since the 2004 All-Star break, Mench has shown a much better control of the strike zone along with his increased ability not to get hurt. He flashed that discipline in 2003 before a broken wrist ended his year, but he’s not just laying off the bad pitches now–he’s hammering the good ones. Being healthy seems to have allowed him to hone his skills.

Recommendation: The only worry with Mench should be whether he can stay off the DL, as there’s nothing statistically to indicate he’s hitting above his level. In fact, it’s possible he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet. He’s worth hanging onto, although in a keeper league (if his price tag makes him attractive trade bait) you might be tempted to swap him for a more stable elite commodity such as Vladimir Guerrero.

Bruce Chen

It’s time to play Spot the Pattern:

Year   IP    BB/9   K/9   HR/9  ERA
2000  134.0  3.09   7.52  1.21  3.29
2001  146.0  3.64   7.77  1.79  4.87
2002   77.2  4.98   9.27  1.85  5.56
2003   24.1  3.70   7.40  2.22  5.55
2004   47.2  3.02   6.04  1.32  3.02
2005   84.1  2.45   6.08  0.96  3.31

Sample sizes are an issue here, as Chen has driven so many pitching coaches ’round the bend that his major league opportunities often got abruptly cut short. But what he’s done in Baltimore the last two seasons nicely matches the success he had in Atlanta in 2000, as he kept the ball around the plate a little more, and in the park a lot more, en route to sub-4.00 ERAs.

Can he keep it up though? There’s a reason he’s on pace to shatter Mike Morgan‘s record for most hats worn in a career. Chen hasn’t been able to maintain a solid performance level for long without falling into bad habits, and he hasn’t been able to stick with a club for more than a couple of seasons before wearing out his welcome. At 28 you have to think he’s gained some measure of maturity, but until he actually sets a new high for most innings pitched in one uniform (his current mark is 180.2 with the Phillies) it’s a big leap of faith to assume he won’t self-destruct once again.

Recommendation: Chen is one you’ll probably have to sink or swim with, as his past record still hangs over him like a dark cloud. There’s almost no way you could get fair value for him based on what he’s doing now and, since the problem isn’t talent-related, there’s no reliable way to predict if he’ll keep it up. Just make sure you have insurance ready in case it turns out Chen hasn’t learned anything from his past.

Aubrey Huff

For three seasons, despite constant turmoil in the lineup around him and a lack of a consistent position on the field, Huff has been a rock in Tampa Bay’s lineup. It was expected that he’d stay a rock for at least a couple seasons more, as he’s just 28 this year.

So far… eh, not so much:

Year  BB/100 PA    K/100 PA   G/F   BA   OBP  SLG
2002    7.49        11.13    1.31  .313 .364 .520
2003    7.51        11.33    1.33  .311 .367 .555
2004    8.40        11.09    1.24  .297 .360 .493
2005    8.30        15.88    1.18  .260 .329 .370

Huff has come up empty in his swing a lot more often this year, taking a massive hit to his ISO in the process. Aside from the strikeouts though, there’s nothing in his statistical line that hints at why he’s struggling so badly. If anything, he’s hitting a few more fly balls than usual, which under normal circumstances would translate into more XBH. PECOTA didn’t see this coming either, giving Huff a tiny 4.5% Attrition Rate.

The only encouraging news is that Huff has gone through this before, if not this severely. A notorious second half hitter, from ’02-’04 Huff posted an OPS after the All-Star break 124 points better, on average, than he did prior to the break. Of course, a 124 point improvement on what he’s done so far in 2005 would still be a big disappointment, but at least it’s something to hang your hat on.

Recommendation: First half/second half splits are a very unreliable thing from season to season, but with nothing obvious in Huff’s numbers to explain the sudden power loss (injury-related or otherwise) there’s no obvious reason to think he won’t rebound from a slow start as he has in previous years. The production’s in there somewhere; you’ll just have to be patient waiting for it to arrive.

Keith Foulke

At this point in the season, most of the slow-starting closers have either reverted to form or lost their jobs. Not so with Foulke. Boston’s bullpen struggles haven’t left any good candidates to replace him, and with only two blown saves in 15 chances there haven’t been many obviously painful meltdowns to pin on him. But Foulke isn’t pitching up to his normal standards nonetheless:

Year  BB/9  K/9  HR/9   ERA   WHIP
2002  1.51  6.72 0.81  2.90  1.004
2003  2.08  9.14 1.04  2.08  0.888
2004  1.62  8.57 0.87  2.17  0.940
2005  2.90  6.97 1.74  5.23  1.387

While the jump in the HR rate stands out, Foulke’s numbers have slipped across the board. His walks are up, his hits allowed are way up, and his strikeouts have dropped to the bottom of his established range. As with any reliever, those numbers could be radically different in two weeks, but this appears to be more than just a few bad outings that have yet to even themselves out.

Recommendation: Of the top 10 save-getters in the majors only two are under 30 (Chad Cordero and B.J. Ryan), so it wouldn’t be fair to simply write Foulke off because he’s 32. Nonetheless, his season to date looks suspiciously like an erosion of his skills rather than a bad spell. He’s still a big-name closer on a high profile team, so if you get a solid offer you should probably take it before his value slips any further.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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