Late Wednesday night, San Francisco Giants shortstop Miguel Tejada sat quietly at a table in the visitors’ clubhouse at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, with hitting coach Hensley Meulens at his side. Tejada was leaning forward, elbows on the table, chin in his hands. They were looking at video of a younger Tejada, as a Baltimore Oriole, slamming baseballs all over various stadiums, in the hopes something would be triggered in Tejada’s brain.
But Tejada, in the midst of a horrendous slump, was benched on Thursday, as the Giants wrapped up a three-game series. Presumably, he will be back in the Giants’ lineup tonight as the defending World Series champions open a four-game series at Nationals Park. But it is fair to ask — as many in the Bay Area already are — how much longer the Giants can stick with Tejada, if his performance at the plate does not improve.
“The biggest thing is, we need more presence from him, more ability to drive in runs,” Giants General Manager Brian Sabean said of Tejada on Thursday. “He’s always been a pretty good starter to the season — which is kind of alarming, because this season has not started well for him.”
Sabean had more to say in this story about the sense of urgency the Giants need to have, as they are already 4 ½ games behind the deep and talented Colorado Rockies in the NL West. But perhaps because of his age (Tejada turns 37 next month) and the drop-off in his numbers in 2010 (his .692 OPS was by far a career low), the concern over Tejada is particularly high.
“We’re trying to figure out what he’s going through,” Sabean said. “I know he’s trying to make some adjustments.”
Meantime, Bruce Bochy, the Giants’ manager, took a softer approach toward Tejada, pointing to the plethora of struggling stars throughout baseball — a quick peek at the stats reveals that Hanley Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Carl Crawford, Dan Uggla and Vernon Wells are all hitting below the Mendoza Line – to underscore the fact that Tejada “is not the lone soldier” mired in an April slump.
“He’ll get settled in,” Bochy said. “He’s been doing this too long, and he’s too good a hitter [not to]. Once he gets rolling and gets his confidence going, you’ll see a different player.”
The Giants certainly hope so. Even after singling as a pinch hitter Thursday, Tejada has just four hits in his last 32 at-bats (.125). His OPS of .559 this season is 133 points lower than the career-low he produced in 2010.
To a degree, Tejada’s struggles parallel those of the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter, who turns 37 a month after Tejada does and who is also the subject of intense scrutiny over his performance. Those struggles highlight the fact that history generally isn’t kind to shortstops in their mid-30s. Jeter has already ditched the new swing he worked on during spring training, going back to his old one. At a certain point, when their bat speed slows, older hitters have to “cheat” — start their swings early — to get to fastballs, leaving them susceptible to off-speed stuff.
“That point comes with every player,” Bochy said. “It’s not that easy [to change] when you’ve done something one way for so many year. . . . But we’re not talking about that with Miggy right now.”
Tejada, the Giants’ only major acquisition this past offseason, was the 2002 American League MVP and an all-star for the Houston Astros just two years ago. As with Jeter and the Yankees, you give star players a lot of leeway when it comes to early-season slumps.
The worry, obviously, is that it isn’t a slump at all, but instead a snapshot of the new reality for an aging star.