A look at some struggling stars

Maybe the world did end on May 21 and this is some Twilight Zone-ish parallel universe we’re living in, because there’s plenty about the first two months of this baseball season that just doesn’t seem too, well, Earth-y.

Carl Crawford has a .269 on-base percentage?

Adam Dunn‘s batting average is .180?

Albert Pujols sports a .745 OPS?

Hanley Ramirez is hitting .210?

Dan Uggla is following it up with a .175 clip?

I can’t figure it out. But I did find it interesting that almost all of these guys — with the exception of Hanley — are either in the first or final year of their current deals. With a new contract comes pressure, with an expiring one comes uncertainty. Could that be to blame?

Nobody can know for sure. But here’s a closer look at The Mystifying Five …

Crawford

We’ve seen spurts, little flashes in the pan that the Red Sox’s new left fielder is getting back to being the electrifying player he was for so long in Tampa Bay. There was an 11-game hitting streak at the beginning of May that saw him bat .356, a few walk-offs sprinkled in, and back-to-back four-hit games on May 25 and 26.

But still, the consistency has lacked for one of the most consistent — and now richest — players in baseball.

Terry Francona has protected Crawford a bit by keeping him away from the top of the order since his dreadful start, batting him sixth recently. Upon being named American League Player of the Week on Tuesday, Crawford  sounded upbeat, saying: “I’m feeling a lot better. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable at the plate. Things are slowing down for me a lot. I feel like it’s definitely gotten better for me from the way I started off.”

But after May 26, Crawford has notched just three hits in a span of 20 at-bats, and thus the inconsistencies continue.

From 2003-10, Crawford hit .299 with a .340 on-base percentage and averaged 50 steals per season. But heading into Thursday, he had drawn just eight walks (though he’s not really known for that anyway), had stolen just seven bases and had notched just 50 hits in 224 plate appearances.

I thought he’d be a perfect fit for Fenway Park and that lineup (and still do), and I know he’s one of the hardest-working players in baseball. Is playing in a big market and with a big contract for the first time a factor?

It’s at least a fair question.

Dunn

Dunn (pictured up top by The Associated Press) has struckout an AL-high 71 times, has hit just five homers (he had 10 at this time last year) and has batted just .088 — yes, .088 — against lefties.

Because of that, the man who was  supposed to be that big lefty bat the White Sox have been missing since Jim Thome left has been sitting against tough lefties and has jumped around in the batting order.

Dunn, a real standup guy and one of my favorite players to talk to, said this recently: “I’m normally pretty good at not letting things affect me too much. This has been one of the tougher things for me. I don’t know why it is. I know I’m coming to a new team, we’re not playing very well, and I feel I’m a big part of why we’re not doing well. I think that weighs a little more on me than in the past.”

Two Sox teams, two star players acquired in the offseason, two unexpected records largely because of their struggles.

Pujols

Who knew. Even with Adam Wainwright missing the season with Tommy John surgery, the Cardinals are in first place thanks to the contributions of Yadier Molina (.320 batting average) and Lance Berkman (1.044 OPS), and not Pujols.

Considering Pujols is insanely focused, is in a walk year and is the greatest hitter on the planet, I was expecting numbers like .782 batting average, 91 homers, 256 RBIs this year. But, by Gosh, he’s human!

Pujols — he who has averaged a .331 clip, 41 homers and 123 RBIs every year heading into this one — is hitting only .262 with nine homers and 31 RBIs. I mean, they’re not terrible numbers. But they’re nowhere near Pujols-like.

I keep waiting for him to break out, but it just hasn’t happened yet. Is it possible that  future uncertainty has impacted the production of a man nicknamed “The Machine”?

Possible. But I still think his numbers will be solid by the end of the year, and I still wouldn’t be surprised if he signed for record money somewhere.

Ramirez

Ramirez is off to the worst start of his career, and now that he’s nursing what seems to be rather serious lower back pain, it may only get worse.

Ramirez, out since Sunday, has only a .306 on-base percentage, has hit only four home runs and has been caught stealing six times. Meanwhile, he continues to get dinged up, and he gets a little bigger every offseason.

I’m wondering how this affects talks of him switching positions.

Hanley wants to continue to play shortstop for obvious reasons — because he loves it, because it’s pretty much all he’s ever known, and because it makes him even more valuable when he hits free agency again. But the Marlins have too much invested and too little revenues to not try to get the most out of the $70 million deal they signed him to two years ago.

Ramirez’s 2010 season — when he batted .300 with 21 homers, 76 RBIs and 32 stolen bases — was solid, but a disappointment for him. Would Hanley be able to produce more if he moved to a less-demanding position? He’s never been great defensively, and the Marlins — with no disrespect meant to the fine season Greg Dobbs is having — have a hole at third base.

Just a thought.

Uggla

And that brings me to Ramirez’s teammate, who signed a five-year, $62 million contract with the Braves I never thought he’d land.

Look, Uggla has always been a slow starter (.440 career batting average in April, his lowest for any month) and besides last year, he’s never really hit for a high batting average (.257 from 2006-09).

You’d think Uggla would’ve gotten hot by now, though.

But he seems to have been getting progressively worse.

Over his last 12 games, Uggla has gone just 3-for-40 while striking out eight times and walking only once. Now, his batting average is the lowest it’s been since April 16.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez knows about Uggla’s early-season struggles very well. But recently, upon batting him seventh after giving him a couple of mental days off, Gonzalez admitted Uggla’s previous slow starts have been “nothing like this.”

“The thing he needs is a couple of balls to fall in,” he added. “For me, that’s all he needs. He’s unlucky at times. You hate to say he’s unlucky because he’s hitting [.175], so how unlucky can it be? But sometimes [the unluckiness] just starts piling on.”

I’ll leave you on this note: I’ve been getting the feeling that Uggla has never really thrived with the attention on him. He’s always been an under-the-radar guy as a Rule 5 product, always played in a small market in Florida with a reasonable contract; then he had that dreadful All-Star Game performance at Yankee Stadium in ’08, and now he’s struggling under the weight of a big contract.

I hope I’m wrong.

Alden

** What I wrote recently: The talent pool at catcher is growing awfully shallow; and Mets manager Terry Collins faces a kind of challenge he never foresaw.

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