Some of the most storied names in all of baseball have been the National League home run leader; Hall of Famers such as Johnny Bench, Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, and Ralph Kiner have all led the senior circuit in round trippers. The honor of being the 2006 NL home run leader is currently up for grabs, with a number of players in the hunt. Some have a better chance than others at being the NL home run leader, due to the circumstances that their team is in. Here is how I handicap the chase to be the NL home run leader for 2006.
Albert Pujols at 5-2- Pujols is currently tied with Ryan Howard as the NL home run leader with 32. He has accumulated this many in 54 less official at-bats than Howard, due to the fact that he missed significant time with a muscle injury. If Pujols had stayed healthy, I think he would be the NL home run leader now by at least a half a dozen, but after hitting an astounding 25 in the season’s first two months, Albert only played ten games in June, with one homer. He has slammed six in July, but with the Cardinals being pushed somewhat by the surprising Reds, Pujols will need Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds to protect him in the order. Edmonds has come on lately, with 4 homers in his last ten contests, but Rolen hasn’t hit one since July 9th and is batting .257 for the month. Pujols will successfully become the NL home run leader if teams don’t pitch around him too much. He is batting .328 with only 27 strikeouts. The Cardinals have ten games left against the woeful Cubs and six versus the pathetic Pirates, but also play nine games in September with NL West teams, who are all in the race right now. Whether Pujols sees much to hit in those games may determine if he is the NL home run leader for the first time in his career.
Ryan Howard at 3-1- The Phillies huge first baseman is also bidding to be the NL home run leader for the first time; his 32 long balls have him right there with Pujols. Howard has only 31 of his remaining 66 games at home, where the ball tends to fly out of Citizen’s Bank Park. Winner of this year’s Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game, Howard has hit five home runs in 16 July games, striking out in 25 of his 63 at-bats. His chances at being the NL home run leader are hurt by his high whiff totals, 107 already in 2006, but helped by his tremendous power. He can hit the ball out to all fields, and with the Phillies going nowhere, he should see plenty of pitches to hit. The left-handed hitting Howard would be the second Phillie in four years to be the NL home run leader if he succeeds; Jim Thome led the league with 47 in 2003.
Alfonso Soriano at 10-1- It is amazing that on a team as bad as the Nationals that Soriano gets anything to hit, but he does. The free swinger has seven July homers in less than 70 at-bats, but the fact that he may be dealt away to an American League team would make his chances of being the NL home run leader impossible. His 31 have him just behind the other NL home run leaders, but rumors abound that Soriano is headed back to the American League before the trade deadline. He now says he wants to stay with the Nationals, but they cannot risk not signing the free agent and being left with nothing to show for him if he decides to leave at year’s end. Soriano would swing at some of the beach balls thrown around in the stands if they came close enough, but feasts on fastballs.
Adam Dunn at 5-1- The Reds are the wild card leaders at the present time, and Dunn, with 30 homers, now has little protection in the line-up with Austin Kearns dealt away and Ken Griffey Jr slumping badly. He is third in the NL in walks with 73, a total that is certain to go up as he is pitched around, hurting his chances to be the first Reds’ player since George Foster in 1978 to be the NL home run leader. His 114 strikeouts lead all of baseball, another reason why Dunn may fall short. His home field, The Great American Ballpark is known as a launching pad, so perhaps Dunn can use that to his advantage to become the NL home run leader.
Carlos Lee at 15-1- Lee is in much the same boat as Soriano. He is a free agent at the end of the season and the Brewers may be forced to deal him away to make sure they get something for him before he walks. He is unlikely to resign with Milwaukee, and could wind up in the AL with his 28 homers. Like another of the NL home run leaders, Albert Pujols, Lee is a high contact hitter, having fanned less than 40 times in 380 at-bats. He would have an outside chance of being the NL home run leader if he remained in Milwaukee or the National League, but don’t bet on either.
Best of the rest
Carlos Beltran at 25-1- The Mets have never thrown a no-hitter, but they have had three men as the NL home run leader, most recently Howard Johnson in 1991. Beltran is having a great year, but is too far behind and plays in Shea Stadium, which is not known as a hitters’ park by any means.
Lance Berkman at 100-1- No Astros player has ever been the NL home run leader and Berkman, the only serious threat in the Houston line-up, would need a Ruthian effort to be the first.
Andruw Jones at 150-1- Jones was the 2005 NL home run leader with 51, but lags far behind this year’s group with 24, although his 88 RBI ties him with Berkman for the NL lead.