By Scott MacLean
Baseball hits the midpoint of the season with the All-Star break this week, with the game itself following the Home Run Derby the day before. It’s also heading towards the Trade Deadline on July 31, with clubs already facing the dilemma of if they’re buyers or sellers
Out West, the Houston Astros haven’t let up on their hot start. Pitching ace Dallas Keuchel continues to confound opposing hitters while rookie Lance McCullers has been impressive. On the position player side top prospect Carlos Correa has debuted and lived up to the hype so far, and there’s few indications this young squad won’t push onto the playoffs. The Anaheim Angels continue to keep pace though, with Albert Pujols earning June Player of the Month honours after hitting .303 with 13 homers and perhaps returning to some of his best. Injury returnees Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland have kept the Texas Rangers around .500, the Seattle Mariners’ offense continues to flounder and disappoint, while the Oakland Athletics still can’t get a break and look like sellers at the deadline, though they did call up Pat Venditte (who’s now on the disabled list), MLB’s first ambidextrous, or switch, pitcher.
In the Central the Kansas City Royals continue to confound those who thought they’d go backwards this year, using the combination of hitting for average, great defence, and the shutdown bullpen troika of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera that worked last year and making up for lacklustre starting pitching and few home runs. The no-name Minnesota Twins have ridden a hot streak behind second baseman Brian Dozier and called up their best prospect in outfielder Byron Buxton, while the Detroit Tigers are second in the majors in team OPS (On-base percentage plus slugging), but aren’t pitching particularly well and will have to do without the game’s best hitter, Miguel Cabrera, for about six weeks. The Cleveland Indians are the big underachievers despite a monster May from Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber’s excellence on the mound, and the Chicago White Sox have the worst offense in the majors despite several offseason signings, and highlighted only by Chris Sale returning from injury to tie a major league record with 8 consecutive double-digit strikeout outings.
The East is the tightest race of them all, with only a handful of games separating all five clubs. The New York Yankees sit on top, with Alex Rodriguez continuing to defy those who wrote him off, becoming the second man to record 2,000 career runs batted in, and homering for his 3000th career hit as the offense gives a patchy pitching staff runs to work with. Buck Showalter’s Baltimore Orioles are hitting nearly as well and pitching better than the Yankees, with defensive wizard Manny Machado breaking out offensively. The Tampa Bay Rays have the best pitching in the division and just won’t go away, while the Toronto Blue Jays lead the majors in runs scored by a wide margin, and through Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, trail only Houston in homers hit. Your scribes’ team, the Boston Red Sox, has been a disjointed mess with veterans struggling or injured, and only youngster Xander Bogaerts, rookie Mookie Betts and utilityman Brock Holt covering themselves in glory so far.
It’s a familiar story in the West with the Los Angeles Dodgers leading the way, paced by the left-handed hitting of Adrian Gonzalez and rookie Joc Pederson, while its Zack Greinke and not Clayton Kershaw leading the pitching staff, though they haven’t really hit their lofty expectations. The San Francisco Giants have overcome a slow start and while former MVP Buster Posey continues to excel, the same can’t be said for their pitching. The Arizona Diamondbacks are hanging tough, largely through the efforts of Paul Goldschmidt with 20 homers and a .350 batting average, while San Diego Padres GM AJ Preller’s itchy trigger finger struck again, firing manager Bud Black only weeks after activating his contract option for next year with the club scuffling along. The Colorado Rockies trail the majors in pitching earned run average (ERA), and only some of that is down to playing home games at altitude.
The St Louis Cardinals are baseballs’ best right now and rule the Central, leading the majors in team ERA despite losing ace Adam Wainwright to a ruptured Achilles with youngsters Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha stepping up. The Pittsburgh Pirates remain on their heels; second only to the Card’s in team ERA and superstar outfielder Andrew McCutchen producing after a rocky April; while the Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant has lived up to the hype alongside Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester is delivering on his contract, even if his ability at the plate has been comedic. The Cincinnati Reds will host the All-Star game but seem set to auction off ace Johnny Cueto at the deadline, while the Milwaukee Brewers season of woe and regression has seen them already fire manager Ron Roenicke.
Finally the East is headed by the Washington Nationals with Bryce Harper having a monster season, hitting nearly .350 and having smashed 25 homers already, while free-agent signee Max Scherzer had a dominant stretch including settling for a no-hitter after getting within one out of a perfect game, but an injury to either could be catastrophic. The New York Mets have debuted two more top pitching prospects in Noah Syndegaard and Steven Matz to join Jacob deGrom and ace Matt Harvey but their feeble offense threatens to undermine their playoff hopes, and the Atlanta Braves have surprisingly got back into the fringes of contention, but that might change now that they must deal without their best hitter in Freddie Freeman. The Miami Marlins have gone the other way despite Giancarlo Stanton’s continued massive home runs, but the big slugger is out for a few weeks with a hand injury weakening them further although they have gotten Jose Fernandez back from injury; and the Philadelphia Phillies are so bad that manager Ryne Sandberg quit, and have few players other teams want outside of pitchers Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon.
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