By Scott MacLean
This week Major League Baseball hits the All-Star Game break, ostensibly the midpoint of the season. While the game itself has been hit by the usual raft of defections due to injury and pitchers being unavailable due to rules regarding usage, it will decide which of the teams that make the World Series in October gets home-field advantage.
So what’s happened so far?
Early on it looked like the Chicago Cubs would lap the field after a rampant start led by young stars Anthony Rizzo and current Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant; however a recent slump has dragged them back to the pack and there’s worrying signs amongst their pitching, not less of all that Jake Arrieta might actually be human after a terrific last two half-seasons. That has let their Central division rivals, the St Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, back into the race for now. The Cardinals were getting an outstanding season from Matt Carpenter until he went on the disabled list last week, while rookie shortstop Aledmys Diaz has been terrific filling in for Jhonny Peralta and made the All-Star team. The Pirates have been as blue-collar as their city, solid as a unit without anyone being particularly brilliant so far, and will be threat in the second-half if they can get their pitching on track. The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds seem set to be sellers, with Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Reds outfielder Jay Bruce appearing highly sought-after by contenders.
The team that’s benefitted from the Cubs slump is out West where the San Francisco Giants have baseball’s best record at the break, continuing their recent trend of being very good in even-numbered years. First baseman Brandon Belt is having a quietly-terrific season, but its Madison Bumgarner who remains their undoubted star man, even if his pitching threatens to be overshadowed by what he does with the bat, even sparking debate whether he’d take part in the Home Run Derby (he didn’t). The Los Angeles Dodgers remain in touch despite a slew of injuries to their pitching staff, including Clayton Kershaw who’s currently on the DL (but has posted a 1.76 ERA and ludicrous 145/9 strikeout to walk ratio so far), and patchy hitting although rookie shortstop Corey Seager is having a monster year. The Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, and Arizona Diamondbacks are all out of it largely because of pitching struggles (only Cincinnati is worse), though the Rockies are getting another superb year from Nolan Arenado and Arizona seem to have found a compliment to Paul Goldschmidt in third baseman Jake Lamb.
Out East the Washington Nationals lead the way, looking to put last years collapse behind them. It’s still Bryce Harper’s team even if his numbers aren’t as impressive this year as last at this stage, but Daniel Murphy has continued his hot streak from last postseason, leading the league in hitting and tormenting the Mets, his former club, in particular while ace Max Scherzer became the fourth pitcher to strike out 20 in a game. The New York Mets and Miami Marlins are tied 6 games back, but the defending National League champs are hurting with both third baseman David Wright and starter Matt Harvey lost for the season and young starters Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matx dealing with elbow problems. The ageless Bartolo Colon – aka ‘Big Sexy’ and the oldest player in the majors – just keeps on going and provided the moment of the season so far when he smacked his first career home run. The Marlins seemed poised to make a run with Jose Fernandez pitching well and slugger Giancarlo Stanton having emerged from a horrible stretch to get back to hitting the moonshots he’s capable of, as his display in the Home Run Derby showed. The Philadelphia Phillies have fallen away after a hot start, but keep an eye on third baseman Maikel Franco and All-Star outfielder Odubrel Herrera, while the Atlanta Braves are flat out tanking ahead of opening their new ballpark next year.
The best record in the American League belongs to the Texas Rangers, who are simply a good all-round team getting contributions from all over, even if this is their most noteworthy moment of the season so far. Free agent signing Ian Desmond has been a revelation with his move from shortstop to the outfield, and they can look forward to getting ace Yu Darvish back from injury in the second half. The Houston Astros sit in the West, having overcome an awful start to look more like last years team. They do need to find out what is bedevilling ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel but diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve is having a standout year. A bounceback year from Robinson Cano and improved defence has the Seattle Mariners on the edge of contention, the Oakland Athletics are in the midst of another rebuild, and the while the Los Angeles Angels have the games best player in Mike Trout, they have little else and sit last in the division.
The Cleveland Indians lead the way in the Central, showing the form that people expected of them last year. Their rotation, led by Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber, lead the league in ERA and anchor their effort with Francisco Lindor and Mike Napoli pacing the offence. Its bunched behind them, with the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and defending champion Kansas City Royals all within a handful of games, but all have their issues; Detroit’s pitching is struggling, Chicago goes through big peaks and troughs of hot and cold streaks, and the Royals riddled by injuries. The Minnesota Twins are already in next year mode.
Finally the East. The Baltimore Orioles lead the division by two games and the majors in home runs with Mark Trumbo, Chris Davis, and Manny Machado having hit 69 between them and their pitching doing enough to let their bats win games. The Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox are on their tails; the Jays aren’t quite the offensive juggernaut as last season but are still are fifth in runs scored and third in home runs with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and centerfield wiz Kevin Pillar doing their things. The Red Sox lead in average and runs scored, with youngsters Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Jackie Bradley Jr having stellar seasons, and veteran David Ortiz hitting like a machine in what he’s announced will be his swansong. Both clubs need to get their pitching sorted however. The New York Yankees are getting a good season from veteran Carlos Beltran but little of their plans, other than the effectiveness of the Dellin Betances/Andrew Miller/Aroldis Chapman bullpen troika, have worked out and they could finish under .500 for the first time in 20 years, while the Rays are committed to their rebuild and prop up the standings.
The next major date on the calendar is the trade deadline on July 31, where teams decide if they’re buyers or sellers and the moves are made for the run to the playoffs.
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