Five Breakthrough First Half Performers

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This Fourth of July weekend I’ll take stock of a few breakout
performers and duds of the first half and possible breakthrough
performers for the second half.

First, five breakthrough stars of the first half:

Edwin Jackson: Doesn’t It feel
like we have been talking about this guy forever? Blessed with a
mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, it’s remarkable that it took
three organizations for Jackson to finally break through as a top of
the rotation starter. Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Matt Joyce
last December, he entered the season with a 25-30 career record and a
5.09 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 77 career starts. But so far in 2009, it
looks like the Tigers may have pulled off the best trade of the winter,
as he is currently 6-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his first 16
starts. Jackson has already pitched seven innings or more while
allowing three runs or less nine times this season. The big difference?
Jackson finally has his control in check, averaging 2.41 BB/9 as
opposed to a 4.11 rate for his career. Jackson, Justin Verlander and
rookie Rick Porcello combined for 14 wins in May. How good is that?
Nationals starters have combined for just 15 wins all season.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist showed
promise with a .318/.429/.459 line in the minors, but he went deep just
23 times in 1336 at-bats. As a result, he was never viewed as anything
more than a utility player when the Astros dealt him to Rays as part of
the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006. But finally handed an every day
role this season, the man dubbed “Zorillia” is hitting a surprising
.292/.412/.620 with 16 bombs and 46 RBI. The power looks to be for
real, as the 28-year-old has homered 28 times in his last 407 major
league at-bats dating back to last season. Only Albert Pujols, Joe
Mauer and Prince Fielder have hit at a higher OPS this season. If you
managed to pluck Zobrist off the waiver wire in your fantasy league,
chances are your fellow owners hate you right now.

Andrew Bailey: The 25-year-old
Bailey was an unlikely source for saves as the season began, but
injuries to Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler have opened the door for the
rookie right-hander. While not yet officially named the closer by
manager Bob Geren, the former Wagner Seahawk has run with his
opportunities thus far, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .173 BAA and
eight saves in 12 chances. Aided by a fastball that touches the
upper-90s, a traditional 12-to-6 curve and a biting slider, Bailey has
an impressive 57/19 K/BB ratio in his first 47 1/3 career innings. And
standing at a sturdy 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, he has the durability to
handle the job. In fact, 13 of his 36 appearances this season have been
for at least one inning. Bailey fits the profile of a dominant closer.

Pablo Sandoval: Okay,
maybe this one is unfair. After all, Sandoval hit .345 in 145 at-bats
last season. The fact that he has a .329 batting average over the first
74 games of 2009 comes as no huge surprise, but he is notable here
because of his rapid progression in the power department. “Kung-Fu
Panda” has already homered 12 times in 277 at-bats this season after
going deep just three times last season. He lead the majors with an
insane 1.207 OPS in June. Granted, only his teammate Bengie Molina
swings more often than he does (58.1%), but he balances that with a
pretty decent contact rate (81.8%) and low strikeout rate (15.5% as
opposed to a 20% league average). He’ll likely never be known for his
glove and just where he fits in long-term — he was groomed as a
catcher/first baseman in the minors — remains to be seen, but he’s
gone a long way towards proving that his minor league totals were not a
fluke.

Aaron Hill: The power was never
a question for a Hill — he hit 17 homers in 2007 — but he was a
largely forgotten man after suffering a concussion last May. Naturally,
he entered the season as a huge question mark, but through just 348
at-bats this season, Hill has already established a new career high
with 19 home runs. Among second basemen, Hill leads in hits, homers,
RBI and total bases. He’s currently third in the majors with 32
multi-hit games and trails only Ichiro in hits (104). It’s easy to say
he’s getting lucky with the homers — roughly 16 percent of his
flyballs have left the yard– but he has a .307 BABIP this season,
actually nine points below his career average. Ian Kinsler and Dustin
Pedroia get a lot of the pub, and rightfully so, but Hill has matched
or outproduced them in most categories.

Report: Blue Jays to acquire Melvin Upton, Jr. from the Padres

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - JULY 2:  Melvin Upton Jr. #2 of the San Diego Padres hits a walk-off solo home run during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees at PETCO Park on July 2, 2016 in San Diego, California. The Padres won 2-1. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
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Update (10:12 AM EDT): Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball reports the Padres will receive pitcher Hansel Rodriguez from the Blue Jays. Rodriguez is rated as the Jays’ 18th-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. The Jays signed Rodriguez out of the Dominican Republic for $330,000 in February 2014. He’s spent the 2016 season with the Bluefield Blue Jays in rookie ball, compiling a 3.06 ERA with a 26/11 K/BB ratio in 32 1/3 innings over six starts.

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The Padres and Blue Jays have agreed on a trade involving outfielder Melvin Upton, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reported on Tuesday morning. The Jays will get Upton and the Padres will receive a prospect from Single-A. The financial details are not yet known, but Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune says the Padres are expected to cover a significant portion of his remaining contract. The trade is likely to be finalized on Tuesday.

The two teams opened up a three-game series in Toronto on Monday, so Upton won’t have to go very far to join his new team. The Jays won 4-2 on Monday.

Upton, 31, has had another solid season for the Padres, batting .256/.304/.439 with 16 home runs, 45 RBI, 46 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases in 374 plate appearances. He’s owed the remainder of his $15.45 million salary for the 2016 season and $16.45 million next season, the final year of his five-year contract.

Upton will provide some outfield depth for the Jays, who currently only have Ezequiel Carrera as a full-time back-up outfielder behind Michael Saunders, Kevin Pillar, and Jose Bautista. Bautista was activated from the disabled list on Monday, so Upton could cover right field in the event that Bautista exacerbates his toe injury.

With Upton leaving San Diego, Alex Dickerson is likely to see full-time work in left field in the short term. Prospects Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot could be called up at some point this season as well.

Settling the Scores: Monday’s results

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 25:  Tyler Saladino #18 of the Chicago White Sox celebrates after getting the game-winning hit, a single in the 9th inning, against the Chicago Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field on July 25, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Cubs 5-4.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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The White Sox got their third consecutive win in walk-off fashion on Monday, downing the Cubs 5-4 in the opening game of a short two-game series at U.S. Cellular Field. On Sunday, the White Sox and Tigers played two, sort of. They finished a suspended game from Saturday, which ended with an Adam Eaton walk-off RBI single in the ninth inning to give the White Sox a 4-3 victory over the Tigers. Later that day, Melky Cabrera walked the Pale Hose off on another RBI single, this time giving his team a 5-4 margin of victory.

In Monday night’s game, the White Sox took a 4-0 lead in the seventh inning with third baseman Todd Frazier providing the bulk of the offense with a three-run home run off of Jake Arrieta in the sixth inning. But starter Miguel Gonzalez tired in the seventh, forking up a two-run home run to Javier Baez. He would exit with two outs in the frame. In the ninth, Matt Albers gave up a double and two singles, leading to one run for the Cubs. Dan Jennings came in and immediately let one of his inherited runners score on an Anthony Rizzo single, tying the game at 4-4.

In the bottom of the ninth, new Cubs acquisition Mike Montgomery took the hill. J.B. Shuck led off with a line drive single to center. He advanced to second base on a Dioner Navarro sacrifice bunt, and promptly scored the winning run on a Tyler Saladino walk-off RBI single.

The White Sox had lost eight of their previous nine games prior to their recent three-game walk-off winning streak. They’re now 49-50, eight games out of first place as they approach the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline.

Box scores.

Cardinals, Mets [Postponed]
Tigers 4, Red Sox 2
Rangers 7, Athletics 6
Phillies 4, Marlins 0
Yankees 2, Astros 1
Brewers 7, Diamondbacks 2
Angles 6, Royals 2
Reds 7, Giants 5
Orioles 3, Rockies 2 (10 innings)
Blue Jays 4, Padres 2
White Sox 5, Cubs 4