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.

The Mets are among six teams that help Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - APRIL 19:  A detailed view of the blackboard with theoretical physics equations in chalk by Alberto Ramos, Theoretical Physics Fellow and visitor, Antonio Gonzalez-Arroyo from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid (both not in frame) at The European Organization for Nuclear Research commonly know as CERN on April 19, 2016 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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In a special for USA TODAY Sports, Mike Vorkunov details how six teams — the Mets in particular — provide an education program that helps their Dominican prospects earn high school diplomas. It seems like an obvious win-win: smarter players make smarter decisions, making them more likely to achieve their potential as athletes. That, of course, requires spending money, which is why only six teams make the investment. For the players, if baseball doesn’t work out, they are better able to support themselves in other ways.

Vorkunov lists the Pirates, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and Mariners as the other teams who provide an education program for their Dominican prospects. We learned earlier this month that the Phillies were also investing in making sure their minor leaguers eat healthy. As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “few teams” supply their minor league players with healthy food options.

Juan Henderson, the head of the Mets’ Dominican academy, said, “We see the benefit of it. I gotta tell you, we’re working with a new generation of baseball players. You see in the past that players just carry a bat and a glove and a helmet on the baseball field and in the academy. Those years, I think, are going to be pretty much over. Now they also do that, but they also carry books, they also carry an iPad, they also carry a laptop.”

Kudos to the six teams for making a great decision and here’s hoping the other 24 teams follow suit.

Video: Albert Pujols hits 569th career home run, tying Rafael Palmeiro

ANAHEIM, CA - MAY 22:  Albert Pujols #5 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returns to the dugout after scoring in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 22, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Angels first baseman Albert Pujols cranked out a two-run home run in the third inning against Rangers starter Derek Holland, breaking a scoreless tie. It’s the ninth homer of the season for Pujols and the 569th of his career, putting him into a tie with Rafael Palmeiro for 12th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

Harmon Killebrew is Pujols’ next target at 573, followed by Mark McGwire at 583 and Frank Robinson at 586.

Pujols hadn’t homered since May 13. He entered Monday night hitting a mediocre .228/.309/.395 with eight home runs and 28 RBI in 188 plate appearances.

Alex Gordon to miss three to four weeks with a fractured scaphoid bone

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 22:  Alex Gordon #4 and Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals collide going for a foul ball against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field on May 22, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The White Sox defeated the Royals 3-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Monday has unfortunately been a day of injury news. Royals outfielder Alex Gordon is the latest to hit the 15-day disabled list, as he has been diagnosed with a fractured scaphoid bone in his right wrist. The club has recalled infielder Cheslor Cuthbert from Triple-A Omaha.

Gordon suffered the injury colliding with third baseman Mike Moustakas attempting to catch a fly ball on Sunday afternoon. He is expected to miss three to four weeks, MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan reports.

Gordon was having a tough 2016 campaign and the injury only makes it worse. He’s hitting .211/.319/.331 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 166 plate appearances on the year.

The Royals will likely use Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando in left field in Gordon’s absence.

Orioles trade reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 17:  Brian Matusz #17 of the Baltimore Orioles pitches against the Seattle Mariners during the fifth inning on May 17, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Orioles announced on Monday night that the club has traded reliever Brian Matusz to the Braves in exchange for minor league pitchers Brandon Barker and Trevor Belicek. The Braves are also receiving a Competitive Balance Round B pick (76th overall) in the 2016 draft.

Matusz, 29, made his season debut on April 23 after battling a back injury since early March. It’s been a struggle, as the lefty has yielded eight runs on 11 hits and seven walks with just one strikeout in six innings. He is earning $3.9 million and can become a free agent after the season.

MLB.com’s Mark Bowman reports that the Braves are expected to designate Matusz for assignment. Essentially, the Braves bought the draft pick for Matusz’s remaining salary of $3 million of $3.9 million total.

Barker, 23, has been pitching at Double-A Mississippi after getting a taste of Triple-A last year. So far this season, the right-hander has a 2.00 ERA with a 40/12 K/BB ratio in 45 innings spanning eight starts and a relief appearance.

Belicek, a 23-year-old left-hander, has spent most of the year with Single-A Rome, compiling a 2.49 ERA with a 29/1 K/BB ratio in 25 1/3 innings over 11 relief appearances.