Can surprising Braves, Reds, Padres hang on?

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With the All-Star game coming to a close, the warm California sun sets on the first half of the season.

With that, it’s time to look ahead to the second half, and three surprising teams that find themselves in first place – the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds and the San Diego Padres.

All of these teams are playing beyond expectations, at the expense of preseason favorites in Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado and Los Angeles.

But do they have staying power? Let’s take a look at what each team needs.

ATLANTA
The Braves are in the best shape of these three teams, holding a four-game lead over the New York Mets, and a 4 1/2-game edge over the two-time NL champion Phillies. They have good pitching, ranking fourth in the NL in runs allowed (3.83), and a solid offense, ranking sixth in runs scored (4.61). Tim Hudson has been lights-out, Derek Lowe and Tommy Hanson solid, and the bullpen dependable.

What do the Braves need? As it seems unlikely an aging Chipper Jones will rediscover his power, the Braves could use an outfield bat, as Nate McLouth and Melky Cabrera have performed below expectations.

Also, it would be nice to gain some improved health for rookie phenom Jason Heyward, who looked just fine taking batting practice on Tuesday, by the way.

But overall, the Braves are looking good, as they have built a cushion despite all the problems they’ve had.

CINCINNATI
The Reds have moved to the top of the NL Central thanks to a powerful offense (second in NL in runs per game, second in home runs, first in slugging), and a better-than-average pitching staff led by Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, and rookie Mike Leake, who debuted for the Reds without playing a single day in the minors.

But they hold only a one-game lead over favored St. Louis, a team that expects to come on strong.

“(The Reds) have a good team,” said St. Louis slugger Matt Holliday. “They’ve got really good pitching and a good lineup. Joey Votto is having an MVP-type season. … It doesn’t surprise me.”

But Holliday issues a warning: “We’re only one game back and we’ve had some injuries. Two fifths of our starting rotation has been out most of the first half. (Ryan) Ludwick’s been out for three weeks now. Hopefully we can get healthy. I like our chances.”

What do the Reds need? An arm in the bullpen would be nice, as would a successful return of Edinson Volquez.

SAN DIEGO
How are the Padres, with no established stars outside of Adrian Gonzalez, doing it? How have they built the second-best record in the NL and established a two-game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies?

Some would say it’s smoke and mirrors, others say it’s a team built on speed, defense and pitching, tailored perfectly to their home ballpark.

The Padres rank 12th in the NL in runs per game, but first in runs allowed. Furthermore, as far as the defense is concerned, five Padres are ranked in the top three at their position in UZR – first baseman Gonzalez, second baseman David Eckstein, third baseman Chase Headley, center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr., and right fielder Will Venable.
But can they hold on?

“San Diego’s been playing some pretty good ball,” said Dodgers All-Star outfielder Andre Ethier, “but we’re right there in striking distance, two games away. It’s going to come down to the end of the season. I think the last week or two is going to decide the season for us. We’ll take our chances and hopefully take the West again.”

Also, don’t forget the Rockies, who are right in the mix and were favored by some to take the West entering the season.

What do the Padres need? A big bat to pair alongside Gonzalez would be nice (Cory Hart?). Also, they can’t trade Gonzalez, of course.

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Tanner Scheppers leaves Cactus League game with lower core injury

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Rangers’ bullpen candidate Tanner Scheppers left Friday’s Cactus League game with pain in his “lower half,” according to reports by Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News. The specifics of the right-hander’s injury have yet to be determined, but he was accompanied by the athletic trainer when he exited the game and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Saturday.

Scheppers, 30, has a long history of elbow and knee injuries. He missed all but 8 2/3 innings of the 2016 season after undergoing a procedure to repair torn articular cartilage in his left knee. While he appeared healthy enough through his first seven appearances this spring, he failed to impress with three runs, five walks and six strikeouts over 7 2/3 innings with the club.

Should Scheppers find himself on the disabled list for another lengthy stay, MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan speculates that his absence could clear some room in the bullpen for Rule 5 draft pick and fellow righty Mike Hauschild. Hauschild, 27, has dealt seven runs, five walks and 15 strikeouts through 17 1/3 innings in camp.

Report: Jose Ramirez close to four-year extension with Indians

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Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan reports that third baseman Jose Ramirez is finalizing a four-year extension with the Indians. The deal is said to be worth north of $30 million, and may crest $50 million if all options are exercised. While the extension won’t take effect until the 2018 season, it guarantees Ramirez a $26 million sum with two options worth $11 and $13 million and will give the Indians control of the infielder through the 2023 season.

Ramirez, 24, is entering his fifth season in the Indians’ organization. He posted career-high numbers during his first full season in the majors, slashing .312/.363/.461 with 11 home runs, 22 stolen bases and 4.8 fWAR in 2016. He’s projected to have a strong follow-up season at the plate and will likely see some time at second base as Jason Kipnis works his way back from a shoulder injury.

Although 2016 only showcased the beginning of Ramirez’s success with the club, FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman says it’s a standard move for Cleveland to “sign their stars early,” and indicates that Ramirez was rumored to want the deal. Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors adds that the extension will keep Ramirez under club control through three arbitration-eligible years and one year of potential free agency.