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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Orioles re-sign Paul Janish to minor league deal

SARASOTA, FL - FEBRUARY 28:  Paul Janish #15 of the Baltimore Orioles poses during photo day at Ed Smith Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Orioles signed free agent shortstop Paul Janish to another minor league deal on Saturday, reports Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com. The contract includes an invite to spring training.

It’s hardly a surprising move for the Orioles, who have released and re-signed the 34-year-old infielder to multiple minor league deals over the past two years. A perennial Triple-A player, Janish slashed .242/.282/.303 with four doubles and a .585 OPS in two campaigns and 28 games with the Orioles. While he won’t be in line for a full-time role in the majors this season, he profiles as a solid defender and should give the team some infield depth alongside fellow veteran infielders Robert Andino, Johnny Giavotella and Chris Johnson.

Drew Smyly brings youth and experience to Mariners rotation

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PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) Trades don’t surprise Drew Smyly anymore.

At age 27, the Seattle Mariners left-hander has been dealt twice. The first swap sent him from the team that drafted and developed Smyly, the Detroit Tigers, to the Tampa Bay Rays in midseason 2014. That trade landed star pitcher David Price in Detroit.

“I was surprised by that one,” Smyly said.

The most recent trade involving him came in January, when the Rays shipped Smyly to Seattle for three prospects in one of many moves by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. Smyly immediately joined the Mariners’ projected starting rotation, and is having fun getting to know his new teammates at spring training by way of manager Scott Servais’ clubhouse icebreakers.

Servais thinks Smyly is a solid fit as a still young yet experienced pitcher.

“One, being where he’s at in his career age-wise and service time, he’s kind of at the point where, put him in the right environment … very good defensive outfield, he’s a fly ball guy, maybe he does step up and take the next step,” Servais said. “Getting out of the American League East certainly should help him, but there’s no guarantees. Our division’s pretty tough.”

Servais suggested that another Arkansas native, ex-big leaguer Cliff Lee, might have helped sell Seattle on Smyly. Lee is a former Mariner and the two share an agent.

Smyly went 7-12 in a career-high 30 starts last season in Tampa, but won five games from July 30 to the end of the season after starting out 2-11. From May 21 to July 18, he lost seven straight starts.

“Pitching’s tough, you know,” Smyly said. “To manipulate the ball, to make it do different things, to put it in the strike zone with hitters that know what they’re doing. … I just had a rough stretch but I show up at the field every day, play catch and work on my craft and you know, that’s going to turn around one day.”

The 32 home runs Smyly surrendered in 2016 figure to be reduced in Seattle’s pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.

“It can only help,” he said. “But it’s still going to be up to me to execute pitches and pitch well.”

Smyly is set to join the U.S. World Baseball Classic team shortly. Before that, he’ll make his first spring training start in the middle of next week.

“It’s an honor to be able to put your country on your chest and play with some of the guys on that team,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it big time.”

NOTES: Servais plans to roll out what figures to be Seattle’s opening day lineup in the spring training opener Saturday against San Diego. It’s OF Jarrod Dyson, SS Jean Segura, 2B Robinson Cano, DH Nelson Cruz, 3B Kyle Seager, OF Mitch Haniger, 1B Dan Vogelbach, C Mike Zunino and OF Leonys Martin. … Servais said Cano and Cruz will play a little more than is typical for early spring games, as the two will depart for the World Baseball Classic in early March. … LHP Ariel Miranda will start Saturday, then RHP Chris Heston Sunday, RHP Yovani Gallardo on Monday and ace Felix Hernandez on Tuesday.